June 13, 2024

Winning with the Warsaw Pact: A Central Front Series Analysis

Allen (Stiglr) Dickerson, 27 August 2021

Way back in 1979, SPI’s S&T Magazine had a watershed issue: #82, with Fifth Corps tucked into its central fold. After an almost immediate release of an add-on boxed game, Hof Gap, S&T doubled down just over a year later with BAOR in issue #88. It seemed SPI was poised to make good on their promise that the Central Front Series would eventually grow to an 8-map monster campaign game, chronicling the (then) easily-imagined Warsaw Pact invasion of then West Germany, spanning from the Danish border to the Swiss Alps.

click images to enlarge

Central Front Series debuted the unique and imaginative Friction Point System (FPS), whereby units were not eliminated by steps, or even gradual reduction of strength points; rather, they retained their efficacy in combat strength until the bitter end. They suffered “friction points” as a result of both conducting operations or participating in combat, and depending on the size and composition of the unit, were more resilient or more “brittle” as the case may be.

Everyone knows that the Warsaw Pact player has a really tight schedule.

The result for casual observers and first-time players was usually that the Warsaw Pact juggernaut was exposed as a paper (cardboard?) tiger: they quickly burned out, amassed enough friction points to slow down their initial aggressive assault profile, and the good guys from NATO made the world once again safe from Communism. Or so it might seem at first glance.

Everyone knows that the Warsaw Pact player has a really tight schedule. He’s got to get either across the entire map from East to West, or across some major river in force, within 4 to 5 days (8 – 10 twelve-hour turns), to win most games. His Friction Point balancing act is just as delicate as the NATO player, but he has to seriously weigh burning out, and even sacrificing, some very potent tank and motor rifle regiments, and artillery elements, to achieve his rather ambitious aims. Let’s have a deeper look at Warsaw Pact strategy and tactics for the Central Front Series (CFS).


Blackjacks and Back Roads

Use both the steamroller and the sidestep approach in attack. In the initial turn, the Pact player is usually facing a peacetime screen of weak armored cavalry companies, 1-1 or 1-2 in strength, and often in terrain unfavorable to defense (flat and at best, broken terrain without a village to even stave off the possibility of a mobile attack). Later on, he will almost always face far stronger units, often in cities or in rough/wooded terrain that form the topmost and least favorable rows and columns of combat odds on the CRT. Knowing that the NATO player must use road nets as the first avenue of retreat, and also knowing that Pact doctrine mandates following the defeated prey along any retreat, the idea of bypassing even easily-overrun opposition becomes worthy of consideration. Before stepping off on March or Hasty attacks at high odds, check your Fodor’s Guide: look for secondary access hexside routes around hard points and even sometimes around weaker, but time-consuming speedbumps. There’s almost always another division, or another column of the same division that you can use to mop up bypassed opposition later on, before they can become threats to your off-map supply line.

CF-WP-Access Roads example

Weigh that against the fact that sometimes, you’ll advance faster following up one or two long retreats (during which, if you follow the retreating defender, you can ignore Zones of Control along the retreat path) than you will using another route. Because you needn’t involve “every unit you’re adjacent to” in an attack, you can pick the weakest unit in front of you, and with the proper odds, force it to retreat 3 or 4 hexes (those armored cav units only have three FP to give before they’re done and dusted, so they will have to retreat to offset most of an 0/5, 0/4 or similar result. Also, if you’re analyzing your CRT columns trying to avoid the dreaded 1/s on the attacker’s side of the results, consider that, if the defender retreats to offset any part of his result, or if he is destroyed before all the FPs of the result are absorbed, the attacker’s result is reduced by exactly one. And an ‘adverse’ result for an attacker is almost never worse than 1. So, in effect, any retreat by the defender eliminates nearly every attacker FP gain. With that in mind, consider the prospect of using two or three Hasty attacks during an Operations Phase instead of one Prepared attack. You can often gain the equivalent in Operations points spent moving (around the speedbump), for free, by following up advances. The only obvious drawback is that the priority order of NATO retreats telegraphs the retreat; and, WP doctrine stipulates that at least one unit fully follows each retreat, which doesn’t allow you to gain a bit of maneuver room for the next phase or turn. Any units which can deviate from the retreat route are finished for the operations phase once they’re done advancing.


