Thursday 12 January 2023

Operation Barbarossa 1941, games and some reading.

Barbarossa - How Hitler Lost the War, by Jonathan Dimbleby, published by Penguin, soft back, 509 pages, hit the retail shelves at Christmas, having been a big seller last year in the original hardback.

Described as ‘Staggering’ by the Sunday Times, who had it on their bestseller list, the book covers the titanic struggle on the East Front in 1941. Packed with detail, the work draws upon previously unseen archival material, including previously untranslated Russian sources.

Anyway, I picked it up thinking it looked a solid read and it occurred to me that reading the book, hand-in-hand with playing some Barbarossa boardgames would give an experience that would enhance both book and game.

Now my boardgame collection is pretty modest, but I was surprised to find that even so, I had nine titles that would each fit the time frame of the book. These are all strategic type games rather than the tactical scenarios from my collection.

Please use the ‘read more’ tab for a brief synopsis of those games;

I have only ever played four of the nine games previously and so this will be a good excuse to get those titles to the table that otherwise might just continue sitting there smiling back at me.

The four games played have been previously blogged about and there are links to those articles in the Resource Section below.

Rather like The Battle of the Bulge, Gettysburg and Waterloo, Barbarossa seems to get a new design coming to market almost every year. I have played a lot of Barbarossa games over the years and I do regret selling some, but these are the ones that are in the collection now and so I plan to play them all over the next few months, as I read the book.

Battle for Moscow

This started out in the 80’s as a free introductory wargame, published by Frank Chadwick at Game Designer Workshop (GDW). It set out the most common basic wargame mechanics so that the uninitiated could quickly get a grasp of how board wargames generally work. 

It was later published again by Victory Point Games and most recently appeared as a supplement in the C3i magazine. I have owned each and currently have the C3i Version.

The game covers Operation Typhoon, which was the German final lunge for Moscow at the end if 1941 and is delivered in just 4 pages of rules and runs for 7 turns with two turns being mud. The mud turns are very difficult for the German player to operate in and almost certainly puts a needed break on the game to prevent an early German Victory.

It is probably my single most played boardgame since the late 70’s and despite its ‘introductory’ status, it is a solid design that always gives us a good and entertaining game.

This is a small sized game with a 17” x 11” map, low unit density and is certainly fast playing. It runs from 2nd October to 1st December in weekly turns, except that mud turns represent two weeks. 

EDIT - I have played this since preparing this post and considering I have played this so much, I have never had such an extreme opening. The entire Soviet centre collapsed in the opening, allowing German armour to pour through and threaten Moscow early.

Moscow fell as did Tula. Towards the end of play, the Soviets managed to retake Tula, but Moscow remained in German hands, even though it was getting squeezed. A very different game than usual that’s for sure and an excellent game to start this project.

Note Tula captured and though Moscow gets reinforced, it will fall next turn

Defiant Russia

Published by Avalanche Press and designed by William Sariego, this is the second edition version, so it has the improved map and some optional rules like Turkey joining the war.

The rules run to 10 pages not including the optional rules. Rather than using a traditional combat results table, in attack, a number of dice are rolled that equal the unit(s) attack value with the player looking for sixes to cause losses.

There is a chart for historical weather, but an alternative ‘random weather’ chart can be used, though with this, it is slightly possible to navigate the campaign without generating mud, which is strange, but still, I like random weather events, so will be using the variant. Apparently the weather was a little unusual in 1941, so it will reflect that sense that it can’t be relied upon.

This is a medium sized game intended to play to completion in a single session. It runs from June to December with monthly turns and is scaled at 50 miles to the hex.

EDIT - I am prepping this game to play now. In the book, I have just reached the part where the Germans cross the Soviet border and invade.

Guderian’s War: The German Advance on Moscow, 1941.

Published by One Small Step and designed by Ty Bomba, this has Ty’s trademark flexible turn sequence (i.e. the player can manipulate the sequence of play by firing then moving or move then fire, but only for the Germans, the Soviets only get the choice on the last turn) and his inclination towards detailed supply rules.

