January 20, 2021

Thinking the UNTHINKABLE when playing Iron Curtain: Central Europe, 1945-1989 from Multi-Man Publishing

RockyMountainNavy, 11 Jan 2021

I decided to set out and play the first scenario of Multi-Man Publishings new Standard Combat Series wargame Iron Curtain: Central Europe, 1945-1989. My intention here is not to necessarily write an extensive After Action Report but instead to capture comments and feelings as I play the game.

What is Iron Curtain?
Iron Curtain: Central Europe, 1945-1989 is a 2020 entry in Multi-Man Publishing’s (MMP)Standard Combat Series (SCS) line of games. As the publisher’s site copy describes it:

Iron Curtain: NATO’s Central Front, 1945-1989 is a Standard Combat Series (SCS) game covering the potential “hot” war erupting between the East and the West at the flashpoint along the intra-German border established at the close of World War II. Scenarios examine the forces available over the entire 44-year period with snapshots in 1945, 1962, 1975, 1983, and 1989. The resulting force ratios not only change with weapon and OOB evolution but as a product of the tumultuous effects of the culture.

In addition to the typical Warsaw Pact-invades-NATO situations, the game provides for three NATO offensive scenarios. The 1945 Churchill plan to continue WW2 before the Soviets could consolidate their gains (Operation UNTHINKABLE), the mishaps of 1983 that could have launched an offensive in error, and allowing the West to capitalize on the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact nations in 1989….

Iron Curtain is a fast-paced game of what is assumed to be a month of intensive combat where both sides race to fulfill their objectives before a cease-fire ends hostilities.

All the developments of modern warfare over this epoch are included: nuclear and chemical warfare, modern near-nuclear aviation effects, airmobile forces, attack helicopters, airborne mech forces, amphibious operations, and even the ill-fated Pentomic Division structure.

ICComponents
Iron Curtain (MMP 2020) Out of the Box

 

Start at the Beginning
As I typically do in many games the first scenario I play is the first one in the book. In Iron Curtain that is Scenario 10.1 “Hot Time in the Town of Berlin – 1945 Western Allied Offensive.” This scenario is Churchill’s Operation UNTHINKABLE noted in the ad copy. 

Operation UNTHINKABLE is an interesting scenario for the first one presented in Iron Curtain  because it is actually the ‘least standard’ of all the scenarios. Here the Allies are on the offensive which means, among other things, Game Rule exception 4.2 NATO as Aggressor is in effect which changes the Turn Phasing order. Maybe the first scenario to show new players of Iron Curtain should be 10.2 “Don’t Fence Me In – 1945 Soviet Offensive” which at least uses the ‘standard’ Soviet-NATO) Turn Phasing order?

In order for the Allied player to win this first scenario of Iron Curtain they must seize at least six of 10 VP hexes. At first glance this looks to be a tall order given the MANY Soviet units in the way. However, many of those Soviet units are lower strength, single step infantry divisions that cannot rapidly exploit openings in enemy lines. Maybe the Allies can sweep them aside?

Set Up
MMP advertises their SCS games as having around 280 counters. In Iron Curtain there are actually over 1000 counters because it’s literally FOUR games in one box. The 1945 scenarios use their own set of specially coded counters – around 260 total. I was impressed that there is ONE piece of errata for this entire scenario set-up! The one change is 28.08 3-4-5 Inf Div (90) should be 3-4-5 Abn Div (9 Gd). Kudos to MMP for paying attention to the details here.

Physically, the setting up the Allies in Operation UNTHINKABLE is easy since units are listed in the scenario set up by allied country and in numerical order. This makes very quick and easy to pick up a counter, find it in the set up, and place it on the map. Setting up the Soviet side is…messy. Whereas Mech Movement Allowance (Mech MA) units are listed by unit ratings and numerical order, the MANY infantry units are listed in HEX order (North to South). NO! This makes the set up very time consuming as one needs to first find the unit, then scan a list of hexes to find the right one. PAINFUL!

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Scenario 10.1 Set Up

 

1945 – Standard SCS
Although Iron Curtain spans many decades, the 1945 scenarios basically use the bog-standard SCS rules set. The Combat Results Table (CRT) used in 1945 is a very traditional combat-odds type and not the different two-step table (Attacker and Defender Rolls) used in the later scenarios of Iron Curtain. Another significant difference is Game Rule 4.3h Supply which simplifies the supply rules as compared to baseline SCS.

Run Up to War
Although the rules for the Standard Combat Series are just that, standard, each individual game usually has at least one ‘gimmick’ that changes the rules in a very game-themed specific way. The gimmick in Iron Curtain is a two-parter; Run Up and Tension.

