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Subject: Kaiser's War in the East -- Review rss

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John Setear
United States
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I base this review on three solitaire play-throughs (and a brief two-player introduction to the game). I did not regret playing the game to that extent, and I found the game to be historically accurate, but I found its play too stereotyped and unbalanced to justify additional playing.

Kaiser’s War in the East is the game from issue 301 of Strategy and Tactics magazine. The game simulates the entirety of the four-year conflict in World War One between Austria-Hungary and Germany (and eventually Bulgaria) on one side and Russia (and eventually Romania) on the other. Optional rules allow the players to take the war into the Bolshevik era, but my games all ended with a victory by the Central Powers before those rules could come into play.

This Joe Miranda design employs the traditional hexes, counters, and odds-based combat. The game is at the Army level with Corps-level break-downs. Hexes represent about 40 miles across. Mountains, cities, and swamps double the defense. The only meaningful weather rules double defense strengths in forests (of which there are some) during winter or thaw turns (which together comprise one-third of the turns).

Stacking limits are one Army or three corps per hex. (The Russians eventually have about a dozen armies; Germany and Austria-Hungary eventually combine to possess roughly that number as well.) Combat is odds-based. Headquarters contribute their strength to any one attack within their radius. Supply units, which I will describe in more detail below, play a crucial role in the game. There are a few other, occasionally relevant units representing shock tactics (generally one shock army per side per game), as well as one air unit per side, cavalry corps, mountain-infantry corps, and armored trains.

Three design decisions distinguish this game from the run of the mill: the breakdown/buildup of units, the crucial importance of supply units, and the expenditure of victory points (VPs) to purchase units.

Unit Break-downs and Build-Ups. Stacking limits are one Army or three corps per hex. Not coincidentally, I assume, Armies break down into three corps; three corps plus a supply unit can build up into an army. One or both of the attack and defense factors for armies are slightly stronger than the sum of their constituent factors. Much more importantly, however, the combat results table makes corps-sized units dramatically more vulnerable than Army-sized units. It is very common to obtain a combat result that requires the outright destruction of any corps in the hex but requires only that an Army break down into corps. Corps will therefore disappear wholesale in combat, while an Army will almost always survive the round. (Because there are two rounds of combat in each turn, however, the Army may break down in the first round and then its successor corps may receive an elimination result in the second round. Indeed, the fundamental dynamic of combat is to try to obtain sufficiently good odds in the two rounds to do just that: force the breakdown of armies in the first round, then force the outright destruction of those corps in the second round.)

Supply Units. Supply units double the attack strength of units (headquarters are units, too) within their radius for a single combat; the supply unit then disappears. You must also expend a supply unit to convert three corps into an Army. Supply units thus become a crucial driver of the game. If you have enough of them, then you can make progress with your attacks in both rounds, and you can recombine those corps left over from the previous player-turn’s combat results back into an Army. Without supply units, in contrast, you will find it difficult to obtain favorable combat odds, and your front line will melt away as un-recombined corps vanish in the face of even low-odds attacks by your opponent.

VIctory Points as a Metric of Both Territorial Progress and Resources. You receive VPs, and/or your opponent loses VPs, when you kill enemy units or take important cities. You also use VPs to purchase combat and supply units. The initial appearance of some units comes without the need to spend any VPs, but you invariably must spend VPs to keep your lines intact and your attacks on track. Each side receives roughly 25 VPs per turn. The rebuilding of an Army whose corps have also been destroyed costs 22 VPs (assuming that you purchase the associated supply unit), so you can’t be taking much in the way of casualties without a decrease in your VP total.

If you go to zero VPs, however, you lose the game. This leads to an obvious tension. Build up too much, and your VP total goes to zero. Build up too little, however, and your opponent will send you into a death spiral of casualties and holes in your line.

The decision about how many VPs to spend in building up is a bigger problem for the player who goes first in a turn (this varies from year to year): both players receive their VP infusion after the second player has taken his turn, so the first player has to guess how many VPs to leave as a hedge against attrition or (rarely) territorial losses during his opponent’s player-turn.

How does the game proceed? I may lack imagination, but all of my play-throughs unfolded in roughly the same fashion. Even though I was trying in later play-throughs to be conscious of the way things had developed in earlier play-throughs, I couldn’t come up with any new strategies.

In all cases, I played the full campaign scenario with the historical set-up.

