Pages Menu

Categories Menu

Posted on Feb 18, 2020 in Boardgames, Front Page Features

Back to the USSR! Frank Chadwick’s Thunder in the East. Tabletop Game Review

Back to the USSR! Frank Chadwick’s Thunder in the East. Tabletop Game Review

Ray Garbee

Frank Chadwick’s Thunder in the East. Publisher: Victory Point Games / GMT Games.  Designer: Frank Chadwick. Developers: Alan Emerich, Lance McMillan Price $ 149.00

Passed inspection: A more playable giant version of the Great Patriotic War. Big, gorgeous counters and huge maps. A glossy well-constructed rule book. Quality play aids. Multiple scenarios spanning the war and a massive campaign game.

Failed basic: It’s so big it might not fit on your game table!

Back in the days of my youth, Game Designers’ Workshop, or as it later came to be known, ‘GDW’ was a prolific producer of conflict simulations, a.k.a. – wargames. Even in those days, a designer’s reputation – or brand if you will – was a way for consumers to gauge their interest in a new title. My buddy Matt and I use to flip over the box of the latest GDW game to see if it was yet another design from the creative mind of Frank Chadwick.

{default}

In the spring of 1983, Matt and I embarked on an epic game quest. The two of us played ‘Fire in the East’, GDW’s monster game of the German invasion of the Soviet Union in World War Two . The game started in late spring and ran on and off across the breadth of summer. It featured something like 3,000 counters and markers. There were deep stacks of counters along the active front lines. We eventually had to wrap up the game for college, but after three consecutive – and fruitless – attacks on the suburbs of Moscow, I conceded that the Reich would not capture the city before winter’s icy grip brought the offensive to a halt. It had been an epic gaming experience for the two of us – a true monster game.

Whenever we discussed what game to play next, a running joke over the next few decades became the response ‘How about a quick game of Fire in the East?’ Running a close second is that each time it snows in our neck of the woods for I  post one the weather tables from Fire in the East and blame Matt for the bad turn in the weather.

Over the next few decades, we stayed engaged with Frank’s designs playing a lot of table top miniatures games using both Command Decision and Volley and Bayonet. As much as I enjoy playing both these games, I often found Frank’s designers notes invaluable as insights into his vision of how a game offered a lens through which to view historical events and the decision-making process of the participants.

Now some 35 years later, I’m back on the Eastern Front with Frank Chadwick’s latest game ‘Thunder in the East’.  To paraphrase Michael Corleone, ‘Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in’.

I’ve played a number of games on the Eastern Front over the years. We cut our teeth with repeated playing of Avalon Hill’s classic “The Russian Campaign’ and the afore-mentioned Fire in the East. When I’d first read that Frank had a new World War Two board game series, I think I rolled my eyes and thought – ‘are we reduced to redoing the old Europa series of board games?’  But then I thought, a lot has changed since that epic game back in ’83. After the Soviet Union collapsed there had been a wealth of order of battle information made available.  As importantly, there has been a lot of evolution in both game design theory as well as the quality of game components over the last four decades’ 40 years.  

When I cracked the lid on Thunder in the East, I realized my initial cynical question had indeed been an uncharitable thought. The box was chock full of gaming goodness, almost bursting at the seams. Like what you ask?

  • Map sheets (2x one size and 2x time the other size)
  • Map – 49” x 41”
  • Counters and markers – 13 counter sheets with 1,050 playing pieces
  • Event Cards – 84 event cards
  • Rulebook – 88-page book
  • Reference Book
  • Scenario Book
  • Player Aid charts (two sets of three)
  • 10 Miscellaneous game aid charts

The maps are amazing. Printed in gorgeous full color, the big, oversized hexes make for an impressive game board. The artwork is well rendered and conveys a sense of the landscape of Eastern Europe from Carpathia to beyond the Volga. The map depicts relevant terrain types as well as the rail networks connecting the cities across the Soviet Union and into Germany and the associated allies and conquered territories. Finland is noticeably absent (it will show up in a later game).  The map covers a large space – this game is not going to fit on your standard kitchen table – you’ll need at least a 6’ x 4’ table. An 8’ x 4’ would be better to have room for all the charts and tables used during play.

