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Subject: Some Stray Thoughts About A Game That's Now Over 40 Years Old rss

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R L Moses
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I just finished taking this game out for a spin this afternoon. It’s really a fine design. While it might seem unbalanced (at least from a player’s point of view), as a case-study of both elegant design as well as an accurate simulation of the situation that the various parties faced during the 1970s, Revolt In The East remains impressive 40 years after it first appeared.

I shan’t do a full-blown AAR. My copy was missing a few counters after all these years; I bought it for $3.00 at a Connecticut hobby shop as an unpunched ziplock game—no folio and no magazine, they were sold that way too. I made a few substitute pieces and pushed on.

I played the standard scenario, and did so solitaire here in the Yangtze River Valley in what has been a cold and wet spring. Hungary revolted the first turn; Rumania, Czechoslovakia followed, along with Bulgaria, and then the GDR shortly thereafter. NATO intervention occurred on Game Turn 4. Poland rebelled on Game Turn 5. It looked like the tide had turned in Eastern Europe, and Moscow had lost control.

That’s not what ended up happening. Instead, Moscow won back the day. What hurt me was a far too aggressive strategy when NATO went off hunting Soviet units in an attempt to eliminate them and secure the rebel’s hold on cities. Even with good odds and far-reaching NATO airpower, too many “Exchange” results hurt the Western forces and depleted their numbers without the chance of replacements on the schedule that the USSR enjoyed. A far better approach would have been to use NATO units to screen and protect those Warsaw Pact units that had defected, instead of seeking to engage Soviet units head-on. By Turn 7, it was clear that the Soviet forces that were starting to be replenished would win back the territories lost—and that they eventually did, for a score of 16-4.

There’s a lot to like in this game, just as a player. If you're Moscow, you’re wondering what’s next. If you’re NATO, you’re just wondering—watching and waiting for the chance to move in and defend those who want out of the alliance.

The Soviet player has to be careful not to allow revolts to linger, and to crush any attempt to exit. But if Moscow moves against every attempt to breakaway, it could find itself just a firefighter, without the resources to battle the bigger and more important blazes (Poland is usually cited, but good luck getting the requisite forces to Bulgaria and cutting off efforts by the army there to move west of Sofia into the mountains).

The NATO player has to be patient, but not ponderous. At some point, there will be a chance, but it might well be too far away (see Bulgaria again). The GDR is a temptation, but that’s a revolt that can be contained easier than others by Moscow. Air power is the great advantage, but the Soviets have airborne troops, making timing almost everything in this game. The first to the dance with the most is crucial.

Revolt In The East is such a simple and splendid design that house rules can be easily constructed (something that’s already been done by some in the years immediately following the game’s appearance). For example, I could see that a requirements could be introduced that includes a certain tipping point, whereby the combination of a loss of a certain number of units and specific allies would compel the USSR to look to its own territorial integrity, sacrifice its East European allies and end the game. The way victory conditions are currently drawn in the rules, it’s the control of cities that counts—an entirely defensible and creative way to reflect the politics of the time and the nature of rebellion. At the same time, Moscow would have surely been concerned with escalation, both horizontal (territorial—revolts lead to revolts if they aren’t quelled) and vertical (the possibility that a confrontation with NATO that started with standoffs and minor skirmishes could well end up going nuclear). The way that Soviet reinforcements appear 4 turns after they are lost, the leadership in Moscow is portrayed as primarily protecting its glacis in Eastern Europe, even it means those efforts will end up depleting its own reserves—reserves that it would most assuredly need to defend itself if not only satellite states but its own minorities revolted. It’s not at all clear that Soviet leaders would have behaved that way, given what we now know from archives that contain transcripts of various Politburo meetings. There was division and dissension in Moscow, and outbreaks of political and social unrest in East Europe might well have been met with indecision, instead of the rapid-response motif that the game here assumes. And one can see Soviet leaders deciding to sacrifice one ally to hold on to others.

In short, there’s a political aspect that’s missing here. Some of the more modern designs (such as Mrs. Thatcher’s War) do an excellent job incorporating a political track that affects military strategy, as well as results of the battlefield impacting on what a leadership can and cannot do (Vietnam Solitaire—another White Dog Games design, from which the aforementioned Falklands War simulation draws heavily and credits accordingly). What’s absent from Revolt In The East is how revolts in certain countries of the Warsaw Pact would affect other regimes. The table that deals with revolts producing further unrest and a possible move by NATO does address the matter; but because it’s quantitative, it’s perhaps a little too dice-dependent. For example, the model as presented doesn’t pause to consider that a revolt that began in Bulgaria might have alarmed Rumania and led to further tightening or an appeal for Soviet military intervention, instead of made it more likely that Bucharest would follow suit or that social unrest suddenly increase compelling the Rumanian leadership to rebel. It’s portrayed as all about numbers: the more regimes decide to leave the Pact, the more likely others will follow. Maybe. But maybe not.

It’s interesting to note in this regard that the game assumes that the ultimate issue is desertion—that certain Warsaw Pact countries would move to leave the alliance, instead of their leaderships being chased out of office by political unrest and social opposition, brought about in large part by economic disabilities—that is, what transpired in 1989. None of that is modeled in the game because the perception half a century ago was that the Pact’s major challenge was nascent independence; that these were occupied countries whose identity was socialism, and the main enemy to Moscow was nationalism.

