SPI, WORLD WAR II: European Theater of Operations, 1939-45 (1973)

WORLD WAR II: European Theater of Operations, 1939-45 is a strategic-level simulation — very loosely based on the KURSK Game System — of ground combat in the European Theater during the Second World War. WORLD WAR II was designed by James F. Dunnigan (with graphics design by Redmond A. Simonsen) and published by Simulations Publications, Inc. (SPI) in 1973.


At 04:40am on September 1, 1939, waves of Luftwaffe aircraft struck airfields all across Poland. Almost simultaneously, 44 German infantry divisions and 14 armored divisions surged across the frontier catching Poland’s thirty-odd infantry and cavalry divisions almost completely by surprise. Without bothering with the inconvenient formality of a declaration of war, Hitler had ordered the invasion and subjugation of his smaller neighbor. England and France, although incapable of providing the Poles with any immediate direct assistance, quickly demonstrated their support for Poland by declaring war on Hitler’s Germany on 3 September. Seventeen days after the initial German onslaught, Soviet troops crossed a nearly-prostrate Poland’s eastern border to help the Germans complete the Polish nation’s final dismemberment. Poland was the first European nation to succumb through invasion to Hitler’s dream of a modern German Empire, but it would not be the last.

For the second time in a generation, Europe’s Great Powers had gone to war. Tragically, the Greatest War in human history, seemingly almost by accident, had begun without any of its participants fully understanding its future geographical reach, its ultimate magnitude, or its unbelievable human and material cost.


WORLD WAR II: European Theater of Operations, 1939-45 is a strategic (army-level) simulation of Second World War ground operations in Europe and North Africa. The game map covers Europe, the Balkans, Turkey, Western Russia, North Africa, and the Middle East. Each hex on the game map is equal to 120 miles from side to side, and all of the actual and potential European Theater belligerents — some twenty nations in all — are included in the counter-mix. As might be expected, WORLD WAR II is intended primarily as a two-player game, with one player controlling the Axis and the other commanding the Allies; however, Optional multi-player rules allow the game to be expanded to include as many as six ‘national’ participants.

WORLD WAR II is played in rigidly sequenced game turns. A single game turn is equal to three months of real time. The combat units are multi-step (1 to 4 factor) representations of the various national armies that actually took part in World War II. German units may be built up to four combat factors; the various Allied armies, however, may only be built up to a maximum of three factors until 4/42, and four factors beginning on the 1/43 game turn. Interestingly, Italian and minor country armies may never be built up to more than two factors at any point in the game. Naval operations, given that this is a simulation of land warfare, are conducted using arbitrary allowances of amphibious and sea transport points; actual naval units are not included in the counter-mix. Airpower is also highly abstracted and is represented in the game through the use of ‘air zones of control’. The rules governing ground forces are more conventional. Stacking is limited to two combat units per hex. Because WORLD WAR II is a strategic-level simulation, the game’s combat operations mainly represent a struggle between the productivity of the wartime economies (represented by Reinforcement and Replacement Points) of the Allies and European Axis Powers.

The actual mechanics of play of WORLD WAR II are comparatively simple: players move during the initial movement phase (the Axis player is always the first player); they then conduct attacks during the combat phase; and once all battles have been resolved, mechanized units (only) that did not move prior to combat may move their full movement range during the mechanized movement phase. Units may move in one of four ways: regular ground movement; rail movement (3 times regular movement); sea transport; and, during certain seasons, amphibious movement. In addition, German paratroops may also conduct short-range (adjacent) airborne assaults.

Zones of control (ZOCs) are rigid but not sticky, and combat is voluntary. Battles are resolved using a strength ‘differential’ Combat Results Table (CRT); attacks at differentials of less than zero (0) are not allowed and combat results affect the defender only. Battle casualties are taken in strength point losses, and any loss requires the defender to retreat one hex. Interestingly, phasing units may, besides making regular attacks, also conduct a special type of attack during movement called an ‘Overrun’. In this situation, a phasing unit or stack — if powerful enough to guarantee the elimination of all enemy units in a hex — may ‘Overrun’ that hex at a cost of one additional movement point during either the initial or the mechanized movement phase. This means, for example, that a mechanized stack could attack and retreat and/or destroy an enemy unit during the combat phase, advance after combat, and — assuming it had not moved during the initial movement phase — ‘Overrun’ another enemy hex during the mechanized movement phase.

