SPI, WINTER WAR: The Russo-Finnish Conflict, November 1939-March 1940 (1972)

WINTER WAR: The Russo-Finnish Conflict, November 1939-March 1940 is a two-player historical simulation of the Russian invasion of Finland in winter 1939, and of tiny Finland’s dogged resistance until spring 1940. This game was originally offered as the insert game in S&T #33 (Jul-Aug, 1972). Later it was reissued in the familiar SPI plastic flat-pack version featured here. WINTER WAR was designed by James F. Goff (with graphics by Redmond Simonsen) and published in 1972 by Simulations Publications, Incorporated (SPI).


Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim

For Soviet strategic planners in the Kremlin, 1939 had proven to be a very good year. The signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact on 23 August 1939 had temporarily, at least, removed the immediate prospect of war with Hitler’s Germany and had also opened the way for Soviet expansion into the west. Thus, seventeen days after German troops crossed the Polish frontier, Russian army units — in keeping with the secret protocols of the August agreement — moved into Eastern Poland, Latvia, and Estonia. Unexpectedly for the German Führer, however, Stalin — apparently not wanting to see a perfectly good crisis go to waste — also decided to grab Lithuania (which was originally supposed to go to Germany) and, just for good measure, the Romanian provinces of Bukovina and Bessarabia. These initial Soviet moves went off without a hitch and, with the south and central buffer areas with Germany now expanded, Russian attention inevitably turned to tiny Finland in the north. Hitler, as part of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, had already callously consigned Finland to the role of a future Soviet vassal state; nonetheless, the Russians, hoping to avoid unnecessary difficulties with the west, decided to attempt a diplomatic, rather than a military approach with the Finns.

Kiril A. Meretskov

At issue, for the Russians, was the protection of the Soviet Baltic Fleet, and also increased safety for both the city of Leningrad and the Leningrad-Murmansk rail line. To accomplish these ends, the Russians put forward a simple, if unpersuasive, proposal: to avoid war, the Finns had only to abandon their prepared defenses on the Karelian Peninsula and around Lake Ladoga, and, in a further gesture of friendship, allow the establishment of a Soviet base on Finnish territory. In return, the Russians generously offered to give up a tract of uninhabited and essentially worthless swamp and forestland as compensation. The Finns were unimpressed. At stake for the Finnish government were both its national independence and the sovereignty of its territory.

Negotiations, not surprisingly, quickly broke down. The Russians, however, would not be dissuaded from their strategic goals because of a little Finnish stubbornness. Thus, once it became evident that their diplomatic efforts had clearly failed, the Soviets went forward with plans for the invasion of Finland. Kremlin planners contemplated very little serious Finnish resistance; with the population of the Soviet Union outnumbering that of Finland by almost fifty-to-one, Russian military leaders expected a quick and easy victory.

Soviet soldiers on the Raate Road in minus 40 degree weather.

On 30 November 1939, Soviet troops crossed the border into Finland. The Kremlin, apparently impressed with Hitler’s earlier use of a ‘manufactured’ frontier incident as a provocation for the war with Poland, did exactly the same thing with the Finns. Russian commanders and their troops were optimistic: the war would last a few days or, at most, a few weeks. Once the Red Army had both punched through the ramshackle defenses of the Mannerheim Line and had driven across the heart of Finland to the Gulf of Bothnia, the Finnish government would, Soviet planners were sure, rush back to the peace table. Russian commanders, in fact, were so confident that they cautioned their men to take care not to violate Swedish territory in the course of the offensive. Things, however, would turn out much differently than the Soviet military leadership expected. Instead of glory and an easy victory, months of bloodshed, freezing misery, and death lay ahead for the men of the Red Army. And, as the war got under way, little could the still unsuspecting Russian soldiers know that, for all the progress that the Soviet columns would actually make in their offensive against central Finland, the Swedish frontier might as well have been on the surface of the moon.


