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INTRODUCTIONConsimWorld Expo 2010 and the WBC Convention Tournaments will both be coming up before too many more months. And the approaching dates for these two major tournament conventions got me to thinking about an aspect of the wargaming hobby that has bothered me for some time: the growing split between the steadily-shrinking fraternity of ‘old-line’ traditional gamers (people like me), and the rapidly-growing number of younger ‘alternative’ wargame, ‘Euro’, card game, and nontraditional board gamers that increasingly have come to dominate the hobby’s biggest tournament conventions. I believe that this change, although a little disconcerting, represents an excellent chance for older gamers — by mentoring less-experienced, younger players — to rekindle broader competitive interest in some of the great classic games that have, sadly, slipped farther and farther into the convention background over the last few decades.
THE GREAT HOBBY DIVIDE: OLD VERSUS NEW
Every now and then, usually when I am feeling particularly ambitious, I will invest an hour or so and methodically work my way through the accumulated comments on one or more of the various ‘Game Forums’ at the Boardgamegeek web site. Almost every time that I perform this exercise, I am reminded of the widening split between the shrinking number of gamers who maintain their affection for traditional wargames from the hobby’s distant past — even for titles that were not really classics in their day — and the growing pool of players who seem to reflexively reject these long out-of-print games in favor of the new. Of course, these BGG posts are really not much of a surprise; they just offer additional evidence of a trend in the gaming hobby that I first began to notice at major conventions almost three decades ago: a growing divide between the original ‘first wave’ wargamers and the ‘new wave’ players who entered the hobby later via an alternative, non-wargame pathway.
The first type of gamer, not surprisingly, is typically a lot older and, when posting at one of the BGG Forums, almost always prefaces his or her comments with a bit of personal history tinged with nostalgia. The second (usually younger) type of player, on the other hand, typically dismisses most of the classic older Avalon Hill, GDW, and SPI games as being ‘out-dated’, ‘unbalanced’, ‘historically inaccurate’, and ‘grossly inferior’ to any of a number of newer design treatments of the game’s original subject. Even the few older (ex-first wave) members of this second group are often harshly critical, if not completely dismissive of these early games. Interestingly, the arguments and biases of both groups of gamers actually have at least some merit; however, despite their several areas of agreement, the gap between the two camps appears to be pretty much unbridgeable and growing wider. This is unfortunate because I suspect that the differences between the two groups are more psychological than generational. So, what exactly are the main differences, anyway?
The players who typically argue in favor of the newer, more contemporary titles — whether conventional two-player, multi-player, or card-driven games — all seem to display a number of distinctive traits: an appreciation for ‘state-of-the-art’ graphics; a taste for ‘freshness’ and ‘innovation’ in game design; a preference for spontaneity and variation in play; a bias towards historical color, even at the expense of playability; and a clearly-articulated distaste for games that show themselves to be overly vulnerable to in-depth analysis. On several of these points, I think almost all gamers would agree. There is no doubt in my mind that more than a few of the newer titles are so visually striking as to almost count as legitimate art; many of the contemporary board games, in fact, I would argue are truly a feast for the eye. Moreover, even among my own graying circle of long-time players, genuine design innovation and creativity are widely-admired, whatever the game format. We may not play the new game, but we can nonetheless appreciate the designer’s creativity. For this reason, none of the players that I know would dispute the idea that many of the new concepts to emerge from the last few crops of game designers have genuinely enriched the hobby for everyone. There is no doubt, for example, that colorful multi-player games like CIVILIZATION and KINGMAKER and their various off-shoots have introduced the hobby of historical board gaming to a fresh group of socially-oriented players. Moreover, card games like MAGIC, UP FRONT, or ATTACK SUB have brought new participants into the larger gaming hobby.
Unfortunately, newness, despite its obvious appeal, also has a downside. Not always, but too frequently, the innovation that emerges from the on-going flow of newly-published game designs seems to come at a fairly steep price. And that price shows up, more often than not, in poorly-organized, obtuse, or badly-written rules. Of course, to be fair, it should be noted that poorly-worded, incomplete, or incomprehensible game instructions are hardly new: try figuring out how to play GDW’s SEALION after only one or two careful readings of the rules, if you don’t believe me. Nor is this the only problem with many new designs. Although ‘novelty’ has many benefits, the constant pursuit of ‘newness’ and innovation by contemporary designers also results, much too regularly for my taste, in layers of quasi-historical ‘chrome’ that — while seriously bogging down play with lots of additional busy-work and die-rolling — ultimately contribute little, if anything, to the actual simulation value of the game. In addition, I would argue that the continuing penchant of designers to layer more and more time-wasting randomness onto their game platforms (with die-rolls for unit initiative, movement, morale, defensive fire, and offensive fire, for example) has, in most cases, actually contributed very little to realism, but has cost a great deal in playability. This trend towards increased operational complexity, however, has had another unfortunate effect, as well. It has almost certainly contributed to a wide-spread prejudice among many of today’s ‘new wave’ players against those classic older games that, when compared to many newer titles, they now view as being too basic, too predictable, or too repetitive for serious competitive play. Thus, virtually all of the classic older games — because they are typically described by their critics as being ‘unbalanced’, ‘over-analyzed’, or too ‘chess-like’ — are regularly dismissed as being uninteresting, overly rigid, or even boring. This, I think, is where the two camps of gaming enthusiasts really part company.
