An Analysis of Player Options from the
Thunder in the East Axis and Soviet Card Decks

By Alan Emrich

Over the long history of hobby wargaming, early designs saw the path for achieving more historical fidelity in their games (i.e., "getting the narrative right") paved with special units, rules, cases, and exceptions. In other words, a wargame needed to be more complex to be more accurate – that is how the game gets the details right. Many wargame designers, especially first-timers, reflexively follow this well-worn path toward verisimilitude.

Over the decades, different ideas to address historical realism in wargames have ranged between the extremes of "screw that, just make a good game about history and any simulation stuff I want to know about I will learn elsewhere if you make me interested enough in this subject," to "there are so many details and calculations in this game that only a computer can run it." The wargaming hobby has long envisioned a fulcrum where each new wargame strives to find their proper balance between realism and playability. Adjusting that fulcrum is the purview of that game's designer, as translated by its developer, and presented by its publisher.

TITE Soviet card back designThe ancient paper technology of playing cards (China circa 800 AD) has been an ever-increasing presence as a useful tool for injecting narrative elements into a wargame, as well has being a vehicle to hold its own rules text (and therefore complexity) away from the main corpus of that game's documentation. Better still, cards can be selected, randomized, dealt, hidden, revealed, traded, peeked at, and any number of clever gaming tricks that designers have evolved over the centuries. In Frank Chadwick's ETO the use of cards is highly deterministic (i.e., you select them from the entirety of those available to you; they are not shuffled and drawn randomly) thus allowing players to use them in constructing the game's historical narrative through the specific events they generate.

In this article, I examine the cards used during play of Thunder in the East for both sides globally and specifically. The goal is to give you the Big Picture view of how your faction's card deck works and an operational look at their events by groupings.

Size Matters

Although the physical size of each card is the same, their events come in the same three sizes as units: Large, Medium, and Small. Not coincidentally, the hand limit (the number of unplayed cards you can hold) is the same as the Ground Stacking Limit (i.e., up to one card of each event size, but you can always substitute a smaller one for a larger one). Large events are the most consequential while Small events are the least consequential.

Besides the amount of "space" they take up in your hand, each has its own selection rate. You can only select from your deck to place in your hand:

One Large event on Season Start Month (i.e., January, April, July, and October); or

One Medium event each Month; or

Two Small events each Month.

Frequency Matters

The other great card metric in Frank Chadwick's ETO is if and when it replenishes itself back to your deck for future reselection (most cards are reusable). While a negligible concern during scenario play, in a Campaign Game this aspect looms large. There are a variety of replenishment speeds:

"Return" immediately to the deck and can be drawn again next month (there are none of these in Thunder in the East, but there are other games in this series where it might be appropriate)

"Set Aside" cards are returned to your deck on Season Start months

"Discard" cards are returned to your deck each Year Start month (i.e., January)

"Remove" cards are one-shot events that are removed from the game once played

In your mind, envision the combinations: Large/Remove events that are major one-shot occurrences (i.e., Soviet Emergency Mobilization and I Believe in Only One Thing…;

ETO card Soviet Emergency MobilizationETO card Soviet Human Will

...the Axis have no Large/Remove event) on the one extreme, and Small/Set Aside events on the other (i.e., Soviet Great Patriotic War, Katyusha Rockets, Heroes of the Soviet Union, etc....

ETO card Soviet Great Patriotic WarETO card Soviet Katyusha RocketsETO card Soviet Heroes of the Soviet Union

...and Axis Wehrmacht Motorization, OKH Reconsiders, Specialists, Anti-Bolshevik Crusade, Fuel Rationing, etc.).

ETO card Wehrmacht MotorizationETO card Anti-BolshevikETO card Fuel Rationing

As you consider each card's events during a Campaign Game, every bit as vital as what it does is its event size and replenishment speed; it is the combination of those elements that determine each cards utility.

In the following sections, I examine only certain cards divided into categories by their importance to the war’s historical narrative.

Key Plot Point Events

Here is an important distinction: the plot is not the story; it is how the story is revealed. There are key plot points where the story turns, creating narrative tent poles upon which the story hangs. World War II on the Eastern Front could not be told properly without those key plot points being revealed, and certain cards do exactly that.

The Axis, of course, must launch a massive Sneak Attack against the Soviet Union and catch them completely flat-footed or nothing works right. To that end, the special Axis Blitzkrieg! event card (Large/Discard) is unique in having its own page of rules enumerating German advantages and Soviet penalties required for an accurate portrayal of the war's opening (and the first turn of the game). Because it is Discarded, the 1941 Sneak Attack card returns each year and, historically, kicks off the Major Offensives of Case Blue and Operation Citadel in 1942 and 1943, respectively. The Blitzkrieg! is so vital for the narrative that WW2 could not be told without it.

