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STAVKA-OKH and the Limits of Decisions

July 15th, 2011 by Troy Goodfellow · 17 Comments · Wargames

Rod Humble is the CEO of Linden Labs. He is also makes small games, the most famous of which is probably the conceptual game The Marriage. He’s also a wargamer, and I wish I’d had more time to talk to him about what he was playing when I briefly saw him at E3 this year. He’s written his own miniature ruleset for Napoleonic battles. In general, one of the coolest guys in the industry who acts like he is continually astonished that he is a senior executive.

Anyway, Rod recently made a very simple game set in World War II. STAVKA-OKH is quite unlike any other wargame, in fact I’m not even sure it is a wargame. STAVKA-OKH is a game that is partly about strategy, partly about percentages, but really about decision making, player identity and the verdicts of history.

You can play a game in a matter of minutes, so I recommend you do so before you finish reading this post. It’s free. Read the rules carefully, since it’s an odd game.

First, you are a senior general in one of the totalitarian armies on the Eastern Front; the game chooses for you when you start up. You don’t assign the forces that are given to you – you only choose between three possible plans of attack. Each of these plans has a strength or a weakness strategically depending on the enemy plan, and each has different odds of being overruled entirely by the dictator.

So, the only real choice you make that can decide the outcome of the war can be regularly invalidated by your political master. Any decisions you make are contingent.

Success earns you glory, failure costs glory – unless the dictator has overridden your plan. If it’s his bright idea, then he reaps the rewards or penalties. If you think the Germans are going to steamroll you anyway, pick a plan you know Stalin will hate and let him look like a loser. And then you turn the war around with your genius. Right?

This is where the game gets even messier. If you take the role of your general seriously, there are two other variables to consider. First, do you support the party or not – doing so will add to your glory, failing to do so will subtract but each of these will also have an impact on the other variable, the verdict of history which is laid out at the bottom of the screen in each turn. If you take your “character” seriously, winning the war might not be enough or even what you want to happen. Because the war carries on around you.

Failing to win the war could lead to an honorable retirement. Or you could be hanged for war crimes. If you win the war, your politics might lead to you getting purged or exiled. Or maybe you become the heir to a brutal dictatorship responsible for genocide – the game never fails to remind you that Volga Germans and Crimean Tatars and millions of Jews and Poles and other Slavs are being killed. There are tallies for civilian casualties as well as military ones. A quick victory is in everyone’s interest, of course, but a gamble that fails will probably lead to your own head on the block.

Rod is one of those guys who loves the question of ethics in wargames. Be clear – there are no ethical choices to make here. If you try to waffle and try to avoid calling attention to yourself, you will avoid the hangman’s noose and the sword of Damocles, but you will also prolong the war leading to tens of millions of more deaths. If you fight well, but lose, you might be seen as a Rommel, I suppose – a general who avoided politics, but then Rommel didn’t survive the war, did he?

So we play a general, who ultimately has only the power of suggestion, being judged on the success or failure of plans he did not choose to begin with or approve in the end. And all around him is murder and savagery and criminality. But the war must be fought and the war must be won, or at least lost with energy.

STAVKA-OKH is not a game that I will come back to a lot. It’s an interesting experiment, and it’s cool to see the optional futures change as I gamble with my full throated support for the madman in power. And, like a lot of wargamers, I like to see how quickly I can get to Berlin or Moscow. It’s not a difficult game to win, and I think it’s easier to win if you just keep supporting the party, but that may just be my own luck.

But I felt a little dirty when Hitler said I could take over when he was gone.


17 Comments so far ↓

  • Clay

    This is pretty cool. Thanks for the recommendation.

  • PleasingFungus

    I played three times as STAVKA, losing each time. Then the first time I played OKH, I won by the winter of ’43 and succeeded Hitler.

    I am not sure I like what this game says about me.

  • Kalle

    Never managed a win with the OKH but I’ve won every time as STAVKA.

    Very interesting design and I’d love to see something similar but a bit more fleshed out. The “recommend a plan” mechanic in particular.

  • Sarkus

    Neat little game and I like the way it makes you face the consequences of your decisions. Too many WW2 enthusiasts like to seperate the military campaigns from the politics of both sides. See the continuing debates about Rommel, for example.

  • Clay

    Okay, after a number of defeats/armistices in ’46 on as OKH, I finally won in Autumn 1942. Went all out (chose the best-looking, least controversial, most expensive plan available) in the summer and fall of 1941, then held back (chose the cheapest, least controversial plan) in winter and spring, and then went all out twice again for the win.

    Holding back seems to be the key, fighting when OKH is strongest, and retreating when STAVKA gets reinforcements.

