Prelude to War [1]

– Chris Buhl, does an amazing pictorial write up here of Blocks in the East. Lets follow along in this multi part journey through the East front.

Blocks in the East is a (you guessed it) block game depicting the Eastern Front of WWII from June 1941 to the conclusion of the war (historically, spring of 1945). I have come to love this game, and since there’s no vassal module I have it set up on my dining room table. {My wife asked “How long is this going to be here?” I said simply, “It was a long war.” She’s terribly busy studying to be an EMT, so she can cope for a few months). I hope to play out the Dortmund Campaign, solo, using all of the game’s optional rules. Along the way, I’ll create what I hope will be a combination AAR / review of the game. I’ll outline my thinking (such as it is) as commander for both sides, illustrate some game mechanics, and post photos. This is my third try at the campaign, and I hope I’ve worked out all of the rules problems I had earlier. When I’m writing in regular text, I’ll be talking about the game from a gamers’ point of view. Italics will be historical flavor, as well as I can create it.

The opposing forces arrayed for battle, June 1941


Prelude to War

Germany initially has 3 powerful Army Groups – Army Group North, Army Group Center, and Army Group South. Stationed in Romania there are other German forces, but they and their Romanian and Hungarian allies are not yet prepared for war. In the North, the Finns seek vengeance, and their forces are battle hardened and eager to fight, but they are also not quite ready to strike. The mighty German war machine need not, indeed cannot, wait for stragglers. Unrivaled in quality of equipment, training and tactical doctrine, the Wehrmacht has yet to face a serious challenge. It stands ready to strike a swift, devastating blow to the communist enemies to their east.

The Germans want to use their huge advantages in firepower, technology, maneuverability and above all, surprise, to destroy many Soviet troops in the first month of fighting. If they plan correctly and execute well, most Soviet casualties will be surrendering units, hopelessly cut off behind enemy lines.

The Soviets are in a terribly difficult situation. Unwilling to provoke war, Stalin has ordered his troops into a state of near paralysis. When the hour strikes, his forces will be hopelessly outmatched and desperately unprepared.

The Soviets are required to set up with all border hexes manned. This leaves them few chances to defend in depth. Soviet fighters and bombers are grounded by rule on turn 1, and their troops are not allowed to fire at German airplanes. Bonuses normally allowed for defending in certain terrain, such as across river, are not applied to Soviet troops on turn 1. Negative consequences, such as attacking into forest or city terrain, or across rivers, are not applied to German troops. German aircraft roll DOUBLE DICE (more on that later), while having (along with German artillery) a bonus to hit. In short, the Russians are going to be massacred in June, 1941. But as a man in Pittsfield, Massachusetts will one day tell his wife, it’s a long war. If the Russians can hold on for 18 months or so, the Red Army will be a fearsome beast.

The Armies

Here are snapshots of each sides’ setup charts, so you can get a sense of the kinds of units that start on the map. I’m going to assume if you’re reading this that you recognize the NATO symbols for armor, mechanized infantry (called tankettes in this game), infantry, artillery and cavalry. Bombers are twin engined, or a little bigger than fighters. There are also headquarters of various types – armor (black/red) and air (always blue) for both sides, a single naval HQ (white) for the Soviets, although no naval vessels in this game) and a Supreme HQ for Germany, Russia, Finland, Romania and Hungary (pictures of their leaders, except for Germany).

As usual, fighters fight other planes, bomber attack ground units or make strategic strikes. Armor units are more powerful than infantry, but cost resources to operate. Infantry make frontal assaults at fortified targets and bleed until the target is eliminated, madly rush in to fill gaps in the line or act as speed bumps, and generally die in great number in BitE, as on the Eastern Front. Also in BitE, however, infantry can serve as exploitation units. As with movement rates explained below, this at first seemed strange to me, but in fact works nicely and is one of my favorite parts of the game. Some units are elite, there are mountain infantry, etc.; we’ll get to that as they come into play.

