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Winter War» Forums » Reviews

Subject: The Great S&T Play-off! Review! rss

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The Game

After a series of lackluster S&T operational games (punctuated by the fun Flying Circus), Winter War came like a breath of fresh air--cold, wintry air. The topic is the obscure eponymous conflict between the Soviets and Finnish in the winter of 1939/40. By all accounts, it should have been a walkover. Instead, the Finnish defense was legendarily tenacious, and it took seven months to bring the Finns to heel, after which, the peace was not nearly so crushing as it might have been. Winter War captures the asymmetry of the conflict with a minimum of rules and a lot of color

The Components



While only employing the colors white, black, gray and blue, Simonsen's map is visually striking and attractive. A great deal of useful information is arrayed around the edges. It is very pretty, and I can't imagine a modern update doing much to improve it.

The counters are also attractive and clean with big numbers and NATO symbols. The ski troops symbol is fun.

Bottom line: I would not change a thing about these components.

The Rules

Winter War's rules are intuitive and not atypical for the era. The Soviets move, then the Finns, next turn. Movement points are affected by terrain. Combat is also affected by terrain. Units that end the turn in an enemy's ZOC must attack. Units cannot move directly from one enemy ZOC to another, but there are no movement point penalties. Units can ride their own railroads at no movement cost, though it does cost one to "entrain." Units that end their turn on a railroad track are considered entrained at the beginning of the next turn. Units above the Arctic Circle cannot stack. On and below, two units can stack. The big Russian and Finnish units (20-12-2 and 6-6-2, respectively) cannot operate north of the Arctic Circle.

The Finns get two lines of fortress hexes that not only double defense but also cause the enemy to use a different and more brutal combat results table. It is impossible to crack a line without damage. Finnish 0-0-3 and 1-1-3 units can retreat before combat North of the Arctic Circle inside of Finland. Russian HQ units can always retreat before combat. Retreats are blocked by ZOCs.

Supply plays a big factor in the game. Isolation halves defense strength and reduces offensive strength to zero. ZOCs disappear and movement slows to one hex per turn. Finns can only be isolated outside of Finland. Soviets have only as much supply as the city from which they draw it, which is very limited outside of Leningrad. Supply is traced to HQs or directly to cities (which then must trace supply to Leningrad--this can be blocked by a Finnish unit). Interestingly, HQs always draw supply from the city to which they are closest. This results in awkward placing of HQs to ensure maximum supply. Enemy ZOCs block supply, but supply can be traced through friendly units.

Victory objectives are virtually all Soviet. They get points for taking various Finnish cities and strategic hexes. The Finns get an auto-victory if they take Leningrad. This really should never happen, but the victory condition exists so the Soviets don't get sloppy.


Gameplay


Winter War is a game that seems like it has a lot of strategic options, but because of the small counter mix and supply restrictions for the Soviets, there are really only a couple of viable strategies. The Finnish game is pretty forgiving. The only major decision on Turn 1 is whether or not to reinforce Petsamo in the north or not--units committed up there have to stay there because there's no Finnish rail to that city. One of the neat things about the game is the Finns have five decoy units in their initial counter mix, and they set up face down before the Soviets, so the Soviets are never sure what to stick up in Petsamo.

In the South, the Finns are compelled to put their seven strong units in the lines leaving just one hex with less protection. That one will always be in the Ladoga line since losing the Mannerheim early pretty much loses the came for the Finns.

In the middle, the Soviets can make a push at Oulu, and they should, to tie up Finnish forces, but it's a difficult target to take. On Turn 2, a whole bunch of weak (but essentially invulnerable, in northern Finland) units show up that can bottle the Oulu front and defeat it in detail.

The Soviets don't get really powerful reinforcements until Turn 8. If the Ladoga line hasn't fallen by Turn 4, the Soviets have to hope they can crack the Mannerheim line in the late game. If the line falls, it's a quick jaunt to Viipuri and victory.

