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ETO Series Barbarossa II

Updated: Dec 22, 2021

A Reexamination of the Barbarossa Historical Setup

By the ETO Development Team

Previously, we came across a post in the Thunder in the East forums on Boardgame Geek, which inspired this article. Enthusiast David Shubert remarked during a discussion of the historical setup for the Barbarossa scenario, “Historically the Russians used the historical setup….”

Well, they did, and they didn’t, and it is entirely a matter of interpretation. Before explaining what that means, allow us to put the original Barbarossa historical setup in perspective and conclude by offering you the latest in-develop version of this popular scenario.

A Last-Minute Gift

First, some important background. The set of scenario historical setup documents for Thunder in the East were a Kickstarter campaign bonus. They were not included in the game box because they were merely created as a thank you to project backers, composed an afterthought. They were not playtested and balanced out; we did that for the standard “free deployment” setup, which we recommend playing.

The Thunder in the East historical scenario setups are as advertised: a free Kickstarter add-on following the game’s development. We quickly put them together for our backers as a late expression of our gratitude.

The Decision to “Pack” the Soviet Armies

While creating these historical scenarios, deep the dusty archives of research (which designer Frank Chadwick negotiates like an Indiana Jones figure with an unerring sense of direction), we quickly found ourselves in a pickle. Unfortunately for us, the Soviet Stavka didn’t neatly concentrate their Armies in clearly identifiable hexes for us to say, “Oh, yeah. That one goes right there in hex 7649.” No, that would be easy!

Instead, the official Soviet records of their June 21, ’41 western frontier military deployments showed us each fronter Army’s constituent Corps and Divisions widely dispersed over multiple hexes (as illustrated in this article). To conform to the initial release of TITE and keep things simple for the players, it was up to us to interpret where each Army unit’s “center of gravity” might be and commence with the entirety of that unit in that “historical” (i.e., guesstimated center of gravity) hex. Thus, after packing these widely dispersed forces together into tidy Soviet 8-4 Army units, we later discovered our own unanticipated “error by interpretation.” Our decisions placed these Soviet setup Armies created an artificial imbalance in the historical first turn of the game.

These maps show the spread of Soviet Divisions and Brigades and the concentration of opposing German forces. Use the slider feature to move them left and right.

Little did we know back then that players would eschew the game’s playtested free deployment setup. Instead, they would rush toward the unplaytested “historical” setup (which proved demonstrably imbalanced due to our honest interpreting of initial unit placements to conform to the game back then). Ouch! Now, the development team currently has a long To-Do list completing the entire ETO series. However, we have interrupted it briefly to figure out how to make Kickstarter bonus historical setups (particularly for the Barbarossa scenario) do real justice to the game-as-history because so many players are using it instead of the setup instructions in the rules!

Bringing us to this article.

The Decision to “Unpack” the Soviet Armies

After the usual design process loop of assessment, proposals, feedback, and analysis (repeat as needed), we finally dialed in a solution that is very in keeping with ETO’s design philosophy for the lowest-complexity possible and the maximum player fun. In conjunction with the small Thunder in the East second edition evolutions from playtesting, we are altering the Soviet Barbarossa setups (both free deployment and historical). Now, Front Line Soviet 8-4 Army units are deployed as “broken down;” that is, each sets up as one 4-5-4 Army unit (Reduced) + one ?-4 “Mystery Meat” Rifle Infantry Corps unit. That breakdown helps affect their historical deployment dispersal over a greater area with more hexes occupied and overlapping Zones of Control. This division also better reflects the more unknown and uneven quality of Soviet forces by featuring more Untried units on the map during setup.

All game graphics are for playtest purposes only. They are not the final game graphics! We're starting work on those soon.

These maps show of the above Soviet maps reinterpreted in game terms. Use the slider feature to move them left and right.

This simple setup change melds smoothly with these other tweaks:

  • Adding four more ?-4 units to the original TITE counter mix (added to support the gameplay/narrative of the Soviet-Finnish wars and the Baltic States annexation, which we have been working on). They are also very handy for Barbarossa’s initial deployment as well.

  • Due to Stalin’s purges (in this case, Army officers, particularly those of higher rank), the Soviets can only improve two Rifle Infantry Army units per turn to their 3-step level. Once the Axis start chopping down 8-4s, the Soviets will be a while building masses of them back up to full strength in their effort to fill long stretches of their line with these brutes. This limitation ends in Spring ’42 (as surviving officers learn to lead at the highest levels).

If you’ve ever wondered why the Soviets have so many 4-5-4s in the Typhoon and Case Blue scenario setups, this Stalin’s purges rule easily explains why. Stalin’s purges’ effects are a new feature that we hope you’ll try and supply us with additional feedback!

