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What Was Stalin Thinking?

Under the Hood of the ETO Stalin Bot

By the ETO Development Team

When confronting a game design of WWII in Europe on a strategic scale, their creators must address some Big Questions. As we sojourn through the Frank Chadwick’s ETO project, the answers to those questions are firming. On some key questions, this is our current thinking:

1. When will the game begin? In 1939 with the invasion of Poland hardwired as the starting point or will it commence before that in a lead-up to the war’s opening?

In ETO, the complete 5-volume set (Thunder in the East, The Middle Sea, Decision in the West, Northern Fire, and Victory at All Costs) begins with the Germans at war with Poland, an Allied nation. That said, we have been stockpiling material for an additional volume, Dark Beginnings, where we explore the lead-up to the outbreak of the war in Europe.

2. How is neutral Russia handled before going to war with the Axis? Is there a Soviet player/Faction? Is it “frozen” in time and space at its June ’41 state and always activates at that time? Or can the Axis explore attacking the USSR before or after their historical Barbarossa launch date? Can the USSR opportunistically declare war on the Axis?

The above questions are the subject of and answered in this article.

3. What about Italy? Can the Allies influence neutral Italy before it joins in the war? How does the Axis player justify Italy’s historically questionable decisions, such as a major demobilization followed by a declaration of war on Greece? How can Italy rationally keep to something resembling its “historical script,” including its solo operations in the desert in 1940 and early '41, without using strict “artificial stupidity” rules?

We have the answers and they will be the subject of a future article.

4. How is American entry handled?

In ETO, because off-map events caused American entry (from the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor), we kept that simple historical event as the trigger. On the December II 1941 turn, the USA enters the war, period. “Hardwiring” this event greatly simplified the design and smoothed gameplay.

5. Can a Red Star/White Star situation occur, or is there at least such a scenario?

In ETO, we have designed a chance for a Separate Peace scenario situation (subject to playtesting) and plan to include a Red Star/White Star scenario (perhaps as a post-publication bonus if it is not ready when Volume V is published).

What’s Up, Bot?

Questions 2 and 3 above have long plagued game designers, and many Strategic WWII games have taken different approaches. The Soviet enigma of 1940 and allowing Mussolini to help drive the Axis war effort in the Mediterranean upon Italian entry into the conflict are crucial planks on any stage built for a proper historical setting.

In ETO, our approach to these starring characters was to provide a simple “bot” (i.e., artificial intelligence robot) mechanic for each. And, while mechanically similar, they are as different in their offerings as the personalities of these two WWII leaders. While Stalin issues (sometimes questionable) diktats that players cannot interfere with, Mussolini erratically sets Italy’s national aims leaving the Axis player to make the best of things until Mussolini is at last demoted to Hitler’s junior partner.

In this article, we will probe the war preparations of Stalin as WWII rages in the West.

The Curtain Rises

For the Soviets, Stalin’s opening moves are in place when the game commences by Germany invading Poland in September ’39. That is, the Nazi-Soviet Pact is in place. Spheres of influence between the Axis and Soviet Factions are established, and the Stalin Bot’s first card is seeded to perform their Border Dispute with Poland. In addition, the Axis and Soviet Factions have concluded a trade deal where Germany gives the USSR 1 Axis Equipment Point in exchange for 6 Soviet Fuel Points each Season. This economic aspect is very important for the Soviets as their economy is halved while sitting on the sidelines during the Limited War period of the game.

How to build the game from that point was the subject of an interesting internal design discussion. Should there be a Soviet player during the Limited War period when the Axis was at war with only the Allied Faction? What would that Soviet player do during that time? What decisions should be available to the Soviets within the game’s framework?

In the end, we explored and developed an artificial intelligence “bot” approach with the philosophy summed up below:

“During Total War, you play Stalin. During Limited War, Stalin plays you.”

The Bot Deck Mechanic

The Stalin War Bot deck tells the tale of Stalin’s territorial demands in the West, the great Soviet Naval building program, tightening Stalin’s political grip and personal power, reorganizing USSR tank forces (into their Early War Mech Corps units) to compete with Germany’s successes in the West and their acclaimed Panzer Corps units, and ultimately to take those USSR tank forces to war with Germany. If the Axis did not declare war on the USSR, Stalin would complete his forces’ buildup and training and declare war himself (circa 1942).

