Eastern Front 1941 [1981]

(Content warning: Nazis. White supremacy, genocide, anti-semitism.)

The first Game Developers Conference was held in 1988 in founder Chris Crawford’s house. This is funny, if you know a little bit about both. GDC is about as inside-baseball as it gets and is I believe now owned by a marketing company and the cheapest tickets are upwards of $300, while Crawford is now a quintessential fringe outsider, and as of 2014 seems to probably have been quietly moth-balled from GDC. But it does make a lot of sense, actually. Firstly, in 1981 Chris Crawford is about as insider as you can possibly get, working for Atari, the biggest dog around. It’s only over the course of the 1980s and early 1990s that he becomes an outsider, in part due to his increasingly idiosyncratic ideas borne of his experience and meditations, but also because the game industry becomes more and more professionalized and well-defined, marginalizing people who develop their games from scratch by themselves (like Crawford) instead of that essentially being the entire industry.

Secondly, Chris Crawford loves talking shop! He not only published the Eastern Front 1941 [1981] source code but annotated it in fine detail to create a 160-some-odd page tome. He’s written a number of more general-audience books that also refer to Eastern Front 1941 as a key example, such as The Art Of Game Design [1984/2011] and Chris Crawford on Game Design [2003], the latter of which is essentially the longest GDC postmortem ever. Along with the decently-sized manual befitting a wargame and his blog that’s been running since 1996, there may be tens of thousands of words written on the subject of Eastern Front 1941, all by the person who knows it most intimately. So what more could be written about it? Well…

DAF – Der Mussolini [1981]

Here in 1981, Crawford is a very design- and craft-oriented thinker, which means there’s a lot that remains unsaid on topics beyond that. One thing Crawford reiterates over and over again in his writings, with more or less intensity, is that things like graphics and scenario or theming (“topic” in his lingo) ought be subordinate to design (or “goals.”) This careful consideration of design as an abstract concern to be approached analytically and attentively already sets him apart as a cutting-edge video game designer, peer really only to Namco’s best, those teams and leaders responsible for the delicately-balanced likes of Pac-Man [1980] and Galaga [1981]. It’s the seeds of a professionalism befitting the founder of a leading trade conference.

The seed of Eastern Front 1941 was the technical possibility of smooth scrolling over a large map. Accordingly, the whole game is remarkably smooth and unobtrusive. Despite being a faithful entrant in the famously complicated genre of the wargame, it was designed towards the dream of being able to play it with only the joystick and its one button. (There ended up being a couple of keyboard presses implemented, but you can get by without them.) Like its ancestor HUTSPIEL [1955], it’s designed to be easily-grasped, having all pertinent information surfaced legibly for the player’s consideration and a mostly-intuitive interface (though one does have to consult the manual on the finer points like Zones Of Control.)

There’s no friction that makes it difficult for the player to absorb information and then issue their orders. No pressure like a time limit, nothing fiddly and difficult like deciphering Computer Bismarck [1980], nor even a fog of war. The player has absolutely correct and instant knowledge of what the Russian troops are up to, no matter how deep into Russian territory you look. In short, operational-level difficulties are not approximated into the player experience. It’s a bloodless war; numbers don’t bleed, they just go down. You’re at a distant perspective where everything is clean and abstract. You are not just a general but a God, omniscient from above and potentially omnipotent.

Instead, there’s a mechanic where units will lag in following your orders, to a greater or lesser extent depending on random probability influenced by multiple factors. This makes the units unreliable, and an easy target for blame when they fail to follow orders to bad results. The blame chain actually goes the other direction too, though: the entire premise of the game is actually an accusation pointed at the real-life generals of the Eastern Front as the failure point. The game is an exploration of a “counterfactual,” which means it takes as its premise that the Eastern Front could have theoretically been won, and by letting the player step into the role of general to try to do that, points the finger at the reason it wasn’t being bad or at least imperfect or insufficient generalship.

