Who among those of us who grew up during the Cold War could have predicted what the geopolitical landscape and Russian-American relations would be like today? The idea that the Soviet Union would fall, that for a few brief years Russia would be on its way to what looked like a prosperous Western-style democracy, only to fall back under the grip of an autocratic dictator, who would then, despite his KGB background, be held up as a role model for American conservatives?
That political background is hardly relevant to Putin Strikes
, but it was what sparked my interest in the game. That and some reading - I always like to do a bit of background reading on wargames.Reading Assignments (optional!)Winter Is Coming: Why Vladimir Putin and the Enemies of the Free World Must Be Stopped
, by chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov (click the image above and read my Goodreads review), predicts exactly the sort of scenario described in Putin Strikes
- pressured by international sanctions, political instability, and economic difficulties, Putin launches an invasion of Eastern Europe, hoping to blitzkrieg his way across the Ukraine, Balkans and Crimea before the weak West can rally and push back. Kasparov, while a game player himself, certainly was not envisioning his polemic as fodder for a wargame, but rather as a passionate appeal for the West to do something about Putin before such a scenario becomes reality.
Less polemical, but still casting an unflattering portrait of Russia under Putin, is journalist Anne Garrels's Putin Country: A Journey into the Real Russia
(Click for review.)
Why am I starting this game review with book reviews? Because gaming, especially historical wargaming, is richer when you can put those little pieces of cardboard into context and make them more than just numbers on a CRT table.
And also because those books are a lot more interesting than this game.
I don't think I've played any Ty Bomba games before, but from reading comments elsewhere, the design of Putin Strikes
is apparently rather typical of his style, and probably not one of his better efforts.
I'll issue a disclaimer here: I only played it twice, both times in solo mode. There may be more richness in the strategy and depth in the design than I was able to uncover in two play-throughs. But my impression after two plays was that this is a fairly mechanical I-Go-You-Go game that is heavily tilted against the Russians.ComponentsPutin Strikes
comes in a nice box with a single slick rulebook, a folded map, and counter sheets. The box is sized perfectly for the addition of a counter tray. The counters are of decent thickness and are your basic NATO-style symbols, representing Russian units and, opposing them, units from about a dozzen different Western countries. There are also counters for city control, nukes, and air power, and a few others that are largely for mnemonic purposes only.
It's a nicely presented, somewhat minimalist package, perhaps a bit much to pay for what would have easily fit into a magazine ziplock game.Rules
The rulebook is only 12 pages. It's laid out quite clearly and well-organized. While there are a number of fiddly rules and some special situations that seem unlikely to come up very often, actual game play is fairly straightforward.
Victory conditions are simple: there are 36 cities on the map. The Russians start with control over 12 cities, giving them 2 VPs each. Each additional city they capture gives 1 VP. To win, they need 36 VPs, which means they have 8 turns to capture 12 more cities. If they lose any of their starting cities, that's a -2 VP loss. If they fail to do this, the Allies win. There are some alternative victory conditions, involving use of nuclear weapons, and capture of Russian territories, but these are unlikely to come into play.
While the designer's notes suggest that Russia is expected to make huge gains and be challenging for the Allies to turn back, in my play throughs I found that the Russians have a very
difficult time of it.
First of all, there is the movement system. Any unit or stack that takes an action automatically ends its turn in a "disrupted" state, meaning no further actions, and its defenses are reduced. There is no moving and attacking on the same turn. Move; be disrupted. Next turn, attack; be disrupted. Do the math, and you realize that every single unit will be able to participate in at most 4 attacks during the game. (Defenders could theoretically attack every turn if they never move.)
To attack a city, a stack must end its turn next to the city. Since moving a stack next to a city leaves the attackers in a disrupted state, this gives any defenders the opportunity to take a free shot at them while they're vulnerable. So the Russians have to pick their targets carefully - preferably going after cities that have been left with only their default garrisons. Even then, because cities are tough to crack, taking a city generally requires committing a sizeable stack. And each turn that the dice go poorly for the Russians and a city doesn't fall represents a significant setback. They can't afford to lose many battles. In some ways, the Russians in Putin Strikes
are in a situation analagous to the Japanese in most WWII games - they start out with the initiative and military superiority, but every turn that goes by, they get spread more thinly while their opponent gets sttronger, and they can't afford any big losses, while the Allies only need to win a few key battles and stall the invaders.