But what happened in 1989 was revolution, whereas in the 1970s, the danger to the Soviet Empire was seen as defection. The Revolt In The East might have been better titled The Exit From The East. It wasn’t that the problem changed from the 1970s to the late 1980s, but that the perception of the West needed to. Perhaps this was a game not so much of its time as a simulation of assumptions that may not have been all that accurate to start with.

There are some holes in the rules—or perhaps just instances where a little more clarity might have been helpful (or a misreading by this writer). For example, what happens to air power after it aids in combat? Where does it land? Is it compelled to return to its original base? Can its operational platform be moved? Do units—army corps, after all—even tire? Can Soviet units defect, or simply decide not to fight? Apparently not, for the rules don't allow for that outcome. Perhaps they might have done.

The graphics aren’t bad at all, considering the moment and that Simonsen did a nice job with the silhouetted soldiers (as in World War One), instead of NATO symbols for all concerned. Still, a few counters that showed crowds, or allowed Warsaw Pact forces to be flipped over to a different color wouldn’t have gone astray—so to speak.

None of that is meant to take away from a game that is, at least to my way of thinking, an interesting, innovative and quite elegant effort to try to look at current events by gaming it out. A single map, 100 counters in all, 8 pages of rules, and most of the tables on the map itself—all of that is impressive (especially with SPI’s surge toward monster games that would follow in a short time).

It seems to me that far too often too many people scoff at or even condemn SPI (and James Dunnigan in particular) for coming up with games during that period that were unbalanced, not very military, and therefore not very much fun to put on the table and play. Dixie, Minuteman, South Africa, Oil War, The Plot To Assassinate Hitler—these and other games of this ilk are viewed as wrong turns or pronounced as failures by more than a few.

But were they really? Indeed, are they still? I’d suggest that, like Revolt In The East, those games were path-breaking efforts to try to model history as it seemed to be happening then. The imbalance that was manifest in those simulations was because they were trying to be simulations—and as imperfect as they had to be, their primary purpose was to elucidate and educate on the run, and maybe be interesting contests between gamers along the way. The industry has come a long way since then, and it’s a delight to see it thrive in so many ways. But it’s perhaps worth considering that one of the reasons for its longevity is the creativity that appeared almost a half century before, and which laid the foundation for the present resurgence in games that look better and are perhaps more challenging. Revolt In The East remains an impressive game for that time and now. With some tweaks--or maybe even a revamp or upgrading material that incorporates what we now know of the complexities of those days—it can and may yet be an outstanding simulation of what many thought would happen with the Warsaw Pact and help answer why it didn’t.
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Brian Train
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Quote:
It seems to me that far too often too many people scoff at or even condemn SPI (and James Dunnigan in particular) for coming up with games during that period that were unbalanced, not very military, and therefore not very much fun to put on the table and play. Dixie, Minuteman, South Africa, Oil War, The Plot To Assassinate Hitler—these and other games of this ilk are viewed as wrong turns or pronounced as failures by more than a few.


You named five of my personal SPI favourites, for the reasons you go on to describe.
James Dunnigan saw a role for these games that most of his panzer-punching customers didn't.

Brian
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Barry Kendall
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An excellent review, surpassing in my view those which appeared in the early years after RitE's publication. Thank you for reminding me of this game; now you've gone and made me search for time to permit its appearance on my table!

The observations regarding East Bloc governments' possible reactions to a neighbor's "Pactxit" make me want to refresh my memory re their "old memories" of one another and how those centuries of history would have influenced decisions related to withdrawal from the Pact.

Certainly the dynamics of the post-Tito era in the Balkans suggest that memories go back a long, long way and their influence can be dominant.

Very well done, thumbs to you and thanks!
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roger miller
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Oil War was my second wargame and one I played the heck out of. Fond memories of it indeed.
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Lee a.k.a. "Loyal Lee"
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Very good review. Well done.

RitE is one of the few SPI games from that era that I still dust off every now and then for some good old fashioned Cold War fun. Yes it has its problems and yes it's dated (in so many ways), but it's still quite enjoyable to play. No small accomplishment for a game this old.

One "house rule" I liked using was to take the NATO Neutrality Table from SPI's N.A.T.O. game and apply it to RitE. If the NATO player cannot count on all the member states, it can really change the character of the game (in favor of the Soviet player).

I also remember playing the heck out of South Africa and Oil War. I did eventually part with both of them, but I reacquired Oil War a few years ago.
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michael huntington
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phormio wrote:

One "house rule" I liked using was to take the NATO Neutrality Table from SPI's N.A.T.O. game and apply it to RitE. If the NATO player cannot count on all the member states, it can really change the character of the game (in favor of the Soviet player).
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good idea
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Lee a.k.a. "Loyal Lee"
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warhead2 wrote:
phormio wrote:

One "house rule" I liked using was to take the NATO Neutrality Table from SPI's N.A.T.O. game and apply it to RitE. If the NATO player cannot count on all the member states, it can really change the character of the game (in favor of the Soviet player).
.
good idea


Thanks. It always seemed like a valid consideration to me (and it must have to the designers of N.A.T.O.). Your prespective can be a lot different when the war is on your doorstep and not across the Atlantic.

In any case, it adds virtually no complexity to RitE and it helps with replayability, though that never seemed to be much of a problem with this game. It can mess with balance if the NATO player rolls too poorly though.

FWIW, if a country became neutral this way, I removed their forces from West Germany to either their home country or off the map as applicable and treated them just as the other neutrals (Austria, Albania & Yugoslavia).
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