by Daniel Duldig

To describe the feel of playing Thunder in the East (TitE) I can only compare it to the experience of reading a good book. Books elicit a response from the reader, the style sets a mood, the content engages (or not), the narrative tells the story in the hope that the reader is interested, drawn in, provoked, enlightened, but ultimately entertained. This game, Thunder in the East, entertains in volumes, as demonstrated by six non-stop days of playtesting over a week of ConsimWorld Expo in Tempe, Arizona. This year's show was both spectacular fun and happily exhausting in equal measure. Having never played TitE previously and only having read the rules once on the plane trip over, it was with minimal exposure and huge trepidation that I joined the experienced playtest team to run through the Barbarossa scenario multiple times.

Commanding the southern front of the Axis forces over these multiple playthroughs, the system became familiar and illustrated the strength of the underlying systems, plus the clever versatility of the various subsystems of air warfare, production, command and control, card management, and unit diversity. None of these systems are complex in themselves but the interaction of the various components weaves a deeply atmospheric and challenging wargame.

I've played many Eastern Front wargames: Each highlight some aspects of the war the designer thought important, and each game has a certain uniqueness, making its "book" a success or failure as determined by the audience perception of the reality of the interpretation and the validity of the outcomes.

What makes TitE, unique then?

TitE is strategic in scope but the play is operational, driven by HQ's that can act to direct offensives or defences as needed. It looks like a monster game but doesn't play like the traditional monsters - there aren't walls of thousands of counters and you won't see companies of bicycle units or panzerfaust-laden volks-grenadiers cluttering up the map, but you will see the stark national differences between army organizations and capabilities and you'll be able to employ special smaller units such as airborne divisions or guerrillas.

Axis Fighters in TITE

Axis Bombers in TITE

TitE gives an evocative presentation of the battle in the skies at strategic and operational/tactical levels. It feels tactical at times but the scale is operational, the units are diverse and colourful, yet no air units reside on the map. Air units fly in and out from "Air Bases" such as HQs and cities but end their Missions on an off-map chart where they cycle through Ready, Flown, or Damaged/Destroyed states. Planes are differentiated by type and capability (fighter, fighter-bomber, bomber, transport) and can be upgraded during the war to equip better aircraft. There is a campaign in the air war and the management of the air forces is subtle and is as critical to outcomes on the ground as it should be. There's also a naval campaign system coming for the Mediterranean theatre but I have only watched (admiringly) without having an opportunity to play yet. [Coming to fruition in the next game in this ETO series, The Middle Sea. - Ed.]

TITE sample Axis cardTitE also has cards for both sides but is not a card-driven design. The cards add tactical, operational, or national production flavors, but they don't direct the game. Rather, the cards add uncertainty and endless variety as a sound sub-system supporting the great campaigns on the map. Choosing only a limited number of cards each season from a large number of options is a recurring "moment of decision" seen in the game…difficult choices that involve the weighing of several competing needs with no perfect answers.

Ground combat begins as it does in many wargames: A simple odds system affected by terrain, supply, air or naval support, stacking restrictions, certain card modifiers, weather, and HQ support. Results are varied, including some involving attacker or defender options to either take losses and stand or retreat and avoid the casualties, adding another small element of interesting, meaningful, decision-making.

In fact, each system in the game offers decision points but at no time does this feel like a burden or a hindrance to play; on the contrary, it adds to the overall impression of being a monster game without the drawbacks of the true huge footprint monsters. No decisions required rules referencing to understand, as they were very straight-forward (just hard to decide which consequence to accept)!

A Campaign Game Outlook

TITE Build Cost Chart

The Campaign Game adds production and various other elements to an already rich game recipe. Our Soviet player, Kevin Roust, proceeded to give his Axis counterparts a masterclass in how to maximize Soviet capabilities and strengths in each of our playthroughs. Like a many-headed hydra, Kevin resurrected the Soviet forces time and again when all seemed lost with just the right deployment to the most critical places at just the right time. (It's a good thing for Russia that Stalin missed Kevin in the purges!)

Like the air system, the production system is simple to execute but very subtle in effect; careful selection will reward players but there are never enough Resource Points to go around to do all you need to (except, it seems, for Kevin; how did he do that?). Therefore, difficult choices need to be made at all times with the long view in mind balanced by the challenge of ongoing operational needs. And the different type of Resource Points (Personnel, Equipment, and Fuel) show the distinctions between the factions and their war-making capabilities/philosophies.