Prepare For Battle?

There is more to the choice of attack methods than just the Operation Cost, and the “rows” consulted on the CRT. For the Warsaw Pact player, one MUST use a Prepared attack to involve non-adjacent artillery indirect fire support. This is obviously an important consideration in most attacks, and specifically those performed by the lead regiment in a Warsaw Pact March Order attack. Otherwise, Prepared attacks should only be used when you need a multi-hex attack to dislodge a tenacious or well dug-in defender.

Because they cost 6 Ops points (at least half the OPs available in any phase), and because they stop all but one stack of a multi-hex attack from continuing on in the current Ops phase, you should only use a Prepared assault when you can make the most of it; when you’ve got three, four or more hexes contributing to the attack (each of which beyond the first hex provides a column shift); when you have the defender surrounded, so that he can’t retreat and HAS TO soak up all the FPs you will dish out, and will likely be eliminated. Otherwise, if you can get high odds attacks, rely on single-hex, Schwerpunkt-style assaults using Hasty and March attacks, and the occasional Mobile attack variant of any of those when you catch weak armored cav in the open or on the plains.

Don’t leave anything on the table. The Pact player usually enjoys an embarrassment of riches. Those 10-14 armored regiments. DAGs and RAGs out the wazoo. Chemicals. Helicopters hovering off-map, with a range of 30 hexes where they can provide support. A second wave of fresh divisions nearly as big as the first, and possibly even a third. And, with air superiority, air points (which should almost always be used, one point at a time, to lob in chemicals; the column shifts chemicals provide almost always are a better value than the 1-for-one SP value of the standard air point). Don’t neglect to use every means at your disposal to end up on the right-most column of every attack you can manage, AND BEYOND.

Because you don’t know if Electronic Warfare will be effective when you declare your attack, scan the map and see if the defender might be able to call in artillery support to skew the odds. Perhaps add in “unnecessary force” to offset that, or to make it unpalatable for the defender. (especially those murderous 7-SP German helos on the center-most maps! What are they firing, nuclear-tipped missiles, or what?), Hopefully you can nip that in the bud using Electronic Warfare (I recently played as NATO in a game where the Pact rolled 1 – 3 to pass EVERY SINGLE EW attempt; it was a problem!) Also, consider using doubled and tripled rocket artillery support, at the cost of the extra FPs. Artillery units (that are in supply) gain back TWO FPs during each Friction Point recovery phase, and they all have 5 friction points to play with, regardless of their organizational size. Also, artillery may not count for VPs when they exit the map, or achieve territorial objectives. So, USE them (up, if necessary), if they can keep you moving forward. Wring every column shift you can out of whatever you can: multi-hex attacks; surrounding; multiplied rocket artillery; helicopters adding the points needed to reach the next highest odds column; chemicals (if you have a lot of artillery around, at least one of the weaker ones, or an air point, should be lobbing in the gas). You have to maximize the chance of getting those 0/4, 0/5 and occasional 0/6 results at every opportunity, because these are the ‘front breakers’.


First, Follow the Leader

A special note about Soviet doctrine and the first game turn of entry: because you must snake every combat formation in follow-the-leader style behind the lead regiment, and you must move “westerly,” you have no ability to set up encirclements or multi-hex Prepared Attacks in the first turn. After that, though, give serious thought to using second and third Operation segments to encircle those chokepoints you just can’t bypass, and then use the first Op Phase in a subsequent turn to launch Prepared attacks at high odds to vaporize bulwarks.