WINTER WAR: The Russo-Finnish Conflict, November 1939-March 1940 is an operational-level (patrol/battalion/regiment/division/corps) simulation of the Russian invasion of Finland in winter 1940, and the bitter fighting that resulted from the Finns’ courageous and tenacious defense of their homeland. The game map displays all of Finland, parts of Sweden and Norway, and that portion of northern Russia that borders Finland and that also encompasses the Leningrad Murmansk rail line. Each map hex is 20 kilometers from side-to-side. The various game counters represent the historical combat units that actually took part — or that could have played a role — in the historical battle. The game is played in game turns, each of which is divided into a Russian and a Finnish player turn. A complete game turn is equal to ten days of real time. The game is ten turns long and spans the period from 30 November 1939 to 12 March 1940, during which the major events of the conflict transpired. The game turn sequence for WINTER WAR is symmetrical, and proceeds as follows (the Soviet player moves first): reinforcement phase, movement phase, and combat phase; the Finnish player then repeats the same set of phases. At the conclusion of both player turns in the Historical Game, the turn record marker is advanced one space, and the next game turn begins. In the case of the Optional ‘Special Events/Scenario’ Game, a Scenario Interphase is inserted into the turn sequence at the end of the Finnish player turn, but prior to the advance of the turn record marker.

The actual mechanics of play for WINTER WAR are comparatively simple, but quite interesting, none-the-less. Stacking, for both players, is limited to two combat units per hex on or south of the ‘A’ hex row, and one unit per hex north of the ‘A’ hex row. Interestingly, stacking limits apply only at the end of a movement phase, but are in effect throughout the combat phase; moreover, there is no penalty to stack or unstack with other friendly units during movement. Zones of control (ZOCs) are rigid but not sticky. This means that all units must halt immediately upon entering the ZOC of an enemy unit, but may exit an enemy ZOC in a subsequent movement phase so long as they do not move directly from one enemy ZOC to another. In addition, ZOCs block both supply paths and retreat routes; however, the presence of a friendly unit in the affected hex negates the ZOC in both cases. Interestingly, Finnish 1-1-3 and 0-0-3 units do not exert a ZOC when operating outside of Finland (i.e., in Russia); also, NKVD units’ ZOCs do not extend into Finland, and Russian headquarters and all isolated units exert no ZOC, whatsoever. Finally, Russian ZOCs do not extend into a Finnish occupied or controlled fortified line hex, but Finnish ZOCs are not limited in any way by their own fortified hexes.

The terrain and movement rules for WINTER WAR are familiar and generally quite conventional. One feature of the movement rules, however, does stand out: because of the difficult weather conditions during the actual campaign, the movement allowances of all units are relatively small. This seasonal effect magnifies the impact of terrain on movement. The different terrain types represented in the game, interestingly enough, are actually relatively few; these are: clear, swamps, Finnish and Soviet cities, Finnish fortified line hexes, mountains, rivers, lakes, ice, roads, and railroads. Lakes and mountains are impassable, and all units pay one extra movement point to cross an unbridged river hex-side. In addition, all swamp and ice hexes cost Soviet units two movement points to enter; Finnish units pay two movement points to enter both ice and Soviet swamp hexes, but only one movement point for swamp hexes in Finland. Roads are especially important in WINTER WAR (particularly for the Russians) because they negate all terrain penalties so long as units are moving directly from one connected road hex to another. In addition, an unlimited number of combat units from both sides may be transported using friendly rail lines. Units that begin their movement phase on a railroad hex are automatically entrained; those that must move onto a rail hex must pay one additional movement point to entrain. Once entrained, a unit may travel without additional movement cost to any other connected rail hex in its home country. There is no additional cost to detrain. Finally, units in friendly cities or friendly fortified line hexes, or attacked across river hex-sides are doubled on defense.

