Updated: Mar 5, 2021
Help for the Opening Axis Gambits in Thunder in the East
By Frank Chadwick
Barbarossa starts with a bang, and we designed it that way.
By the end of the first turn (i.e., the first week) it is not uncommon to see Minsk surrounded with Panzer ZOCs. In fact, one player lambasted Thunder in the East on the forums for that, saying it was clearly "impossible" and "ridiculous." No, it's historical. Minsk was surrounded by the end of June.
Granted, many veteran East Front players think it must be impossible because they have never seen a game actually produce that result before. Well, now they have. We made sure that, with the Blitzkrieg card, the Germans hit the ground running and that, by the end of their first turn, they have an excellent shot at being right where the Germans were historically after that shattering first week.
Therefore, we did our bit. From there on out, it is up to you . However, to win as the Axis in Thunder in the East, you need to play aggressively – very aggressively. Why?
Because the Soviets have more than you do! They have more people and more fuel than you do; and with Lend-Lease they will end up with nearly as much industry. Moreover, they are on defense; all the Soviets need to do is regain their balance and stabilize the front. They want to see a boring, predictable attrition struggle across the map because, if they do, they have an excellent chance of eventually winning.
Your best chance of winning outright is never to let them regain their balance after the shattering first turn. That means hitting them as hard as you can, in every way you can, every turn, so they never feel as if they can quite catch their breath or firmly plant their feet. Order is the Soviets’ greatest ally, so you know what that means, right? Chaos is yours.
I enjoy playing games where I have to play aggressively, but I recognize that is not everyone's play style. If aggression and chaos are not what your normal play style is, then think of this as a role-playing game experience. It is time to channel your inner berserker and start harvesting heads.
Now, this is all well and good as an admonition, but in practical terms how do you go about turning this sage goal into reality on the map? I've been considering about how I play and it occurred to me there were things I did without really thinking about them. Although every game is different, and every unique situation calls for a unique response, allow me to offer some guiding principles to achieve success as the Axis during Barbarossa.
Principle 1: Know Where You Are Going
Figure out what the Germans need to do to win. They can collapse Soviet morale, which usually means killing a bunch of units and then taking Moscow (or other sets of Objective hexes; see The Whole Rotten Structure Will Come Crashing Down). Or they can go for production and recruiting cities so eventually they have a shot in 1942 of winning the attrition fight. Merely floundering around just killing Soviet units and pushing east in the hope that things will eventually turn out okay is not a plan. Well, it's not a winning plan. Think about your path to victory before you start playing, remind yourself of it every turn, then maneuver and strike according to your plan until it no longer applies (for whatever reason).
That said, make sure you have more than one path and be willing to (and know when to) change plans. Keep setting your sights on goals that are reasonably obtainable, not more than you can focus on concurrently, and bend everything to achieve those goals so that, brick-by-brick, you dismantle Stalin’s Soviet Union. Do not become too predictable; if the enemy blocks your chosen path, find a way to go for another useful alternative. Just make sure that when you change from one plan you change to another. Always have a plan!
Principle 2: Maneuver is the Antidote to Attrition
The Soviets win by forcing play into a straight-up attritional game, which is to say having each side take turns beating on the other like a Russian face-slapping competition. This is a fight the Soviets can usually win because the Axis run out of boys, toys, and fuel before the Soviets will. Instead, you need to keep moving so they have to move as well. Use the Muhammad Ali operational doctrine: “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.”
That means a couple of things, the first of which is your aim to stretch the Soviet line to the breaking point and once achieved you get your clean breakthrough. Always seek a way to make the Soviet line longer (and the further east you go, the longer it will have to be).
The second thing is that fighting a war of maneuver does not mean you stop trying to kill enemy units. You absolutely must, every chance you get. However, you are killing Soviet units not as an end in itself, but as a means to an end, and that end is a clear, open field to run in – your clean breakthrough. The more Soviet units you leave alive, the more cluttered the battlefield becomes and the more it settles into a brutal war of attrition that the Axis will likely lose. Ideally, every attack you make should aim to kill Soviet units, stretch the Soviet lines, capture key hexes, and get you closer to your plan’s objective(s).
The third thing to remember is to lock up as much of their Leg Infantry as you can, preferably with your units which they do not have a very good chance of damaging from their attacks. If you push in an unexpected direction and have locked up their local Leg Infantry in your ZOCs, they will have to respond with their scarce Soviet Mobile units or newly raised Ground units (that are typically pretty worthless). That mean fewer enemy Mobile units elsewhere and it may mean you will be able to damage those enemy Mobile units on your terms which makes them even scarcer later. The key concept here is to think in terms of how you can limit their counter-maneuvers – their ability to respond to your thrusts.
Never forget your forces enjoy the “magic of misdirection.” Your mobile forces are very mobile and very hard-hitting, and your HQs have “long arms.” Even without playing a shell game using Reserves, as they prowl about your on-map Mobile forces can easily torture the Soviets trying to establish a proper defense by “faking left and hitting right.” Whenever a panzer push bogs down, you can change the direction of your thrust with the ease of a pistol while engaged Soviet Leg units reposition to face new threats like elephants in quicksand.
Principle 3: Everyone Earns Their Pay
When you first think you are done with your move, you are not. Look again; did you touch every piece and consider its highest and best use this turn? Certainly, you have carefully worked out the attacks you are most interested in. I want you to make sure everyone on those "quiet" sectors is doing everything they need to for the war effort, even making distracting low-to-medium odds diversionary attacks (and hoping for a little luck). If a unit must be in reserve to deal with partisans or an enemy counterattack, fine – but if not, what can they be doing to help the offensive by distracting the enemy and straining their resources?
It is always a good idea to look at a sector you aren't interested in for two reasons.
First, you don't want to get tunnel vision. If you can do something along a quiet sector of the front it may draw Soviet resources there and away from your main effort.
Second, even if it is not on your main line of advance, if you can stretch the Soviets anywhere, you should. It is one more shove keeping them off balance.
Most importantly, don't leave arrows in your quiver; they don't earn interest.
Principle 4: "Aggression" Doesn't Mean "Impatience"
The first turn of Barbarossa is an amazingly decisive event. That does not mean you can (or even should aim to) replicate that experience every turn. Be impatient to attack, but patient for big results. I hardly ever plan for a turn to produce front-shattering results. I always plan to put the Soviets one step closer to their front breaking. When the time comes, you'll know it like a nuclear pile coming to critical mass, and all of a sudden you'll have an open road ahead and no Soviets in position to stop you. That never comes from a single turn of really brilliant play; it comes from a series of turns, each dedicated to setting it up the masterstroke. There's a reason Guderian said, "Slow today, fast tomorrow."
Just make sure that open road is not a trap ripe with Soviet counterattack offensive possibilities before running pell-mell into it! Stay aware of Soviet Reserves, HQ positions, and cards-in-hand as they will come out to bite you. We have seen that expensive downfall of many myopic Axis offensives – even in 1941.