The game also uses ‘untried units’ for the soviet side, one of my favourite game mechanics, so their counters are single sided and at the start of play are set up face down, so that neither side knows the true combat value of the unit until the moment of its first combat, when the strength is revealed. Most of the time the strengths are poor, but every now and then there is a surprise - the sort that the Germans don’t want.

It has a mounted mapboard and over 350 counters, but some units have more than 2 steps and so use more than 1 counter to represent them.

This is a medium sized game that should complete in a single session of play (according to the box blurb). The rule set is 20 pages and the time frame of the game is June to the end of August … to test Guderian’s boast that he could have been in Moscow by that time had Hitler allowed him to run a true blitzkrieg. The game is played in weekly turns with a hex being scaled at 16 miles.

Red Typhoon

Published by Revolution Games and designed by Shigeru Hirano. One of the first things to catch the eye is the VERY big front used for attack / movement factors on the counters ….. thank you!

‘Red Typhoon’ covers the second phase of the Soviet winter counter-offensive beginning in January ‘42 and so Moscow is not even on the map, as the fight is now west of the capital. 

The Soviets get +2 to their attacks on the first turn to represent surprise. One of the few situations within the Barbarossa situation that will see the Germans on the back foot.

It is a medium sized game, played in 9 turns and complexity is significantly helped by a 5 paged rule book. 

Autumn for Barbarossa

Designed by Hans Kishel (series rules by Dean Essig) and included as a supplement in the Multi Man Publishing (MMP) house magazine - Operations number 7. The game specifically covers the struggle for Smolensk in the late summer of ‘41. 

It belongs to the Standard Combat Series (SCS) system and is a clean and uncomplicated way to get into that series.

With 352 counters, it remains a medium sized game, though the blurb says that this game takes 3 - 6 hours to play. The game is scaled to 7 miles to the hex and the 10 game turns represent 6 days each turn.

The standard rules are 8 pages and the additional campaign specific rules are just 3 pages long and easily assimilated.

Barbarossa Deluxe

When Decision Games chose to launch their ‘World at War’ magazine, this was the game that accompanied the first edition. They sent a lot of issues out free to people on their mailing list to promote the new magazine and still there was such high demand on the retail side that premier issue sold out very quickly and instantly became collectable. 

Some years later, the company brought out the deluxe version, which is now a two mapper, but enjoys unusually large hexes and most of one of the maps has charts and tables. A perfect bound 112 paged historical booklet comes with the the deluxe version and the whole thing is just nice to own.

This is another Ty Bomba design and we have a 26 paged rulebook plus scenario rules, again with supply being handled in detail and a flexible turn sequence that benefits both sides with the players choosing to either move and then make prepared assaults, or do it the other way around. 

The second map is mostly charts rather than terrain and we have 352 counters, so despite the big footprint, this is essentially just a double counter sheet magazine game. It runs  the full ‘41 to ‘45 war on the east front (i,e, from Berlin to Moscow and back). 

With hexes scaled at 55 miles, the blurb says that there are six scenarios with playing time from 2 - 12 hours. Turns are monthly or two months in bad weather.

Surprisingly, there isn’t a short ‘Barbarossa campaign’ scenario, you play the full war and each turn test to see whether you get a victory for doing better than the Germans did historically. I will play to turn 6 (December ‘41 / January ‘42) and if the Germans haven’t won by then, I will make a judgement call and declare for the Side which seems better placed compared to other Barbarossa games presented here.

Since there is quite an investment rule reading for this game, I will then play it on, beyond turn 6, to the end of the war, just for my own interest.

Moscow 1941

This game comes as the supplement to the associated Strategy & Tactics magazine published by Decision Games and designed by Eric Harvey, covering the advance of Army Group centre. The system has similarities to Leningrad classic from SPI / Decision Games.

This is another game with big hexes and again that superb mechanic (mentioned above) that fits this campaign so well …. ‘Untried Units’. 

This is a medium sized game that can be played in a long single session. The game runs from 1st October ‘41 to 4th January ‘42, doing weekly turns, with the map covering the area between Smolensk and Moscow.

