Thunder in the East: A First-time Player’s Perspective

frontier wars 728x90 KS

Our guest author takes us to ConSimWorld Expo for a report on VPG’s upcoming east front mini-monster ~

Christian Snyder, 21 July 2018

I recently had the amazing opportunity to sit down with some good folks at ConsimWorld Expo’s Monster Conand play Frank Chadwick’s Thunder in the East for the first time; it was fantastic! Full disclosure: I am currently awaiting my Kickstarter copy of the game and had seen some Vassal play prior to arriving in Tempe, Arizona. Seeing the game on videos and reading the rulebook, however, are nothing compared to sitting down to play with the printer’s proof copy at the show. Since the game is not available, this is not a review, but a first impression focusing on what impressed me about seeing, playing, and meeting the development team for Frank Chadwick’s ETO Vol. I: Thunder in the East.

Frank Chadwicks ETO Vol I thunder in the east

Frank Chadwick’s ETO Vol I: Thunder in the East! Nice maps, charts and counters!

Thunder in the East is a dynamic, action packed game covering the entire Eastern Front of World War 2 in six scenarios starting with the German Operation Barbarossa and ending with the Soviet Operation Bagration. You can do each scenario singularly or start a full campaign from these points with incredible systems for morale, seasonal activities, economy and unit reorganization. My experience consisted of three playthroughs of Operation Barbarossa using the optional and campaign game rules. For each of our playthroughs, we were typically unconcerned with capturing Moscow. However, to capture Moscow, along with Stalin, would have been a scenario automatic victory.

And as we played, I got to enjoy the spectacular gaming moments in Thunder in the East, and truly appreciate its integrated set of simple systems.

My teammates and I decided, all three times, that we would instead choose another route to victory. It was our intention, as the Germans, to either conquer as many Soviet strategic objectives as possible or break the Soviet morale in our attempt (“morale” being a campaign game victory possibility). In order for us to do the first part, we needed to capture at least 11 objectives by the fourth turn of September 1941. Capturing 9-10 would be recreating the historical “draw”, and any less would start giving away victory to the Soviets!  With these conditions in mind, we intended to rush south to get to open ground and take as many objectives as possible (and deny the population, resources, and industry that come along with them).

This was our thinking as we began. And as we played, I got to enjoy the spectacular gaming moments in Thunder in the East, and truly appreciate its integrated set of simple systems. The most memorable of these systems and moments I will describe in detail later. However, I must point out that while we played, we always stopped to chat with the numerous passersby, and answer their questions.

Common Questions

Before delving deeply into how much I enjoyed playing Thunder in the East, allow me to address these questions that I was frequently asked while at the Expo:

  1. “When should I get my copy?”
  2. “Is it hard to learn or very complicated?” (This query was invariably followed up with a comment on the length of the rule book.)
  3. “Are the Soviets too strong or hard to defeat?”
  4. “Is this a Card Driven Game?”

I found these to be very important questions, and as such, I will answer them in sequence before moving on to what I truly enjoyed about Thunder in the East.

1. This looks amazing, so when do I get my copy?

Ok, so this wasn’t a question frequently asked to those of us playing. However, I overhead it asked more than any other question here to the VPGTeam.  Typically, there was a comment or discussion about how beautiful the game looked, followed by this question. Because of this, I am including it here, up front so as to not unkindly build anyone’s anticipation! If you have backed the Kickstarter, pre-ordered your game or plan to very soon, Thunder in the East should be out anytime from late Autumn to Winter.

2. Is Thunder in the East a hard game to learn?

In short, my response to this question is that it is not at all hard to learn nor very complicated. I understand the motivations for that question; just a week prior to playing that was also my question! If this is your concern, then I hope you find the following helpful:

The rule book (scenario and reference pamphlets as well) is incredible. It looks fantastic, is of good quality and has a very nice layout. (See for yourself here). Yes, there are a lot of pages due to more “air” in the layout, but the last dozen or so pages are optional/campaign, and they enhance the game, but are also unnecessary to learn it and start playing. Throughout the rule book there are ample sidebar columns with examples, facts, and information that really make the rule book easy to read and digest.

