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Modeling The Soviet Army In ETO

"Quantity Has a Quality all its Own."

ETO game designer, Frank Chadwick

By Frank Chadwick

Although the German Army is the dominant force in all ETO games, the Red Army is the largest presence in Thunder in the East and its portrayal provides much of that game's personality. Its raison d'être is most readily apparent in their Infantry dominating the landscape of the game, that omnipresent brown wall of Soviet Rifle units continuously confronting the Germans.

Infantry, Infantry Everywhere

There are three obvious differences between Soviet and German Infantry units.

The first difference is that the most common unit of Soviet Infantry is the Army, not the Corps. The fact that Soviet Rifle Armies in ETO are Large units means three important things:

  • First, they are stronger than German Infantry Corps; Soviet Infantry Armies are 8-4 at full-strength compared to the best German Infantry unit's 6-4 ratings.

  • Second, at full-strength, they have three steps instead of just two.

  • Third, when eliminated, their last step (i.e., their "Corps remnant") is in many ways a more robust version of the German Korpsgruppe, but more on that later.

The second difference is that, although a Soviet Army is stronger than the best German Corps, that is mostly an offensive advantage (due to the one-major-unit-across-a-hexside attack limitation). On defense, the fact it is a Large unit means you can never stack two of them together to make an impenetrable line. It has to be reinforced with Medium (Corps) and/or Small units that are both less effective than their German counterparts and less numerous. That is, the mix of Soviet forces is not as easily configurable as the Germans.

The third difference is their general uniformity of Soviet units. Unlike the German Army, there was little difference between Soviet Infantry units raised in 1941 and those raised in 1944, aside from combat experience gained along the way. There were no special Corps of less-capable troops, such as the German 2nd-Line Corps formed for static defense. (There were some Fortified Region troops fitting this description, but Garrison units cover those in the game.)

If you look at photographs of Soviet Rifle units throughout the war you see soldiers of all ages. In addition, the number of early-formed units which were destroyed, rebuilt from scratch, destroyed again, and then rebuilt again meant that unit identification numbers were given little indication of how long that unit had been around.

For all these reasons, the basic Soviet 8-4 Rifle Army is that strength at the start of the game and at the end of the game, with the counter mix limited to those armies actually raised and fielded in the western Soviet Union (numbered up to the 70th Army, but with a half-dozen numbers missing for those units deployed exclusively in the Far East).

The Soviet Rifle Army loses half of its Attack Strength, and slightly less than half its Defense Strength, when it loses a single step (going from a 3-step 8-4 to a 2-step 4-5-4). What this means in game terms is that a reduced-strength Army can still hold the line but it is definitely spread thin (especially since you cannot stack two of them together). A line of 4-5-4s will not be doing a lot of attacking. When a 4-5-4 loses a step it is replaced with an Untried (?-4) Rifle Corps, and this is another major departure for Soviet Rifle units: you just don't know what's going to happen to them when they take a beating. The remnants of a Soviet Army should be at least as effective as the 1-2-4 Korpsgruppe of a German Infantry Corps, but you could end up with a battle-hardened 4-4 Guards Rifle Corps instead, or a 3-4, 2-3-4, or 2-4.

Behold the Soviet Untried Rifle Infantry Corps, better known to players as "Mystery Meat."

Mystery Meat

The idea for the Untried Soviet Rifle Corps came out of playtesting, which demonstrated the necessity for an additional step in the Soviet Rifle Armies and having them function (at full-strength) as uniquely 3-step units. We did not opt for a boring pile of generic Rifle Corps (after some long discussion of what that standardized Soviet Infantry Corps' value would be). Instead, someone (and I can't remember who) suggested using the Untried Corps mechanic we already had for the Soviet Early Mechanized Corps.

Great idea! Besides, with no data on their reverse side, leaving it blank was a waste of a lot of counter real estate; a data point with no data? Horrors!

Untried Soviet Rifle Corps units also meant that when you first raise Soviet Rifle troops you don't quite know what you have until it enters combat or is upgraded to a nice, regimented reduced-strength Soviet Army unit. We hand-made a pool of playtest Untried Soviet Infantry Corps units right there on the spot; they performed very smoothly from the start and really added a nice inflection of narrative the story. With some late adjustments for cards adding Militia and Conscripts units to the Untried Infantry Corps pool (thus "polluting" it until revealed in play and removed from the map), we were all set.

Soviet Infantry Armies are Raised, not Built

The important conceptual difference between Soviet Infantry Armies and the Army units of the Western nations is that Soviet Infantry Armies are not "built" by combining component Corps units together, but are instead "raised" by steadily adding replacements to them over time (the speed limit is one per turn per unit). This works for their regular Rifle Infantry Armies, as well as Shock and Guards Armies, each raised with one variation as illustrated here:

The Soviet player must raise these 3-step units one step at a time, one Resource Point at a time.

The Specialists

The Soviets have a few Specialist Infantry unit types (some of these with the TITE Upgrade Kit): two 3-4 Mountain Rifle Corps, a handful of small (division-sized) 1-2-4 Parachute Corps, and a couple of 2-4 Marine Divisions.

