THERE’S A BEAR IN THE WOODS (AGAIN)! Putin’s Strikes Game Review
“Putin’s Strikes: The Coming War for Eastern Europe” Game Review Publisher: One Small Step Games Designer: Ty Bomba Price $54.95
Passed Inspection: Heavy duty box, relatively straightforward rules. Crisp, clean counter design. Great candidate for a solitaire module. The game does a good job of delivering information about the boundary between Europe and Russia as well as the correlation of forces expected in the theater. Air support rules are quick and clean.
Failed Basic: Unique game mechanics will force veteran players out of their comfort zone. Game play for the Allied player has few choices and limits enjoyment. Game lacks an order of battle which can lead to some confusion if the optional Russian counters get mixed with the standard counters. A little too expensive.
Way back in the dark ages of the 1980’s a popular sub-genre of board game was the ‘modern game’. Classic board games like GDW’s Third World War, Victory Game’s NATO, SPI’s Next War or the Central Front series. Most explored different aspects of the same story. The story of the Russian Bear striking west, to once and for all crush the decadent west under the treads of their tanks, thus proving the superiority of Soviet arms and securing the Motherland for generations to come.
Then – to paraphrase John Cougar Mellenkamp – the Berlin wall came tumblin’ down. Modern gaming as we knew it shifted to a form of hi-tech colonial warfare set against the backdrop of the blistering deserts of Iraq, then the streets of Mogadishu, then back to Iraq and the valleys of Afghanistan.
Fast forward thirty-plus years and we now have Putin Strike’s from One Small Step Games. The resurgent Russian Bear is back and as hungry as ever. Vladimir Putin is pursuing his agenda of a reconstituted Russian empire and has decided that now is the time to strike west! The boom of cannon, the thud of rotor blades and crackle of small arms resonant as the Russian army pushes west in what must be a short campaign to achieve victory before the tide of world opinion turns against Russia.
However, while the song may be familiar, both the stage and the cast of this production are very different. The past three decades have seen NATO membership swell and the boundary of the NATO states steadily push east towards the Russian border. The new front line stretches from the Baltic Sea in the north to the coast of the Black Sea in the south. Gone are the familiar landmarks of the central German plain, Fulda Gap and the Rhine river. In its place are cities like Kaliningrad, Tallinn, Minsk, Kiev, Donetsk and Odessa. A hex grid overlays the map with approximately 20 miles to the hex.
Along with this new geographic stage, comes a new cast featuring the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania as well as Poland, Belarus and – reaching the Black Sea – Ukraine and Moldova. Old members of the defunct Warsaw Pact – Rumania, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Poland now show up as members of the European Union coalition. Supporting these countries are a mix of the old and the new – The German Bundeswehr commits the entire four division field army, the Swedes, the Finn’s and the NATO rapid response force all stand poised to participate.
Missing from the lineup are some of the old school stalwarts – the United Kingdom, France and the United States from the nuclear powers and the Turks, Greeks and Italians as other major contributors to NATO. None of these appear as distinct national factions. Instead, it is assumed they are all folded into a varying NATO rapid response unit, the strength of which varies from game to game.
The game features brigade and divisional units with a map reaching from St. Petersburg in the North to the coast of the Black Sea in the South. This immense swath of land is broken by the imposing Pripyat swamps and the irradiated lands around the Chernyobl reactor disaster. Scattered across the front are the major cities that are the objective of the Russian onslaught.
Paper in Fire
Down to business – how does the game play? At first glance, it appears fairly conventional with each side alternating moving a unit or stack of units or attacking with a unit or group of units against a common target. After each action, the participating units are ‘disrupted’, the major effect of which is to reduce a unit’s defensive capability.
A game turn consists of four phases – Reinforcements, Airpower, Actions and Administration. Of these, you’ll spend most of your time in the IGO/UGO dance of the action phase.
The reinforcement process is easy as neither side receives massive reinforcements in any one given turn. The online errata fixes on oddity to prevent deploying reinforcements directly into combat with adjacent enemies.
The airpower phase models the battle for air superiority and defining how much air support is available in the upcoming period. This is nicely done with a simple mechanic that yields a good result and focuses on what is important to the game – how the air forces will support the land battle.
The action phase is the heart of the game. Players will alternate in the IGO/UGO dance of moving or attacking units. In some ways, it’s reminiscent of table top miniature games such as Babylon 5 – A Call to Arms that present small decision cycles that allow reaction, but still rewards a cogent plan with defined objectives. As an action you can move, strategically redeploy or engage in combat.
Combat is straight forward on the surface with a calculation of attack factors to defense factors and application of the relevant column shifts and die modifiers. Most of those modifiers come from terrain, but others reflect the effects of air support or executing an encircling or as the game defines it ‘concentric’ attack. There are limits on how many attacks the Russian player can effectively support, but the value is high enough that in the play through games this never seemed to be a big problem.