Combat in WINTER WAR occurs between adjacent opposing units and is resolved using a traditional "Odds Differential" combat results table (CRT). The CRT displays a conventional range of combat outcomes (AE, AR, NE, DR, Ex, and DE); however, at higher odds, it also lists a certain percentage of combat results in parentheses. These parenthetical outcomes apply only to Russian attacks against Finnish units in fortified line hexes; and, without exception, they directly benefit the Finnish defender. The rules governing minimum and maximum attacking odds also work to the advantage of the Finns: for example, voluntary attacks at odds of less than 1 to 4 are not permitted, and attacks at odds greater than 6 to 1 are still treated as 6 to 1’s. Other rules governing combat between adjacent enemy units also differ in important ways for the two sides. Finnish attacks against adjacent enemy units are always voluntary: a Finnish unit may attack all adjacent enemy occupied hexes, some enemy hexes, or even none. In the case of the Russians, however, combat is always mandatory, and all adjacent enemy hexes must be attacked at ‘legal odds’ by at least one Russian unit. Defending stacks must be attacked as a unitary whole; in contrast, different units in an attacking stack may choose to attack the same or a different adjacent hex, so long as all units participate in at least one of the attacks. One of this title’s most notable innovations is that all Finnish 1-1-3 and 0-0-3 units have the option to retreat before combat if a legal retreat route is open, these units occupy a hex in Finland that is north of the ‘A’ hex row, and the Russians have not cleared all four hexes of the Mannerheim Line. Soviet Headquarters, assuming they have an unblocked retreat route may always retreat before combat whichever country they are in.

Supply effects in WINTER WAR are identical for both the Finns and the Russians, and there are only two supply states: ‘Supplied’ and ‘Isolated’. Supplied units operate normally in every respect; isolated units, on the other hand, are halved (retain fractions) for defense, may not attack, and may only move one hex per turn. In addition, neither Russian nor Finnish units are ever eliminated purely as a result of being isolated; however, all isolated units do lose their ZOCs until supply is restored. The rules for tracing supply impose very different requirements on the two sides. Finnish units are in supply if they are able to trace an unblocked supply path of any length to a hex in Finland. This means, in essence, that Finnish units can never be isolated while in their home country. Things are much tougher for the Russians. All Soviet combat units — except for Headquarters and NKVD units which cannot be ‘isolated’ — are in supply if they either occupy an ‘active’ Soviet Supply City, or if they can trace a supply path of five or fewer hexes to a Headquarters unit that, itself, is then able to trace an unblocked line of ten or fewer hexes to an ‘active’ Russian Supply City. An ‘active’ Russian Supply City, by the way, is one that is connected by an unblocked rail line to Leningrad. In addition, all Russian Supply Cities have a ‘supply capacity’ which limits the number of units (computed on the basis of attack factors) that they can actually support at any given time.

The winner of WINTER WAR is determined by victory points, and players may — depending on their accumulated victory points at game end — achieve one of five victory levels: Soviet Decisive, Soviet Substantive, or Soviet Marginal; a Draw; or a Finnish Decisive victory. The Russian player accrues victory points by capturing key Finnish cities and by clearing the whole of the fortified Mannerheim Line. In addition, the Russians can gain victory points by advancing into the western part of Finnish territory north of the ‘A’ hex row. If the Optional Game rules are in effect, the Soviet player can also receive victory points for any special ‘Allied’ units that are destroyed. The Finnish player, for his part, receives varying numbers of victory points for capturing different Soviet cities; he also receives points for each game turn that the Russian player fails to maintain seven combat units within five hexes of Murmansk.

WINTER WAR offers two versions: the Historical Game, and the Optional ‘Variable Scenario’ Game. In the Optional Game, the Finnish player rolls a die during the end-of-turn interphase and implements the specific scenario, if any, mandated by the die roll. These randomly-selected scenarios include, but are not limited to, provisions for such historically plausible occurrences as: Allied (French and British) intervention on the side of Finland, foreign Finnish volunteers, Russian paratroops, severe weather, better Soviet logistics, Russo-German tensions, and an early Cease Fire. There are no other optional rules.


Finnish machine gunners, Russo-Finnish War, 1939-40

James Goff’s WINTER WAR is, in a number of different respects, a very odd little game for SPI to have put forward. To begin with, the subject matter, itself, would appear to be an unlikely choice for an SPI design. After all, the historical details of the Russo-Finnish War were and are relatively obscure; the outcome to the conflict was seemingly preordained; the opposing commanders were all unknowns; and, even as the bitterly-fought war between the Russians and Finns played out, events elsewhere in Europe were rapidly building towards a much more important military confrontation on the Franco-German frontier. And if these factors weren’t already enough to discourage Dunnigan from publishing WINTER WAR, the game was also an independent design. In fact, so far as I know, WINTER WAR was the only commercially-produced wargame that Jim Goff was able to design before blindness overcame him. So, the fact that the game ever saw print at all, was probably something of a minor miracle.

