Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Bombarossa: Shut Up and Play

Instead of charging pell-mell into the rest of Bombarossa, I’ve replayed the opening a couple of times to make sure I’m not being an idiot. There’s some chatter on the Bombarossa thread on CSW about the Germans having a tough time but – as with RSR – I’m chalking most of it up to guys being too lazy to figure out how to run the Germans correctly. I’m satisfied that the only deep, dark secret to running the Germans is managing movement so that it minimizes opportunities for the Soviet mandatory attacks to do damage.

This brings up an interesting point, though. What, exactly, do gamers expect from the opening turns of an East Front campaign game? Surely not a total German cakewalk for the opening momths. A super-powered race against time and Russian speedbumps before a sudden wall of reinforcements and foul weather put the brakes on everything? I hope not.

The German Wehrmacht’s initial accomplishments during Barbarossa were impressive, no doubt. But I’m of the opinion that the results were actually somewhat extraordinary and gamers should have to work – hard – to match the historical accomplishment. They should have to work even harder (or encounter perhaps an even more inept opponent) to exceed the historical result.

I am not of the school of thought that the German accomplishments were a “given.” But it appears that many other gamers are. Why do so many gamers expect a low-casualty, magic carpet ride to the gates of Moscow?

To an extent, I blame wargaming classics like Jedko/Avalon Hill’s “The Russian Campaign” and (to a lesser degree) SPI’s original “Barbarossa”. Early in those game the German player spends a lot of time not worrying about Soviet attacks. The Reds are outnumbered and offensively incompetent versus rather high German defense strengths – and the combat results tables are constructed so that what meager odds the Soviets can muster won’t do anything more than force an unlucky German unit or two to retreat a hex.

So what you get is an 800-pound gorilla trying to lumber into Moscow before he either loses his good footing or runs out of bananas. Pathetic Russian attackers bounce off of him like so many tennis balls.

Of course I understand that the 800-pound gorilla was the prevailing view of Barbarossa held by Western historians (or pop history, at least) for many years. Given the lack of Russian-language source material that persisted until the fall of Communism, I suppose it’s forgiveable that so many people held the memoirs of the German Generals in such high esteem for so long – even though a careful examination of German-language unit histories and returns told a slightly different story.

Some of the more recent East Front games to see print are more representative of the situation, IMHO. To an extent, some of this is due to advances in the art of game design. But the major influence is the improvement in the historical record that has occurred over the last 15 or so years.

Columbia’s “East Front”, while not exactly a recent design, captured the essence of the Wehrmacht’s supply problems. It didn’t really address the Soviet attacks launched early in the war, but I think it is still quite clever and a top-shelf wargame.

Masahiro Yamazaki’s “War for the Motherland” is far and away my favorite large-scale design on the East Front. Not the mugged-up version published by Rampart, mind you, but the excellent treatment that appeared in Six Angles magazines. MMP’s redux of the game, “Red Star Rising”, is a worthy, English-language update of the game.

As the new kid on the East Front, Bombarossa appears clever and interesting. I like that it doesn’t hand the German player an 800-pound gorilla – rather, if he wants an 800-pound gorilla, he has to make it himself.

Whether or not it’s a concept that works for the long game I’ll know better after I’ve had more of a chance to, er, monkey around with it.

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