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Lowering Soviet Morale

Updated: Oct 4, 2019

The Whole Rotten Structure Will Come Crashing Down

by Alan Emrich

You eat a whale one bite at a time.

How do you eat a whale? One bite at a time.

How to you reduce the Soviet Union to a Morale Collapse? One Morale Point (MP) at a time. That won’t be easy; the Axis must remain constantly focused on it to achieve a Soviet Morale Collapse. Why that is and what can you do to make that happen the next time you are the Axis campaigning in the Soviet Union is the subject of this article.

Note that Morale Points (MPs) are a Campaign Game matter, and they only really matter when they are plummeting! As long as the Soviets have even 1 MP, they remain in the game hitting just as hard as they did last turn (often harder). This is an all-or-nothing proposition; either you crack Soviet Morale, or you don’t.

In a rules sidebar, designer Frank Chadwick tells us this about the Morale System in the game:


When Does Morale Crack?

The single hardest strategic question in war is what it takes to make your opponent throw in the towel. In the real world, you arrive at this answer experimentally and empirically: people try different things until one of them works. As often as not, after a country surrenders, historians argue for decades about what really triggered it. Game designers do not have the luxury of saying, “Well, it’s hard to say for sure.”

The last German troops surrender at the end of WWII.

ETO’s answer is the National Morale system. Reduce your opponent’s morale to 0 and they give up. The points we award, and their relative weight, partially reflect our considered judgement but also partly reflect the expectations of strategists at the time. Destroying enemy units in offensive operations damages the enemy morale much more than your losses during those offensives affect your own morale (people like to see the arrows moving in the right direction on the maps, and they will suffer a good many losses as long as they believe they are on offense and winning).

Capturing cities, losing cities, allies surrendering or defecting, strategic bombing campaigns (and later the commerce war conducted largely by submarines), all had an effect on the morale of the belligerents.


A Common Frame of Reference

1. At the end of the Axis July I ‘41 turn, after being clobbered by two excruciating Axis player turns of Barbarossa (but gain a bit back from their "Happy Homefront's" unspent Personnel Points (PPs) still in their pool), the Soviets will have in the neighborhood of 130 MPs (give or take).

2. Built into this, I consider already picked the low-hanging fruit of most Soviet Front Line units and their nearby Objectives (Riga, Minsk, Kaunas, and Lvov), so those are “baked in” to that 130 MP amount that remains for the Axis to overcome. Although “well begun is halfway done,” from that point forward the Axis need a dedicated plan to empty the bucket of Soviet MPs even as the Soviets strive to keep it filled via their PP reserve and, during the dark times, through Soviet card play.

3. Per the next scenario's setup instructions, at the start of Operation Typhoon (October I, 1941 after receiving all of their RPs for the Autumn Season including more "Happy Homefront" Morale Points), the Soviets historically had 75 MPs. But you'll have to do better than that to crack the Soviet's morale by the end of 1942. That first summer should see Soviet MPs plummet to 65 or lower if you're aiming for a Morale Victory. So, at the start of the Axis July II turn (with eleven turns left during the Summer of Barbarossa), the Axis should be about halfway there!

Essentially, the Axis have 11 turns to destroy roughly 70 Soviet MPs, meaning an average of about -6.5 MPs per turn; that should a doable metric if your luck holds out, right?

We learn from von Clausewitz that, "No plan survives contact with the enemy."

Other Soviet Objective hexes should (Tallinn, Smolensk, Chisinau, Kiev, and Dnepropetrovsk) and could (Orel, Kharkov, Odessa, Stalino, Rostov) fall that Summer of Barbarossa, and each contributes -4 MPs of that turn’s -6.5 MP quota. If the Axis scoop up 4 of these 10 “should-of, could-of” Objectives, it means they need only bill an average of just -5 MPs per turn in Soviet unit casualties – that means about 10 eliminated Soviet Major unit steps (the ones that count!) at 1/2 MP each per turn, and only 2 eliminated Soviet steps on turns when any of those remaining 5 Objectives falls. C’mon, it’s Barbarossa! It won’t be easy, but it certainly gives you something to shoot for!

