As a part of my monthly Wargame Watch feature for January, I included a very interesting looking game that is currently on pre-order from the very prolific designer Ty Bomba called Stalin’s Final War: What If the Soviet Union Attacked in 1953? from One Small Step Games. Ty has a real penchant and talent for creating these hypothetical scenarios that are based in historical fact and this one looks really interesting to me. I reached out to him and he was more than willing to provide insight into this upcoming game.
Grant: Ty, thanks for your time again in answering our questions about Stalin’s Final War: What If the Soviet Union Attacked in 1953? What historical assumptions did you use as a basis for this What If style look at a possible World War III?
Ty: The idea has been current in Russia, since soon after Stalin died early in 1953, that his end wasn’t natural. Rather, a popular belief is he was poisoned by a cabal of his closest associates headed by Levrenti Beria. That was because, the story goes, he was planning on launching World War III that summer. In turn, his advisors had been feeding him vastly over-optimistic reports in regard to how fast the postwar (WW2) reconstruction of the USSR was progressing. If a new major war was begun, they knew, all that lying would be revealed as the country’s true state of weakness became known. That, in turn, would’ve meant their lives were forfeit. Here the assumption is the plot was foiled or he otherwise failed to die of the officially given cause (stroke and heart failure).
Grant: How does the end of the Korean War affect the basis previously stated? Does this make it easier or more difficult for the Soviets to attack at that time?
Ty: Given the USSR’s geographic position on the Eurasian landmass, Stalin had four theaters of operation from which to choose, but (in my estimation) only enough manpower and logistics to light up any two of them in a major way at the same time: the Far East (Korea), a drive from the Caucasus into Mid-East, a push south through the Balkans into Greece, and across West Germany. We’ll never know for certain what mix he might have chosen, but in this design, I examine a likely combination: a push across Germany to the Rhine and/or the Ruhr, combined with reigniting the Korean War, this time with direct Red Army support.
Grant: How does the existence of atomic weapons affect the proposed plan of the Soviets as they had fewer bombs and theirs were less reliable?
Ty: Stalin doesn’t seem to have had a high regard for atomic weapons. In a letter to Mao that he wrote prior to the Chinese intervention in Korea, he remarked that what was needed to win a war wasn’t some big bomb, but large numbers of dependable infantry and tanks.
Grant: Will the atomic warfare rules hold each side to a different standard or justification for their use? If so, how and why?
Ty: The US had about 500 bombs by 1953 so, in that regard, that player has an unlimited number of them for use. At the same time, though, it was during this period the first real inklings of what kind of social and ecological Armageddon could be caused by their mass deployment. So it ultimately does the US no good to win the war by wrecking the planet, meaning every detonation causes a variable loss of “prestige points,” (via frequency-of-use modified die rolls) and, if that count goes to zero, the game ends in a Soviet victory. On the other side, the Soviet player may make no more than one atomic attack per turn in each theater of operations, but he has no prestige point loss worries.
Grant: What is the scale of the game? What are the force structures? What did you use as a basis for your OOB?
Ty: Both maps (Korea and West Germany) are at 10 miles (16.2 km) per hex, while each of the 10 game turns represent one week. The Soviet units are mostly armies (Western corps-equivalents) along with two corps (Western division equivalents) of ultra-elite Guards paratroops. Similarly, the Chicom’s and North Koreans are also corps. The Allies’ initial on-board forces on both maps are at mostly division level (except for a Belgian and Dutch corps), while their reinforcements, though nominally also divisions, are at only cadre-level; so they’re actually brigade-group and regimental combat team equivalents. The OB for both sides are entirely historically accurate for 1953 when portrayed at these organizational levels, except for the French and West German emergency reinforcements, which represent both those nations’ schemes for rapid expansions of their armies at this time. Those units are untried, and they can be revealed to have zero strength and then ‘break’ in combat. There was no Bundeswehr as of yet, but the West Germans did have what amounted to an elite panzer grenadier division in the form of their “border guard.”
Grant: What is the anatomy of the counters? Can you show us a few close up examples?
Ty: I’ve included jpeg files of the entire counter-set. It’s a standard data presentation, easily understandable by experienced hobbyists, who only have to note the two large numbers along the bottom edges are attack and defense factors (from left to right). There are no movement factors on the counters. The standard movement factor for all units is “6,” which can be modified by terrain, theater, unit-type, air interdiction, etc.
Grant: What different countries makeup the UN Forces? How did you choose their color schemes?
Ty: On the UN side there are: US, UK, French, Belgian, Dutch, Republic of China (Taiwan), South Korean and West German forces. When you’ve got that many nationalities, especially in modern-era games where you pretty much need to avoid bright rainbow colors for the sake of era-color-palette veracity, it gets tricky. I first draw from the colors on their flags, and then just use what’s still available, plus light-dark shading, etc., in order to give each nationality an easily recognizable color scheme. Then, of course, the counter-graphics artist always also has a say, and his idea of “dark gray” may not correspond fully with mine, etc.
Grant: What is the nationality makeup of the Soviet Forces?
