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?
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.
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.
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!).
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!
…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?