4. Or, looking at this "objectively" (that is, trying to capture sufficient Objective hexes to end the game at the next checkpoint), things look like this for the Axis to march to victory:


Axis Decisive: Axis control 13 or more USSR Objectives at the end of September IV, 1941.

The historical outcome was a Draw, ending at the Typhoon Scenario setup line. The Axis controlled 9 USSR Objectives at the end of September: Tallinn, Riga, Kaunas, Minsk, Smolensk, Lwow, Chisinau, Kiev, and Dnepropetrovsk (with Odessa, Stalino and, briefly, Rostov, soon to follow.


Axis Decisive: Axis control 16 or more USSR Objectives at the end of Jan II, 1942

The historical outcome was a Draw. At the end of January 1942, the Axis controlled 13 USSR Objectives: Tallinn, Riga, Kaunas, Minsk, Smolensk, Orel, Lwow, Chisinau, Kiev, Odessa, Dnepropetrovsk, Kharkov, and Stalino.

Typhoon's Decisive Victory level will be a tougher nut for the Axis as the Soviets will gain about 10 MPs to start Autumn and about another 6 MPs or so to start Winter (and the Soviets have EPs to spare for Seasonal +2 MP “Consumer Goods” prior to their Heavy units arriving in the Soviet Force Pool). Worse for the Axis, Soviet MP losses drop considerably as the inclement weather slows the Axis advances and opens the door to a Soviet winter counteroffensive. What the Axis has to do to win during this Typhoon time period is secure a “honeypot” during that Autumn/Winter time frame.

Soviet MP Honeypots

There are places the Soviets do not want to lose; expect them defended these locations with vigor. Most are what I call MP “honeypots.” That is, geographic locations where, in additional to the usual MPs the Soviets will lose from casualties defending them, the ground itself is so demoralizing to lose that the Axis can really cash in on their effort to bust Soviet morale. The main honeypots include:

1. Moscow: This is the big prize with the highest attainment value (i.e., it generates the most significant outcome). While its strategic importance on the map cannot be overstated (being the “rail center of gravity” for the Soviet Union) and its economic loss is considerable (2 Personnel Centers and 2 Factories), to compound matters for the Soviets its morale implications are potentially devastating.

Outflanked from the north, a devastating 4-hex attack against Moscow seals the deal.

If Stalin picks this hill to die on and does as the Germans march past his corpse while parading through Moscow, it is game over and the Axis have won.

If Stalin reads the German handwriting on the Kremlin wall and opts to bug out to Kuibyshev, he can establish the government there (in the relative safety of “the rear”) and lead from behind. There is, however, a -8 MP loss that goes with relocating Stalin and the government, so even if the Axis do not capture Moscow, if they make Stalin blink and evacuate, that’s the same as nailing two Objective hexes right there! If they Axis can seal the deal and actually capture Moscow (in Stalin’s absence), that’s another -10 MPs to the Soviets’ detriment. Indeed, this can “seal the deal” for the Axis if captured as part of their sweeping initial invasion of the Soviet Union and trigger a Soviet Morale Collapse.

Of course, the Soviet player will know this so expect "war to the mattresses" (see The Godfather) over that single hex that both sides are determined to control. Expect both sides to pay a high cost (in time, energy, and risk) for it. Win or lose, fixating on Moscow often finds the Axis forfeiting opportunities elsewhere that they should be mindful of. If Soviet reinforcements and replacements are pouring into Moscow’s defense, that just might create an opportunity to pick up a Soviet Objective hex elsewhere on the cheap.

2. Leningrad: We have is a great article on the isolation and capture of Leningrad, and I recommend you read Kevin Roust’s sage advice on this subject. Suffice it to say that, for the purposes of lowering Soviet Morale Points, this ancient capital inflicts -8 MPs damage. Think of it as a “Double Objective” hex in that regard.

Leningrad's weakness lies east of the Valdai Hills.

