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Posted on Oct 5, 2012 in Boardgames

Red Winter – Boardgame Review

By Sean Stevenson

Red Winter: The Soviet Attack at Tolvajarvi, Finland, December 8–12, 1939. Boardgame review. Publisher, GMT Games. Designer, Mark Mokszycki. $50.00

Passed Muster: Very well-balanced game, simulates a little-known but interesting campaign, phenomenal level of research

Failed Basic: Heavy on gaming jargon

In late 1939, winter was fast coming to Europe in more ways than one. Spain, Czechoslovakia, and Poland had already been torn apart by war; France would soon fall and Britain chased from the continent in the new year. In the interim, on November 30, Finland suffered a massive invasion by the Soviet Union and fought a David-versus-Goliath battle for four months before signing a treaty of pro-Soviet "neutrality." Red Winter simulates one of the more interesting campaigns of this Winter War, the Finnish counter-attack at Tolvajarvi that began December 8.

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The packaging and components are the high standard GMT usually meets. You get a rulesbook, playbook (scenarios and design notes), and a quick-start reference card. Two well-organized player aid cards contains the charts and tables needed (one per player), and the turn record card lists notes on replacements and reinforcements, ammunition depletion, sub-zero losses, etc.; the turn card is a great reference that will serve you well during the game. Four six-sided dice and a set of plastic bags for counter storage are also included. The zip-loc storage bags should be mandatory for all wargame publishers, as should the full-color reproduction of unit countersheets (front and back) included in the back of the rulesbook. Thanks for making storing and replacing counters easier, GMT!

Speaking of counters, there are 160 full-color counters representing the units and various markers such as Digging In, Suppressed, and so on. Red Winter is a company-level game with mostly infantry (including bicycle troops!) supported by mortar and machine gun units; the Soviets have some armor they can commit, while the Finns have engineers and their all-important leader Pajari. Players maneuver these counters across a 22×34-inch map of the frozen lake area of Tolvajarvi and the surrounding terrain, which includes forests, roads, and small villages.

Begin by choosing which scenario you wish to play. Shorter scenarios represent a single day or two of the battle, from the initial Soviet advance and Finnish guerilla-like counterstrokes to the final day of fighting, or you can play the (very) long campaign game and re-enact all five days of the battle. The counters have set-up codes in the upper right corners with either hex numbers, turn numbers for reinforcements, asterisks and colored circles indicating special entry requirements or alternate "what-if" units, blank hexes indicate a unit that stacks with any friendly unit, hex with a number in it … okay, so there are a lot of set-up codes, though most of the units have either hex numbers or turn numbers. Once you set up the game two or three times the different counter codes are second nature, and the scenario instructions and turn record card help as well with set-up.

Game play follows the standard wargame formatting. The first player (usually the Soviets, but in the campaign game the Finns can gain momentum and become the first player) starts with a Reset phase during which artillery is readied and ammo is checked. After that, the first player has a Unit Action phase that provides him several options for each of his units: moving, digging in, or attempting to recover/rally. After that comes the first player’s combat phase. Following this, the second player does his Reset, Unit Actions, and Combat. Check for Victory and, if no one has enough Victory Points, go on to the next turn.

Stacking and movement rules are easy to game. Up to five units (no more than three infantry) of one side can stack in a single hex. Movement is hex to hex, paying the terrain costs of the hex entered. Zones of control extend into all six adjacent hexes no matter the terrain and affect enemy units in a variety of ways, e.g., units must pay an extra movement point to exit an enemy ZOC, units are restricted as to what actions they can take while in an enemy ZOC (may not undergo Recovery or Dig In, Soviet units may not build bonfires in an enemy ZOC, etc.). There is one important rule that is somewhat buried in the rulesbook but vital to the game: Soviet armored units ignore all ZOCs of Finnish units except AT (anti-tank) units.

There are three forms of combat:

• Assault occurs during movement and is basically an attempted overrun of enemy units. Pay two extra movement points and resolve the combat by comparing the attacker’s Close Combat strength to the defender’s Close Combat strength and come up with a ratio, then roll 2d6 on the combat results chart. Losses are expressed as attacker/defender, with the number being step losses suffered.