I fully realize the word “gimmick” has a bit of a negative connotation but I use it here in the most sincerely flattering way possible for it is those different “gimmicks” that make each SCS game interesting to me.

Iron Curtain Game Rule 6.0 Run Up provides the rules for the pre-war game. Each Run Up turn represents the time of increasing tension BEFORE a conflict. As the MMP ad copy for the game states:

Every game is different because while the units set up in their peace-time housing areas, each side gets an unpredictable amount of time to “run up” before the war actually begins while tension rises. The result will allow each side to move to deployment areas (or not) as the fates decree with all combinations of total surprise to total preparedness possible between them.

Game Rule 6.0c describes the Run Up best, “No War Yet, Just Movement.” 

In the 1945 scenario Run Up turns the Allied player has DOUBLE movement allowance to try and rush forces to the front. That is, until you hit rule 6.0f Turn Continuation Check. This rule specifies that after EACH stack of units has moved there is a check to see if the phase continues. A roll of 1 on 1d6 ends the phase. Given that units for both players start unstacked (and the stacking limit is two) that means nearly every INDIVIDUAL unit that moves requires a Continuation Check. With a 1 in 6 chance of ending the turn the Allied player needs to really prioritize which units move and hope that enough will be in place by the time the Tension Level turns the Cold War hot.

That Tension Level is the second major part of the Run Up turns and I absolutely love it. After both sides move the Tension Level is checked. The Tension Level might stay the same or increase one or two levels. The moment the Tension Level goes to five (5) the Run Up turns end and the game transitions to the first War Turn. This mechanic builds real tension; as you inevitably creep closer to war the pressure to get as ready as possible increases…but those pesky Turn Continuation Checks might foil your plans!

ICPlay1
Run up to war!

 

My Run Up to OPERATION UNTHINKABLE
(Note: I am sure there is sub-optimal play in the events that follow. But hey, I’m learning the game too!)

Run Up Turn 1 – Yup, the Allied player rolls a 1 after the first unit moves! The Soviets get six activations before their turn ends. Guess they got some good intelligence and are out-maneuvering the Allies for the moment. There is no Tension Level change (TL=0).

Run Up Turn 2 – The Allies get some better luck. The Vienna front is much improved with the arrival of UK and Polish reinforcements (since they start in one giant stack they all can be activated for one Turn Continuation Check roll). The mountainous terrain here is funneling the Allies onto roads…the mechanized strike forces are dog-piled onto the road from Salzburg to Vienna with a traffic jam at the Line of Contact which they cannot cross yet. Seeing the Allied build up against Vienna the Soviets respond by moving forces from near Bratislava across the Danube to build a defensive line to the west of Vienna. Now the world is getting nervous – the Tension Level increases to 1.

Part of my sub-optimal play here came from not reading the Terrain Effects on Movement Chart close enough. Specifically, I was overpaying movement for units in Rough terrain by treating it as Mountain. I eventually figured it out but too late for this turn to reset. So I’ll just say this turn had “logistical challenges.”

Run Up Turn 3 – The Allies start shifting mechanized forces in the north to threaten Berlin. As seems to be the norm in this run-up to war, the Allies end up moving fewer units than the Soviets who build up the defenses of Berlin as well a continuing to build the defense of Vienna. Tensions continue to rise with the Tension Level going up another step (TL=2).

Run Up Turn 4 – The Allies finally start building up against the center in Germany with many forces arriving to the west of Dresden. From here they not only threaten Dresden but also the southern approaches to Berlin or even Prague to the south. Somewhat belatedly, the Soviets start building defenses in front of Prague but now it’s the Soviets who run short of time. Leaders from both sides sense that war is getting much closer (Tension Level +2…TL=4…war is inevitable at the end of the next Run Up turn). 

Run Up Turn 5 – The Allies know this is the last chance to get units into their jump off positions. The Soviets understand this will be the last chance to build a defensive line before the shooting war starts. The Allies bring in all seven reinforcement divisions at Lubeck in the north to greatly strengthen the threat to Berlin. The Soviets respond by moving many of their infantry divisions to the front line with mechanized forces just behind to back-stop or counterattack. The Soviets also built up more defenses in front of Prague. 

And with that, the (nascent) Cold War turns hot.

OPERATION UNTHINKABLE
Turn 1

  • War in the Air – The first day of the war dawns clear and the Allied air forces came out in force. P-47s and Spitfires commit to Air Superiority missions (Allied fighters can chose between Air Superiority or Strike). The Soviets launched all their fighters on Air Superiority missions and put up all their strike aircraft. The Allies gain Superiority in the air and chase most of the Soviet aircraft from the skies. At the end of Turn 1, three Soviet Superiority fighter units and an IL-2 Strike unit are lost.