There are 11 pages of rules in a well illustrated rulebook. My previous playing of the game has taken four hours.

Blitzkrieg to Moscow 2

Originally published by the Japanese company Bonsai Games and designed by Yasushi Nakaguro. The design was recently picked up by MMP for inclusion with their latest Operations magazine (issue 10).

The game covers the campaign from 22nd June ‘41 through to March / April ‘42 with bi-monthly turns, so that we get the German offensive and Soviet counter-offensive combined, but at a higher strategic level than other games here. The immediate eye catcher are the 1” counters and of course the very large hexes to accommodate them.

This is a small footprint game and the rules are just 8 pages long. There are some cards in the game that bring the player benefits such as getting reinforcements / replacements, rail movement, movement in the breakthrough phase and designating a Soviet city as Hero city.

With just 60 game counters, I’m hoping this game can play the ‘big topic’ quite quickly and together with the fact that both sides get a chance to attack, for it also to become a regular face-to-face game.

EDIT - Following one of the comments below, I checked the collection again ….. and found another title;

Leningrad, The Advance of Army Group North.

This was originally published by SPI, based upon the award winning Panzergruppe Guderian game system. Always seen as a very playable game.

I have the Decision Games reprint, which benefits from a larger map (though still just 11” x 17”), allowing for bigger hexes and a supersized blown up area to one side of Leningrad itself, to allow the counters that build up there to be spread out, to avoid stacking problems in small spaces.

It has the hidden units mechanic (unknown units) already described above and is interesting because it examines Army Group North alone.

The map extends from East Prussia (the German starting point) to Leningrad, which occupies four hexes and sits amongst very difficult terrain of marsh and forest.

Played in 12 turns from 22nd June 1941 through to 13th September, the game is using weekly turns. The core rules are contained in 5 pages, so another easily accessible game to add to the list.

I have played and blogged about it before, so have included a link in the Resource Section below. It is worth looking at just to appreciate the map and the enlarged Leningrad area.


Anyway, I will aim for the first quarter of 2023 to wade through these titles, if any particular playing is notable, it may make a blog post. 

There might be some scope to blog an AAR for one of the games that is played over a number of days, each day playing one game turn and then reporting on it. This way, the blog post is updated daily as an ongoing documentary account of the campaign progress, without any certain knowledge of how the game will actually evolve or end, a bit like being written in real time. This is something I did a few years ago for a Bulge game and it seemed to work out rather well.

Looking at the list of nine games, each does bring something slightly different to the party, but I am pretty sure there is some overlap there and therefore redundancy, so that after playing, I should perhaps make an effort to purge some titles from this part of the collection and make way for some new titles that will almost be certainly making their way onto the shelves this year. 

Perhaps keeping a smaller, fast play game, plus one in depth game would be where the culling decision might fall …. though I do think that Smolensk game looks interesting!

I am hoping that the experience of doing all of this will be one of my gaming highlights of the year and I will treat this like a new full project for 2023. The book is very good and all of this is ensuring that this year I get some of those games to the table that otherwise will stay on the shelf for another year.

Most of this may not make the blog, but there will certainly be updates on my COMMANDERS web site as I cycle through the games ….. and book!

Edit - I have made a good start on the book and it is superbly written and researched. The author clearly has a command of the subject. The opening looks at the period following the end of World War 1, up to the start of what we would consider World War 2, painting the depressing picture of self serving interest by the major nations involved and the force of individual personalities setting the scene of sliding ever forwards towards the big and costly conflict - all rather sad really.

EDIT 2 - I presently have the Russia Defiant Game on the table. It has 7 turns, each representing a month. I am playing a turn a day and then reporting on that (months) events as a rolling blog post, so proceedings are revealed turn by turn in the present tense. There is a link to that post below.

Resource Section.

Playing Russia Defiant and updating a blog post as the game unfolds. LINK

A previous playing of Red Typhoon. LINK.

A previous playing of Moscow ‘41. LINK.

A previous playing of Battle for Moscow. LINK.

A previous playing of Leningrad. LINK

My sister webspace ‘COMMANDERS’ is being re-configured to showcase various figure and boardgame systems that I am enjoying and gives a flavour of where current projects are up to. Link.


