Welcome to a new (irregular) series on Clio’s Board Games! As you know, I love playing history in board games, and as you also know, I also love reading about history. So, we’re pairing the two! (Think of it like a sommelier recommending a wine & cheese pairing.) Here’s a book and a board game that match each other for gaming/reading that is as enjoyable as it is educational. We begin with the Eastern Front of World War II: I recommend Russia’s War (Richard Overy) and No Retreat! The Russian Front (Carl Paradis, GMT Games).
The Book & the Game
Russia’s War has been published by Allen Lane/Penguin in 1997. Its author, Richard Overy, is a British historian (teaching at King’s College, London, at the time of publication). The book covers the run-up to the German-Soviet war and the war itself from the Soviet perspective, relying on the evidence from the archives which became available once they opened up after the fall of the fall of the Soviet Union.
No Retreat! The Russian Front was originally published by Victory Point Games in 2008. GMT Games published a deluxe edition in 2011. Designer Carl Paradis has since then published games on other fronts of World War II in the No Retreat! series. This first No Retreat! game covers the Eastern Front on a strategic level in scenarios covering either a few months or the entire war.
Connections & Conclusions
Overy’s book aims at unshrouding the mystery of the Soviet performance in World War II. For decades, western observers had to rely on the limited intelligence the western democracies had on the Soviet Union, and, after the war, increasingly on the German generals’ accounts of the war on the Eastern Front (always one-sided, and often self-serving). Overy’s analysis based on his research in the newly-opened Russian archives points out both the Soviet Union’s assets (the forced industrialization of the 1930s, the degree of ideological mobilization, and the Soviet citizens’ experience with harsh privations) and its liabilities (the extreme top-down structure of the Soviet Union, which was overcome by encouraging lower-level initiative – but only as long as the war lasted). Stalin, of course, falls in both categories, oscillating between good judgment and paranoia.
Modelling the Soviet Union’s unique war performance is a challenge for board games. No Retreat! The Russian Front does a good job in various ways: The Soviet Union will inevitably suffer tremendous losses in the beginning, but can replace its low-quality units with other low-quality units from its immense manpower reserves. Losses, however, are painful when the respective unit has been out of supply – in that case, the other side gains a precious victory point. That reflects the material and symbolic blow dealt to the Soviet defense when large forces were enveloped and annihilated (say, at Kiev in 1941).
The quality of Soviet forces improves in two steps: Initially (that is the 1942/43 Red Army) units improve, but remain brittle. A step loss results in their destruction. Soviet losses will thus remain high (as historically they were throughout the entire war, often exceeding the Red Army’s frontline strength in a given year). Only when the Soviet units turn into two-step units does the Red Army become a real juggernaut. In history, this reflects a change in doctrine as much as in equipment – of course the Soviets could rely on more tanks and planes as the war progressed (and, particularly, became more motorized with the delivery of thousands upon thousands of American Lend-Lease trucks), but their use of the forces at their disposal was entirely different in 1944 from what it had been in 1941 – more flexible, more focused, less encumbered by rigid top-down structures. While the Soviet player in No Retreat! automatically benefits from the unit improvements, their challenge is to adapt to the changing circumstances – turning from the defensive to the offensive, using the improved units in an appropriate way.
Finally, Russia’s War goes into the human side of the conflict. The immense cost in Soviet lives, the privations at the siege of Leningrad, the unimaginable atrocities of the German genocide on Soviet soil are all covered. While a game is unlikely to go into such matters (after all, games – unlike books – are still expected to be fun, and many players would be unwilling to commit war crimes in a game), at least No Retreat! captures the urgency of the war: The game can abruptly when the side with the initiative has scored enough victory points. I have seen Axis victories after the second turn (which represents July/August 1941). Thus, Soviet defense is never “I can fall back and give up this city, the Axis is going to be stopped by winter 1942 anyway” – rather “Will I be more screwed if I defend the city and expose the army to encirclement, or if I abandon the city and save the army?”
One small thing last: Both the book and the game reference Russia instead of the Soviet Union in their name. Colloquially, that’s understandable, but it veils the Soviet Union’s multi-ethnic makeup, with all the complexities of nationalism and imperialism that brings. So, that’s just something to be aware of – particularly in our times, in which those complexities have erupted into full-blown war in eastern Europe.
That, however, should not detract from both the book’s and the game’s merit. Russia’s War and No Retreat! The Russian Front offer – each in the way of their medium – interesting insights into the Eastern Front of World War II, particularly on the much-less-understood Soviet side. They are both excellent starting points for the student of the conflict who does not want to get bogged down in minute details of operations and instead grasp the essence of the German-Soviet War.