A counterfactual is a hypothetical “what if” scenario, an alternate history. They’re pretty natural to wonder about, but the nature of the beast is that nobody can ever be certain about the answers. The unfolding of a counterfactual is pure fiction, not obligated to the limitations of fact but to those of sophistry and imagination. Put simply, anyone can make up any answer at all to “what if a thing that really happened didn’t happen?” At best, like any fiction, it can be a lie that tells the truth; at worst, some bullshit. The fact that we can’t have them doesn’t stop us from wanting answers to historical what-ifs, though, and answers with the force and firmness of fact to convince and satisfy. We want to find a way to convince ourselves it’s not just something some random somebody pulled out of their head. We want a counterfactual as good as factual.

Enter the simulation. The wargame’s heritage traces back to real training for real generals that demonstrably produced real results. While this wasn’t so much through any idea that the wargames would be able to 1:1 predictably recreate the conditions of a real battle or war so much as through giving generals space to safely practice and repeat and drill their skills and thinking, the appeal of the consumer counterfactual wargame rests on just that 1:1 dream of veracity. The presence of random chance that’s in nobody’s hands and the heft of their simulation, sometimes felt in pounds, lends it an authority that ideally exists to reduce and obscure the sense of authorship. This effect is amplified through the mystification of the computer, even as Crawford’s annotation of the source code works to demystify it in this case.

Of course, most of the history of wargames between 1955 and 1981 existed not in computer games, but on the tabletop, with our computer games hitherto existing as a ghostly afterimage of those. This is a similar situation as we find with the influence of Dungeons And Dragons [1974-2021], itself an offshoot of the tabletop wargame, but with the key difference that there’s no singular dominant game nor voice, rather a set of constellations, with dozens of games relitigating, say, Napoleon’s stand at Waterloo. Eastern Front is, in this context, just yet another in a long line of World War 2 historical wargames where you play as a Nazi general.

This raises the troubling question of why, exactly, that’s a classic perennial topic of the genre. Apologies, but I’m going to try to make the best and most charitable read of what might be going on here, even though Nazi apologia doesn’t deserve it. There’s some reasons I can come up with to be interested in the Eastern Front or World War 2 that don’t have a particularly charged moral valence: It’s the last war before nukes changed the entire political calculation, and accordingly it’s the last commonly-known-by-Americans war between fully-mobilized fully-industrialized armies flexing their might. It’s kind of the historical technological end-point of the kind of warfare where troops square off in big lines against one another that wargames and war theory was invented for, with later warfare being increasingly defined by asymmetry and rapid mobility. The Eastern Front itself is the largest military engagement ever measured by number of troops committed to it, which certainly makes it a curiosity. Also, a present anxiety in 1980s America is that the cold war might go hot, so training against a full-force Russia WW2 scenario can be seen as a kind of rehearsal, though with the advancement in technology it’s more like a reassurance. A quarter-century after HUTSPIEL, we’re still making wargames as an American warmup for fighting the Russians, but now it’s aimed at the consumer.

There’s even a potential pro-factual use case for Eastern Front 1941. It could set itself to the task of demonstrating the factors that narrowed possibility down to what historically happened by putting the player through them. Crawford was very familiar with such an edutainment approach: He alludes with some pride in the manual to the fact that most attempts at Eastern Front 1941 will more or less match the real historical outcome of the Nazis almost advancing to Moscow before being driven back, and his previous game, SCRAM [1981], was a super-realistic nuclear power plant simulator not so much about fun as about learning the particulars of how nuclear plant components work and fail. Physics and machinery is a lot easier for a computer to model than the complex and chaotic and political nature of warfare, which is why most war-themed video games actually do focus just on the physics and machinery.

I’ve used the name of the developer a really uncharacteristic number of times in this article so far, you might have noticed. In part, that’s because we’re in the Hobbyist Era of true solo developers, and we have a really exceptional amount of behind-the-curtain information on exactly what Chris Crawford thinks about this game. However, not only does he have his own blindspots, as anyone does, but even despite being the sole author he’s hardly the final word on his own work, nor are his personal thoughts and peculiarities the sole germinating determinant of why Eastern Front 1941 is the way it is. As already stated, the counterfactual World War 2 wargame was already an extremely well-established thing by 1981 — that’s likely the most honest #1 reason why Eastern Front 1941 has the premise it does, and Crawford had absolutely nothing to do with why that premise already was so well-established. It was already a longstanding part of American nerd culture.