Finnish troops in trench.

Nonetheless, when I and my friends received our respective copies of S&T #33 back in 1972, the response to the insert game was enthusiastically positive. In fact, WINTER WAR, PANZER ARMEE AFRIKA, BORODINO, and PANZERGRUPPE GUDERIAN were probably the only four magazine games ever published by SPI that virtually everyone I knew was happy to receive. This is not to say that play-balance issues did not begin to surface almost immediately. The Soviets may have managed to grind out a bloody victory in the real war, but on the WINTER WAR game map, the Russians started to run into problems just as soon as players began to gain a little experience with the Finnish defense. And it only got worse with time. Very soon, the occasional Russian victory gave way to an unbroken string of Soviet defeats. In most such cases, of course, this type of serious play-balance problem means that the offending game quickly gets shunted aside and forgotten. Oddly enough, that didn’t happen with WINTER WAR. And that, in its own right, probably merits a little discussion.

Soviet POWs with Finnish guards, Lementi area of Ladoga Karelian

The willingness of my circle of regular opponents to continue to play WINTER WAR, despite the ‘baked-in’ certainty of a Finnish win, probably says something both about the uniqueness of the historical situation and also about the several interesting challenges presented by the game system. For the Finnish player, needless-to-say, it was a blast to take a badly-outnumbered force and then proceed to cut to pieces any Russian incursions into central Finland. For the Soviet player, on the other hand, there always seemed to be just one more strategic wrinkle to try; one more combination of attacks that might actually succeed in finally clearing the Mannerheim Line. Moreover, among my friends, paired games became the rule; that is: each player would alternate sides and then compare a tally of victory points and combat losses to determine the final winner of the pair of games. And players being players, I should also note that it was inevitable that a number of minor rules adjustments gradually emerged that succeeded very nicely both in restoring play balance and in heightening the overall excitement of the game, itself. These rules changes and game variants, by the way, are useful enough that I will probably discuss them in some detail in a later post.

Contemporary game designs, needless-to-say, tend to be far more nuanced, detailed, and colorful than WINTER WAR. After all, 1972 was a long time ago. Nonetheless, there are elements in this relatively simple simulation that — in my eyes, at least — continue to have great appeal. For one thing, the wide variation in unit strengths and capabilities still makes this title interesting, and given its scale, almost unique. How many other game systems, for example, have successfully managed to mix counters as small as a Finnish 0-0-3 ski patrol with units as powerful as a 20-12-2 Soviet corps and still have the whole game work? Moreover, the rules governing Russian supply are actually relatively sophisticated and, even more importantly, directly impact the strategic direction and flow of the game. And the game doesn’t take a whole day to play.

All this, of course, doesn’t mean that WINTER WAR is going to be a good choice for every type of player. Armored warfare enthusiasts, for example, and players who like to see big moves and sweeping maneuvers are probably not going to crank up much enthusiasm for a game in which much of the map is covered by lakes and swamps, there is no mechanized movement phase, and the speediest unit on the map has a movement factor of ‘four’. On the other hand, for those players and collectors interested in games from the ‘golden years’ of SPI; or for those who are willing to do a minor amount of tinkering with the basic design, I recommend it highly. In my opinion, with just a few minor ‘rules tweaks’, WINTER WAR can be made to be both a competitive and exciting face-to-face challenge, and a really great solitaire game.

Design Characteristics:

  • Time Scale: 10 days per game turn
  • Map Scale: 20 kilometers per hex
  • Unit Size: patrol/battalion/regiment/brigade/division/corps
  • Unit Types: headquarters (Soviet only), infantry, armor (Soviet only), cavalry, artillery (Soviet only), ski, and NKVD (Soviet border guards)
  • Number of Players: two
  • Complexity: average
  • Solitaire Suitability: average/above average
  • Average Playing Time: 2-3 hours

Game Components:

  • One 22” x 34” hexagonal grid Map Sheet (with Turn Record/Reinforcement Tracks, Combat Results Table, Terrain Effects Chart, Victory Points Schedule, and ‘Special Events’ and ‘Scenario Charts’ incorporated)
  • 120 ½” back-printed cardboard Counters
  • One 8½” x 11” WINTER WAR Rules Booklet
  • One small six-sided Die
  • One 3¾” x 8½” SPI Customer Complaint Card
  • One SPI 12” x 15” x 1” flat 24 compartment plastic Game Box (with clear compartment tray covers) and Title Sheet


  • urrrrggg not enough INFOOOO -.-
    need # of ppl died and # of ppl that were missing and # of wunded soldiers!!!!!!!!!!! FIX IT!!!

