With perhaps the most famous premature review in boardgaming under its belt, Columbia's East Front is finally with us, some three years and several re-designs later. In common with most of Columbia's games, it uses the 'block system' and tackles a subject and scope that many thought it couldn't handle - a strategic treatment of the Russian Front in WWII. Personally, as an occasional player rather than a historian of the period, I had high hopes for it and for once in this often disappointing hobby, the company and the game have come through.
The idea of using stand-up wooden blocks is hardly new, having been used before in Admirals yonks ago and more recently in ersatz form by TSR, but Columbia have made it their trademark over the years with their ofetn underrated games such as Rommel in the Desert. The system has some notable advantages, mainly that your opponent has little idea of composition or strength of your forces (thereby offering a workable system of hidden movement) and only rudimentary information on where your strong and weak points lie. This is Fog of War with no headaches.
The drawback is basically that of cost as I presume wooden blocks with colour sticky labels work out substantially dearer than counters, especially since Columbia use good quality hardwood. This normally results in a low unit density and thus speedier games but in the case of East Front, these assets have been sidestepped and the game weighs in with a boxful of timber. The resulting retail price is high at around £35-£40 in the UK, slightly cheaper by airmail from Columbia direct or from US discount sources. Whether this is a fair price has been the subject of some discussion. Accusations of Columbia cashing-in have been heard, though on what, I don't know, as previous success must have been low-key. I suppose the East Front must still have sales cachet. All things considered though, it must be said there aren't that many more components than in the Rommel game. I suspect it is simply that we are paying more for the lengthy R&D than purely bits.
Whatever, it is true to say that East Front is worth it. I don't think the components leap out and display forty quid's worth, but if you use it as much as I have the play value should make up for that. The game itself comes in a slipcased higher-than-usual-quality pizza box containing a cardstock full colour map, dice, charts, rulebook and over a hundred blocks in black and red. All the components are of a high standard and the map is particularly large and attractive.
The rulebook is complete and clear, using a neat system of rules in one column and design notes and explanations in a sidebar. Despite the clarity, I would suggest playing the introductory scenario a couple of times to get used to the concepts and systems, some of which represent new ideas or slight wrinkles on older mechanics. A couple of plays of this training run (at an hour tops) plus a careful re-read of the rules should have you up to speed and ready to try one of the eight big scenarios which, true to the gamebox, do take about four to five hours each (but thankfully no longer). Additionally, should you wish to commit large chunks of your life to the game, you can link the scenarios or play the entire campaign from day one.
The scenarios are in many ways the strength of the game system. While they appear similar on paper and in their standard rules, the shifting fortunes of the war make each one decidedly different in flavour. I am tempted to say you get eight games in one though that is pushing it, but there is a lot of variety on offer. Barbarossa, for instance, sees the Russians falling back before overwhelming attacks, the late war scenarios turn this around and the '42 and '43 scenarios are reasonably balanced with both sides able to attack and defend. Add in a number of winter situations on the same turf that really do test your patience and skills, and you have a good mix. My preference is for the Kursk scenario, partly because I seemingly spent much of my youth reading about the battle, but also because it offers balance and excitement with plenty of scope for diverse strategies.
East Front deals with the largest units it can; armies for the Russians, corps for the Germans. These are divided into various types of unit such as armour, infantry, mechanised, cavalry and so on. But, with two exceptions, the units are much alike, differing only in movement allowances with mechanised and cavalry being quicker, infantry frustratingly slow. Otherwise, they all fight in the same way and the feel is actually surprisingly good. One quickly learns the value of having enough troops in key areas and problems arise when there is a scarcity - when you have a hole to plug you grab any unit nearby and in desperation even the precious armoured units are thrown in. In game terms, the reason for the latter's elite status is that tanks and Soviet shock armies get 'double dice' which doubles their combat effectiveness and makes them formidable opponents. Running into a stack of full strength panzers is no fun. Ideally, these should probably be kept for offensives and counter-attacks rather than slogging it out in the marshes - you quickly realise why the crack units were so much in demand.
