Cauldrons of War presents a stark, yet fresh take on the trials of WW2’s Eastern Front

Cauldrons of War: Barbarossa is a special beast, in more ways than one. At first glance, it is an Early Access indie wargame about Operation Barbarossa, Nazi Germany’s ill-fated attempt to invade the Soviet Union in 1941. There are about a million and a half games covering the Eastern Front, and there’s good reason for that, but it means that Cauldrons has to be doing something special to make it stand out. Luckily, standing out seems to have been a major design principle.

Cauldrons of War opts for a unique set of wargame mechanics. Gone are the hexes, map regions, and unit statistics that make up the majority of traditional wargames. Instead, the one-man team behind the game has created an abstract representation of the progress of military operations.

The only visual representation on the game map being sections of front line and great arrows denoting planned advances. Rather than commanding units across traditional battlefields or else dropping units on to enemies based on relative strengths, you are making a few key decisions for each army group each turn. This pulls double duty mechanically, forcing you to carefully plan out your actions while making games flow much faster than others that tackle this huge campaign.

In practice, each turn (or calendar week) players survey a large static map of the Eastern Front where several commands each pursue their own operations. Each of these commands has a number of order points, and players must wisely spend these by clicking on the front lines, selecting participating ‘armies’ and then selecting an action.

The main interface. You’ll be selecting commands and frontlines to plan your operations.

This ‘army’ layer is still information sparse. Information about the number of active units, morale, command, and supply is all you’re going to get. What you also get is a myriad of possible attack, defend, logistics, and political actions that you can make these armies perform. The meat of the game is trying to coordinate these fronts through the strategic application of these orders. It will take a little while to get used to all the orders, but there is an integrated wiki of sorts that explains their application, if not the math that goes on under the hood.

It may seem like a simple system, and overall, it is. The depth and complexity comes from attempting to wage war across the whole of the front. There are several campaigns for both the Germans and Soviets, some smaller and some larger. Each plays differently so there is a lot of content and a lot of decisions to make. Should I reassign an army from Army Group South to Army Group Center? Center has been having difficulty, but then the army could be used where it stands to push even farther. It will rarely be a simple decision once you get stuck in the quagmire of Eastern Front warfare. On the ‘tactical’ level, if we can call it that, gameplay choices can get quite detailed.

You will have to work your imagination though as the game does little to visually represent the movement of forces. At most you get a ‘stretched’ or ‘isolated’ tag on armies that push too far. In no time you’ll be properly visualizing the advances, the battles, the encirclements, and the retreats that occur all up and down the line. Supplementing this, and this is something I really love, is a narrative text generation that appears every time you perform an action. It has a charming quality to it and reminded me of old text adventure games that I would play as a child before realizing what graphics were. I need to emphasize that the combat is not simple, nor do I believe the AI is a pushover. The flow eventually becomes intuitive as you get the hang of the game, and I found myself trying to initiate different complex plans based on my situation. The opening days of Barbarossa are very different from Winter ’41.

The list of actions on the right make up most of your interaction with the actual fighting of the war.

Now, you’re not just a field commander. You take on the role of a high command officer for either the Wehrmacht or the Soviet Army. Each side plays very differently, with the Soviet Union suffering in the early days and Germany bogging down as it pushes deeper and deeper towards Moscow. Unlike most games that allow players to take the German perspective in the Second World War, Cauldrons of War absolutely does not shy away from the grotesque nature of the war being conducted. As a member of the high command, players will be forced to make difficult choices about specific historical events and orders. You could, for instance, argue against the Commissar Order (which ordered the killing of all political officers and those “thoroughly bolshevized”) but the other commanders and the Fürher himself will not be pleased with your lack of commitment. Mechanically, the trade off is between an increase to the barbarism score and a brief reduction in command points for a period of time.

The barbarism score is another key factor that sets Cauldron of War apart. The more barbaric the German forces act (the Soviets can contribute too) the stronger the will of the Soviet forces become. This is a scale that moves in a single direction. Barbarism can only be gained, and never lost. Therefore, there are tangible benefits to both perpetrating war crimes and opposing them. Perhaps you keep the barbarism level low for now, but at the cost of supplies, morale, and expediency. These types of decisions pop up after turns end, and the ramifications can either be immediate or slow simmering. Beyond criminal enterprises, these decisions allow you to alter the flow of the overall campaign, like the option to drive on Murmansk or simply cut the rails.

Cauldrons‘ stark visualization of the horrific nature of warfare on the Eastern Front is refreshing. While it is fun entertainment to paint the map feldgrau in Hearts of Iron or Panzer Corps, the terrible spectre of the war that you’re engineering is never really addressed. Instead the specifics of war crimes, economic exploitation, punitive campaigns against “bandit friendly areas” and all manner of rear area violence are unceremoniously shunted to the sidelines. This, obviously, is because they’re horrible, and companies rarely want to make their customers feel like terrible people. 

These events serve as a stark reminder of the brutality of Barbarossa and make Cauldrons special. You can enlist this militia if you like.

Cauldrons has no such qualms, asking me at different times if I was alright with letting POWs go without food and water (which happened) to ensure our supplies were sufficient or if I wanted to hire the goons that had just carried out a pogrom in a recently liberated town (which happened). Personally, I have no issue playing whatever side in whatever conflict a game is attempting to simulate, but as a historian first and a gamer second, I appreciate when the history is taken seriously. These wars, and these crimes, happened. Bringing them to the forefront of an interactive experience is worth exploring, especially when they are not represented in a binary good-bad manner but offer tangible rewards and consequences to completing your mission.

You couldn’t describe Cauldrons as a AAA title. It was developed by a single individual and it shows. There are no true animations, there are some issues with fonts not appearing correctly, some spelling mistakes, and there are still bugs to work out. The game is regardless extremely playable. Thankfully, the developer is very active on discord and on the steam forums and is both releasing fixes and adding additional content at a rapid pace. I’m impressed with the scope of Cauldrons of War: Barbarossa and with the way it tries to wrangle with important moral and strategic decisions, and with a price tag of only $5.69 CAD, you owe it to yourself to support a unique, interesting, and strategically deep wargame.

Cauldrons of War – Barbarossa released into Steam Early Access on 26th May, 2020. At the time of writing, it is due to release Version 1.0 on September 25th, 2020.