Reds! – Boardgame Review
Reds! The Russian Civil War 1918–1921. Boardgame. GMT Games. Designed By Ted Racier. $50.
Passed Inspection: Variable turn sequence adds tension, plethora of unit types and special events, highly functional map and counters
Failed Basic: Game length, lack of strategic options for the White side, attritional combat system
The Russian Civil War of 1918–1921 was one of the most decisive events of the 20th century. Changing its outcome would have dramatically altered the course of history. GMT and Ted Racier take us back to this critical time with an immersive, atmospheric, two-player game of only moderate complexity that simulates the chaos and multifactional nature of the Russian Civil War, while blending in the unique military technologies and special events that influenced this conflict. Armored trains, river flotillas, tanks, airpower, partisans, cavalry raids, the Tsar, the Russian Gold Reserves—they’re all here in Reds!, packaged in a well-constructed, one-inch box that features the colorful and evocative art of Rodger McGowan. The inside box sides feature historical profiles of Peter Wrangel and Leon Trotsky; rather than concealing these under the outer box lid, these profiles might have been better served being on the outside of the box to help entice buyers unfamiliar with this period of history.
The 22 x 34" paper map spans from Murmansk in the North to Omsk in the East to Tashkent and Merv in Central Asia to Baku in the Caucasus and extends as far West as Krakow, Poland. Oriented at a northwest to southeast angle, it provides a view of Russia that is rarely seen. Scaled at 65 miles per hex, the steppes of the Ukraine, a traditional World War II stomping ground, are small compared to the Eastern territories of Russia. The map centers on Moscow and shows the wide geographical scope and varied terrain of Russia from the impassable deserts of Central Asia, the Pripyat Marshes, the Ural and the Caucasus mountains, to the dense forested Taiga of the North. The critical resource cities are outlined in white so they stand out on the map. Supply sources are clearly marked with the critical rail lines and rivers easily distinguishable from other terrain features. A turn track graces the upper right corner, followed by the resource city tracker and holding boxes for special units. The terrain effects chart and combat results table are also printed on this very functional map, which also includes all of the important elements for tracking play and pieces during the game.
The 248 counters are clear and easy to read, with modifiers and values cleanly depicted. Units use traditional NATO symbols for the major armed formations. Specialized units such as tanks, armored trains, airplanes, and naval units use icons. The Reds are colored red, appropriately enough, and the various White factions have white backgrounds or white unit symbols and text. The colors choices allow the counters to be easily distinguishable on the map, and special units are easily discernible from the regular combat units. The manpower values critical for calculating combat odds are clearly visible on the left side of the counter with the combat modifiers for attack/defense and movement factors on the bottom. Special movement abilities and combat limitations are marked by boxes around the respective movement or combat value.
Rounding out the package are two dice (One red and one white, of course!) and two well-laid out Player Aid cards, one for each side—red cardstock for the Reds—and each with its respective Random Events table. The rulebook has 19 pages of rules and includes strategy notes on play, design notes, and a two-page historical overview and a sequence of play on its back cover. One nit is that no sources or bibliography are listed to direct a player looking for more information about this period in history.
Reds! is a game that never plays the same way twice because of its chit-pull activation mechanic and its use of random events. There is a 13-turn scenario through 1919 and a longer, 24-turn scenario that extends to the historical end of the Russian Civil War. Turns represent one month (two in Winter), with yearly interlude phases for reinforcements and replacements. The game can be a drawn-out affair with the Red side slowly taking out one White faction at a time. Supply lines are critical and being out of supply is unforgiving. Part of the unique nature of this war is shown by the requirement to trace supply only along rivers and rail lines; thus, except for Cossack cavalry, forces cannot stray far from these critical lines of communications, and movement is necessarily channeled along these paths. This leaves many parts of the map virtually impassable to most units; thus, the deep forests of the North are rarely occupied or entered.
