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Posted on Aug 3, 2012 in Electronic Games

Gary Grigsby’s War in the East: Don to the Danube – PC Game Review

By Jim Cobb

Gary Grigsby’s War in the East – Don to the Danube. PC game. Publisher: Matrix/Slitherine. Developer: 2By3 Games. $24.99 boxed; $14.99 download.

Passed Inspection: Great historical detail, understandable graphics, good scope

Failed Basic: Extremely complex, steep learning curve, difficult interface.

Gary Grigsby and his colleagues at 2By3 games design monster games and, in doing the entire Russo-German War, have taken on the most monstrous of projects. Released in 2010, the base War in the East game contains the huge 224-turn 1941–1945 campaign and three large campaigns starting in 1942, 1943 or 1944 and continuing through the end of the war. Also included were a number of smaller “Road to” campaigns that offered quicker games. Most of these games dealt with the northern and central area of operations in 1941 and 1942. The Don to the Danube expansion looks at the south with 10 scenarios running from three to 37 turns. Taking the monster down a notch is a very good idea for this important sector.

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The Traditional Still Works
The unit and map graphics for this game will be familiar to anyone who played board games 50 years ago. The map uses 10-mile hexes and shows roads, railroads, rivers and other terrain very clearly. Mousing over a hex yields a pop-up with more information. Overlays include enemy controlled areas, victory hexes, fortification levels, rail damage and isolated units. The map can be zoomed and easily scrolled. An option provides a graphic showing the composition of a selected unit. The sound effects are fine but not spectacular.

For units, NATO symbols are used, along with values representing attributes such as action points, movement, fatigue and supply. Clicking on blue text brings up screens of the parent unit’s components down to illustrations of men, guns and vehicles. All of these screens are full of data about the unit’s capability and status. Very serious players can pore over these statistics to get the optimum use from them; most gamers will stop at the second level down to make their decisions. Other interesting images include pictures of commanders from army level upwards, with their abilities and win/loss records.

Screens with sheets of data are an important part of the game. Units can have as many as four levels of screens showing factors such as Table of Organization and Equipment, fatigue, experience and supply. Some screens are so long that low resolution and a hidden Windows taskbar are needed to show the bottom. A HQ’s subordinate screen can have many units with 23 values each. Most of this data isn’t necessary for casual gamers but is a treasure trove for historians and those players devoted to the topic.

Peeling the Onion
Although players usually don’t have to worry about production or naval affairs, the expansion still has many details. Functions on the main screen shown in three bars. The top bar is divided into three levels: map, info and administration. All functions are explained by tool tips.

Administration is simply ways to set preferences, options and save games. The map level is where the status of units and terrain can be accessed via the second bar, which changes with levels. Railroad damage and isolated units can be displayed, giving insight into the all-important supply grid. Units can also be combined, broken down or re-assigned here. Local weather conditions and victory hexes can be seen via icons or shortcut keys.

The info level is the one players will visit most often. The second bar for this level contains screens for losses, production, weather zones, air doctrine and other game-wide data. The most important screen here is the Order of Battle (OOB), as the manner in which players choose to conduct the campaign is set here. The first OOB screen shows either STAVKA or OKW headquarters and any army groups or fronts. Each headquarters can examined for units immediately attached to it. Other units can be assigned or formed, if available, at the cost of administrative points. Commanders can be replaced also by spending administrative points.

Each front/army group can be expanded to show their constituent corps or divisions and these entities can be further expanded down to squad level with an incredible amount of game and historical information. How and where units are assigned to headquarters determine how they will support other units in combat. Only a very limited number of support units can be assigned directly to divisions. Three different Soviet divisions or two divisions and a brigade of the same type can be combined to form a powerful corps while two small German units can create a Kampfgruppe. Units can be broken down and their components used to support other friendlies. These levels capture the duties of staff officers at all levels and reflects the different doctrines of both sides but may overcome all but the most hardcore gamers. The 40-page tutorial manual and 382-page manual help, but players should be prepared to do much alt-tabbing back and forth from game to manual before they can be absolutely comfortable. Furthermore, errata are still being posted on the Matrix forum.

Grinding Things Out
The third bar never changes. This area is where players give direct orders to units in the two-week turns. Regular movement, rail movement, naval operations and air recon, ground attacks, airfield attacks and city attacks can be decreed through these icons; air transfer and para-drops aren’t common in this expansion. Movement follows the “left click select; right click destination” protocol with the number of movement points lost shown in each hex. The stacking limit per hex is three units and the initial click selects all, but individual units can easily be unselected. Rail movement works with the same mechanic. Reachable hexes that are still in enemy zones of control are colored gray. Given the high unit density, a function to move more than one stack at a time would have been welcome.

Single hex-to-hex combat is just as simple: select the attacker and right click on the target. Such moves are called “hasty attacks” and have minimum results for attackers with relatively small losses for defenders. “Prepared attacks” have players selecting units with enough action points adjacent to the target with the right click held down. Such attacks minimize attacker losses while maximizing gains. However, “prepared attacks” use more action points, limiting advances after combat.

The first phase of most attacks is air and artillery support from airfields and headquarters. The amount of air power to be used can be set in the air doctrine screen. Supporting air and artillery strikes are shown during the battle as colored lines as are defensive air and artillery support.

Battles are chronicled in a text box showing the number of troops involved and their status. If the delay is set long enough, the fate of each individual unit can be read, assuming players have nothing else to do that week. Combat results are the usual casualties, retreat, rout or surrender, with summary details available in yet another screen. Supply states, determined by distances from railheads, affect combat abilities. Russian partisans are an ever-present problem for German supply. The AI is good but not great. Victory is determined by objective hexes and kill ratios.

