This is a story about an $80 video game.
It’s a really good game. I need to start with that. But I also need to say that this is a story. Not a review. This is a story of why that game—Gary Grigsby’s War In The East, by the way—is $80, what the game is, and why I desperately wanted to play it. It’s about what War In The East means.
Eighty dollars! Given the consistent debate over whether video games cost too much, and how often I come down on the side of games being cheaper, the idea that games could cost $80 seems like a terrible idea. Yet I found that I actually like the idea of the $80 game—not because I want games overall to cost so much, but because varieties of different price points demand both higher and lower prices—$60 is not an inevitable equilibrium point. Given subscriptions, expansion packs, or downloadable content, many games cost more than $60 for the complete package. This game just starts from that point.
The game in question is Gary Grigsby’s War In The East, only available from Matrix Games. This is a wargame, a term which has come to be applied to any game that involves a real-world war, but in this case isused in the traditional sense of a game where you command armies in a slow-paced simulation of warfare, where realism is a goal in and of itself. Wargames also tend to be relatively low-tech, maintaining the aesthetics of the board games from which they’ve descended, while utilizing the computing power for complex calculations and AI for computer opponents.
As such, this particular game costing more than the conventional average seems odd—there aren’t even animations, let alone 3D animations. Indeed, at a glance, its production values are equivalent or worse than wargames made 15 years ago, and those aren’t so different from what was possible 10 years before that.
But there’s more to it than that. Matrix Games is, for lack of a better term, a boutique publisher. It is, effectively, the home of the entire wargame genre, once one of the most popular on personal computers. Like adventure games and flight sims, the genre faded from mainstream consciousness over the course of the 1990s—a few accessible crossover hits like Panzer General and Sid Meier’s Gettysburg attracted notice, along with some traditional wargames like The Operational Art Of War, but for the most part, the genre was driven underground.
Wargame devotees remained, playing the handful of new, niche releases and replaying the classics. Many coalesced around Matrix Games, in the same way that strategy game fans attached themselves to Paradox and adventure fans to Telltale. Matrix fills a specific, desired niche, which helps explain their higher prices. But even acknowledging all that, Gary Grigsby’s War In The East is the most expensive game on the site.
When I was a kid, I wanted to get into wargames. First of all, I wanted to play all the best games, and many of those were wargames. In addition to that, I voraciously read what I could on the American Civil War, and it was natural to be interested in the simulations of that conflict (Shiloh: Grant’s Trial In The West was the first one I remember playing). And yet, they almost never clicked with me like RPGs, strategy games, and others did.
During that whole time, as I read Computer Gaming World, I remember one game consistently referred to as the pinnacle of the genre both in terms of quality and complexity: Gary Grigsby’s War In Russia. A massive simulation of the Eastern Front in World War II, it sounded incredibly ambitious, too huge to grasp. There’s a part of me that’s always been attracted to such ambition, wanting the biggest worlds, most complex stories, most valiant attempt to drive the medium forward. But I never had the chance to play War In Russia. I just remembered it as the peak of the genre, and Gary Grigsby’s name as the leading wargame designer, like Sid Meier for strategy games, Richard Garriott for RPGs, or Hideo Kojima for stealth/action games with batshit insane mythology. So when I saw Gary Grigsby’s War In The East, an obvious successor to War In Russia, I wanted it in a sense that went beyond simply being interested in the subject matter, or having heard good things. I wanted this game because it represented the best of an entire genre, and a chance for me to remedy one of the my great self-perceived gaming failures, my lack of connection with traditional wargames.
There’s another fascinating component to War In The East. The story, the history of the German-Russian conflict dominates the history of wargames. The game that popularized the genre was Chris Crawford’s Eastern Front (1941), which had exactly the same focus as War In The East. It’s been the subject of a variety of wargames inbetween, tactical, operational, and strategic.