Another one of the wargame genre’s classic, perennial topics for counterfactuals is the American Civil War… look, it’s really, really hard to come to any charitable explanation for why these two particular counterfactuals became popular touchstones that DOESN’T eventually account for why a whole lot of people might be unusually deeply invested in reversing these particular historical losers and winners. It’s pretty blatant white supremacy. That’s a big presence in white American life of any era, and midcentury American nerdhood is in turn mostly a subset of that.

There’s something stranger than proud bigotry, though: a blinkered ignorance that can overlook bigotry. The racist basis of Lost Cause Confederate mythology has of course been obscured in grand fashion so that any white nerd can deny it, and Nazis just… aren’t a real thing at all. Fascism is long-dead, and thus inert, and thus safe. (Conversely, it’s hard to imagine that the opposite-world version of this game, one where you play as Stalin’s Red Army, would be palatable, because Communist Russia is still alive and a threat to America in the 1980s.) At most, white supremacy is an even more fringe weirdo hobby than gaming. So, if one doesn’t self-conceptualize as a Nazi when you sit down to play a Nazi, if your interest really is benign and rooted in all the other reasons I listed or you’re telling yourself it is, how else must one think of the performance?

I think the pose that lets you be at peace with that must be analogous to the dead baby joke: it rests on the assumption that of course you and nobody else around is a real Nazi who thinks babies dying would be good. Nevermind that your assumption might well be wrong, and that someone out there could be self-conceptualizing as a Nazi and fist-pumping as they play the Nazi wargame, that you’ve made a potential safe space for the most vile and hateful people to feel accepted. Contrast Computer Bismarck, which can loudly and proudly trumpet at length exactly what its necessary underlying ideological precepts are honestly, because British imperial patriotism is not perceived by most Americans to be ghoulish and abhorrent but rather good and wholesome or at least inoffensive or quaint.

Unlike a dead baby joke, there’s no lurid shocking quality to the social transgression being made in a Nazi wargame, like there was with the punk or industrial musical subcultures’ use of fascist symbolism in roughly this same time period. Instead, the transgression is deliberately cold, distant, and anodyne. The nerd tone is that we are above such petty emotional responses, like offense and moral horror. If anything, just to show that one doesn’t flinch in the face of inconvenient “realities” and unpleasant ideas, that you’re not taking any answer off the table and thereby have better answers, people over-correct for compassion into cruelty. It’s a deference to an idea of “rationality” that lets you escape interrogating the underlying premises being rationalized. It’s the same selective blindness obscuring the fact that simulations are just made up by people picking numbers and writing rules. Ideology becomes invisible from the technical gaze.

So Chris Crawford’s damnation is not that he’s a Nazi nor a sympathizer, but rather that he just didn’t care. He made a game where you try to lead the Nazis to victory and didn’t think twice or seemingly even once about the ideology of that. (Actually, two games: his Tanktics [1978] has an identical premise to Eastern Front 1941.) Nazi cheerleading is the absolute worst-case failstate of seeing abstractions like design as more important and valuable than the thing that you are saying with the design, to the point where if I had made it up as a hypothetical, it would have seemed ridiculously bad faith. How positioning the player as a powerful Nazi immediately changes the meaning and feeling of any old abstract game design is exactly what Brenda Romero’s Train [2009] exists to needle on with its shocking twist.

And that, finally, brings us back to design. I haven’t actually talked about the game part of the game yet! One of my typical first considerations when trying to puzzle out what a game is “about” is the player’s objective and the value structure that supports it. Here, you just get “victory points” flat out, which on the one hand is a gift to me, but on the other feels like a perfunctory afterthought sitting atop the sophisticated simulation, rather than a concern that makes up its spinal column.