Where combat gets weird is the notion that you can move, or you can attack, but you can’t do both. As previously mentioned, when you move, you become disrupted, which lowers your effective defense factor. In order to attack you have to move adjacent, become disrupted and hope you don’t get knocked off in your weakened state. Again, one is reminded of a classic infantry game in which you move up, take defensive fire and if you survive you can attack on the next game turn.
In practice, you’ll need to plan your moves and your attacks to bring up robust units that can withstand counter attack and then bring in the weaker units to draw your opponent out and expose their units. At least that’s how it could work. On the flip side, your opponent could just hunker down in his cities and force you to dig him out in a protracted battle of attrition.
When you execute an attack, the combat results table focuses on the elimination of units. Results are expressed in the number of brigades that the attacker and/or defender suffer as a result of the attack. However, divisions have a special rule making them able to shrug off one or two brigade losses. This stresses the value of divisions in high intensity warfare as the intangible value of the divisions cohesiveness provides the ability to ignore “small” losses that would normally result in one or two separate brigades being knocked out of action. The divisional cohesiveness magnifies the value of a division far beyond its mere combat factors. Divisions have staying power and resiliency that separate brigades can only wish they possessed.
Retreat from combat is not specifically modeled as units pulling back in good order. Instead the units are “swept from the field” but may reappear in the game a varying number of turns later (ranging from one turn to possibly never depending on how deep into the game you’ve gotten.) It’s an interesting approach, but it’s very different from the classic defender/attacker retreat results of the traditional wargame that model a fighting withdrawal or a temporary check on an advance.
As with most games the key questions is, “how does it play?” On the surface movement rates seem low. Doing a bit of digging on the ‘net, the movement rates are fairly in line with accepted doctrine for infantry movements. It will take a bit of time to wrap your head around the notion that you can’t move and attack in the same action. But once you come to grips with this you’ll pick up on how the game flows. If this were a more tactical game – say at the battalion level – I suspect it would feel fine, but in an operational model it feels a bit awkward. I see what Ty Bomba is trying to do here. While it is not the classic ‘zone of control’ mechanic, the net effect provides something akin to that as you have to stop adjacent to the enemy and maybe take a counterattack. When combined with the divisional robustness game mechanic it generates a reasonable result.
The combat system is not ground breaking, but the model handles the abilities of air mobile forces and the robustness of formal divisions in a clear fashion. Just looking at the raw combat factors won’t reveal the true strength or weakness in any given unit or stack of units. That said, the results of combat are much more give and take than the classic rule of success requiring 3:1 odds would suggest. Attacks at 1:2 odds can be successful if you’re willing to break a few eggs in the process. Again, the robustness of the divisions helps here, transforming what would otherwise be losses into more of a “No effect” situation.
Airpower is nicely modeled, if abstractly. And that’s okay – your focus is on gaining ground, not having to the manage and fight a theater wide air war. You want to know who has air superiority, and how much support is available to the ground troops. In this context, the quick and dirty solution the game provides is acceptable, even if occasionally generating an unexpected result. It can be argued that in a wargame, the unexpected is a good thing as generals should not have too much control over such a chaotic process.
Once NATO intervenes with additional air support, they are likely to dominate in the air, but it’s an uncertain thing. In the first play through, perversely the last units NATO committed were the air assets, which feels almost completely at odds to what you’d actually expect to have happen. This variability is just one of the many dynamic features of the game that makes assessing the systems performance a challenge.
The game contains a great degree of variability that impart a unique feel to each game. One of those factors is the variable nature of NATO’s reinforcement schedule meaning you are unlikely to see the same pattern of reinforcement in any two games. This includes – as mentioned above – the variability of when NATO brings their massive air force into action. Beyond the when and who of the NATO reinforcements, there is the what in terms of how dynamic the size of the NATO joint task force may be. In one game, the reaction task force may be a weak brigade while in the next game it may be an over strength division.
On top of the variability associated with reinforcements, the bonuses for concentric attacks and the contribution of the VOS paramilitary forces mean no two games will ever play exactly the same. I generally see this as a good thing as it keeps the replay value fresh – you can’t sit down and build that definitive battle plan that will lead to victory like a train schedule. On the other hand, that variability may generate games which one or the other players may find deeply dissatisfying. It’s not that their tactics failed them, just the oddball nature of the reinforcements and a string of disappointing random die rolls that precluded a more effective defense/offense.
What feels like it’s missing – naval warfare. There’s no specific rules for amphibious warfare, but as the designer’s notes indicate the airmobile units to some extent are an amalgam of various specialist units including the amphibious forces. So, while not specifically modeled, you can use the airmobile forces to impart the characteristics of an amphibious assault.