As you’d expect in a game encompassing this massive campaign, there are a lot of counters and markers. The count of game pieces clocks in at over a thousand. But it doesn’t feel like there are that many on the table. Partly that’s the way the map swallows up your armies (the western Soviet Union is BIG!) and partly it’s that the units and markers and very different sizes and shapes and don’t clutter up the map.

The counters themselves are gorgeous. Made of thick heavy cardboard and printed in full color they are easy to read and handle and not cluttered with a bunch of notation and comments. The markers are functional, yet smaller in size. You are unlikely to confuse the markers with combat units.  Air units have attractive images of the aircraft along with the type name, while ground units are depicted in the classic format.

The event cards are great – these depict special events or activities for each side. It’s an interesting selection of events that capture various aspects of the conflict. Not quite the full ‘card driven game’ that relies on operations points, but these are still powerful ‘game changers’ that players will deploy to great effect.

The rulebook is well done. It’s a softcover, perfect bound book, but with heavyweight glossy pages. The resulting book feels like it’s from a high-end journal or book. It feels quite durable and should stand up to heavy use.

The reference book is a relatively short, soft cover booklet with saddle-stich binding. Think of this as a glossary – all the terms used in the game are defined here, along with references to where to find details in the rules.

The scenario book is also a soft cover, saddle stich bound booklet; this contains all the scenarios for the game, along with instructions on the campaign game.

The players aid charts are well done. It’s clear that the design and development teams put a lot of effort into these as the layout is clean and well organized. The step by step description of the turn chart is one of the best I’ve seen for a large-scale ground combat game.

The other charts are helpful – two of them house each side’s respective reinforcements and available force pool. They include descriptions of how to form up assembled armies or how to break some units down into lower level units.  There’s one chart to manage all the aviation units in play. Other charts are used as reminders on transport limits, or aspects of the campaign game (for example, economic production and national morale).

Whew! That’s a lot to unpack! And it’s a lot to digest. But once you chew on that for a bit, the game begins to release a lot of flavor. How does it taste? I’m glad you asked!  Like the Russian dish ‘herring under a fur coat’, Thunder in the East has a number of layers.

At its core, you get a solid game of the conflict between the Reich and the Soviet Union. Units have attack and defense factors and movement factors. At the scale of the game, movement costs are pretty constant across terrain types.  It’s a mostly IGO-UGO model, with the active player doing a little movement, then conducting all their attacks (land and air) and following that up with a second movement phase where everything can move. Thunder in the East traces it’s lineage back to Frank’s earlier game “Battle for Moscow”.

Logistics is nicely handled in a way that minimizes bookkeeping, while still requiring a degree of strategic thought and planning. Logistics plays it correct role in putting the brakes on a really successful breakthrough and requiring a pause in operations to allow the supply ‘tail’ to catch up with the front lines.  The geography of the landscape plays a role, with depot cities providing a radius of supply. Gaps can be covered with high level headquarters. But give those headquarters careful thought when placing them – relocation is disruptive and time consuming.

Combat resolution will hold no surprises for veteran gamers – you calculate the odds based on attack and defense factors, modify it by terrain and you’re almost ready to roll the die. The one area of uncertainty involves air support and other forms of support that might be in effect due to event cards. All these sum up into a number of ‘support dice’ that are rolled prior to the combat which can modify the final odds.

While we’re talking about air support, I found the air combat system quite refreshing. Air units live off the map in a management chart. Planes move to the table when summoned to perform a mission in the combat phase. The common mission is ground support (strike) that impacts the ground combat odds, but it includes other missions such as interdiction, logistics bombing against supply depots, airfield bombing to suppress enemy air units and air transport and supply. Advanced rules include strategic bombing.

The air rules strike a nice balance between playability and detail. They give it an operational sense of what’s going on, while at the same time limiting ‘gamey’ tactics like piling all your air support into one battle. (My legendary thousand plane raids for ground support in Fire in the East were a prime example of this).