The Air War rules in Iron Curtain are rather simplified and very easy to execute but still feel “correct” for a game of this level of operations. First, players commit their air units to either Air Superiority or Strike missions. An Air Superiority roll is made with the difference in number of units in the Air Superiority box a modifier for the Allies. In this case the Allied player rolled a 10 with a +2 modifier for an Allied Superiority result. At this point both players roll 2d6 for Potential Losses; with Allied Superiority any Allied unit that roll LESS THAN 5 is a potential loss whereas a Soviet is potentially lost on a roll of less than 10. Units that are a Potential Loss then roll again on a Loss Resolution table where a 1-2 is destroyed, 3 is return on a later turn, and 4-6 is No Effect (but unable to conduct any other mission this turn). The Soviets here had bad luck and lost four units this turn.

ICAir2
Air Combat in play
  • Southern Front (Vienna) – The Allies recognize that the terrain and limited roads to Vienna will be a difficult slog so they commit both the A-20 and B-26 Strike aircraft to this front to try and reduce the opposing Soviet divisions. The Allied air fails to do any damage. As much as the Allies try to push, the favorable defender terrain makes it very hard to dislodge the Soviets in front of Vienna. Indeed, the Soviets push back the leading units (the 2nd Polish Armored and 2nd New Zealand Mechanized divisions are badly mauled).
  • Central Front (Prague) – The Allies push to within 30 miles (2 hexes) of Prague but the Soviet mechanized forces hold them at bay. The US 70th Infantry Division succumbs to the Soviet counterattack.
  • Northern Front (Berlin) – Here the Allies have the most success and destroy the first line of Soviet defenses to the south and west of Berlin creating a clear pathway to the city edges. It is to the south of Berlin that the Soviets send their few Strike aircraft against the US 2nd and 6th Armored Divisions to no effect. But the Soviets have many, many more units moving towards the front. In the limited Soviet counterattacks the UK 6th Armored Division is destroyed.

Overall the first three days of the war prove very bloody for the Soviets. Twenty-one (21!) infantry divisions are gone but the front is rapidly stabilizing as the Allies struggle to get favorable odds for their attacks.

Airpower advocates will probably NOT enjoy Iron Curtain as airpower is neither numerous nor seemingly powerful. In a 1945 scenario an air strike needs to roll a 5 or 6 on 1d6 for success. In later scenarios the best chance of success is to strike against Open or Forest hexes – but even then the roll is only 4 or better on 1d6 for success. If you’re looking for a wargame to see the US military’s AirLand Battle doctrine of the 1980’s in action you better be looking elsewhere.

Turn 2 and Beyond
As the war continued the campaign became a real slog-fest for the Allies. Even though the Allies controlled much of the air war the poor Strike power was never a decisive factor. The CRT really became the key factor in the campaign as to generate any sort of reasonable combat result as the attacker you need 3:1 odds…very difficult to achieve unless you attack a single stack from multiple hexes. The many weaker Soviet infantry divisions absorbed the losses in the war of attrition and also proved useful in threatening to surround the fewer Allied units and cut-off supply. This forced the Allies to cover their flanks which in turn reduced combat power at the ‘tip of the spear.’ At the end of the scenario (Turn 10) the dead pile of Soviets was huge but the Allies had only taken four of six VP hexes needed for victory (Prague x2, Dresden, and Cottbus).

Thinking About Unthinkable
Part of the reason I bought Iron Curtain is that the game covers 1945 to 1989. I can understand why the 1945 scenarios came first (chronological order, got it) but I think MMP should place the 1945 scenarios at the end of the scenario selection not at the beginning. I believe this because in many ways the 1945 scenarios are a ‘variant’ system in Iron Curtain and not the ‘main event.’ 

In Iron Curtain, all scenarios except those set in 1945 use the much different Loss Rolls CRT to reflect the differences in combat between the ‘modern’ era and World War II. Using the Loss Rolls CRT the attacker rolls a single d6 to see if the top unit in the stack suffers a loss. Then the attacker rolls a d6 for each unit in the defending stack to see if it suffers a loss and then a further d6 roll to determine if there is a retreat. Thus, in a 1945 scenario where a 2:1 odds attack has results ranging from A2 (Attacker losses 2 steps) to D2r (Defender losses 2 steps and Retreat an automatic 3 hexes) the same 2:1 attack in a 1962 or later scenario will, at worst, generate a single step loss on the attacker and a step loss on each defending unit with a Retreat ranging from None to 3 hexes.

