Sunday, November 09, 2008

East Front Series - Played!

One of the great regrets I have in wargaming is that I didn't pick up a copy of Barbarossa: Army Group Center some years ago when I had the chance. $70 for a wargame seemed like quite a bit at the time, especially a monster (and I didn't live in a house that would support a monster). Now, with prices on eBay hitting $300 or $400, and me with all of the other modules from Typhoon on, I'm kinda wishing I'd gotten a copy. OK, definitely wishing I'd gotten a copy.

Of course, it took until last Saturday for me to actually *play* one of these games. I now have South, North, Typhoon, and the newest edition, Kiev to Rostov, and after threatening to give this a try for years Mike and I finally got it on the table. Mike did a great job of boning up on the rules, running the tutorial on his own, checking out an awesome East Front series fan-produced webpage that even includes a Flash tutorial as well as an overview of the rules, and running one of the shorter scenarios on his own. Journeyman work, Mr. Deans. 

The East Front Series, or EFS as it's known, has been an ongoing labor of love by Vance von Borries, who must have a mind for minutiae that would stagger a normal person. His rules are, in general, very specific and in a lawyer-like style that I find to be very useful when one is trying to figure out exactly what the designer intended. EFS concerns the initial stages of the Eastern Front in Russia from June 22nd, 1941, through the end of that year. As such, it has some advantages over other systems that intend to have a much wider range of topics, such as the fantastic OCS titles such as DAK2, Burma, and Case Blue. Vance has also done games that have a smaller scale, such as Kasserine and Roads to Leningrad that use much of the same system as EFS.

The EFS games typically come with several maps, all of which (usually) can be connected to create a much larger game. In fact, the idea is that, once the Crimean set comes out next year and the much-anticipated AGC/Typhoon combo reprint is published (Typhoon used an early version of the system and almost can be considered a separate game), you will be able to play the entire Great Patriotic War through 1941 from Leningrad all the way down to the Crimea. Using the same scale as OCS (5 miles per hex), that's a really large map. I don't have an exact measurement, but I'd guess it was around 15 feet from north to south, while around 10 feel east to west (perhaps a bit more in some areas). That's just crazy talk, and I'd be impressed with anyone who played one of the set campaign games that takes up a mere three to five maps. By comparison, Case Blue (which admittedly has more ground to cover in the Caucasus and to the Volga and beyond) could use as many as ten maps alone, and merged with Guderian's Blitzkrieg and the upcoming northern theater game would be truly frightening in scope, although it focuses on 1942-43. 

Even I don't have a place to set something like that up, nor am I likely to ever do so, at least not until I'm divorced or something. 

OCS is probably one of the closest relations to EFS, so I'll use it as a comparator. Note that Mike and I played the fourth scenario, which comes with a tutorial running through the first of it's four turns, which both of us looked at before playing. We managed to get two full games in over about 4.5 hours, and the second one definitely went faster (and we learned a lot in the first game, that was for sure). As such, the game did not include supply, replacements, rail or strategic movement, and certainly no sea war rules. The map was on a single sheet of cardstock (11"x8.5"), and each side had less than 15 units to work with, plus a few air units. I will mention those rules as I go, but understand that I have yet to actually play a game that involves them.

Focusing on just one relatively short period of history and only two armies (there are Axis minors involved, but they play a very small part in general at this stage of the conflict other than Rumania) allows EFS to tailor the game system to reflect the individual strengths and weaknesses of each side. And make no mistake, the Germans are very strong in many ways, from mobility to communications to operational flexibility, while the Soviets have some very good units but getting them into the correct position to mount a counterattack requires some thought. Even the sequence of play reflects this, as the Germans have a typical Move-Fight-Exploit sequence while the Soviets can only move their mechanized and cavalry units before they fight, and get to move everyone *afterwards*. A very simple and elegant way to demonstrate an essential difference. The Germans can Reaction Move when the Soviets attack with pretty much every mech unit in range, but the Soviets must utilize their HQ units to do so, which tends to limit their actions somewhat, and a good German player will force the Soviets to make hard choices as to where to apply the hammer. 

The first time people play an OCS game, the thing they notice most is the supply. You can't really do much of anything without supply in OCS. You can't refit your aircraft after a mission, you can't move any units that are motorized or mechanized (trucks and tanks), you can't attack, you can barely defend. And every one of those supply points requires trucks to get them somewhere, or shipping points, and how you get the logistics to where you need them is a huge part of the game. EFS strips this down to Attack Supply, which has it's own organic transport built in and doesn't require separate truck units. Units can attack without Attack Supply, but risk extra losses. I really like OCS and the feel it gives - you can't mount an offensive unless you've built up the materiel and planned your attack - but EFS seems to give much of the same punch without so much of the headache of remembering how you need to allocate supply between putting gas in your tank's tank, bullets for your guns, and refit for your fighters. You still have to get it there, and you still want to use it efficiently, but it's a much easier system. 

OCS makes a big deal out of artillery and airstrikes. Arty is an important part of combat, but it's used in it's traditional role to soften up the enemy for the assault, and OCS uses a separate mechanism to do just that - Bombardment. Aircraft can be used for many different missions, including air bombardment and the ever-dangerous "hip shoot" ground attacks during the movement phase. In EFS, by comparison, arty supports combat directly, as does airpower (with some air combat thrown in). Interestingly, the Soviets are a bit hamstrung in their artillery deployment, only able to add a single arty unit to support a combat unless they stack with an HQ. The net effect is to speed things up a bit, as you don't have a Bombardment Phase adding time to combat. 