  • Greetings urrrrggg:

    Thank you, I think, for your interest and for your question. And although I typically include the 'Historical Background' segments with the game profiles so as to place the simulations within some sort of historical context, I will, nonetheless, see what i can do about your query.

    The first problem in cases like this, unfortunately, is almost always that of validity. Accurate casualty figures for the Russo-Finnish War -- given the identities of the two belligerents -- are difficult to settle on. Both the Red Army and the Finns have been accused, by more than a few observers, of greatly inflating the numbers of enemy casualties. So, in the end, it really comes down to whose lies do you want to believe?

    The Finns, for example, claimed that they had inflicted approximately 200,000 killed or missing on the Red Army; at the same time, they placed their own losses at about 24,000 KIA and MIA. Moscow, not to be outdone, pegged total Red Army casualties at less than 50,000 KIA and MIA, while the Finns -- at least, according to the Russians -- lost about 60,000 killed and missing.

    One source which presents more specific figures -- and consequently is highly suspect -- lists the total casualties for both sides, as follows: Russian losses are placed at 126,875 dead and missing, and 264,908 wounded; Finnish losses, according to the same source, are 23,157 killed, 1,766 missing, and 43,557 wounded. The very precision of these numbers, in my view, raises questions about their reliability. Moreover, while the Finnish figures don't look that implausible, the Russian casualties, if accurate, would represent over half of the total number of Soviet troops (54 divisions and about 760,000 men) assigned to the battle area. A figure that, given the duration and final outcome of the conflict, seems suspiciously high.

    I hope that this brief set of comments answers your "oddly-framed" question and

    Best Regards, JCBIII

  • I was and still do think this and GMT's Artic Storm the 2 best of the standard size games on the subject.I will get this game out on winter snow storms(as I do 2 games on Eylau) for great effect.I thought the Finnish Ski units a little strange compared to the other sized units but then those little buggers sure can slow down a Russian advance.
    Yes I don't think hardly a gamer who got the game didn't at least like in sum way.Winter War was the last time SPI went outside it's staff to let a person design a game for them.

    I've been waiting forever on that darn remake which I feel if that company can't get it out they should sell the rights to someone who will re-publish it

  • Greetings Kim:

    I haven't tried GMT's ARCTIC STORM (I have no idea why), but I can definitely say that I like WINTER WAR -- in spite of its play-balance problems -- much more than either of Avalanche Press' two games on the subject: BLOOD ON THE SNOW and WINTER FURY.

    Like you, I am also a little surprised that the game hasn't been reissued with a few small rules tweaks. As you can see from the other post on this title, there are any number of workable (and reasonable) rules modifications already floating around, so it isn't as if a newly-published version would require a lot of additional design work.

    Best Regards, Joe

  • A couple of new games are out or coming on this wonderfully interesting, and terrible conflict. Kariela and Red Winter. Both are very good.

    I posted a cinematic play thru of Redwinter on my blog, it was THAT moving. Really gives the feel for the game, the desperation, the barren conditions.

    Take a look on my user name under the tag : Red Winter

  • Greetings meshtime:

    I haven't seen RED WINTER yet, so I'll try to make time to view your "play thru". I am aware of Multi-Man's offering of KARELIA but have not yet looked it over. For some reason (probably inertia), I have yet to pick up a copy of GMT's excellent ARCTIC STORM, but -- for reasons I'm still not clear about -- I did purchase Avalanche Press' BLOOD ON THE SNOW and WINTER FURY; so, go figure.

    Thanks for visiting and for the "heads up" and
    Best Regards, Joe

    P.S. Despite its age and play-balance problems, I confess that there is something about the wa that the graphics presentation meshes with the game system which, even after all these years, still appeals to me about WINTER WAR>

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