The German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 is the wargamer’s Mount Everest. The fate of the USSR was on the line in a way it never was before or after. The Germans had the forces and logistical support to take the all three major capitals, Leningrad / St. Petersburg, Moscow, and Kiev. They had an adversary that was numerically and, in many ways, technologically superior. But the Soviets were also disastrously led and unprepared for modern war.
As operational puzzles, Operation Barbarossa and the ensuing battles are irresistible. It’s no surprise, then, that I’ve spent the last week consumed with the final expansion to 2x2 Games’ Eastern Front entry-level wargaming masterpiece, Unity of Command: Black Turn. It’s also no surprise that I find myself reliving the autumn of 1941 again and again, trying to find the solutions that eluded Hitler’s generals and which continue to elude me. This is an expansion that demands near-perfection even as it attains it.
Here’s what makes the invasion of Russia such a good subject for a solitaire wargame: it’s a battle where only the attacker really has significant options. Like in a chess problem, one side consistently has the initiative, and the challenge is in finding the maneuvers which necessarily drive the opposition into checkmate.
The Germans have three major problems to overcome. The first is the Soviet Army, which is more of an obstacle than an adversary. Their armies are employed as physical barriers to German progress, but they cannot maneuver significantly. Until the gates of Moscow, the Soviets’ role is simply to buy time for more troops to reach the front and defense positions prepared around the city.
The second is the Soviet landscape. The ground between eastern Poland and the major Soviet capitals of St. Petersburg, Moscow, and Kiev is divided by dense forests, huge marshlands, large urban areas, and a multitude of major rivers. All of these serve as checks on German progress even when undefended. If the Soviets get dug-in, God help the Wehrmacht.
Finally, there is the simple math of distance over time. By autumn, the Soviet countryside is flooded by rains and slows the blitzkrieg to a crawl. By winter, the Germans are finished. With every day, more Soviet formations reach the front and their capacity to resist increases. Everything the Germans do, they must do at a pace almost unheard of elsewhere in military history.
The best treatment of these themes might be Gary Grigsby’s War in the East, but it is also an attempt to bring almost simulation-fidelity to the topic. It teaches its lessons over a time frame that rivals the length of the actual war (my operation Barbarossa in War in the East ended up moving along in almost real-time).
Unity of Command, however, remains the premier wargame for authentic abstraction. In the space of a twelve-turn, thirty or forty-minute battle, you come to grips with all the salient features of the war. Black Turn continues this tradition, and perhaps even elaborates on it.