In BitE, unit abilities are also linked to their nations’ technology level in various categories (armor, infantry, fighters, bombers). As tech levels increase, units become more powerful and to some extent move farther. An interesting aspect of BitE is that infantry and armor units move the same number of hexes when at the same tech level. That seemed strange to me at first but it works nicely. German units start at Tech 2, and the reflects their superior technology at the war’s outset, along with their war tested tactical doctrine, general sense of elan, and probably what I see (and share in) as an overall war gamers’ obsession / love fest with all things that were German military in the Second World War. They did have some pretty cool tanks.

As will all block games that I’m aware of, units fire the number of dice that they have steps. Stronger units hit on lower numbers, and the closer to full strength a unit is the more chances to hit it has. BitE has some conventions about step losses that are unique in my (admittedly limited) experience with block games. A full strength unit might have a “5,” or even a “7” as its firepower, instead of the traditional 4. It may descend in strength unevenly, such as 7-5-3-1, as opposed to the more common 4-3-2-1. A unit that has a gap of 2 between steps takes two hits to reduce, and fires at full strength until reduced. Yet another aspect of BitE that I enjoy.

BATTLE PLANS

Along the front, soldiers did what they have always done before battle – they waited. Some tried to sleep, or to eat. Even though they’d already done so, some wrote letters (they hoped not final letters) home. Even on the Soviet side of the line, many prayed. Their time for action would come in due course. Now, it was the officers and quartermasters and meteorologists and scouts and intelligence officers who were frantically busy. Each Army Group had its orders. Attack plans were made, air reconnaissance missions prepared, supplies moved up to forward depots.

Army Group North was tasked with taking and holding Leningrad, denying the enemy access to precious armor production and manpower.

Army Group South would drive hard, penetrating deeply into the Ukraine. Their task would be two fold. First, they would provide a shield between Army Group Center’s operations and reinforcements coming from southern Russia. They would also act as an anvil for Germany’s forces in Romania and her allies to hammer the Russian troops guarding Odessa and Sevastopol.

Army Group Center, the strongest AG, would split into two sub-groups. It’s northern force, led by 3rd Panzer Group, would push east along the northern edge of the Pripet Marshes, helping AGN encircle Russia’s first line of troops, and pushing forward for a drive on Moscow. The drive toward Moscow would relieve some pressure on AGN, and also force the Soviets to divide precious resources between the defense of their capital and the defense of Kharkov, and the Soviet heartland. The southern force, 2nd Panzergroup, would drive east along the southern edge of the Pripet. Not needing to focus on encirclement, this element’s mission was one requiring audacity and speed, as it would drive to Kharkov, capturing vital production and resource centers.

I saw the above, very cool, youtube video about issuing and using orders in war games, so I’m going to try to utilize that concept in this fight. After two previous first turns, I hope I’ve come up with a sound plan for the Germans to create a fast breakthrough, which is imperative for them to have any hope of success. My plan for the Soviets is to hold on for dear life until a plan can be formed. Well, in some areas of the front line I have tried to set some feeble traps for the Germans, mainly hoping to bleed a few more armored steps than Germany would like to lose. I don’t think there’s much else the Red Army can do, until at least the first winter has passed.

This would be a good time to talk about the sequence of play, particularly the movement and combat phases phases, as well as one of the optional rules.

7.0 SEQUENCE OF PLAY
7.1 Strategic Warfare Phase
7.2 Supply Phase
7.3 Production Phase
7.4 Strategic Rail Movement Phase
7.5 Movement Phase
7.6 Defender Reaction Phase
7.7 Combat Phase

7.7.1 Air-to-Air Combat Step
7.7.2 Anti-Aircraft Fire Step
7.7.3 Air-to-Ground Combat Step
7.7.4 Artillery Fire Step
7.7.5 Ground Combat Step
7.8 Blitz Phase
7.9 Final Supply Status Phase
7.10 Armor Exploitation Phase
7.11 Victory Phase

That is a pretty standard sequence of movement and combat, I think. Units move, then they fight. As in many WWII games, armored units have the chance to blitz after a successful combat. Something I find a bit unique is that in BitE, there is both a blitz phase and an armored exploitation phase. To understand the way those phases interact, you have to understand how BitE uses headquarters (HQ) units.

