Positives: UI, Variety of Available Scenarios, Accessibility, Depth, Graphics.
Negatives: Confusing air mission system, No in game tutorial.
Verdict: An excellent wargame, highly recommended.
Buy it?: Yes, even at the full price.
In my experience, PC wargames are like pomegranates. Once you work your way to the insides, they are delicious, but a lot of the time it just isn’t worth the trouble. This problem arises in several ways, including bad UIs, poor or non-existent tutorials, and inadequate manuals or poorly defined mechanics.
If most wargames are pomegranates, then War in the East is a clementine. In my experience with the game, it was easy to get through the UI to the heart of the game. Moving and attacking with units is simple, left click to select, right click to move. Multi-hex and determined attacks are trigged by holding the shift-key (or using an available button in the AI), which is similar enough to the function of the shift key in windows and other games to be intuitive. Something this simple shouldn’t be notable in wargames, but it is. Put simply, War in the East makes it very easy to perform the basic actions necessary to play the game.
War in the East also does a good job providing information. When moving a unit, the movement costs per hex are displayed on the map, which is valuable when considering how far you can push a unit forward to displace HQs and airfields while allowing it to move back towards your own lines. Information is concentrated in a commander’s report screen, which allows you to drill down into the specific data you are interested in. The array of map overlays available allow for easy understanding of issues such as rail construction and supply, without needing to drill down in the various menus at all. This is another feature that I wish more wargames would emulate. Absolutely necessary information should be easily accessible, either on map or through a simple menu system. Information that is more specialized should be accessible through drill down menus, rather than intermingled with information that is frequently used. War in the East accomplishes this in a way that few other wargames have. That is not to say that the UI is perfect. It still suffers from some of the endemic problems of wargame UI. That being said, it is functional, which is enough to place it at or near the top of the heap when it comes to wargames. Of course, having a functional UI is not all that important if there isn’t a good game to back it up.
In the case of War in the East, the game does more than enough to back up the promise of its functional UI. The game offers a good variety of scenarios, including several short scenarios that can be completed in an evening (and in the case of the shortest scenario, perhaps an hour). The scenarios span the length of the war, including campaign scenarios starting in 1941-1944. The game also does a good job providing scenarios where the Soviets are on the offensive, such as the Case Blue scenario.
Play replicates the situation on the Eastern front, encouraging the encirclement and destruction of enemy armies, as any game set in this period should. There are no obvious historical accuracy problems. Further, the section on the manual discussing the armed forces of both the Axis and the Soviets provides an illuminating discussion on the evolution of the various units over the course of the game. This is especially helpful when discussing the Soviet Army, which goes through massive organizational changes over the course of the war.
War in the East is a very pretty game as well. The map is clear and easy to read, while giving a good sense of the terrain of the eastern front. The unit counters are clear and easy to read at all zoom levels. The game runs in a window, and can be made as big as your desktop allows.
War in the East is an excellent game, but there are some negative aspects. One that I struggled with in particular was the air mission interface. I found the description of air missions in the manual and included tutorial manual to be largely unhelpful, and could never quite figure out how to effectively use them on my own. Generally I would leave air missions up to the AI, which, as far as I can tell, performed competently. Unlike the ground combat, I found control of air units to be unintuitive. This resulted in me relying on my HQs to assign the air force to close air support missions, which seemed effective enough.
One other nit to pick with the interface is HQ displacement. In War in the East, an HQ alone in a hex adjacent to an enemy unit is displaced, leaving them further from the front lines and disorganized. In principle, I have no problem with this. It simulates the effect of an HQ getting overrun and retreating in a disorganized rush, or potentially being mostly eliminated and reformed with its few survivors. The one time that this becomes irritating is when an HQ for the player displaces during the players turn. It is easy to move in the wrong order and move a unit away from the front, leaving a solitary HQ behind, which then displaces. It would be nice if there was either a nag message (are you sure you want to displace this HQ?) or if displacement triggered only on an opponents turn (so if you left it adjacent, it would displace at the beginning of your opponents turn).
As a final complaint, War in the East lacks a guided, in-game tutorial. The tutorial manual is relatively good, but you do need to follow along with the tutorial in one window and the game in another, which can be irritating if you do not have the screen real estate available to view both at once. While the short scenarios do provide good steps towards learning the game, it would be nice to have some guidance, especially for players who are new to operational level wargames.
When War in the East was released, there were a number of comments on the Matrix Games message board criticizing the price. While I understand that people may initially balk at the $79.99 price for the downloadable version of War in the East, I have to say that, from my perspective, it was well worth it. While it is expensive in comparison to a “AAA” title, it has the potential to suck up many more hours of play than many games that retail for $60. War in the East is a niche game, and commands a niche price. If you compare it to comparable “monster” board games, it actually appears rather inexpensive. Multi-Man Publishing’s upcoming Guderian’s Blitzkrieg II will retail for $160, for example, and is far less playable (unless you have a massive table, a regular opponent, and the ability to leave it up for weeks on end). When I recommend purchasing War in the East, I do it fully cognizant of the opportunity cost to do so. I think it is worth forgoing 2 other games to play War in the East, assuming that you want to play one of the best wargames you will ever play.
Nits aside, War in the East is a fantastic wargame. It is both accessible (for its genre) and deep. If you are interested in wargames, War in the East is an essential purchase.
I purchased my copy of War in the East direct from Matrix. I played the downloadable version of the game. I spent between 25 and 30 hours playing the game prior to this review, and another 3 or 4 hours going through the manual. I have not played a complete 1941-1945 campaign game. The next review will contain no terrible fruit similes or metaphors.