Hopefully it will not be too long before I get Iron Curtain to the table again to try out those later scenarios.

 

Past Next War
When I look for games to compare Iron Curtain to the best one I arrive at is the older NATO: The Next War in Europe from designers Bruce Maxwell and Richard Tru published by Victory Games way back in 1983. [Note that Compass Games is presently offering an updated Designer’s Signature Edition of NATO for pre-order.] Not only do both NATO and Iron Curtain cover similar topics, they also use somewhat similar design approaches as each strives to be what I call “playable monsters” – shorter games on huge topics that are “playable in an evening.”

 

ICNATOCvr

 

Physically, Iron Curtain and NATO are very, very similar games. Iron Curtain uses a 22”x34” map in and around 300 counters in each era whereas NATO is played on a 22”x32” map using 390 counters. Edge-to-edge the maps are near identical in the area depicted. The unit scale in both games is also very similar, focusing in on the Division-level with key Regiments or Brigades also present. NATO uses two-day turns while Iron Curtain uses three-day turns.

 

ICNATOMaps
NATO (left) vs Iron Curtain (right)

 

Both NATO and Iron Curtain have a Run Up to war mechanic. NATO has first Game-Turn rules that, “represents the period immediately preceding the outbreak of war” (see para 219). Iron Curtain, as we have discussed above, leans more heavily into this design element by fleshing it out into an entire Run Up sub-game.

Different game mechanics aside, the major difference between Iron Curtain and NATO is that NATO recreates just one of the scenario “eras” found in Iron Curtain. The closest Iron Curtain counterpart to NATO is the 1983 scenario. The comparison is indirect; NATO actually has three scenarios – Strategic Surprise, Tactical Surprise, and Extended Build-Up. This is where the Run Up turns in Iron Curtain really show that different design approach. A very short Run Up in Iron Curtain is somewhat analogous to the Strategic Surprise scenario in NATO. It follows that a mid-length Run Up is akin to Tactical Surprise and if the Run Up goes to full duration in Iron Curtain you have something closer to the Extended Build-Up scenario of NATO. Here is where I come to deeply appreciate the Iron Curtain “gimmick”; with the Run Up I don’t know ahead of time what level of build up I’m going to get. For me, I savor that unpredictability because of the tension it creates – I don’t really know what I’m going to get so I am forced to make decisions accordingly (and we all know that decisions made under pressure are easily sub-optimal).

I did not sit down and do a detailed order of battle comparison between NATO and Iron Curtain as I don’t think that’s a helpful metric; NATO was based on available open sources at that time while Iron Curtain benefits from many years of declassification of records and historical study – most of it coming after the Berlin Wall fell. Someday it might be interesting to lay out the two side-by-side to see the how much they are alike and ponder on why they are different.

Another area of difference between NATO and Iron Curtain is their very different thoughts on victory. Although each scenario in Iron Curtain is limited to ten War Turns, at the end of each turn there is a check for NATO collapse using Victory Reasons (see 8.2 Victory Reasons & NATO Collapse Check). Basically, once the Warsaw Pact player occupies all four Berlin city hexes, that player makes a roll on 1d6 to see if NATO collapses and the game ends early. The Warsaw Pact player needs to roll the number of “Victory Reasons” (there can be as many as five) or less on that one die to cause NATO collapse. Final victory in Iron Curtain is very straightforward; the Warsaw Pact player must cause NATO collapse before the end of the game with any other result a NATO victory.

Like Iron Curtain, game length in NATO is also preset by choosing to play either an eight-turn or 15-turn scenario. Unlike Iron Curtain, there is no check for NATO collapse in NATO; you simply play out the game length at the end of which you check for victory. Once again I must respect the Iron Curtain design as this is yet another example of the “pressure” the game puts on players; the next turn could be your last if you’re not careful!

The Real Unthinkable
The difference between Iron Curtain and NATO that struck me the most was their very different treatment of nuclear weapons. In the Designer’s Notes to NATO, the designers explicitly state, “The second fundamental assumption is that, if a major war does break out in Europe, it is highly unlikely to go nuclear.” They go on to state, “Hence, the nuclear rules of this game are intended to discourage the rational player from ever pushing the button. However, players who wish to test a different assumption should feel free to ignore the high nuclear threshold built into the game.” If one plays with nuclear fire in NATO they risk immediately losing the game through horrendous penalties in movement, loss of air power, and loss of reinforcements. Those severe penalties, by design, are a very strong source of nuclear restraint. NATO, by design, is not “nuclear friendly.”