Wrapped around this core game are advanced (‘optional’ rules that bring in air assault units and naval combat. Granted air assault was not a big feature of this campaign (with exceptions like the Battle of Kanev) and naval operations are pretty limited with the Soviets owning the Black Sea and the Reich controlling the Baltic. The nice element with the advanced rules is the role of partisans. While still abstracted to a degree, each side can raise irregular forces to further their cause and force their opponent to divert units into securing their rear areas.  Partisans are useful at disrupting supply lines, but are not likely to hold ground in the face if determined opposition.

There is a lot to like in Thunder in the East. Counter density is not high. Especially when compared to the earlier Europa game Fire in the East. You don’t see tall stacks of counters. This is nice as Matt and I still tell stories of how a deceptively tall stack of administrative markers led to the dreaded ‘Pripet Marsh breakthrough’ along an otherwise unguarded rail line through the marsh.  

The game captures the power of motorized/mechanized units that symbolize combat in World War Two. Playing the game, it’s evident how the unit ratings and rules combine to convey the power and transformative impact mechanized warfare had during the Second World War.

At the same time, the air warfare rules capture the feel of the air war in the East. They reflect that the aerial conflict remained mostly as it had been in Poland in 1939 – an effort subordinated to the ground campaign. Neither side fielded heavy strategic bombers in numbers like the United States and United Kingdom. The mostly medium and short ranged aircraft served the overall progress of the ground war – either in direct support of combat, or ranging behind the lines to disrupt logistics and enemy air units.

The special traits for air units – tough, vulnerable or defensive strike – give depth to a straight-forward air combat mechanic and add a tactical dimension to the air units. For example, the Stuka almost become a ‘fire brigade’ to use in a defensive role as a spoiler to break up a Soviet attack. But make sure they have an escort lest the Red Air Force pounce on them!

Another aspect of this game is the Integration of the card driven game elements. While not ‘card-driven’ in the sense that the cards provide operations points a la GMT Games “Path of Glory”, the event cards give the game a lot of flavor sense of the period.  From the outset, the Blitzkrieg card reminded me of the special ‘invasion’ turn you had in Fire in the East. But it also could be recycled to simulate the major offensives that were launched across the war. Other cards represent the effects of German panzer or fighter aces, the mobilization of conscripts in the Soviet Union or preparations that aid in an opposed river crossing. The cards add that layer of ‘chrome’ without needing a cumbersome layer of ‘optional’ or special rules added to the rulebook.

The cards also layer in a nice aspect of the fog of war as you don’t know what options your opponent has selected and how their choices will impact your plans. Will the Soviets leverage their rail net to temporarily boost the number of troops they can move by train?  Will the Luftwaffe embark on an aerial offensive to suppress the Red Air Force. You won’t know until your opponent reveals their cards.

Once I had digested the rules, I found the game quite enjoyable. But even though enjoyable, you still have to play smart. Kicking off Barbarossa, I launched four consecutive overrun attacks against untried Soviet corps, only to have the dice betray me. I watch each overrun fail, resulting in a step loss to each if the attacking panzers. It was the equivalent of losing two full corps before even reaching the combat phase. In hindsight, it was a great learning experience, but we should have just called it a loss for the Germans and reset for a second game. Those losses right out of the gate threw off the entire offensive pace of the game. The moral here being – just because the game allows you to overrun a unit, it doesn’t mean you *should* overrun it – especially when it’s a mystery like an untried unit. You’ve got to use your judgement (well, better judgement than I used, anyway!).  To me this is a classic trait of Frank’s games. He does not want the game to restrict what you do through rules, he wants you to exercise sound judgement when executing your plans within the game. If you make unwise choices, you’ll pay the price!

From the other side of the table, my opponent Matt found the experience leveraged his memories of our long ago game of Fire in the East. He was focused on building multiple defensive lines to blunt and slow the German advance – he was doing a fine job of it too with a substantial build up defending the approaches to Leningrad and Moscow and a robust defense in depth across the Western and Southwestern strategic directions.