The supply rules for WORLD WAR II are refreshingly simple: units must be able to trace a supply line of any length, unblocked by enemy units or their ZOCs, to a friendly supply source. Supply status is determined only at the moment of combat, and units are either supplied or unsupplied. Units that are unsupplied may not attack, and their defense strength is halved (rounding fractions up); supply status, however, does not affect movement. Terrain types are limited to only a few specific categories: weather areas, clear, rough, resource center (French and Russian), coastal, sea, and ‘blocked’ hexes. Rough terrain doubles the combat strength of defending units; weather area hexes affect the movement range of all units starting in a weather hex (depending on the season) and double the defense strength of defending units during spring game turns. In addition, certain seasonal turns (fall, winter, and spring) also directly affect whether or not amphibious landings may be attempted.

One unique aspect of the WORLD WAR II game system that clearly sets it apart from other strategic simulations of its type is the special set of rules that govern reinforcements and replacements for the Soviet Union. Unlike the other belligerent countries in the game — which will either be neutral or at war — Russia will operate on a ‘Peacetime’ footing, on a ‘Limited War’ basis, or on a total ‘War’ footing depending, for much of the game, on the actions of the Axis side. This restriction on Russian combat operations, interestingly, was one of the first of the many criticisms leveled against Dunnigan’s design. And because of this rules set’s impact on the game’s victory conditions, several player generated post-publication solutions to the ‘Russian’ problem quickly surfaced. Ultimately, the most commonly-accepted — and still probably the best — popular fix among experienced players of WORLD WAR II was the adoption of an unofficial rule requiring the Axis to invade Russia on or before the 4/42 (fall 1942) game turn. This rules change, although comparatively simple, worked to solve the ‘Russian’ problem, very nicely.

Determining who wins in WORLD WAR II depends on which version of the game is being played. Victory conditions in the two-player game can fall into one of six categories: an Axis decisive, Axis substantive, or Axis marginal victory; alternatively, the Allied player can achieve a marginal, substantive, or decisive victory of his own. For the Axis player to win big, he must capture a substantial portion of European Russia (i.e., Soviet resource centers) while, at the same time, preventing Allied forces from capturing hexes in Germany. For the Allies to win big, they must advance ten or more combat units into German hexes before the 4/44 (fall 1944) game turn, or failing that, by the last turn of the game. Victory conditions for the multi-player versions of the game vary significantly from those of the two-player version and, not surprisingly, reflect the different competitive dynamics of the multi-player game situation. For example, a successful multi-player alliance in WORLD WAR II may achieve victory over an opposing coalition, but only one of the members of the victorious alliance, by outscoring its allies, will usually end up with an individual ‘national’ win.

WORLD WAR II offers three scenarios: the evenly-balanced (Invasion of Poland) 1939 Scenario which begins on the 4/1939 game turn; the pro-Axis (Invasion of France) 1940 Scenario which begins on the 2/1940 game turn; and the pro-Allies (Russian Invasion) 1941 Scenario which begins on the 3/1941 game turn. In addition, the game includes a number of Optional rules covering subjects as diverse as Minor Countries, Self-Defense Neutrals, Partisans (both Allied and Axis), Italian Entry and Surrender, Air Drops, and the Three-Player Game.

Interestingly, for those die-hard players who subscribed to Moves magazine during these early years, more WORLD WAR II additions and changes quickly followed in the wake of the game’s initial appearance. In the Moves Nr. 16 (August/September 1974) edition, SPI published official WORLD WAR II Multi-Player Rules for games comprised of four to six participants; moreover, a number of new Optional and Experimental rules changes were also introduced along with additional rules clarifications as part of the updated Oct. ’74 SPI Errata and Addenda.


Jim Dunnigan’s WORLD WAR II, like Rodney Dangerfield, just doesn’t seem to “get any respect” nowadays. In fact, it gets so little respect among contemporary gamers that, according to the current ‘BoardGameGeek’ (BGG) Player Ratings, it even scores below the widely despised DIPLOMACY rip-off, ORIGINS OF WORLD WAR II. This is, in my opinion, both unfortunate and unfair. Certainly, WORLD WAR II is not the best strategic simulation ever published on the Second World War in Europe, but it is also far from being as unappealing as a lot of players seem to think it is. Publication timing and a little too much abstraction, I suspect, are probably the main reasons for the game’s lack of popularity. WORLD WAR II, after all, appeared in 1973 and before the game could gain any real traction in the hobby, John Prados’ THE RISE AND DECLINE OF THE THIRD REICH burst onto the gaming scene less than a year later.