Ty: There are the Soviets, the Chicoms (an era-appropriate term for “Chinese Communists), the North Koreans and – though still directly incorporated organizationally into the mass of the Soviet armed forces – the East Germans, the Czechoslovakians and the Poles. The Romanians, and Bulgarians are reckoned to be busy down in the Balkans trying to make as big an impression there as possible.
Grant: What was your reasoning for the use of Command Hierarchies in the design?
Ty: The rule regarding that is as follows: “When two players are splitting command of the UN side, neither is considered superior in rank to the other. Any joint decisions must be made on the basis of consensus, jawboning and moral suasion. When two players are splitting command of the Communist side, the one commanding on the Germany map is considered superior in rank to the other. On that side all decisions that on the UN side would be made jointly are instead made solely by the Communist Germany map commander.”
The idea is to reflect the command relationships between these two theaters on both sides in 1953. That is, for the US/UN, given the fact MacArthur is already gone from the scene, the supreme commanders in Europe and Korea would’ve likely been of the same rank. Neither is automatically senior to the other, so if any joint decisions are to be made an agreement needs to be reached. On the Communist side, the commander on the West German map is, in effect, role-playing Stalin, while that side’s commander on the Korea map is role-playing Mao. Given the Asian communists’ logistical dependence on the Soviets, the Germany map commander is their overall boss.
Grant: What are the general rules governing setup? Are there any units that have discretionary setup?
Ty: The US/UN units in Korea are set up in the exact hexes corresponding to their historic locations at the time of the 1953 armistice. In Europe, figuring they’d have gotten a few days warning as the Soviets got ready to jump off, the Allies can set up anywhere in West Germany and the Benelux. On the Communist side, their historic frontline units in Korea are also pegged to their historic set up hexes; however, all their newly entering units are free to set up anywhere behind the front. In East Germany the Soviets can deploy as they please.
Grant: What is the Turn Sequence?
Ty: The Turn Sequence at it appears in the rule book:
Turn Sequence Outline
- Mutual Air Superiority Phase
- Communist Player Turn
- Communist Movement or Combat Phase on the Korea or Germany Map
- Communist Combat or Movement Phase on the Korea or Germany Map
- Communist Movement or Combat Phase on the Germany or Korea Map
- Communist Combat or Movement Phase on the Germany or Korea Map
- Communist Refugee Removal & Placement Phase on the Germany or Korea Map.
- United Nations Player Turn
- United Nations Movement or Combat Phase on the Korea or Germany Map
- United Nations Combat or Movement Phase on the Korea or Germany Map
- United Nations Movement or Combat Phase on the Germany or Korea Map
- United Nations Combat or Movement Phase on the Germany or Korea Map
- United Nations Franco-German Emergency Mobilization Phase
- United Nations Overseas Reinforcement Phase
- Mutual Administrative Phase
Grant: One thing I noticed while reading through the rules was that players must declare each round whether they will Move/Fight or Fight/Move. Why is this important in the design?
Ty: I use that technique to more easily model what would otherwise have to be a much longer and more complex approach to command-control and logistics. Invariably, there will be places on the same map where you’d like best to move first then fight, alongside other places where your larger plan would benefit most from being able to fight first and then move in exploitation. Whenever either player chooses fight/move, his attacks gain a one-right shift (meaning to his benefit) on the combat results table for being “prepared.” You have to prioritize your operations.
Grant: What special rules are in-play for the first turn? Why is this important in the design?
Ty: On the first turn on both maps, all Communist attacks get a one column right shift on the combat results table and a plus-one modifier on their air superiority, while all the units of both sides are automatically in supply. That kind of thing helps get the action rolling in a big way right from the start, and models the effects of initial surprise. Supply is free because everybody is all stocked up before the shooting starts.
Grant: What is the purpose of the Communist Refugee and Replacement Phase and why is it important to the design?
Ty: The Communist player has a variable number of Refugee markers (die roll determined) that he can place on the map each turn. They represent panicked South Korean and European civilians jamming up the roads as they try to flee in front of his attacking armies. Each such marker causes a moving Allied unit to lose a movement point, or that player can choose to ignore a marker and its slowing effect, but he then loses a “prestige point” (the same points as are lost with a-bomb detonations).
Grant: Why do the Communists start in a nearly full stretch condition? What is special about their only allowed reinforcement Airborne units? How does this affect the play style of the Soviet player?
Ty: The idea is, Stalin was planning this war; so the Communists are ready, whereas the Allies are not. In Germany, they’re at their occupational ease, while in Korea they’re slacking off while expecting the peace talks to bear fruit at any time. The Soviet airborne reinforcements are capable of airdropping anywhere on either map. There are only two of them, but – especially early on in the war – they can be used to take some critical Allied supply source hex, or jam up some important operational situation, etc. In play, the Communist senior commander needs to have a plan for them, and not just commit them randomly. They’re a small but potentially critical force.
Grant: How does Air Superiority factor into the design? What advantages does it grant and what negative effects does it impose?
