SPI, NATO (1973)

NATO is a brigade/division level game, based on the KURSK Game System, which simulates a hypothetical attack by the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact forces on Western Europe in the 1970’s. NATO, like many of the early SPI offerings, was originally published using the white tombstone style cardboard box format. In the mid-seventies, the game was repackaged using the more familiar SPI plastic flat-pack described in this profile. NATO was designed by James F. Dunnigan and published in 1973 by Simulation Publications, Incorporated (SPI).


Almost from the day that Nazi high command surrendered to the Allies in 1945, a newly-partitioned Germany became a flashpoint for Cold War tensions between the Eastern Bloc, controlled by the Soviet Union, and the Western Allies, under the leadership of the United States. On 24 June 1948, the Soviets blockaded Berlin by closing off all rail and road access to the city in an attempt to gain complete control of the divided former German Capital. The United States, Great Britain, and other members of the British Commonwealth responded with the Berlin Airlift. Hurriedly organized and directed by American general Curtis LeMay, the relief operation proved to be a stunning success. At its peak, the airlift was delivering over 13,000 tons of food to the beleaguered city every day. Clearly, the cooperation between East and West that had won the Second World War was at an end. However, one positive, if indirect outcome of the Berlin Airlift was the formation, on 4 April 1949, of the North Atlantic Treaty organization (NATO). Faced with an embarrassing political and military failure, the Soviets finally ended the blockade on 12 May 1949. However, they did not abandon their designs on achieving control of West Germany.

NATO Warsaw Pact Map

Originally, NATO was little more than an administrative organization composed of America and democratic Western European States, but with the outbreak of the Korean War in the early 1950’s, the military component of the organization quickly became the dominant feature of the coalition. The Soviets, confronted with a strong and stable military alliance between Western Europe and the United States, reacted in kind; on 14 May 1955, the eight Communist Countries of the Eastern Bloc formed a military alliance of their own, known — because of the site chosen for the treaty’s formal signing — as the Warsaw Pact. Two great hostile military alliances now faced each other, one on each side of the “Iron Curtain.”

British Army of the Rhine (BOAR) APC, Paderborn Germany 1971

Given the ongoing belligerence of the Communist leadership in the Kremlin; their ruthless suppression of the peoples of Eastern Europe, and their aggressive political adventurism in Africa and Latin America, the possibility of a Warsaw Pact invasion of Western Europe became, by the late 1950’s, a key feature of NATO planning as the Cold War continued. The two most likely routes for a Soviet mechanized offensive into West Germany were obvious: the North German Plain, and the Fulda Gap. The British Army of the Rhine was entrusted with covering the North German Plain; while the US Vth Corps was assigned the initial defense of the Fulda Gap. If the Soviets attacked without warning, these British and American formations would have to halt the Warsaw Pact offensive long enough for reinforcements from the other NATO countries to reach the front. Permanently arrayed against these British and American trip-wire units were mechanized divisions from the Soviet, East German, and Polish Armies. The other Warsaw Pact countries, like the supporting NATO members, would be expected to send their own additional front line and reserve units into the battle area, once hostilities actually began.

Soviet T62 Tank, Courtesy Janes Images

This simple East-West divide, however, was not as uncomplicated as it appeared on its face. In actuality, both military alliances presented daunting political and military challenges to their respective operational planners. In 1966, the French formally withdrew from NATO and, although Paris continued to coordinate military planning with NATO headquarters in Brussels, the other member countries — particularly Britain, West Germany, and the United States — had serious reservations about French intentions if a Soviet attack were to come. In the East, the Russians had problems of their own. Because of the brutal Soviet suppression of popular uprisings in Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia, Warsaw Pact planners could not be sure of the loyalty of these nations’ military contingents should war break out; particularly if their military operations did not meet with obvious initial success. Thus, if war came again to Europe, both NATO and Soviet planners would have to worry both about the actions of their enemy and the reliability of at least some of their allies.