In retrospect, the appearance of THIRD REICH, in 1974, was pretty much the ‘end of the road’ for WORLD WAR II. Dunnigan’s relatively no-frills strategic treatment of the Second World War in Europe, to put it mildly, simply did not look all that impressive when set side-by-side with Prados’ far more nuanced and detailed design. THIRD REICH, for instance — unlike WORLD WAR II — had fleets and aircraft, and paratroopers that could actually do something. Moreover, invading and conquering other countries in THIRD REICH actually mattered because of the economic focus of Prados’ design; and Strategic Warfare — in the form of U-Boats, Escorts, Strategic Bombers, and Fighters — played an important and historically plausible role in both the players’ long-range strategies and in the final outcome of the game. Dunnigan’s design, on the other hand, had none of these innovative and exciting elements; therefore, not surprisingly, it suffered by comparison. Like virtually everyone else in the hobby at the time, I too quickly dropped WORLD WAR II like a ‘bad habit’ and enthusiastically switched my attention and interest to THIRD REICH.

Attitudes, however, sometimes change over time; so, after years of ignoring WORLD WAR II while I experimented with a wide variety of other strategic-level games — from complex, highly detailed monsters like WAR IN EUROPE, to simpler, beer and pretzels titles like AXIS & ALLIES (or, as one of my less charitable opponents used to call it, “THIRD REICH for Dummies”) — I finally, after decades of neglect, took my dusty copy of WORLD WAR II down from the shelf and gave it another look. I’m actually glad that I did. Examining the game with fresh eyes — particularly after the passage of so many years — allowed me to see and appreciate Dunnigan’s design for what it was, and not for what I had originally thought or hoped it would be.

In the process of rediscovering James Dunnigan’s WORLD WAR II, it gradually became clear to me that the game was not, and probably was never really intended to be, a serious simulation of the Second World War in Europe. What it was, instead, was an ingenious and challenging strategic puzzle: a test of the Axis player’s ability to assemble a mosaic of captured territory that, once seized through military conquest, could be held with limited resources in the face of the steadily escalating counterblows of an ever more powerful Allied coalition. The ultimate result of Dunnigan’s design approach is that WORLD WAR II, surprisingly enough, actually opens up far more strategic options to the Axis player than are typically available — whether using variant chits or not — in a game of THIRD REICH. For example, in Prados’ vision of the Second World War, the Italians are literally compelled to enter the war as Germany’s ‘understudy’, and usually, the sooner the better. In WORLD WAR II, the Axis player may, and sometimes will, leave Italy out of the war altogether. Moreover, the opportunity cost in WORLD WAR II for the Germans to invade neutral countries (at least when playing with the Optional ‘Partisan’ rules) is much higher than in a game of THIRD REICH. Thus, while the Axis player can invade and easily conquer countries like Spain, Yugoslavia, Greece, or Turkey; in Dunnigan’s game, the cost of occupation will steadily increase — and may even become prohibitively high — as the war inevitably grinds on into 1942 and beyond.

In spite of its relative simplicity, players in WORLD WAR II actually have a surprisingly varied menu of different game strategies from which to choose. That being said, I have found that one reliable measure of a game’s ongoing ‘freshness’ and ‘playability’, is the number of ‘Perfect Plans’ or basic ‘Lines of Play’ that emerge once a game has been out for awhile; and how quickly they are batted down after they appear. In the case of WORLD WAR II, there have been a lot of them. For example, there is: the ‘All in the Fall’ German invasion plan for Russia; the ‘Mediterranean’ strategy for clearing the Allies out of North Africa; the ‘Norway’ plan which calls for the rapid German capture of Murmansk; or the Axis ‘Turkey First’ strategy which aims both at outflanking the Soviet positions in the Caucasus and at capturing Suez and Kuwait from the British. And there are others, as well.

