Monday, January 7, 2008

Featured game: Winter War

Winter War was one of the last S&T games done by an outside designer during the Dunnigan era at SPI. Dunnigan was ramping up his system that eventually allowed SPI to churn out games at a game-a-week pace through the 70s, but in 1972 there were still a few freelance games in the pipeline.
Winter War is the only design by James Goff listed in the Boardgame Geek database. The accompanying magazine article on the Russo-Finnish war of 1939-1940 is also by Goff, who apparently had a special interest in the topic. The extensive bibliography includes a number of primary works in Russian and Finnish and overall the game does seem to be a good simulation of the war, although it's not particularly well-suited to competitive play. For one small example, there is a 1/6 chance the game could end as early as turn 6 by a random event allowing the Finns to declare a cease--fire (which they will always do). This is too high a chance for an early and arbitrary end of the game for serious play.
The game also has a number of atypical touches for SPI games, such as very low movement allowances (2 or 3) . One of the SPI design rules was that units had to have big enough movement allowances to allow the illusion of movement and prevent the game from seeming too stagnant.
There's not too much scope for different strategies. Various special rules divide the game into two theatres with very different characteristics. The southern 13 hexrows involve a grinding attrition match as large Soviet formations attempt to blast there way into and through Finnish fortified lines. This is mostly matter of luck and time. If the Soviets fail to break through they have won't win the game, so this is really the main front, although not very interesting to play.
The rest of the map is the snowy north. No stacking is allowed and there will be a lot of dancing around but it won't really amount to much. There are few victory points available up north for the Soviets, although there's some danger of losing VPs if the Soviets are incautious. Most of the Finnish units can retreat before combat, making it hard for the slower Russian units to force them into fights, while the Russians, in turn, are weak in defense and will probably see any attempt at an advance cut up and destroyed by the nimble Finns. All very historical, but in game terms not terribly important.
The game includes some unusual units, such as 0-0-3 ski patrols. It's uncommon to see combat units in a game that have "0" combat value, but these do have considerable usefulness as mobile zone of control generators that will make it impossible for the Russians to keep their invading columns in supply up north.
The fastest units in the game are five 1-1-4 NKVD regiments. Unfortunately they're not available for "blitzes" into Finland, being restricted to hexes in the Soviet Union and not allowed to even attack into Finland. On the other hand, they make it hard for the Finns to launch raids into Russia, being faster and having access to rail lines that make it easy to concentrate against any incursion.
All-in-all Winter War is a good study of the war, but of limited interest otherwise.

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