NATO is an operational level simulation of a hypothetical conflict, sometime in the 1970’s, between invading Warsaw Pact forces and the NATO alliance over control of Western Europe. The game is played in game turns, each of which is composed of two symmetrical player turns: a Soviet Player Turn, followed by a NATO Player Turn. The Soviet player always moves first. Each player turn follows an identical sequence of player phases: Initial Movement Phase; Combat Phase; and Second Movement Phase. Stacking rules are simple, but somewhat restrictive: the Soviet player may stack two divisions per hex; the NATO commander may stack only one division or three brigades in a hex. Moreover, stacking limits are in effect throughout the game turn; which means that friendly units may not pass through hexes if those hexes are already occupied by maximum friendly stacks. Zones of control (ZOCs) are rigid, but not locking. All units must halt upon entering an enemy ZOC and may move no further during that movement phase. There are no movement costs to enter or leave an enemy ZOC and no unit (except for airmobile units) may move directly from one enemy ZOC to another. Interestingly, units may retreat as a result of combat directly into an enemy ZOC, but only so long as the flight hex is already occupied by a friendly unit. Combat between adjacent units is voluntary, and is resolved using a traditional “odds differential” type of Combat Results Table (CRT). As is typical of most simulations based on the KURSK Game System, the NATO CRT is heavily weighted, even at higher odds, towards retreat and exchange results. One unique and critical difference that sets this title apart from other games in the KURSK series, however, is that there is no 'advance after combat' for successful attackers in NATO. This subtle rules change tends to force the Soviet player to concentrate on broad-front offensive operations and also makes the capture of key terrain, such as city and forest hexes, much more difficult.

The two-color map sheet is surprisingly featureless given Western Europe’s diverse geography. Moreover, the effects of what terrain there is are relatively simple: river hex-sides cost one additional movement point to cross; forest and mountain pass hexes cost phasing units two movement points; and mountain hexes require six movement points to enter. In addition, the combat strength of units attacking across river hexes is halved; and cities, forests, and mountain hexes all double an occupying unit’s defense strength. To add to the attacker's problems, these terrain combat effects are cumulative.

Logistics, given the level of mechanization and firepower present in the two opposing military alliances, is a critical factor for both players, although it should be noted that the supply rules differ in important ways between the two sides. As might be expected, being 'in supply' is a necessary prerequisite for all of the belligerent armies for regular movement and for combat effectiveness, both in attack and defense. But it is especially important for the assaulting Soviet player because Warsaw Pact units (if adjacent to supply) may expend a supply unit and double their attack strength (called a maximum attack) during the combat phase of their turn. This maximum attack option is not available to the NATO commander, although logistical support for his forces is still made complicated by the requirement that individual units must draw normal attack supply from a supply source of their own nationality.

Combat forces from fourteen different nations are represented in the game’s two orders of battle. NATO, as the game’s designer goes to some length to explain, attempts to model a conflict between conventional ground forces in which neither side resorts to the use of their strategic nuclear arsenals. This assumption, while probably implausible, is essential to the game’s underlying premise: nuclear exchange equals a largely uninhabitable Europe, and hence, no game. For those players who insist on putting mushroom cloud markers on the map, however, the game offers the option of tactical nukes, assuming both players agree on their use before the start of hostilities. Air units are completely absent from the NATO counter-mix and rules; instead, the designer stipulates that airpower’s effects, both tactical and strategic, have been factored into the combat power of the ground forces. Thus, NATO is basically a slugging-match between two highly mechanized armies. The Soviet player will find that his army has been organized to repeat the Red Army's overpowering 'steamroller' type offensives of the latter stages of World War Two. The NATO forces, while less numerous, are faster and more flexible; they also make much greater use of air-mobile and air transportable units than do the Warsaw Pact forces.