Of course, the (typically) younger, ‘new wave’ players are not totally wrong in their ‘thumbs-down’ appraisals of many of the older titles. Having personally been in the wargaming hobby for almost half a century, I confess that, while I am usually squarely on the side of the (first wave) defenders of traditional classic games , I am now and have always been realistic about the obvious limitations and defects of many of the older, sometimes overly-lauded game titles. Nostalgia, in and of itself, is never enough to salvage a truly bad design no matter how old it is. KREIGSPEIL, 1914, ORIGINS OF WORLD WAR II, SCRIMMAGE, or most of the wretchedly-executed titles published by the deservedly short-lived Rand Game Associates are all irredeemable despite their antique status or their place in gaming history. They were awful games when they were first published many years ago, and they are just as terrible today. Still, I would argue that scattered among the many indisputably bad games from the long and growing list of now-defunct game publishers, there are also a number of titles that — while admittedly a little primitive and even drab by today’s standards — are nonetheless well worth owning and playing. And these are the ‘gems’ that, whatever else happens in the hobby, I and my friends return to time and time again.
For ‘first wave’ grognards like me, colorful graphics, clever design innovations, simulation realism, and historical accuracy are all nice; but, when everything is said and done, the game itself, is the thing. And a truly good game doesn’t come with an expiration date. Sadly, there are a surprising number of really great ‘old’ games that most contemporary players have not really even examined, much less played. “Too ugly or too simple or too imbalanced” are these players’ most common excuses. Frustratingly, the very design characteristics that tend to turn-off many younger ‘novelty-loving’ gamers are often precisely the same ones that I and my fellow ‘old-timers’ find most appealing. However, all that being said, there still remains an obvious question: what are the main issues that actually separate the ‘first wave’ and ‘new wave’ types of gamers?
The first major area of disagreement between the two camps is probably on basic game structure and turn-to-turn predictability. For the fan of ‘classic games’, the design platform should at least be both consistent and stable enough to permit a player to precisely know and control the movement, positioning, and combat values of his own units, and to assess these same factors for the enemy force. This is where the oft-criticized ‘chess-like’ quality of older games is usually most apparent. Game mechanics, by the way, that incorporate some form of the ‘fog of war’, while quite popular with many ‘new wargame’ fans, are not necessarily unwelcome with traditional players: most naval games and even quite a few land-based simulations make at least some attempt to incorporate ‘limited intelligence’ into their game systems. The PANZERGRUPPE GUDERIAN Game System, for instance, is an excellent example of a ‘fog of war’ design platform that nonetheless remains very popular with most ‘first wave’ gamers. Thus, this type of game mechanism is usually perfectly acceptable to the ‘grognards’ faction of the hobby, but only as long as this single design element does not completely dominate the flow and tempo of the game. Interestingly, most ‘first wave’ players would also agree with their ‘new wave’ counterparts that a certain amount of dynamic variability is both reasonable and even worthwhile in a game system; if there is too much, however, then advance planning becomes extremely difficult, if not completely pointless. This means, for instance, that the variable outcomes represented in a traditional combat results table or in the AFRIKA KORPS supply table — because they are known in advance — are perfectly acceptable to a traditional player; but a game format in which either the actual combat odds or the statistical likelihood of various combat results are hidden by the game system from the players prior to a battle’s resolution, would usually not be.
Second, game mechanics that incorporate spontaneous and random events or sudden unexpected restrictions on a player’s range of options are usually far more popular with ‘new wave’ players than they are with the fans of the older classic titles. For this reason, many of the ‘card-driven’ board wargames tend to be more popular with the younger crop of players than they are with the ‘grognards’ in the hobby. This does not necessarily mean, by the way, that any game rules that place movement or other limitations on a player are necessarily unacceptable to traditional players. A lot depends on the internal logic of the simulation’s basic design, and whether such limitations make sense within the context of the larger game situation. For example, both PANZER ARMEE AFRIKA and DRIVE ON STALINGRAD can, and often do, impose onerous restrictions on a player’s scope of action; yet, because these restrictive rules make sense in terms of their respective game systems, both simulations still remain popular with a sizeable contingent of the ‘first wave’ fraternity, nonetheless.