This makes sense for a variety of reasons. It’s the biggest military conflict in history, involving millions of men across thousands of miles. It’s part of the most recent war between roughly equivalent superpowers, and has been studied and analyzed intently since it began. And it’s a long campaign with compelling narrative: the superior Germans struck first, achieving huge victories with modern technology and brilliant blitzkrieg strategy. The Russians did whatever they could to slow then halt the Germans, then slowly turned them back following the huge, epic, brutal Battle Of Stalingrad. That battle was the first time the German war machine was defeated.
But while the military history is fascinating, there’s also an extremely odd component to playing games on the Eastern Front, which can be boiled down to the fact that it’s Commies versus Nazis. The two most powerful and oppressive regimes of the mid-20th Century are not exactly common player characters in most video game genres outside of wargaming (Civilization has still never used Hitler as a German leader, though it does have Stalin sometimes). Wargames, in a sense, demand that the player separate themselves from the morality of the game. For some, this seems impossible, and a game like Panzer General—where you play a Nazi general and only a Nazi general through the successes of the German invasions of World War II—seems almost shocking.
For a while, I thought that this might be why I never clicked with wargames. I am relentlessly moral in games that give that option, from Fallout to Mass Effect, and even in the mucky grey areas of The Walking Dead I try to keep as many people alive and happy with me as possible. But by now I don’t think that this morality is actually why I’ve struggled with wargames, as I’ve come to believe that players can easily separate video game choices from real-world choices.
I do have my limits, though. I was unhappy when War In The East gave me a reinforcement described as an S.S. cavalry unit. Those were the troops responsible for the first wave of the Holocaust. I immediately stuck them on a train to get ground down in the siege of Leningrad. You could make a case that these men were the worst people in history. I was glad to send them to their deaths, or at least, to have the numbers associated with that tiny little chit on my map turn to zero.
Around a decade ago, I became mesmerized by the epic Chinese novel of the political upheaval and civil wars that ended the Han dynasty, Three Kingdoms, as well as the video games it’s spawned: Dynasty Warriors, Dynasty Tactics, and the Romance Of The Three Kingdoms strategy games. Yet the Romance games always left me cold, despite offering the theoretically best grand strategic view of the full story. I quickly realized why: they were game-breakingly “unrealistic.”
“Realism” is a term that’s often thrown around, but I have a very specific sense in mind when I use it for historical war and strategy games: letting the game play normally, it should be possible to see a historically accurate outcome. That is, if you’re playing a Three Kingdoms game, it should be possible that China will divide into three relatively stable kingdoms and end nearly a hundred years later with the Sima family victorious. I never saw a game where this was remotely plausible.
Likewise, when I played wargames, I found that despite their nominal realism, they didn’t encourage me to play them “realistically.” I always found myself pushing forward, grinding for every inch, oblivious to casualties (this is congruent with my general play style, which is to do just enough to win). Even my favorite wargames, like Sid Meier’s Gettysburg, only prevented the grind by cleverly designing its campaign to make that kind of strategy impossible.
It’s something inherent to the form, I think. It’s not me in pain, it’s my character’s hit points getting lower. Those aren’t real people dying to take that city, they’re numbers related to a red-colored chit. It’s not just in terms of death, though—it’s also the ability to coordinate. A king or general can’t get everyone to work toward the same goal in the way that I, looking down at a map of the world like a deity, can. And of course, you have to have AI that can behave in reasonable and historical patterns.
Therefore, a well-designed historical game, like Sid Meier’s Gettysburg, figures out some way to work around the lack of emotional attachment and the godlike abilities of the leader to push the player toward historical outcomes.
Gary Grigsby’s War In The East doesn’t use any clever mechanisms to avoid those problems.
Gary Grigsby’s War In The East directly confronts those problems, and it succeeds. It may be the first grand strategic game I’ve ever played to manage that feat.