Ty: Airpower is the great unknown. Both sides had air forces that were impressive in many ways, but neither can guarantee air supremacy over the front. So its resolved by die roll each turn. The winning player has temporary air superiority (in the form of x-number of markers) he can use to slow the other side’s movement and give his own side a one-column combat advantage on both attack and defense.
Grant: How does combat work?
Ty: It’s pretty standard, with normal odds computation, step or whole unit losses, retreat and advance after combat, etc. There are also “probing attacks,” however, whereby you can attack into an otherwise empty hex that contains only an enemy zone of control. I’ve come to like that rule in order to inhibit that stack-a-hex-skip-a-hex phenomenon you otherwise tend to get in games with zones of control. The result it to allow a probing force to auto-occupy a probed enemy ZOC hex.
Grant: Anything special or unique about your CRT? How do you decide upon the range of the CRT? Why did you start with 1:2 on the low end and end with 6:1?
Ty: I have no hard and fast rules governing the specifics of a CRT beyond what is shown to be needed during playtesting in order to make the whole thing flow the way I want. I’ve asked numerous designers about this aspect of our work over the years, and I pretty much always get some variant of that same answer.
Grant: How do atomic attacks work?
Ty: You can launch one at any time(s) during the turn, even interrupting your opponent’s movement and combat to do so. Units can be disrupted (which prohibits them from moving or attacking during the remainder of that game turn), or disrupted and partially eliminated, or fully eliminated. There’s a dedicated Atomic Attack Table for that with modifiers based on the terrain in the targeted force’s hex.
Grant: Supply seems to be very specific and tied to various hexes with different designations? How do the various named sources differ such as the Iron Triangle?
Ty: In the historic Korean War, the area then known as the “Iron Triangle” (as opposed to the area with that same name later in Vietnam) was a locale near the center of the overall front (late in the war) where the various transport lines, trails, etc., which were important for the Communists’ overall logistical system, came together. If the UN player controls one or more of those three hexes, all Communist units south of the area are out of supply. So there can be heavy fighting for control of those hexes.
Grant: How does aerial supply work and how is this effected by Air Superiority?
Ty: Only the player who has air superiority during a given turn can use his aerial supply capacity (one hex for the Communists, two for the Allies). The effect is, an otherwise OOS unit or stack can be put back into supply by committing a marker into their hex.
Grant: Where did you get the idea for the UN Overseas Reinforcement Arrivals and what does this process represent from a historical perspective?
Ty: When the historic Korean War first began, there was a rush in the US and other Western countries to reinvigorate their largely demobilized armies. By mid-1951, though, when it began to seem Korea wasn’t going to blow up into World War III, that re-expansion was just as quickly brought to a stop. So 1952-53 saw the Allies with a large number of units that were nominally “divisions,” but that had actually just gotten to cadre-level when they’re expansion was put on hold. So that’s the general pool from which comes most of the Allied reinforcements (along with Chiang Kai-shek’s still rebuilding army on Taiwan). They’re all drawn blindly from a common pool because, in the chaos of such a big war getting started, my feeling is planning would largely go out the window.
Grant: How does each side win the game? I noticed there is a lot of focus on the Ruhr Industrial Area. What is the real life reason for this affect on victory?
Ty: On the Germany map, the Communist player can win by taking the Ruhr industrial area, or creating a three-hex (or larger) bridgehead on the Rhine’s west bank, or by controlling a major portion of West Germany. The Ruhr was just then getting back on its economic feet, so to speak, so its seizure by the Soviets would’ve meant sending German reconstruction back to its 1945 (zero) level. On the Korea map, the Communists win by taking the lion’s share of South Korea (as counted in city hexes). On both maps the Allied player wins by preventing a Communist victory. If one player wins on one map, but loses on the other, that’s a draw. The Allied player can also lose “sudden death” if the US prestige point count falls to zero.
Grant: As you just stated, victory in both of the campaigns on both the Korea and German map must be secured. Why can’t victory come with only one campaign being final?
Ty: Stalin wouldn’t have started this war with the idea of winning here and, you know, just holding his own over there. The USSR would’ve been on the verge of total social, political, economic and military exhaustion at the end of these campaigns, no matter how they turned out in regard to their operational details. Therefore victory – in order to be reckoned as such inside the Kremlin – must be decisive and clear, so the whole world understands which side won.
Grant: What is your favorite part of the design?
Ty: I’m happy to have ‘discovered’ this era of the early Cold War (1945-53) in general. There are numerous further scenarios within it to be explored in new designs still to come, and it’s largely an ‘unplowed field.’ That’s a rare thing in the hobby these days. At the operational level, it’s uniquely interesting in that it represents the last time period in which a world war could’ve been fought without bringing on the collapse of civilization and perhaps even the end to our whole species.
Grant: What is the timeline for the release of the game?
Ty: Sometime late in 2018 is as specific as I can be for now.
Thanks for your time as always Ty! I know that our readers love to get insight into not only how the game plays and works but why certain design decisions were made. If you are interested, Stalin’s Final War is currently up for pre-order on the One Small Step website for $62.95 at the following link: http://ossgamescart.com/index.php?main_page=product_info&cPath=6&products_id=112