Third, the ‘new wave’ player, to his or her credit, is invariably much more open to completely new game systems and design concepts than many of the ‘first wave’ players like me. These more adventurous younger players’ taste for experimentation and innovation will, with very few exceptions, almost always lead them to try out radically-new or unorthodox designs before their more conservative counterparts in the hobby. Naturally, there are many traditional players that are eager to try new games. But, speaking from experience, there are also many ‘first wave’ players, myself included, who are a little bit slow to adapt to dramatic changes within the hobby. In my own case, for example, it took nearly ten years from the time of its Avalon Hill product launch for me to finally get around to trying a few games of UP FRONT. Nothing, of course, was wrong with the game; I just had a deeply-ingrained mistrust of, and prejudice against, the whole concept of a conflict simulation resolved through the use of a deck of playing cards. The same thing can be said about my feelings towards computer wargames: I still own a number of the early titles, but I never really came to enjoy any of them. And despite the dazzling realism of contemporary computer graphics, I still don’t.
Fourth, if the ‘new wave’ player is quick and even eager to try new games, the traditional ‘first wave’ player is much more willing to stick with a title until he or she has at least achieved a moderate level of expertise with the wargame’s mechanics of play, and with its basic offensive and defensive strategies. This is, perhaps, the biggest difference between the two types of players. The ‘new wave’ gamer tends to hop from title to title; hence, he rarely sticks with a game long enough to achieve any real mastery. This leads many, but not all ‘new wave’ players to shun games against experienced opponents because such contests, in their eyes, tend to lose their spontaneity and excitement. In short, the appearance of certain successful ‘lines of play’ in a game will tend to intrigue the ‘first wave’ player, while dampening the interest of the ‘new wave’ gamer. This is also why the reactions of the two types of players to defeat are typically so different. The more easily bored ‘new wave’ gamer will often abandon a title after a few matches, particularly if he or she loses, while the ‘first wave’ grognard will hunker-down over his game table, often alone, and attempt to analyze the reasons for his defeats. In both cases, of course, the two types of player are interested in furthering their enjoyment of gaming; they just enjoy very different aspects of the same hobby. And this is probably also why cross-over from ‘new wave’ to ‘first wave’ gaming is much rarer than the reverse.
In the end, of course, both types of players are equally justified in their different approaches to wargaming. For the seasoned classics player, winning is always good, but not nearly as good as winning against an expert opponent by planning and then executing a ‘better’ campaign. The ‘new wave’ player, needless-to-say, also wants to win; however, he or she prefers to compete in a dynamic game setting in which there are far more ‘unknowns’ than ‘knowns’. This is also why, my ‘new wave’ friends tell me, they find it so fruitless to try the older games at conventions: anytime they enter a classic tournament, they know that, in all likelihood, their opponent has probably been playing the tournament game for years, if not for decades. In short, my novelty-loving friends argue that the experience gap is usually too wide to close, so why should they even bother to try? This argument really is difficult to rebut, particularly when there are always plenty of exciting new titles coming along in which no one is likely to have a marked advantage in experience. So, does this mean that both groups of players should continue on their separate ways? I, for one, sincerely hope not. Instead, a real effort, I believe, should be made — particularly by veteran classics players — to introduce any interested ‘new wave’ gamers both to the intricacies of classics play and to the many subtle strategies that have allowed some of the best of the old Avalon Hill, GDW, and SPI games to maintain their small, but loyal followings for all these years. Not to dwell on the obvious, but none of us who have been in the hobby from its inception are getting any younger. Therefore, I think that it would be genuinely worthwhile, both for the wargaming hobby and for ourselves, to make a concerted effort to share our accumulated gaming experience and knowledge with interested younger players while we still have time. After all, they will soon be the ‘grognards’ of tomorrow.
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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.
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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.
A PERSONAL OBSERVATION
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.
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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.
A PERSONAL OBSERVATION
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.
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
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A Glorious Page in Our History: The Battle of Midway, 4-6 June 1942; by Robert J. Cressman; Pictorial Histories Publishing Co; 1st edition (June 1990); ISBN-13: 978-0929521404
‘A Glorious Page in Our History’, by Robert Cressman, is a skillfully crafted and carefully researched analysis of the Battle of Midway. Yet, had it not been for the nagging of a friend, I would never even have cracked open this book’s cover. In retrospect, I suspect that Cressman’s ‘breathless’ and vaguely ‘triumphalist’ title may have initially turned me off his book, or it could have been something else; whatever the reason, I did not give Cressman’s historical narrative any real consideration until a friend, years after the book had first seen print, finally badgered me into actually looking at the text of ‘A Glorious Page’. And almost from the moment that I turned the first page, I was delighted that I had. Cressman’s work is modern military history writing at its best: even-handed, carefully reasoned, and meticulous in its research. And 'A Glorious Page' is made even better because it deals with an exciting and crucially important event.