Variations in probability can kill you
Random events play a big role in Reds!, providing both sides special units (Red Leaders, armored trains, river flotillas, partisans) and possible game-changing events (Cossack raids, initiative changes, typhus, permitting AIF attacks, Red Terror). Getting Red Leaders helps the Red side, as Leaders provide many benefits, including specific activation of fronts, stacking advantages, and the initiative roll benefit. Other special units provide combat benefits. Special events such as Typhus or White Corruption can disorder enemy units without combat. Red Terror can change any city to a Red city, which removes the terrain defense benefit for White units and requires active occupation by Whites to maintain control.
The game starts out with a major random event roll—the survival of the Russian Tsar. On a roll of a one, the Tsar avoids his historical execution and allows the White faction to automatically rally disordered units, a big initial advantage. Too much hinges on this single, random die roll. The distribution of random events can have a major role in games, as failure to get Red leaders quickly can limit the Reds’ ability to mobilize and concentrate their forces. Likewise for the White side, failure to get the AIF Offensive result dooms the Allied forces to inactivity.
A turn of Reds! starts with rolling for initiative. The Reds get a +1 die roll modifier if a Red leader is present in the Field Staff box. The high roller gains initiative for the turn, which allows the first activation of any chosen force and the ability to move second for strategic movement, after seeing the other side’s concentration efforts.
After determining initiative, players roll for and implement random events. Both sides conduct strategic movement, allowing some units to move an unlimited number of spaces along river and rail lines that are not interdicted by un-negated enemy ZOCs. The Red side is also able to position the Red Train, which allows automatic rally of units in its hex or adjacent to it.
Red chit, White chit, Field Staff chit
Reds! uses a chit activation system, with separate chits for each Red front (organized on the map by geographic zones: South, East, North, West, Central Asia Front) and White Faction: Armed Forces of Southern Russia (AFSR), Siberians, North and Islamic, Allied Intervention Force (AIF). The Reds have an additional chit, Field Staff, which allows activation of any front not previously activated. Also as the game progresses, the White faction side receives Polish and Northwest chits and may lose the AIF forces if they withdraw from the conflict. A Logistics chit that initiates the supply check and rally phase is also in the mix. Until the Red side gets leaders, the Reds are only allowed to choose two front chits for activation plus the Field Staff chit. The initiative player gets to automatically choose which of his forces to activate first.
The order of play is potentially different each turn, depending on which chits are randomly drawn. Sustained offensives can occur If the chit pulls occur in the right sequence one side can conduct a sustained offensive by moving forces without enemy reaction. Zone of Controls (ZOCs) exerted by mobile military units are locking and movement from one ZOC directly to another is not permitted. As forces are moved, they can leave static garrisons behind in cities to hold the lines of communications. There are a limited number of garrisons, however, and they cannot move or project ZOCs and have no combat value if stacked with a mobile military unit. Garrisons are best used to protect cities and supply lines. After a losing battle, defeated units can activate in a subsequent phase and leave a garrison behind in a city to cover their retreat, buying them time to rally.
The low movement value of most units and the constricting terrain, combined with the ZOC rules, limit movement for most units. The raiding cavalry event, when drawn, allows cavalry units to forgo tracing supply, giving them extra mobility.. Without the presence of leaders, the Red side has a stacking limitation of six manpower units per hex, with Red front units maxing out at four manpower units.
Combat in Reds!
Combat is a four-step process:
- Compare manpower values (units range from 1 for elite divisions to 4 for the large Soviet Armies) to create an odds ratio
- Add up attack and defense modifiers respectively
- Each side rolls a die and multiplies the result by the number of combat and special units involved
- Subtract the defender’s result from the attacker’s result and cross-reference the differential to the combat results table (CRT).
Combat can result in retreats or in losing one step for all units (or for the largest manpower unit). Units with two steps have a good order side and a disordered side. Most units start the game in good order and can be restored to that state during the Rally Phase. Disordered units can be eliminated by a second disordered result. Because units can be rallied each turn, disordered units often have the chance to recover before being attacked again; thus continuous attacks are needed to ensure units are eliminated, leading to attritional battles along the fronts. Because many of the White units are irreplaceable, eliminating them gradually wears down the White forces, leading to eventual elimination of some White factions in their entirety.
