Wargaming the Russian Front in Braille
– At Last a Game with the Right Feel

A Grognard's Perspective of
Frank Chadwick's ETO vol. I: Thunder in the East

By Jeff Nyquist

When you play the first game in the new ETO series, Thunder in the East by legendary wargame designer Frank Chadwick, the game map immediately draws you in. Seeing the units on it of variable sizes – and understanding their different uses based on their physical size – communicates a richness of detail skillfully blended with ergonomic elegance. The rules and the pieces quickly transport any wargamer to the Russian Front and to the fateful year of 1941. It is easy to visualize Hitler or Stalin and their generals at the map table standing over this game. "Where should this Panzer Army attack?" "How much Infantry should be attached to Army Group South?" or "Prepare the defense of Moscow along these lines!" and "Stavka orders a broad front offensive."

Thunder in the East map

TITE USSR Labor Battalions cardThe Thunder in the East game system is truly wargame-intuitive: the action is fluid, the outcomes in doubt due to a telling range of possibilities on every die roll. The inclusion of selectable strategy cards add to the realism, granting special bonuses, capabilities, and opportunities; these cards add great historical narrative to the gameplay without requiring blocks of exceptions to the rules. Call up reserves, put special units on the field, and conduct an air offensive – the occasions that you play your carefully selected cards captures these moments. There are options upon options and possibilities within possibilities. A grognard soon realizes that this game is the culmination of many years of innovative design and rigorous development. And believe me when I say, wargames didn't used to be this good!

Our First Hexes

Stalingrad box coverIn the beginning, there was Avalon Hill, and dawn was breaking upon the face of wargamers. The first Eastern Front wargame was called Stalingrad. However, in this early wargame design, the Panzers didn't act like the Panzers we read about in the history books. They could not break through the front and create huge encirclements! Instead, the Panzers were like infantry with larger combat and movement allowances.

France, 1940 Box CoverThen came SPI's Strategy & Tactics Magazine No. 27 and the innovative move-combat-motorized movement system introduced in their France 1940 game. The problem of simulating the armored breakthrough was cleverly addressed. Panzers could pour through open holes in the line, and large battles of encirclement could be simulated. Still, this was not the promised land of military simulation: the Panzers moved too much, without the frequent pauses required for supply and refit (leaving the Germans overpowered in such games as SPI's venerable War in the East).

There were some fine games in those days, like John Edwards' award-winning The Russian Campaign, which slowed down German super-charged movement with the DS (Defender Surrendered) result, causing some paralysis of attacking Panzer columns. Indeed, elegant logistics rules were long in coming – and this is what Thunder in the East brings to the milieu. Headquarter markers take time to set up after redeploying. They arrive with a countdown clock before they "turn on" again as a supply source. Armored forces cannot keep racing forward indefinitely; the Panzers must slow, lest their supply lines become hopelessly overstretched.

TITE HQ breakdownTo avoid unrealistic passivity while your opponent conducts two Movement Phases, Thunder in the East grants HQ markers the ability to dispatch Theater Reserves at the end of the enemy's combat phase – in this manner a prepared defense can blunt a blitzkrieg at its breakthrough. HQ markers can also burn extra supplies to support attacks (and counter-attacks). Yes, the Russians hold their line by bloodying the lead German units – Thunder in the East rewards continuous aggressive play on both sides!

Combat Arms in Thunder in the East

To simulate the limitations of Infantry, the first Movement Phase (called the Special Movement Phase) grants Infantry units only half their movement (i.e., 2 Movement points) if they are not in an Enemy Zone of Control (EZOC). This gives them some limited commitment opportunities but only if they are off the front lines (i.e., serving as "local reserves"). This is a pleasant, simple, and realistic feature, and long overdue in wargaming. Line Infantry cannot so easily pull out and mass for exact attack odds as if teleportation were invented in 1941. Instead, the Thunder in the East and the ETO series' systems accurately reflect the need for off-line and mobile reserves right there on the game map; the player who refuses to maintain them will feel their opportunities suffering for it.

Thunder in the East also teaches us that all Zones of Control are not created equal. Heavy units (those with an Armor oval in their unit type symbol) can retreat safely through non-Heavy units' Zones of Control. For that matter, retreating through Zones of Control is not an occasion for total annihilation as portrayed in most wargames, but instead inflicts a step reduction for each EZOC hex entered – which accounts for those surrounded Armies who did, historically, escape as a ragtag remnant.

TITE German bombers

The variability of the ETO game system and its great possibilities are reflected in the Air system. Players are not burdened with excessive detail in the Air war. Rather, it is all about the various types of planes and their unique capabilities as told over a nice selection of useful Missions they can fly. And with the Air system, fuel is all important for momentum, as are Equipment Points to expand or improve your Air Force. Strategic weather can also play merry hell with your Air and/or Ground forces with simple, intuitive effects.

TITE German Fighters

Making Some Right Decisions

No Retreat! coverThunder in the East offers rich tactical and strategic possibilities reflecting the realities of the Eastern Front as I wish wargames would have done all these years. Truly, I have not been this excited about a wargame in a long time. Previously, I believed that No Retreat! (Vol. I: The Russian Front) had the best feel and greatest playability so far, yet Thunder in the East has both amazing feel and comfortable playability (despite its scope and size). Here is a mini-monster wargame without the tediousness that typically attends them.

The Dark Valley coverLet's do a direct comparison: How does Thunder in the East stack up against Ted Racier's The Dark Valley (which I have playtested and played repeatedly)? Without question, Thunder in the East plays faster and avoids problematic special rules and exceptions found in The Dark Valley's superpowers for Panzer Divisions in the first days of the 1941 Blitzkrieg, or the "artificial stupidity" rules mandating pointless Stalin attacks (which are obviously intended to weaken an over-powered Soviet Army).

The Panzers of Thunder in the East are able to hold their own without hard-to-remember rules that only apply for a few turns. At the same time, the Soviets are both helpless (when seen dejectedly from the eastern map's edge) and potentially very dangerous (almost frighteningly so when seen from western map's edge!). Everything depends (as it should) on the outcome of the encirclement battles, extemporaneous counterattacks, Theater Reserves commitment to thwart the opponent's breakthroughs, and on the handling of specific situations in the air and on the ground fighting over key hexes at decisive moments. For example, the simple and elegant overrun rule in Thunder in the East can age both players considerably as the die is cast to reveal the hazardous outcome of this high-risk, high-reward movement.

I will be continuing my thoughts about Thunder in the East as I further explore the middle and later war years. The overarching military and economic stories are still unfolding and I remain riveted to every next event.