Don’t worry. It’s still impossible to stop the German’s first turn Blitzkrieg. Now, however, it is no longer a complete walkover (as it was with the earlier historical setup); the Germans must bring their A-game (or at least their B+ game) to earn a level of initial success beyond the historical outcome. The Soviet initial deployments and the initial German attack are now more of a chess match; each rewards careful positioning and cunning play. However, the storyboarded outcome remains intact – the Soviet forces on their western frontier remain tantamount to doomed on the first few turns of Barbarossa.

Barbarossa Revisited

Below is a link to our latest Thunder in the East 2nd edition Barbarossa scenario. You will notice an assortment of small changes that have evolved over playtesting.

1941-6-4 TITE Barbarossa v2
Download PDF • 321KB
Poland's '39 border with the USSR (for the Stalin Line)

In addition to the above “breakdown” of Soviet 8-4 Rifle Army units, you will see a handful of Stalin Line Improved Defense markers. The Soviet player sets these up on the old ’39 Soviet border (shown here). They are not much to shout about, but they are an important part of the full ETO narrative we have been working on as we develop all the game volumes in tandem.

In addition, we present the Soviet Navy (using the ETO naval rules). Historically, it was scrapped for its Personnel Points and half its Equipment Points, and ten fewer Morale Points. We predicated these last changes on the Event card evolutions in the new edition.

Barbarossa 2nd Edition Historical Event Card Sequence

We have also framed the historical Event card play sequence for just about the entire ETO series. In this discussion of the Barbarossa scenario, allow us to present the historical card sequence for this period on the Eastern Front:

Pennywise, Ground Pounding Foolish?

Before Barbarossa, the Germans needed another (their fourth) Strategic HQ marker, which would be required to help keep the door tightly shut in the West covering the occupation of France and the Lowlands. As players know, HQ markers are expensive, costing two each of Personnel, Equipment, and Fuel Points.

The Axis played their Army Organization card for the first time in Autumn ’39 to build their third Strategic HQ marker for free (in preparation for the campaign in the West in 1940). They used it again for their fourth Strategic HQ marker in Autumn '40 to keep one HQ marker in the West and readying three in the East for the Barbarossa showdown.

However, things took a bad turn in for the Axis in the Mediterranean and Balkans in the Spring of 1941. In response to the crisis in North Africa, the Axis had to build their fifth Strategic HQ marker [Africa/C], sending Rommel to the desert.

The upshot of doing so affects the Barbarossa campaign. It makes the Army Organization card unavailable to the Axis in the crucial Summer of ’41 for its alternate use (removing a Countdown marker from a newly redeployed HQ marker). The result was no relief to the strain on the Axis’ logistics in the Soviet Union during Barbarossa. Thus, the Army Organization card enters the Axis deck in Thunder in the East in the Autumn of ’41.

And what about those 6 Resource Points spent building the Afrika HQ marker? Those, and more, were largely spent in the Mediterranean Theater. Bringing Yugoslavia and Greece to heel, while propping up the Italians in Libya, costs the initial Axis RP buildup for Barbarossa dearly. As you can see, clearer details emerge as you pull the camera back from a Thunder in the East perspective to an ETO perspective and storyboard the inclusion of the war’s other Theaters.

Soviet Total War Selections

When Barbarossa commences, the Soviet setup presents their choice of a couple of Small cards representing their “prewar” hand in preparation for the ensuing onslaught of Axis forces. Selected were Cavalry Mobilization and Scorched Earth (and eschewed were Alternate Conscription, “It takes a brave man…”, and War Effort Propaganda).

June ’41

The Axis player is holding their Eastern Blitzkrieg! and vaunted German Generals card. They play the former card for a Sneak Attack on the USSR (and receive their Jericho Trumpets card) and hold onto the German Generals card as it supports a continuing offensive campaign (not this newly launched one). They are also holding their Foreign Intelligence card.

Soviet Cards Played: Cavalry Mobilization

Use the slider feature to move them left and right.

July ’41

Axis Cards Selected: Panzer Blitz (small), Rollbahns (small), Reclaimed USSR Border Territory (free Seasonal Small International card selection, to return Bessarabia to Romania)

[127.2.2] Axis Card Bonus: The larger Axis alliance of nations contributes a bit of “card energy” to their Faction’s selection rate. In addition, when playing two factions in a combined game, the Axis has this additional edge to keep the card play of two opponents from overwhelming them.

When playing Thunder in the East only (as a stand-alone volume) the Axis Faction:

  • Draw one additional small International card at the start of each Season.