The lack of naval forces feels somewhat odd. You could rationalize that it’s ‘out of scope’ given that the battle is a classic land war in Eurasia and that the Black Sea and Baltic Sea could be considered Russian lakes for the scope of the game. But given movement rates and deployments, some argument could be made that naval forces could appear on the fringes of the battle space by turns four onward. Exactly what those naval forces could do is another question. The absence of naval combat in the Black Sea is less concerning given terms of the Montreux Convention. Beyond that, current tensions between Turkey and many European states make it unlikely that western forces would have access without fighting their way through the Bosporus Straits, regardless of the obligations of NATO’s Article 5.
The Baltic Sea could be an option, but the limited maneuver space and proximity to Russian naval units and defenses would make any appearance by larger surface warships problematic there as well. As it is, the inclusion of the Swede’s and Finns as reinforcements suggest that NATO is able to assert some form of control over the Baltic Sea during the course of the game.
Initially, the game has an odd feel with its move or fire mechanics. Compared to older board games, it feels really awkward that you can’t move up to contact and attack. Instead, as you move up and become disrupted, any uncommitted defenders can pounce on your helpless units. Breakthrough movement can be modeled using the administrative movement model, but it does not allow for a long march directly into contact. That missing bit is what seems to drive people batty about the game. Comparing operations in Putin Strikes to the actual Operation Iraqi Freedom the overall effect does not seem horribly out of line for moving infantry formations. The lack of an overrun mechanism feels odd when a lowly brigade can hold up the attack of two tank divisions, but on the flip side, the tank divisions could just bypass the lone brigade.
The net effect feels a lot like what I’ll refer to as ‘defensive fire’. For example, playing the tabletop miniature game Fire and Fury, an attacker moves their units into range of the defender. Before the attacker can actually…attack…the defender may have the opportunity to respond by counterattacking with a non-disrupted adjacent unit. That’s how fighting works in Putin Strikes. You could possibly pay a steep price if you move units up to contact against a prepared defender. The key becomes moving the right units into the right place to start the dominoes in motion as you trigger a cycle of counterattacks and attacks hopefully leading to the result you desired. Ty Bomba refers to this as a “Go-like” feel to the game, but I’m happier visualizing it as depicting the advantage of being a prepared defender.
One odd thing is that with the exception of airmobile and the static defensive divisions, there does not appear to be any real distinction between tank formations, mech formations and even mountain troops other than depicting what the units call themselves. It’s as if the unit types give the game flavor without adding any real substance. Or perhaps an assessment that the various units are all converging on very similar “all arms” doctrine that provides similar capabilities regardless of the unit name. To some degree, it reduces most unit types to basically being chrome, but gamers get attached to those classic unit names.
Fact checking the order of battle, it appears that 13th Panzergrenadier division was disbanded in 2013. As such it likely does not belong in the ORBAT for the German army. If you play with the optional (updated) Russian order of battle, you might remove the 13th at the same time. Yes, it complicates the Allies life, but maybe the lesson is the Germans should not have disbanded the unit.
Cities become the focus of the game as they are foremost the key victory point objectives used to win the game. Secondly, cities serve as powerful defensive bastions that magnify the capabilities of the weak combat brigades that many of new NATO nations field in combat. With an intrinsic garrison equal to a small division and a substantial odds column shift, cities act like fortresses much like the cities of Lille, Metz and Verdun in the 19th Century.
But unlike Metz and Verdun, cities can be easily enveloped and pounded with air support and local insurgents that makes them less formidable. Casting about for historical precedent for the resilience of cities in modern warfare you can use the battle of Raqqa against ISIL which has lasted for more than two months as indicative that a well defended city with stockpiled supplies can hold out for an indeterminate period. In the first play through, we parked the German airmobile division in a city and that place really was a veritable fortress. The resilience of the division added to the strength of the garrison made for a tough nut for the Russians to crack.
In the event that the Allies launch an offensive into Russia, the Russian player may conduct limited nuclear strikes against the invaders. The results of those attacks can range from simple disruption to total annihilation of the target hex. Balancing this is the requirement to check if each strike triggers either a general nuclear war (in which case the Russians lose) or causes the Russian general’s to seize power and depose the President ( in which case the Russians also lose). In practice conducting one nuclear strike was enough to convince the Allied player that defending his own cities was a better choice that provoking continued atomic retribution. (Although that lone Belarus brigade did earn the distinction of surviving the experience before being wiped out by a couple of motor rifle brigades.)
