Red Winter

This is a game about the Soviet attack at Tolvajarvi, Finland in December 1939. Each hex is 425 yards, each turn is 90 minutes (day) or 15 hours (night), and most combat units are company sized. The game comes with a single standard sized map, one countersheet, play aids, a rule book, and playbook. The designer is Mark Mokszycki.

The system is “I go, you go” with simple (not simplistic) twists and enhancements that make it interesting, fun and challenging for both players.

For example, the Finns pay 1 Movement Point (MP) to enter Frozen Lake hexes, and the Soviets pay 1.5 MPs, but that small difference is enough to force each side to think about how it can best tackle the tactical situation. For the Finns, it’s about when to withdraw, and when to threaten the flanks using that fast movement. For the Soviets, it’s about when to risk time on the ice – as it drastically increases unit vulnerability, but also offers opportunities for encircling a tough defensive position.

Similarly, on top of a straightforward combat system, the designer has added a ton of modifiers and a terrific, neat, ranged combat subsystem that combine to give a real feel for the battle. The modifiers could have been overwhelming, but the play aids make using them a dawdle. (This is a recurrent theme: the designer has thought long and hard about us, the players, and made this game as easy to play as he could. Brilliant.)

Then there are the night rules. Another example of clever design. The Soviets can build bonfires and avoid the worst excesses of the terrible winter, or stand ready and risk losing steps. The Finns are trouble free unless they launch a night raid. The whole cocktail forces players to think ahead; there’s no point in waiting till night time to prepare. You need to prepare in advance.

Talking about preparation, as well as reinforcements, each side may have reduced infantry companies attempt to recover by doing nothing in a turn and rolling a 6. It sounds daft, but in practice – because there is a positive modifier for being away 4+ hexes from the enemy –  what you need to do is pull back units from the front line to maximize the chance of recovery. But, if you do that without a reserve on hand…

The rulebook is one of the best in the business. It is well organized, clear, and almost perfect. This alone deserves a prize. But, even better, is the playbook. It is a 56 page wonder, crammed with scenarios – tons of them – historical notes (some cross referred to by the rules), design and play notes. There are also optional rules, a glossary of Finnish terms, and a list of sources. Somebody once said a book about a battle would always be better than a game; in this case, they are wrong. The designer seems to have poured his heart and soul into the game, and I appreciate it.

How does it play? Well, I have played the first day and second day scenarios and the combined scenario of the first two days. It plays fast and easy. I did the first day scenario in about an hour first time around. I had only one rules query, and a quick reread sorted that. I played it again because, as the Soviets are on the attack, it can be hard to work out the best approach. The second day scenario was a bit longer, but had more variety in the action. It took me three hours, but I was thinking more about the startegy and was not rushing. The combined scenario is better than the other two, but all are fun. As I said above, there are a lot of scenarios (there’s even a beginner/tutorial scenario on a separate card, but I skipped that) and you can choose according to taste. I have not yet tackled the campaign, but it is enticing because it’s not that big a beast and the Vassal module is gorgeous.

Key points include the low counter density and the very high suitability for solitaire play. And the 2d6 Combat Results Table adds some spice with a variety of results. (Guaranteed success? You are in the wrong game box.) To succeed in Red Winter, you must be prepared to endure setbacks, or else. Oh, and let’s not forget the designer’s stated intent of avoiding too many markers. There are markers, but far less than I am used to seeing, and what a lovely difference it makes. I like this approach.

The physical components are good. The map is evocative, and the counters are large, clear, and well laid out. You get infantry companies, machine gun units, mortars, field guns, artillery, crappy tanks and anti-tank guns, engineers and so on. There is also a counter for the Finnish hero Pajari. The Game Turn Record is a model of clarity and every budding designer (and some other game companies) would do well to study it carefully.

Overall, this is one of the best games I have ever seen. It is my best buy of 2012 (so far!) and going straight into my top five all time favorites.

And if there’s going to be any chance of it being removed from the list, that just might be down to the designer’s next effort. There’s a game on the same scale,  and starting with the same system, about Operation Dauntless. I cannot wait.

This is a winner. I heartily recommend it. Thank you Mark Mokszycki and GMT.

An Aside: the designer says he started off trying to create a simple game, but the complexity level rose. Of course he is correct, but this is, mechanically, one of the easiest games to play. It’s only a notch above a folio game in complexity, especially if you stick to single day scenarios. This is VERY accessible.