The Allies pretty much just have to send reinforcements wherever the Russians are going. While I did see some opportunities for them to launch counterattacks and go after undefended Russian cities (and massing the Polish army to go after Kalingrad also seems like a viable strategy), for the most part the Allies can win just by preventing Russia from capturing enough cities.
The other major disadvantage for the Russians is the air power rules. Each turn, both players roll two dice and whoever rolls higher gets the difference in "air superiority" counters. You can place your air superiority counters anywhere you like, and they give a favorable column shift for you and a negative one for your opponent within that counter's zone of influence.
Here's the problem: first, whoever won last turn's Air Superiority roll gets a +1 next turn. Second, one of the Allied reinforcements is extra airpower - while it arrives randomly, whenever it does, the Allies get to roll three
dice against the Russians' two for the rest of the game.
While the Russians do get a +2 bonus on turn 1, in the two games I played the Allies kept winning the air superiority contest (the Russians only got air superiority for one turn in two games), and this proved devastating. An air superiority counter on a city you are attacking or defending will tilt the balance significantly, and if the Allies get a good roll and are able to place half a dozen or more, the Russians may find themselves stalled for that entire turn.
Granted, if the Russians are the ones who get lucky and enjoy air superiority for most of the game, it might play out differently. But the fact that in the errata sheet issued for the game, one of the optional rules is to let the Russians start out with three dice for the air superiority roll definitely suggests that others have observed this problem.
Combined with some odd roles about "concentric" attacks (basically, if you "surround" a city you get favorable column shifts on the CRT), and Putin Strikes
feels a bit like a game of go where you roll dice to see if you actually capture a space. The units are all pretty much the same, varying only in their attack/defense strengths. (There are some special movement rules for air assault units.)
Operations to capture cities frequently became sieges, resembling medieval warfare more than what I imagine a modern urban assault would look like. Russian counters were often stacked high around a city whose stubborn defenders refused to die. The granularity of combat losses on the CRT means that a single division posted as a defender can be very difficult to kill without overwhelming odds.
Additional rules for tactical nuclear strikes (only the Russian player can use nukes, and only defensively) never came into play, since if Russia proper is being invaded by Allied forces, they've probably already lost the game.
Likewise, command and control rules that limit how many attacks Russia can make each turn without degradation in its abilities never came into play, as it's rare the Russians will be able to make more than 11 attacks in one turn.
Once you get the hang of the rules, it plays fairly quickly. Though checking the entire map and flipping all the "disrupted" units back over at the start of each turn is tedious.
The aforementioned errata added optional "cyberwarfare" rules which I didn't test, but they allow some additional options with another contested die roll in which the winner can use counters to improve the reaction of his units or degrade/disrupt enemy units. I did play, the second time, with an optional errata rule that reinforcements cannot be sent to a hex adjacent to enemy units. This helped the Russians a lot, as with the basic rules, Russian forces can be surrounding a city that at the beginning of the next turn suddenly receives a drop shipment of two German tank divisions.Verisimilitude
This game did not really feel much like a modern ground warfare game. It's supposed to simulate a Russian "blitz" on Eastern Europe, and yet the scale of the game is one week per turn. The way in which units move and attack feels much more abstract - rather go-like, as the designer calls it - than realistic. This is reinforced by the abstraction of air power, command and control, and optional cyberwarfare rules. In many ways, Putin Strikes
felt like an abstract with a modern warfare theme. I like abstracts, and so this didn't completely turn me off, but it hardly felt like a wargame.Playability
Where game play fell short for me was the constraints I've described in which units have a very finite number of moves during the course of the game, and victory is determined by whether or not the Russians can position their forces in such a way as to get advantageous odds against enough cities.
There are, I'm sure, some strategies I didn't pick up on in two games, but this just wasn't an interesting enough game for me to keep playing until I uncovered its hidden depths. I think Putin Strikes
is an interesting take on an interesting conflict, but both as a simulation and as a game, I rated it "meh." One Small Step apparently plans to release a series of "Putin Strikes" games by Bomba, but after playing this one I doubt there will be much new to unpack in the follow-ups.