FOUR PLAY-BALANCE VARIANTS FOR 'WINTER WAR'
James F. Goff’s WINTER WAR turns thirty-eight this year. That is almost four decades. What most takes me aback is that this SPI classic game was published during my sophomore year in college. It really makes you wonder where the years have gone.
WINTER WAR first appeared as the magazine insert game in S&T #33 (July-August, 1972) and, right from the start, it was a big hit with everyone in my gaming circle. Of course, back in the early seventies, player expectations regarding S&T insert games weren’t really all that high to begin with. These were, after all, still the early days of SPI and most of us who subscribed to Dunnigan’s ‘house organ’ tended to brace ourselves every time we opened a newly-arrived S&T mailer: each new issue, we knew, brought with it the awful possibility of yet another SPI ‘oinker’ like SCRIMMAGE, TANK, or COMBINED ARMS. Thus, any title that looked like it might actually be both interesting and playable tended to receive a lot of attention and ‘table time’ from me and my friends, right off the bat.
Such was the case with WINTER WAR. It was easy to learn and fun to play. It was also fairly fast: two experienced players could knock out a pair of games in an afternoon; it simulated an interesting and comparatively little-known conflict; and, most importantly, it wasn’t SCRIMMAGE. In short, it seemed to be a great game in every way but one: play-balance. After only a couple of gaming sessions, it quickly became clear that WINTER WAR was heavily biased against the Russians. And the more we played, the more biased it got. This was a serious problem, even for those of us who were predisposed to like the game. Unfortunately, SPI — probably because the game was an outside design — never got around to offering any official ‘rules changes’ to compensate for this defect; so, thirty-eight years after WINTER WAR first saw print, the standard (unmodified) game’s play-balance is still a problem.
This brings us to the present. A contemporary player can probably shrug off the dated graphics and the comparatively simple mechanics of the game system: Chess, after all, is pretty simple too. But the fact remains that the standard version of WINTER WAR, when played by two experienced players, is virtually unwinnable by the Russians. This is not to say that the Soviet player won’t have a good time with the game (I almost always volunteered to take the Russian side, despite the game’s bias); only that he will — with a regularity approaching statistical certitude — lose. So, given this fact, what does a contemporary player who would actually like to try a game of WINTER WAR have to do in order to fix the ‘baked-in’ play-balance problem?
The short answer, of course, is to fiddle with the game’s rules. Not surprisingly, I and my friends started experimenting with a number of different rules changes for WINTER WAR within a few weeks of receiving our copies in the mail. Apparently we weren’t the only ones. Decades after the game’s publication, I discovered that another player, Rev. Jack A. Werth, had independently come up with his own rules changes for balancing WINTER WAR. These ideas were presented in some detail in his essay, “WINTER WAR: A Soviet Combined Arms Operation Variant” which appeared in Moves magazine, Nr. 16 (February-March 1991). Looking back, what is particularly interesting about all this is that Rev. Werth’s suggestions were, in several cases, very similar to those that I and my friends had developed in parallel years before. Apparently, great minds really do think alike: WINTER WAR, despite its pro-Finnish bias, was just too good a game design to be allowed to languish on a shelf.
So, for those players who have a general affection for vintage SPI games, and for those who are intrigued by the unusual game situation simulated by WINTER WAR, what follows is a collection of different rules options for improving the play-balance of this classic SPI title. I confess that, while I have personally play-tested several of these variants, several others have barely been tested at all. For simplicity’s sake, I will begin this catalog of rules variants with a brief description of Rev. Werth’s “Combined Arms” recommendations and then consider several other rules alternatives that — for me, at least — either are, or appear to be worth trying.
FOUR PLAY-BALANCE GAME VARIANTS FOR WINTER WAR
Play-Balance Option #1: The ‘Combined Arms’ Option
Rev. Jack A. Werth’s brief but useful essay, “WINTER WAR: A Soviet Combined Arms Operation Variant” is readily available at http://www.grognard.com/titlew.html. For this reason, I will only touch on the highlights of his suggested rules changes; readers, however, are strongly encouraged to visit the above link and to print out the good reverend’s entire article.
Reduced to its essentials, Rev. Werth’s WINTER WAR variant increases the combat effectiveness of the Red Army whenever it uses ‘combined arms’ tactics against Finnish forces on or south of the ‘A’ hex row. Essentially, any Russian attacks that incorporate both infantry and armor, or infantry and artillery allow the Soviet player to add ‘1’ to his die roll. In addition, the combat odds of any attacks that make use of all three combat arms —infantry, armor, and artillery — are increased by one level (a 1 to 1, for example, becomes a 2 to 1, etc.); this is in addition to the favorable die roll modification. Finally, to make ‘combined arms’ attacks more practicable for the Russian player, a single artillery unit may over-stack with infantry and/or armored units so long as no more than three units occupy a hex. The two artillery units may stack together at the Russian player’s option, but in this instance, regular (two units per hex) stacking rules apply.
