HISTORICAL BACKGROUNDIn the winter of 1942, the Soviet High Command (STAVKA) planned a pair of massive offensives against a German Army that, having campaigned all summer long, was now overextended and spent. These two counterblows, it was hoped, would cripple the Wehrmacht and open the way for a sustained Soviet drive that would ultimately expel the hated fascist invaders from Russian territory. In the south, “Operation Uranus” was aimed at breaking through the weakly-held flanks on both sides of Stalingrad and then encircling and destroying Paulus’ Sixth Army which was still locked in a bitter fight for control of the final few blocks of the rubble-choked city. In the north, “Operation Mars,” called for Red Army to launch a multi-pronged Soviet attack against the precarious German positions along the edges of the Rzhev salient; if successful, STAVKA hoped to push the Germans farther away from Moscow, and in the process, envelope and destroy the German Ninth Army.
A third, smaller offensive was also planned by the Russians to coincide with the two larger operations: an attack by General Perkayev’s reinforced Third Shock Army which was intended to encircle and recapture Velikiye Luki, and also to force a crossing of the Lowatj River. Once the Third Shock Army was established on the west bank of the Lowatj in strength, it was then to drive west to cut the critically-important communications link between Army Group North and Army Group Center: the Nevel-Leningrad rail line. To oppose the Russians, the Germans had only two under-strength divisions and assorted support and security troops in the rear area immediately behind the frontlines. The Germans had, however, one critical defensive advantage: they had spent the preceding months heavily fortifying Velikiye Luki. For General Perkayev, this meant that even after the Third Shock Army broke through the German lines, there would be no avoiding the fact that it would still require, on the part of his soldiers, a major and bloody effort to actually capture the Axis-held city. Despite the extensive German defensive preparations, however, General Perkayev — although concerned about the cost of capturing Velikiye Luki — was, outwardly at least, totally confident of victory. Now, with his preparations complete, all that remained was for him to issue the order for his troops to attack.
DESCRIPTIONWHITE DEATH is a grand tactical level (company/battalion/regiment/brigade) simulation of the ferocious fighting that resulted when the Soviet Third Shock Army attacked the thinly-held German line near the city of Velikiye Luki in northern Russia. One player commands the Germans; the other controls the Soviets. WHITE DEATH is played in turns representing five days of real time. The opposing players maneuver their units across a large hexagonal map sheet representing a forty by forty-four mile area over which the contesting armies fought during the actual campaign. Each game turn is composed of a German and a Soviet player turn. An individual player turn is broken down into multiple impulses, each of which will take the form of either a “pass” or an “action” impulse. Both players begin the game turn with 10 movement points; a player may expend as many as ten or as few as one of these movement points during each impulse. The game turn ends only when both players have expended all ten of their available movement points. The Russian player is always the first to act. The sequence of player operations for a typical “action” impulse consists of a number of different segments and proceeds in the following order: the Decision Phase; the Movement Phase; Barrage Phase; the Defensive Fire Phase; the Assault Phase; and the Terminal Phase. If a player opts to take a “pass” impulse, he may only conduct barrage attacks, and move units by rail. Because of this interweaving of player actions, the game system of WHITE DEATH produces a genuinely simultaneous feel to play, and without the laborious chore of maintaining written movement records.
Combat can take several forms depending on the units involved, but will usually fall into one of three categories: conventional combat; antitank fire; and artillery fire (either defensive support or offensive barrage attacks). In addition, certain specialized units in both armies may make “close assaults” against enemy units. Conventional and antitank combats are resolved each using their own odds differential CRT. Barrage attacks are resolved based on the number of artillery factors delivered against the target hex.
The various rules that add historical color to the game are almost too numerous to list. But as might be expected in one of Chadwick’s designs, besides the, more-or-less, expected rules governing supply and isolation, garrisons, morale, artillery observation, bridge destruction and construction, weather, reinforcements, replacements, and bunkers; there are also rules governing “tank fright,” the effect of Soviet cavalry on German infantry morale, elite combat units, and the Brandenburgers (a legendary group of German commandos). And then there is my personal favorite: a special rule dealing with the pathetically ineffective German 331st Infantry Division which was predominantly made up of elderly reservists and slackers! Finally, in addition to the regular body of rules, the game designer also offers two “optional” rules for players to experiment with: the Abandoning Equipment rule, which allows heavy weapons units to abandon their equipment and, as a consequence, gain both a ZOC and non-vehicle (leg) mobility: and the Cavalry Charge rule.
