Review: Next War: Poland

Chances are that if you are a reader of the blog, you have spent some amount of time thinking about NATO’s northeastern flank. The defence of the Baltics has become an issue of considerable debate, with the Suwałki gap doing its best to become the Fulda gap of the 21st century. At some point one start to wonder how a confrontation would play out? What difference would it e.g. make if NATO sent reinforcements into northern Poland?

NWP

Enter Next War: Poland, an old-school hex-and-counter wargame with all the bells and whistles to warrant an interest also from the professionals. It arrives in a nicely sized box, which is packed full with two maps, plenty of countersheets, and all the rule and scenario books you need. For a full review of what’s in the box, check out this video on GMT Games’ YouTube channel.

…and, yes, the box isn’t one of their better-looking ones. I have a hard time figuring out why GMT chose the mix of pictures of completely different styles. It is especially puzzling as they have some quite spectacular boxarts amongst their offerings, such as Labyrinth or Pendragon.

The maps consist of two completely different ones, one of which is the hex (‘operational’) map which cover the northern part of Poland and into the southern corner of Lithuania. Here the main battle is fought, where brigade and division level units (and the occasional battalions) run around and collide into each other. However, as we all know a major part of the fight would be to get units into theatre. This takes place on the second map, the strategic display. In essence, this cover the Baltic Sea and surrounding land areas, and consists of land and sea regions, as well as holding boxes representing out of area assets (naval units in the North Sea and long-range air units). Here it is possible to fight the battle for sea superiority in the Baltic Sea, to conquer the Baltic states, and to drop a bunch of airborne units on Gotland to exercise control of the shipping lanes and air space if you are so inclined.

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Nice A2/AD bubble you’ve got there, would be a shame if something happened to it…

There are a basic and advanced rules, as well as basic and advanced air rules. The basic rules are rather straightforward for a wargame, while the advanced ones are close to a full-on simulation. Under the advanced rules, the strategic display, a detailed logistics system, and a host of support weapons ranging from short-range ballistics missiles to artillery makes it possible to simulate the Russian A2/AD-bubble and NATO attempts to breach it in all its glory.

The game is complex, there’s no denying it. Multiple factors are at play throughout the turns, and keeping track of everything does feel slightly overwhelming at times. Part of this is due to the modularity of the system. The Next War-system, Poland is the fourth volume, is based on a set of common rules, some of which are shared between basic and standard games, some of which are differing. Then comes the game specific rules, which as the name implies cover things specific for the Polish theatre, as well as the scenario rules. This leads to quite some browsing between the different booklets at times. On the other hand, the modularity is without doubt one of the strengths of the game. In essence, it is one great sandbox, and while it does feature a number of different scenarios with varying levels of NATO reinforcements forward-deployed to the area, there’s nothing stopping you from gaming out different scenarios according to your own liking. The same can be said about the rules, where it is rather easy to pick and choose, e.g. to combine a full set of logistics rules with the basic air war.

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The sheer number of rules can make the game feel a bit overwhelming at times. Still, the gaming aids are top-notch, and help considerably once the game starts going!

The fighting follows a rather standard pattern, with units from one side attacking a neighbouring hex, possible support being allocated, and a number of modifiers come into play depending on everything from how well units cooperate to the type of terrain. A single die roll then resolves each battle, with the result being cross-referenced with the final combat ratio on a combat results table, which sports both die-roll modifiers and column shifts. The advanced air rules are a blast to play, and lets you pit individual squadrons against each other, while the naval rules are by far the most abstracted, and in my opinion, weakest ones. It very much feels like the navy is only included because NATO need to be able to leverage the carrier strength of the US Navy and to have a means of transport for the US Marine expeditionary force headed for the beaches of Kaliningrad or a nice Polish harbour.

An interesting concept is the initiative mechanics, whereby one of the players might have the initiative for the whole turn. This provides additional movement and combat phases, representing an attacker having the momentum, but can also easily lead to overstretching as the game also simulates the downsides of pushing the units hard to try and keep up the momentum. If the initiative player isn’t able to keep up the steam, judged by the amount of victory points during the last turn, the turns becomes contested until either player manages to secure the initiative again. This is a prime example of how complex real-world effects are taken into account and integrated into the game by relatively straightforward means.

There are some weaknesses with the game. The maps are nice, but they are printed on thick paper and not mounted. This is the usual way when it comes to wargames, and it is a nice paper quality. Still, it is something worth noting for any non-wargamers stumbling upon this. The player aids are also printed on the same thicker paper, and are in full colour. The main issue for me personally is however the scope of the hex map. As it sits now, it covers the majority of the Kaliningrad exclave, but not quite up to its northern border. In the same way, the southern part of the Suwałki gap is covered, but the battle for its northern end will take place solely on the strategic display. And if the player wants to do a Bagration 2.0 and head for Warszawa from the south, that would be outside the scope of both maps. I understand the reasoning though, because it ties in with another issue.

The game is huge.

The maps are 56 x 61 cm and 56 x 86 cm respectively. In addition you will have a number of cups with all counters that doesn’t happen to be on the board at any given moment, and it is usually a good idea to have the rule books and player aids nearby. All in all, this might not be the game for you if live in a small flat. Effectively doubling the size of the operational map by extending it towards Vilnius to the north and Krakow to the south would mean that any game would require quite a bit of property to be properly set up (with that said, if a double size map covering Vilnius to Krakow would be offered as an add-on, I would certainly buy it!).

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A Russian armoured unit have broken through a gap in the lines and is heading west, but risks a potential supply shortage as Polish infantry dug in in the main cities still control the road network.

The observant reader will notice that a pattern emerges. The scope and complexity of the game is intense, but at the same time its greatest strength. Already with the relatively limited playing time I’ve had with it I’ve learnt new things with regards to the real world situation. It should be stressed that the complexity is based on the fact that modern conflicts are complex and multifaceted, and it never feels like the rules are complex just for the sake of it. Instead, while I am a novice when it comes to hex-and-counter games (my sole earlier experience is described here) I felt that my understanding of real-world conflicts helped me get going with the game. The rules felt logical, and it was easy to grasp what the designer was going after with any single point (though as noted memorising the whole lot was quite something else!). I also never felt like I encountered any significant case of a real-world factor missing (there’s even rules for refugees clogging the roads during the early stages of the conflict), which is high praise for a wargame in my books.

The game isn’t for anyone, but neither is this blog, so I have no qualms about highly recommending it to any of my blog readers with an interest in conflict simulation!

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There’s no lack of counters, and I highly recommend some kind of storage solution if you invest in this game, as sorting through the whole bunch is *not* and ideal way to start your gaming session…

…and before anyone asks: Finland isn’t included, Sweden joins NATO with their Air Force and SOF units if Russia invades Gotland (P 18 is missing), Norway is missing, while Denmark is a fully featured though minor NATO-country.

Oh, and we certainly need a volume in the series situated in northern Finland/Sweden/Norway. Please, GMT?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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