ETO card Blitzkrieg ETO card Axis Standfast

Also for the Axis is Hitler's famous Standfast! directive. This Medium/Remove card allows the Axis player one turn of ignoring the Retreat portion of any combat results they suffer, which they used to very good effect the first time (holding on against the Soviet's Winter Counteroffensive following Operation Typhoon). While Hitler wished to repeat that success many times on other such desperate occasions, trying to hold-at-all-costs only exacerbated the Army's problems and bled them dry (which is why this card is Removed after its one use).

The Soviets have their linchpin troika of cards feeding bodies to the front line to face the crisis: Emergency Mobilization, Militia Mobilized, and Labor Battalions and Conscripts. Their big response to the invasion was to fling manpower at the problem, and these cards reveal those plot points creating the right Soviet narrative. Between them they generate 36 Personnel Points' worth of Rifle Infantry units to keep rebuilding the front lines as the Axis shred them through the clement weather turns of 1941. In addition, hasty defense works including the Moscow defense lines are built using the Labor Battalions and Conscripts card (the only one of these three that is Discarded, not Removed).

ETO card Soviet Emergency Mobilization ETO card Soviet Militia Mobilized ETO card Labor Battalions and Conscripts

Major Narrative Events

Although not key plot points, certain important events need to occur to faithfully recount the unique and decisive junctures in the war's narrative.

After the Blitzkrieg! card is played, the remaining Axis hand is comparatively puny. The Axis went into WW2 with few other good cards and played them to their best effect when opportunities presented themselves. German armored doctrinal advantages are intrinsic to their superior Panzer Corps units, but can be further exploited for a time when assisted by their Panzer Blitz card – of course, this only works on opponents so weak that they have single-step units around to overrun, but if they do this Small/Discard card lets the Panzers make hay while the sun is shining.

 ETO card Panzer BlitzETO cards Axis Army OrganizationETO card Axis Refit and Reorganize

General Staff planning was also a German hallmark, and our events afford them a Medium/Discard Army Organization card allowing them to improvise in ways that surprised their opponents. Whether assisting their allies to field their HQs or to achieve a feat of remarkable logistical staff work, Army Organization is a great tool in the Axis' toolbox. In that same vein, their Large/Discard Refit & Reorganize event allows them to benefit their Theater Reserves by "resting them in France" and allowing each a free Replacement step in the process. Of course, fully exploiting this opportunity means removing the most possible (eight maximum) depleted units to the Theater Reserve for some turns, including the time it takes to hustle them off and back onto the map – and how long can they afford the absence of so many front-line forces?

ETO card German Generals

Both sides have cards representing their famous Generals offering an assortment of abilities. The Medium German Generals card provides a solid set of generic benefits when played, which can be fairly often as it is a Set Aside (i.e., Seasonal, and not Discarded annually). The Soviet cards offer a trio of assorted effects; being less adroit, putting them into play at the right place and time is tricky (two are Large/Discards while the third is a Medium/Discard).

The Soviets welcomed their Axis invaders in the same way they did the invasions from Charles XII and Napoleon, and to that end they have a Scorched Earth card (Small/Remove) that prevents the enemy from improving their logistics situation for one turn. It is a nuisance card, but a dramatic moment in the story when the Soviet player takes some grim satisfaction that everyone is suffering behind the enemy's lines. And who can forget The Boss? With this Large/Discard Stalin can finally rally the nation and help recover dwindling Soviet Morale Points.

ETO card Soviet Scorched Earth  ETO card The Boss (Stalin)

Finally, consider important narrative events as a confluence. To tell the story of Operation Citadel probably, you can imagine the Soviet player playing the Construction Brigades cards to fortify the salient while the Axis player assesses a victory is possible there, but by waiting to play their New Model Tank card (Medium/Discard) in conjunction with their Blitzkrieg! Major Offensive. Sensing this is coming, the Soviet player selects the Marshal Zhukov (Medium/Discard) card and waits for just the right moment to launch a counteroffensive with it. In this manner and with such card combinations, presenting the story of WW2 on the Eastern Front has more interesting player options (via card play) and fewer special rules and exceptions to learn.

ETO card Soviet Construction Brigades ETO card Soviet New Model Tank ETO card Marshal Zhukov

Minor Narrative Events

Not everything was a headline-grabbing event, but they still happened and the Thunder in the East card decks account for them. For example, Axis minor allies did keep their Air Forces upgraded, but did that on their own without dipping into the pool of Axis Equipment Points; hence the National Air Force Pride card (Small/Set Aside). Both sides' high commands would pressure the arrival and departure times of forces, and so the Soviets can Flood the Skies (Medium/Discard) while the Axis OKH Reconsiders (Small/Set Aside).