But on Turn One, or on entry turns for reinforcements, drive those units as hard and as far forward as you can. Either steamroll or sidestep (along access hexside “backroads”). And be willing to burn out a few choice units if the payoff is access to 3 – 5 rows of real estate you won’t otherwise get (and that NATO may be able to stuff with more delaying units when they move). Keep in mind you may have second-and third echelon reinforcements to clean up behind the lead divisions.


Assault and (Counter)Battery

Nothing can stop a Warsaw Pact breakout faster than a well-positioned second line of NATO artillery, which can lend a vital 3 or 4 strength points to a defense that changes the odds drastically, costing you a bunch of “column shifts” in the final combat computation. Electronic Warfare effectiveness is only a “coin flip”, and besides, you only have a finite number of EW attempts per turn.

Well, there is a solution! Counterbattery fire. At the cost of additional friction points to your support artillery (that of the Army and Front support divisions, not of the “combat divisions” of Tank, Motor Rifle and Guards Armored, except for DAGs), you can launch debilitating CB attacks that 1) add friction points to enemy artillery and 2) silence them for the rest of the current Player Ops Phase (any FP gain also carries successful suppression with it). You’re rolling on the lower columns of the table, so don’t expect huge FP results, but the suppression of a key battery or two can have serious and immediate local ramifications. Also, you can double your own FP gain to both launch the counterbattery combined with chemicals, improving the attack column by as much as three shifts. A timely 2 or 3 FP result in this manner might finish off a pesky enemy artillery unit which has already incurred friction by thwarting earlier attacks. Be sure to maintain your own support line of “non-divisional” artillery specifically for counterbattery purposes.

CF-WP-Arty Suppression example


Keep Mental Friction Points Building Up

As I mentioned early on, both sides have to wring their hands a bit when managing Friction Points, just in different ways. We’ve just explored some of the Warsaw Pact’s dilemmas, now let’s look at the lot of the NATO player. Even his better defensive units will only be brigade-sized (which, in this system is smaller than a regiment), and these only have 4 steps to “give” before they become useless and immobile; the 5th sends them to the casualty pile. That one step difference from your bully-boy Soviet tank, Guards or motor rifle unit is noticeable in the crucible of play.

So, the NATO player often has to weigh whether moving into some prime defensive position (a rough+wooded hex adjacent to a road or autobahn) is worth the Friction Point gained getting there: the unit might need that FP to soak up combat results and perhaps force the Warsaw Pact to actually have to take extra losses caused by defenders not retreating.

Try to have an advance route planned out, with a few alternate detours to use should NATO concentrate forces astride the obvious Autobahn routes

Another reason to seek out some access hexside detours around key defensive bottlenecks is, this can also force the NATO player to gain FPs in movement, scrambling to react, rather than in withstanding assaults. It will always be a scramble for the western forces to create and maintain a line of alternate hex units with ZoC extending into the gaps to force you to attack (or to stop). Try to have an advance route planned out, with a few alternate detours to use should NATO concentrate (rather than alternate) forces astride the obvious Autobahn routes.

A canny NATO player will use his artillery to backstop the Main Line of Resistance, where they can provide succor to units under attack. But, occasionally he will be forced to consider using them, physically, in stop-gap fashion. Or, a WP player may find a victorious unit adjacent to lone artillery after an advance stemming from a different combat. Artillery defending alone do so with a strength of only one, and thus the unit can often be hit hard with backbreaking 0/4 and 0/5 results, even with hasty or march attacks. Cynically use these “misplaced” units as “keys” to punch spearheads through stiff resistance or to open up new auxiliary routes toward victory.

Consider using Air Points for interdiction. Especially true if you otherwise stick to the credo of using them one point at a time to add chemical weapon shifts to attacks, instead of using them to add SPs. If you can, as one example, use 6 of 10 APs to add chemicals to important attacks during an OPs phase, and have 4 left over, consider using those 4 to interdict a key Autobahn exchange that you know NATO will use to bring up the next group of units that will bog down the advance. That might be just enough to force your foe to only advance to clear or harder-to-defend terrain, short of those hilly, dark rough/forest hexes or small cities that can really tie up advancing comrades.