As a product, I was impressed because I could easily find information and examples of what I needed to know about a specific rule. So, all I had to do was flip to the page of the rule, read it, look to an example, and get back to playing. By our second playthrough we were relying very little on the VPG team to answer our questions, but they still chipped in on our games by pointing out precisely where to find a particular rule, and quickly we were off on our own.

Getting a little rule help from the VPG Team

Getting a little rule help from the VPG Team

There are a lot of systems to get used to, but each system and how it interacts with the others is quite simple to understand and implement. As with any game, the more you play, the better you are able to put these systems to use for full effect. One example of how systems overlap can be seen is in knowing how supply is traced and using the Headquarters to keep your supply going forward to support the two movement phases of your turn. The industry/oil/personnel and their effects on unit replacement/reinforcement are another such. Yes, there are multiple systems, but each is simple, straightforward, and works very well to advance the overall game.

Simply put, the complexity arises naturally from the game’s scope rather than a complex rules book.

3. Are the Soviets too strong?

The second question I was asked more than once was, “Are the Soviets too strong or hard to defeat?” This is a trickier question, and one that I personally would like to play many more times before giving a definitive answer. However, I encourage you to make your own decisions based on the following:

The first two play throughs we did were free set-up. In each, the Soviet players massed their forces along the border and with some depth as well. I played the Germans in both, and in both we spread out our panzers groups historically. Each time we smashed through, only to have difficulty maintaining our supply to keep pushing east, and each time saw the defense thicken to our front. The second advance went further than the first, but still started bogging down. I personally would like to do those scenarios a few more times, simply because as I played I saw something, a card play, a timelier HQ advance, a unit build-up or breakdown, that would have helped me advance further the next iteration. So, in this, I believe it was our player skill with the Thunder in the East System, and not the system itself that needed some more work.

Playthrough One farthest northern advance

Playthrough One – farthest northern advance

One of the difficulties for a game of this scope is the balance of forces and historical accuracy over a large period. (This is handled in Thunder in the East by the way the Soviets can build up to their stronger units later in the game.) I personally have gained insight on this difficulty from reading books on wargaming by authors/designers such as Peter Perla, Philip Sabin, and Jim Dunnigan. Specifically, a rule of Dunnigan’s is that a game should be able to re-recreate history as one of its multiple ending possibilities, but not that it needs to every time. In the particular cases of our playthroughs that week, the historical possibility occurred once we stopped changing the historical Soviet set-up as we had been.  Not that it couldn’t have happened, as I mentioned before, I felt close and closer to breaking through each time I played!

Playthrough two advance going strong

Playthrough Two – advance going strong

Our third playthrough was the historical set-up, and boy was that different. One of the things I enjoy about wargames is the ability to experience the history. I am not keen on “simulating” the battle, I can watch a show for that, but to see similarities or actions play out because of the system or responses to it, is something I rate highly. But the importance in this to me is not that every game plays out historically, but that it can. In the historical set up, it felt like the Soviets were unprepared, ill-informed and easier to blitz through, and so, we advanced quickly. It wasat this point that I left the play, (and leaving my partner with one HQ less due to complete absence of thought on my part!). But every time I checked back, I saw Barbarossa playing out! And a desperate Soviet defense aimed at not getting stretched too thin, or a strong point surrounded, were my common observations.

So, take from our first playthroughs what you will. But, I do believe that the German player will have the higher learning curve, and that as you play you will appreciate the nuance necessary to make advances more possible.

I do not think Thunder in the East pre-ordains one side’s victory over the other. I believe the higher learning curve for the Germans fits, in that (in contrast to Dunnigan mentioned above), any historical outcome could have been won by a razors edge. The historical outcome should be possible, but it makes sense that to do it, the German player will need to use every advantage possible, and maximize every advantage not taken by the Soviets. Therefore, the historical outcome is not at all guaranteed for the Germans. But neither is the German historical limit of advance for the Soviets, say if, the Germans concentrate their panzers a-historically.

Blitzkrieg Historical set up playthrough

Blitzkrieg! Historical Set up and the playthrough going strong sometime in August.

Lastly, those of us playing discussed this point as well: a single mistake will not cost you the game!The system is forgiving in that respect. I was concerned when I lost a Strategic HQ, worried that I had lost the game for my partner. However, he rebounded quite well. Similarly, things that I thought would be knockout blows for the Soviets they managed to come back from after a time.