Best of all, the extrinsic value (i.e., its usefulness for attaining other goals) of conquering Leningrad is fairly high because the terrain east along this northern sector of the front offers few great places for the Soviets to establish a firm, supplied position. If the Axis continue to spend energy driving due east beyond the capture of Leningrad, it can be a nightmare distraction for the Soviets to solidify a defense up there and, looking southwards, the Axis can even threaten Moscow’s strategic right flank by coming at it “between” or even “behind” the reservoirs! The Soviets will be desperate for new Lend-Lease clean underwear if the Axis press a drive eastward (and southward) from Leningrad.

The Donbass is huge prize for the Axis as the bad weather sets in at the end of 1941.

3. The Donbass: This is another Pooh-size Hunnypot. The trifecta industrial and supply centers of Dnepropetrovsk, Kharkov, and Stalino (“the Donbass”) are, ultimately, “must have” locations on the map to sustain the Axis as their future EP production is pretty-darn vital to the war effort (both denying them to the Soviets and gaining them for the Axis). Since this is a tough area for the Soviets to make a stand (being devoid of good defensive terrain), its last bastion should fall before 1941, but often it does so near the end of the year and time is of the essence.

If the Axis can make this leap, securing the Donbass before the end of Summer, that will be at least another eight lost MPs (in non-low hanging fruit) in Objective hexes alone. That, plus one other Honeypot, might just do the trick (depending on how well the Axis can keep producing Soviet casualties along the way) to collapsing the Soviets in 1941 or 1942.

4. The Sea of Azov Triangle: One little-observed Honeypot comes from bridging the Don River at Rostov and “back dooring” the objectives at Novorossiysk and Maikop. This will also help seal the deal on Sevastopol if the Soviets are defending at the neck of the Crimea peninsula.

Three of these corners have Red Objective hexes. "All your Objectives are belong to us!"

Again, losing this cluster of Soviet Objective hexes will punish their MP level, but pulling it off will take either a very focused, dedicated effort to do maneuver to and fight for this ground, or a huge slice of luck (probably from a Soviet blunder) which presents a singular opportunity. This is the most complex honeypot to obtain in 1941 and early 1942, but if you manage to obtain it either the Soviets will surrender from MP loss or continue playing from a very compromised position into the summer of 1942.

Inflicting Soviet Losses with MP Reduction in Mind

If Soviet MP losses from the Axis capture of Honeypots are the “bricks,” then Soviet MP loss from the Axis inflicting step losses is the “mortar” holding them all together. Essentially, Barbarossa and, to a lesser extent, Typhoon, are glorified Axis grabs to find the last nail to put into Stalin’s coffin. Now, such nails litter the Soviet Union, but can the Axis scoop up enough in time to score the sure victory envisioned for these campaigns?

Analyzing the MP value of Soviet step losses, you find nothing for Air units and most Small size Ground units. So, while tempting to kill – particularly when the Soviets are on the offensive when these Small Ground units often add up to another odds column when attacking – you must exercise some discipline and not seek out those Small Soviet Tank and Cavalry Corps units as casualties (particularly in Exchanges) if your real aim is driving down Soviet Morale. Granted, they don’t bounce back as quickly as Infantry steps do, but they’re not dinging Soviet Morale on their way back to the Soviet Force Pool either and bean-counters are actually happy to lose them as they represent only a 1/2 RP investment to replace.

The exception to the Small unit MP “freebies” is Soviet Airborne Corps units. Those ring the register a -1 MP each and consequently maneuver on the map with a bull’s eye on their backs. Any turn the Axis wipe one of those units out is probably a good turn for them.

Leaving for now a discussion of inflicting the odd Soviet MP loss from sinking their Naval units (typically the result of considerable Axis airpower commitment to accomplish while there is so much Ground Support required) or Strategic Bombing (for which the Axis do not have the right tools in their toolbox), we must consider the Soviet coin of the realm: their Rifle Infantry Army units.