When the Logistics chit is drawn, units are checked to see if they have uninterrupted supply lines and can attempt to rally if they do. White units usually rally on a roll of 1-2, Red units on 1-3 (1d6). A surviving Tsar and presence of the Red Train allows units to automatically rally and recover to good order. Without supply lines, good order units are disordered and disordered units are eliminated; thus, a lot hinges on maintaining supply or trying to cut the enemy’s supply lines. This sometimes devolves the game into a Go-like situation in which both sides jockey for position, gambling that the Logistics chit comes up before the other side can restore units’ supply lines.
At the end of every year, there is a strategic turn interlude in which both sides receive reinforcements and replacements. Special conditions are checked, such as Allied Withdrawal (if the Whites fail to control enough Resource cities, with the Imperial Gold counting as one resource city) or Automatic Victory for either side.
The Reds can win the game at any time by controlling every city on the map in Russia (not including Poland or the Baltic Republics) or controlling every resource city and conquering Poland. The Whites can win by denying Red control of Moscow and two other resource cities. There are 12 resource cities on the map, but only four are easily accessible by White military forces, so the Whites are usually focusing on denying a Red victory in the long game. The shorter 13-turn scenario also allows the Reds to win if they can force a Major Allied Withdrawal by the end of turn 13.
The slim White hope
Reds! is designed around an eventual Red victory. As the designer states in the Designer s Notes, a Soviet victory was inevitable. While it is not impossible for the Whites to win this game, their ability to win outside of the automatic victory is to deny the Soviets their victory conditions at game’s end. The game can be a grinding affair, with the Reds using their central position to gradually eliminate each White faction in turn, which makes for a long game.
Though Reds! is designed for two players, it is eminently suitable for solitaire play as there are no hidden units and the chit pull system allows a solo player to focus on one force at a time for movement. One drawback is that this gives the White a unity of command that didn’t exist in reality; a multiplayer option with multiple victory conditions for the differing White factions would make the simulation more historical. The chit-pull system mitigates the unity of command issue elegantly, but White coordination can still be ahistorically high.
Reds! greatest drawback is its game length. Barring any overly aggressive moves, both sides creep forward along rail and river lines, moving gradually toward cities that are the focus of most battles. The Whites are usually fighting a holding action against the Red forces. Aside from the recommended Turn 1 offensive to activate the Siberians in order to seize the Imperial Gold Reserves, the Whites are often better off defending against the Red juggernaut. The Whites cannot be wholly passive because Allied Withdrawal is triggered if the Whites fail to hold a sufficient number of Resources (the Gold and Resource Cities). During each end of the year inter-phase, the total number of required resources to be held, starting at three, increases by one until the Allied forces withdraw permanently, removing units, and lowering White rally chances. The Whites need to push judiciously, but avoiding eventual Allied withdrawal is unlikely.The fragility of the White forces—especially their irreplaceable nature and low rally numbers—makes it hard for the Whites to sustain a major offensive. The Reds, on the other hand, can rally their forces automatically through judicious placement of the Red Train and sustain a continuous offensive against one White Faction to eliminate it before focusing on another.
GMT has done a superlative job of incorporating all existing errata for this second edition release while not introducing any significant new errata. Optional rules for more historicity are included and additional clarifications are made, but the game is fundamentally the same as the first edition. The charts are slightly re-arranged; the Red leader events are now grouped together in one dice range versus being split as they were in the first edition. GMT is well known for its support of computer play aids for its games and Reds! has both Cyberboard and Vassal modules available for playing by email or when space limitations prevent you from setting up the board game physically. This excellent support by GMT makes it possible to play games with opponents all over the world, and the chit-pull system of alternating activations is eminently suitable for the asynchronous play by email (PBEM) format.
If you’re looking for a moderately complex two-player or solitaire game that simulates the Russian Civil War and have the time to play it, Reds! can offer you a satisfying experience. This is a hex-and-counter military simulation that focuses on geographical objectives. If you’re looking for a multiplayer or more politically oriented simulation, Reds! may not offer enough to be of interest.
Armchair General Rating: 86%
Solitaire Rating: 4 of 5
About the Author
Tim Tow has been playing wargames for more than two decades and has forgotten more wargames rules than he remembers.