The Maps of Collapse – Wargaming the End of the Reich


By Paul Comben

 

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Let me begin by telling you about this extension kit I came up with many years ago. I was just a lad, but a lad with ambitions to turn my copy of Stalingrad into something that time-wise, went beyond spring 1943, and territory-wise, extended all the way to Berlin and Vienna. To achieve this, I drew a map on a bit of card, putting in the cities, the rivers, and the mountains – and because I had no way of drawing a hex grid, I did squares (of sorts); and when I had finished, after some time of trying to put everything where it was meant to go, it looked absolutely horrible… I mean, hideous to the point of travesty. But I was thirteen, and I did not care; I wanted my Berlin map, I wanted the drama of experiencing the death throes of the Third Reich; and just because all I had was a bit of card that was only slightly better marked out than a Viking’s idea of what Australia looked like, I saw no reason to deny myself the pleasure.

Of course, in addition to that iffy map, all I had to put on it was the original Stalingrad counters – you know, with the Soviet OOB that made the “Red Horde” look like it had just come back from Tannenberg, and the Wehrmacht looking like it was all set to win Lebensraum somewhere spare on the Tactics II map. But I played it, my little kit, because, frankly, it was all I had, and the hobby seemed utterly averse to giving us anything else as the good old “Warsaw Cut-Off” cropped up time and time again…and still does.

It was and is very much the same story on the Western Front – with Avalon Hill’s D Day you could battle up to the Rhine but no further; in Fortress Europa, you could go that bit further, engaging with German forces east of the Rhine that historically had been formed to defend a line east of the Elbe; and in a whole succession of other games the same ethos has applied. The beautiful Liberty Roads, for example, presents vast tracts of land you are never likely to go near, like parking a unit on the border with Andorra; but you will be back to the white card and the felt tip pens if you want Hanover to appear. Likewise, Ted Raicer’s Storming the Reich helps the Allied player no end by giving him not that much Reich he/she needs to go storming into. Of course I am being somewhat flippant here, but if Storming the Reich really means storming into a little itty bit of it, why not have a game of Napoleon’s 1812 escapades that comes to an end of the real estate a little to the east of Minsk? Well, the answer to that is pretty obvious – a whole lot of campaigning, and a whole lot of story, went on east of that. But of course, 1812 enthusiasts not only want a march to Moscow, they also find the retreat a rather appealing subject – an army falling to pieces, fighting desperate rearguard actions against a numerous and avenging eastern host… which brings us right back to why the flipping heck Berlin and Vienna and March/April 1945 have been missing from so many “end of the Reich” games?

Yes, one can say the whole thing was militarily decided by then, but so it was long before Napoleon skidded across the ice of the Berezinain 1812. I would like to think that war gaming involves players engaging their imaginations to a narrative they are doing not a little to shape; it is not merely about having a chance to win, but having a chance to experience a story unfolding. And this is where I feel the hobby has often come up somewhat short on many occasions – you get the map, big, medium, small, lopped off here or bent round there; you get the units and the rules by which they will move and fight, but how often do we really get the drama of the situation, and the authentic stamp of those personalities which were key to moving the events we seek to recreate or to create new potentialities from?

In my accompanying article, The Last Thousand Hours of the Thousand Year Reich, I highlighted various aspects of the end of Hitler’s Germany which went beyond a mere measure of combat factors and orders of battle – clash of personalities, divided command, contrasting priorities, civilian and military demoralization, vengeance, exhaustion, paranoia and the plain simple desire to survive. Can all these be fitted into a game? No, of course not; but the trouble is, all too often, none of them make their way into a design – perhaps no one wants to be first, or it seems like too much clutter, or not what a war game should be about, or old habits die hard…but whatever the reason, there is matter missing from our alternative record of reality, and as with any piece of creative labour devoid of the final embellishments, the thing is not quite what it might have been, which is a pity.

So, for the rest of this article, I will look at those games which I do have at least some familiarity with, and that have got Berlin on the map, as a dot to a socking great big thing, just to see what they do possess beyond the purely military, and what other factors they are largely missing.