The War Bot Decks (for the USSR and Italy) are very small, typically just four cards (at a time) are in each. Because you select one card from each deck during the 1st Week of each Month, only three will occur each Season, and then the deck is reshuffled. Each bot deck's cards consists of numbered lines (1, 2, etc.) that typically progress in a sequence (A, B, etc.) to its end. Ultimately, each bot's tiny deck sees its cards discarded (to be reshuffled in next Season), replaced (typically by the next-higher letter in its line’s sequence, e.g., card 1A is removed from play and replaced by card 1B in the discard pile for next Season’s reshuffle, thus progressing that card line's story), or removed (without a replacement, representing the completion of that numbered line's events).

Designing these decks required some mental gymnastics for proper storyboarding to yield a plausible historical narrative. That narrative required the possibility of some randomness in sequencing the outcomes while maintaining its historical verisimilitude; it needs to “stay on the rails” of plausibility for a WWII Campaign Game that demands a high level of player commitment. This issue was a Goldilocks’ Porridge design problem; the trick was to get an answer that was not too hot (variable) nor too cold (inflexible), but just right.

Stalin Bot spreadsheet
Download XLSX • 22KB

And as designer Frank Chadwick has shown the development team, a good place to start for these problems is by making a spreadsheet of the historical storyboard and building the Bot card outcome probabilities and sequences from it. By examining this spreadsheet (linked here for your downloading pleasure), its events, timing, and costs, you can see how Stalin got the Soviet Union to their historical game situation from September of ’39 to the beginning of Operation Barbarossa (June III, ’41). We have even included a peek down the road at how the Stalin Bot cards arranged themselves for the Summer of ’41 (had the Axis not declared war).

Organizing the Stalin Bot Scenarios

Players use the Stalin Bot only when the USSR is in a Combined Campaign Game before the launch of Operation Barbarossa. If you begin a Campaign Game with Poland ’39, France ’40, or the Balkans ’41, the Soviets are “played” by the Stalin Bot until they are at war with the Axis Faction. No player decisions are involved in the making of Stalin’s Limited War situation. Stalin makes his bed and lies in it exactly according to the Stalin Bot cards before the war with the Axis Faction. Who is going to argue with Comrade Stalin (and live), right?

Each Month, players remove one Stalin Line Improved Defense marker on the USSR OOB mat before revealing the Stalin Bot card. That is, the Stalin Line starts strong and deteriorates over time until deployed on the map.

As a simple player aid to facilitate the housekeeping, the USSR’s setup Order of Battle exists en masse on a mat (shown below and placed in the still-neutral Soviet Union). There, it holds the USSR’s on-map forces separately from those still in the Force Pool; those on-map forces are ready for deployment when war occurs with the Axis Faction, at which time the game now accommodates an actual Soviet player. Soviet forces are added to (and occasionally subtracted from) this mat, while the separate Soviet Faction mat faithfully records Resource Point stockpiles and its Force Pool of unbuilt pieces.

In this Campaign Game version of play where the Soviet Faction’s entry is variable, they have a separate Soviet OOB mat (primarily concerned with their Air Force technology and development). It is the only OOB mat the Soviet Faction needs when play uses the Stalin Bot system.

The rest of the Soviet Faction’s “War Order of Battle” enters play via a series of OOB cards (to account for the USSR’s variable entry time). When examined, this sequence of events should appear very familiar to Thunder in the East players. Note that the historical dates of these events are shown in (parenthetical) brown text so that players can relate these back to the "fixed" times that they occur when playing the historical scenarios.

Use the slider feature to move them left and right.

Pulling the Treads of the Stalin Bot Deck

Card line number 1 presents the sequence of Stalin’s territorial expansion westward. With each Demand, Stalin adds one Fuel Point to receive a favorable die roll modifier (per the Border Disputes rules in ETO). Ultimately, things are probably not good for Stalin’s western neighbors.

Use the slider feature to move them left and right.

Card line number 2 puts the “demand” in the Soviet’s demand economy as Stalin builds out his Navy (perceived as necessary for international expansion) and, afterward, his Air Force.

Interestingly, the USSR’s new Battleships in this program were huge, well-armored, and well-gunned, each being bigger than Germany’s Bismarck.