Both games have reaction movement, although (IIRC, it's been a while) OCS has separate movement phases where units placed in Reserve are allowed to move and react to the changing situation in the middle of what would normally be the opposing player's turn. EFS does this as well, but there is no Reserve mechanism - you simply need to be within three hexes of a unit under attack and a mech unit. The Soviets, of course, are hampered by requiring an HQ and having a limited number of chances even then. And here is where it gets very interesting, because the reacting units for both sides can't move through an unnegated ZOC, and they can't move if they start in an enemy ZOC. That's where the maneuver part of the game comes in, and it was in our second game with me as the Germans that I started to appreciate how critical placement of units is in EFS. Place a mech unit in reserve behind a front line unit, and now you can bring it up when the Germans attack. 

Or you would if there wasn't the opportunity to use air units to interdict hexes, which also results in preventing the Soviet HQs from allowing reaction movement. Like I say, there's a game here, and even our tiny little scenario had an excellent cat-and-mouse quality to it, but the mice had flypaper on their side. Breakthroughs can definitely be made, but a good Soviet player will be able to make the German throw fits, assuming they have the units, the time, and a little luck on their side. 

It's a really good thing they give you a couple of "warm-up" scenarios in each of these games, because you'll need them. Getting your head around the maneuver part of the game is critical, and the CRT certainly isn't intuitive (other than, in general, high rolls bad - BTW, in our first game, Mike seemed to roll an astonishingly large number of high rolls for combat as the Germans, even using the Dicenomicon app on my iPhone). However, using the extended Sequence of Play in the back of the Playbook, we were able to get through our two games pretty easily. There were a couple of interesting questions we couldn't answer (can you look through your opponent's units in a stack? OCS specifically says no, EFS didn't seem to have it spelled out), and a couple of places where the text was unclear, but between the tutorial, the online resource listed above, and a quick sweep through the rules, the game was definitely manageable. Of course, we were leaving out some pretty important rules (Attack Supply comes to mind), but on the other hand this was a much more accessible entry into the system than I had with OCS, which I wasn't getting for at *least* three hours of play until my Eureka moment hit. 

If it sounds like I'm saying that EFS is a superior system to OCS, that's not the case at all. While both games are at the same scale, OCS is intended as a general system adaptable to mid-20th Century warfare - there's a game on Korea, Burma, desert warfare, East Front, and the rumor of a France 1944 module coming out. EFS, on the other hand, is very specific in what it will support, although as I mention that allows a certain amount of customization to fit the era. While EFS clearly streamlines several systems compared to OCS, at the same time those systems feel very quick and fluid during an OCS game once you have the system in hand. Also, the v4.0 OCS rules are a relatively easy read for anyone familiar with complex wargames, while the EFS rules feel more ponderous, at least to me. 

For medium-complexity wargamers interested in moving up to monsters (even if you only plan to play the one-mappers, and there are a couple of those in the box), I'd recommend EFS before OCS, however. The support for learning EFS is very good, although there are a few OCS resources out there (but none using Flash - you have to see this example to really appreciate it). For both lines, many of the games are out of print, unfortunately. Of the EFS titles, only the latest, Kiev to Rostov is still in print, although GMT may reprint Army Group North at some point and the Center/Typhoon game is welcome news. There are many OCS games, but only Tunisia, Burma (recently reprinted) and Case Blue (a monster among monsters, and at $220 retail perhaps not a game you'd buy to see if you liked the system) are still in print. MMP, however, seems to be doing  a pretty good job of keeping these games cycling back into print if you can wait a little bit. Even Case Blue is, in a way, a reprint of the very first OCS game, Enemy at the Gates, and half of it's maps allow you to play the scenarios from that game. 

Both have gone through several "versions" over time, and that's a very good thing. Almost every wargame ruleset fails to survive contact with the enemy (Combat Commander is a rare counterexample), and having rules that have been polished and refined over many years makes it pretty easy to find things in the rules. I'll note that the newest EFS rules make a lot of changes, including changing around the sequence of play, so you'll want to delve into them before playing if you've picked up KtR. Fortunately, the changes are extremely well marked in EFS, less well in OCS. 

I've been sitting on playing EFS for years now, and I'm delighted that Mike suggested it. Among the increasing number of monster systems I have, I'd put it at slightly more complexity than the Grand Tactical Series (Devil's Cauldron), although those rules have their moments (but there are a few very good play aids to help you along). I would hesitate to compare the system to grand strategic games like World in Flames or A World At War, or even to tactical titles like ASL, as the feel is very different and the things being simulated are, largely, very different as well. 

Of the three, I'd see EFS perhaps having the best chance of seeing a campaign game played out, although mostly because of the four or five hardcore wargamers I know, it seems to be the one that no one hates ;-). I could definitely see one of these games coming out for a couple of days next year at WBC West as a team game, and given how involved the game could be with the interactive combat system, that may be a necessity as I'm not at all sure I could manage three maps at once. One may be too much. 

It's funny how things work out. I remember going to Ray Freeman's place in Palo Alto several years ago to play his recently published Tigers in the Mist against him, and he mentioned Army Group Center, and how he could never see actually playing the game, although he said it looked really good when you set it up on the table. That comment more than anything stopped me from buying Center, and here I am ten years later, with the time and space to play these games, and I'm actually doing it. Wow.

Thanks again to Mike for doing most of the heavy lifting on this, as he did with OCS and introducing me to that system. 

1 comment:

Mike said...

The official answer from VvB is that you may look through your opponents unit stacks.