A few months back, I was contacted by the venerable Ty Bomba who informed me about his upcoming 2-pack of magazine wargames in World at War Magazine. The two games include Stalin’s First Victory: The 1929 Sino-Soviet War & The Battle of Taierzhuang: Japan’s First Check in China, 1938. Both battles use many of the same rules and concepts, however for ease of play, the rules are separated into two distinct rule sets. The first set of rules cover Stalin’s First Victory and the second The Battle of Taierzhuang. Both games are low complexity two-player grand tactical games. I then sent Ty questions and I am bringing this interview to you now covering just Stalin’s First Victory, even though World at War Magazine Issue #91 won’t hit newsstands until mid-2023.

Last week, I posted an interview covering The Battle of Taierzhuang: Japan’s First Check in China, 1938 in World at War Magazine #91 from Decision Games and you can read that at the following link: https://theplayersaid.com/2023/01/23/interview-with-ty-bomba-designer-of-the-battle-of-taierzhuang-japans-first-check-in-china-1938-in-world-at-war-magazine-91-from-decision-games/

Grant: What is your upcoming Stalin’s First Victory about?

Ty: It covers the decisive campaign fought in the main theater of the First Sino-Soviet War of November 1929. It involved what amounted to, in Western military terms, a heavily reinforced Soviet combined arms corps driving into western Manchuria against two Nationalist Chinese armies. The two Chinese armies, in Western military terms, also amounted to a heavily reinforced combined arms corps.

It was hard-fought, and the Soviets ultimately got the victory because the Chinese theater commander – who until 1925 had been an independent warlord – decided to preserve his forces rather than risk them in an all-out fight for victory. That decision was agonizing on his part, and could have gone either way. In the game, therefore, the Chinese player may decide to introduce the large reinforcements available to him, which then also increases what he needs to accomplish to win. For solitaire play, that decision is based on a turn-by-turn die roll.

That may mean the Chinese player will have to stay on the defensive all the way through, or he may be able to bring in reinforcements sufficient to conduct a general counteroffensive. Either way, the game is characterized by what I like to term “savage combat action and whipsnake maneuver” for both sides.

Grant: What drew you to do a game on this part of the Sino-Soviet War?

Ty: It is my impression the Chinese military history in general, and that of the last 100 years or so in particular, stands out today as the last ‘undiscovered  country’ of our hobby. Though a lot of catch-up work has been done on the subject during the past decade or so, there are still many excellent topics – meaning exciting to play and filled with supremely interesting strategic, operational and tactical situations – to be investigated and presented to the teeming wargaming masses.

Grant: Why did you decide to focus on the specific five-day campaign chosen?

Ty: The war involved another campaign, fought on the opposite side of Manchuria, mostly on the Usurri River using gunboats. Even at the time, however, this western campaign was recognized by all involved as decisive. It was when and where both sides concentrated the bulk of their forces, and the victor there would automatically determine the ultimate outcome of the fighting elsewhere.

Grant: What is important from the overall period and setting to model in the game?

Ty: This war saw the first commitment of what we would today recognize as ‘Stalin’s Red Army,’ as opposed to the Bolshevik rabble-horde of the Russian Civil War and Russo-Polish War era. For instance, the organizational basis of the mechanized and tank forces were put in place here.

On the other side, the Chinese defeat signaled to Chiang Kai-shek that he needed to further reorganize and centralize the “National Revolutionary Army.” The reforms this war motivated him to begin proved enough to strengthen the military sufficiently to frustrate the Japanese invasion in the following decade.

Grant: What is the scale and force structure of units used for this design?

Ty: As you would expect for a game in which both sides are deploying what amounts to a ‘fat’ corps, the individual units of maneuver are a mix of battalions, regiments and brigades.

Here is the finished counter-sheet of large (5/8”) size units. The data presentation on them is standard, with historic types and organizational details in their top halves and attack/defense/movement capabilities quantified across their bottom halves. They are all ‘one-step’ units except for the regiments of the Soviet rifle divisions, which each have two (back-printed) steps.

Grant: What does the map look like and what area does it cover?

Ty: Here, at 1.25 miles (2 km) per hex, is the map. It covers the entire area fought over during the historic campaign. In game terms, it covers approximately half of a 34×22” large-hex mapsheet.

Grant: What are the areas of major concern in terrain on the front represented between China and the Soviet Union?

Ty: The fighting is funneled along the railroad – control of which was the casus belli – which, over much of its course is flanked by hills. The hills are not so dominate, however, to preclude flanking maneuvers (by both sides) through the surrounding countryside. That is particularly important for the Soviet player, because he is on too tight a timeline to simply go banging along the railroad spearheaded by his armored train. Of course, the towns along the railroad also tend to become ‘mini-Stalingrads’ in regard to the ferocity with which they are typically fought over.

Grant: What sources did you consult for the OOB?

Ty: My two sources were as follows. Together they presented enough detail that I never felt ‘lost in the woods’ for either side.

Jowett, Philip S. The Bitter Piece: Conflict in China, 1928-37. Stroud, UK: Amberley Publishing, 2017.

Walker, Michael M. The 1929 Sino-Soviet War: The War Nobody Knew. Lawrence, KS: University of Kansas Press, 2017.

Grant: How did you go about assigning attack and defense factors to the various units?

Ty: The same way I do for every historical game I design. I begin by identifying what was the weakest-seeming unit in the actual event. That units becomes a 1-1 (AF-DF). Then I adjust up and down from there based on historical performance and makeup of other units – based heavily on what’s found to work during playtesting – to get all the other units’ strengths.

Grant: What is the turn sequence for the game?

Ty: By way of elaboration on what you see below, there are five game turns as outlined below. The Soviet player starts with all his forces on the map, so there is no reinforcement phase on that side. The turn-and-phase sequence is as follows, with both players announcing if they will move/fight or fight/move on a game-turn-by-game-turn basis.

I. Soviet Player Turn

  1. Soviet Movement or Combat Phase
  2. Soviet Combat or Movement Phase

II. Chinese Player Turn

  1. Chinese Movement or Combat Phase
  2. Chinese Combat or Movement Phase
  3. Chinese Reinforcement Phase

Grant: How does combat work?

Ty: Combat is voluntary, and the combat results table (CRT) uses strength-differentials rather than odds ratios. Results are numeric, and are given in terms of strength-steps lost (attacker/defender). Here is the CRT.

Stalin’s First Victory  Combat Results Table

Differentials >0 £+1+2+3+4+5+6+7+8+9³ 10
Die Roll > 11/01/11/11/11/20/20/20/20/20/20/2

Differentials less than zero are resolved using the zero column. and differentials greater than 10 are resolved using the 10 column.

Grant: What are the victory conditions?

Ty: Here is that section from the rules.

4.1 In General

The Soviet player begins the game on the offensive, fighting to win by capturing all nine of the victory hexes on the map prior to the end of Game Turn 5. The Chinese player may win purely defensively by preventing that with his two initially on-hand brigades. Alternatively, he may decide on a more operationally aggressive stance by introducing Second Fengtien Army into play from off the east side of the map. Note that – barring one of the players capitulating – there are no “sudden death” victories for either side. Victory is always judged the end of Game Turn 5.

4.2 Soviet Victory

If, at the end of Game Turn 5, the Soviet player has a total of nine or more Victory Points (VP), he has won the game at that time. There are no draws or gradations of victory. Also note only the Soviet player is awarded VP; the Chinese player wins by keeping the Soviet VP total at a level less than nine at the end of Turn 5. Also note there is no way the Soviet player total can be driven below zero. The Soviet player starts with zero VP. He is awarded one VP for each Chinese town hex, and one VP for each Chinese (named) hill hex, which he brings under his control. Reciprocally, he is debited one VP if he subsequently loses control of a previously Soviet-controlled Chinese town or Chinese hill hex. That kind of VP addition and subtraction can go on any number of times for each VP hex on the map throughout play. The Soviet player also earns one VP for each unit of the Second Fengtien Army he eliminates in combat. Those VP awards are permanent and cannot be undone in any way. All VP are scored (and debited) the instant they take place. The Soviet player should keep an open record of his VP situation using the markers on the VP Track on the  mapsheet.

4.3 Chinese Victory

The Chinese player has won the game if, at the end of Game Turn 5, the Soviet player has fewer than nine VP.

Design Note. The Chinese player is not forced to enter the Second Fengtien Army into play. If he refrains from doing so, that means the Soviet player must gain control of all nine VP hexes on the map in order to win. (The historic outcome.) Note, however, that the 15th and 17th Brigades make for a meager defense against a skilled Soviet player. If the Chinese commander enters the 2FA into play it will likely give him the force needed to maintain control of at least one of the VP hexes. At the same time, though, each of those units eliminated will give the Soviet player a permanent VP. So the Chinese player must skillfully assess his command capabilities in relation to those of his opponent and make his judgements accordingly.

Historical Note. In the event, the Chinese commander chose to follow the number-one dictum of the “Warlord Era.” That is: no matter what else is at stake, preserve your own force. He therefore held back entering the 2FA and, after the Soviets took a day to regroup and then began a further advance, he simply retreated away from them.

Grant: When does the issue of World at War get released?

Ty: It will be appearing – along with another half-map game on the 1938 Sino-Japanese Battle of Taierzhuang – in issue #91, which will be shipping to customers early in the summer of 2023.

Thanks for your time in answering our questions Ty. I have never played a game on the Sino-Soviet War and this one looks like a good jumping off point.

If you are interested in Stalin’s First Victory: The 1929 Sino-Soviet War found in World at War Magazine #91 from Decision Games, you can pre-order a copy of the magazine for $49.99 from the following link: https://shop.strategyandtacticspress.com/ProductDetails.asp?ProductCode=WW91