Wednesday, June 5, 2024

Barbarossa - Conclusions and Reflections

I've been having thoughts of tackling this game series again.  It is rather easy to set up on Vassal and doesn't take up any space.  It does take a lot of time to play and some juggling of a few rules.  While I was pondering Richard sent me an essay (his word) on his conclusions and reflections on having played the game.  This forms this post.

All games must come to an end.

Over the last few days all the Barbarossa games with the thousands of
counters associated with each game have been packed up. A full
reconciliation of the counters back to the starting OOBs to make sure
nothing was missing and having everything in the correct box was
undertaken. The exercise took about 20 hours over several days, itself a
testament to the immensity of the project to play all the games together
in one campaign.

This exercise was a fitting culmination. The process of finding each and
every counter, itself a challenge with the OOB spread across different
sheets and some units appearing in more than one place depending on the
scenario, meant quite bit of back tracking to find "missing" counters.
It took me back to the very beginning of the endeavour when I was
thrilled at the contemplation of playing the largest board game ever,
something I could only really have dreamt of, despite having some games
in the series for over 30 years.

With games packed up, the truly epic undertaking of playing all 3
initial Barbarossa games in one huge joint campaign has come to a full
conclusion. 50 Game Turns were completed, which put us at the end of the
original time frame for Army Group Centre game.

The situation on the front was that Leningrad was completely surrounded
and cut off from supply, but there was virtually no game play in the AGN
sector, with both sides at a stalemate and further turns beyond the
scope of that particular game.  AGS was advancing to Kharkov and
clearing the way to the Crimea, although Odessa, like Tallinn in the
North, continued to hold out.

The original plan had been to continue playing after GT50, with the Kiev
to Rostov game in the South and Typhoon in the Centre. We decided to end
the campaign at GT50 for several reasons.

Although AGC was at the gates of Moscow by the end of GT 50, so
significantly ahead of schedule (aided by a Moscow first strategy and no
Kiev encirclement or diversion to Leningrad) there was little to no
chance of capturing Moscow even with time scale for the Typhoon game
(some 45 additional turns).

There were several factors influencing the reaching of this conclusion.

Broadly speaking the issues were:

1) The shape and length of the front line with the resultant inability
by the Germans to concentrate enough combat strength in multiple
locations in order to force a breakthrough

2) The inability to inflict more damage on the Soviets than they could
replace each turn.

3) Difficult terrain and lack of supply routes, limiting attack vectors

4) The almost certainty of extremely unfavourable weather and its
resultant effects.

A lot of these factors were interdependent, but the overall effect was
such that it was felt that they could not be overcome and the game in
AGC would bog down into a static front line and make for a very
uninteresting game from this point on whilst still involving a huge time

Firstly, the shape of the front line meant that there were insufficient
German units to be able to provide a contiguous front line.

There were two very large salients, one to the south and slightly to the
east of Moscow and the other due west of Moscow stretching some distance
to the rear. This required a lot of German units to hold this line,
which impacted the ability to concentrate combat power. A possible
solution to this issue would have been to allow more Regiment Substitute
counters in play than the 12-15 allowed for in the counter mix.

At the conclusion of play, the German front was more of a screen in most
places with gaps between units and relying on ZOCs to slow any Soviet
advance. The Soviets by contrast were able to use their superior numbers
to have units in every hex, forming a solid front which would also have
been very difficult to attack.

Whilst the replacement rate was one factor, there was one major issue
which tended to magnify the effects of this.

In the scenarios for Barbarossa, there is a mechanism of sorts which
penalises the Soviet player if they don't make so called Mandatory
Attacks. This might work at a scenario level to adjudicate a "winner"
for the scenario, however, in the context of a full campaign VPs became
essentially meaningless, as it is the fight for the objective that is
really the only relevant factor.

So with no real disincentive for the Soviets to not attack. This means
that the Germans must do the attacking and were simply not able to
eliminate enough Soviet units fast enough. As the Soviets rebuilt more
and more of their units, the front became very static and large scale
breakthroughs were no longer possible. The last major German
encirclements were in the last 5 turns of the game where Rhzev was
finally encircled and the Soviets were forced to abandon positions
around Kalinin (held by the Germans) to the North of Moscow, however,
with bad weather in future turns almost certain, unfavourable attack
vectors in terms of bad roads and related supply issues North of Moscow,
this was a final hurrah. Prior to this, the last major breakthroughs
were 10-15 turns previous when the front line screening Moscow to the
South East was widely penetrated and the Germans made a rush for
Moscow. Whilst promising for the Germans, the combination of Logistics
Pause, Supply lines, unfavourable terrain and ever more dilution to
combat power to secure the flanks, meant that the attack stalled and was
never really able to restart.

With more and more Soviet units being rebuilt as well as the prospect of
significant Soviet Reinforcements arriving in the Typhoon game time
frame and none for the Germans, there was a significant risk that
failing to form a contiguous lines would have meant being exposed to
infiltration from Soviet units with the risk of units being cut off and
supply lines threatened. As mentioned above, a possible solution to this
issue would have been to allow more Regiment Substitute counters in play
than the 12-15 allowed for in the counter mix. Nevertheless, the
required dilution of combat power to form a front line, meant that there
would then be even fewer attack vectors.

