Winter War Review

A few weeks ago I looked at an early release version of Avalon Digital’s Winter War, covering the David and Goliath conflict between Russia and Finland 1939. I gave the game good marks back then, and I’m happy to say that Winter War (WW) has only gotten better.

Actual gameplay, the way the software works, as well as the overall look and feel, hasn’t changed a whit, so if you want to know the nuts and bolts of that perspective, click on the link above for my previous tome. 

There has, however, been a substantial tune-up under the hood, and that starts as soon as the title screen shows up with its painting from the Finnish movie Talvisota (I recognize the chap with the circular specs) along with some gregarious Soviet patriotic music. OK, maybe the march “Vilppulan urhojen muistolle” would have been more appropriate, but I digress.

Plan R-4

For me, the biggest change in WW is the addition of a new, two-hour plus scenario covering the planned but never executed Allied intervention into the conflict, the so-called Plan R-4. Hell, I was aware this was always a consideration, but I never fathomed that someone actually drew up a formal operations order to help the Finns.

Or not. Seems that the boondoggle was not to exclusively support Finland, but to use intervention as a cover to deny iron ore to Nazi Germany. Yes, the 20th March 1940 operation would see eventual direct military support for Finland, but a lot of the 100,000 British and 35,000 French troops would divert to seize Swedish iron mining facilities and the Norwegian port of Narvik from where the ore was shipped. Given the Allies were requesting permission to peacefully transit both Norway and Sweden to ‘assist’ Finland, when General de Brigade Antoine Bethouart and the 27eme DBCA unexpectedly dropped in for some cognac at an ore mine, a fait accompli could be declared.

Norway and Sweden said no, but in this new scenario you can get whatever part of the Allied force under Bethouart would have actually made it to help Helsinki. This includes the great man himself, a brigade of Swedish volunteers, the Polish Podhale Brigade, plus the French 342emr CACC (tanks), CEFS Artillery, the 27th, 5th DBCA and the 13th DBLE. British forces include 15th, 24th, 146th and 148th Brigades, plus a gaggle of Hawker Hurricanes for the Finnish Air Force.

These units are substantial, but in general I found while British units were able to march rings around their French counterparts, the latter were a lot meaner in combat with a lot more staying power. Neither, however, had the special abilities of Finnish troops such as Ambush, so using the Allies was not as simple as it sounds. Different armies meant different capabilities and trying to coordinate merged attacks against a single target was dicey and often did not produce hoped for results.

Nevertheless, an enjoyable excursion and certainly a good selling point for WW.

Scientia potentia est

Another big change is the fact that we now have both a formal player’s manual and a set of five short video tutorials. The manual is 105 pages but really not that daunting. The manual is full of large, very well marked images from gameplay that illustrate everything that happens in the game whether you will ever use it or not. Text is minimal and localization into American English is excellent except for a very few instances (like what is “Tension?”). What is not so excellent is that the manual has neither a Table of Contents nor an Index, something that definitely needs to be remedied.

On the other hand, I found the five short tutorials to be damn near perfect. They cover Region Inspection, Air Movement and Rebasing, Land Movement and Stack Splitting, Stacking and Battle. The videos are short and non-participating by the player, but the English language audio is the best I’ve heard, a news commentator midwest American accent neither too slow or too fast, crisp and understandable. Just look at the screen, listen and learn.

Both, instruction sets do their job well, but in a sort of unexpected way. As I noted in my previous article, playing WW is unbelievably simple because the game holds your hand every step of the turn sequence, alerting you when you have something to do, highlighting it on the game map and then reminding you if you forget. It’s thus easy to learn the game by just a click and drag playthrough and nothing else. The manual, but especially the videos, remind you of other options available you likely aren’t using. When WW said you now can execute a Breakthrough, I’d not seen that before so I had to look it up. Likewise, instead of dragging a unit along a path and then dropping it at its destination, WW has a much easier alternative. Right click on a unit and all the areas it can move to and thru suddenly appear highlighted green (good), purple (stacking overload, pass thru) or orange (combat will ensue). Left click on the destination and the unit automatically moves there taking the right combination of railroads and so on. I got that from a video, and did you know you can put Finnish units into Camouflage, thus canceling automatic combat if the Ruskies come a calling?

Bottom line, it’s made Winter War even easier to play and dropped a few game changers as well.

Wood stacking, Finnish style

There were some other improvements under the hood and these impact gameplay, but don’t change any specific procedure. Things are as they were. However, there are evidently new cards in the Card Deck, a +1 point in reinforcements for the Finns, a vicious Ambush system, permitting Breakthroughs and Pursuit in rough terrain (if you’re Finnish), automatic mine and obstacle replacement and reducing supply paths from four to three regions. Also, terrain in Northern Finland seems really crappy this time around.

So, armed with such information overload I played the 16 turn grand campaign (this time as the Finns) over the weekend, and the R-4 scenario thrice, twice as Finland and once as MSU Timoshenko and his Red Army churls. I won every one of them (Ave!), but all were down to the last turn nail biters, as they should be. The victory point system based on occupation of cities and territory works in an interesting and indirect way. Soviet units are brittle, but there are a lot of them so grabbing real estate should be easy, given the small size of the Finnish army. Assuming you are not dead, of course, because the Finns are very badass in the game and can kill a lot of your forces. So, while territory is key, the Finns win the turf battle, not by occupying it themselves, but by killing Reds so they can’t. Spiffy.

And how do the Finns come across so good? After playing a lot of games now, a couple of things seem to stand out. The use of random event cards is key. They have a lot greater impact than I originally thought and do seem to favor Finland. Sure, you can pick up the Commissar card for the Soviets and award a +1, etc, but when the Finns play that Bad Weather card the results can be devastating if you are Russian. Not only do Finnish ground forces seem less affected, but everybody’s aircraft are grounded. Well, the Finns don’t have a lotta planes to begin with, but the Russians do, and it really sucks when one of your primary bombardment platforms can’t do squat because the pilots are sitting out a snow storm guzzling vodka.

And then there is the Ambush system. In WW when ground combat occurs the attacker normally “fires” first, then the defender, but with any losses taken calculated in. If the Finns have Ambush capable troops – and I swear it seems all of them are – then these hearty lads get a free shot at the enemy BEFORE the combat begins and then get to engage the enemy first when the formal ground combat phase starts. And of course, Finnish Jaeger and ski troops are pretty much the only formations that can execute Breakthrough and Pursuit in rough terrain like forests. Wanna guess what the predominant terrain feature is in Finland?

It all boils down to a four plus hour game that not only allows you to fight the famous 1939 Winter War, but do so in a way that immerses you into a game environment that somehow feels like the Winter War. Not too shabby IMHO.

Final thoughts

I’ve always liked this system, sorta Wars Across the World on steroids. First, the presentation, WW just looks ‘professional’. Yes, I am bigtime impressed with the models as conveyed in games like Panzer Corps II, but it still looks like a 28 mm tactical miniatures game with individual tanks and fire teams slapped on a 10 mm terrain board. WW just looks like a well-polished operational game from both the map and formation icon perspective. OK, maybe it’s just me, but it’s something that’s hard to ignore.

But most of all, this game is not only fun and easy to play, but with just a tweak here or there on a common rules platform, packages like WW gain a unique historical personality appropriate for the subject covered. Gameplay is the same, but the impact on the battlefield environment changes from subject to subject. And for $ 19.99 US on Steam or direct? Pshaw. Don’t give me a break, give me more.