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What The Rail?

Updated: Sep 24, 2019

“Training” for Victory: An Analysis of ETO Rails, their Uses, and Limitations

By Alan Emrich

In wargame terms, the Rules for Rails in Frank Chadwick’s ETO are not onerous, but properly using them, and denying their use to your opponent, is another key to victory. This article focuses in detail upon these Railroad lines, so all aboard!

Rail Lines: Friend or Foe?

As is true of most rules, what makes them “click” is defining and understanding their terms. Concerning the Rails in ETO, we have:

Line of Communication: A “Rail Line” used for tracing a Rail Line of Communication (RLoC) must be an unblocked line of connected Railroad hexes of any length (including 0 hexes) traced exclusively along Railroad hexes and hexsides (only, not unimproved Roads). Thus, when tracing a RLoC, as long as you can avoid enemy units and their unblocked ZOCs, any friendly Rail Line will do as long as it goes back to a functioning (i.e., having no Countdown marker) friendly Supply Source. You cannot trace an RLoC to a Minor Port or Naval Base having an NLoC; units must occupy those 0-range Anchorage hexes to be able to trace an NLoC from them.

Rail Movement: Ground units moving via Rail Movement can only move along “Friendly” Railroad hexes defined as those between two friendly-controlled City hexes with no enemy units or EZOCs anywhere along it. This means if you don’t control “both ends” of that section of Rail Line, you cannot use it for Rail Movement; the implication is that it can be tricky conducting Rail Movement along the forward edge of the front line where Rail Lines are often contested (i.e., not friendly to either side).

You MUST pay attention to the way the rails run between cities.

Blocking Enemy LoCs: The opposite is also true -- your “Friendly” Railroad hexes (defined above) cut your opponent’s communication lines. When unblocked (unbridged?) by enemy Ground units, your friendly rail lines prevent enemy units from tracing their LoCs through them. Think about that. If the enemy advances across your Friendly Railroad hexes, they cannot even trace an Overland Line of Communication (OLoC) across it and will be Out of Supply at the start of your next turn unless they “block” your Friendly Railroad hexes with some of their Ground units to “hold the line open.”

Rail Movement: Tickets, Please!

The key concept for Rail Moves is that you can make a limited number of them each turn by using your Rail Capacity during your Special Movement Phase. Typically, this Rail Capacity is spent moving your individual Ground units via Rail Movement, but your Rail Capacity can also be temporarily consumed by successful enemy Logistics Bombing Missions and Partisan attacks.

Where Rail Capacity Comes From

During your Regular Movement Phase, your Rail Capacity Used marker resets to 0 for use again next turn when you can spend it again up to your Rail Capacity marker (representing your per-turn maximum capacity available).

Typically, a Faction's per-turn Rail Capacity is scenario-defined. For example, in Thunder in the East, the Axis find theirs on the Game Turn Record Track (4 from the beginning of the game until April 1943, 3 until April 1944, and 2 for the duration).

For the Soviets, who are playing with their entire economy (and so it will be for the Axis in the Full ETO combined game) it is half (round up) of their EPs (excluding those gifted from Lend-Lease) received from the previous quarter. At the beginning of the war with the Axis, Soviet Rail Capacity is at 5, waning to a low of 3 in January of 1942 (with the Factory markers for Kharkov and Stalino relocating), and rising again from there. Wilderness Logistics: You may only conduct one Rail Move per Faction per Wilderness Theater per turn.

Using this Rail Capacity to shuffle Ground units around behind your lines is usually enough to service the war’s average needs, but a large scale redeployment of forces by Rail Movement will take a bit of planning and a few turns’ of capacity to see it completed. At that point, you might well be “telegraphing your punches” and might want to reach for your Strategic Redeployment card.

Pulling Your Freight

Typically, you spend 1 Rail Capacity to move 1 Ground unit via Rail Movement. Major Heavy Ground units (e.g., Panzer, Tank, and Mech Corps and Armies) cost 2 Rail Capacity, as does relocating the Stalin marker (i.e., the Soviet government).

ETO Cargo Transportation Matrix: land, air, and sea.

Derailing Your Plans

A typical enemy Logistics Bombing Mission (attacking with only 1 Bomb symbol) will consume 1 Rail Capacity 1/3 of the time; a robust Logistics Bombing Mission (with 2 Bomb symbols) will consume 1 Rail Capacity 2/3 of the time (failing only on die rolls of 1 or 6).

A typical enemy Partisan “Bomb Throwing” attack has about a 1/6 chance of striking a nearby Rail Hub (i.e., an enemy-controlled City hex having Rail Lines crossing four or more of its hexsides). If it does, it consumes 1 Rail Capacity.

Nevertheless, Logistics and Partisan Bombing attacks never spend the enemy’s last point of Rail Capacity for their next turn, so something Small and/or Light can always move by Rail Movement each turn!

Faster Than a Speeding Bullet

Ground units conducting Rail Movement can move an unlimited distance along Friendly Rail Hexes providing they do not enter or exit an Enemy ZOC. Note that, in this case, friendly units do not “block” EZOCs. Because the Rail Hexes used must be “friendly” and you must avoid EZOCs, this means that you will seldom be able to rail directly to or from front line hexes unless committing your Strategic Redeployment card that turn, which temporarily removes those restrictions.

The ability to move an unlimited distance via Rail Movement offers tremendous possibilities, particularly for bringing reinforcements and on-map reserves forward to reduce the danger or exploit an opportunity. In this long war of attrition, Rail Movement is vital during the “mobile” periods at breakthrough and withdrawal locations.