At the start of the game, the Russians have the advantage. There is only one German Army on the board and just three Austro-Hungarian Armies, while the Russians have half-a-dozen Armies and soon receive three more. Furthermore, the Russians start with 80 VPs compared to 65 for the Central Powers. Finally, the Russians almost inevitably capture an Austro-Hungarian objective city (Drohobyz-Boryslaw), which the Austro-Hungarians may garrison with at most a corps; the Russians, who move first, generally storm in successfully. The loss of an objective city on the first turn results in greater VP swings (10 VPs to the conqueror and a loss of 15 VPs to the other side) than in other turns (5 VPs and 10 VPs, respectively).

Generally, then the Russians have 90 VPs to spend going into turn two, while the Central Powers have only 50.

There is another pressure on the Central Powers to spend VPs early in the game. The Germans have the option, right from the start, of combining two corps (4 VPs each) and a supply unit (10 VPs to build, although the Germans receive 2 per turn for free during 1914) into an “Ableitung” unit, which is treated like an Army for CRT purposes. There are four Ableitung units. The Germans must be careful about over-building, lest the Central Powers’ VP total go to zero, but they can generally build all four before 1914 is out.

The first turn is generally close to the apogee of Tsarist fortunes. The terrain behind Drohobyz-Boryslaw soon yields, to the south, to the Carpathians, which slow movement and improve defense. The Russians thereby find it very difficult to threaten Vienna or Budapest, which comprise two of the three remaining Austro-Hungarian objective cities. Krakow, the fourth, is protected by distance and several cities between the initial front and that objective.

The Germans are also likely to capture Warsaw in early 1915, which gives the Central Powers a VP swing and allows the placement of supply units relatively close to the front. (Supply units may begin either in a home city or in a captured objective city.)

Of greater importance, the Germans receive a relatively steady flow of Armies and headquarters. This soon leads to a German offensive capacity that the Russians cannot hope to match on offense and can barely contain on defense. Two German corps, with attack strengths of 8, can often draw upon a headquarters with a strength of 5 or more; if the Huns expend a supply unit, that attack generates 42 or more strength points, which is 6-1 odds against a Russian army. Such an attack causes the defender to disappear half of the time, and the Russians just don’t have enough VPs to replace such losses readily -- especially in 1915, when the Central Powers receive three supply units for free every turn, while the Russians get just one such freebie. Lower-odds attacks reliably cause the breakdown of Armies into corps, and the reconstitution of a stack of corps costs a supply unit (10 VPs) even if the corps are not destroyed in the second combat round (which would then cost 12 VPs to regenerate).

So, slowly but surely, 1915 sees the balance swing inexorably from the Russian initiative of 1914 to a lopsided if torpid advance by the Central Powers, especially on the German part of the front. The Russians might hang on, but the outcome seems inevitable. (In my three full-fledged play-throughs, the Russians threw in the towel once in 1916, once in 1917, and once in early 1918.) There is suspense about when, but not whether, and the Russian capacity for a counter-attack is so limited that there’s no suspense there, either.

I might also note that the game, while definitely less static than the Western Front in World War I, doesn’t give the players the opportunity for sweeping movements that might evoke the more dramatic moments on the Eastern Front, either. It costs a movement point to exit a ZOC, and the Russians only have two MPs, so they have a very difficult time re-deploying their forces at all. The units of the Central Powers have three MPs, which lets them shift forces if all the hexes involved are clear terrain but is not enough to engage in large-scale movements. (A further use for expending a supply unit is to double the movement allowance of all units within its radius, but a front sufficiently ragged to allow any such break-through to be useful is the front of a nation on its last legs anyway.) So, on a comparatively fluid turn, the front moves one hex back in a few places, which gives you some sense of progress but little sense of drama. (This sense of slow-motion warfare is probably inevitable, given the choice of hexes representing a fair amount of territory and game-turns representing only a month or two.)

So, to summarize. This is an easy-to-learn game with no weird, ahistorical aspects. It provides a number of choices to the player not faced in the typical hex-and-counter game. It plays out without much variation from game to game, and play is not particularly dramatic.

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John Clocherty
Western Australia
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Good summary. I own this one and have been wanting to get it on the table. Sounds like it could do with a rules tweak to make Russia a bit more competitive.
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Mark Sterner
United States
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The histories I've read suggest that the Russians could never really hang with the Germans in the Great War. At best just slow them down a little. Perhaps it's just being realistic.
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