Review: Tornio ’44

The sheer scope of the Second World War means that there is a vast number of less-known operations. Amongst these, the amphibious landing and following battle between the Finnish and German forces in the Tornio area in the autumn of 1944 is amongst the most obscure. The battle was the single most important part of the so called Lapland War, during which Finnish forces drove out the German units from Finnish territory in accordance with the requirements of the Finnish-Soviet armistice signed during the late summer of that year.

The iconic picture of two Finnish soldiers with their Panzerschreck along the Kemi-Tornio road. Source: SA-Kuva

The battle wasn’t particularly large, none of the individual skirmishes it was made up of numbered more than a few battalions, and was characterised by poor intelligence, a lack of communication, and the general confusion which followed these. The close proximity to the (neutral) Swedish border and the fact that the two sides up until recently had been brothers in arms and good friends also added to the flavour.

A Finnish-Swedish company called Mikugames has created a boardgame to represent the battle. The hex-and-counter style game covers the whole battle from 1 to 8 of October, with the map stretching from Ajos up to Ylivojakkala. The counters are company-sized units, the being printed on both sides, with the second side representing the unit at half-strength.

At first glance, the game looks like your standard run-of-the-mill wargame, with attack factors being summed and ratios being compared, before the dice resolve the outcome. Upon closer inspection it becomes clear that this is only partly correct, and that the game in fact feature a number of novel approaches to capture the unique nature of the Tornio campaign. While ‘flavour’ has a tendency to mean ‘complexity’ in many wargames, in Tornio ’44 the opposite is in fact true, and they instead make the game highly suitable for beginners. This is mainly due to two factors: the pace at which the battle develops, and the fact that this was almost exclusively an infantry affair.

A German counterattack from the direction of Kemi has managed to recapture parts of Tornio, including the vital supply depot in ‘Little Berlin’. Visible is the sole German tank company, 2. Panzer-Abteilung 211.

When the battle kicks off, very few units are actually on the map, meaning that the first few turns are rather straightforward and let the players build confidence and become familiar with the sequence of play. After this, the scope of the game gradually increases as more Finnish reinforcements are landed and the German command dispatches more units to the area.

The gameplay itself boil down to a few simple mechanics. Each unit is either motorised or not, which affect the cost of it moving through different kinds of terrain. For the combat value, each unit has an attack and a defence value, reflecting that defence is usually stronger than attack. For the supporting units (i.e. artillery and mortars), they instead get a range and support value (representing how hard they hit), as well as a close-defence value, representing how good they are at defending themselves if they get attacked. While all units are correct according to the historical order of battle, you don’t have to worry about whether you are commanding a Waffen-SS mountain company, a bunch of Finnish light tanks, or a second-rate Ersatz unit if you don’t like. For practical purposes, the only differences actually making a difference is their different mobility and combat values. The few exceptions to this rule are the special abilities of engineers to support river crossings (and blow bridges in the case of the Germans), as well as some simple optional rules dealing with antitank and antiaircraft units.

The engineers of the Gebirgsjäger-Brigade 139’s 17. company tries to blow the large combined rail and road bridge over the Kemijoki river.

Where the game really shines is in the asymmetric nature of the fighting. To reflect the differing goals of the Finnish and German forces, a single point-track is used, where the Finnish player score their victory points, and the German player tries to subtract the Finnish points. The Finnish player gains their points by capturing key areas, inflicting losses to the Germans (preferably after encircling them in a motti), and for any Finnish units exiting the map along the roads heading north. Reversely, the German player subtracts points by recapturing objectives, destroying the bridges over Torniojoki and Kemijoki rivers (with more points being awarded the longer they can wait before blowing the charges), and for any units exiting the board northward during the last two turns.

This creates a set of extremely interesting tactical dilemmas. How long will the German player try and maintain control of the Kemijoki bridge before retreating northwards? The German player will initially have more troops on the board, with the initiative slowly transferring to the Finnish player, so trying to score a few early victories might be tempting. However, as all German losses are scored, being overly aggressive will soon come back to haunt the point-track. The Finnish player in turn has a major choice in deciding whether the troops will land in Kemi (as per the original plan), on Ajos, or at Röyttä south of Tornio (where the landing historically happened). Of these, Kemi is the most centrally located, followed by Ajos, and then Röyttä. This is turn influences how quickly the German command in Lapland reacts to the threat, with the German forces arriving significantly faster if the first two landing spots are used. The Finnish player can thereby determine the pace of the game by controlling the alert level. This can also be changed mid-game, by diverting some of the later waves of Finnish landings to a landing spot with a higher alert level.

Finnish troops in the Kemi skijumping hill watches helplessly as the German troops blow the Kemijoki bridge in the distance, creating an impressive pillar of smoke. Source: SA-kuva

These differing objectives and the steady stream of troops trickling in from different corners of the battlefield create a surprisingly gripping game. There never seem to be quite enough troops to make that last decisive move, and reinforcements can suddenly alter the force balance on a certain part of the battlefield, while a sudden change in weather might delay the Finnish reinforcements for a crucial turn.

The largest single issue I have with the game is probably that in some places the wording of the manual isn’t completely clear, with key words being used before they have been explained. The map is nicely done, but isn’t mounted and feature a number of prominent folds which require some pressure to straighten out. Otherwise the cardboard counters risk sliding around. However, this is usually the case with games at this price point, and an unmounted rolled map (delivered in a tube) can be bought from the publisher for a reasonable price.

Tornio ’44 is highly recommended to anyone interested in the northern front of World War II or looking for a suitable first game to try hex-and-counter wargaming. While designed for two players, it does work well for single-player as well (with the player playing both sides), with only some minor features being absent. If boardgames doesn’t interest you, but the conflict itself does (and you read Finnish or Swedish), Mika Kulju’s book on the battle is probably the authoritative work on it, and is well worth a read.

Kevyen osaston polkupyöriä lastataan laivaan Tornioon vietäväksi.
The Finnish Light Detachment (Kevyt osasto) load their bicycles onto a Finnish steamer in the port of Toppila, Oulu. Ironically, next to Toppila is the Alppila district, named after the large depot the German mountain troops created there. No ‘real’ landing tonnage was available, and the Finnish troops were ferried by civilian merchant vessels. Source: SA-kuva

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