Ellis Simpson
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This is a game about the Soviet attack at Tolvajarvi, Finland in December 1939. Each hex is 425 yards, each turn is 90 minutes (day) or 15 hours (night), and most combat units are company sized. The game comes with a single standard sized map, one countersheet, play aids, a rule book, and playbook. The designer is Mark Mokszycki.

The system is "I go, you go" with simple (not simplistic) twists and enhancements that make it interesting, fun and challenging for both players.

For example, the Finns pay 1 Movement Point (MP) to enter Frozen Lake hexes, and the Soviets pay 1.5 MPs, but that small difference is enough to force each side to think about how it can best tackle the tactical situation. For the Finns, it's about when to withdraw, and when to threaten the flanks using that fast movement. For the Soviets, it's about when to risk time on the ice - as it drastically increases unit vulnerability, but also offers opportunities for encircling a tough defensive position.

Similarly, on top of a straightforward combat system, the designer has added a ton of modifiers and a terrific, neat, ranged combat subsystem that combine to give a real feel for the battle. The modifiers could have been overwhelming, but the play aids make using them a dawdle. (This is a recurrent theme: the designer has thought long and hard about us, the players, and made this game as easy to play as he could. Brilliant.)

Then there are the night rules. Another example of clever design. The Soviets can build bonfires and avoid the worst excesses of the terrible winter, or stand ready and risk losing steps. The Finns are trouble free unless they launch a night raid. The whole cocktail forces players to think ahead; there's no point in waiting till night time to prepare. You need to prepare in advance.

Talking about preparation, as well as reinforcements, each side may have reduced infantry companies attempt to recover by doing nothing in a turn and rolling a 6. It sounds daft, but in practice - because there is a positive modifier for being away 4+ hexes from the enemy -  what you need to do is pull back units from the front line to maximize the chance of recovery. But, if you do that without a reserve on hand...

The rulebook is one of the best in the business. It is well organized, clear, and almost perfect. This alone deserves a prize. But, even better, is the playbook. It is a 56 page wonder, crammed with scenarios - tons of them - historical notes (some cross referred to by the rules), design and play notes. There are also optional rules, a glossary of Finnish terms, and a list of sources. Somebody once said a book about a battle would always be better than a game; in this case, they are wrong. The designer seems to have poured his heart and soul into the game, and I appreciate it.

How does it play? Well, I have played the first day and second day scenarios and the combined scenario of the first two days. It plays fast and easy. I did the first day scenario in about an hour first time around. I had only one rules query, and a quick reread sorted that. I played it again because, as the Soviets are on the attack, it can be hard to work out the best approach. The second day scenario was a bit longer, but had more variety in the action. It took me three hours, but I was thinking more about the startegy and was not rushing. The combined scenario is better than the other two, but all are fun. As I said above, there are a lot of scenarios (there's even a beginner/tutorial scenario on a separate card, but I skipped that) and you can choose according to taste. I have not yet tackled the campaign, but it is enticing because it's not that big a beast and the Vassal module is gorgeous.

Key points include the low counter density and the very high suitability for solitaire play. And the 2d6 Combat Results Table adds some spice with a variety of results. (Guaranteed success? You are in the wrong game box.) To succeed in Red Winter, you must be prepared to endure setbacks, or else. Oh, and let's not forget the designer's stated intent of avoiding too many markers. There are markers, but far less than I am used to seeing, and what a lovely difference it makes. I like this approach.

The physical components are good. The map is evocative, and the counters are large, clear, and well laid out. You get infantry companies, machine gun units, mortars, field guns, artillery, crappy tanks and anti-tank guns, engineers and so on. There is also a counter for the Finnish hero Pajari. The Game Turn Record is a model of clarity and every budding designer (and some other game companies) would do well to study it carefully.

Overall, this is one of the best games I have ever seen. It is my best buy of 2012 (so far!) and going straight into my top five all time favorites.

And if there's going to be any chance of it being removed from the list, that just might be down to the designer's next effort. There's a game on the same scale,  and starting with the same system, about Operation Dauntless. I cannot wait.

This is a winner. I heartily recommend it. Thank you Mark Mokszycki and GMT.

An Aside: the designer says he started off trying to create a simple game, but the complexity level rose. Of course he is correct, but this is, mechanically, one of the easiest games to play. It's only a notch above a folio game in complexity, especially if you stick to single day scenarios. This is VERY accessible.
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John Brady
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Great review, and this is a great system. I hope it does well enough to spawn a few follow up titles.
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Ellis Simpson
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John, thanks for the comment.