4. Is this a Card-Driven Game?

This was a big thing for me, the dynamic use of cards, and I was asked this question a lot. While the two incredible decks of cards may appear to make this a Card Driven Game, it is not. When the group of us playing were asked this question, we would answer that it is a card-enhanced game.

And honestly, it is extremely cool how they are implemented into the game system. It is not rapid fire/action-response/continuous card play, but rather using them is an answer to a strategic question or the direction chosen at an important decision point. Their use is reflective, not reflexive.

Cards are divided into large, medium, and small “event sizes” and that size determines how you acquire them. They also have a reuse frequency (once per game, yearly, or seasonally). This creates an interesting dynamic as you play these cards, because they are powerful though infrequent. The larger the card’s event, the more significant its effects and so on. While playing these, I initially chose a lot of attack assistance cards, but afterward I realize that I could have done better if I had broadened my card selection and perhaps used my HQ re-organization card, or a sustainment card to keep that offensive going. So many delicious decisions!

In all, the elegant card system was a fun component that added depth and history to the game, rather than just fighting counters across the map. These cards also greatly facilitate play, be it in the defense or offense, to help the player achieve their goals at a specific time of their own choosing, though usually just once per season!

The Infamous Blitzkrieg Card a large yearly card

The Infamous Blitzkrieg Card, a large, yearly card!

The things that impressed me with Thunder in the East!

Those questions answered, let me share my favorite moments from playing Thunder in the East. And that is one of the best elements about playing, this game really creates those “moments” during play that you will remember long afterward.

Firstly, I truly enjoyed the production value of the Thunder in the East. It has nothing to do with gameplay or balance, but when a company goes out of its way to achieve this, I feel it’s worth mentioning. I cannot wait to have a set to call my own. The map is gorgeous, and each of the side mats are as well (Air Display mat, Soviet & German industry, and Unit mats, to name some). The custom dice that will be included are excellent and the finished ones (which only arrived straight from the manufacturer at the end of the show) looked awesome. One serious drawback, nice large counter sheets with pre-rounded corners, which means I will have to forgo my typical ‘new game ritual’ of punching and clipping. But I can deal with that! Seriously, the components, side mats, dice, map and their quality highlight the thought and care that went into this game.

With that, if I had to just quickly list out what I loved about Thunder in the East:

Strategic and Operational HQs

Of all the gameplay mechanics that I truly enjoyed, the Strategic and Operational HQ markers are my favorite. Talk about a beautiful system! These markers mean something and do something.

Playing them is not hard but playing them well is another story. Should I only support the critical combat with a double shift or do I have enough attacks over a wide area where multiple single combat shifts is the right play? Should I activate all my HQs or just enough to cover the key sectors? When should I advance an HQ to optimally keep my advance going (my personal grail in this game – because each “bound” by an HQ requires 3 turns before it can serve again as a logistics source)?

I enjoyed tinkering with the HQ marker dynamics, and there is some excellent card play to assist them that significantly could have upped my game that I want to try next time!

The Air System

The air system was also a big favorite of mine. Okay, I did love CAS (Close Air Support) and the Close Support dice, (who doesn’t like throwing some nice custom dice around!?) but I also enjoyed the variety of options it allowed me to employ. The versatility of the system was again something I had just started to fully appreciate, and get use out of, after my first two games. There is a lot of “there” there.

Close Support Dice Below is an awesome three shifts

Close Support Dice! Below is an awesome three shifts on the CRT (two because I had armor in the fight)!

Although I didn’t personally do this, I recommended and saw aerial resupply used to good effect. The use of airfield attacks, air intercept and escort, as well as ground interdiction add impressively to the gameplay. Best of all, you didn’t need an Air Force ‘general’ managing the air war, but the system was substantive enough that it was a fun game-within-the-game as we fought off interceptors, bombed airfields, and attempted to gain not just superiority, but air supremacy.

Which leads to another good point: these air units are not persistent on-map units; they come and go as players choose. I see this as a very good approximation of aerial combat. Even when the enemy owns the sky, if you want to commit the resources, you can open a window of opportunity to facilitate success over a strategic objective. I won’t go further on this, as the VPG team has an excellent video highlighting it, but the system is very nicely done and was a favorite for me. Lastly, the two new Optional Fighter Sweep and Strafe missions are very promising, giving each player options to keep the pressure on their opponent and their fighters constantly employed.

