‘Drive on Moscow’: How I Conquered Russia on My iPad
Can Germany defeat the Soviet Union in this World War II game?
The sheer scope of the battle of Moscow was exceptional. Both sides committed more than a million men to the battle; the Red Army also lost nearly a million men, but still the German forces were halted.—The Drive on Moscow 1941 by Niklas Zetterling and Anders Frankson
The fate of the world hung in the balance as summer turned to autumn in October 1941. Three months after Hitler’s surprise blitzkrieg against the Soviet Union, his armies had penetrated to within a hundred miles of Moscow. Germany’s troops, backed by hard-driving panzers, had killed or captured more than three million Soviets. Just over the horizon was the glittering prize of the Soviet capital.
But something was wrong. Despite the spectacular victories and the long columns of dejected Soviet prisoners, Germany had not managed to finish off the Soviet Union. The forests and steppes of Russia seemed to stretch forever, as did the endless Soviet armies that regenerated like some mythological monster as they took a steady toll of the invaders.
Time was running out. Soon the autumn sunshine would turn to rain and mud, and then to the cold and snow of the brutal Russian winter. Perhaps a final desperate push, codenamed Operation Typhoon, would deliver Moscow to the exhausted German armies. Or, perhaps the Soviets could hang on long enough for winter, and elite Siberian reinforcements, to save the day.
Yet the men of Army Group Center recognized that Moscow was their objective and its capture, it was widely assumed, would bring about an end to the fighting. Many soldiers reasoned that, with two-thirds of the distance covered from the German border to the Soviet capital, only one-third of the war remained.—Operation Barbarossa and Germany’s Defeat in the East by David Stahel
Drive on Moscow is a simulation of Operation Typhoon and the subsequent Soviet counteroffensive. Perhaps its most distinctive feature is its rarity; Drive on Moscow is one of a handful of serious historical simulations that run on the iPad and iPhone. For all the wonders of tablets and smartphones, their small screens and lack of mice have made them hostile territory for sophisticated war games.
Fortunately, Drive on Moscow has no ordinary pedigree. It’s published by Shenandoah Studios, with some of the best paper war game designers in the business, the sort of folks who thrive on making board games with thousands of pieces and rules booklets the size of novellas. Drive on Moscow designer Ted Raicer created the award-winning World War I game Paths of Glory. Like many others, I was curious to see if Shenandoah would bring that level of sophistication to a tablet game.
Drive on Moscow puts players in command of the German or Soviet forces. Either side can be played by the AI, and there is human-versus-human play over Apple’s Game Center. There are smaller scenarios that cover portions of the battle, but the heart of the game is the 22-turn campaign that begins with the massive German onslaught and ends with a devastating Soviet winter counteroffensive.
The Germans automatically win if they capture Moscow. Otherwise, the game is decided by how many victory points the Germans accrue from capturing various spaces. The longer that the Soviets can delay the Germans from capturing those victory spaces, or eject them during the end-game counteroffensive, the better chance they have of winning.
The map, which spans the greater Moscow region, is divided into Risk-like spaces. The terrain is a mixture of open terrain and forests, dotted with cities and etched by rivers, railroads and roads. The Germans start with force of about 50 infantry corps and mobile divisions with panzers and motorized infantry.
The Soviets start the game weaker, but receive significant reinforcements. Each unit has from one to six strength points indicating how many shots it takes at the enemy and how much damage it can absorb before being eliminated.
It all seemed like a joke. It appeared that the Red Army was done and there was nothing to stop the Wehrmacht. Moscow would soon be theirs, and the war would be over. Less than a week later, by Oct. 18, Maj. Eckinger would be dead and the division would be fighting for its life.—The Defense of Moscow 1941: The Northern Flank by Jack Radey and Charles Sharp
Each turn consists of a series of alternating rounds, with the Germans activating the units in a single space, moving and fighting with them, and then the Soviets activating one of their spaces. Toward the end of the game, the Soviets move first each turn, simulating the reversal of strategic initiative. A turn ends after a certain number of rounds have elapsed or when both sides have moved all their units.
Issuing commands in Drive on Moscow is touchpad-simple. Tap on a space and the units are activated; tap again the destination space and the units are whisked there with a speed that Guderian and Zhukov would envy.
Infantry move one space per turn while tanks and motorized infantry move two, which allows the mechanized troops to quickly seize key objectives or encircle slower-moving leg infantry. However, the panzers can only move two spaces if they follow a road or railroad, illustrating why the German advance tended to be channeled along major transportation routes.
Units that enter a space with enemy units must attack, or if they begin their move in contact with the enemy, can choose to attack or not attack. The game displays colored bars showing estimated attacker and defender losses. But these are only estimates, so battles can be more or less bloody than expected.
Units take strength-point losses, or the defender may be forced to retreat. The key to battlefield success is massing a strong attacking force against a weak defender and exploiting the numerous modifiers that affect combat results. For example, elite formations, such as some German panzer and Soviet Guard formations, get a bonus when attacking—as do tanks assaulting leg infantry.
Units that are cut off from supply suffer a penalty and eventually will be eliminated due to attrition. The defender receives combat benefits from rivers, forests, cities and fortification spaces. As in real life, the best strategy is to surround the enemy until he runs out of supplies, and then finish him off.
And as in the historical battle, the Germans prefer to fight in tank-friendly clear terrain, while the Soviets stick to forests and cities.
