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​Guerrillas in their Midst

​Guerrillas in their Midst

Posted by Alan Emrich on Feb 21st 2019

Guerrillas in their Midst
The Partisan War in the Soviet Union

By Alan Emrich


Roads to Moscow posterAnd far away behind their lines the partisans are stirring in the forest

Coming unexpectedly upon their outposts, growing like a promise

You'll never know, you'll never know which way to turn, which way to look, you'll never see us

As we're stealing through the blackness of the night

You'll never know, you'll never hear us

– Al Stewart, Roads to Moscow

Partisans are the last Optional Rule because a scenario is a very short timeframe in which to consider the Partisan War on the Eastern Front during WWII. Consequently, this article rightly belongs with others addressing Campaign Game concerns. Over the war’s duration, Soviet Partisans seize an Axis Voodoo Doll to deliver their small pin pricks and razor cuts. This is warfare at its most asymmetrical and it was an interesting road (through a dark forest at night) to get this part of the design optimized for the ETO series.


Shadow War Sausage Making

As with most wargame designs covering the Eastern Front during WWII, the Partisan War was not the first and most important thing to get right. It would evolve after the more central issues of force pool composition, maneuver, and combat were firmly in place. So, too, it was with Thunder in the East. The only ideas we had on paper during alpha testing were, basically, the current draft of ETO system rules; this was wonderful for simulating the big Partisan War in Yugoslavia, but partisan efforts in France, Italy, Greece, the Soviet Union, etc. were just not the same armies-forming-up-and-controlling-large-swaths-of-territory operations that Tito achieved in Yugoslavia in late ’44 and early ‘45. When we applied that system of full-throated armed conflict to our testing in Russia, the Baltic States and the Ukraine, it was simply too much: too much effort required to operate all the sub-systems, too much attention removed from The Main Event, and too much impact on the game once things got rolling.

A Partisan Warfare re-think was in order.

Designer Frank Chadwick delegated this problem to developer Lance McMillan and myself as he focused on other emerging design issues. Lance and I created a clever all-below-the-radar system which completely abstracted the Partisan War and yielding wonderfully credible results. We completed this marvel in isolation long before Frank’s second ETO design dictum was committed to writing: “GOAL 2: Game units, resources, and systems which are concrete as opposed to abstract.” Therefore, when we presented this new iteration of the Partisan War system to Frank, pleased-as-can-be with a red ribbon and bow on it, he did not like it. Patiently, Frank explained his design dictum to us and we were back to the old drawing board with a revised mandate.

Still, we had the results right from that abstract system and so poured game design cement around its abstractions to make them more concrete. (Did you see what I just did there? Cement? Concrete?) With that accomplished, we essentially had the system that is included in Thunder in the East. It looked well enough on paper so we started playtesting it at ConsimWorld – and what do you know? The darn thing worked!

Although it was one of the last design pieces to fall into place, the Partisan War systems (of Detachment markers and Division units) have proven themselves in playtesting – they have been easy to assimilate into play, created their (proportionally small) share of meaningful decisions, had their interactions occur on the map, and required little polish to develop. The only notable change made to the current system through playtesting was streamlining the effectiveness of the Soviet Partisan pool (which seemed too effective early in the war). Thus the Soviet Partisan Detachment pool set up in 1941 as relatively ineffective but improves over the years from the Soviets playing their annual Guerilla War card. As frequently as partisan activity occurs on the map, the Soviet player will be very glad they improved their Partisan Force Pool via this card (it makes a very noticeable difference)!


Detachment Markers and Partisan Units

What allowed an almost-abstract notion at this game’s scale to find concrete representation on the map was the game’s intrinsic division between units and markers. Military fighting formations with strengths are units, more abstract concepts such as HQs’ logistical functions, repairing captured Objectives, naval transport, etc. – those represent themselves best as markers. Having that dichotomy built into the game allowed us to create low-level, bomb-throwing pin prick activities via markers (and markers, fortunately, do not distract from the main focus of gameplay when matters are intense).

By giving them a Territorial Range of 3 hexes (except you could always place them in empty Mountain hexes, which doesn’t affect Thunder in the East much, but in The Middle Sea Yugoslavia can become quite a dense hotbed partisan activity), it kept them from unnaturally clumping together on the map. Their sparse deployment looked “about right,” worked well in practice, and made them feel like they were operating in areas instead of particular hexes. Hiding their individual Bomb Throwing effects on their reverse sides allowed Partisan Detachment markers to function quickly without the need to roll another die.


“No game design has ever been saved by adding another die roll to it.” 

– Frank Chadwick


It was interesting how this Go engine for Detachment markers could also spawn even more Detachments or highly desirable Partisan Division units. Those Divisions are Small units that roam the map – okay, having a Movement Allowance of (1) mean they are still pretty territorial – occupy hexes, and fight Ground Battles. Once you start putting Partisan Division units on the board, look out, because those Small units never require supply.


Magic Markers (Detachments) and Bomb Throwing

Partisan Detachment markers are magical. The enemy can sit on them but not squash them (because they are markers), so they just accumulate around the map and suffer automatic attrition from their little Bomb Throwing Attacks against enemy-controlled City hexes. The initial Partisan Detachment pool is weak with slightly less than half being No Effect markers; with each revelation of the Soviet Guerilla War card that pool becomes markedly more hostile for the Axis. The trouble is not always getting an effect from a Bomb Throwing Attack; the trouble is getting the right effect at the right location (at the right time).