Deployment is straightforward as the map shows a start line for the scenario period concerned and you have a generally free set-up after allowing for that. This effectively means the forces are spread out along the entire front with complete freedom to play a risky game and load the weak side with receivers (with potential holes elsewhere) or to go for the steady defence in depth. You are quickly taught the importance of mobile reserves and supply lines and, cleverly, the map and system outline better than any other East Front game I've played just why Leningrad, the Caucasus, the marshes and the steppes were, in their different ways, of great importance. Also, on a lower level, the terrain shows why the tanks were mainly in the South and the infantry get to hold the difficult terrain in the North. All clever stuff, but cleanly handled.
I will not spend too long on the game systems themselves as they are straightforward and logical in the main. There are numerous rules to cover the chrome such as air support, mountain troops, siege guns, fighting withdrawals and so on, but these are incidental to the basic systems which concern logistics, movement and combat.
Movement is as one would expect different for each of the half dozen or so troop types, hindered by bad weather or terrain, but is easy enough to commit to memory. The real appeal of the game though is how units get to move in the first place which is tied into the clever HQ system that encompasses logistics and command control in a tidy fashion.
Basically, both sides have a number of HQ units, each one roughly equating to a front commander, plus an overall command unit - OKH for the Germans, STAVKA for the Russkies. These HQs have a number of strength points that indicate both the number of units it can activate and the range at which this can be done. Each time this power is used (and units cannot move in any other way), a supply/command step is depleted. This has to be replaced by paying build points in the coming turns at the expense of buying valuable replacement troops.
Suffice to say it is a lot easier to spend HQ points than build them up and offensives tend to slowly grind to a halt as the supply lines are stretched and the air power (also based around HQs) dwindles. This is due to a design aspect wherein it is the HQ's choice to press forward by movement or to support the units under its command with 'combat support'. This simulates attack coordination, ammo going forward and so on and is required to prevent units fighting at a disadvantage. If used, this means that an HQ can't always keep pace with the front so a major offensive will require two HQs working in tandem (a rarely afforded luxury) or assistance from the overall command HQ which has unlimited range to issue orders to specific units, usually those operating far from a local HQ or counterattacking from remote defensive positions.
Even given this back up, front HQs will run down to one or even nil factors and things get distinctly tough with no command available, forcing you to slow up and take stock while on the defensive. I lost count of the times a breakthrough was made (at some cost) only to be frustrated in the exploitation through having insufficent command. As broad a treatment as this may be, I felt it worked well in portraying a workable method of command and supply. It certainly shows why there were so few extended offensives, even in the summer months.
Combat is straightforward and, given the amount of battles you get through in a game, it needs to be. Up to eight units can be involved and these simply roll a number of dice equal to their current combat value. In the best traditions of old-tyme gaming, sixes cause hits that are evenly distributed on the opponent's troops. The crack forces mentioned above, and many ground support aircraft, score hits on fives and sixes and the number of hits taken can be modified by terrain or weather in a generally uncluttered system. These easy to learn mechanics give rise to rounds of combat where, at the extremes, a whole slew of sixes will decimate the enemy and make a tempting hole or the sight of a full strength panzer stack failing to do anything.
Usually because of the strong, four block stacks that often appear in important defensive hexes, the combat system can promote the sensation of punching your way through a wall of enemy troops. While I don't think this is wrong per se, it can take a while to inflict the required damage to make a hole and, because of the ability to feed in reserves and the simple hit-based system, battles can be long lasting or prone to last man stands where an attacking stack, even of overwhelming strength, is incapable of throwing a six.
Although last man stands are exciting in Risk, I have reservations about this grinding down of the enemy in individual battles (wondering if there should possibly be a less predictable collapse, perhaps if 50% losses are incurred in one turn) in the effort to achieve breakthrough. This is really my main gripe with the game but, with extended play, the game in general seems to hold together despite this. I don't detect a fudge here or any design intent beyond a scaling function of the combat system, so I can live with it as the overall picture does seem to hold together. For comparison, I suppose one would need to look at the historic movement rates of the front lines to see that, in the main, they were also distinctly sluggish with few major breakthroughs on the scale portrayed.