Inevitably, some players will compare Dunnigan’s older game design to the more recent TSR/SPI version of WORLD WAR II that appeared in 1985. This completely redone TSR/SPI version was designed by Doug Niles and, while not that bad a game, it is still basically an homage to John Prados. I say this because Niles’ version of WORLD WAR II, upon careful examination, is really little more than a sometimes awkward meld of design elements from THIRD REICH and PANZERKRIEG. And while some gamers like this combination, I personally find it just a little bit too cumbersome and slow-moving for my taste.

Unfortunately for SPI, the basic WORLD WAR II design platform never really became a popular game system. Jim Dunnigan — probably spurred by the commercial success of THIRD REICH — tried to build on the original WORLD WAR II design architecture with the addition of significantly more detailed (and time-consuming) production, naval, and air rules in GLOBAL WAR (1975) and WORLD WAR 3 (1975); but neither game, as had already been the case with their predecessor, ever managed to capture much of a following.

So, where does all this leave us? For my own part, I believe that WORLD WAR II — despite its sorry reputation — is a very interesting treatment of some of the most basic strategic issues confronting both sides during the Second World War in Europe. Obviously, as a simulation, it leaves quite a lot to be desired; but when considered on its own terms — as a strategic puzzle — I think that it succeeds quite admirably. For this reason and at the risk of being “a lonely voice in the wilderness,” I would recommend this game to almost any type of gamer, whatever their skill level. It may not be widely-liked, but I personally think that it is a much better game than most players tend to believe. Whatever its defects, WORLD WAR II (1973) is far easier to learn and a lot less time-consuming to play than either THIRD REICH or WORLD WAR II (1985). And, although I have tinkered with it a number of times over the last few years, it is still one of my first choices when I find myself in the mood for a little solitaire play.

Design Characteristics:

  • Time Scale: 3 months per game turn
  • Map Scale: 120 miles per hex
  • Unit Size: armies
  • Unit Types: infantry, armor (German only), garrison (British only), paratroops (German only), partisans, and information markers
  • Number of Players: two to six
  • Complexity: average
  • Solitaire Suitability: above average/high
  • Average Playing Time: 3½ - 5 hours

Game Components:

  • One 22” x 28” hexagonal grid Map Sheet (with Turn Record/Reinforcement Track, Phase Record Track, Terrain Effects chart, Combat Results Table, Russian Production Chart, Various Partisan Availability Tables, Lend Lease Interdiction Chart, Weather Area Movement Chart, Replacements Holding Boxes, and US Reinforcements Holding Box incorporated)
  • 400 ½” cardboard Counters
  • One 7¼” x 11½” WORLD WAR II map-fold Rules Booklet
  • One 6¾” x 22” Scenario Set-Up Sheet
  • One 8½” x 11” SPI Notice of ‘No Dice’ (SPI stopped shipping dice with their games — because of an increase in plastic prices — for a brief period during the height of the oil embargo)
  • One 8½” x 11” Errata Sheet (December 1973)
  • 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

Recommended Reading

See my blog post Book Reviews of these titles; all of which are strongly recommended for those readers interested in further historical background.

THE WEST POINT ATLAS OF AMERICAN WARS (Complete 2-Volume Set); edited by Brigadier General Vincent J. Esposito; Frederick A. Praeger, Inc. (1959); ASIN: B000MTBTEU


  • Have I mentioned how much I appreciate these detailed, thought provoking game reviews? Seriously, this is clearly the best site for old SPI titles that exists. Please keep these wonderful reviews coming!


  • I quite agree with Russ !
    Really great !
    But also on AH & GDW stuff !

  • I personally find that if the Germans forgo building armor and build out 7 strength point stacks to assault the Russians leaving the armor in the north that the entire russian defense is a moot point as there are simply to many germans for them to handle.

    Just my two cents.

  • Greetings Anon:

    Thank you for your interest and your comments.

    The strategy you outline certainly has its supporters; however, a lot depends on how quickly the Germans can disengage from France and shift to the east. I assume that your plan calls for an Axis offensive in the Fall of 1940. The only problem that I have encountered with the "All in the Fall" German attack is that, if the Allies decide to make a real fight of it in France, then it may be difficult to deploy the whole of the German Army to their starting positions before the attack begins.

    Also, the "7 strength point" German stacks can be very effective against a layered Soviet "crust" defense right at the frontier, but what happens if the Russian commander pulls his entire starting force out of range of a first-turn Axis assault? And, of course, try as the Germans might, the British will probably be able to ship a few combat factors to the east via Archangel before the Axis can shut down the port with air zones.