WHITE DEATH offers six different scenarios that each covers a different phase of the battle. These scenario “mini-games” are: the Purkayev’s Attack scenario (Turns 1-4); Woehler’s Response (Turns 5-7); the First Relief Attempt scenario (Turns 8-9); the Second Relief Attempt (Turns 10-11); the Final Relief Attempt scenario (Turns 12-13); and the Velikiye Luki Campaign (Turns 1-13) which ties all five of the shorter scenarios together into one long game.
A PERSONAL OBSERVATION
When I first examined Frank Chadwick’s WHITE DEATH — his simulation of the virtually unknown, but important battle for Velikiye Luki in the winter of 1942-43 — I couldn’t help but notice the similarities between this East Front design and a couple of his previous games: AVALANCHE and OPERATION CRUSADER. And sure enough, Frank Chadwick acknowledges as much in the designer’s notes at the end of the rules booklet. Of course, AVALANCHE is a simulation of the battle for Salerno and OPERATION CRUSADER is a grand-tactical study of combat in the Western Desert; moreover, both games are considerably larger than their East Front counterpart. None-the-less, players who are familiar with these earlier GDW titles will quickly recognize elements of both of their designs in WHITE DEATH. On the other hand, because of the obvious scale and situational differences between the three games, this similarity probably shouldn’t be pushed too far. Still, the “impulse” game systems of all three titles combined with the critical importance of supply and morale to combat outcomes, as well as the carefully structured interaction of different weapons types, are all vaguely familiar and somehow reassuring.
This is probably just as well, because, whatever its other qualities, WHITE DEATH, despite its comparatively small size, is not a simple game; it is far too layered in both historical and tactical detail for that. Frank Chadwick, in my view, designed a great game in WHITE DEATH; unfortunately — as is the case with his better-known “monster” games — he just didn’t design it for everyone. In short, this game is a very poor choice for the casual gamer or the beginner. Instead, it is a complex, richly-textured, and very challenging historical simulation that is explicitly designed for the experienced player. For that type of player, I recommend this game highly. I personally believe that, for someone with a serious interest in grand-tactical combat on the Russian Front, WHITE DEATH and Jack Radey’s, KORSUN POCKET — although different in scale and in many other important ways — are still probably the best two simulations currently available on this general subject.
Finally, in the category of completely unexpected trivial facts: One surprising, but interesting admission that showed up in the designer’s notes to WHITE DEATH was that the Civil War historian, Shelby Stanton, actually did virtually all of the background research that Chadwick actually relied upon when he he set about to design this game. Apparently, Chadwick and Stanton are friends, and the subject of the Battle of Velikiye Luki was one that had interested the famous writer for years. So Stanton, who was already a gamer, volunteered to do the historical research if Chadwick would turn the author’s work into a game. Happily for all concerned, WHITE DEATH is the result.
- Time Scale: 5 days per game turn (multiple impulses)
- Map Scale: 1 mile per hex
- Unit Size: company/battalion/regiment/brigade
- Unit Types: various types of German and Soviet AFVs, infantry, mountain infantry, German armored infantry, Soviet submachinegun infantry (SMG), paratroopers, machinegun, heavy infantry, commandos, motorcycle, cavalry, ski, engineer, construction, railroad construction, bridge construction, observation, security, police, antitank, antiaircraft, field artillery, mortar, mountain artillery, self-propelled filed artillery, rocket artillery, heavy antiaircraft, airborne artillery, and information counters
- Number of Players: two
- Complexity: above average
- Solitaire Suitability: below average
- Average Playing Time: 3-4 + hours (depending on scenario and/or the experience of the players); 15 + hours for the Campaign Game
- One 22” x 28” hexagonal grid Map Sheet
- 480 back-printed ½” cardboard Counters
- One 8½” x 11” Rules Booklet (with Scenario Instructions and Unit Identification Chart incorporated)
- One 8½” x 11” back-printed Turn Record Chart and Terrain Key
- One 8½” x 11” back-printed German Order of Appearance Chart and separate Terrain Effects Chart
- One 8½” x 11” back-printed Soviet Order of Appearance Chart and Terrain Effects Chart
- One 11” x 14” German Organization Chart
- One 11” x 14” Soviet Organization Chart
- One 4” x 6” GDW Customer Survey Card
- One six-sided Dice
- One 11½” x 14½” x 1¼” cardboard Game Box