  • Gormongous

    My main complaint is that it’s extremely difficult to lose as the STAVKA, at least in my experience. Trying to fail miserably to defend Russia, the huge manpower boosts every winter kept the Nazis from taking Moscow until 1944, when D-Day pretty much ended the chance of a threatening offensive.

    Still, this might be the most important wargame I’ve played in years, especially for giving the player an actual stake in the action.

  • Riso

    I would really like to play this, but it just crashes for me.

  • FhnuZoag

    The game seems a bit silly though, in that your support for the party seems to lend you responsibility for the crimes of the other side. I don’t really see why me supporting Stalin would lead to the opening of Auschwitz.

  • spillblood

    I love this game. Played it for about twenty times the day I found it. It does fail a bit to give you some sense of remorse or present you with moral dilemmas, because the Genocides/ civilian deaths are presented in a pretty abstract way (only numbers).
    I’ve got some problems with the scaling of the window, you can only view the game correctly on 16:9 screens or with high resolutions, because you can’t resize the window and in low resolution that causes the text on the right side of the screen and the control buttons to become partially cut off.

  • FhnuZoag

    Spillblood, press backspace to open full screen mode. That helped for me.

  • rod humble

    Thank you for taking the time to write about it Troy and thanks for the comments folks.

    I really enjoyed making an artgame/wargame thingy.

    Obviously this one was meant to be more thought provoking than giving long term gameplay (deliberately more artgame than game) but I enjoyed it so much I almost certainly will be making another one of somekind. Probably a bit more lengthy and more repeatable than this one.

    Thanks again everyone who took the time to play it.



    sorry about the silly resolution I picked. In a pinch I can do a new build but would rather not hopefully backpace/full screen key will fix most issues.

  • Skyrider68

    I think your post imparts a sense of “this is a bird of a different feather” in the sense of it being a game. However, not having tried it, I’m not sure I would find the grim realities of the subject very enjoyable in the sense that most folks like to enjoy their games. Curious to know how exactly you were drawn to the game, other than perhaps you already knowing its designer?

  • Troy

    “Bird of a different feather” is right, and I don’t want to oversell the bleakness – you can play it and just see it as a wargame exercise and ignore all the text. I am sure a lot of people do.

    S-O appeals to many things that interest me in game design and some that I have written about:

    1) Questions of player control: What if active decisions are removed? What do you put in their place? Some games use influence, for example, or pure randomness.

    2) Modeling roles in strategy: How do you reflect the player’s “place” in the game’s system and rule set if that is an important part of the game, without betraying either the game’s message, historicity or playability?

    3) Speed: Can you have a compelling historical strategy experience? This is a fast and short game, not very replayable, but certainly compelling and interesting.

    4) Ethics in wargaming: If you believe that this sort of thing matters, can you do communicate it to the player without “ruining the game” for them? You want players to think about what it means to be, for example, a general on the Eastern Front, but not necessarily, give up wargames forever.

    I honestly can’t remember how I first heard about this game – if it was from Rod himself or if it was from a thread on Quarter to Three. But it is fast and touches a lot of my hot spots. I had to play it.

  • Peter S (Mind Elemental)

    Thanks for linking us to this, Troy! It’s an interesting concept. I could never win the war as the Germans, and I never seemed to draw STAVKA. My basic strategy was to go all out and back the Party when the war went well, and when the war turned against me, start frantically trying to jump off the sinking ship. I became the chairman of NATO once, so that’s something… (of course, I also ended up suffering far worse fates.)

  • Fast Eddie

    I really like the idea of this game. All too often wargames ignore the ideological and human context to conflict, presenting us merely with the mechanical challenge of meeting operational objectives. Even grand strategy, with its introduction of economics and rudimentary politics, just provides us with a fresh set of numbers to play with. No one really explores how all of these fit together in the appropriate political context

    Of course this is arguably a case of art reflecting life. As this game reminds us, this artificial distinction between ‘political responsibility’ and ‘operational matters’ is visibly highlighted by the post-war treatment of Wehrmacht generals. The idea of the studiously innocent officer corps that was simply doing its job in (yet simultaneously shifting all blame for the war onto Hitler or the weather) was actively propagated by the likes of Manstein and others who did well out of the post-war order

    But yeah, thanks for the link

  • Fast Eddie

    I forgot to note one minor criticism of the game. Unless I’ve missed something, there’s no intelligence reports (however imperfect) of enemy dispositions. So the success of any plan is pretty much down to luck, as opposed to responding to the actions of my opponent

  • Brad

    Wow, very nice. I “won” my first game by letting Berlin fall when it became obvious our current troop levels were no match for the fresh Soviet reinforcements. I became a war historian at the cost of 13 million lives, not bad eh?