Recently, on a random browse through Boardgamegeek, I noticed a pop-up for a company called Victory Point Games. I followed it for a look, and wound up finding the whole thing quite intriguing. It was a company doing small micro-budget games, but they appeared interesting and so, feeling flush for once, I decided to give one a go. I opted for 'The Barbarossa Campaign' because of two reasons: first, it was the Eastern Front in WW2, which is one of the classic wargame settings and typically only ever played out in hugely complicated games. Second,
the game was apaprently a solitaire one, which is a pretty interesting concept.
Basically, you play the role of the invading Axis powers trying to topple the USSR. By capturing cities, encircling Soviet armies and generally displaying good luck, you should be able to win the game before the growing Red Army annihilates you. I've had it arrive in the post, and have had some experimental goes with it, and thought I'd just come straight out and post this: the entire narrative of the Eastern Front from 1941-1945, in a single blog post!
I decided right from the off that the chief aim would be Moscow, basically because most histories of the war tend to criticize the Germans for not doing so. I was curious: were they right?
The first turn unfolded with spectacular advances, as the German spearheads plunged with alarming speed into the heartland of the Soviet Union. Riga, Minsk, Brest-Litovsk, Kiev, Odessa: all of them were swept aside in the initial torrent. A ludicrous total of nine Soviet fronts/armies were bagged in huge encirclements and wiped out, and by the end of summer the bulk of White Russia and the Ukraine were taken. I had expected more of an advance in the north, but spectacular combat results in the south meant that the Luftwaffe-supported Axis plunged deep even on this 'secondary' front. The Red army even held a thin strip of coastline into the Baltic states, for the time being, at least.
German industry seemed to play a blinder in the opening stages of the war, as events like 'Luftwaffe Surge' and 'Panzer Production' handed all sorts of good industrial advantages to the invaders - only the loss of armour superiority (with the appearance of the T-34) spoiled the trend. In Autumn the thrust to Moscow was renewed, taking Smolensk (while encircling two more armies) and pressed the Panzers right up to the outskirts of the city. In the south, the remainder of the Ukraine changed hands with the advance bagging Rostov. The Crimea was also cut off, with Sevastopol having all its fortifications reduced but stubbornly holding out. Soviet counter-attacks fell flat everywhere, being fatally compromised by the shortage of tanks & equipment. This was good stuff for the Germans, but critically their luck just fell short of getting a high enough score to gain another victory point.
Snow! The German line largely stabilised over the winter as blitzkrieg attacks couldn't be carried out in the harsh conditions. More small-scale assaults took place however, with Sevastopol finally succumbing in the south and the offensive progressing on Moscow. Unable to take the city in the snows, the Axis attempted to establish jumping-off points to take the city early the following year and sent Panzers northeast to try and increase pressure on the capital. This resulted in disaster however, when the winter began and a massive Soviet counter-attack erupted in the faces of the ill-prepared Germans. The Pz spearheads collapsed and were driven back in with heavy losses against the new Soviet shock-armies that emerged. A full five hexes had to be given up in front of Moscow before the line stabilised, which was a high price to pay for neglecting to dig in with prepared 'hedgehog' positions.
Things were also bad up in the far north, as the
Finns agreed to commit fully to warfare against the Soviets. They advanced, over-extended, and then suffered a spectacular collapse back to their starting borders as Soviet troops broke through. No gains right now, although at least Finnish commitment did threaten Leningrad's ability to resist in the following year.
With the first year over, the springtime mud forced a pause on both sides. The industrial advantage of good production in the early days had to be spent on replacing the winter losses, rather than building up the Panzer force in the east. Where, once the mud cleared, were the Germans to go now? Clearly Moscow was in the sights, but the other critical city of Leningrad was also exposed, while Stalingrad could be reached before long. It was entirely plausible that all three cities could be taken in 1942, triggering an all-out Soviet collapse.
Generally sluggish advances saw Moscow and Voronezh approached, while in the north Talinn and Leningrad were cut off. Soviet counter-attacks quickly re-opened a route to Leningrad however, and a similar offensive at Voronezh pushed the Axis away. The mud badly hampered moves this round, preventing any large encirclements. An attempt to close a pocket around Kharkov proved too ambitious. The city had to be taken by direct assault with the salient falling in like a collapsing bag, as opposed to an encirclement. A disappointing start to the year.
The Soviets make the last of the spring with orders given to fortify Stalingrad, and the beginnings of a partisan war behind enemy lines. However, with the return of good weather, the German offensive resumes with new vigour. The southern front races eastwards, another Soviet pocket is encircled, and Army Group Centre manages to storm both Moscow and Voronezh! The Soviet capital has fallen! Soviet counter-attacks quickly regain Voronezh, but Moscow remains in the Axis grip. With this boost, the fate of Leningrad (almost cut off) and Stalingrad, both of which now have German corps closing in on them, hangs in the balance.
The loss of Moscow is also combined with the 'STAVKA Turmoil' random event, essentially leaving the USSR leaderless while Stalin's regime relocates eastwards. German advances in the south are minor, but Voronezh is retaken and the front pushes all the way to the Volga river East of Moscow. In the north, the rugged terrain still prevents the Leningrad corridor from being closed.
