Back In The U.S.S.R.
HIGH A richly detailed operational WW2 strategy that plays smoothly for wargame vets.
LOW The lack of handholding can be overwhelming for newcomers.
WTF Why are the aerial operations so fussy if the AI automation is turned off?
Even from our precarious vantage point in 2021, the sacrifices of the fallen along the Eastern front of World War II are frozen in time. We have almost a century’s worth of recorded history to tell us how each battle of the German blitzkrieg on the Soviets played out, and how a relentless winter and an unthinkable death toll turned back a seemingly-inevitable Nazi victory.
The Eastern Front is the largest military clash in history and, as such, it’s always felt more at home with the broader scale of strategic wargames where longtime wargaming luminaries Joel Billings and Gary Grigsby have made their home as co-founders of 2by3 Studios. Billings and Grigsby have been sharpening this sword for decades, so their release of War in the East 2 aims to carry forward this tradition to a contemporary audience.
The 500+ page manual that comes with War in the East 2 is a profound example of this tradition, for better or worse. It’s a luxurious tome that painstakingly documents all the game mechanics along with extensive reasons for historical (or deliberately ahistorical) design choices. As an object of study, it offers numerous avenues for further exploration and contemplation away from the game itself.
Frustratingly, the manual is also written in the language of the converted, carrying an expectation that the reader is already well-versed in all the basics. A small, but telling example: a diagram of the NATO counters used to describe unit types and strengths — one of the most fundamental pieces of information for reading the game — is unceremoniously thrown into an appendix near the back of the book, without any surrounding information. And why wouldn’t it be? Anybody that’s already played a historical WW2 wargame will almost certainly be familiar with the iconography, right?
This brings us to the fundamental tension at play with War in the East 2 and, maybe, with wargaming in general. The manual’s guided walkthrough of the Velikie Luki scenario does an admirable job of trying to ameliorate these difficulties by talking through the ground-level interactions of playing the first few turns in a small pocket of the map. While I welcome this description of the higher-level strategies of the battlefield, it’s a bit like a pool floatie in the face of a tsunami. There’s very little handholding to help onboard newcomers to the Eastern Front or wargaming in general, which leaves all of this richly detailed and satisfying text as a sermon to the veteran wargamer that’s already fluent enough in the genre conventions to tease out different dynamics and interactions in a self-guided way.
As such, War in the East 2 is a game that caters to players willing to tinker, their imagination sparked by unanswered questions raised in the manual or maybe even by other writings on the Eastern Front. It’s a philosophy that unquestionably renders a ludo-mechanical value judgment — players that aren’t willing to get their hands dirty with experimentation will either find themselves becoming that type of player over time and enjoying it, or quickly moving on to greener pastures. War is hell, after all.
So, despite this narrow focus – or maybe even because of it – War in the East 2’s turn-based combat offers a remarkably smooth ride once (if?) players settle into the fundamentals. Like a driving simulator with a collection of assists for braking and turning, 2by3’s design offers AI automation for players to potentially delegate some of the wonkier items like supply maintenance and air directives, leaving them to focus solely on maneuvering units on the ground. Though a “we-go” system of simultaneous turn resolution might have provided a more historically resonant simulation of the battles here, the more conventional “you-go-I-go” turn-based system imbues the proceedings with the look and feel of a board game, albeit one that’s rendered in eye-popping statistical detail.
At first, this relentless bombardment of company names and caliber numbers feels like a flex, as though doubt will surely poison the entire experience unless The Grognard can sufficiently trace every little historical detail to its natural conclusion. With persistence and practice, though, these details all begin to recede into the background as texture and embellishment, letting the carefully designed interplay of combat and movement come to the fore.
Thankfully, the AI cleverly works within the roles prescribed by history — the aggressive Axis general must advance with as much manpower and materiel as possible to close off avenues for counter-attack, while the stalwart Soviet counter-offensive has to hold the line by relentlessly punishing each Axis overreach. Numerous supplemental mechanics add further texture to these dynamics, such as conditional zone of control rules and penalties to units that attack after moving in the same turn.
War in the East 2 is a great wargame, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s an approachable one. It further entrenches a tradition that lives more as careful study than fast-and-loose gameplay, standing apart as a stunning reflection of the Eastern Front conflict that it simulates. As I peer down from the parapets, bolstered by the obligation of a generous review period, I find it a little too easy to tell all the new players held at arm’s length outside the walls of the genre that it’s worth it to climb all the way up here…but just take my word for it that the view is nice, even if the blood-soaked footprints in the Rasputitsa below are frozen, forever, in history.
Disclosures: This game is developed by 2By3 Games and published by Matrix Games. It is currently available on PC via the Matrix Games store. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on an Alienware Alpha R2. Approximately 25 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and five scenarios were completed (Velikie Luki ‘42, Road to Minsk, Operation Typhoon, Vistula to Berlin and Road to Leningrad). No multiplayer game could be completed using the Matrix Games online service, but 2 hours of play were devoted to solitaire PBEM play of the Operation Typhoon scenario.
Parents: There is no ESRB rating for this game, but it presents a turn-based simulation of historical military combat. Other than the opening video featuring a brief segment of bombs being dropped on farmland, there is no visual depiction of violence on the battlefield and the reviewer did not find any profanity or explicit written content of any kind during their time with the game. There are brief sound effects of gunfire or mechanized units (such as tanks or aerial units) mobilizing whenever actions are taken on the map.
Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: There are no required sound cues for gameplay. There is no voice acting and, thus, no subtitles required for cutscenes. There are no options to resize or recolor text. (See examples above.)
Remappable Controls: Controls are not remappable and are locked to a specific set of hotkeys.