Thunder in the East, Guerilla Warfare

Another component that I did not employ, but found interesting, were the partisans. At some point (as the Axis player) I would have had to deal with them, but in our gameplay, we did not get far enough for them to become a major factor. That said, the partisan attacks that were being conducted started to grow in ferocity and frequency.

Just having a good time playing Frank Chadwicks Thunder in the East

Just having a good time playing Frank Chadwick’s Thunder in the East

At first it was a rail point here, a unit out of supply there, but the beauty of this little system is how it can grow and expand. There is the option to expand these attacks or to start creating actual partisan units, units that can cause serious issues as far back in the rear as they are. While playing, I could see how the German Army initially was able to just ignore their rear areas but how, over time, a growing garrison in the rear would be required to help keep the front in fighting trim.

My first concern was bypassed Soviet units, and then adding my combat power to the front, but the partisan threat adds a different dynamic that looked very promising. I look forward to seeing this system at play in late war scenarios, and in ETO Vol. II:The Middle Sea, as fighting in the Balkans took up large amounts of German resources, and the partisan systems looks to be able to handle that dynamic well.

The last two things that I extremely enjoyed I won’t spend too much time on as you can watch a good video or article on it by the VPG team, but it’s still worth mentioning.

Timely Reserves

The use of reserves in Thunder in the East was very enjoyable. How do you catch your opponent off guard? By launching six corps from seemingly nowhere at them! However, the decision of when and where to pull those Corps off the front is absolutely agonizing! And after carefully husbanding that reserve you are tempted to use it in penny packets to shore up every little hole in your line.

It is a fantastic system; one of those nuances that I mentioned before, that if you can employ this well, you will have a big advantage in strategic flexibility on the game board.

Navies, and The Middle Sea: I already can’t wait!

This last item has very little to do with Thunder in the East, but it is present to a limited degree: Navies. The big guns of the sea fleets didn’t have grand effect, but they were present and interesting enough to me when I read about them before arriving. However, just glancing to the table next to us, (Frank Chadwick’s The Middle Sea) was a great way to see where they are sailing to as they become the stars on the map!

Hanging out wit the VPG Team and some fellow players

Hanging out with the VPG Team and some fellow players.
From left to right: Kevin Roust, Daniel, Christian, Alan Emrich, Ike, Ken Keller, and of course, Frank Chadwick!

The ETO naval system truly belongs in an article on The Middle Sea, but I have not yet had that opportunity. The Naval combat is just as incredible as the air system they have developed and provides for lots of memorable situations. It’s different, fun, and requires some cold calculation and thought as to how you commit your ships and what you commit to.

Personally, my favorite example was seeing Alan’s Italian destroyers survive by the luckiest roll of six d6 dice ever: he had to roll six dice in damage and any doubles would sink that unit. Alan rolled a “straight:” 1,2,3,4,5 and 6! Only the ship’s bell and a piece of railing made it back, but that unit was not sunk! Instead of sinking, the Italians would spend 21 months in port repairing (yes, the damage effectively took them out of the fight nearly the same duration as if destroyed), but Axis morale was not lowered and it would take 3 fewer months to repair than replace from the Force Pool. Little wins matter!


So I had a lot of fun playing Frank Chadwick’s Thunder in the East. It was a truly ‘mini’ monster, playable and understandable, while still covering so much of the war with interesting and clever systems that were each easy to grasp. It was a lot of fun to play, it has so much packed into it that you will have to play through it to get ‘good’ at it, but it’s fun and easy enough to just get started.

A truly enjoyable and excellent mini monster

A truly enjoyable and excellent mini-monster, I am more excited than ever for my copy to arrive!

Being a visual learner myself, just jumping in and throwing some dice at the Soviets was all it took for me to solidify all that I had read and learned about the game. I truly enjoyed it, and I seriously can’t wait to get better through some more playthroughs.

Best of all, there are plenty of other scenarios to choose from, each with its own complexity and excitement. With so many options, Thunder in the East is a winner that I plan to keep getting on my table, or on my vassal, for years to come!

A big thank you to my dad (William Snyder), James Sterrett, and especially Alan Emrich for proofreading, organizational recommendations, editing, pictures and of course, accuracy!

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