The scenarios are a blessing. Given the sheer size and length of the campaign game, very few of us can devote that kind of time, effort and space to running through the whole game. Hey – I’m not a carefree 18-year-old youth anymore, it’s just not going to happen. Fortunately, Thunder in the East includes a number of scenarios that depict the major offensive operations across the war. These range from the initial German invasion to the high-water mark at Stalingrad all the way to the Soviet push into the Balkans during Operation Bagration.  The scenarios give a good mix of showing the strengths of each side over the course of the war.  Most of the scenarios are billed as ‘playable over a weekend’. I think that’s a reasonable statement if you can plan on 6-8 hours of playing each day (slightly shorter if you can start on Friday night!)

Be aware, there are a few items that caused annoyance or confusion when setting up the game. A couple of these were physical elements. I had a lot of trouble keeping the map sheets secured and properly aligned. This really manifests itself where the four sheets come together as there is overlap between all four sheets. When I break out the game again, I’ll likely look for some kind of sticky dots that will help fix the sheets in place without all the messiness and damage that comes from using tape.

Beyond the challenges with the map, there were a couple of counter sheets that were misaligned. Nothing was rendered unusable, but some units had their corps indicator chopped off and some markers were way out of center. It was a rare miss in a game that otherwise has exceptionally high production standards.

The next item is not really a defect per se, but caused me a bit of confusion. When setting up the Barbarossa scenario, it was a little unclear that the German units (with two exceptions) set up in either East Prussia or in occupied Poland (the map has the technically correct name of ‘General Government’ that indicates it was occupied by the Reich at the start of the campaign.) I pulled my trusty copy of Esposito’s ‘West Point Atlas of American Wars’ off the shelf and quickly confirmed the German set up limit. The set up text could clarify this with a sentence or two for those folks unfamiliar with the conflict and the details of the Barbarossa invasion.  Or it’s a cunning plan to get people to read a book and look at a map. If so – well played!

Thunder in the East is very well supported. The Victory Point Game legacy webpage has a lot of good content for the series as does the Thunder in the East page on the GMT Games website. Beyond that there is support on the ‘usual suspects’ of Consimworld and board game geek, as well as a group on Facebook. You can find videos with detailed examples of play online.  

One of the things I enjoy about many of Frank Chadwick’s game is that he’ll provide good insights into why his games do what they do. How Frank’s vision come through in the game – be they earlier works such as Command Decision and Volley and Bayonet or the current Thunder in the East explains much about how Frank views a conflict and what’s important in bringing that event or period to the tabletop.  A central theme over the years I’ve seen is that a complex gaming experience is not synonymous with a complicated game. The real work of the designer is in bringing that complex decisioning making process to the table while not creating an unwieldly, complicating game engine in the process.

Frank does a much better job of laying out his design goals in an article you can find on the GMT games website:

Just to hit the high points, For Thunder in the East – and the whole ETO series – Frank had four key design goals. Those were;

  • GOAL 1: A mechanically smooth system; this means a minimum of rules exceptions and special cases, and a minimum of bookkeeping.
  • GOAL 2: Game units, resources, and systems which are concrete as opposed to abstract.
  • GOAL 3: Recognizing that this is primarily a ground war game series. This means modeling air, naval, strategic warfare, and production as supporting adjuncts to the ground war game, not as competitors to it.
  • GOAL 4: Logistical constraints must, of necessity, drive game strategy, but these should not dominate the game’s mechanics.

From playing the game, it certainly feels like the design team succeeded in achieving all four goals.

Frank, Alan and Lance have done an excellent job with Thunder in the East. It provides players a high degree of flexibility while still imposing constraints driven by logistics and geography. It’s very well done as you rarely feel like your ‘gaming the system’ (looking for rules loopholes) but instead are working within the constraints the world has imposed in terms of resources, place and time to execute your strategy.

A common question asked when deciding to buy a new game is does the game support solitaire play.  The bad news is there is not a dedicated process to automate the play of one side (commonly known as a ‘bot’). 