Admiral Raymond Spraunce
The Battle of Midway has fascinated me for a very long time. For anyone with even a passing interest in the events of World War II, I don’t see how it could be otherwise. First, it was a naval action in which a few hundred intrepid airmen, in the face of desperate odds, still managed to achieve one of the most lop-sided and decisive victories of the whole Pacific War. Second, Midway was a battle of high drama; an engagement in which audacity, courage, sacrifice, and just plain good luck all came together at precisely the right time to produce an extraordinary engagement that, even today, still occupies a unique place in the US Naval history.
Of course, given the decisive impact of the Battle of Midway on the War in the Pacific, it is hardly surprising that a number of excellent books have been written over the years covering the key events and personalities of the battle. Thus, for the reader who is interested in exploring this subject, there is no shortage of well-written titles from which to choose. M. Fuchida and M. Okumiya’s ‘Midway, the Battle that Doomed Japan: the Japanese Navy’s Story’ (1955) presents a generally balanced analysis of the engagement as seen by the Japanese; W. Lord’s ‘Incredible Victory’ (1967) and A. Barker’s ‘Midway: the Turning Point’ (1971) do excellent jobs of covering the battle from the American perspective. Nonetheless, Cressman’s account is, in my opinion, the most accurate and meticulously detailed of any of the many fine books that I have read thus far on this topic.
Admiral Chiuchi Nagumo
‘A Glorious Page’ brings the Battle of Midway to life for the reader by following the operations of the various participating American and Japanese land-based and carrier air groups on an almost minute by minute basis. But the battle was neither fought nor won by the pilots and aircrews alone. Thus, the extraordianry stories and the often heroic labors of the ordinary seamen who manned the carriers' flight decks during the height of the battle are also carefully chronicled. And the crucial role of the senior military leadership is not neglected either; in fact, the author examines, in great detail, the decisions and actions of the American Admirals, Nimitz (back in Pearl Harbor), and Spraunce and Fletcher (both with the American fleet in the battle area), as well as those of the Japanese commander, Admiral Nagumo, as the battle unfolded. Moreover, in addition to providing a detailed and carefully-researched narrative of the actual events of the three-day naval engagement, the author also takes some time to debunk the several popular myths that have grown up in the aftermath of the battle.
The Battle of Midway, of course, was fought for a reason. Unfortunately, the Island's real significance is often obscured by the dramatic events associated with its name. This is not the case in 'A Glorious Page'. Instead, to help the reader understand why Admiral Yamamoto selected Midway as an operational objective for the Imperial Japanese Navy, and why the American Pacific Command felt compelled to defend a pair of tiny islands that together consisted only of a few square miles of sand in the Central Pacific, Cressman examines both the history of America’s connection to the atoll, and Midway’s strategic significance to the larger Pacific War.
Admiral Frank F. Fletcher
At two hundred and twenty-six pages, ‘A Glorious Page’ is not a particularly long book; in fact, it is easily readable in one or two days. Moreover, the author writes in a clear, smooth-flowing, and very graceful voice. And Cressman uses that voice to do a wonderful job of weaving the personal stories of the individual combatants together with the important strategic events that were unfolding largely outside of these individuals’ narrow views of the battle. However, while the meticulous detail with which the author builds his narrative will be a real pleasure for someone interested in military history, it may well be a little off-putting to the reader who either has little interest in the Battle of Midway or in military history, more generally. ‘A Glorious Page’ is a great piece of historical writing, but it is probably just not a good choice for the casual reader looking for a book to take to the bathroom or the beach. It should also be noted that Cressman's work is further strengthened by valuable contributions from a number of other Midway experts, including: Steve Ewing, Barrett Tillman, Mark Horan, Clark Reynolds, and Stan Cohen. In addition, the author, as might be expected, includes six maps of the battle area, as well as an abundance of photos of many of the men, aircraft, and vessels that figure so prominently in his narrative.
Finally, I cannot state categorically that Robert J. Cressman’s ‘A Glorious Page in Our History: The Battle of Midway, 4-6 June 1942’ is the best single volume currently available on the Battle of Midway; I haven’t, after all, read every book ever published on the subject. I can confidently say, however, that for anyone who wants to seriously delve into the factual details of the battle, Cressman’s work is definitely where they should start. This book may not be the perfect choice for the casual reader, but for the military history buff, I give it my strongest recommendation; when it comes to the Battle of Midway, ‘A Glorious Page’ is, so far as I am concerned, a must read.
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