Question time folks – how do you feel about Voronezh? Unless you are either Russian or a military history buff, you probably won’t even have an opinion, you philistine you. But in Drive on Moscow, the Russian city is the upper right-hand corner of the map, and you will think about Voronezh a great deal.
To try and capture Voronezh as the Germans, well out of the way past Kursk and popping out reinforcements like Stalin’s own clown car, is obviously reckless. But if it could be taken, its precious victory points harvested, its reinforcements diverted, what would happen then? Do you dare try and make it? Drive on Moscow is a game made to torment you with this question and a hundred others; to make you go through your day only to suddenly stop and ask yourself: what about Voronezh?
The follow up to last year’s revelatory Battle of the Bulge, Drive on Moscow is a good ol’ fashioned ‘give ‘em more’ sequel. Both are operational level wargames where players shift around units representing entire army divisions and corps, fighting and manoeuvring to control the specific areas of the map which provide the victory points needed to win. Both are built around a central scenario where the Axis player uses a superior army and a surprise assault to try and build a lead before the Allied side gets to push back with mounting waves of reinforcements. The battle is set on WWII’s Eastern front rather than West, and there are some new additions, like paratroopers and cavalry on the Soviet side and weather effects changing the battlefield, for the most part Drive to Moscow features the same mechanics in a different setting, and it must try to match the meticulous brilliance of a game Owen called “a watershed moment for iOS gaming”.
It is a task that the game is equal to: not only does Drive on Moscow match the deft, beguiling presentation of its predecessor, but nearly every decision has the heft of a Soviet hammer. The splitting of turns into finer impulses contributes a lot to this: rather than shifting your entire army forward in concert, you at most get to move three units before your opponent replies. As well as being an elegant abstraction of the disorder and uncertainty inherent in managing such a large force, it is a design decision that pushes you to second-guess your foe’s goals at every juncture and sets worst-case scenarios dancing through your head like malevolent sugar plums. You will rarely make substantial gains without giving the other player something in return. Do you complete your encirclement (yes!) knowing it allows your opponent to bring in reinforcements that turn a lightly defended town into (oh sweet Motherland, no!) a meat grinder? Can you afford to turn a tank division towards the reliable VP of Tula, knowing those Panzers might instead make the difference around Moscow? One door opens; another closes. Time, not men, always feels like your most precious resource.
Part of the reason that time feels so precious is that your units have so much ground to cover, and what wonderful ground it is. The Crisis in Command games use bespoke territories instead of uniform hexes, placing and tweaking the games’ geography with such care that men have been moved to eulogise specific spaces. The addition to that geography of the Russian weather serves to strengthen the attack-counterattack rhythm of the scenario.
Weather in Moscow isn’t random; it’s hardcoded to change at certain prescribed turns, and it transforms the battlefield. Part of playing the game well is being able to anticipate the changes that the weather will demand of your strategy. The rains and accompanying mud that arrive slow down unit movement and allow the Soviets time to reinforce. When the frost comes, rivers freeze to open up new attack routes and the Germans weaken with the coming of the snow. While experienced Battle of the Bulge players found the Germans resisted the allied assault a little too easily, the loss of forests’ huge defensive bonuses when the winter strips them bare in Moscow means the Axis player has to play smarter to preserve his troops. Drive to Moscow’s map feels suitably, awe-inspiringly huge, but it’s also alive. The weather makes it a formidable third player.
Look at that map commanders, and look at it long and hard, for that vast simulated stretch of Russia will haunt your sleeping moments. See the open plains north of Orel and dream of the vast, wonderful encirclements a Soviet counter attack might achieve. Look at the pleasant forests ringing Moscow like sylvan barbed wire and imagine the bloody, grinding contests within, wounded panzers desperately inching forward to glory. It is glorious, comrades. These are spaces which tell stories, and their greater number compared to Battle of the Bulge helps bring out the mechanics’ capacity for creating unpredictable narratives.
Though the game makes the probable results of combat commendably clear, due to the importance of supply and defensive terrain this is a game where small variations in outcome can take whole matches in unexpected directions – an enemy retreat where you needed a breakthrough can render a whole section of the front a non-starter, while snagging an innocuous empty railway space cuts off reinforcements like a military vasectomy. One match might have both sides throwing everything into a battle of attrition for the shining prize of Moscow itself, another sees the Axis sweep north from Orel to start a delicate dance around Tula. For those who come to understand it, there are a lot of surprises lurking in that one map. If Drive to Moscow does have one weakness, it is that the AI does not complement this ability to surprise.
Moscow’s AI is mostly a workmanlike, competent commander, and in particular plays the Russian counterattack well, but is too prone to blowing a game’s worth of solid pressure with an obvious blunder such as failing to take an open VP space. Granted, human payers too make such errors, particularly with the variable turn lengths in play, but the fact remains that while the AI will give new players a stiff challenge, Bulge veterans will find single player quickly becomes rather easy. Drive needs the tension that comes with knowing another human is ready to punish any mistake to bring out its best.
Thankfully, the game’s multiplayer is supported by a high-quality implementation, complete with efficient automatching, turn replays and reliable game centre notifications, as well as face-to-face games. The shorter scenarios play out quicker than you might expect, but the length of the full Moscow campaign and the absence of sudden death VP thresholds mean that getting the full Drive on Moscow experience requires a commitment that may give some players pause.
Drive on Moscow is still a engaging, slick game in single player, but even those who are usually shy from online play should make the effort here: when you see your plans come off and it feels like all Russia is your frosty, blood-drenched playground, you will find your commitment amply rewarded. Now, if you need me, I will be somewhere past Kursk, on the road to Voronezh.