Victory is determined based on a comparison of the two sides’ accrued victory points at the end of the game. The Soviet player gains victory points through the destruction of NATO units, and by occupying or controlling certain NATO country city hexes. The NATO player earns victory points by destroying Warsaw Pact units, and by preventing the capture of key NATO territory by the Soviets.

NATO offers two standard scenarios: the M + 1 scenario (which ends twenty turns after the start of hostilities) in which the Warsaw Pact launches a surprise attack across the West German border with their regular peacetime forces; and the (ten turn) M + 31 scenario which begins after the Soviets and NATO have both mobilized in preparation for war. As a variation on these, the game offers the players (as previously noted) the option of using tactical nukes in either scenario. In addition to the tactical nuclear option, the opposing commanders can also experiment with optional rules governing Warsaw Pact unreliability, NATO neutrality, and even Chinese intervention.


NATO is an intriguing game, both for the design elements that it includes, and for those that it doesn’t. The mechanics of play, purely from a simulation standpoint, are neither particularly innovative nor overly complex. At its heart, NATO is pretty much TURNING POINT: The Battle of Stalingrad, only with helicopters, paratroops, expendable (for the Soviets, at least) supply units, and (optional) tactical nukes. The surprising absence of an air war subroutine — or any air rules, for that matter — is such a noticeable lacunae in the simulation architecture of NATO that the designer, Jim Dunnigan, felt obliged to make excuses for this omission in the game’s “Players’ Notes.” However, for all of the designer’s remonstrations, it is clear that Dunnigan chose not to include NATO-Warsaw Pact air operations both for reasons of economics (too many additional game counters) and because he had not, as yet, come up with a workable method for integrating modern air-ground combat on the design scale of NATO. Nonetheless, despite the strong World War II flavor of the game, NATO is still, in some ways, a transitional game design. Whatever the game’s weaknesses, it clearly establishes a developmental bridge between the SPI library of traditional World War II games that appeared in the early 1970’s, and the 'hypothetical' modern warfare designs that would begin to emerge from SPI in the mid and late seventies. The several critical design problems that NATO first posed — but did not solve in 1973 — would, for the most part, be successfully addressed by SPI in later 'hypothetical' games like FULDA GAP, OBJECTIVE MOSCOW, and THE NEXT WAR, to name only a few. This new generation of SPI titles would ultimately present a more comprehensive and realistic approach for simulating the complex, highly integrated, and lethal modern battlefield than any of the games that had gone before them.

NATO, although events have passed it by — both in historical and in gaming terms — is still an interesting “what if?” simulation of some of the strengths and weaknesses of the two great post-World War II military alliances. These two enormously powerful coalitions, although guided by inimical political and economic ideologies, somehow managed to face-off against each other during the whole of the Cold War without ever actually clashing directly on a European battlefield. NATO, at least in terms of the opposing ground forces, allows players to experiment with several different possible scenarios for just such a clash; surprisingly, it is also a fast-moving, challenging, and enjoyable game.

Design Characteristics:

  • Time Scale: 2 days per game turn
  • Map Scale: 16 kilometers per hex
  • Unit Size: divisions/brigades
  • Unit Types: armor, armored infantry, reconnaissance, motorized mountain, motorized infantry, infantry, air-mobile, air-mobile base, headquarters/ supply (NATO only), supply (Warsaw Pact only) and information markers
  • Number of Players: two
  • Complexity: average
  • Solitaire Suitability: above average
  • Average Playing Time: 3½-4 + hours

Game Components:

  • One 22” x 34” hexagonal grid Map Sheet (with Combat Results Table incorporated)
  • 400 ½” cardboard Counters
  • One 6” x 11½” map-fold style set of Rules
  • One 11½” x 29” combined Turn Record Chart, Set-up Sheet, Reinforcement Chart, and Terrain Effects Chart
  • One 8½” x 11” sheet of Errata (1975)
  • Two 3¾” x 8½” SPI Customer Complaint Cards
  • One small six-sided Die
  • One SPI 12” x 15” x 1” flat 24 compartment plastic Game Box (with clear compartment tray covers) and Clear Plastic Game Cover with Title Sheet


  • One of my top favorites of SPI back in the day and still is today.I will play this over more recent updates from VG & DG/S&T.