In the normal course of events, with weaker hexes or good die rolling, breakthrough is usually achieved by weight of numbers or application of double units and airstrikes to sensitive areas. There is another more dramatic method, namely the blitz attack. The latter is the best way around the abovementioned grind and constitutes a pre-declared double move that knocks two levels off your HQ (which accordingly takes a painful two months to rebuild) but allows two attacks or an attack plus an exploitation. This, if done well, should result in several tank units pouring through any hole created in the line to wander freely in the enemy's rear. Unchecked by mobile reserves or lack of supply, these will cause chaos, and rightly so.
For me, East Front's greatest strength is the imagery and flavour generated by the system. For those familiar with the Purnell maps with their big arrows showing offensives, counter-attacks and pockets, this is exactly what East Front conjures up. Front lines move at a believable pace - not fast (steady progress is all you can normally expect), but occasionally volatile when the dam bursts. There is however a great sensation of building and moving units into place through the hard winters, lining up perhaps a couple of full strength shock armies and the 2nd Guards Tank to punch a hole in the line or pinch off a salient come the spring.
You get a lot of feel of the armoured thrusts, the plodding infantry, air superiority, the ever shifting front line and the fall of vital cities. Armoured and Shock units quickly take on the feel of precious troops demanding careful use. In fact, all they get is an extra dice pip, but it is enough to set them apart. The only thing missing is the names of the commanders to generate 'Popov liberates Kiev with the 57th Infantry' chrome. Accordingly, there is little identification with units (there are almost too many for that) but a heroic defence of Sevastopol by a solitary mountain corps certainly adds the right flavour.
East Front also manages to hold one's attention in the areas of supply, command control and attrition. Normally these are the less appealing (or boring, if you prefer) features of a game that you are almost tempted to leave out (well, I am anyway) but because East Front seamlessly combines these into the game system and makes them interesting, they take on an inherent feel that one can relate to rather than the bolted-on rules sensation offered by most games (if they offer them at all).
Remarkably, all this atmosphere comes out from an essentially simple basic system. Granted, the numerous special rules move East Front a way up the complexity scale (and you really can't ignore them) but most of the time it is head to head in the trenches with a handful of dice and the rules are quickly committed to memory. As with most of the better games, you are left with problems relating to the game situation rather than working out how you do it according to the rules. In this respect, East Front is surprisingly intuitive and pretty much everything that happens can be instantly rationalised. Truly a game after my own heart.
Even as someone partial to the block system games, East Front is a revelation. Different from rather than better than Rommel, it has grabbed me, someone who no longer much cares for the period (apart from perhaps this type of atmospheric game), and it has been hard to stop playing it; currently seven scenarios (thirty hours+) and counting. The games are notable for the exciting tussles, desperate defences, swinging fortunes and the long, post-game analysis - 'If I'd only had the strength to attack Rostov in September','The snow came just when I brokethrough' or 'I had no idea you were that weak there!'. In fact, it has even pulled me a little more towards an appreciation of strategic problems rather than the tactical systems of which I am so fond.
East Front is a model of games design; it is polished, extensively developed and introduces a number of novel but solid systems. It plays smoothly, generates a lot of atmosphere and has just the right amount of chrome. I am clearly no expert on the period, but what I do know of it seems to be borne out in the game with the probable exception of the occasional breakthrough problems. If nothing else, and all the more remarkable given its simplicity and traditional hex/zoc pedigree, it is surprisingly evocative.
Agreed, the game is expensive and it will take you four hours or more each session with little prospect of speeding this up, but I found East Front well worth the investment of time and money, which is more than can be said of a lot of recent releases. Highly recommended, and we have the West Front module to look forward to at Origins this year which is quite mouthwatering - I doubt they can resist the Bulge scenario. One wonders, with interest, what Columbia will produce next.
On to the review of Grand Prix Manager or back to Entrepeneur.
Sumo - Mike Siggins - Legal Notices and Other Information