Each side has armor HQ’s and air HQ’s. In order to use either type of unit at maximum efficiency, or to enter combat at all, a same type HQ must be activated. An HQ can have 1, 2, 3 or 4 steps. If activated when at 4 steps, it can activate up to 4 units. A unit can move at half MP without being activated, but can never enter combat.

So armor units must be activated to fight. Once activated, they can move and fight. If they remain in the original battle hex after combat (if they win), they can then blitz and don’t need a separate activation to do so. Blitzing in BitE means they can spend 1 MP. That means that they can move into any adjacent clear terrain hex. If enemy units are present, then blitz combat happens. After one round of blitz, HQ’s that activated units are deactivated and reduced a step, supply is checked and then armor can conduct exploitation movement. In this phase each armor unit that moves must be activated again. So an HQ, either one that already activated units or one that didn’t, can again activate as many armored units as it has steps. In this phase, armored units move normally except that they cannot enter an enemy hex. So it’s this phase that allows armor to run around behind enemy units and cut them off from supply, or get set for a specific attack or defense next turn.

The optional rule I talked about is Reserve Mode. It allows either armor or infantry units to be placed in reserve, if those units have Tech 2 or higher (more on that later). In the armored exploitation phase, HQ activations can place armored units in reserve mode, and they don’t move now but are able to move into battle hexes during the other side’s turn, to reinforce those battles. In the movement phase, infantry units can be placed in reserve mode. They don’t move until the armored exploitation phase, at which point they can move. The idea, I think, is to keep infantry in reserve, near the front lines. After winning some combats, those infantry units can blast through those holes in the enemy lines, either creating OOS situations or catching up to the armored units that have blitzed to reinforce them on defense. My initial plan for the Germans is to make judicious use of reserve mode in an attempt to place massive numbers of Soviet units out of supply, thus eliminating them without risking losses to German units, and gathering some nice resources for the production phase.

Within each AG, I’ve created what I call Detachments, Exploitation Groups and Infantry Assualt Groups. Detachments are combined arms outfits, usually 2 armor and an artillery unit, or 1 armor, 1 infantry and 1 artillery. They are tasked with blasting holes in the enemy lines, allowing blitzing armor and follow on forces to pour through and encircle the enemy. Exploitation Groups are infantry units, initially placed on the front line. They will hold in place while detachments move through them into combat, waiting to move through those cleared battle hexes. There is some risk there, if the detachment wants to retreat, it will not be able to do that without over-stacking. On the first turn, though, there are so many advantages for the Germans that it’s almost impossible for the Russians to through them out of a battle hex. Infantry assault groups are used to make attacks on key locations when I don’t want to, o can’t afford to, activate armor for those attacks.

Here are the breakdowns for each AG, followed by a photo that has each unit marked.

AGN: 2 detachments with 1 armor, 1 infantry and 1 artillery unit; 1 exploitation group of two infantry units. Note that will cost 4 HQ activations. There are two other armor units in AGN, those will be able to move half speed in movement, not fight, but move again during exploitation for additional activations.

I hope the key makes sense. It’s all color coded and using fancy symbols and everything! So first detachment will attack due east, and make a blitz move NE. 2nd Detachment will attack the enemy units east of the exploitation element, moving through them, and then blitz one NE, destroying 4 enemy units. You’ll note from the OOB picture I have the planes of AGN marked D2. Because the second detachment is facing what looks like a stronger enemy force, they will get air support. In the blitz phase, any artillery and air units that are part of the initial combat may follow blitzing armor and participate in the blitz combat. The exploitation group and some or all of AGNs armor will then move to surround the Russians. If the plan works, any surviving Russian units shown in this photo will begin the next turn OOS, and likely surrender at the end of their turn.