A quick recap: Computer Bismarck also has “victory points”, but the goal any human would describe is not to rack up points but to find and sink German boats, which are the very things you get points for, and Empire [1977/1984] doesn’t calculate victory in points but rather in accomplishing the objective of irrecoverably dominating all opposition. Eastern Front 1941 does not have this sharp clarity of purpose. The manual tells the player that they get points by pushing as far east as they can, with as much effective strength as they can hold on to. The annotated source code expands on this by revealing that this is also weighed against how far the West the Russians extend their effective strength, and supplemented by bonus points for cities captured, and Crawford also tells us that the original calculation was even more complicated and accounted for casualties, all of which is fairly intuitive, but it’s telling that the manual felt no urge to let the player know that capturing cities is part of the goal. Indeed, one might think that capturing cities should be the primary goal.

It’s “pure” tactics, with no strategic or political layer. I think this is a flinch. Nobody fights a war for the sake of it, they want something more than simply extending their force as far as possible. That’s not war, that’s Gridiron Football [c. 1860s-2022]. To sculpt a “win” condition to a war means laying out what it means to win. War is politics by other means, the win condition is always a political one. It means seriously considering what Hitler meant to accomplish with Operation Barbarossa, the 1941 invasion of the Soviet Union, which was nothing shy of genocide.

“Invading Russia in winter” is one of those ideas that’s so infamously bad that I’ve heard people use it as a cliche meaning an idea is bad and doomed. Arguably the German failure in the Eastern Front is exactly why and when their overall war effort crumbled. (I’m not myself a World War 2 military history buff, so I’m gonna be using a lot of cagey adverbs.) Hypothetically, a smart move if you’re trying to replay and win World War 2 as Nazi Germany might be to keep out of the Eastern Front entirely if you can, or failing that, for as long as you can, to marshal your strength and time your attack for the spring thaw. Of course, by that logic, not invading anywhere might be the smart play. And in the world of actual historical fact, Hitler did indeed hold off on Russia until he judged, possibly incorrectly, that the Western Front was now settled enough to pivot towards it.

But hitting East was never an option for Hitler. If anything, you could say he was eager to. Why? Because as he tells us in Mein Kampf [1925], he believed in “judeo-bolshevism,” that communism was a Jewish plot and that therefore all communists or really all leftists were basically Jewish. All Soviet Russian citizens and subjects were communists by residency, which meant that the ultimate Nazi war goal for the Eastern Front was ludicrously maximally brutal: to eventually kill or enslave most people in Soviet Russian territory. This meant that as the Nazis advanced East, the Wehrmacht brought with them as much of this inhumane carnage and atrocity as they feasibly could manage. Millions upon millions died, combatant and citizen, not even as collateral damage, but as the whole damned point of the Eastern Front.

If this Nazi apologia could stand to honestly look its premise in the fucking eye, its “victory points” wouldn’t be measuring territorial gains like how far east you advanced or the cities you captured. It would be a raw bodycount. Nothing shy of satisfying a bottomless, irrational, evil bloodlust. But that would probably be hard to stomach, huh? A bit gauche to package up and sell as a funtime diversion.

If you missed it, I just set up a Patreon for this blog where you can see the posts as soon as they’re ready.

Thanks again to Matilda “Dalm” Dow for talking through ideas. You can once again find posts at The Wargaming Scribe on Eastern Front 1941 that better explains how the game actually plays and its historical importance within wargaming. If you want more horrified disgust at Nazi wargaming, I highly recommend The Digital Antiquarian’s Ethics in Strategy Gaming, Part 1: Panzer General, which covers the emergence of the generalship-focused strain of Nazi apologia step by step.

3 thoughts on “Eastern Front 1941 [1981]

  1. The entire point of East Front wargames is that there isn’t any moral dimension. It’s a slugfest between two brutal totalitarian empires. There’s no point in looking for the good guy because there isn’t one. You just pick a side and go for it.

    If, as I strongly suspect, you think the Soviets were the good guys, you’re in for quite a surprise when you find out what they did in the territory they conquered both before and after WWII. Genocide about covers it.


    1. Buddy there being a moral dimension to a wargame and there being a good guy are completely separate topics. And if you were as attentive a reader as you seem to think you are, you’d realise this article is less an indictment of a specific game and more of the overall trend in what aspects of military history (or alt-history) we are obsessed with simulating again and again and again


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