The Don to the Danube expansion offers the following scenarios:

  • Battle for Kharkov 1942 (12 May – 22 June 1942 – 6 turns)
  • Operation Sturgeon Catch 1942 (2 June – 3 August 1942 – 9 turns)
  • Case Blue Phase I (28 June – 18 July 1942 – 3 turns)
  • Operation Uranus 1942 (19 November – 30 December 1942 – 6 turns)
  • Operation Kutuzov-Rumyantsev (5 July – 29 August 1943 – 8 turns)
  • Cherkassy Pocket 1944 (24 January – 5 March 1944 – 6 turns)
  • Red Army Resurgent (19 November 1942 – 17 March 1943 – 17 turns)
  • Decision in the Ukraine (24 September 1943 – 4 May 1944 – 32 turns)
  • Retreat from Leningrad (22 June 1944 – 3 January 1945 – 28 turns)
  • Drama on the Danube (20 August 1944 – 5 May 1945 – 37 turns)

These scenarios represent an enjoyable mix of length, period and goals, from a short grab of Voronezh to forcing Hungarian capitulation. Historical tactics work: Germens either attack through a Schwerpunkt or go on an offensive defense, while the Russian trade space for time to build up.

A Concept Too Far?
While no one can fault 2By3’s attention to detail or accuracy, one wonders if they’ve lost sight of what most players want. Even short scenarios have high unit density and require several clicks to make one good move. Is the level of detail necessary or simply chrome? Bugs are still being reported in the base game two years after initial release, perhaps due to complexity. Serious students of the Eastern Front should look at this game but others may be satisfied with a simpler product.

Armchair General Rating: 77%

About the Author
Jim Cobb has been playing board wargames since 1961 and computer wargames since 1982. He has been writing incessantly since 1993 to keep his mind off the drivel he dealt with as a bureaucrat. He has published in Wargamers Monthly, Computer Gaming World, Computer Games Magazine, Computer Games Online, CombatSim, Armchair General, Subsim, Strategyzone Online and Gamesquad.

13 Comments

  1. Agree with your evaluation. Could have been more critical of details and lack of operational simplicity, but there is something to be said for seeing the details. As it is, seems to be the best war game for the Eastern Front.

    Perhaps game developers could see a need for a continuous action game engine in my remarks and see what could be done.

    • Thanks, William. Decisive Campaigns: Case Blue may give WitE a run for its money for 1942. Same intensity, simpler mechanics.

  2. 77% for just a steep learning curve? Jim’s work has been slacking lately. Poorly done review.

    • No, 77 for unnecessary complications, bloating the game with chrome. Try to read the last paragraph. Also,77 is not a bad score. People act like a “B” grade is the ultimate putdown. When I get below 70, then there’s big problems.

      • Not for ACG it’s not.

        ACG shouldn’t be reviewing games below 75.

        With this review, I say try again.

    • So ACG shouldn’t tell its readers about a bad game! What a concept!!!

      • Not sure how you’d know it was less than 75, if you hadn’t reviewed it first.. Interesting concept!

      • Not sure how you’d know it was less than 75

        Firstly, to deal with the comment pedantically – the choice to publish is made *after* the review is created.

        Secondly (and more realistically) , a ‘bad’ game (or at least one that would entertain the reviewer) is usually obvious fairly quickly. Why should the reviewer waste their time reviewing game they dislike? A full review takes time and effort, and publishing a partial review is not fair to the game.

        It’s not as if reviewers get paid enough (if at all) to spend their time playing games they’re not enjoying.

        Personally, I find the “score” is the least relevant part of the review – it’s an attempt to assign a subjective single metric to a multidimensional experience. I know we crave metrics, but realistically a single rating is a sop to our fantasy that reviews are a scientific evaluations rather than what they are – subjective evaluations of the reviewers experience.

        In other words, if you had issue with the text of the review, say what it is. If you don’t like the number at the end, ignore it.

  3. Tom,

    Although I agree with you about the numeric ratings, reviewers should be objective enough to describe even a game they don’t like in as much detail so readers can make up their own minds. I have had more than one reader say that the details in a negative review I wrote prompted him to buy the game.

    • A bit late (back from a business trip), but just to clarify – I though your review *did* provide enough detail to determine whether I would like it or not. It seemed the complaints were about the number, not the actual content of the review.

  4. This is a typical game that tries to sell as “realistic” by adding an overkill of data, to give a very small group of players the impression that they’re the true armchairgenerals.

    I’ve played chess my whole life to know that the best strategy games don’t need overkill to excel, also a game like Go that survived thousands of years is a prime example of that.

    Simplicity in rules, but intelligent in execution, that’s what makes a game excel.

    Just my 2 cents.

    • J. Donner makes several good points. Chrome should be secondary or tertiary to game play. Some devs target very small groups who immerse themselves in a niche. For example, every pilot represented in War in the Pacific has is actual wartime stats in the game. A player who concentrates on the Pacific may appreciate that but not Joe Gamer.

      The simple, elegant War Plan Pacific is a much better representation of that theater.

    • Once you’re looking at sub-niches within sub-niches, I think you’re pushing pretty hard to to claim one style of game “better” over another.

      All-in-all, the only thing that matters is customer satisfaction, and given the diversity of customers desires, I think we’re better to evaluate games on “did they achieve their goals” rather than to try and claim one style of game better than another.

      In the board game world, is “No Retreat” a better game than “Fire in the East”? Depends upon what you want out of a game. Each will make a subset of gamers happy.

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