Rationale: This option seeks to reproduce the historical ebb and flow of the Russo-Finnish War. It does so by allowing the Russian player to duplicate — in game terms, at least — the successful ‘combined arms’ tactics that the Red Army developed and then used in the later stages of the war to break through the prepared defenses of the Mannerheim Line.
Probable Effect on the Game: The use of these rules changes will tend to encourage the Russian player to launch a historically-timed series of assaults against the Mannerheim Line. However, in the early going, the highly vulnerable Soviet tank units will have to carry the burden of any ‘combined arms’ operations by themselves, so the Russian player must be very careful to preserve some of his armor long enough to coordinate attacks with the later arriving artillery units. This usually means that, when playing with this option, both players will typically pay close attention to the turn record/reinforcement track. The first Soviet artillery unit does not enter the map until the reinforcement phase of turn six; therefore, wide-spread use of combined Russian infantry-armor-artillery tactics will not occur until the last half of the game. For this reason, both players will really be working against the clock. Even with this set of rules changes, the Finns will still retain a slight advantage, but most games will go right down to the wire.
Play-Balance Option #2: The ‘Fortified Line Victory Points’ Option
This is probably the simplest option to implement because it leaves the basic game system unchanged. In fact, the only thing in WINTER WAR that is altered is the formula by which victory points are scored. Before describing the specifics of the ‘Fortified Line’ play-balance variant, however, a little review of the standard rules governing Russian victory points is probably in order. First, in both the standard Historical and the Variant/Scenario Game, the Soviet player receives no victory points for capturing any Finnish fortification hexes until all four hexes of the Mannerheim Line are captured and placed under Russian control. Second, Soviet capture of part or all of the Ladoga Line contributes nothing to the Russian victory point total. What all this means is that, under most circumstances, the only way for the Soviet player to garner any points at all for gains south of the ‘A’ hex row is for him to clear all four hexes of the Mannerheim Line. The usual result: a ‘Decisive’ Finnish victory in game after game.
The ‘Fortified Line’ play-balance option is intended to correct this problem by increasing the Soviet victory point prospects in the south. The rules changes, themselves, are very simple: the Russian player receives ten (10) victory points for each hex of the Mannerheim Line that he captures, and twenty (20) victory points if, and only if, all four hexes of the Ladoga Line fall to the Red Army. All other game rules remain exactly the same.
Rationale: Historically, the only realistic way for tiny Finland to have achieved a victory of sorts in the 1939-40 war with Russia was for Finnish forces to stalemate the Red Army in the south while, at the same time, they destroyed or drove back the invading Russian columns in the north. Because most of Finland’s population and arable land was in the southern part of the country (south of the ‘A’ hex row), any loss of territory in this area would have been particularly problematic for the Finnish cause. Unfortunately, Finnish options were few. The commonly-held opinion of the Finnish government and its people was that any part of southern Finland that fell to the Russians was almost certainly going to be lost, forever.
Probable Effect: This option tends to eliminate the virtual Finnish ‘lock’ on victory in the game. It does so by forcing the Finnish player to commit forces to defend the Ladoga Line: forces that otherwise would be redeployed to strengthen the Mannerheim Line during the last few critical turns of the game. With skillful play and very good die-rolling, the Russian player can win a ‘Marginal’ or better victory when playing with this variant, but the most likely outcome from using these rules will probably be a ‘Draw’.
Play-Balance Option #3: The ‘Casualties Victory Points’ Option
The rules variant, like the ‘Fortified Line’ option, leaves the basic game rules unchanged. Instead, it modifies the rules for victory point computation to take account of Russian and Finnish casualties. Thus, besides accruing victory points for the capture of geographical objectives, both sides also receive points at the conclusion of the game for eliminated enemy units. The Finns receive one (1) victory point for each Soviet attack factor destroyed, and five (5) points for each Russian Headquarters unit eliminated. The Soviet player receives three (3) victory points for each Finnish attack factor destroyed, and zero (0) points for each Finnish ski patrol eliminated.
Rationale: The disparity between the populations of the Soviet Union and Finland in 1939-40 imposed a harsh battlefield calculus on the Finnish High Command: no matter how bravely and skillfully the Finnish army fought, the Red Army could afford to incur far higher losses than the Finns without abandoning the fight. This unhappy fact was borne out by the conduct of the two countries during the actual war. Despite horrific initial casualties, the Soviet military leadership simply replaced Russian losses in men and materiel and stubbornly forged ahead with their offensive operations. The Finns, on the other hand, could not indefinitely continue to throw more and more units into the battle. They just didn’t have enough manpower. The Russians were prepared to accept combat losses of three-to-one or more in order to win; the Finns, as history showed, needed to inflict a higher level of casualties on the Soviets than they were ultimately able to achieve. Once the Red Army finally broke through the Mannerheim Line and the loss ratios between the two armies began to even out, the war, for Finland, was lost. However, despite the ultimate outcome of the war, the ferocity and gallantry of the Finnish defense did not go unnoticed. Clearly, the Kremlin was chastened enough by the cost of the conflict to impose a comparatively modest set of treaty conditions on the defeated Finns. In the end, Stalin and his generals had no stomach for the very real possibility of a festering guerilla war in a Russian-occupied Finland. Thus, while the Finns were obliged to give up a little bit of territory, they nonetheless retained their independence.