  • Greetings Again Kim:

    Yes, I'm afraid that, despite the flurry of newer titles on this general topic, none of them quite play as well as this old game. The absence of airpower, of course, is a problem, but other than that, I still like the general scale and "feel" of this game a lot. In fact, I plan on writing a "game analysis" on this title before too much longer; despite its age and less-than-impressive graphics, it still receives a surprising amount of attention from visitors to my blog, even after all these years.

    Best Regards, Joe

  • Thanks for the NATO article. Great, but flawed game. I playtested NATO at SPI back in the day and will enter my recommendations if this blog entry goes through....

  • It did! Lost my first entry somehow... sigh...
    I suggest that W.P. receive 2 Supply Units per turn for all 20 turns of the M+1 scenario, and that NATO only receive 1 V.P. per W.P. division destroyed that is not Category 1 (5-2-6s, 4-3-6s, and the 2-2 airmobile divisions). There are no W.P. brigades. Given that NATO equals roughly 50 divisions to approximately 150 W.P. divisions, the problem is clear. I suspect Dunnigan factored NATO air superiority into the W.P. supply unit reinforcement rate, dooming most games to stalemate Draws, or, at best, a W.P. marginal victory. At the increased supply reinforcement rate, a skillful, lucky W.P. player has a shot at a Substantive victory. Please note: a skillful NATO player will break down his big divisions into 3-3-8 brigades (and build up from 1-2-8s) and put stacks of 9 into key cities, forcing the W.P. to use 2 supply units to get a 3-1 with 54 at least 54 strength points, which might still fail if he rolls a "6" and gets an AR. This makes taking Munich almost impossible and Bremen extremely expensive. Without taking both, there is no Substantive Victory, but it is possible, with luck, at the higher W.P. supply unit reinforcement rate.... Also note that losing 3 3-3-8 brigades costs NATO 3 VPs, while losing 6 1-2-8s (if those 3-3-8s broke down), would cost NATO 6 VPs.... Unfortunately there is no other way to shift the V.P. schedule for destroyed units without also changing the 5 V.P. award for captured city hexes due to relative value....

  • Greetings Anon:

    Thank you for visiting and for taking the time to share your thoughts.

    I planned to respond sooner, but delayed in hopes that I might have time to retrieve my old "tombstone" copy NATO and set it up before getting back to you. Alas, I have not yet had the time (although the game box is now out, at least) to actually set the game up and revisit my own pet WP and NATO strategies.

    Your observation that the "major" cities in West Germany can be very tough for the WP to make progress against is certainly true. On the other hand, I'm not sure that I would want them to be a lot easier for the "Sovs" and their allies to crack. Your idea about doubling the turn-by-turn allotment of WP supplies is interesting, although I personally found the problems imposed by their tenuous logistics, to make both the planning and execution of the WP offensive especially interesting (if challenging).

    The tactic of breaking down NATO divisions into their brigade components can, as you note, occasionally be useful, but NATO does give up its ability to form battle groups in such instances, and that -- in and of itself -- can be a problem. For my own part, I always tried, when commanding the NATO forces, to find interesting uses for the lowly "city defense" militias. the powerful West German "6s," and last but not least, the highly flexible American "Tri-Cap" divisions.

    The decision to resort to the "Nuke" option, as I'm sure you're aware, makes for a VERY different game, and much bloodier game. On the other hand, I'm not all that sure that either the East Germans or the Poles would have been particularly keen to see the Russians escalate to "Nukes," even of the tactical variety and on a limited basis.

    Thanks again for visiting and

    Best Regards, Joe

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