Because cracking the line always imposes casualties, it can be a demoralizing game for the Soviet player. There is just no way to reliably preserve your entire army, though it can be done with lucky die rolls. The game often goes down to the wire with critical rolls being made up to the last turn, though some bad Soviet luck early on can make the rest of the game something of a foregone conclusion.

Play is definitely tilted toward the Finnish, but not brokenly so.

The game lasts 10 turns, and experienced players could finish in a few hours. Slower, more deliberate ones (and this is a game which requires careful placement of units, particularly for the Soviets), will take around five hours.

Conclusion



Winter War presents an interesting puzzle. As the Soviets, can one win a Decisive victory? Yes, with very good luck. Once that puzzle is solved, I'm not sure of the replay value. On the other hand, one can play the game with random events that add all sorts of neat things like an Allied invasion of Murmansk, Soviet paratroopers, and several other occurrences of moment. They do tend to favor the Finnish, however. As an asymmetric game, Winter War is nice because it accommodates players of differing skills.

Developmentally, I think Winter War presents something of a dead end. It models the conflict with verisimilitude, but I don't know that you can transfer that model elsewhere. I have to give SPI plus points for modeling such an unusual campaign, however, and it did give me more hours of enjoyment than many of the early S&T offerings. I know I felt compelled to play the game over and over until I found a winning Soviet strategy (ironically, my wife found it, and she employed it against me; to be fair, it required a lot of luck).

So try it! There is a reason it is so fondly remembered. It is a good game, and one of the precious few (and perhaps the best) on the subject.


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Peso Pete wrote:
Thanks a lot for this review, Gideon. Winter War is one of those classic SPI games that I never tire of playing. Other Winter War games have more modern mechanics and more flashy graphics, but if you want a fun, playable realistic game on this campaign, this one still delivers the goods.


I'm not really sure how you could improve the graphics. It's a very striking, attractive game as is.
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Bill Eldard
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Neopeius wrote:
Peso Pete wrote:
Thanks a lot for this review, Gideon. Winter War is one of those classic SPI games that I never tire of playing. Other Winter War games have more modern mechanics and more flashy graphics, but if you want a fun, playable realistic game on this campaign, this one still delivers the goods.


I'm not really sure how you could improve the graphics. It's a very striking, attractive game as is.


Winter War is typical of the early SPI/S&T games in terms of graphics: two-color map, and two-color counters. While I find them artistically understated and functional, there are many who find them antiquated.

I bought the flat box editions in 1975, and I found it to be a fun game on a topic no major publisher had yet tackled. As the reviewer noted, later games on the subject may be better simulations, but Winter War is excellent for what it is.

On the subtract of the very striking components, I call attention to the cover art of Winter War by making a comparison.

Here's the highly acclaimed box cover of Fire in the Sky: The Great Pacific War 1941-1945, known for it Japanese-influenced minimalism and simplicity.



But take a look at the amazing flat box cover art by the late Redmond Simonson almost 40 years earlier . . .



. . . or better yet, the earlier S&T #33 cover . . .



I think his artwork speaks volumes about that conflict.
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Kevin McPartland
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Agreed, the graphic art for Winter War is remarkable! But I must correct you with one thing:

Quote:
...and two-color counters.

All of the counters in the game are actually done with ONE color! surprise The Soviet units are green with white lettering, the Finish units are white with green lettering, and the optional volunteer units have a light green tone. Considering the printing limitations of the day, the quality of the graphics is unbelievable!

Kevin
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Jubilation T Cornpone
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I recently picked up a copy of this game, and am looking for people who want to play it. Any takers??
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Raider1976 wrote:
I recently picked up a copy of this game, and am looking for people who want to play it. Any takers??


Do you know any other wargamers in Washington?

Let us know how your game goes!
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Andrew Ogden
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I recently played this using the variant suggested by Jack Werth on Consimworld which allows the Soviets to use combined arms tactics (any two of infantry, artillery or tanks gives them a die roll modifier of -1; all three gives a column shift) and it worked really well. The Soviets could be more aggressive with since the -1 negated the Attacker Eliminated result at 1:1 and gave them a better chance of getting through the fortified lines.
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