I’ve been playing War In The East for three weeks now, and I’m not entirely certain what makes it so effective at being a historical simulation. The AI is definitely part of the reason. I’ve usually been playing the Germans at the start of the war, and I can see the Russians taking effective action to blunt my invasion as best they can. They flood the geography with units to slow down my tanks. They build their defenses on the far banks of rivers, forcing me to attack with weakened units, thanks to the game’s river-crossing rules.
The penalties for units attacking across rivers were my first major clue as to how the game worked at a conceptual level. Trying to do that, while maintaining a blitzkreig that rolled up and captured huge numbers of enemies, proved difficult enough that I started forcing myself to think of how to use the system to achieve better—more historical—results. I’d use infantry to clear out the easiest enemy units, then launch my tanks through the new gaps in the enemy lines. This triggered an AI response of flooding the area in front of my tank spearheads, leading to weaknesses elsewhere. Instead of my usual attempt to grind down the enemy, the rules of War In The East encouraged me to behave in a historical fashion—and then it responded in kind.
What makes this the most impressive grand wargame I’ve played, and justifies its boutique price tag, is that it gets all those things right. The available level of detail isn’t just level of detail for its own sake. It’s a collection of systems that combine to create a historically viable model. I have choices within the game, yet it pushes me to make similar choices as the generals of the era.
As a critic, I’m often asked if games are “worth it.” I can’t describe worth. As someone who’s had to spend every available dollar on food and rent, I know that there are times when games are never worth it. But at any point above that, it’s a sliding scale. How much free money and time do you have? Those are rather personal questions. I’ll just tell you what I think of the game and let you make that decision, thanks. And, at $80 instead of $60 or less, War In The East seems to demand that question even more. It’s huge. It’s time-consuming. It’s detailed. And it gets its systems right. That high price pays for 30+ years of wargame creation, refinement, and analysis. And it shows.
I’ve barely even scratched the surface of War In The East. I’ve played two small scenarios, and started two large campaigns. I gave up the first one because I didn’t know how rail supply worked, crippling my forces. The manual suggests that in order to capture Leningrad, I’ll need to use the “Refit” option to transfer my artillery to the north. I have no idea how to do that either.
War In The East’s tutorial doesn’t help. It’s quite possibly the worst tutorial I’ve seen in decades, as if years of usability improvements never happened. It’s a tiny scenario with a PDF file to read alongside the action. I can only assume that the author has never in fact taught a human being anything, as the first 30 pages of the tutorial consist of an explanation of what every button on the interface before it even tells you how to move and fight with your troops. It’s almost astonishing how poorly it portrays the game.
In fact, War In The East is fairly easy to control and understand at the surface level. Movement and combat are 95% of what you do. Sure, the option to replace generals or fiddle with the structure of airplane reinforcements and upgrade exist, but for now, all I want to do is keep moving my troops, keep trying to capture Moscow, and just see what happens.
Maybe the system will break down the further I go. Maybe I’ve done something that makes painful failure inevitable. Maybe I’ll just get bored. Or maybe Gary Grigsby’s War In The East really is that well-designed, well-balanced, entertaining, and historical. Maybe it actually is the best and most representative wargame available today. I’ll let you know six months from now, when I make it to 1945.
About the Author:
Rowan Kaiser is a freelance pop culture critic currently living in the Bay Area. He is a contributing writer at The A.V. Club, covering television and literature. He also writes about video games for several different publications, including Joystiq, Gameranx, and Unwinnable.
6,502 Responses to “Wargame Affect”
Leave a Reply
You must be logged in to post a comment.
This is a tough one to write. For those of you who know me, in person, by my writing, or…
The Fool and the Villain, Part II
(Warning: In Second Life, pixelated tits and dicks abound. Abandon all hope, all ye who enter this article at work.)…
The Edge Of The Ocean
The problem is to plot the map. My sense of geography is spotted with black holes. There’s the Chinatown and…
Play everything. No, I’m serious, play everything. Play that game of hopscotch those kids drew up on the sidewalk with…
Genre In Question
Why are there so few video game comedies? At least twice in the past year I’ve bumped into conversations trying…