Battle for Germany (SPI)

pic486448_mdThe oldest game in the Berlin stakes, and in many respects, a nifty little classic. It covered the three European land fronts in the final stages of the war, and did so on the basis of “here are the units, there is the map, now get on with it”. Where the design went one step further was in having the western and Soviet powers controlling the Germans on their opposite front – so the Germans themselves never won, they just got to surrender or go play out some Götterdammerung in the Nordic twilight. The aim of the two players was therefore to advance to victory on their part of the overall Allied front, and prevent the other end of the alliance doing the same at the opposite end of the map. To an extent, this did reflect the growing mistrust of the Allies towards one another, and also that the Nazis, as a regime, were not going to go easy on one front when surrender on any front would be the end of their ambition. However, first and foremost this was a game about units, combat factors and odds tables – and for all its unassuming quality, precious little else.

Nevertheless, a worthy oldie.

Red Storm Over the Reich (Compass Games)

pic360044_lgSomething like thirty years separate this game from my purchase of Avalon Hill’s first edition of the Russian Campaign – whose arrival, all those years ago, finally put paid to my need to fight to the Third Reich’s end via a map I had drawn on a bit of shirt packaging. Of course, in its early guise, The Russian Campaign was hardly the last word – in fact, according to some reviews and comments I recall from back in the day, it was not many people’s first word either. So, to digress just a little, TRC originally came with several of the worst presented scenarios in the history of the hobby – basically, everything that historically would have been ground down, worn out, dead, surrendered, disbanded or largely destroyed, was all resurrected and piled up next to a date designated line of dots on the map along with anything not yet put through the wringer, and that was your Case Blue, Citadel or Bagration all ready to go. But dammit, they were happy, carefree days…….although…….well……..

There was the map, which had been sort of tilted and skewed a bit, and meant that your 1945 Germans could well be trying to hold onto a line from the Baltic to the Balkans that made it resemble a limbo dancer trying to get his head tucked in under Königsburg. And, what is more, it was summer 1976, and it was flipping hot in London, and all the grass in the parks had gone brown, and I had a breathing problem which meant I had to take these funny smelling nasal drops – and perhaps it was the heat, the drops, or the disturbing sight of my local park’s once green fields looking like what passes as a recreational area in a less favoured part of El Paso, but at midnight in early July I must admit I sort of lost a sense of military reality (and smell) as three mighty panzer corps defended Berlin from the last Soviets left on the board, and the Führer counter looked to hop on the last train to Bucharest.

But now, back to Red Storm Over the Reich.

In essence, this covers the Soviet offensives between the Baltic and the Carpathians, and from the Vistula to across the Oder and into Berlin. As far as I am aware, this is the only design specifically covering this area at this time in the war. Perhaps more importantly, however, this design is certainly rather more than a map, counters and combat routines. Refugees, the effect of the panzerfaust in close quarters town fighting, the combat qualities of Rüdel (the Stuka tank buster par excellence), roving cauldrons of surrounded German troops, the ever present Kampfgruppen, Guderian having a greater control over things, Operation Thunderclap, German fortified lines (yes folks, we are back with the Fanatismus again) and Hitler poking his oar in, it was all there.

What is important about this design is that it amply showed that you could have more than a few touches of colour in a work without causing the whole lot to bog down. On the other hand, I have never been entirely happy with the game assumption that everything Hitler did by way of military interventions was all wrong and stupid, and everything his generals sought to do was the last word in operational excellence. More realistic, to my mind, would be routines that highlight the breakdown of command authority as the Reich progressively falls to pieces. Historically, as we move through these final weeks, a major problem facing German command was not forces attacking in the wrong place, but failing to attack at all… or to defend in the right place, because wherever they were put, in contravention to their orders, they then moved away from.

How might we emulate in design terms? Basically, you determine a point in the game where German attacks will misfire – units fail to attack after moving into position; or they attack/defend at reduced odds; or they spontaneously retreat… or, like in The Gamer’s Loose Cannon rule, they get moved by the opponent. None of this would have to be that complex, and of course, with a design this well put together, the last thing you want to do is add one thing to lose another.

All told, very nice bit of work.