• During the combat phase regular attacks occur between adjacent enemy units; the process is similar to assaults, but a different combat table is used and different modifiers apply to the combat.

• Ranged attacks can be made against non-adjacent enemy units, rolling 2d6 and adding the unit’s Ranged Attack Strength (along with any other modifiers) and checking the Ranged Table to determine effect (anything under 13 is pointless fire, 14 to 16 defender is suppressed, 17 or 18 is suppression plus one step loss, and a result of 19 or higher inflicts two step losses on the defenders as well as suppressing them). Off-map artillery strikes are handled using the Ranged Attack Table.

Most combat modifiers are in the form of column shifts on the combat results table, so attacking a defender in a frozen lake hex shifts the odds three columns to the right in favor of the attacker (four columns if Finns are attacking). Modifiers to the Ranged Attack Table are in the form of die roll modifiers, which means firing on dug-in defenders is –2 to the 2d6 roll.

The game is well-balanced. The Soviets have an advantage in combat strength and off-map artillery, but they actually lose Victory Points for calling in their armored units. The Finnish troops enjoy much greater mobility and gain certain combat modifiers based on terrain. Little modifiers throughout the game—Finns get +1 to the roll to avoid suffering losses due to the cold at night, Soviet machine guns can be captured and used, and so on—provide the Finnish player small advantages that can be of immense benefit as the battle wears on.

The game provides special rules for night turns, during which the Finns can perform guerilla raids on a Soviet position with up to three full-strength units; the Finnish movement rates on a night raid are tripled; they generally get a beneficial column shift; and they return to their original hex all as one action—night raids can be lethal when executed properly. Both sides must stay in supply, though it’s more difficult for the Soviet forces as their supply line must follow roads, while the Finnish supply lines can wend their way through any terrain. In the campaign game and a few scenarios the Soviets could suffer a Morale Collapse, an irreversible condition triggered when the number of full-strength units falls below twelve. The game is pretty much over once that occurs.

The rulesbook is well-organized (except for the aforementioned easily overlooked rule on Soviet armor ignoring most ZOCs), and the player aid cards are great references during the game, making the game flow well. The Playbook is a virtual "how to design a wargame" handbook loaded with designer’s notes, historical background, and even translations of various Finnish terms and names!

On the downside, the game is heavy on jargon— +1 drm to SZLT, anyone? —which is fine for us grognards, but players unaccustomed to ’70s-style rules might be a little put off. For the components you get, this game suffers from the same problem as most modern wargames: reverse Bob Barker. The Price Is Not Right (especially when for the same price I can get games with 300 plastic miniatures). And a minor peeve—couldn’t GMT find any color photos to use in the rulesbook and playbook?

The Winter War invasion of Finland has been gamed before but usually as a strategic simulation. Red Winter is a well-designed look at one of the key campaigns of the Second World War, the beating back of the Soviets by an ably led and coordinated Finnish force using their knowledge of the terrain to best advantage. I had never heard of this series of battles before and found it to be a refreshing change of pace from the usual tank-charge tactics of other Second World War simulations. Another solid entry for GMT games and a recommended gaming experience for vets looking to try out some different tactics.

Armchair General Rating: 83%

Solitaire Suitability (1 low, 5 high): 4 out of 5 (nothing hidden, and the game is well-balanced so both sides have a fighting chance)

About the Author

Sean Stevenson started wargaming with SPI and has spent the past 35 years as a freelance game designer and playtester. When not playing any of the 1000+ games in his personal collection, he can be found reading a book on Colonial America.


  1. “And a minor peeve—couldn’t GMT find any color photos to use in the rulesbook and playbook?”

    Color photos? From the Winter War? :-) I’d be surprised if any exist. I’ve collected thousands of photos from this conflict, and it was me rather than GMT who chose the photos to use in the rules and playbook. In some cases we artificially colorized photos just to add some flair and variety. But this was a decidedly black and white conflict. :-)

    • Thanks for the comment and the great work on this game. I thought there might have been some color photos or films from this, guess I’m a spoiled child of The History Channel! Thanks again for the great game!

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