    These are just a few additional possiblities for you to consider.

    Thanks again and
    Best Regards, Joe

  • "what happens if the Russian commander pulls his entire starting force out of range of a first-turn Axis assault?"

    That raises the interesting question of exactly what 'control' the Allied player has over Russian units while they are at 'peacetime' status. The scenario card lists them as 'neutral', which would tend to imply that the Allied player cannot control them. However, they still receive reinforcements, and presumably the Allied player places them. Furthermore, if the Allied player cannot move the Russians at all while they are at 'peacetime' status, then how can they even occupy eastern Europe? My houserule was that the Allied player could move the Russians into eastern Europe while they were at peacetime status, but not otherwise relocate them inside the Soviet Union. Hence my first step on the 'slippery slope' to a full blown 'variant'. ;)

  • Greetings Deadkenny:

    Thank you for visiting and for taking the time to add your comments.

    You raise an interesting point and, until I visited the CSW World War II forum, I had never encountered -- in any of my own F-T-F sessions -- the "Russia is a self-defense Neutral" rules interpretation that you allude to. Obviously, as you yourself note, there are a number of problems with such an interpretation:

    1. To begin with, as you yourself admit, the Red Army would be unable to move to occupy Eastern Europe if this interpretation is accepted by all sides. This is not only odd (historically-speaking), it would seem to fly directly in the face of the intent of the game's designer.

    2. Moreover, this interpretation would also mean that the Soviet Union -- despite its status as a major power -- would not even have the strategic flexibility of a minor pro-Axis country like Rumania or Bulgaria, much less a more powerful belligerent like (quasi-neutral) Italy.

    3. Most importantly, however, this rules interpretation badly skews the game in favor of the Axis and, what is worse, it does so without any historical basis, whatsoever. In my view, it is bad enough that, in the 1939 Scenario, the "Winter War" will virtually never occur. It is even worse that -- assuming a strategically paralyzed Russia -- the Axis could (and probably would) invade Turkey and, barring a 33% chance of a successful "Intervention" die roll, the Allied commander would then be forced to sit helplessly by as Axis forces made a beeline for the Caucasus and points east! In point of fact, I sometimes execute this attack even when the Russians have complete freedom of movement (in Russian territory, at least) as a means of spreading the Soviet defense prior to "Barbarossa."

    For my own part, the only "home-brewed" rule that I play with is one that requires a mandatory Axis invasion of Russia by Summer 1942.
    And even with that rule, the Allies typically have a very difficult time grabbing back enough real estate to win by the end of turn 23.

    Still, despite its many flaws I find that I have come to appreciate Dunnigan's little game a lot more as time has gone by. Unfortunately, I rarely get the chance to play it anymore as most newer players have moved on to more detailed (and time-consuming) games like "THIRD REICH" or its several clones. "Axis and Allies" in its many iterations is enjoyable, but the original SPI "WORLD WAR II" is -- in my opinion, at least -- a rip-roaring good "beer and pretzels" game.

    Best Regards, Joe

  • Hi Joe,

    I've been a big 'fan' of this game for quite awhile. As you've said, it doesn't seem very popular, and I've not had the opportunity to play it as often as I would like. If you are interested, the is a Zun Tzu module for this game, and we could give it a shot pbem. You can let me know via CSW if you're interested.

    Regards, Ken

  • Greetings Deadkenny:

    Although I have not actually tried any of the Internet PBeM game platforms, I am willing to give the Zun Tzu version of "WORLD WAR II" a try.

    I didn't find you on the CSW Social site, so I will go ahead and try to get ahold of you on the CSW "WORLD WAR II" forum. Hope to hear from you soon and

    Best Regards, Joe

  • Thank you for planting a flag in the blogosphere for one of my favorites. I thought everyone had agreed to shun it after the unfavorable and inaccurate review published in "CAMPAIGN!" magazine.

  • Greetings The Port Whisperer:

    Thanks for visiting.

    Yes, I agree that this game has long been the target of bad (and I would say unfair) press within the ranks of our hobby.

    Part of the problem, I suspect, is that there are certain key rules that -- because of careless writing on SPI's part -- are open to more than one completely reasonable interpretation. Nonetheless, if players can agree on these "sticking points", I think -- even after all these years -- that it is still an enjoyable way to spend an afternoon at the game table!

    Best Regards, Joe

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