The Mighty Endeavour – Expanded Version (MMP)pic436512_lg

The most recent addition to this catalogue, one might see this as Battle for Germany done on a considerably larger canvas, and with a rather more detailed technique. As in that design, two players play at being the Reich opposite their opponent’s Allied forces; and again, as in that design, there is not a great deal more colour on top of what is, of course, part of the eminently straightforward Standard Combat Series. However, in the new version, there is a lot of map and plenty of scope for manoeuver, and what you do get by way of colour is well worth having, if somewhat bluntly executed. The main feature is a mechanism, which forces the player controlling the Wehrmacht in the west to reduce a number of forces each turn an Allied unit (non airborne) is east of the Rhine. This is in many ways a neat little system for dissolving the dejected German army once the last major geographical obstacle to the Greater Reich is lost. It also offers, as the designer says, a very good reason for the German player to hold on west of the Rhine for as long as possible. But perhaps it could do with a bit more refinement, to avoid, for example, the player keeping some clapped out remnants behind the lines to deal with the dissolution of units that are actually at the front and therefore far more likely to degrade by dint of soldiers getting the white flags out.

One other issue lies with the game’s splitting of the German command – the experience of defending the Reich cannot fail but be diminished if you are only defending one part of it with some portion of the forces the Reich still has left. Other suggestions I might make are very much subjective and I hardly expect everyone to agree – but it might have been fun to see both the Soviet and Western Allied player faced with a major spanner being thrown in their works: for the Western Allies this might have been Eisenhower diverting strength off towards the Edelweiss and Hitler’s supposed Alpine Redoubt, and for the Soviets anyone or anything too close to Zhukov’s front command being lumbered with a turn or two of low odds attacks as this Mister “Let’s Go Walking Through the Minefields” edges nearer Berlin.

One last point is that only the Allies have HQ units. A shame, as named German commanders could have been used to confer a whole range of interesting mixed blessings in terms of movement and combat – plus and minus modifiers, holding units back; not moving at all; wandering off in some inappropriate direction, or shooting themselves.

But, all told, this is a cracker of a game.

Victory in Europe (Omega)

pic442404_lgMy personal winner of the most uninspiring map of 1985, and also of the oddest smell to come off a set of game components until the first edition of Field Commander Rommel many moons later. Honestly lads, this game could have driven your car with a few wafts of its countersheet down the petrol tank. As for the game, well, who knows? I was probably tripping out on panzer pong long before I had everything set up for play. I tell you, my nose drops had nothing on this phenomenon. But seriously, this was the game I have long regarded as the epitome of leaving the colour out – there was not any on the map first time round, there was not any via unit function, and the units themselves did not even have any historical designations, as I recall. Yes, the game did give a certain mild reflection of the last days of the Reich in terms of strong forces against weakening and overstretched forces, but that was it… though the smell sort of stayed with me ever since.

Not one to seek out, except for curiosity’s sake.

Overlord to Berlin (Vae Victis)

pic868557There are ways of doing area maps – and this is not it. A shame, as the game has attractive unit graphics and some reasonable ideas in the short rules booklet. If we can look past the utterly insipid map, which rather reminds me of a game board off the old TV show “The Golden Shot”, it is worth noting that if this game had appeared, as it might well have done in decades gone by, bereft of its political events and its strategic and operational whatnots, it would have been instantly and utterly forgettable.

But events there are, and pretty good ones too – some admittedly, are just ways of tweaking the combat system, but others relate to the unfolding pattern of the war and what each side might yet call on by way of weapons, assets of morale and resolve…or plain stupidity.

On the negative side of this, I rather get the feeling that a bit more creative thought could have gone into these tables, as the “It’s Christmas/Oktoberfest” type of political results do look a bit like space fillers rather than an effort to complete the entire list with events that make sense and create interest.

In all, a fair game on a bland map, but really nothing special.

End of the Iron Dream (3W)

pic52686What a great name for a game! And yes, we are back in 1985 once more for this ambitious magazine design looking at the last year of Hitler’s Reich. The map covered Europe from Biscay to the Dnepr, and offered up forces represented at corps level (armies for the Soviets) – so there were a good number of units for all sides to handle.

In terms of representing the process of Hitler’s regime falling to bits, the game certainly had its accents, but near all of these were linked to combat resolution. German industrial collapse was also present, but overall, the dissolution and desperation of the Reich’s last gasp was again something to conjure in your imagination rather than experience as a series of dramas and frustrations played out on the map.