  1. It's a clever and interesting idea Norm, to play the relevant game alongside the appropriate chapters of the book....look forward to your updates on "the project" the author "the" Jonathon Dimbleby...TV journalist of the eighties from such programmes as Panorama??? I can't imagine it is, because I would have guessed he was fifty when I was twenty, and that's forty years ago ....maybe a son??

    1. I had assumed it was the great man himself. He dedicates the book to his four grandchildren.

    2. Wow - a) I didnt realise he was a military historian and b) I really am surprised he is still alive, mind you, David Attenburgh is still turning up on my TV with monotonous regularity!

    3. The book blurb does mention other books that he has written.

  2. I might just have to check out this book Norm, as over Xmas I started re-reading Kershaw's superb book on Barbarossa, 'War Without Garlands', which I highly recommend. My plan is to game this using BKCII at some point, but currently am diverted towards France 1940 as it will be quicker to get onto the table as it were.

    As for the board games, a good choice there, but having read Kershaw's book, I would fancy something either based around one Army Group up to the end of '41, or even one zoomed out more that took in all three Army Groups, again up to the end of '41. If the Germans haven't won by then, then it seems unlikely they ever will.

    1. Dimbleby does make reference to Kershaw, so he must respect his work. Your comment about looking at a single Army Group made me check out the collection again and I had missed the reprint of the SPI Leningrad game, which just looks at Army Group North, using the old Panzergruppe Guderian system. So another to add to the list!

    2. Steve, I have added an edit to the post to include the Leningrad game, cheers.

    3. IIRC those 'Warning Order' chaps have had quite a few reviews of Barbarossa games over the years. It is obviously a very popular campaign, which is hardly surprising really.

  3. A lot of very interesting publications sir.

  4. Hi Michal, I think some will look at the list and notice what is not there, as there has been just so much stuff done. I remember GDW’s Great Patriotic War being a well played favourite ….. why did I get rid of that!

  5. This will be an interesting project to watch unfold. Of the games listed, only GDW's old Battle for Moscow is one I have played covering this campaign. My tastes in games are much different. GDW's Fire in the East was my first stab at gaming the campaign followed by The Gamer's Guderian's Blitzkrieg and Smolensk, and COA's Borodino '41. I may look to pick up MMP's Ops #10.

  6. Hi Jonathan, there have been so many titles, it would be interesting to see a single list of all games ever printed on the subject and there would be many ‘Oh yes, I remember that one’ type thoughts.

    Some of the games you list would be considered ‘big’ and having a lot of depth top them, probably the only way to do the subject true justice. I seem to recall that Borodino ‘41 had errata problems, but looked beautiful.

    Perhaps this post might have some gamers dig deep into their collections and pull something that would make for a quality gaming experience. I am just playing Defiant Russia, very enjoyable, but it is already running off the historical rails - though arguably, I could have played the opening German turns with a bit more vigour!

  7. I’d like to say great minds think alike…..but I wouldn’t put myself in that category. As it happens I am half way through the audio book at the moment. I concur it is an excellent history. I particularly like his audio books which he narrates himself in his recognisable and author active voice.

  8. Hi Matt, that sounds a good way to go, though for me, if I listen to audio, I also do something else, so don’t listen as well as I ought - reading forces me down a path of better taking things in ….. but with a higher risk of nodding off and the book falling to the floor!

  9. Great idea to play the game at the same time as reading the book. it would be interesting to see if any of the games get close to history. Mine always go off on tangents - but that is probably me rather than the game. 😁
    I do like the Soviet untried units and have played a lot of SPI's PGG type games. I don't have the Leningrad one and might try to find it as it sounds very interesting.

    1. Hi Ben, the Leningrad game is a good old return to classic SPI and small enough to make for a vacation game. Like your good self, many of my plays run off the history tracks, and though I have only played a couple of full 1941 - ‘45 east front designs, they seemed particularly prone to end early.