The system is outstanding. What seems to hold people back is the topic, which is a shame. Hopefully the proposed Operation Dauntless game should have a wide appeal.
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S0laris
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i absolutely agree with you. this game has been a really pleasant surprise for me, as i basically bought it without much research first. it quickly rose as one of my favorites.

i personally absolutely love the ranged combat mechanics in the game. they integrate perfectly with the more typical hex and counter combat of standard wargames, and manages to add so much more interesting tactical choices wile remaining hassle free. i think is really because it just.. makes sense. supporting combat with ranged attacks just makes sense, and the rules handle that very elegantly in my opinion.

i could really write so much more about this title, but that would be another review then. suffice to say i think Ellis review nails it. this game (and its system mechanics) really deserves your attention folks, even if the historaical setting is of NO interest to you guys!
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Jonathan Harrison
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Writer wrote:
John, thanks for the comment.

The system is outstanding. What seems to hold people back is the topic, which is a shame. Hopefully the proposed Operation Dauntless game should have a wide appeal.

The topic is what sold me on it.
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Stacey Hager
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Writer wrote:
John, thanks for the comment.

The system is outstanding. What seems to hold people back is the topic, which is a shame. Hopefully the proposed Operation Dauntless game should have a wide appeal.



The game is number nine in GMT's top ten games for the year according to sales thus far. Also, other games are in development, including Red Winter II. I bet this series is going to have some legs....the word of mouth is nothing but good.
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Ellis Simpson
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s0laris30 wrote:
i personally absolutely love the ranged combat mechanics in the game. they integrate perfectly with the more typical hex and counter combat of standard wargames, and manages to add so much more interesting tactical choices wile remaining hassle free. i think is really because it just.. makes sense. supporting combat with ranged attacks just makes sense, and the rules handle that very elegantly in my opinion.


Agreed. It's worth pointing out the neat flourishes the designer put in. For example, the ability of regular infantry companies to offer (limited) ranged fire support. And the simple, but effective rule about Zones of Control and ranged combat.
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Ellis Simpson
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HuginnGreiling wrote:
The topic is what sold me on it.


I wish I could say the same. I wasn't that interested in the topic, but Mark's articles intrigued me. That's what made me buy it.
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Ellis Simpson
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out to lunch wrote:
What's holding me back apart from the fact that I simply don't have the time right now is how replayable it's gonna be. I have trouble envisioning a tactical game played on a single map with a low unit count and so much terrain limiting mobility being able to maintain my interest in the long run. Any thoughts on that?


There are sixteen scenarios. Even if you only played each one, once, that is a hell of a lot of replayability. However, the scenarios that I have played so far - numbers, 2, 3, 4 and now 5 - were no straightjacketed affairs and are worth playing again. And again. And again.

The first day scenario - number 2 - is the one which arguably has the least depth (and units). I have only played this twice thrice four times (so far), and will go back to it. It's a puzzle, for sure. By that, I mean, a challenge to play well.

Well, that's my opinion. I encourage other players to chime in.

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S0laris
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for what is worth, my impression is that the game genuinely encourages multiple plays. aside form the smaller scenarios, (that obviusly tend to restrict strategic choices on the long run) consider this: the full campaign takes around 15+ hours to play, the larger scenarios easly half that, and they all provide ample space and opportunities for daring maneuvers and unexpected avenues of attack and strategies. i think its mostly thanks to a mix of clever terrain design, quite fluid unit movements in general, and really interesting "night turns" (during which units have doubled, some cases tripled! movement allowances, togheter with other nuances you can expect during a winter war's LOOONG nights.. ) all of this makes the battlefield situations change unexpectedly day by day, and the LONGER the scenario you are playing is (the campaign is the best imho) the MORE opportunities you will discover.

its quite hard to point out precisely what are the subtleys of the design that really manage to add so much more layers to an otherwise quite "typical" hex and counter wargames if you aint used to how the game "flows" in general.
i am a big fan of tactical games, mind you. i love lock n load games for example. this game, with ONE single map, is giving me easily as much variety (ok maybe not AS much, but damn close!) as a whole Lock'n'Load complete boxed game (5-6 maps, 15-20 or so scenarios, hundreds of different units and markers etc..) and i played the campaign game completely already 2 times, and im in the middle of my third game!

edit:

the game comes with a lovely, LOVELY player book that not only contains the scenarios and the historical details and backgrounds, but a whole LOT of informations by the designer on why certain mechanichs and choices were implemented that really gives you an insight in how the system really comes togheter. in case it wasnt clear im really impressed with the whole package here, let me be clear: im really freaking impressed.
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Rob Bottos
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I bought this game on the strength of Ellis' review. Picked it up in GMT's Fall sale. So far I've only ready the playbook but what a read it is! I wishmore game designer's would go into this kind of detail. The rules look easy to digest and I'm going to talk one of my buddies who plays ASL into giving it a try.
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