Blocks in the East – Boardgame Review
Blocks in the East: The Russian Campaign, 1941-45. Boardgame review. Publisher, VentoNuovo Games. Designer, Emanuele Santrandrea. Standard game, 79.00 Euros (approximately $105.00 US); collector’s edition, 500 Euros ((approximately $660.00 US)
Passed Inspection: Covers the entire Eastern Front in multiple scenarios and a campaign while allowing players to experience the game in various levels of complexity. The map is beautifully rendered along with colorful tile facings to recognize army and national units. Gives the player the realism of experiencing the challenges for the Soviets early in the war as well as for the Germans later in the war.
Failed Inspection: Map can be difficult to read, as text and colors blend. Reference sheets are printed on the map, which sometimes makes them difficult to use.
Blocks in the East (BITE) is a wargame from Italian game publisher VentoNuovo covering the entire Eastern Front war from 1941 to 1945. Emanuela Santrandrea’s design uses the cube system for a Stratego-type fog of war on a beautifully drawn (albeit sometimes less than functional) 125x87cm map. The “blocks” in the title conceal the nature of a unit until it is revealed in combat.
Upon opening the box, one cannot help but marvel at the number of cubes that are included in the game—roughly 600 cubes for the German, Soviet and minor nations that participated in the conflict: black for the Germans and their supporting nations; red, representing the Soviet Union and its supporting nations; and a few green cubes for the Italians. A sheet of stickers designating corps, aircraft, etc., has to be pasted onto one side of the blocks before playing the first game.
Other, smaller cubes of various colors represent production points, and there are small, plastic models of factories that players can set up for the eventual use of production points—which prove to be vital in longer scenarios when you need to repair units.
Most wargamers are used to straightforward and sometimes stale wargame maps, but the map in BITE offers a refreshing and colorful interpretation of terrain on the Eastern Front, overlaid on a hex grid.
The BITE rulebook provides a straightforward explanation of the mechanics of the game, the sequence of play and advanced and optional rules for additional “realism,” all in about 20 pages. While there are a number of unique rules for units and particular situations, BITE’s mechanics are aimed at keeping combat simple and providing immediate results.
One turn sequence is one month in game time and consists of 10 steps.
There is almost limitless movement range on railroads, depending on the number of production points available to the player, followed by a limited distance movement for units. Units that enter an enemy-controlled hex initiate a five-step combat sequence involving infantry and armored units with supporting air and artillery. This is the meat of the game, the point in which units in the combat hex are revealed and players mutter invectives because they guessed wrong about the strength of the opposing force. Did you commit all of your armored units to a fight only to find that he led you into a trap? There is definitely a lot of bluffing and opportunities for moving decoys on the map.
During combat, players roll a number of dice equal to the current strength level (step level) of their units and inflict damage based on that side’s current technology level, e.g., lower levels may only hit on a 6. Opposing units go through a series of sequences of combat until one round is complete, after which the defender may decide to hang in for another round of (brutal) fighting or retreat to regroup and prepare another defensive line. Likewise, the attacker can decide to back out of the defender’s hex if he finds the first round of attack was just too costly.
The turn sequence continues with an opportunity to attack retreating units, as well as the chance to move armored units at the end of your turn. This is especially helpful for the Germans in the earlier timeline of scenarios, when gaining ground to vital locations is key to winning. Sometimes what matters is not how well you fight in a particular battle but how well you maneuvered your units into a beneficial position. Terrain such as forests and swamps can benefit defenders but can also slow your retreat to key locations.
One of the great features in BITE is that you have the option for three levels of play with any of the eight scenarios and the single campaign. The game comes with Basic Rules to help players learn the core concepts of the game. Advanced Rules introduce fuel usage and advanced production. Optional Rules include technology research, strategic warfare with particular units, and special attacks. It can be difficult to introduce even the seasoned wargamer to the rules of some wargames, but BITE offers an easy method of introducing wargaming to even the casual gamer without taking away from the level of realism.
I called up a couple of good friends of mine to play BITE in an evening. We chose the first scenario, “Road to Leningrad,” a four-turn scenario in which the Germans and Finns march toward Leningrad. The Germans in this scenario start off with a strong force but only have four months (four turns) to capture or cut off Leningrad. This challenges the Germans to fight time in addition to the Soviets, and challenges Soviets to set up the best line or lines of defense against the coming onslaught.
Players set up their cubes on the reference sheets, which are printed on the map. While I thought this was convenient at first, it became frustrating as players started crowding around the map to place their setup units. Also, during gameplay it was awkward to have to tilt your head or swing around the table to read the charts. This would have been a lot more convenient to read on separately printed sheets. Another challenge we faced was that we had a hard time placing units at either specific locations or regions. The map, while beautifully printed, does not have clear markings of setup regions for units. This became increasingly frustrating when text and markings blended in with the colors of the map. It may have been helpful to use numbered hexes to speed up the setup of units.
Gameplay with the Basic Rules went remarkably smoothly, requiring little reference to the rulebook.
In the “Road to Leningrad” scenario, the Germans must reach their objective within four turns. While units have limited movement during the movement phase, they are able to take advantage of the “strategic rail movement,” i.e., units use a limited supply of production points to move almost anywhere on the map. In this scenario, the Germans are supplied with five production points that can be used towards this type of move every turn, while the Soviets are given 10 per turn. The German player must carefully consider which units will use this special movement while the rest of his units march towards the front. I learned this lesson by the third turn when I realized it would be almost impossible for my German troops to reach within 50km (1 hex) of Leningrad’s doorstep. My Finnish ally managed to attack and push as far as the rules would allow him, but I just did not use the production points and movement as well as I could have, despite winning nearly every combat against the Soviet player. The fog of war of not being able to see your opponent’s units changes the dynamics of your movements and attacks as opposed to a non–fog of war game.
BITE has a nice mixture of light wargaming through the use of Basic Rules, but still offers the immersion of commanding on the Eastern Front with a well-researched order of battle and advanced rules. Each of the scenarios offers a variety of excitement and challenges as the fog-of-war battle line dynamically changes from turn to turn. Having up to four levels of strength for units offers longevity for those units as you either try to push your Germans to the breaking point or make a desperate defensive stand as the Soviets. Some battles along the front become nail biters, especially when you commit a well-organized group of units into an enemy hex only to find out their defensive units are just as committed to halt your plans. This is a good wargaming session with any group as it won’t take you long to learn the rules and enjoy the fun.
Armchair General rating: 88%
Solitaire Rating (1 is low, 5 is high): 3
(Editor’s note: After this review appeared, we received the following information from VentoNuovo: Our Blocks in the West release, scheduled this autumn, http://boardgamegeek.com/thread/987702/blocks-in-the-west-announcement, will have some improvements in rules manual (incoming 2.99 version), graphic, components (setup sheet to speed up the set up), smaller and shorter scenarios for beginners. It could be linked to Blocks in the East to provide an amazing experience to those wargamers who want to play the whole European Campaign.)
About the Author
Ed William is completing his Masters in Library and Information Science degree, while currently working in public libraries. This allows him access to databases of historical content while reviewing boardgames, specifically wargames. He took an interest in military history and wargaming as a teenager after discovering that one of his hometown heroes is General George S. Patton. Ed is the author of an article that explains how to convert interactive games in Armchair General magazine to PC scenarios using the Combat Mission series.