Yet another grim winter descends. German infantry dig in with defensive hedge-hogs to protect Moscow, and the jump-off points before Stalingrad. The Soviet leadership stabilises and oversees a Production Surge, and the economic scales tip ever more heavily in the USSR's favour. The line in front of Moscow holds steady, but the defences in the south before Stalingrad collapse in the face of counter-attacks. The Axis units East of the Don have to rapidly retreat to the river-line to stabilise the front. The initiative record is still held by the Axis, but just barely. Unless further success follows, it will become contested, and Soviet actions will gather pace.
The Soviets fortify a Guards Tank Army east of Voronezh, seeking to stabilise their centre. The Germans attack and destroy it in a local encirclement, but only with great difficulty. In the north the Leningrad corridor finally collapses and encircles the city, plus the city of Vologda changed hands twice in fierce fighting. In the south however, an advance over the Don was pushed back yet again - the Soviet army is now fielding ever more Guards and Tank Armies, making it a tougher proposition. Now the mud has gone, the initiative is still tenuously Axis - how much more can they do, as 1943 is clearly going to be the year the Soviets either break or prevail?
News from the West, as Italy surrenders and their 8th Army withdraws from the Eastern front. To replace this loss however, the Germans get an SS Army to send to the front - more than adequate compensation! As Soviet Industry reaches it's maximum potential, the Germans strike out to encircle Stalingrad with offensives to the north and south of it. Panzers even penetrate East of the city, over the Volga, before the inevitable counter-attacks push them back. Advances in the south even probe to the edges of the Caucasus Mountains. Assaults are launched on both Leningrad and Stalingrad, but each holds out. Axis losses in Armour are painfully high at the fortified Stalingrad, but the city just can't be taken. The city is saved from encirclement and now merely sits at the tip of a salient. The SS are sent to the front and arrive in the North, the aim being to cut Archangel supplies from reaching the USSR, as this is the one part of the Soviet industrial build-up to be lagging behind. At the end of it all, initiative becomes contested - now the Soviets can actually launch offensives of their own creation!
Salvation seems to arrive for Germany! The special event 'Axis counter-offensive' is drawn, meaning a boost to initiative if a Soviet city can be taken this turn. It comes when the Panzers that survived the inferno at Stalingrad strike eastwards and reach across the Steppes to take Astrakhan, thus cutting the link between the Caucasus and the main Soviet front-line. The cities of Leningrad and Stalingrad continue to hold out, but the narrow strip of ground held to Astrakhan is too brittle to hodl out - Soviet counter-attacks slice through it, cutting off a large pocket of German Panzers and Infantry. The Soviets also attack the Axis main line in the south, forcing them back to the Don river line. All of which means that the initiative tips precariously back into Axis territory - but at what a cost in lost Panzers!
Soviet Armour technical levels reach the maximum, meaning that the counter-attacks will be even more dangerous from now on. The axis have the initiative again, but what to do with it in the dead of winter, and with the Panzer formations ruined? With all the losses of the south, the SS Corps is the only special unit that the Germans can field in the East as a good offensive unit! The winter counter-attacks hit hard, with Vologda lost and Voronezh approached, but there is one belated piece of good news - Leningrad finally falls. Too late in the day however, as the initiative becomes contested yet again, and only just fails to become outrightly Soviet. Unless German industry somehow manages to pull some Panzer production out of the hat, things look bad.
Increasing partisan activity, Soviet initiative, counter-attacks - the list of problems grows alarmingly! The SS and the Luftwaffe counterattack the Soviet bridge-head over the Don, but the line swiftly gets puched westwards. Voronezh falls, and the line closes in once more on Moscow, creating an alarming Salient around the captured capital. Even the approaches to Leningrad seem risky. Initiative plunges ever-deeper into Soviet hands. For god's sake, get Albert Speer to sort out armaments, fast!
Moscow is fortified with hedge-hogs to try and hold it, but the sheer scale of the crisis quickly becomes clear. Rostov is lost, the Crimea is lost (cutting off Rumanians in the Kuban bridge-head,) and then the great disaster - fortified Moscow is lost! Hot on the heels of this, the Soviets launch themselves westwards both north and south. Smolensk is lost, Kharvov falls, and Sevastopol vanishes also. The front-line now sits on the Dniepr river in the south, up to Leningrad in the north. Initiative drops yet further into 'Axis Collapse' territory - now the Soviet advances will be even more spectacular.
The list of cities lost to the Red army continues to grow. Leningrad, Kiev, Tallinn... Things are very nearly back to pre-war borders, and Germany itself is in danger.
Riga and Minsk are fortified, to no use - Odessa falls, leading to a Soviet plunge into Rumania which loses Bucharest and the Ploesti oil wells (not such a loss, as there's no large Panzer formations to need the oil!) Brest-litovsk falls too, and we're back on the German frontier - minus Romania of course, who collapse with the occupation of their country.
Can Berlin hold out? The fallen include Warsaw, Budapest, Konigsberg, Belgrade, Prague, Vienna... It's like an A-Z of Axis cities! Hungary is destroyed, Yugoslavia is now a battleground.
It is over. The long retreat has finished, and the Axis war-machine collapses into defeat at Berlin. A clean sweep of the board, despite larger-than-historical advances. I don't think I handled the retreat very well, but as I had burned up all my Armour in an all-or-nothing advance, there was pretty much nothing I could do to even slow the incoming tide. The Capture of Moscow probably gave me an extra years' grace, making 1943 the turning point rather than the historical 1942. Those objective cities really are tough nuts to crack, even when not fortified! Overall, the game was excellent fun - and although I 'lost' against the solitaire mechanism (it came out as a 'Minor Soviet Victory' I can't help but feel happy that the Nazis lost. :-)