AGS: 1 detachment with 2 armor and 1 artillery unit; 1 infantry assault group with 2 infantry and an artillery, 2 exploitation groups, one with 2 infantry and 1 with 2 armor.

Lvov is a major city, and it’s got 4 blocks stationed there. Capturing it early will be nice, as Germany will be able to get some production from it eventually. Normally attacking a major city causes the attacker to roll ½ dice, and grants the defender a hit bonus, so attacking their with armor is usually wasteful. Even though those conditions aren’t in place for the first turn, AGS is going to send a very powerful infantry formation to take Lvov, and hold it on the off chance the Soviets try to recapture it immediately. The first detachment will attack NW of Lvov. If some miracle happens for the Soviets and the Germans aren’t able to take Lvov, 1st detachment can blitz there and finish the job. That won’t happen though. The exploitation elements will then east. The terrain AGS is attacking into is a bit difficult to blitz through, marshes slow movement down a good deal. AGS will try to create a small encirclement this turn, but really they’re setting themselves up for the next turn, when they’ll wheel some units south and try to trap large numbers of Russians in the Ukraine area.

AGC: AGC is the strongest army group. It has 2 armor HQ’s, 8 armor and 4 air units, and lost of infantry. It will get the two jobs, and neither of them may be easy. I’m not confident that this is a good way to use AGC, but I want to try it out. This force is also faced with the difficulty of maneuvering around the Pripet marshes. AGC will have a northern (3rd Panzergroup) and a southern (2nd Panzergroup) element. 3rd PzG will head for Moscow, 2nd PzG for Kharkov. In the next picture, ignore the planned movements for the southern element of AGS, I re-worked those plans and that photo will follow.

A detachment consisting of 2 armor and one arty unit will attack where indicated, and then blitz NE. Two exploitation elements, one consisting of two infantry and the other of two armor units, will drive east along the northern edges of the Pripet Marshes.

2nd PzG will send one detachment of 2 armor and one artillery unit on an easy attack and then blitz NE, also moving NE during exploitation. An infantry assault element with 2 infantry and one artillery will make another easy attack. The exploitation element consisting of infantry will move into the Marshes. That’s not a great place to be stationed, but if this plan works as expected, nearly all of the Russian units in this photo will be placed OOS and, again, likely have to surrender.

So below is a picture showing, roughly, the German army’s planned axes of advance and the expected locations of their most forward elements when June of 1941 comes to an end.

If this works, large numbers of Russian units (yellow boxes) will be hopelessly surrounded. In BitE, units that start their turn OOS and cannot be back in supply by the end of the turn surrender unless they’re in a fortress or a port. So in July the Wehrmacht should find its Army Groups free to move decisively toward their initial objectives.

That’s the plan, and that’s about it for this unexpectedly long post. Thanks for reading all the way to the end if you did. I’d love to get any kind of feedback, suggestions or comments about any of these plans. Future posts won’t have nearly as much detail, but I’ll try to highlight relevant game mechanics and rules as I move through Blocks in the East.

Private Shultz was as tired as he’d ever been. A runner for Field Marshall von Lieb, he had been without sleep for longer than he remembered. This was not how he’d liked to have spent his 21st birthday. He would have liked to sleep late on June 22nd, have a nice breakfast with his family, and allow his friends to take him to the local Brewhaus in his small village near the Rhine. Perhaps he’d even work up the nerve to talk to the chubby barmaid with the pretty eyes. Those days seemed long ago. Now he’d even be happy to sleep. Perhaps, after returning to the Field Marshall’s command center to report that the forward supply depot was fully stocked, he’d be dismissed for the night. He heard airplanes flying. That was not terribly unusual, but this seemed to be a strange hour for reconnaissance flights, still in the dark of early morning. Perhaps they had a long flight ahead of them? The Private entered the command center, and as he came to attention and began to salute, a radio crackled to life. The broadcast mentioned a familiar city, so it caught his attention.“Why,” he wondered, “would someone be using the command center’s radio to talk about Dortmund?”

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