This is part of the Operational System Series designed by Adam Starkweather and published by Compass. The particular game is about hypothetical Cold War going hot in the 1980s.
The game comes with three standard sized maps and one small add-on for Berlin, a mountain of play-aid cards, over a thousand 9/16″ glorious counters, as well as a rule book and scenario book.
There’s a lot to like here. On the whole, the physical production standards are good; the books are both color and have glossy covers, the counters are sharp and make it easy to identify the respective formations, the map is clear and doesn’t get in the way of play. In addition, this is no boring retread of a 1970s quad game from SPI. It’s chock full of clever ideas with a fresh perspective giving a different, engrossing narrative on a conflict that thankfully never happened.
Another big plus in my book is that the game comes with three single map scenarios, so you can play the game even if you’re challenged for space. Incidentally, many of the play aids are used to track ratings and if you are short of space you will be pleased to know that they can be replaced with a pen (or pencil) and a small sheet of paper.
On the down side, I found the rulebook to be missing that last lap of love needed to make it consistent and clear. The errata is not insubstantial, including many items that you would expect a professional editor to have spotted. It did not get that attention, sadly. Another strike against the game – at least for those playing the physical version – is the ridiculous shortage of markers, particularly denoting units that have taken up positions benefitting from the in-hex terrain. However it happened, it shouldn’t have.
The other potential disadvantage is that the combat system – where much of the innovation is centered – may produce strange results. It depends on your take on matters. For now, all you need to know is that combat is about each side rolling one die and adding the relevant modifiers (‘DRM’), with the side getting the higher total winning. The difference (up to a certain limit) is the result the defender suffers.
For example, let’s assume NATO and the Warsaw Pact are engaged in combat. The NATO unit in defense is in a Town. If it has deployed in the terrain, it receives a +2 DRM. It now decides what equipment (from whatever equipment the unit has) it wants to use. The best for Town is APC Primary Equipment. That gives a +5 DRM for a unit at full strength. But to get that DRM, the unit must pass a 1d10 roll according to the type of equipment. A US unit with Primary Equipment of M2, for example, needs to roll a 9 or less. If it were M113, the roll would be 6 or less. If the roll is failed, there is no DRM. So, the swing (from +5 to +0) is huge. The same applies to the Warsaw Pact on the attack. A BMP will deliver the goods on a roll of 8 or less, an East German BTR-60 on 6 or less. I must stress that I’m not quibbling about the values (especially since they are not hard coded into the counters, so you can do your own thing) but the effect of a system whereby you either make the roll or don’t. Sure, an M113 unit might not be as good as an M2 equipped unit. But here the difference is in the odds of it making the roll and securing the same DRM.
Another aspect of the combat system I am unsure about is that, in general, the winner takes no losses. There are exceptions, but to my mind not enough. I believe the forces should be degraded by every combat, regardless of their superiority.
And while I am here, the combat system does cater for good and bad quality troops in a way I found strange. Essentially, there is a maximum combat result of 5 which the defender can suffer. However, if the attacker has a good quality unit or the defender is a bad quality unit, the maximum goes up to 6. Similarly, if the attacker has a bad quality unit or the defender is good quality, the maximum goes down to 4. So, quality has an effect but only if you generate the maximum result. That seems off to me.
The last part of this game system that I was less than enamored with was the veritable marker storm. Each unit may lose different levels of (a) Infantry (b) Primary Equipment; and (c) Secondary Equipment. All have their own marker. On top of that, units may need another marker for being in Road Column or Cross Country mode, or deployed in terrain. If I do play this again, I’m going to use Vassal.
I want to stress that I do not have any sources to contradict the designer’s interpretation, so be aware of that limitation. It feels wrong to me, but…
Despite all of these challenges, the game does deliver an interesting experience. It includes a pretty well done air system, allowing each side to determine its own strategy on that front. You get helicopter and artillery, special forces, refugees, SAM, SSM, leaders, engineers, and more. There is a lot to digest.
Finally, I mentioned upfield that the values are not hard coded on the counters (apart from unit size/infantry steps). So that means, if I want to devote the required time and energy, I can plug in my own. But I would probably go further than that and completely redo the combat system. Whether I will ever get round to it is another question.