Rail Capacity and Out of Supply results constitute the plurality of individual Bomb Throwing effects. The former requires revealing that effect at a Rail Hub City hex (i.e., having four or more Rail hexsides, which are out there, but they are uncommon and the preferred resting locations for rear area garrisons). Out of Supply (and Interdicted) results occurs within 3 hexes of where the Bomb Throwing target city is; if it is too far to the rear that success accomplishes nothing! This presents a pickle for the Soviet player wanting to place Partisan Detachment markers near the front and within range of a Rail Hub, but needing to place them in hexes that are: A) in empty rough terrain or City hexes; and B) not adjacent to an enemy Ground unit; and C) not within three hexes of another Detachment. Finding the right placement hex with multiple viable targets within range, while also providing refuge and elbow room for that Detachment, makes a person think.

TITE Soviet Partisan results

If the Bomb Throwers are lucky they will reveal their three juiciest effects: Suppressing an enemy Air unit on the Air Display mat, immediately costing a nearby enemy nationality 1/2 PP or 1/2 MP from The Knives, or to Recruit/Organize more Detachments – maybe even field an actual Partisan Division unit! None of these are, individually, war winning or even game changing effects. However, their cumulative nuisance value over time and the distractions they can create do matter because the enemy must deal with them; if you start enough little fires something big might burn.


Stray Units Organizing

Like Geppetto, the Soviet player keeps wishing their Partisan Detachments markers would turn into “real boys” (i.e., Partisan Division units). The nature of the Partisan War changes greatly once Partisan Division units begin to appear – going FROM an Axis Wack-a-Mole garrison relocation for Detachment-threatened cities game TO an “Oh, crap! We’re going to need some Attack Strength over there to stomp those guys. Who can I spare for that duty?” game. Partisan Divisions require no supply, nor do they Retreat; they are just little pain-in-the-butts trolling the enemy backfield and negating all control of the hexes they occupy. Interestingly, because the Anti-Partisan force is usually Second-Line and reduced-strength units, they will probably only be able to muster middle odds against those Partisan Division units which means removing them from play is often a result of an Exchange or Stalemate. Any day the Soviets can exchange a “throwaway” Partisan step for a real Axis Ground unit step is a good day in Stalin’s diary.

The really interesting part is not that you smote the ground and a Partisan Division unit sprang up nearby, but what occurs when those Divisions get together to make something of themselves. That is, 2 Partisan Division units can combine to form 1 Partisan Corps; this is the only Small 2 step unit in the game! Partisan Corps units have twice the speed of their component Divisions, do not require supply, but will Retreat if attacked.

The Soviets (and Yugoslavs, when you meet them in The Middle Sea) have a special trick their Partisans can perform. Instead of forming a Partisan Corps unit, they can exchange themselves into a Medium size 1 step ?-4 Untried Rifle Infantry Corps with all that implies. Yes, suddenly a unit with a ZOC is formed behind enemy lines! Of course, it needs supply normally, can be overrun and, as an Untried unit, its Strength could be anywhere on the spectrum – but hey! Imagine the enemy’s displeasure at seeing those “real” Corps popping up behind their line.

A third option is absorbing Partisan unit steps into a nation’s resource pool by stacking them with friendly regular Ground units. In return for that “liberated” Partisan unit’s demobilization, its stacked-with nationality gains 1/2 PP per Partisan step absorbed. Many players see Partisan unit steps they are about to liberate is “meat on the hoof” to turn into free PPs.


Card Support

How ETO simulates the Shadow War makes it a natural for supplementing via the card engine. Playing cards to enhance or thwart partisan activity creates narrative “moments” during the game. An examination of partisan-specific cards reveals:

Aiding the Soviets is the critically important, annually available Guerilla War card. While drawing and placing an additional 5 Partisan Detachment markers on the map is great in its own right, the improvement it makes adding 5 more effect result markers to the draw pool makes this a must play card each year. The Soviet player will want to look for an opportunity to select this card in during 1941, but should not miss an opportunity to do so every year afterward.

Its smaller cousin is the seasonally available Nationalists Stir card which places 2 Partisan Division units in either the Baltic States or Ukraine. Two actual Partisan Divisions is nothing to scoff at, and it is a Small, Set Aside card that can get a lot of reuse.

Finally, the Soviets have their once-per-game Partisan Offensive card. Make sure everything is in place to take complete advantage of its benefits! Detachments can apply up to two Bomb Throwing Attack results and Partisan Division/Corps units receive a free Offensive shift in their Ground Battles that turn. If you have built up enough Partisan forces, unleashing them through this card can build some bonfires behind the Axis lines.

Speaking of the Axis, they too have cards to play. Their seasonally available Sicherungs Divisions is the only way for them to squash Detachments. They can remove (for free) up to 3 Soviet Partisan Detachment markers, plus additional ones (via atrocities) for 1/2 Morale Point each. Because this is a Small, Set Aside card, it can make repeated appearances to hinder the mushrooming Soviet Partisan threat.

Finally, there is an intriguing Axis “what if?” card, the annually available Nationalists and Separatists. It generates one die roll’s worth of actual Partisan Division units in their respective (named) Baltic State and/or the Ukraine. While potentially helpful when the Soviets control sufficient territory in those countries, because they are Divisions the Soviets will squash them. Consider yourself lucky if they create a useful distraction to the enemy and you manage to retrieve them to your lines where they can be absorbed for always-needed PPs.


Who Turned Out the Lights?

The Shadow War Optional Rules add spice to ETO. Its nature is different from the usual clash of Ground and Air units awaiting replacements and repairs. There is a deep, Go-like aspect to the placement and removal of Partisan Detachment markers, punctuated by sudden “what do I do about these?” situations for both sides when Partisan Division and Corps units are out marauding. Students of history anticipating the subsequent games in the ETO series should be able to envision how this system will work in other countries… and that it is worth waiting for.