OR: Applying Decades of Lessons since Battle for Moscow

By Frank Chadwick

The ETO series has four major design goals:

GOAL 1: A mechanically smooth system; this means a minimum of rules exceptions and special cases, and a minimum of bookkeeping.

GOAL 2: Game units, resources, and systems which are concrete as opposed to abstract.

GOAL 3: Recognizing that this is primarily a ground war game series. This means modeling air, naval, strategic warfare, and production as supporting adjuncts to the ground war game, not as competitors to it.

GOAL 4: Logistical constraints must, of necessity, drive game strategy, but these should not dominate the game's mechanics.

At first glance, some of these major design goals seem incompatible. The conventional wisdom of wargame design is that the more concrete (read: detailed) a game is, the more complicated its mechanics must be. If you want a simple game, a lot of the detail has to be "abstracted out." I don't think that is necessarily the case (although it is a lot easier to design wargame systems that way).

Let us consider each of those goals in a little more detail.…


GOAL 1: A mechanically smooth system; this means a minimum of rules exceptions and special cases, and a minimum of bookkeeping.

Battle for Moscow coverThe ETO game series began with the mechanics from Battle for Moscow, an introductory wargame first published in 1986. The ETO development team labored to keep the final Ground war mechanics as close to that as possible, with the addition of the rules for things outside Battle for Moscow's (and its subsequent sequel games) scope – things like air power, naval warfare, strategic production, campaign logistics, etc. – all kept as close to that introductory complexity level as possible. Why, given that this was going to end up a monster game series anyway? Actually, it is for that very reason!

Designing a big game like Thunder in the East is fundamentally different than a small game in a couple important ways. Its very size and scope adds a level of complication for the player. It gets harder to grasp the entire game, which tends to become a forest obscured by all the trees. That means there is actually less viability for complication in a large game than in a small one, not more. In a wargame with a smaller scope in map size and unit density (like Battle for Moscow), a designer wants to wring as much play value as possible out of every counter and every map hex, making every turn as full of challenging decisions as possible; there, players get the most out of making every little decision they can. But if you try that with a monster game, you end up with a confused, cluttered mess. Players need to keep things in perspective.

Thunder in the East map

So, in a big game, you have to understand that its bigness is its complexity; its appeal is having this vast theater of war portrayed with enough scope that the player is rewarded for being able to encompass all of it and see its strategic patterns. A host of detailed rules and niggling little exceptions combine to frustrate that aim, not enhance it. You can have big, and you can have complicated, but if you design for both you are asking for trouble.


GOAL 2: Game units, resources, and systems which are concrete as opposed to abstract.

Here are some examples of what that means in the ETO game series: 

Ground Units: These are not abstract strength points or generic identical units. The HQ, Armies, Corps, and Divisions almost all have their correct unit identifications. (A few Ground units, like small garrisons, are generic and sequentially numbered, but they are the exceptions.)

Air Units: These are not Air Points or generic markers, but units in groups dominated by a particular model based on in-service numbers of that model. They are not grouped into historical military organizations, so the Air units are slightly more abstract, but this is not primarily an air game – it is a ground game with Air units. In concrete terms, each represents 200-300 aircraft of a particular model (such as He-111) with unique game values for air combat, ground attack, level bombing, range, etc., for that model. The beautiful aircraft illustrations by Tim Allen make them visibly more concrete when examined.

ETO Ju-88 Air unitETO Romanian Bf-109GETO Soviet SB-2ETO Soviet Il-2M

ETO UK BB Royal SovereignNaval Units: In Thunder in the East these are very abstract because the navies have very little to do of significance in this massive ground war campaign. Thus, naval matters are handled with very few units and rules. However, in the main part of the ETO series, particularly in Vol. II: The Middle Sea which covers the Mediterranean Theater, the war at sea becomes a central concern. There, Naval units are not generic fleets but individual named capital ships (Battleships, Battle-cruisers, and Fleet Carriers), along with Squadrons or Flotillas of Cruisers, Destroyers, Submarines, Light Carriers, etc., featuring their historic unit designations wherever possible.

