Eastern Front (1941)
Edward P. McMahon
Eastern Front (1941) by Chris Crawford of the Atari Staff is a paradigm for computer war games. Not a shoot-em-up type arcade game, it is a corps-level historical simulation. The subject of this excellent simulation is the first 41 weeks of Operation Bar-barossa, Hitler's massive attack on Russia which began on June 22, 1941.
Eastern Front has many features of a well-done historical simulation wargame: simultaneous movement of both players, supply rules, reinforcements and resupply effects, and effects of terrain. There is some time pressure also, which is not usually found in simulation wargames of the board-and-counter variety. The computer (a worthy opponent playing the Russian side) thinks out its move during the vertical blank periods when you are planning your moves. The more time you take, the better will be the computer's move. More on this later.
The game starts immediately after booting in (it is an AUTORUN.SYS file on the disk version), but first-time players don't immediately respond. They are entranced by the graphics presentation. The playfield is 2⅓ screens horizontally and 4⅓ in the vertical dimension and is filled with excellent redefined character sets — mountains, rivers, forests, marshes, cities and coastal areas. As you move your hollow square cursor to any edge of the screen window, the map smoothly fine-scrolls to display the correct part of the playfield. The attention to detail is admirable. The trees in the forest areas are different sizes; the rivers and coasts are displayed to the highest possible resolution. The colors have been carefully chosen — I have not noticed any "bleeding" between adjacent colors — and dramatically indicate the change of seasons. The autumn season begins on October 5, 1941, when the green land changes to a purple-brown mud color. (Remember that date. If you haven't captured your objectives, destroyed most of the original Red forces, and established a strong defensive position by then, you are in trouble.) The ground changes again to white in winter, and the rivers and marshes freeze (blue to white) from north to south as the weeks progress. The process reverses in the spring. Another very nice detail.
A few words on the history (History of the Second World War, Sir Basil Liddell Hart (ed), Marshall Cavendish USA, Ltd., 1973-1974). Hitler began open plans to invade Russia with discussions in June, 1940. A late spring offensive was planned, and the first strategy (by Maj. Gen. Marcks) was two thrusts — the largest to Moscow through Smolensk, the second to Kiev. These would join in a pincer movement, trapping most of the Red Army. General Halder and the German High Command modified the Marcks plan by weakening the Kiev thrust to strengthen the push to Moscow, and added a third line of attack to Leningrad. Three Army Groups were defined: Army Group North (von Leeb), Army Group Center (von Beck), and Army Group South (von Rundstedt). Von Kleist's I Panzergruppe and Guderain's II Panzergruppe were aimed north and south of the Pripet marshes respectively. The General Staff and probably Army Group leaders played out major war games in late 1940, taking both sides of the campaign. But early in December, Hitler made what the German Army War Diary calls "a substantial alteration." Leningrad became the principal military target and Moscow was to be taken afterward.
The aim was still rapid advance and encirclement to prevent the Red Army from escaping into the interior, and the destruction of Russia's industrial power in the Ukraine, in Leningrad, and in Moscow. But Hitler's modification had the Army Group Center waiting until Army Group North achieved its more difficult, more distant objective before going on to Moscow. The High Command did not argue successfully with Hitler, and the directive for Operation Barbarossa was signed on December 18, 1940.
On June 22, the longest day, the largest invasion in the world began against an army which had suffered Stalin's 1937-1939 purges: three of five Marshals, 13 of 15 Army Commanders, 57 of 85 Corps Commanders and more had been shot or disappeared without a trace. The German attacks were devastating in the North and Center (Smolensk fell on July 15, but Kiev held out as a pocket of resistance until late September). Nearly two-thirds of the Red Army's strength at the outbreak of the war was destroyed. The Germans occupied Russia up to a line from Leningrad to the Crimea. Estimated losses by the end of 1941 for the Red Army were 5–7 million killed or wounded, 3–5 million P.O.W., 21,000 tanks and 33,000 guns destroyed. Russia fought back with extraordinary national effort, calling on all its resources and extensive Allied help. The Germans achieved some additional victories, but the Blitzkrieg was blunted by the vastness of Russia, the mud and the cold.
Your only hope of winning the simulation is to follow the suggestions of the author, Chris Crawford, in the excellent user's manual which comes with the game: break through and use the mobility of the armored units to encircle the Russian corps from behind, and concentrate forces by pushing your infantry as fast as possible to attack and eliminate pockets of enemy units. These are the classical Blitzkrieg tactics. But, before the autumn mud stops your panzers, form a defensive line using terrain (rivers and cities) to your advantage. Fall back in order during the winter counterattacks.
The game is well documented, but the mathematical rules of combat and supply are not given. The user interface is well designed, so the game is almost entirely playable from the joystick alone (three keys are needed: START, OPTION, and SPACE BAR). The only feature which I find seriously lacking is the ability to save a game and restart it. The game takes two or three hours to play (more, if you want to keep a record of what you are doing) and I find it difficult to come up with an uninterrupted block of time like that. Moreover, I can't study different moves for a given situation, but perhaps that's good. The unknowns can't be resolved, so the game keeps my interest. There is randomness in the combat and supply rules (a good feature) so a tactic which works today may not work tomorrow. Another reason why replaying a tactic may not give meaningful results was mentioned earlier: the computer works on its move while you are entering yours. The computer selects a move for each of its units and, as time is available, iteratively improves each move. This is the feature of the game in which Crawford takes the most pride.
Crawford states that he uses only 75% of the Atari's graphics capabilities. He should know. He is one of Atari's most creative staff members, and certainly understands the machine. The way he uses that 75% makes Eastern Front (1941) a show-piece and a challenge to other program designers. (If he ever uses 100%, I think I'll sit and stare for a week or so.)
I am still experimenting with small, local tactics, as hopeless as that may be. If I ever get to March '42 again (before 2 a.m.). perhaps a late winter thrust to push some muster points farther west will add some victory points. Hmmm...