Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Gary Grigsby's War in the East: The German-Soviet War 1941-1945 Review

Gary Grigsby's War in the East: The German-Soviet War 1941-1945, developed by 2by3 Games and published by Matrix Games.
The Good: Realistic battle results using many factors, detailed tracking of unit equipment and supply, good selection of large to gigantic scenarios, decent interface makes most information easily accessible, competent AI opponent, online game lobby and play by e-mail, customizable difficulty settings
The Not So Good: Tedious move-everything gameplay will be overwhelming to many, lengthy AI turn resolution if defending, terrible brief tutorial
What say you? This old-school wargame will have great appeal to those who love to manually position hundreds to thousands of units each and every turn: 6/8

For me, the name “Gary Grigsby” means “really scary complex wargame.” My introduction came with Uncommon Valor, which morphed into War in the Pacific, the Admiral's Edition of which was too complex for me to stomach. Additional entries include Steel Panthers, which spawned not one but two remakes, World at War, War Between The States, and Eagle Day to Bombing the Reich. The next entry is Gary Grigsby's War in the East: The German-Soviet War 1941-1945 (a very succinct title), a game I was intimidated by enough to ignore upon release. But, thanks to some inspiration and a poll, I’ve decided to take the leap and see if this tactical simulation of the Eastern Front is worth an $80 asking price.

Gary Grigsby's War in the East: The German-Soviet War 1941-1945 features nice graphics for a 2-D wargame. The game is played in a window at a fixed resolution, or at least I can’t find the option to alter this setting. The map is dotted with different colored tiles that represent varying ground conditions. While this results in the map looking “hexy” (most map elements feature 45o turns), it does look pretty nice when zoomed out. When zoomed in, however, things get less spectacular, especially mountain ranges which look like a hot brown mess. As with most wargames, units are presented as simple square counters, and battle effects are minimal to non-existent. One of the most maligned aspects of most wargames is the interface, and I have to say that War in the East does a good job making pertinent information easy to reach, especially because there is so much of it. Most is accessed from the menu bars along the top of the screen, where you can toggle displaying information on the map like units, forts, supply, factories, and victory points. The information tab lets you retrieve the order of battle, production queues, and weather report. Detailed information on each hex on the map is available by right-clicking: terrain, victory points, and the presence of forts, railroads, or ports. Each unit counter includes the NATO symbol, combat value, and movement points. In addition, the upper right corner indicates if a unit has moves, and the upper left can display experience, supplies, fuel, morale, or support units in living color. Finally the border of the unit counter indicates its headquarters, peer units, and any subordinates. The massive commander’s report contains sortable lists of everything in the game: units, HQs, air groups, leaders, battles, locations, and equipment. Overall, the interface serves War in the East well. As for sound design, things are predictably basic: typical effects for the genre and overly dramatic music I quickly disabled.

Gary Grigsby's War in the East: The German-Soviet War 1941-1945 is an in-depth strategic simulation of the War in the East. You know, the German-Soviet War that took place from 1941 to 1945. As presented by Gary Grigsby (and others). The game features four gigantic campaigns that have over one thousand units per side; as you might expect, completing even a single turn takes quite a long time with that many units to worry about. The game also includes nine “smaller” scenarios that still feature a lot of units: the smallest scenario in terms of turns still had over 300 units per side. Still, it’s nice that War in the East has a variety of scenarios for both the experienced wargamer and the very experienced wargamer. The game also includes an editor, so you can alter existing scenarios or create new ones if you so choose. War in the East also features nice multiplayer options, giving players both play by e-mail and an online lobby where you can send open challenges to any comers who happen to log in (it uses the same login information as Battlefield Academy, I think). Other wargames take note: this is how you grow a community: by having in-game matchmaking. War in the East has a range of customizable difficulty options that determine morale, fortification, building speed, supply, transport, and administration points for both the AI and human players. Additional options include fog of war, locking HQ support, and random weather. Unfortunately, scaling the learning curve for War in the East is difficult, due in large part to the awful print-out-and-read-along tutorial. It says: here's some numbers, here's how you move, here's how you attack, have fun! There are a lot of significant aspects of the game (supply, air units) that are simply ignored, forcing you to read the 377 page manual to figure out what the heck is going on. War in the East doesn’t help the image that wargames are difficult to learn.