Change Your Entire Axis of Advance (Student Body North, Student Body South, Student Body Up the Gut, Fight! Fight! Fight!)

It surely will pay dividends for any Warsaw Pact player to study the map, factor in the reinforcement schedule and plan one or more routes to victory, whether that’s (off) the opposite map edge or to some target hexrow. However, with the myriad of options, the natural terrain’s chokepoints, and the sublimated secondary road network, you can’t really be sure if the road to where you’re going will be open or blocked when you get there. Your NATO opponent will be hard pressed, scrambling to form a line of defense, but surely some paths will be harder to contemplate breaking through than others.

Never commit so fully to any axis of advance that you can’t toss Plan A and come up with a Plan B. Stretched thin as a NATO player may be, it may be entirely possible to channel late reinforcements clear to the other side of the map, because the staunchest NATO defenders may have your initial wave forces pinned down, and in high friction states, along your initial avenue of attack. Give serious consideration to sending a secondary or tertiary column to a completely new area. NATO may not have the resources to block the new spearhead.

I recently played a game of BAOR, and the Warsaw Pact player won a Marginal Victory on the very last game turn. He did it by squeaking through his lead armored regiment (one of the late reinforcement divisions) on the southern map edge at Kassel, when his first two thrusts targeted Braunschweig and then Hanover. He just made it work, while I was trying mightily to shift some Belgian forces to plug that gap (which I’d brought said Belgians FROM, in the early going, and thought I’d sealed off well short of the Weser) In the end, I just couldn’t make it back to seal the gap.


The Nuclear “Option(al)”

There are certainly some who would say that the Warsaw Pact player can’t win any of the full-length games on any of the maps without making use of their tactical nuclear arsenal. In the aforementioned BAOR game, my opponent and I had initially decided to forego the use of nukes, but by the halfway point of the game, he was ready to throw in the towel, despairing of ever getting more than a toehold over the Weser. He was at least 10, if not 15 hexrows short of the hexrow demanded for the marginal victory. We changed our minds, and decided to see if nukes would make the difference.

I would say they did. But not in the way we thought they would.

The Warsaw Pact player, basically playing on enemy soil, has no reservation about nuking West German cities, and is only prohibited from deploying them on targets that are adjacent to friendly units. And, he can deploy them during the Nuclear Weapons phase at the start of a turn, picking and choosing his targets at will, according to the tactical situation on the ground. By contrast, the NATO player must 1) only use nuclear weapons once the WP player has first done so and 2) must plot either his target hexes or his intended target unit a game turn ahead of time (e.g., nuclear strikes plotted during Turn X’s nuclear phase are delivered on Turn X+1). He also cannot target any city hexes. So, if one turn later, there’s no target in the hex plotted, or the target unit is in a city hex or adjacent to a NATO unit, the attack is cancelled (but the nuke considered expended nonetheless).


What this means, essentially, is that nukes can’t truly be used ‘tactically’, to remove an immediate threat, because that would be represented on the map by a strong enemy unit or stack, in rough/woods or city terrain that is in contact with friendly units. Thus the WP player is more likely to use his nukes to either target helicopter and rear area artillery units (which could otherwise bolster front line defenses), or to break up concentrated reinforcement columns on the way to the front.

CF-WP-Nuke progress


Supply Considerations

In most games, the Warsaw Pact is assumed to jump off with four turns of supply for all non-artillery units, so he can move at will behind enemy lines, exploiting gaps and creating supply problems for his hometstanding foes. He must still make sure that no pesky units are left behind to create late game problems when guaranteed supply runs it course. At a minimum, surround and pin units, even if your forces lack the strength to destroy them. It is also true that single NATO forces never have the strength to launch a “credible” attack, so they won’t be able to punch their way out and cause havoc. Just be sure that pinned NATO units aren’t sitting on a road that your comrades need to trace supply.