The TITE Expansion Kit will include the Soviet Navy and Marine Divisions to go with it, and replace their Airborne Corps with ones less-capable on offense.

Mechanized and armored formations were a major part of the Red Army's success story (after a very rocky start), but those are covered in a separate article. One last element of the ground forces deserves special mention: Cavalry.

The Cavalry Arrives

The leaders of the Red Army’s mobile forces were, at their heart, cavalrymen converted to tankers. Zhukov, Rokossovsky, Pavlov, Timoshenko, and Yeremenko were all former cavalrymen, many of them having ridden with Semyon Budyenni's First Red Cavalry Army in the Russian Civil War and Russo-Polish War. Regardless of Budyenni's limitations as a commander in World War II (and they were many), he was an enormously gifted and aggressive leader of Cavalry twenty years earlier. The Division and Regiment commanders who learned their trade under him rose to lead the Red Army. Widely viewed as an anachronism elsewhere, the Red Army used their Cavalry as Mobile Infantry and as deep raiding forces throughout the war and quickly found ways to integrate Cavalry with Armor. The Red Army would use horse-mounted Cavalry units for the last time in 1956 during their invasion of Hungary.

This blending of Cavalry and Tanks creates an important "Heavy Zone of Control" with which to harass the Retreat of enemy Panzers.

Red Army Cavalry Corps in World War II were quite small, about the size of most Divisions, but in the Autumn of 1941 they were the bulk of the Soviets' mobile troops. Tanks without Infantry support could not accomplish much, and Infantry could not keep up with Armor in a deep advance, but Cavalry could. In the Soviet counteroffensive during the winter of 1941/42, the Operational Groups which broke through the German lines were primarily formed around a Cavalry Corps with several Brigades of reinforcing Armor.

Later in the war, the concept of Cavalry-Mechanized ("Cav-Mech") Groups became more formalized, almost invariably consisting of a Cavalry Corps and either a Tank Corps or a Mechanized Corps. We have chosen the most successful and longest-lasting examples of these to include as game pieces. Historically, these Groups were named after their commander, but we gave them the I.D. number of the Cavalry Corps forming its mounted component.


For those interested, here are the historic Cavalry-Mechanized Groups represented in the game along with this interesting factoid: Pliev's Cavalry-Mechanized Group, driving west in 1944, had a higher sustained daily rate of advance than Guderian's Panzer Group had headed east in 1941.

  • Baranov Cavalry Mechanized Group: 1st Guards Cavalry Corps, 25th Tank Corps

  • Kryukov Cavalry Mechanized Group: 2nd Guards Cavalry Corps, 11th Tank Corps

  • Galikovskii Cavalry Mechanized Group: 3rd Guards Cavalry Corps, 3rd Guards Mechanized Corps

  • Pliev Cavalry Mechanized Group: 4th Guards Cavalry Corps, 1st (later 7th) Guards Mechanized Corps

  • Gorshkov Cavalry Mechanized Group: 5th Guards Cavalry Corps, 23rd Tank Corps

  • Konstantinov Cavalry Mechanized Group: 7th Guards Cavalry Corps, 9th Tank Corps

  • Sokolov Cavalry Mechanized Group: 6th Guards Cavalry Corps, 31st Tank Corps

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Gerald Johnson
Gerald Johnson
18 sept 2019

I would not get too overly concerned with the numbers. 8-4 was a very workable value to the Russian INF Armies. Those armies did included many tanks and other armored vehicles when the Early Mech units were worked into the general forces. Germany had their armor forces grouped together. The infantry corps were smaller than the Russian Armies but almost as strong even without the added firepower. They have the ability to form into larger armies as needed for swamp or hardened city attacks but are usually just an addition to a stronger armor force. Their smaller size allows them to hold a section of the front and even a large tank army can move into their location for a…

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David Brown
David Brown
18 sept 2019


Your post is interesting, and I am editing my response because I keep thinking about this. I would like to respond to some points you raised. I like the choice of Organizing German Corps into Armies, though I more often do not. The Armies are slower and weaker on defense than their Corps' constituents would be if stacked together--unless you are going to add a Corps for defensive purposes to their hex (a rare thing early on). Armies should be maintained at full strength. Their added firepower is useful when going after Hard Cities and during weather when CAS cannot help. Most German attacks in '41 depend on the strength of their Panzer Corps, and occasionally Panzer Armies, not…

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By itself the design is good - but numbers are wrong - at least for what concerns Soviet Infantry. - A Soviet Army is more mobile than a German one (Germans move of 3!), and Soviet infantry is virtually on par with German infantry, since '41, and becomes better later on. A 3 step German Army of Barbarossa time is 8-3 or 9-8-3. Deprived of the cutting edge of troop quality for what concerns the infantry in '41, and destined to gain only lesser infantry units (Worse than '41 Soviet ones), while Soviet infantry improve (3 stepper Guard Armies are 10-4!), a game where a faction has both quality and quantity superiority suggest a conceptual flaw in design. (That considering…

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