ETO card National Air Force PrideETO card Soviet Flood the SkiesETO card OKH Reconsiders

Enamored at the improved performance of the Il-2s, Stalin personally threatened people with his wrath to see his Air Force modernized; for the Soviet player, they just reach for the (Medium/Discard) "You Have the Nerve Not to Manufacture Il-2s Until Now?" The Soviets met the Axis with Generals Mud and Winter, conducted a few Amphibious Operations, and launched Partisan Offensives – all of which are accounted for in the Soviet deck.

ETO You have the nerveETO card General MudETO card General Winter

ETO Soviet Amphibious OperationsETO Soviet Partisan Offensive

ETO German Officers take InitiativeIn addition, each side has cards that squeeze out a few more Resource Points. The grueling attrition makes the desire to staunch a shortfall a desperate but necessary card play over time. Being able to improvise their economy in these small ways to meet urgent needs was a constant during the war.

Finally, the Axis' German Officers Show Initiative card (Small/Discard) creates operational opportunities around one German HQ marker for either offense (providing German units freedom to maneuver during the Axis Special Movement Step) or in defense (allowing German units to Retreat through EZOCs). Either way, this is something the Wehrmacht was often credited for at this level of gameplay and we wanted the Axis player to occasionally "pull a rabbit out of their helmet" and put a little frustration into the opponent's "perfect plan."

What If? Events

A beautiful thing about cards-as-options is allowing players to explore some of history's "What ifs?" that were considered. Within limits, players should be allowed to trod the ahistorical path and explore alternates with their cards in much the same way as they do with their units marching across the map.

For the Axis, many considered what more support from restive Nationalists in the occupied parts would have meant. To explore that, the mercurial Axis Nationalists and Separatists card (Small/Discard) will plunk a few Partisan Divisions among the Ukraine and/or Baltic States behind enemy lines (typically, they do not live long, but they have an interesting nuisance value when they arrive at the proper place and time in sufficient numbers).

Another considers that the Germans were remiss to withdraw their Airborne Division from continued duty in Russia. If the Axis sacrifice a Seasonal pick to use the (Large/Remove) Reassigned to Duty in Russia card, then their one precious Airborne Division returns. Granted, on the scale of the entire Russian Front one Airborne Division is not that much, but the threat of using it also has value to the Axis!

ETO card Axis Nationalists and SeparatistsETO Axis Reassigned to Duty in RussiaETO card Wehrmacht Motorization

Finally, the most intriguing What if? card for the Axis is their (Small/Set Aside) Wehrmacht Motorization card which converts one 6-4 Leg Infantry unit into a 7-[4] Motorized Infantry unit with the appropriate Resource Points paid for that conversion. Although the Germans managed the war remarkably well without many Motorized Infantry Corps, the wide-open spaces of Russia are an opportune playground for experimenting with greater mobility. On paper, it doesn't look like a great investment of a card choice or the Resource Point required, but when you need Infantry to backstop Panzers on the roll, they are handier than cough drops ever were.

In the Soviet deck, they have their counterpart to the above with their (Medium/Remove) Independent Motorized Corps card. They share the same utility as the German Motorized Infantry Corps units, but the Soviets receive them all in their Force Pool as a single card play and typically have the Fuel Points to bring them out quickly and keep these 1-step units in play. These make excellent units to unleash from the Soviet Theater Reserves, too, for their high Movement Allowance and Zone of Control.

ETO Soviet Independent Motorized CorpsETO card The Russian SoulETO card Soviet Spies

Finally, the Soviets can play some "card games." The (Small/Remove) The Russian Soul card allows them to expedite the return of an annually returning (i.e., Discard) card so that it reenters the Soviet deck during the next Season (this requires some study of the Soviet deck's potential to take full advantage of it, but that is the Soviet player's prerogative to surprise the Axis with this sneaky gambit). And speaking of sneaky gambit, Soviet Spies in the Red Orchestra is a Small/Remove card that gives them a peek at the Axis hand and, if there any Small events in it (and there usually are), putting one of them in the Axis Set Aside pile (not to return to the Axis deck until after the next Season Start).

Card Assistance

The ETO system does not make these card games, nor even card driven games. These are card assisted games, with the cards designed to carry historically important and interesting key plot points, major and minor narrative events, and explore a few What ifs? along the way. For the right reasons, these cards add interesting player decisions thanks to their deterministic selection and neatly carry their share of small rules and exceptions reducing clutter in the rules. It's a beautiful thing to look at and an even better one to play.

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