Get a Leg Up
The errata published for the game added a new section of rules governing cyberwarfare. Given the increasing dependency on all things digital and the digital societies vulnerability to digital attack, the game benefits from these rules. To update the stereotype from the 80’s not only is the Russian bear eight feet tall and steering a main battle tank, now he’s also peering around the edge of his laptop with a toothy grin as your internet suffers a massive DDoS attack.
As depicted in the game cyberwarfare is done in a similar manner to air support – opposing die roles determine who is dominating cyberspace and is positioned to carry out cyber-attacks on their opponent. Again, like air support this is a relatively clean way of depicting what is likely to be an important element of future wars, though it does add a layer of complexity to the game.
The general mechanic reminds me the concept of ‘the grid’ in Tomorrow’s War. The effects of cyberwarfare will range from general operational degradation designed to keep cyber dominance to more tactical applications such as enhancing/degrading movement or aiding in combat by disrupting the OODA loop of our opponent.
The cyberwar adds a dimension of asymmetrical warfare to the game as this fight influences the conventional warfighting capabilities without becoming it’s own entire subroutine. As such it nicely models effect without getting bogged down in process based outcome.
One concern is how this rule will affect play balance. If a player loses both the cyberwar AND the air war, they are likely to have a very bad game turn. Due to the reinforcing nature of the modifiers that bad turn is likely to snowball into a very unbalanced game.
Check It Out
So is Putin Strikes worth it? Purely as a game it was an enjoyable experience that started down memory lane and then pulled my mindset firmly into the ‘modern’ experience of NATO’s eastern border. Mission accomplished in updating my perceptions and pre-conceived notions regarding a modern war with Russia. Our games were entertaining with one concern being that with the constant back and forth cycle of actions the pace can be a bit slow.
Most of the decision-making work within the game falls on the Russian player. This is not to say that the Allied players have nothing to do. However the decisions for the Allies are mostly focused on which division shall garrison which city and how best to feed the remaining reinforcements into the front-line cities to delay the Russian offensive. It may be an accurate depiction of the challenges the Allies face, but it is not the most rewarding game play for the Allied player. In some ways, the Allied side might be better represented through rules for an Artificial Intelligence agent of some sort as the decision-making focus of the game is clearly on the Russian side of the conflict. This would provide the game a nice solitaire option and prevent having the Allied player grow bored with the game.
It’s nice to see someone producing modern conflict simulations of current conflicts. However, these types of games need constant attention to stay relevant. (For example, a few years ago we pulled GDW’s Third World War series game Persian Gulf out and it was jarring to see how much the world had changed over the past three decades. Not only did the real world political geography bear little to no resemblance to the late cold war view presented in the game, the changes to the structure and composition of the United States military left us shaking our heads in wonder of the transformation the services had gone through. Those transformations tie back into the nature of conflict being modeled in Putin Strikes.
As a model of modern warfare, the jury is still forming a verdict on Putin Strikes. Events such as the US invasion of Iraq, the Russian incursion into Georgia and more recently the seizure of the Crimea show that modern troops can cover ground rapidly. While the game kinda/sorta allows breakthroughs and exploitation moves you as the player really need to set your units in the right place and right phasing order to recreate those types of events. If you are a big believer in Von Clauswitz’s notion of friction you may agree with the movement rates Ty has assigned to the ground units. Even so, were some things that left us scratching our heads, like watching a mechanized brigade use administrative movement to outrun an airmobile brigade, which is prohibited from using administrative movement. Either the rules were vague or we misread something.
The game almost cries out for more scenarios. Instead of waging war across the whole front, some limited campaigns focusing on either the Baltic states or Ukraine would give the game more bang, for just a little more buck. Even a scenario that plays on Russian fears of what a NATO offensive against the Rodina would look like could have been included. Other reviews have commented that the game feels more like a ‘kit’ in that the players have the raw tools to enable the creation of these and other scenarios.
Not directly related to the quality of the mechanics, the price point seems a bit steep for what you get. This might be a fine $30 game with its glossy paper map board and soft bound glossy paper rule book. But for the handful of counters and thin rule book it feels overpriced at its MSRP of $54.95. Even allowing for inflation, the price point of the game seems high for the contents of the box and left me feeling disappointed and unsatisfied. If you find it on sale, grab it and save it for a rainy day. If you are a diehard cold warrior grab a copy for reference.
Armchair General Rating: 89%
Solitaire Rating: 5
Ray Garbee has been a gamer for the past four decades, Ray’s interests include the Anglo-Sikh Wars through the conflicts of the 20th Century and beyond but his passion remains ACW naval gaming. Currently, Ray works as a business analyst in the IT field while continuing to design tabletop games. His past works include Iron Thunder, Anaconda, Anaconda: Capital Navies and articles in a number of defunct hobby magazines. When not busy gaming, Ray enjoys working on his model railroad, hiking and sport shooting at the local range.