But, in the case of this game, too much criticism of what it does not possess would be niggardly. Overall, this was a very decent look at the last months of the war in Europe, and I played it an awful lot. The one thing that struck me as being a bit odd at the time was the presentation of Wenck’s army – it came in as essentially a corps unit with an army designation (fair enough), but was not too far away from being the most powerful German unit in the OOB. Admittedly, it was as brittle as anything – reduced strength was near zero – but in its newly arrived form it was the Nazi equivalent of the 300 Spartans, and coupled that with a questionable level of motorized mobility that was rather out of synch with the realities of the times.

Whatever its shortcomings though, one of the best magazine games I have played.

Götterdammerung (Moments in History)

pic31674_mdI know of two games specifically covering the Soviet assault across the Oder – this one, and a game provided with Battles magazine. As I have never seen the Battles effort up close, it is not represented in this article; as for Götterdammerung, this is a favourite of mine and may well deserve a bit more hobby love than it has ever received.

What you get is the entire length of the Oder/Neisse front, with Berlin there within touching distance – and then, set into the map, a larger scale Berlin that you will fight in as units move into the city from outside. If anyone has a dislike for two-scale maps, rest assured this one works rather well, and is entirely presentable. The units are also rather nice, and a great deal of work has gone into assembling a German OOB of bits and pieces that together tell their own story of how “bust up” the Germans were by April 1945.

As far a colour is concerned, the game certainly has some narrative to it, but possibly not quite all it might have had. Götterdammerung has the Volkssturm battalions, and incursions through the U-bahn;  and, what is more, it has chits to portray certain battle events – Hitler Youth, Soviet command tensions, massed Soviet artillery, Rudel in the air etc.  On the other hand, if ever there was a game to portray the presence of German refugees and the flight instincts of German forces, this was it…only they are not really present. Likewise, if you do, as the German player, cobble together a Steiner-type attack somewhere, it will get launched as opposed to being lied about and aborted. For me, that is a game colour opportunity missed.

Nevertheless, in terms of representing the last gasp of the Reich’s last forces, Götterdammerung is a more than adequate piece of work, and its low rating on BGG might be due simply to the rules issues corrected in the second edition.

If you have any real interest in this subject, this one is worth seeking out.

Fortress Berlin (Against the Odds Magazine)

pic91313From games about collapsing fronts we finally come to a game with precious little front at all. Fortress Berlin is purely and simply about the fight for the city – the Vistula has been stormed, Pomerania lost, East Prussia lost, Silesia largely overrun, and now, after the smashing of the Oder line, what is left of the German forces are fighting in the streets of the Reich’s capital.

This game hails from the earlier era of ATO production – the map is detailed and stylish, but in a sort of grey/blue monochrome which is not going to appeal to everyone; and as for the counters, they are in that style which tends somewhat to remind me of a computer screen display from a 1970s Doctor Who episode. Everything is perfectly clear however, though the magazine’s subsequent move to more aesthetic graphics (and counters that were not fixed in their sprues like Zimmerit on a tank) has made things that bit more pleasant.

Fortress Berlin is a detailed game – with a lot of effort put into the movement and combat mechanisms as you fight in a devastated city centre. There is also a very detailed OOB, including the Volkssturm, plant protection units, Hitler Youth, as well as the more regular combat formations of both sides.

The narrative colour of the game only really kicks in with full effect, however, when you play with the variant rules. Steiner and Wenck put in major appearances, and there are rules covering the presence and possible flight of the main Nazi leaders. This is all pretty decent stuff, but where the Panzerfaust somewhat misfires is what you get to do with these extra factors. Adding colour to a canvas, to my mind, is not that hot if you then get cagey about using the brushes to make a truly engaging picture. Getting Goebbels to make radio proclamations (he was certainly rattling off until 25th/26th April), and having his presence in the bunker supply its own effect on Hitler’s status would have been better, to my mind, than simply seeing if the Propaganda Minister escapes or shoots himself on a roll of a die.

Further to that, there is also this odd rule about Hitler committing suicide. The rule in question says that the German player can try to have Hitler commit suicide – the only reason for this that I can see is to prevent him from being captured, in which circumstance the German automatically forfeits the game. This makes sense, up to a point… but “try” to commit suicide? What is meant to be happening? Are we to imagine the Leader having Hanna Reitsch hanging off of one leg pleading, “Adolf, don’t leave us”? It is an example of the sort of rule that gamers go along with, but never seem to think that much about what it is meant to represent.