During the night of Dec. 4, the temperature dropped to -25° F. One German regiment on a night march had over 300 frostbite casualties, and several of its wounded men froze to death. The next morning, tanks would not start; machine guns and artillery would not fire because their lubricants and the oil in their recoil mechanisms had congealed; and all the armies reported numerous frostbite cases.—Moscow to Stalingrad: Decision in the East by Earl Ziemke
What distinguishes historical war games from Risk or chess is their ability to simulate the historical factors that influenced the real battle. The sort of moments that make a player go, “Aha, that’s why history happened the way it did.”
In the epic Moscow campaign of 1941 and ‘42, the ultimate factors were not skill and bravery, but supply and weather. The popular image of Hitler’s legions is of hard-driving panzers, but the reality was that the German supplies were mostly carried by horse-drawn wagons and railroads that would have appeared familiar to Lee and Grant nearly a century before.
While a German division or corps was usually more capable than its Soviet counterpart, even the vaunted German battlefield proficiency could not compensate for the inability of the supply columns to keep up with their advancing troops.
Not only were Russian roads sparse and unpaved, but Russian railroad tracks were wider than the Western Europe counterparts, forcing the Germans to laboriously rebuild the railroad network before German trains could use it.
Drive on Moscow simulates this logistical ball-and-chain by randomly immobilizing a certain number of German mechanized divisions per turn. There will be much gnashing of ubermenschen teeth when a phalanx of panzers, about to seize a city or complete a lighting encirclement, is stopped dead in its tracks.
The reinforcement and replacement rules simulate the fact that the Germans bled far more men and equipment then they could replace. While the Germans actually start the game with stronger forces than the battered Soviet armies, they receive no reinforcements and barely any replacements to replenish their forces.
Thus the German mailed fist only gets weaker, while the Soviets receive numerous new units and replacements as well as elite Siberian troops trained and equipped for a devastating winter counteroffensive.
As if logistics were not grim enough, there is always the weather to darken the German mood. The Russian winter of 1941 was murderous for German soldiers still clad in summer uniforms and whose vehicles lacked antifreeze and cold-weather lubricants.
Like an unleashed tiger, the Wehrmacht will savage its prey in the early part of the game, until the rains arrive and tanks sink into the mud. The German advance revives when frost hardens the mud in mid-game. But that euphoria freezes into misery at the end of the game, when winter paralyzes the Germans but not the warmly-clad Soviets.
But all this is cold comfort to the Soviets, who start the game with their best armies thrust thrust into the middle of a German noose. A special command paralysis rule pins most Soviet units for the first two turns of the game—perhaps simulating Stalin’s no-retreat orders as well as a confused Soviet command system.
That allows the panzers to encircle much of the Red Army. Mud and a steady trickle of reinforcements may stave off defeat until the Soviet counteroffensive begins. But the margin between defeat and victory is narrow.
On Sept. 12, the Stavka issued a Directive, signed by Stalin, authorizing all commanders to set up blocking detachments … They should be up to a battalion in size, fully armed and equipped with transport and tanks. They should not hesitate to use their weapons against those responsible for inciting panic, though they should spare decent soldiers who had been simply swept away.—Moscow 1941: A City & Its People at War by Sir Rodric Braithwaite
When I first played Drive on Moscow, my biggest question was not whether there could a good simulation of the Moscow campaign. Numerous paper and computer war games already do that. But could a realistic simulation be done on a tablet?
The answer is yes, proving that human creativity can compensate for less computer processing power. For example, Drive on Moscow elegantly simulates the vital issue of time, of which no commander ever has enough.
Each of the 22 game turns represents 72 to 120 hours—three to five days—of game time, depending on weather. Each time a player takes his turn, the computer randomly decides how many hours of in-game time have passed: anywhere from zero to 18 hours. Thus a player can never be sure how many moves he will be able to make before the turn ends.
This is especially painful for the Germans, whose offensive requires them to constantly push all of their troops forward each turn, but who will rarely have enough time to do so.
Another clever feature is that of prepared offensives. These basically allow each side to conduct additional and devastating attacks at the beginning of a turn before they begin their regular moves. However, the number of attacks is limited. For example, the Germans get three prepared offensives on turn one, two on turn two and one on turn three, while the Soviets only get a few prepared offensives during their end game counterstrike.
No complicated game mechanics here. Just a simple but elegant mechanism to show the enormous power of a well-planned offensive to smash the defender’s lines, as well how quickly that power ebbs as surprise wears off and carefully-hoarded stockpiles run low.
In addition to shaking the concept of blitzkrieg to its very foundations, the first 10 days of the Red Army’s Moscow counteroffensive punctured forever the myth of German military invincibility for both German and Russian alike.—Barbarossa: Hitler’s Invasion of Russia 1941 by David Glantz
Drive on Moscow is by no means a perfect historical simulation. The AI opponent is not terribly bright and can be defeated once a player learns the system. To the war-gaming purist, the game lacks sophisticated features found in paper and computer war games such as War in the East, which has far more detailed rules for command and control, logistics and combat.
But the price of that detail is a game that requires a desktop computer, or occupies your dining room table for months to the intense annoyance of your spouse. Drive on Moscow can be played on a living room couch, an airplane or the doctor’s office.
The ultimate question isn’t whether Drive on Moscow is the most realistic war game of the Moscow campaign, but rather whether it teaches you something about history, allows you to have fun and makes the experience convenient. Where the Germans failed to take Moscow, Drive on Moscow succeeds as a game.