What do I mean by immediate, horrendous, or severe? Let’s look at the Tactical Nuclear Warfare rule for NATO found in paragraph 187. To begin with, if a player declares Tactical Nuclear War an immediate die roll is made (1d6) with a result of 1, 2, or 3 provoking a massive strategic nuclear retaliatory strike and immediate defeat. If one makes it past Armageddon, the penalties are:

    • No rail movement
    • All Air Attack Points eliminated with no further points coming available
    • Tactical road movement only
    • All reinforcements not arriving by road or railroad and not on the map are eliminated, all road and railroad reinforcements delayed two-three turns (and even then there is a chance they may be eliminated upon arrival).

Contrast the NATO rules to Iron Curtain. Designer Carl Fung took a very different approach as he talks about in his Designer’s Notes. He writes, “Any discussion about World War III will bring up nukes and chemical weapons. This is where the rules help reinforce the era feel. Outside of worrying about increasing nuclear warhead tonnage throughout the years, nukes and chemical weapons needed to be dealt with straightforwardly; they are destructive and bad.” In game terms, Iron Curtain addresses the battlefield effects in rule 7.5 Nukes and Chemicals that are not too much unlike those found in NATO. But unlike NATO, the design of Iron Curtain does not have a very strong source of nuclear restraint built into the rules. Indeed, the only real source of nuclear restraint for the NATO player is to avoid first-use of nuclear (or chemical) weapons in order to not give the Warsaw Pact player “Victory Reasons.” Likewise, for the Warsaw Pact player, the only source of nuclear restraint is that same first-use decision; if the Warsaw Pact uses nukes or chem weapons first then they can never claim the NATO use of nuclear or chemical weapons as “Victory Reasons.” One might say the design of Iron Curtain “discourages” the use of nukes whereas the design of NATO clearly penalizes the player.

All that makes me think about Carl’s use of the phrase “era feel.” What does he think the 1980’s “feel” like? As one who came of age in the 1980’s and lived under the nuclear armageddon Sword of Damocles, my “era feel” is clouded by abhorrent thoughts on nuclear weapons. I hadn’t really thought about it, but Carl makes me pose a much deeper question for the wargaming hobby, especially in this modern-day renaissance of Cold War gaming. My question is, “What do other generations think the 1980’s “feel” like and how is that being portrayed in wargames?” I will admit, part of the wargamer in me is open to exploring issues like nukes in wargames. But I also recognize doing so comes with some heavy moral baggage for me.

 

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Iron Curtain MMP 2020

 

The different approach to nuclear weapons between NATO and Iron Curtain reminded me of a journal article I read recently discussing the usage of nuclear weapons by elite and non-elite players of political-military wargames during the Cold War (see Reid B.C. Pauly, “Would U.S. Leaders Push the Button? Wargames and Sources of Nuclear Restraint,” International Security, Vol. 43, No. 2 (Fall 2018), pp. 151-192). I know I’m mixing apples and oranges here (i.e. professional and hobby wargames) but hear me out. The evidence Pauly presents suggest elites – “experts with experience in diplomatic or military strategy”- are less willing to use nukes in wargames than non-elites. Indeed, of the 26 games Pauly sampled, 24 ended without the use of nuclear weapons. Pauly also mentions a series of simulations in 1960 at Stanford University played using undergraduates where one-third of the games ended in thermonuclear war. My favorite observation comes from a postgame critique of a 1963 game: “If you want thermonuclear war to break out in a game, just get some high-school students in and you get thermonuclear war. But with responsible people you get ambiguous, gray, shadowy situations where you do not look at your weapons as closely as you want to.” Now, I not going so far as to accuse Mr. Fung of encouraging irrational or irresponsible play his Iron Curtain game; I just find the change in perspective regarding the presentation of nuclear weapons in wargames between a commercial wargame from 1983 and one published in 2020 very interesting.

Hot History in a Cold Box
Even though this discussion of Iron Curtain – Central Europe: 1945-1989 focused on the ‘variant’ scenario of Operation UNTHINKABLE, it is enough to show me that this game rightfully deserves a place in my wargame collection. With Iron Curtain I have, in one box, a playable exploration of the Cold War Gone Hot in Europe spanning several decades. The Standard Game Series approach makes the game very approachable and easy to learn. I especially enjoy the tension and pressure the game design delivers using the Run Up sub-game and the NATO Collapse Check. Philosophically, I appreciate the challenge to my thinking Iron Curtain presents when it comes to weapons of mass destruction. The game is both worthy of further plays and deeper thinking.


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