Nevertheless, this is still a fine game in many respects, and by an outstanding designer in John Prados; but while it certainly has colour, maybe it cannot quite escape the prevailing hue of the monochrome map it has been suited to.

Race to the Reichstag (World at War Magazine)

pic1139723This is essentially the same subject matter as the ATO design, although here were are back to the players as Allies in rivalry to capture the big prize – the Battles magazine game on the Oder assault also does this, pitting the forces of Zhukov and Koniev in a bloody “sprint” to the Reichstag finishing line.

Given this premise, the German forces are really only there to be duffed up by the Soviets, and might be compared to some utterly indifferent boxer put into a fight simply to give the champ someone to knock over.

The map has not got the detail of the Fortress Berlin presentation, and the range and number of units is not as extensive as FB. Basically, this is a two player “Capture the flag/Reichstag” game, which offers a few colourful obstacles and prizes the players can encounter or put in each other’s way (the Nazi rocket and atomic science research facilities to give a couple of examples of stuff worth getting your hands on) and all that is done pretty well – just do not expect very much of the death throes of the Reich from the German perspective.

Conclusion

There was a time when wargames were a map, the units, the rules and a combat result table…. oh, and the dice.

Today, they will have the map, the units, the markers… and some more markers, the rules, the playbook, the event cards, the events table, the event modifiers, the sheaves of charts, the dice… and a packing slip. Games are more sophisticated than they used to be, and usually contain more about and around the subject than they used to have.

But are they really creating a story, a mise en scene, the sense of the drama beyond the process of simply doing what the rules tell you to do?

Event cards might seem the obvious way of providing the extra colour, but that needs to be qualified. Cards that turn actual events into “representative” events; cards that put historical events into a random order of appearance; rare things that crop up and established facts that get relegated to obscurity – cards like this may well be doing a job in the game, but are not necessarily helping you perceive the world around the action.

When I look through the content of this article, as well as its partner piece on the last hours of the Reich, it strikes me that the greater part of what I am talking about links to matters of morale and the will to resist. Recently, a fine game appeared in the GMT stable, Unconditional Surrender. It was a perfectly good, snappy title, for a game looking to work some new concepts into a WW2 pan European Theatre design. Whether the title was chosen to provide a name, or whether it directly related to the game’s design ethos I really do not know, but what I do know is that historically the Allies’ intention to intimidate the German enemy with the promise of no terms capitulation did not work as intended. For Goebbels, the Allies making such a declaration was a gift to his propaganda – no option to surrender inevitably led to no option but fight on. In many respects, this helps tell the story of the 1945 struggle in Germany.

We can think of Berliners encouraged to fight by fear of the Soviets and the Nazi lynch mobs prowling the streets… or, we can think of the transient prospect of Wenck coming to the rescue. And Nazi radio on 25th/26th April 1945 loudly proclaimed to the city’s population “Hitler is with you!” and called on the city to hold on until Wenck arrived – his army presented as the reserves of “a mighty fortress” entering the capital of the Reich.

This, and so much else is all part of the story; and much the same is part of one struggle after another on our wargame maps – only, they rarely feature in any pronounced form. I can only think of one design where the bodies of the dead had any effect on the play of the game – SPI’s Agincourt – but the dead, (historians often suggest that Ney attacked where he did with the Guard as the simple matter of finding a less cluttered route), along with the dense smoke and a lie were all part of the final dramas at the most famous battle of them all – Waterloo. Understanding this, whether it is “Wenck is coming!” or “Voilà Grouchy!” is to know that we are dealing with matter integral to the day, and in truth, few things in human life carry as much emotional baggage, highs and lows, consequences and debate than the process by which we send those combat factors into bloody competition.

 

 

About the Author

Paul

Paul has been involved in the hobby since the early 1970s. Of largely Belgian ancestry on his father’s side, and English (Yorkshire) on his mother’s, after finishing his education he worked in tourism and student services, and also spent some time in the former West Germany. He met his wife Boo in 1990, and they married a couple of years later.

 Paul hails from a long line of former servicemen – one grandfather was a sergeant in the BEF of 1914, whilst two of his great grandfathers were killed serving with the Royal Navy. His own father, who was born in Britain, served with the army in Malaya in the early 1950s.