Axis Cards Played: German Generals (small, to mop up pockets – some players prefer to hold onto it until they’re ready to leap at Leningrad or Moscow, but there is a lot to be said for quickly clearing the roads to them), Panzer Blitz (small, to keep forging breakthroughs during movement – this proved instrumental in opening the Gomel gap, easing lateral operations between Army Groups Center and South and making the great Kiev pocket possible), Rollbahns (small, to help in whatever way with logistics Disruption issues), Reclaimed USSR Border Territory (small, with all its Romanian good news)

Soviet Cards Selected: Militia Mobilized, Repel the Invader (used particularly in support of the Soviet counterattacks at Smolensk)

Soviet Cards Played: Militia Mobilized, Repel the Invader (this latter card supports a “stand and fight” defense option and also yields a much desired +10 USSR MPs at a time where the USSR is bleeding MPs like crazy – note, however, there were many other less aggressive options that the Soviet player might select when opting for a “run away” defense), Scorched Earth (affecting Riga, Minsk, Lwow, and Chisinau)

Use the slider feature to move them left and right.

August ’41

Axis Cards Selected: Prepared Crossing (for the anticipated assault across the Dnepr River) + Führer Directive (to be held until the right moment – it would later be played seize the Standfast! card during the Typhoon scenario)

Axis Cards Played: Prepared Crossing + Foreign Intelligence (used with marginal effect to form and maintain the southern pincer of the Kiev encirclement)

Soviet Cards Selected: Emergency Mobilization (an OOB card added directly to the Soviet hand), Great Patriotic War, Enlistment Propaganda

Soviet Cards Played: Emergency Mobilization, Great Patriotic War (the IDMs and additional Air unit upgrade are also urgent at this time), and Enlistment Propaganda (the Soviets recognize their rapid bleeding of Infantry steps on the map and call up more of them as quickly as possible)

Use the slider feature to move them left and right.

September ’41

Axis Cards Selected & Played: Fascist Collaborators, Minor Offensive (used by Romania to at last capture Odessabut that attack would not succeed until October when the Soviets finally evacuated the city, after the check of the Barbarossa victory conditions, of course!)

Soviet Cards Selected: Construction Brigades (both benefits are used for Moscow’s defense preparations – with the situation deteriorating quickly, the Soviet player had to find the time when to play this card before it was too late) which was played right away, and Soviet Spies (used later during the Winter Offensive in ’42 to optimize the Soviet Counteroffensive)

Use the slider feature to move them left and right.

Optional Play Balance Rules

Finally, the second edition Barbarossa scenario (which you can download, above) includes optional play balance rules at the end of each side’s setup instructions to assist players of unequal skill levels. Be sure to check them out in the scenario document!

A New Combined OOB Mat series

We are also experimenting with a set of OOB mats for each ETO volume. It's still a work in progress (and it is very time-consuming detailed work), but here is a look at the first (of four) sheets for Thunder in the East covering the Barbarossa scenario.

There it is: Operation Barbarossa takes on an ETO perspective. Its storyboard is fleshed out, and its components are made ready for the new edition. Everything in this article is not “finally final” as playtesting continues. However, it does offer considerable insight into where this project is going and gives you some new things to try the next time you start a game of Thunder in the East with the Barbarossa scenario.

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Gerald Johnson
Gerald Johnson
Feb 06, 2022


Do you play on a table with the real game or with Vassal?

I am at and I can work to get you up to day with the latest files.


Interesting article. I just played the original Barbarossa scenario and I think that Barbarossa.2 could be motre balanced. One question: does the new scenario really start on June III? Or should it start on June IV? I think there is a mistake somewhere, because since the scenario lasts 13 turns and ends on Sept IV, it should start on June IV as the original scenario.

Alan Emrich
Alan Emrich
Feb 06, 2022
Replying to

The Spring months in the East Europe Theater are 3 turns each now. There is no Week 4 in East Europe in April, May, or June. :D We've been very busy updating the Soviet OOB this past week. We're checking our work for the original TITE game's countermix and scenario placements so that everything synchs up correctly with the full ETO combined game.


Gordon Johansen
Gordon Johansen
Dec 25, 2021

Another interesting look behind the scenes. Thanks for posting.


Excellent article. Really helps me understand the "historical use" of the cards. And, thanks for the new setup. A new opponent and I are just starting a new game with it.

Gerald Johnson
Gerald Johnson
Nov 12, 2021
Replying to

Please share your insights. Your play at CSW helped to make the HISTORICAL setup better. Thanks!


Gerald Johnson
Gerald Johnson
Nov 12, 2021

For those players using Vassal, the 5.5 Module has the newer weather but some of the cards still have changed since it was made. If you are playing on a table, I can share files as needed for your play.

The units moving and fighting have not changed. Battle for Moscow II and also looking at France 1940 did see overrun change to Mobile Assault. No longer will 2 steps be safe but there is a increasing risk to the Panzers as there are more defenders.

Skill and experiance will greatly benifit either side but, there are some game balancing options that can help the newer player learn in a less hostle world. Grognards to not have to play the…

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