Lessons Learned the Hard Way Playing Thunder in the East
By Frank Chadwick
I am not a big fan of Perfect Plan instructions but some operational advice for conducting the Axis during Operation Barbarossa is in order based on numerous plays and some painful lessons learned. There are so many variables to consider, so many ways the Soviets can mess you up, and so many ways to throw away a victory, I thought that, instead of a Perfect Plan, I would look at some of the mistakes I have seen cost Axis players the early game in Thunder in the East.
If you want to play the Axis and lose, just do these things:
1. Don't clobber the Red Air Force via your Sneak Attack
I've seen this several times. Those Stuka's are so good for Close Support, how could you not peel off both for use assisting your Ground Combat on the first turn? Surely it will not hurt to hold them back from the Airfields Attack Missions you plan to conduct anyway with the rest of your airpower. You do want to help ensure a clean breakthrough first turn, right? So maybe a couple Bomber units, or better still a Stuka and a Bomber unit – those make a nice combination… will they really be missed?
After all, the Red Air Force is so inept, leaving a few of its planes undestroyed and operational won’t make that much difference, will it?
Yes, it absolutely will! If you do not flatten the Red Air Force on turn one, and I mean flatten it, it will come back to haunt you and fast. The Soviets have all the fuel they need to hasten the return of their air force, and you will never have a Blitzkrieg! card Sneak Attack opportunity like this again. Historically, you will have one Major Air unit "to play with" on the opening turn, so enjoy a lone Stuka unit as part of your opening gambit -- just make sure to leave the Red Air Force a pile of cinders on the first turn!
2. Don't ever push your Panzer units beyond their supply range
That sounds like sensible advice, right? Ugh!
Do not be afraid of merely being out of supply (but avoid putting your forces out of communication such that they become Isolated). An Out of Supply marker does not affect your Defense Strength or Movement Allowance – it only halves your Attack Strength. If you can keep the Soviets spread thin, even a halved-for-being-out-of-supply attacking Panzer Corps can still punch a hole.
If you play so conservatively with the Germans that their armor is always in supply, the Soviet front line will firm up ahead of you very quickly (unless you are red hot with your dice, but it is hard to offer "be very lucky" as practical advice).
3. Don't ever risk your Panzers in chancy overruns
You could lose steps that cost Equipment Points (EPs) to replace and have nothing to show for your effort, right? Why would you do that when you could just wait for the Combat Step and do the job properly (perhaps with Infantry support to help shoulder any losses)?
That sort of thinking will doom you. You've got to remain as aggressive as you can, never let the Soviets regain their balance, and that often means taking a chance on an overrun during your Special Movement Phase that opens up a deeper attack in your Combat Phase.
4. Overrun everything all the time (This is the other side of the above mistake.)
Overrun too much just because you can instead of for a calculated on-map benefit and pretty soon you will have more reduced-strength Panzers on the map than you can rebuild. Each turn that your Panzer attrition exceeds two steps your spear point becomes increasingly blunt. Remain mindful of your Resource Points (RPs) for all of your forces [and see the article in this series 18 Steps to Victory or Defeat], but do not overreact to potential problems when you are on the strategic offensive.
5. Concentrate on killing Red Army units
Sure, you absolutely need to kill a bunch of Red Army units just to stay ahead of their waves of manpower hitting the map each turn. However, if you focus too much on just that, your opponent will be able to slow you down by leaving a few weak units where you will surely pounce on them, but doing so gives the Soviets time to shore up their line elsewhere.
Real estate matters; taking ground matters. Again, you have to be pretty lucky to bleed the Soviets into large scale terrain abandonment if you're not maneuvering to take it but only trying to systematically inflict enemy casualties.
6. Concentrate on geographic objectives (This is the other side of the above mistake.)
You can't afford to telegraph your intentions by transparently pushing single-mindedly toward Objective City hexes. If you do so without subtlety, the Soviet player will know where to concentrate their forces for direct opposition.
You must keep Objective hexes in mind, of course, but while there is still time you cannot settle into a predictable pattern of play.
7. Once you have a pocket, just contain it and push forward with your strongest troops
Sounds good, right? Those Isolated Soviet units will surrender eventually.
The problem is that "eventually" sometimes takes a really long time, and in the meantime, those Isolated enemy units will be trying to ooze out of their pocket or shuffle onto your Rail Line of Communications (RLoC) which could really mess you up. They might even be relieved by a counterattack or have Air Supply sent to them (stranger things have happened).
It may seem like a waste of good troops and an unnecessary delay to your Timetables of Triumph, but eliminate those pockets as soon as possible; surround them and kill them the old-fashioned way. Overall, this leaves you with more troops at the front sooner.
8. Don't press on into the Soviet interior until you have completely tidied up your rear areas (This is the other side of the above mistake. Are you noticing a pattern here?)
This game rewards thoughtful, balanced play – especially for the Axis. The burden of attack is on you during this early campaign, and that means keeping Soviet units flowing into the dead pile, keeping the front moving east, and making sure you are thinking four turns ahead when you are deciding where to positions your HQ markers (you should always be looking where to advance them, what rail you need to clear, and which forward City hex you must capture where their new home will be). In other words:
Bleed the Soviets,
Lead the front line eastward, and
Proceed forward with your HQ markers.
You have to be aggressive enough to keep these happening. You cannot allow your enemy to rebuild a stable, complete front line – at least as long as the Soviets still have a big pile of PPs in their reserve. So keep pushing forward even as you are attacking to clear your rear area of Soviet pockets that could still be relieved.