Limited attack vectors means that not enough Soviet units were going to
be eliminated to outpace the Soviet replacement rate, meaning they would
become stronger as time went on, exacerbating the issue. Moscow was not
going to fall by destroying the Soviet defenders. The only real prospect
for capturing Moscow would have been to completely surround the city,
cutting off supply routes. With far fewer units, this would have meant a
third salient to the North, which probably could have been achieved
exploiting the successes North of Moscow achieved in the last few turns.
Cutting off Moscow from the east would have been almost impossible given
lack of supply to that area, poor road network exacerbating the effects
of the poor weather (Mud conditions) and most importantly the already
mentioned issue of maintaining a contiguous front line.

On the one hand it might have been nice to play it out to see how things
might have unfolded, however, given the time commitment involved to do
this and given the challenges referred to above, it seemed like
unsatisfying gaming, which would have taken the gloss off what had been
a truly remarkable game to play, not one which, however, had been
without its challenges on many levels.

Physical Challenges

Having to stand for the duration of each gaming session was a major
physical challenge. Playing this way was certainly atmospheric in the
sense that it really did look like we were standing at the map table in
Supreme HQ and planning our next moves. (I'm sure Mark must have felt
like he was in the Fuhrer's conference room at various times after
having to listen to more than the occasional tirade from myself). From
that perspective, I can't think of too many games which would give you a
true feel for being at Supreme HQ.

Combining all the maps (20 in total) from each of the games was a major
logistical challenge. Not all the maps were in use at the one time. We
had the maps secured under perspex which worked well. As the front
moved, we had to remove the maps from the western edge and add the next
maps on the eastern edge. The maps needed to to photographed and then
the counters needed to be carefully put back and verified against the
photos.  Having to reach across the map at various times to awkward to
get to places in the middle of the map also proved a challenge.

Combining 3 different games which were not strictly designed to be combined.

There were several issues, some of which have already been touched on.

We played with 2nd Edition Rules from AGC and used those to cover AGN
and AGS. Whilst largely successful, a unified set of rules to cover all
the games would certainly have been an advantage.

The bigger issue we faced in combining the games concerned
reinforcements and replacements.

There were several issues in this area concerning the physical location
and timing of release of the Special Reinforcement Pool units.

Each individual scenario in each of the games has an OOB and
reinforcement schedule. Great care was needed in order not to double up
on units which appear in different scenarios, which was relatively easy
to overcome, but still required studying a lot of OOB material, often
presented across multiple charts in multiple games. Far more challenging
was the actual location of many units in so called special reinforcement
pools, as this required assumptions to be made about where they were
located at the start of the game. The timing of the release of special
reinforcement groups for the cost of VPs is normally handled by
achieving a certain result on the replacements table. As with Mandated
Attacks, VPs do not have the same meaning within the context of a
combined game, therefore it was difficult to come up with an acceptable
way of handling these units, which whilst physically present on the map,
did not necessarily play a part until a particular result on the
relevant table.

The rules concerning "Mandated Attacks" and Soviet replacements rate did
not combine well into the playing of all games together as a unified
campaign. The desired incentivisation of the Soviet player to attack
through this rule, did not translate into on map attacks and there were
a mere handful of minor Soviet attacks across the entire game.

These two areas would be the major aspect of playing all games together
which would need to be given some attention in order to keep the game
play competitive and remove uncertainty about where units where and when
they could be used and by whom.

Another challenge concerned railway repair. Once again, at a scenario
level for an individual game, the method of allowing a certain number of
hexes per map to be repaired each turn was probably Ok, however, having
to check each map individually for the railroad repair rate certainly
became a challenge when playing over multiple maps. Physical Railroad
repair units with repair rates would have made this aspect far easier.

The biggest challenge by far was, unsurprisingly, the time commitment
required to play. On turns where there was a lot happening, each turn
took an entire playing session of four hours or more. The game is brutal
in terms of the mental challenge involved in planning your turn, then
moving units and executing attacks. Having said that, the time just
vanishes whilst playing the game. One of the most absorbing gaming
experiences you could possibly have.

It took us 18 months to play 50 turns, not week in week out, but at a
generally steady pace including time off for vacation, illness and life

Was it worth it? The answer is a resounding YES!

The breathtaking scale of the games, all played together, was certainly,
for me, the board gaming equivalent of summiting Everest. Probably a
once in a lifetime experience. It was great to be able to share the
experience with Mark, possibly the only person with the right stuff to
even contemplate playing this truly magnificent monster game.

Overall, the games give a stunning impression of what Operation
Barbarossa was, how it unfolded, how it was fought and the challenges
faced by both sides all rolled into a game where you can almost
visualise the combat formations represented by the counters you are
moving across the map and which taxes your cognitive abilities, not only
in terms of how to play, but what to do.

A completely immersive experience and for this reason, I would say:

Barbarossa Accomplished!


  1. followed and thought it a great project

  2. The reports were always fascinating. Your vassal games should be easier on your back!

    1. Vassal does have some ergonomic advantages at the risk of sitting at the computer too long, but even then it is easy to save and come back at any future time.

  3. Impressive achievement. Well done!

    1. Thanks. Even though we have finished we continue to think about it. Hallmark of a great game.