Strategic Movers

Garrison units can only move “strategically,” meaning by Rail or Sea. When moving by Rail, each spends 1 Rail Capacity to take the train elsewhere. Before relocating these pieces that only move strategically, make sure they have Friendly Lines to move along and take a moment to study and “see the big picture” before relocating them, as moving them is not always easy.

Putting the “Roads” in Railroads

“Road Movement” is also permitted in Frank Chadwick's ETO games. That is, Ground units using normal overland movement along a Rail Line’s connected hexes pay only one Movement Point per hex and ignore any hexside crossing costs to do so (even when that move would normally cost more than one Movement Point).

Weather Closures

In Mud weather, when all units are reduced to 1 hex of movement during both Movement Phases, Rail Movement is excluded as the trains keep right on rolling!

The Rail War of Barbarossa

When your side is on offense, as is the Axis at the beginning of Operation Barbarossa, you need to be mindful about capturing Rail Lines and making them “friendly.” This means combat (and overruns) that capture City hexes (rail junctions) and clearing enemy units and their EZOCs off of those Rail Lines. By so doing, you allow Rail Movement of reinforcements deeper into enemy territory (and your HQs to relocate) on the following turn, which is vital to the concept of The Time Value of Units (see below). Think of the Rail System in ETO as a "point-to-point" (City capture) game with hexes!

While on offense, it is also a good time for Logistics Bombing attacks to reduce the enemy’s capacity to flee -- particularly in the Soviet Union where such “flea”-ing units can jump a long way back and set up new defensive lines that you’ll have to break through to keep your offensive going!


The Time Value of Units

Time, timing, and space factor nicely into a titanic economic struggle such as the Eastern Front of WWII. In wargames, “The Time Value of Units” is a crucial concept. That is, the sooner a unit arrives (e.g., earlier in the Sequence of Play during a turn, or earlier in terms of the raw passage of game turns) and the closer it appears to where it is needed (for the Axis, in particular, this is often a function of Rail Movement, as their Reinforcements appear back in Home Territory cities), the more valuable that piece becomes.

That is, the "today-ness" of one piece increases its value over the "tomorrow-ness" of another (presumably better) piece because you can have it now (e.g., to dynamically plug or exploit a hole in the lines). The "here-ness" of one piece increases its value over the "there-ness" of another piece because it is where you need it now (instead of arriving “too late” to be truly decisive).

All of the time that you could be using a unit, instead of waiting for another to come online, increases its value in real terms during play.


On the Soviet side of the Barbarossa coin, they have a juicy Rail Capacity of 5 for the opening of the war, which is great. There are 26 Soviet units that begin play in the “Rear Area” and, while some are close enough to march to the front, you will need most of the Soviet rail capacity during the first two or three turns of the game to Rail Move these Rear Area units to more useful locations near the enemy.

[113.6] Rear Area Deployment: Setup a Factions’ Rear Area Forces (113.2.2) as indicated on their scenario’s setup instructions. These typically divide Rear Areas by countries (e.g., “In the USSR”) or larger areas (e.g., “In the Europe RP pool zone”).

Set up those Rear Area forces lacking more-exact deployment instructions in their geographic area as follows:

[113.6.1] HQ Deployment: Unless otherwise indicated, Rear Area HQ markers set up in a friendly City hex at least six overland hexes from the nearest enemy Ground unit, functional (124.2; i.e., with no Countdown marker) in Balanced Mode.

[113.6.2] Covering the Rear Area: One Rear Area Ground unit must deploy in each friendly Red Objective hex in its specified setup area that does not already have a friendly Ground unit in it. This means the Soviets won't be able to "game" their setup to create a "second front line" a few hexes in the rear during setup.

If there are not enough Rear Area Ground units to cover them all, occupy them in this priority order:

  1. Personnel City hexes (i.e., those showing their intrinsic 6-hex Supply Radius)

  2. Economic City hexes (i.e., those with a Factory or Oil Well symbol which are not also Personnel cities)

  3. Other Red Objective hexes (until all are occupied)

[113.6.3] Additional Rear Area Deployment: After Rear Area Ground units have ensured that each friendly Red Objective hex has a friendly Ground unit in it; place any additional Rear Area Ground units in:

  • Friendly City hexes,

  • That are at least three overland hexes from the nearest enemy Ground unit, and

  • That do not already have a friendly Ground unit in them (i.e., you can deploy no more than one per Rear Area Ground unit per such a City hex).

Alternately, you can deploy them in their Theater Reserves’ Newly Arrived Units box (250.0). If you still have Rear Area Ground units to deploy, add them, within the stacking limit (212.1), in or adjacent to any of the City hexes listed in this rule (113.6).

Therefore, when considering what the Soviets need to defend along their frontier, certainly Friendly Rail Lines should be protected that might:

A) allow an important unit to evacuate out,

B) allow an important unit to Rail Move as close to the front as possible and help stave off disaster, or

C) really screw with the Axis' needs to advance their Rail Lines forward!

Later in the game when the front line settles down, Rail Line control takes on similarity to Othello or Reversi, trading City hex control here and there for operational advantage, one of which is establishing a Friendly Rail Line to allow your Rail Movement and hinder the enemy’s cross-line supplies. This sort of slugfest-grinding for a key City or Rail hex often falls off the radar of “Grand Planning” players who make sweeping gestures with their arms over the map. Nevertheless, recognizing these Rail Line matters is a real advantage to the bean-counting Chief-of-Staff player who presses their nose to the map to spot specific locations that are such key hexes and plan operations accordingly.

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