You can play Thunder in the East solitaire if you are willing to play both sides. The down side is you will lose some of the fog of war from having perfect knowledge of each side’s plans (and the event cards each side is holding). Otherwise, the game is big enough that you can ‘change hats’ and get into character as you roll through each side’s phases within the game turn. The game is large enough that this flipping back and forth may introduce some element of the fog of war.  Referring back to one of Frank’s stated design goals it’s that ‘large size is a form of complexity’ I found that when playing both sides, that the large size did introduce some of the fog of war.   

That size is another reason why solitaire works. It will take so long to play the game that you’ll need to leave the game set up for an extended period. I found that doing so I could play a turn or two in an evening. Over the course of a couple of weeks I worked through a scenario. 

There is a VASSAL module for the game, so if space is a concern, you can get in a virtual game with an online opponent.

At the end of the day you have to ask yourself if Thunder in the East is a game you want to add to your collection. That’s a tough question and it has a ‘yes, with a but’ answer. Let’s get the ‘but’ out of the way first – if you have limited space to set up your board games or lack the ability to leave a game set up for an extended period of time (like say over a weekend or longer), then you may want to think hard about buying the game.

But if those items are not a concern, then there is a lot of exciting stuff going on with Thunder in the East. The game falls into a sweet spot that my opponent Matt, described as either “The Russian Campaign, heavy” or “Fire in the East, lite”. If you want to increase your knowledge of the eastern front, Thunder in the East is an excellent educational tool. You’ll learn a lot the of the geography of the region – geography which is just as relevant now as it was in the Second World War. You’ll also gain insights into how and why the war on the ‘Russian Front’ unfolded the way it did. 

Thunder in the East is the first volume of Frank’s new series – the European Theater of Operations or ‘ETO’. The second volume, ‘The Middle Sea’ is currently in development. If this is a series you think you’ll enjoy, then you should jump aboard and start with the classic eastern front scenarios presented with the Thunder in the East.  And those scenarios are really how you should view the game – it’s not one game with a high price point. It’s really like your getting six games that share a set of common rules, counters and maps.

I’m very happy with Thunder in the East. The next time someone asks the question – “How about a quick game of ‘Fire in the East’, my response will be to pull ‘Thunder in the East’ off the shelf and say ‘Let’s do this!’

Armchair General Score: % 91

Solitaire suitability (1–5 scale, with 1 being virtually unplayable as a solitaire game and 5 being completely suitable for solitaire play):  3

Ray Garbee has been a gamer for decades, Ray’s interests include the Anglo-Sikh Wars through the conflicts of the 20th Century and beyond, but his passion remains ACW naval gaming. He continues to dabble with designing tabletop games. His past works include Iron Thunder, Anaconda, Anaconda: Capital Navies, Battleline: 2250 and articles in a number of defunct hobby magazines

The size of army counters
‘Stavka’ aka Matt
The Axis Air Force at Start
The aftermath of the storm over the Motherland
Weather card
Ground attack scores big!
Army Group North
Battle for Moscow 1
Battle for Moscow 2
Reference Book

5 Comments

  1. I’d describe this as an unambitious review of an unambitous game.

    We have dozens of games on the great patriotic war, spanning 5 decades, focused on movement and combat. Who thinks movement and combat was how they war was decided?

    Adam Tooze has explained how Germany was doomed by economics, if only its enemies could deploy its superiority.

    John Erickson has explained how Stalin learned to trust his generals, allowing this to happen.

    David Glanz has explained that the key to victory was the Soviet generals creating an operational method which exploited these advantages.

    Surely we have room for a game which focuses on these things? Instead, here, we have another retread, a retread applauded by the review.

    There’s a reason our games have barely advanced as models in 50 years – it’s that games and reviewers want counter-pushing fun. Where’s the harm in that, I’m sure you’ll ask. No harm at all, so long as that’s the story you tell yourself about your hobby – that you are playing games about war, just as you did as a child. But if your story is instead that you are learning about history, then you are being inauthentic, as insight is barely at the table for games such as this.

    • Interesting points David. When you design a game which focuses on these elements I’m sure Ray will be happy to review it.

  2. David, thanks for taking the time to read the review and more thanks for the effort to respond. I think there’s something to your thought about what we want to do is push counters. I’m definitely a gamer that likes to roll dice and push cardboard as much as read the history.