The USSR’s pre-war Air Force was enormous but obsolete. In the great Russian tradition of not replacing old equipment with new (merely adding the new to the old), the USSR builds more new Air units to add to their large array of older models.

Use the slider feature to move them left and right.

Card line number 3 shows the Soviet’s initial progress building out their Early War Mech Corps units. With these in place, Stalin consolidated more power and prepares the USSR for war with the Axis (one way or another).

Use the slider feature to move them left and right.

Card line number 4 commences early Soviet troop buildups, including Cavalry and Airborne forces.

Card line numbers 5 and 6 reflect Stalin’s power grab adding Event cards to the Soviet’s deck. The key card is #6C, where Stalin looks for reasons to go to war (discussed further below).

Use the slider feature to move them left and right.

Card line number 7 is the rapid buildup for an impending showdown with the Axis. This Card Line is the gateway to Card line number 8, the longer-term improvement of the Soviet’s Early War Mech Corps units over time.

Use the slider feature to move them left and right.

Circa the Summer of 1941, the Stalin Bot deck winnows itself down to three cards – just enough to complete a Season. These will be the Air Force expansion card, the Early Mech Corps units upgrade/training card, and the Stalin Strikes? card. Let’s examine those latter two “closing argument” cards, cards which the other two Factions will be watching closely to see when and how Stalin dismounts from his political fence-sitting and the USSR joins the fray.

What if?: Early Mech Corps Units Training

Things improve for the USSR’s Early Mech Corps units upon reaching Stalin Bot card #8. Their Motorized Infantry units gradually Train into (Heavy) Mechanized units. In addition, all revealed (Heavy) Mechanized units are not removed a couple of Months into the war with the Axis. They are still permanently removed should they leave the map and land in their Force Pool for any reason, but their increased on-map longevity can help the Soviets with their counterattacks through an additional Season of play.

The Soviet Early War Mech Corps units. Note the improved version of the Motorized Infantry units at the end.

Each revelation of this card, add 1d6 of Trained Early War Mech Corps units to the Soviet Change box. These take their place on the map, immediately replacing their corresponding Motorized Infantry Corps units in play when revealed). There are 16 of these units, so an average of five Seasons is needed to put them all online (i.e., standing by in the Soviet Change box). Typically, this is around the Summer or Autumn of ’42. It could be a Season or two earlier or later (depending on how things shake out over time using the bot); what is important is the tension created in the other Factions watching this storyline unfold.

When the last Early War Motorized unit Trains thus, this card is discarded. At that moment, only two cards form the Stalin Bot deck so, after the next reshuffle, it automatically triggers a Soviet declaration of war on the Axis when the Stalin Strikes? card appears next Season (see below). Stalin has all his forces ready at that point; it is time to pull the trigger.

What if?: Stalin Strikes?

At that juncture of the game, card #6C, Casus Belli: Stalin Strikes? appears once per Season. Each turn that Month, there is a long-shot chance that the balloon goes up and Stalin declares war. The chances improve with Clement Ground weather in East Europe and also after 1941 (at which point the USA is in the war). If Stalin makes it through this card's Month without declaring war, he further Mobilizes and perhaps improves defenses along the USSR’s Western frontier.

It is crucial to note that a Soviet declaration of war occurs during the Axis Declare War Step. This timing is significant because the Axis Faction can still use their Blitzkrieg! card’s Sneak Attack benefits on that turn (essentially, reciprocally Declaring War with it, assuming they are holding their Blitzkrieg! card and desire to play it for this purpose). Thus, the Axis always retain the first opportunity to cross (or abandon) the border and attack the Soviets (or fall back from them in good order).

When the USSR joins the war, the now-needed Soviet player deploys their forces on the map, and the shooting commences with the Axis Player Turn. The Soviets balance of on-map forces varies by who declared war on whom – with more Soviets in the Rear Area should the Axis declare war (i.e., the historical “defensive” posture) and more Soviets Engaged on the frontier if Stalin declares war (i.e., in more of an “attack” posture).

“…a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.”

And there is our tale of the Stalin Bot. This artificial intelligence will do Stalin’s things using his historical logic and in roughly the same sequencing. Designed as a quick check each Month, the flow of play continues smoothly with neither the Axis nor Allied players making Stalin’s decisions (to their own Faction’s advantage, obviously) on the USSR’s behalf before the advent of the Soviet Player’s participation.

Please study it and let us know what you think!

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