Ubiquitous “Formed” Soviet Infantry Armies are your main target. You should eschew attacking 3-step Armies whenever possible (as the Soviets can shrug off a single step loss to them without harming their morale and their presence represents a greater counterattack danger). Instead, focus on their 2-step Armies and their building block, the Medium size 1-step Corps. Why is that? Let me give you something to think about…

The average German Ground unit holding the line is likely a Medium size 2-step 4-6-4 Infantry Corps. If it took 1 step loss, the Axis would shrug that off, but if it took 2 step losses the Germans (in the full ETO campaign game) will lose 1/2 German MP and it becomes a small KG remnant in its place (so it can be built back up for half cost or perhaps even for free). So, even if the Soviets Eliminated a German Infantry Corps unit, that’s a net loss of only 1/2 German MP.

Compare that to the average Soviet Ground unit holding the line in ’41 and ’42 which is likely to be a Large 2-step 4-5-4 Infantry Army unit. If it takes 1 step loss, it is sent to the Casualty mat where the Soviets lose 1/2 MP. Now it is replaced by a Medium size Corps unit and that, too, is another 1/2 MP just waiting to be lost! Thus, if the Axis Eliminate the Soviet’s standard line unit, it will cost the Soviets 1 full MP instead of just 1/2 as it would for other nations whose standard units of maneuver are Corps instead of Armies!


That, dear strategist, is the Soviet’s Achilles heel. There is 1 full MP inside of every Soviet Army just “dying” to get out. This fact makes it much, much easier to lower the morale of the Soviet Union (and, in The Middle Sea, Yugoslavia, who also use this model of Formed Armies). Think of those 600,000 Soviet troops trapped and lost in the Kiev pocket in 1941. That maneuver offered the Axis a very high Attainment Value (i.e., the significance of its outcome) because the Axis reapers harvested a lot of Soviet MPs (roughly 5 to 7) and took a lot of Soviet units off the map all thanks to the Soviets’ Formed Infantry Army organization and the two occasions when they can be chipped down for 1/2 MP each.

Knowing this, you must stay focused on inflicting casualties costing Soviet MPs on every occasion. If you can attack a 4-5-4 and attrition it down to a “Mystery Meat” Corps, do it; that is another 1/2 Soviet MP lost (in addition to its 1 USSR PP cost to replace). If you can kill or overrun a 1 step Medium size Corps unit, do so; they make great prizes and often your Axis Infantry Corps units alone can bleed them off the map and claim their 1/2 Soviet MP and its 1 USSR PP replacement cost.


You don't see this guy taking a break; he's trying to break Soviet Morale instead.

If you are rushing to destroy the Soviet Union’s morale, do not get cute hoping that Isolation attrition will do your work for you and keep your casualties down in the process. The best way to kill enemy units is to kill enemy unitsattack them! Yes, you will also suffer casualties doing so and the cost can be high, but time is critical and you cannot drive Soviet morale down far enough and fast enough if you are afraid of your own losses (besides, the High Command thoughtfully sent you plenty of replacements). If you want to Win Big, you must play the “short war” (Blitzkrieg) game; if you find yourself cautiously playing the “long game” and trying to manage your attrition at the war’s outset, then you will certainly find yourself playing the long game (and even with your careful planning the attrition picture for the Axis isn’t pretty)!

It is always a balancing act for the Axis to find places to lower Soviet MPs. There is much to say for banking the “easy wins” that the Soviets present you and following the path of least resistance. However, seizing real estate doesn’t count until an Objective hex falls! That is why they are so clearly marked on the map with red vertices; they are the targets of every campaign! If you can just stay focused on smashing Soviet morale as you plan the Axis’ maneuvers and battles, you might be in with a shot (okay, a longshot) at a short war and a Soviet Morale Collapse victory!


I wish to conclude this article with these cautionary words from developer Lance McMillan:

“Although dropping Soviet Morale could potentially bring about victory for the Axis, it is (and should be) a difficult goal to achieve as an end to itself. Morale collapse is not, perhaps, an effective or realistic objective for a successful Axis strategy; it is a happily coincidental side-effect of one. However, threatening Soviet Morale is certainly another important lever for keeping Stalin under pressure which always makes it a useful tool.”


Here is a comparative look at the Morale Systems in Frank Chadwick's ETO and SPW’s Der Weltkrieg as posted here by Robert Lloyd on Boardgame Geek.


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