    I appreciate your comments. Those are all solid angles from which to review the game. The scenarios and campaign do feature a resource management model which shows the strengths and constraints of each side. The game captures that the Axis allies were all resource poor. Germany seemed rich in comparison, until you start expending resources and realize they are writing checks for military operations that the economy cannot cash.

    Stalin trusting his generals is an aspect that’s appears to be represented in the game by a number of the Soviet event cards.

    Again, thanks the feedback. I’m a big believer that there’s no such thing as negative feedback. It’s part of how we learn and get other points of view.

  3. Wow. Quite the pompous critique of an excellent review by Mr. Garbee. While I can understand if you don’t like the game, calling the review unambitious is completely uncalled for. As a former journalist (at a real newspaper with real reporters and editors, not amateur bloggers) I can say professionally that this review was outstanding. He reviewed an existing and available game, not the hypothetical game that you would like to see.

    As for the game itself, I gather you have no use for traditional counter-and-hex wargames. However, many of us do. I’ve been playing them for more than 40 years and enjoy them as much today as I did 4 decades ago. I feel you can learn much about history from a wargame. Pair the game with a good book and you’ll have an even better understanding of the events that actually unfolded. In this case, one look at the map and you’ll see why Leningrad was so difficult to assault. Likewise, the supply rules give a excellent understanding of the lengthening German supply lines and impact of the Russian winter.

    You mention the writings of Glantz, an absolute scholar and expert on the Eastern Front. The detail of his books is amazing, but to be fair, reading them can be a bit of a slog. I can’t imagine a game equivalent of his books meshed with Tooze’s thoughts on economics being anything close to enjoyable.

    My games of Thunder in the East have given me very historical results, yet the sessions deviated from actual events enough to be nail biting and intriguing. I would say Mr. Chadwick has designed a game that accurately portrays the strategic and operational nuances of the Eastern Front, and he’s made it fun. I PLAY wargames because I want to PLAY being a general, complete with all the counter pushing, movement and combat I can get. It’s fun. Your idea of an ideal wargame sounds like anything but.

  4. The review makes me want to buy the game. I seem to have a lot of time at home now, to play it solo. Also, there’s the vassal module for email play. Plus, if I can learn the system, I want to test the Mediterranean game in development, as that’s a theater that interests me more than Russia (today).

    A simulation of military operations and strategies should have enough flavor-of-political-conflict and color of history to stimulate the imagination. I know cardboard is cardboard, but what makes it fun is what happens in the participants’ imagination. I played DNO and Fire in the East – some great times with good friends. Through imagination and interaction on a field of (mock) conflict, we all learned many lessons that have strengthened us over the years.

    True, over time DNO/FITE’s inadequacies became apparent. It’s quite deterministic. But the opposite of deterministic isn’t limited to political role playing; cards seem to help introduce the unpredictable without sweat, and they can add to the imagined life. A good game is a good analog.

    The opposite of granularity (DNO’s “strength” and “weakness”) isn’t watery coffee, either. Some things in a game can be highly granular and others like the monolith in 2001 – very big and anti-granular, providing another analog to real life, IMHO.

    The changes COVID-19 have brought tend to erase a lot of life’s granular details. Yet there it is: big rock lands on earth – what does it mean and why is everything different now? I have to develop new ways of being.

    I’m just trying (awkwardly) to say that panzer pushing can be as fun and challenging as any political or team-building game if you must develop a strategy, plan turns ahead, anticipate the enemy’s response, and then face the unexpected thing that may change everything – yet the game doesn’t end just because you’ve lost your balance. You might regain it. You might learn from it. I hope TITE is like that, or becomes like that in subsequent re-issues. It has many of the parts. I want to see if they work.

    It’s analogous to alternative history. Russia might lose…then what? But most alternative history is interesting (to me) because everything the follows the little change is analogous to what we know happened. In a well-written alternate history, some things are recognizably “real” and others are “alternates.”

    Finally, I guess I don’t mind being cast as a military leader in a game. I’m no leader of men at all. But I wonder what it’s like, and how well I would do if given the chance to make military decisions.

Post a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *