RockyMountainNavy, 26 January 2022
Iron Curtain: Central Europe, 1945-1989 is a Standard Combat Series (SCS) game designed by Carl Fung and published by Multi-Man Publishing in 2020. Unlike many SCS games which cover only one battle or campaign, Iron Curtain allows one to fight hypothetical Cold War battles in Central Europe from 1945 to the late 1980’s. Designer Dave Thompson (Undaunted: Normandy, Pavlov’s House) recently asked on Twitter if more or less scenario options are better. I’m going to hold up Iron Curtain as an example of why more scenario options are a good thing and specifically point to the 1962 scenario.
Iron Curtain comes with eight scenarios including 1945 (Western & Soviet Offensives), 1962 (Soviet Offensive), 1975 (Soviet Offensive), 1983 (Western & Soviet Offensives) and 1989 (Western & Soviet Offensives). Some players might say that, with eight scenarios, Iron Curtain is too much—after all just how “deep” can a SCS game go—and what if that “depth” is spread out over five decades of (potential) warfare? Would it not be better to to focus on one era like designer Bruce Maxwell does in NATO: The Cold War Goes Hot – Designer’s Signature Edition from Compass Games (2021)? I guess you could, but Iron Curtain—by design—let’s one explore the evolution of the Cold War confrontation in Europe across the decades. After all, who doesn’t want to play a 1945 scenario to see “Patton versus the Red Horde” or have the option to jump to the 1983 or 1989 scenarios because those are at the height of the Cold War with all the Cool ToysTM? Some might even want to play with an early Cold War scenario like 1962, which I did recently.
Looking at Carl’s Historical Notes for 1962 in Iron Curtain, it doesn’t seem like a bad match up. For the Warsaw Pact, “the standard tank was the ubiquitous and long-serving T-54 and T-55, but many Soviet mobilization and non-Soviet Warsaw Pact units still operated the T-35/85, Soviet nuclear capability was limited compared to that of NATO and their chemical weapons program was still starting up”1.
Carl admits, “NATO was in a state of flux” with the French distracted and minor Allies doing what they could with rebuilding economies while the British were strong. At the same time, the US Army was experimenting with the Pentomic Division. Indeed, Carl chose to add the 1962 scenario to Iron Curtain specifically to give players the option of exploring the Pentomic Division within the game2.
Pentomic is a combination of “penta”—five—and atomic. Here is a description from Forging the Shield: The U.S. Army in Europe, 1951–1962 (US Army Center of Military History, 2015):
The result was the pentomic organization. Instead of the traditional three regiment triangular division of World War II, or the even older four-regiment square division of World War I, General Taylor envisioned a division composed of five self-contained formations called battle groups. Smaller than a regiment but larger than a battalion, each of these groups would consist of four rifle companies, a 4.2-inch mortar battery, and a company containing headquarters and service support elements. An infantry battle group would have an authorized strength of 1,356 soldiers while an airborne battle group would be slightly larger at a strength of 1,584. The new pentomic division would consolidate the division artillery into two battalions. One would be a 105-mm. howitzer battalion with five batteries, the other a mixed battalion fielding two 155-mm. howitzer batteries, an 8-inch howitzer battery, and an Honest John rocket battery. The latter two were nuclear systems that would give the division its primary offensive punch. One of the most important principles of the restructuring was the elimination from division control of all nonessential elements by removing much of the force’s support base, including transportation, supply, and aviation, which became the responsibility of corps and higher headquarters. Given anticipated personnel cuts, perhaps the most important result of the restructuring, in General Taylor’s view, would be a reduction of the authorized strength of the Army’s infantry and airborne divisions. Under the new organization, the infantry division would shrink from 18,804 to 13,748 men and the airborne division from 17,490 to 11,486. Because Army leaders believed that the capabilities of the armored divisions already met the requirements of the atomic battlefield, the strength and organization of those units would change little.
Taylor saw the pentomic organization as ideally suited for fighting an atomic war. The five subordinate battle groups in each of its divisions enabled the force to disperse in greater width and depth than was possible with a traditional, more compact, three-regiment organization. Companies within the battle groups could also spread out, so that no single element presented a lucrative target for an atomic attack. Taylor believed that improved communications equipment would allow division commanders to exert more direct control over their separated units than in the past. He also contended that new armored personnel carriers that would soon join the force would afford the mobility to enable the formations to converge rapidly and to exploit opportunities provided by atomic fire support.3
The problem? The US Army was training to fight an atomic war…and nothing else. Here is how the US Seventh Army in Europe taught its units to fight:
The Seventh Army also produced training literature outlining how it planned to fight an atomic war. In Tactical Guidance for Atomic Warfare, published in April 1956, leaders identified the requirements for dispersion and all-round security in an atomic environment. The document prescribed a mobile defense with battalions dispersed along dominant terrain, but prepared to concentrate rapidly to counterattack the enemy. Above all, defensive positions were to be supported with integrated conventional and atomic fire support. Commanders would coordinate counterattacks with atomic strikes aimed to break up enemy concentrations.
The Seventh Army’s increasing reliance on atomic firepower was evident in its conduct of field training exercises during the latter months of 1956. In early November, the V Corps participated in Exercise Sabre Knot, which sought to train individuals and small units in the offensive and defensive use of atomic weapons and the evacuation of mass casualties caused by enemy attacks. The corps attached one 280-mm gun battalion to each division and also placed one Honest John battery in direct support. Early phases of the exercise also included simulated detonation of atomic demolition munitions to create barriers and to help delay the enemy advance. As the five-day exercise proceeded, division and corps commanders launched thirty-six atomic strikes against aggressor forces.
One month later, the VII Corps conducted a similar exercise, War Hawk, with the same training goals. In both cases, observers reported the usual deficiencies in communications, camouflage, and security. Observers and umpires also expressed special concern about the movement and logistical support of atomic units in such a potentially lethal environment. Their most significant finding was that control of atomic strikes had to be decentralized to division and corps commanders. Control at higher levels prevented atomic support from keeping up with the tactical situation on the ground. 4
Thirty-six atomic strikes. In five days. In a single Corps. Remember these numbers and ponder what they mean:
By the end of 1957, atomic weapons had come to dominate U.S. and NATO thinking where the defense of Europe was concerned. Adopting a strategic policy based on airpower and atomic weapons, President Eisenhower had turned the U.S. armed forces away from traditional concepts of conventional warfare. 5
Iron Curtain has you 5 by 5
So how does the Pentomic Division appear in Iron Curtain? In game terms, a US Pentomic mechanized infantry division (Mech Inf Div) is portrayed using five, single-step battalion counters each rated 2-2-9 (Attack-Defense-Movement) and Exploitation capable6. Compare a US Pentomic Mech Inf Div to a Soviet Mech Inf Div which is a two-step unit rated 6-5-8 and Exploitation capable. Even a “regular” US Pentomic infantry division is five, single step battalion counters rated 1-2-8 (non-Exploitation) as compared to a second-rate, two-step Soviet Mech Inf Div 5-5-8 Exploitation capable.
At first glance, the five 2-2-9 US Inf Battalions (actually Battlegroups) appear, in aggregate, to be stronger than it’s Soviet 6-5-8 counterpart. In (game) practice bringing this 5 to 3 firepower advantage (2:1 in SCS game per the Standard Rounding Rule)7 to bear will be difficult due to stacking rules and how combat works.
In Iron Curtain, stacking is limited to two (2) units plus one helicopter attack unit (Game Rules 5.1a). Combat also uses a special Iron Curtain Combat Results Table (CRT) where combat odds are determined as normal, but three die rolls are involved:
- Attacker Loss Roll: Roll 1d6 for each STACK separately; if result is in loss range the top unit in stack takes a step loss
- Defender Loss Roll: Roll for EACH defending unit; if result in loss range unit takes a step loss
- Defender Retreat: Roll to determine Defender Retreat (which affects how far an Attacker can advance).
Hypothetically, let’s assume all five Battlegroups occupy three adjacent hexes (two are stacked) and are all attacking a single Soviet Mech Inf Div in Open Terrain:
- Combat 1 & 2: US attack 4 vs Soviet Defense 5 = 1:1 odds (once again see the Standard Rounding Rule); Attacker Loss on 1-3, Defender Loss on 4-6, Defender Retreat 0-3 hexes (most likely 1 or 2)
- Combat 3: US attack 2 vs Soviet Defense 5 – 1:3 odds (damn Standard Rounding…again!); Attacker Loss on 1-4, Defender Loss on 6, Defender Retreat 0-2 hexes (most likely 0).
Let’s randomly roll out Combat 1 and see what happens:
- Attacker Loss Roll=1 (Attacker Step Loss; top Battlegroup eliminated)
- Defender Loss roll=1 (No Defender Loss)
- Defender Retreat Roll=3 (Retreat 1 hex, Attacker has option to Advance After Combat)
It appears that a Pentomic battlegroup is somewhat likely to “bounce back” a Soviet Mech Inf Div, but at a cost. More ominously, what if it is the other way with the US Battlegroups defending?
- Option A: Sov 6-5-8 Mech Inf Div attacks 2x Battlegroups (2-2-9) in a hex. Combat odds 6-4 or 1.5 to 1 or 2:1 per the Standard Rounding Rules making that Attacker Loss on 1-2, a Defender Loss on 4-6, and a Defender Retreat of 0-3 hexes (most likely 2-3)
- Option 2: Sov 6-5-8 Mech Inf Div attacks a single Battlegroup; odds 6 to 2 or 3:1; Attacker Loss on 1, Defender Loss on 4-6, Defender Retreat 2-3 hexes (most likely 3).
What if we go to a nightmare scenario? A Soviet Armored Division (7-5-9) stacked with a Mech Inf Div (6-5-8) attacks two Pentomic Mech Inf Div Battlegroups (2-2-9 each) in Forest terrain. Combat odds are 13 to 4 or 3:1. Forest terrain is Defender Terrain so odds shift to 2:1. Recall that’s Attacker Loss on 1-2, a Defender Loss on 4-6, and a Defender Retreat of 0-3 hexes (most likely 2-3). Let’s roll this one out to see what happens:
- Attacker Loss Roll=3 (No Attacker Loss)
- Defender Loss Roll, Top Unit=4 (Step Loss, Destroyed)
- Defender Loss Roll, Bottom Unit=5 (Step Loss, Destroyed)
- Defender Retreat Roll=2 (1 hex, Attacking units can advance into defenders now vacated hex).
Wow, the Soviets blew through those Battlegroups like a hot knife through butter! In its own way, the 1962 scenario of Iron Curtain (accurately?) relates to us the lessons that the US Army was learning in the late 1950s and early 1960s:
Small-unit leaders expressed concerns over the extended frontage the Army expected them to defend as part of the pentomic doctrine. Proponents of the concept explained that atomic weapons gave those units greatly increased firepower, but only if the units actually employed them. Without the atomic fire support, ground units appeared to be seriously undergunned. 8
Nuke Your Way to Victory…
So, how does the NATO player use atomics in Iron Curtain to get back their firepower? It’s easy! Just declare release in the Special Munitions Phase. After this, the number of atomic weapons is limited by the At-Start numbers which in the 1962 scenario is 15 for NATO. Delivery is easy; atomics strike ANY hex on the map 9. The threat of nuclear retaliation is low; the Warsaw Pact in 1962 has only three (3) Nuke Markers available 10.
As Game Rule 7.5a points out, “The release “process” is simple; announce that you are releasing Nuclear and/or Chemical Weapons. You do not have to obtain permission to do so.” This is far from the reality of the day:
President Kennedy and many of his advisers were reluctant to relinquish any control over the release and use of atomic weapons, and the issue sparked an enormous alliance debate that would last for years. The American strategic deterrent and SACEUR’s reliance on a nuclear response to most provocations also caused many Europeans to question the viability of any conventional defense. They asked why they should have to devote so many resources to prepare for a type of war that would never take place. 11
Taken as a whole, one must admit that Iron Curtain presents a very surrealist view of atomic warfare. Surprisingly, the surrealism of nukes in Iron Curtain reflects the reality of the times:
Some of the surrealism of the moment was captured by the operations section of V Corps in a booklet it distributed at that time. Titled “Tips on Atomic Warfare for the Military Leader,” the manual reduced atomic tactics to comic book form as a voluptuous Atomic Annie offered to tell soldiers all about the atomic facts of life. It depicted soldiers who, after surviving an atomic strike, rallied those who remained and continued the mission as the ghosts of their dead comrades waved farewell in the background. Annie also assured her readers that they had nothing to fear from radiation, as long as they took proper precautions before they attacked through a contaminated area. 12
…for the Warsaw Pact
While it’s easy for the NATO player to use atomic weapons to “upgun” their side, in Iron Curtain to do so is to flirt with instant defeat from NATO collapse. In Iron Curtain, the Soviet player can try to induce NATO collapse by fulfilling “Reasons.” The more “Reasons” that are active, the better the chance of NATO collapse since the roll for collapse is 1d6 versus the number of “Reasons.” Roll the number of “Reasons” or less and NATO collapses.
Before rolling for “Reasons” the Berlin Trigger 13 must be satisfied which is actually quite easy—the Soviets must occupy all four Berlin hexes. After the Berlin Trigger is satisfied there are five possible “Reasons” for NATO collapse (see Game Rules 8.2):
- NATO Nuclear Weapons Release, but no Warsaw Pact Nuclear Weapons Release
- NATO Chemical Weapons Release, but no Warsaw Pact Chemical Weapons Release
- Northern Sea Lanes Threatened (done by occupying Bornholm Island and Copenhagen as well as 6 of 8 other named ports)
- Essen, Dusseldorf, and Dortmund are all occupied by WP units
- Non-Air Mobile, Exploit Capable WP units occupy at least THREE hexes WEST of the Rhine.
Given that the Soviets don’t have many atomics in an Iron Curtain 1962 scenario to begin with, and that in many ways they have conventional superiority, the Warsaw Pact player is less likely to call on atomics or chemical weapons and thus preserve “Reasons” 1 or 2 for the NATO player to decide. The ability to threaten the Northern Sea Lanes will require facing off against the British who are actually quite powerful in the 1962 timeframe. Likewise, to get to Essen, Dusselforf, and Dortmund will require going through the bulk of the newly reconstituted West German Army.
For NATO, the need to use your atomic weapons is tempered by the threat of automatically losing. So how well can you resist the temptation?
For the NATO player to resist using atomics will be hard for in addition to being undergunned, they face a huge geographic challenge. Although it is not noted as such on the Iron Curtain map, the Fulda Gap (hex 3121) assumes great importance in the game—just like it had in reality. That’s because this gap of Forest terrain (Movement Cost=1) is flanked by two Rough hexes (Movement Cost=2 for Mech/1 for Leg) and lies a mere eight (8) hexes from the Rhine River (or less than 60 miles, also the name of the excellent wargame—Less Than 60 Miles—from Thin Red Line Games in 2019). It is the shortest route from the Iron Curtain to the Rhine, and a very likely route the Soviet player might choose to use to achieve “Reason 5” for NATO collapse. Standing in the way is the bulk of the US Army. In the 1962 scenario of Iron Curtain we know this US Army is undergunned and needs atomics to survive. The catch, of course, is the atomics needed to survive can also hand victory to the Soviets.
If you are looking towards your armored units to be the “crust” of your defense, well, think again. The three armored cavalry regiments defending the Gap14 are single-step units rated 5-4-9 Exploitation capable. Their lifetime will very likely be “brief.” A US armored division is not actually that much better consisting of one, two-step regiment rated 5-5-9 Exploitation and two other single-step regiments rated 3-3-9 Exploitation. Recall that the Soviet armored divisions they face are two-step units rated 7-5-9 Exploitation…
A real “damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation.”
Airing it Out
Some of you might be saying, “Hey Rocky…you totally have ignored the other part of Ike’s New Look…airpower. Go Air Force!.” In the 1962 Iron Curtain scenario, NATO starts with 10 air units ranging from the F-84 to early Century-series aircraft (F-100/F-102/F-104/F-105). The Allies bring some airpower (Javalin, Canberra, Mirage and Mystere) but it’s not overwhelming air superiority, even against the 10 units of the Warsaw Pact (MiG-15/MiG-17). Even if NATO can achieve NATO Control in the air superiority battle, it might be all for naught since many strike aircraft in 1962 are not all-weather capable and cannot fly in “soup” weather…and on any given game turn of Iron Curtain the chance of “soup” is 1 in 3.