The over 1,000 units of War in the East consist of regiments, brigades, divisions, and corps sized units (plus air groups). With the hex size at 10 kilometers, units don’t get too small in scale, which is definitely a good thing considering how many freaking units are present along the Eastern Front. War in the East also includes air groups, which are relegated to a support role and can be automatically integrated into battle plans, where they can bomb or transport units. War in the East features very detailed tracking of equipment and ammunition, down to individual bullets for every soldier across Russia. The game also has a seemingly accurate order of battle; I am certainly not going to argue with its authenticity! Leading your units are leaders, each of which are given a range of ratings to determine their effectiveness; they are automatically promoted or dismissed based on performance, although you can contribute some input to this process. Units have morale, experience, and fatigue, which establish their usefulness on the battlefield. Units must be less than five hexes away from their headquarters unit in order to receive supplies, and the HQ must be able to trace a path to a railroad station or supply city. Units that are poorly supplied will suffer attrition over time, especially if they are located in enemy territory. Administration points earned each turn can be used to modify the command structure or, in the case of the Soviets, buy new units. Factories can produce replacement vehicles, and reinforcements for your infantry can be brought up to the front lines. Finally, support units (artillery, mortars, rockets, et cetera) can be attached to existing units to assist during combat.

Each turn has two phases: a logistics phase where things like weather, withdrawals, air units, and recruitment are calculated, and the action phase where you actually do stuff. Most of your actions in War in the East will consist of either moving or attacking. There are several modes of transport in the game: traditional walking (or driving, in the case of motorized vehicles), rail, naval transport, and amphibious transport. When placing units, it is important to remember that only three units are allowed in each hex at a time, regardless of size (why you can have three corps but not four regiments in the same hex is beyond me). Each unit is granted movement points, clearly displayed on their counter, for traveling around the map. The remaining movement points after traversing to a highlighted hex is also clearly displayed: a nice touch. Attacking comes in two flavors: hasty and deliberate. Hasty attacks are useful against obviously inferior opponents: they don’t use as many movement points, but you can’t call in surrounding units for support. A deliberate attack, performed by holding “shift” while clicking, can incorporate units in adjacent hexes but essentially end the turn for the involved forces due to their high movement cost. How can you tell if you are going to win? The game calculates a combat value, based on many factors like fortifications, terrain, weather, support units, reserve units, morale, fatigue, and leaders, and displays it on each unit. This creates a rough estimate of how favorable certain maneuvers might be.

Playing as Germany or Russia in War in the East offers very different experiences. While Germany has the initially superior army, Russia grows over time, and if you can survive long enough to spawn some reinforcements, the sheer size of Russia will eventually dominate. The clear goals are a quick victory for Germany, and a slowing of the German advance for Russia. The AI, I felt, provided a good challenge appropriate for the audience this particular game appeals to: it will attack intelligently, maneuver towards vulernable areas, and generally behave in a historically accurate manner. The AI turns, though, take a really long time if they are on the attack, even with the message delays disabled. Despite a high level of detail in the game, the size of War in the East will prove to be daunting for most. The German High Command didn’t have to individually control every single unit in the army, so why should I? Personally, I would trade a little less control for a lot less micromanagement, but in War in the East, you are given no such choice.

The best thing about War in the East is the sheer scale of the game, almost perfectly simulating in intense struggle for Russia during World War II. The worst thing about War in the East is the sheer scale of the game: controlling hundreds to over one thousand of units individually each turn is something few will enjoy. I’m all for authenticity, but not at the expense of playability: the game is simply too big. Even when treating a stack of three units as a single entity, you are still moving at least a couple hundred things each turn. I'd would rather issue orders to ten HQ units and have all the subordinates move automatically than have to worry about over 1,000 units every turn. The bare tutorial doesn’t help matters. And that’s too bad, because there's a lot to like about the game. It automatically combines many factors together to produce a combat value, clearly displayed on each unit’s counter, that gives a good estimate of success. You’ll also need to worry about movement points, keeping units in supply by keeping their HQ close, and managing leaders to maximize victory. The AI provides a good challenger that manages their units well, especially when you consider the inherent complexity of the game rules. If you prefer taking on actual humans, War in the East features robust online options: both traditional play by e-mail and an online lobby system are included. War in the East comprehensively covers the Eastern Front, offering four colossal campaigns and nine “smaller” scenarios that are still quite large in scope. The interface also places most information a click away, a fine accomplishment for an intricate game. Still, I simply prefer the more user-friendly (thanks to smart automated subordinate units) Command Ops, especially for $20 less. If you ever wanted a game that simulates the enormous size of World War II, then this is your calling. However, the massive scale of War in the East makes the game generally unapproachable for novice wargamers or those who prefer a more hands-off approach.