Second (and third waves) can be used to mop up units that are bypassed by the initial assault. It’s better that these waves be used to drive forward past tiring or burnt out initial wave veterans, but they can be pressed into such unglamorous duties when the situation warrants. Never allow an enemy unit to sit astride a key Autobahn or road and kill supply.

On the other hand, if NATO strongholds can be cut off, they cannot remove Friction Points during the recovery phase, while, presumably their assailants can rejuvenate from the effects of a blunted earlier attack. Again, scour the map each turn to pick a few objectives that aren’t “the furthest row west” or the map edge. A strategic autobahn exchange can be the key to cutting off large areas of the forwardmost NATO defense, making it easier to ultimately whittle down the stiffest opposition, or force a general retreat to a new Main Line of Resistance. Also, in games where there is an option to use the Airborne troops, these can be used with great effect to create isolation, or prevent NATO reinforcements from reaching ideal defensive positions.

This is a double-edged sword, however. Late-game, after automatic supply runs out (generally Turns 5 – 10), The Warsaw Pact must also trace a supply line back to the eastern map edge. This is where bypassed NATO units can become killers.

CF-WP-Supply cut


Air-ing of Grievances

The air supremacy game is highly abstracted in Central Front, a decided departure from the competing The Next War system (and the later-appearing Less Than 60 Miles system). Here, the WP starts with one or more turns where he automatically owns the sky, but then, thereafter, must roll for control of the skies. It’s pretty much a coin flip: 1-3 means NATO wins superiority, 4 or 5/6 means the Pact controls the air, and a 6 on an AM (12-hour) turn means low-hanging fog grounds both sides’ air fleets.

The affects of superiority are significant, as one can imagine. Both sides get a nice bundle of air points they can use in any of four ways:

  1. they can add air points to attacks on a 1SP/air point basis
  2. they can add air points to defenses on a 1SP/air point basis
  3. the WP player can use AP to add chemicals to an attack, which results in a often decisive column shift benefit that usually starts at 3 columns early on, and then is reduced over time to 2, then 1, reflecting the NATO player’s greater preparedness and adjustment to the new realities of warfare. The column shifts always outweigh the benefit of any 1 SP (even if that 1SP would gain you another multiplier, that’s easily outstripped by 3- or 2-column chemical shifts)
  4. APs can be used in interdiction clusters to make target hexes more “expensive” to enter, which, used on autobahn exchanges or key access hexes, can greatly inhibit movement and deployment.

Although this abstraction of air power means the emphasis remains with the battle on the ground, it still has lopsided effects on the game. If the Pact loses air superiority (and much of the analysis both in the 1980s and in present day suggests that that is an eventuality) he is GREATLY affected. The effects of parceling out chemicals to a dozen or more combats, with 3-column-shift benefits to be gained cannot be overstated (or replicated by any other source other than artillery units in support of the front!)

Which brings us to another dilemma, if you will, caused by the Central Front Series air power rules. A player can use any and all of his air points (usually a total of 12 – 20 “use-’em-or-lose-’em” air points per turn. NATO will likely see games where he NEVER has the opportunity to launch a ground attack. However, the ability to commit 12 AP to any ONE attack might change the calculus… especially if the ground forces can qualify for the NATO surprise attack bonus generated by having the WP player surrounded by units and their ZOCs – their strength is doubled.

But, returning to the air points themselves: both in attack and in defense, I cringe at the ability to, as one example, use air points to quadruple (or more) the strength of some piddling air cavalry unit (ex: using 4SP to aid a 1-1 unit in attack). It just doesn’t seem plausible that air could make that much of a difference in any one combat. But the same “mental discomfort” doesn’t arise when using gobs of air points to enhance a typical Soviet attack: with ground unit SP totals in the forties and fifties for a division-level prepared assault, adding in, say, 6 or 7 air SP all at once might only get the Pact player to the next odds ratio; in effect a palatable 1-column shift effect. The same air commitment from NATO might reduce a 14:1 combat to a 2:1.