Does all of this make the game unique? Perhaps not any one facet, but the synergy and elegance of the whole provides a view of the Eastern Front I've never seen before and the narrative and engagement are total.

A Wargame Showcase

Sevastopol falls to the Axis; what a victory… what a mistake! What follows is an example of the why this game has engaged me so much, why "the book" requires re-reading and thought, and the story the game can tell will hold your interest.

It is early September, 1941. The Axis have advanced in the south to take Dnepropetrovsk by a coup de main thanks to a Panzer Corps exploiting through a hole in the Soviet line and then seizing the city. The Soviets are forced to retreat across the Dnieper or become cut off. Behind, Odessa is under siege, as is Kiev. The Soviets are stretched thin and there is an opportunity to try another coup de main on Sevastopol. Knowing the Axis would not historically take the city until July, 1942, the decision to move into the Crimea seems obvious.

TITE Axis Dnepr lunge

Army Group South sends two Panzer Corps, 40% of their armored force, south into the Crimea as not enough other units have the speed to execute the move quickly enough. One Panzer Corps moves through Simferopol to Feodosia blocking Soviet reinforcement from Kerch. The other Corps moves with the only available infantry unit to attack Sevastopol. The Axis use their Airborne unit carried by two Transport aircraft and one Fighter (the two Transport units ensure survivability of the Airborne unit should one Transport be Aborted/Destroyed which was a real possibility), whilst another "Air Packet" of two Bombers, also escorted by one Fighter, move to shift the odds in favor of the attackers. The Soviets have a sole hardened Garrison unit (who ignores Retreats) in the city and scramble their Fighters to intercept the Bombers; Airborne and a Black Sea naval unit adding defensive support. The Axis launch an air attack on the Fleet and the Soviets are out of Fighters to challenge that move, but the air battles over the skies of Sevastopol promise to put on quite a show.

The result: The attack on the Fleet is unsuccessful but the Fleet support is ineffective, so neither side gain an advantage there. The Soviet aircraft are unable to turn back all of the Axis Bombers and Transports so the airdrop proceeds and the Axis gain combat shifts in their favor from the Air units. The beauty of the Airborne unit is it neutralises defensive terrain on the turn of its drop and may also add combat shifts in the attacker's favor. The final outcome of the battle is the fall of Sevastopol! Iron Crosses are distributed, a Soviet general is recalled to Moscow and mysteriously disappears, and the Axis appear triumphant.

"Crimea will have its neck wrung like a chicken." Some chicken; some neck!

If only this were the case. The move of Panzer Corps into the Crimea proves fundamentally flawed as it takes a month to extract them as Soviets press forward from Kerch and south of the Dnieper towards the narrow Crimean isthmus neck, blocking the Panzer's exit northward back into the Ukraine. The southern front is stretched thin by a now tortuous line that is weakly defended in places by Romanian and Hungarian Corps. The Panzer Corps are needed further north to push the front away from the Dnieper and the Axis are suffering from insufficient forces in the south to move forward.

TITE Kiev encircled

Why? You will recall the cities of Kiev and Odessa are under siege still, and they are tying up numerous Axis units that are now desperately needed elsewhere. This mistake to move into the Crimea, despite the operational goal of taking a Soviet Objective city and Naval Base, has proven costly. Like Hitler in 1941 who directed the Panzer Army of Guderian to swing south to encircle Kiev, the move has given the Soviets the one commodity they didn't have…time. Time to shore up the southern flank, time to press the weakened Axis line.

Five days of repeated play and the technical aspects of the system had been mastered but my strategy had failed. The move I "should" have made was probably to have airdropped onto Kiev and clear it immediately. As it happened, the city would not fall for another four weeks and ground down several Axis infantry units in the process. The taking of Kiev earlier would have released units to reinforce the siege of Odessa and the front line on the Dnieper. The Crimea could have been masked if necessary and a push towards Kharkov and/or Rostov undertaken before the winter weather prevented any further assaults.

So the book has been read and the narrative was compelling for me. I return to the game and ponder what could have been.

The final playtests on Vassal await, and so engaged by it, I can't put this damned book down!

TITE team "TITE-ans" playtesting at CSW 2017

Pictured above from left to right: Daniel Duldig (back to camera); Ken "the Vassal guy" Keller (seated); Lance McMillan (the developer, standing); John Tiehen (holding the rules and examining the Soviet Force Pool on the neighboring table); and Kevin Roust (arms folded and calculating the optimal defense of Russia down to the last unit and Resource Point).