Wednesday, 20 February 2013

NATO SPI Board Game

I first owned this as a callow youth and, after reading Ralph Peter's 'Red Army' and re-reading Hackett's 'The Third World War' I had a look around and bought a copy from I was very impressed with their service - the package arrived in New Zealand from the UK within a week.

Detail of the Game Map

The game purports to simulate operational combat in 'Europe in the '70s', and, this being the '70s, that means a Warsaw Pact attack on West Germany.

After a look at Boardgamegeek I found a couple of files that I thought would add to the game's appeal. One for some very simple, and abstract, rules to simulate airpower, and another that provided counters and a revised order of battle to represent the opposing forces in the late '70s and early '80s. Of course, I also discovered that Decision Games had released a revised and updated version a few years ago called 'Group of Soviet Forces Germany' with, amongst other things, rules for air power...hmm

Anyway, sticking with NATO, I may tweak the air support rules a bit further to allow attacks on units not engaged in ground combat i.e. supply units and follow on forces in keeping with the air-land battle doctrine. I've stuck to the revised order of battle but may change the rules around political reliability to reflect my prejudices and the wisdom of hindsight.

In the original rules the East Germans are seen as one of the least 'reliable' of Soviet allies with a 50% chance they will be 'unreliable' and either proclaim they will only fight in 'self defence', or opt for neutrality or even stage an all out rebellion. Only the Czechs are as shaky.The other Eastern Bloc states have reduced but varying degrees of reliability.

My assessment is that the Poles would have been most likely state to go dog on the Soviets in 1979-1985 and the East Germans would have remained loyal, so I'm going to amend the rules to reflect that.I think the Czechs would have been most likely to opt for neutrality or 'self defence' but highly unlikely to rebel given their experience in 1968.
As for NATO, I'm going to go with the French having a 50% chance of opting for neutrality, given the strength of the Communist Party and the nature of French domestic politics. I'm also going to give the Italians only a 1 in 6 chance of not being neutral as I believe it was highly likely the Italian government would have immediately collapsed in the event of hostilities.

I've also been musing over the political and military impact of crossing the nuclear threshold. As I see it, there would have been a strong chance that West Germany would have sued for peace if it looked likely NATO was about to initiate tactical nuclear warfare, given it was their soil on which these weapons would be deployed. This is pretty much the scenario Peter's outlines in 'Red Army'. So, if NATO decides to go nuclear I'm having them roll a die with a 50% chance that alliance collapses at that point resulting in an overwhelming Warsaw Pact victory.

If tactical nukes are used I also want to simulate the likelihood of the war escalating into a strategic nuclear holocaust as I believe that once the nuclear threshold was crossed there was a strong possibility of this. So, once nuclear weapons are used I'll roll a die in that turn and every subsequent turn and if it's a 1...then I'll metaphorically follow the design notes' instructions and soak the map in lighter fuel and light a match. In other words, game over, everybody loses.

One matter I've not decided upon is the 'accidental' or unauthorised use of nukes and the flow on effect of that. At this stage I'm unsure how to simulate it so may simply ignore it but if anyone has any ideas I'd be keen to hear them as I think if war had occurred this would have been the most likely way we would have ended up going nuclear.

Then there is weather and chemical warfare. Both are ignored or 'factored in', depending on how you look at it, in the original rules. I believe bad weather i.e. winter would have advantaged the Soviets in combat but would have slowed everyone down. So I'm thinking of shifting the odds one column in the Soviets' favour if it's a winter campaign but introducing a + 1 movement point penalty and reducing the likelihood of air strikes and airmobility. My reading of the impact of chemical warfare is that it would have slowed everything down, so perhaps reducing the movement allowance of every unit by 1 if either player declares that they're using gas? I'd assume that once one side used chemical weapons then the genie would be well and truly out of the bottle and everyone would be using them and/or taking the precautions that slowed things down.

One last factor I've not made my mind up about is refugees. I think that in the event of an invasion of West Germany NATO would have faced a massive problem with refugee traffic blocking roads and was going to reflect this with a movement penalty to NATO units in the first week of the war. Any thoughts readers may have are warmly welcomed.


  1. I initially played with Victory Games' "NATO: The Next War in Europe." While it does not have the reliability tables, it does model operational-level combat in Central Europe in WWIII, and does it rather well - with 3 scenarios postulating Strategic Surprise, Operational Surprise, and Extended Build-Up.

    WOW this was a long post...I apologize for being so wordy but WWIII is one of my favorite topics to read about and write about.


    Air power can be used for road interdiction or combat support - players' choice. You can literally learn the game in about 20 minutes too!

    Refugee traffic is sure to be a problem at the onset, especially if Pact forces are able to achieve any sort of surprise. You could eliminate 2-3 NATO movement points up through turn 2 or 3 as well as limiting Pact strategic movement (if the game has that feature).

    Preliminary Soviet bombardments would have been persistent agents and bad weather would have increased the effectiveness of those chemicals. You could easily model that with a +1 column shift on the combat results table (works for NATO troops too - have you ever read Stephen Zaloga's "Red Thrust?" His argument is that NATO's chemical weapons were more effective than Pact. Food for thought.)

    I think that your thoughts on crossing the Nuke threshold are spot-on, especially in the late '70s when the Soviets were convinced we (the west) would "go ugly early." Probably would have a die-roll each time a tac-nuke is used, with INCREASING odds of nuclear exchange.

    That being said, I do believe the ultimate risk that the Soviets were willing to accept is that NATO would not commit nuclear weapons on the tactical level. Ralph Peters goes about this in an elegant way, as he describes Malinsky's worries over NATO's nukes.

    Some of my coworkers, Cold War era officers, seem to think that the US would have wanted, and been granted tactical nuclear release. I am not so certain of this as I believe the Germans would have caved.

  2. Thank you for your comment Steve. Very helpful, you've both clarified and affirmed my thoughts.

    I started playing a solo game last week and modified the Warsaw Pact 'Unreliability' and the NATO 'Neutrality' tables as per my post.

    To my surprise East Germany was not only 'unreliable', it blew up into rebellion! This immediately wiped 12 divisions from the Warsaw Pact order of battle as the NVA was no longer available and six divisions from GSFG were sent to put down the uprisings. Less surprisingly, the Poles and the Czechs announced they would only fight in self defence.

    For NATO, Italy and Belgium proclaimed their neutrality.

    I've incorporated rules relating to nuclear escalation and airpower and a suggested order of battle for the late 70s and early 80s.

    I haven't adopted rules for refugees, although I will do next time. Nor have I incorporated rules for chemical warfare and weather. This has largely been because I'm learning the game.

    I'm trying to post to the blog as the game unfolds, although I'm slightly behind. Hostilities break out on turn three, on the sixth days after the outbreak of disturbances in East Germany.

    I'm managing a turn every other day or so and will try and keep the blog up to date.

    1. Thank you, John. I am following your blog with much anticipation. In fact, on my blog I've begun Cold War turned hot battle preparations this week in anticipation of the outbreak of hostilities. I plan on sticking close to your storyline, as well as General Sir John Hackett's "History of the Third World War" and Harold Coyle's "Team Yankee" among other books.

      The battle I am fighting postulates a breakthrough at Fulda and a rush by American forces to plug the gap at a small town called Obergeis. We will see what happens. The battle is occurring in 1978. Thanks for getting the ball rolling!

      The fact that the Germans don't sign on for the fight doesn't surprise me one bit. They were extremely apprehensive allies as were the Poles.

      My word! 6 Divisions is an entire tank army!! I am very much looking forward to what happens next.


  3. I know this is an old post, but excellent ideas here. Thank you.