For me, knowing that can happen on demand in a key attack late in a game gives me room for pause. Doesn’t seem right, even when you consider that the worst combat result from an attacker’s point of view is a usually a 1/0 result (attacker gains 1FP, the defender none); only on the very worst columns is a 2/0 possible. So, one could say that an attack can be reliably stopped by air point expenditure, but it might be expensive, leaving other areas of the map underserved. But, still the differences in the strength calculation for the two sides leaves me feeling a bit “dirty” and “gamey” to do more than double or triple any NATO unit’s strength with air alone.


Pre-Emptive Strikes

The Warsaw Pact Player gets pre-emptive strikes on each map that he can use to soften up NATO defenses before the balloon goes up. He gets to select six hex groups, defined by the target hex and the six surrounding hexes (with no overlapping allowed) for the attacks. A die is rolled for each unit in the hex, and reduced by 1 (except for soft units, artillery and helos). The resulting number is an immediate FP gain for the unit, up to their FP max (and up to elimination for the soft units).

Obviously, any concentrations of NATO units, especially those with high combat values, should be targeted. But also, any West German helicopter units simply must be targeted, to reduce their operation profiles early on, if not eliminating them entirely with a lucky ‘6’.

Secondarily, look for key armored cav “speed bumps” that might be “maxed out” with a good roll, and open up a key road artery. Even if they’re the only unit astride that autobahn, they might be worthy of a good strafing that can add several hours of mobility to the opening thrusts.


Losing Air Superiority

Several Central Front Series scenarios give the Pact a 1d6 roll of initial Air Superiority turns, then after than it’s a 50:50 crapshoot. There is an optional ‘continuum’ variant of this process where the “slider” moves towards each player enjoying an increasingly large number of air points as the pendulum swings to one side or the other. When (not if) the Pact lose their air umbrella, it’s a distinct game changer. Even those weak 1-1 and 1-2 armored cav companies can become hard to budge when their strength can be tupled by the addition of air points. And typically, NATO gets more air points when they control the skies than the Pact does when they own the air.

There’s a lot to think about and to consider (for both players) when playing any of the Central Front Series games. Even with newly-released games on the same subject from Thin Red Line (Less Than 60 Miles and Under an Iron Sky come immediately to mind), I think CFS holds up exceedingly well. The most recent challengers to the throne (as well as the aforementioned 1979 SPI stablemate The Next War) are all more complex systems, replacing the Central Front’s abstractions with more fleshed out mechanics which, while interesting and plausible, also serve to slow down game play, and distract player attention from the ground, where the tread meets the road.

Fifth Corps, Hof Gap, and BAOR (or a converted-for-FPS Donau Front or North German Plain) are still far from breezy, beer and pretzel affairs. The full-sized scenarios for any of these will probably consume a good 10 – 12 hours of game play (unless there’s a very early determination that the Soviets have shot their bolt). And if the Warsaw Pact player is judicious in his play, the result will likely be a tense, nervy affair that goes down to the final few turns before the fate of West Germany is decided.


For more on the Central Front series you can also check out this article from the NATO side of the battle.

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2 thoughts on “Winning with the Warsaw Pact: A Central Front Series Analysis

  1. What a great article with lots to think about. As old and “retro” FIFTH CORPS may be to some the reality is the Friction Point System works to make the game challenging in a very good way.

    1. Thanks for the positive feedback. I’ll go even further and say that the Friction Point concept is one of the most imaginative design devices of the 20th century, right up there with “step losses”, “untried units” and “variable strength”. It lends so much *flavor* to the series!!!

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