      I think this may be because the longer the game, there more the chance that all the dice rolls conspire to tell their own tale. It is for the same reason that I think the longer WWII tactical scenarios must be hard to write / balance as by the mid-way point, they are assuming a life of their own compared to what the designer may have modelled.

  10. I think I have 9 board games total. 😀
    But I agree that syncing gaming and media is fun. I do it all the time. While painting a genre I’ll seek out related books to read (more like listen to, I don’t have time to read) or TV shows.

  11. Hi Stew, the problem for me is that over recent years my reading has become ‘squeezed out’ and it doesn’t need working out, our modern life style allows too much screen time to dominate our quality spare time.

    Part of me is doing this is because I have decided to liberate an hour a day away from the screen and to push that time into doing some ‘real’ things. In effect, this project is creating a new demand on my time, but ironically I have lost the balance, as the project has itself become all time consuming and has been dominating my gaming for the past couple of weeks :-)

  12. Great stuff, Norm, it will be really interesting to follow your progress. Looks an appropriately ambitious project, matching the subject matter - as long as you haven't overstretched...( "we have only to kick in the door..." ) . It will certainly help you get through the long winter, but will it be over by Xmas? (!)

  13. Hi David, I must say that at the outset, enthusiasm ran massively high with the idea behind the project, but with the dust settled, I am appreciating the size of the project, though remain enthusiastic.

    I have just started work on a related piece (amusingly it uses the term ‘kick in the door’) that I think you will enjoy and should be ready to post the first article in a few days. I think once that is out the way, the pace of the project will just fit around normal routine.

  14. I'm really looking forward to seeing this work out over the year. Good luck! At a much smaller scale I'm thinking of something similar, inspired by The Battle of Kursk game from C3i. The book would be "Retribution" by Prit Buttar, published by Osprey. I only have one other game covering that campaign specifically though...

  15. Hi Gareth, I am pretty sure that I should have an interesting instalment ready by this Sunday morning. Your Kursk project sounds interesting, I have the game and the map is beautiful, but of course, as you know, the scope of the game is much greater than just Kursk (I bought it for the title and was surprised by that). I will look up Retribution.

    There is an S&T magazine (issue 118) that cover the same subject and interestingly has the same title (Tigers are burning) as the Kursk sub title. I see there is a copy for under £10 at Second Chance Games (UK) that may be of interest - LINK

  16. Hello Norm

    You have Barbarossa games like gamers have Battle of the Bulge games (you probably have lots of them as well). Even me not much of a boardgamer have 7 BoB titles :-)

    A really great overview of the titles you have and I like the idea of the plan to get them out and play. I find that with small targets like this I can get gaming in with things I have wanted to do but just never quite got around to. Although your plan seems quite large (and I see in a previous comment to also think you were enthusiastic). I hope you get a least a few titles out to play and they all seem decent and enjoyable games.

  17. Hi Shaun, your 7 BoB titles made me smile, yes, I think that is how it is for most boardgamers. I am very much looking forward to playing through the entire project and the discipline of doing that will get some titles to the table that never quite manage to get to the top of the queue and who knows, one or two might disappoint and can be part of that cycle of thinning the collection.

    I am also enjoying the book, but of course these things always bring focus on the brutality of war, which is something by and large that is invisible to us as we play our games, so brings a slightly sombre edge to the project.

  18. My favourite for the whole Eastern Front is Russian Campaign by John Edwards (JEDKO and other publishers). I have a Lou Coatney map from some magazine game that I use as it shows all the major locations. I don't actually play the games but use them to inform me as I read. i.e. move the counters to suite the reading it's better than flicking back to the book's maps.

  19. Hi Trevor, I think the Russian Campaign is up for reprint with both GMT and Compass Games, so it has stood the test of time …. And is the only game that I have played until 4 AM in the morning to get a result ….. in those days when my body was young enough to take that sort of thing :-) I hope the rest of this game entertains you. Cheers.

    1. The only drawback I see with Russian Campaign was the way the map "squeezed" the '45 battles to Berlin or death. Why I much prefer the Coatney map.

  20. I’m not sure that it modelled the ‘entire’ war that well anyway, I don’t recall my games ever getting much past late ‘43.


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