Lest my discussion lead you to believe the 1962 scenario in Iron Curtain is a cakewalk for the Warsaw Pact, let me assure you that is not the case. Again, the name of the game is “options.” While Warsaw Pact (and especially Soviet) units may enjoy a degree of conventional superiority over the US Army, it is a less certain case with regards to the British or West Germans who must be confronted if those other “Reasons” are to be achieved. The near-run air contest may also cause problems for the Warsaw Pact, because in order to seize Bornholm Island or Copenhagen to threaten the sea lanes an air mobile operation will be called for—and without Air Control or Superiority a substantial air mobile effort will not be possible. In several ways, a solid Warsaw Pact strategy may be to 1) seize Berlin then 2) threaten in the North enough to hold NATO units in place and prevent reinforcement of the US Army and 3) push hard against the Americans thereby forcing the use of atomics (“Reason 1″—1 in 6 chance of NATO Collapse) and hoping to get units across the Rhine (“Reason 5″—1 in 3 chance of NATO Collapse).
“Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.” That is the “option” presented to the NATO player in the 1962 scenario of Iron Curtain. The challenge for NATO: can you hold off the Red Hordes with a force that is undergunned without resorting to atomic weapons? If you use atomic weapons, do you have enough (you have 15; Seventh Corps needed 36 in five days—that’s fewer than 2 turns)? Are you ready to risk a 1 in 6 chance—every turn—that your political coalition will collapse around you?
Did designer Carl Fung have to include a 1962 option in his Iron Curtain game? He didn’t have to—Iron Curtain would be a perfectly serviceable game even if it only included the Cool ToysTM 1983 or 1989 scenarios. It doesn’t really need the 1945 option with different units and a “standard” CRT. It doesn’t need the 1962 scenario with another set of units. It doesn’t need the 1975 scenario either (another great option to explore the time when the “correlation of forces” seemingly most favored the Warsaw Pact). Without those options Iron Curtain would be, in the words of Dave Thompson, “a more consistent experience.” But Iron Curtain has those options because that’s the real heart of the game—to give players the chance to explore a wide variety of “could of been” in a single game box. In the case of the 1962 scenario, Iron Curtain presents options to the players that help make the surreal tangible; how does the US Army rectify a strategy of nuking your way to victory against conditions where nuclear use enables your opponent’s victory? I’d rather explore that on a tabletop than in the real world…
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WE’RE NOT TALKING ABOUT THE SITE; WE’RE TALKING ABOUT THE STAFF
- Game Rules, p. 21
- Game Rules, p. 22
- Forging the Shield, pp. 257-258
- Forging the Shield, pp. 265-267
- Forging the Shield, p. 293
- In a SCS game Exploitation-capable units are eligible for a second movement (and overrun)—this is how you make those breakthrough maneuvers!
- Standard Rounding Rule and Combat Odds – “Round fractions as per: .01 to .49 down, .50 to .99 up. Retain fractions until final application. When your opponent tries to pre-calculate combat odds to hit the 1/2 break, make sure he is following the Fog of War rule…” (Series Rules, v 1.8, pp. 1-2) To determine combat odds see Series Rule 7.4 Odds Determination; “…compare the total modified Attack Strength with the total modified Defense Strength. Divide both numbers by the smaller number of the two. Apply the rounding rule to the results of the divisions and express the two numbers as a ratio attacker to defender.” For example: Attacker Strength 2 versus Defender Strength 5. 2/2=1, 5/2=2.5. Apply rounding rule (.5 rounds UP) to get Attacker 1 vs. Defender 3 or 1:3 odds.
- Forging the Shield, p. 299)
- Game Rules 7.5a, 7.5b, 10.3 NATO/Special Assets Box
- Game Rules 10.3 Warsaw Pact/Special Assets Box
- Forging the Shield, p. 434
- Forging the Shield, p. 311
- Game Rules 8.1
- Ed note: in reality, it’s even worse than that; only one of those three ACRs was actually in Fulda and the others are elsewhere