Resources: We do not represent resources in the ETO series as a single, homogenized generic "Resource Point" type. Instead, we divided them into the critical economic sectors of military manpower, heavy industrial output, and fuel production. Even at that more granular level of abstraction, we tried to make them as concrete as possible: a manpower point is approximately 25,000 inductees, an industrial output point is 250,000 tons of steel, and a fuel point is 250,000 tons of crude oil or its refined equivalent.

TITE German PP markerTITE Axis EP markerTITE Axis FP marker

Why strive for concrete instead of abstract? There are really three reasons:

The first is that it makes it easier to understand the game in terms of actual history. This gives players the means to notice important distinctions such as allocating fuel to aviation or naval sorties, or industrial output vying to create more armored or more submarines units, understandable in real terms. Players have another tool to check the game against history and see if the comparison is satisfying or not. That is, it doesn't hide so many key assumptions about the game-as-history behind a curtain of abstraction.

The second reason for a concrete design, and this applies especially to resources, is that it better captures the unique strengths and limitations of the different armed forces. Germany was rich in industry, fairly well-off with respect to manpower, and poor in fuel. The Soviet Union was rich in manpower, well-off in fuel, and had an adequate but not outstanding industrial base. Those different characteristics did not just produce armies of different sizes, but they produced different types of armies. The ETO game series illustrates not only that the armies were different, but also why.

The third reason for a concrete design is that we enjoy games more that let you think about the actual units represented, what their relative strengths were, and how they fared in combat. For us, that is a lot of the fun of wargaming – seeing the historical narrative written through gameplay and developing your own “game history” for the 1st Shock Army or 48th Panzer Corps. Why throw that away if you don't have to?


GOAL 3: Recognizing it is primarily a ground war game series. This means modeling air, naval, strategic warfare, and production as supporting adjuncts to the ground war game, not as competitors to it.

In short, the Ground Forces win or lose the war in Europe, but the Naval and Air Forces are necessary for them to do so. If the Axis can disrupt the Allied navies and beat their Air Forces, the Allied Ground Forces cannot get to Europe and deliver the knock-out blow. Conversely, the Allied Navies and Air Forces cannot win the war by themselves. The Ground Forces have to do that, and that must remain the main focus of the game.

The Mediterranean Theater, especially early on, is the closest thing there is to this goal's exception, but it is just an extreme case of this goal. The Allied Ground Forces fought and won the Mediterranean war, first by clearing Axis forces out of the coast of Africa and then carrying the fight to the Italian peninsula. The Naval war was a crucial adjunct to that, as was the Air war, but neither by themselves could have won the campaign; objectives are ground-based.

In Thunder in the East, however, this principle is clearly at work. As fascinating as the Air campaign is, and as important as it was historically, this is clearly a ground game with Air Support, not an Air game with a plethora of ground targets. The rest of the ETO game series follows this lead.


GOAL 4: Logistical constraints must, of necessity, drive game strategy, but these should not dominate the game’s mechanics.

Game logistics almost needs a separate article (and we have asked developer and USN logistician Lance McMillan to write one) as it is so vitally important to play. The ETO series logistics rules are (for players first learning the game) astonishingly – and deceptively – simple: just trace a contiguous line of unobstructed hexes to a supply source. Supply sources are friendly Supply Cities and Headquarters.

"Here is how long after you capture an enemy Supply City before it becomes a functional supply source for you" (4 turns). "Here is how long after you move a Headquarters before it begins functioning as a supply source for you" (3 turns). "Here is what happens if you're out of supply" (i.e., more than the allowed distance from a supply source; 1/2 Attack Strength). "Here is what happens if you're Isolated" (i.e., cannot trace a path to a supply source of any distance; 0 Attack Strength and movement is reduced to 1 hex).

That's pretty much it.

TITE logistical boundBut man, does it produce some powerful effects on how you play the game and how you develop your plans! How quickly should you move a headquarters (knowing it's going to be out of action for 3 turns as soon as you do, but the sooner you move it the sooner it will be back in action)? How soon can you grab Minsk and, by the time it's in service (4 turns later), will you have already outrun it and need to push a Headquarters forward beyond it? And should you start it moving now or wait until you've got a better forward location to position your Headquarters in? In other words, when do you make a logistical bound and what will you do with your Ground units while your supply sources reestablish themselves?

This combination of mechanically simple rules with powerful effects on gameplay is what we aimed for throughout the design and development of the ETO series: a simple, concrete ground wargame with due deference to logistics. 

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