Probable Effect: The impact of this WINTER WAR rules change on the course of a typical game is very unpredictable. It can, and often will, produce some of the most unusual (read: ‘wild and wooly’) game situations of any of the variants. A few lucky Russian exchanges against defenders in the fortified hexes during the early game turns, for example, can put a great deal of pressure on the Finnish player. And for this reason, balancing the defense of both the Mannerheim and Ladoga Lines becomes a lot trickier for the Finns. Moreover, unlike the standard game, even an exchange of two or more Finnish units for a Soviet corps, when playing with this variant, can be extremely damaging to the Finnish player’s victory points position. And the ‘standard game’ practice of placing weak sacrifice units in the path of a powerful Soviet advance or of posting a screening unit in front of the Mannerheim Line will oftentimes, because of accumulating victory points cost, quickly lose its appeal. Interestingly, the Finnish ski patrols — because they are worth zero victory points — become extremely valuable to the Finnish player in operations south of the ‘A’ hex row during the middle and late stages of the game. Finally, a word of warning: the Russian player should be prepared, when playing with this variant, to see a far more aggressive Finnish player. A stiff defense of Petsamo is much more likely, and determined Finnish offensives against Kandalashka and Petrozadovsk are both also real possibilities. Even Leningrad can occasionally become the target of a Finnish counterattack should the Russian player become careless or overconfident. Finally, this variant will typically see a lot of punching and counterpunching, and final outcomes can vary widely from game to game. On its face, this option should favor the Russians; appearances, however, can be deceiving and dramatic and ‘Decisive’ Finnish victories are not at all uncommon.
Play-Balance Option #4: The ‘Armored Effects’ Option
The ‘Armored Effects’ Option is a relatively modest change in the game rules that is intended both to placate armor ‘buffs’ and to also introduce a little more mobility into the battle area. This rule permits Soviet armored units when operating on or south of the ‘A’ hex row to move during the initial movement phase and then, after combat, to move again during a mechanized movement phase. Armored units operating north of the ‘A’ line may not move during the mechanized movement phase, and tanks that start south of the ‘A’ line may not enter or pass through a hex north of the ‘A’ line at any point during the mechanized movement phase. In addition, when Soviet attacks include at least one armored unit and are directed against enemy units that are all in clear terrain hexes on or south of the ‘A’ line, one (1) is automatically added to the attacker’s combat die roll.
Rationale: The best case that can be made for this rules change is that it recognizes the potential for armored units to penetrate thinly-held fronts, and their capacity, under certain circumstances, to produce ‘tank fright’ among unprepared or inadequately equipped defenders. Obviously, as the Russians discovered to their detriment, road-bound armor proved to be totally ineffective in the northern swamps and forests of Finland. Thus, this rule —as much as anything — is intended to encourage Russian players to employ their tanks in the south, where they belong.
Probable Effect: This option will usually not impact the flow and tempo of the ‘standard’ game to any large degree. The mechanized movement capability of Soviet armor will occasionally accelerate the Russian advance north of Lake Ladoga; however, the Soviet player shouldn’t get his hopes up too high: three movement points don’t usually make for big armored breakthroughs, or for sweeping maneuvers. Somewhat surprisingly, the armored second movement phase will often find its best use either in reinforcing or in restoring a supply line to an exposed hex; occasionally, Russian tanks can also be usefully employed in sacrificial advances that screen critical, but vulnerable hexes. Thus, when everything is said and done, this variant certainly improves Russian chances slightly, but it is rarely, if ever, a ‘game breaker’.
These four play-balance variants do not even begin to cover the many different possibilities that are contained in the basic design architecture of WINTER WAR. However, they do provide a few (hopefully) new and relatively uncomplicated ways by which those players — who, like me, still have a soft spot for WINTER WAR — can breathe some fresh life into this intriguing old SPI classic. Each of these variants can be used independently or in combination with one or more of the others. For this reason, I hope that at least some of you, after reading this post, will pull out either your old S&T #33 magazine edition or the flat pack version of WINTER WAR, dust it off, and give one or more of these options a try. I think that you’ll be pleased that you did. And if you do decide to try one or more of these variants, let me know how your attempt turned out; I’d like to know.