A First Look at Avalon Digital's Winter War

By Bill Gray 14 May 2020 0

The 28th of April this year was a good day for me, COVID consternations notwithstanding. On that date Avalon Digital opened early access to their new PC game Winter War, and I got a Steam serial number to take a look. Bottom line? Ok, there are still a few bugs to fix but this is another rock solid, and amazingly realistic, entry into the firm’s line of area-based wargames. It's well worth the 15 US shekels they propose to charge for it, so if the final product is even close to what I played, by all means make a place on your hard drive.

But first a little background, partly driven from comments I’ve seen on Facebook. Right now this game is in Early Access. This means that the game is not complete. Some functions in the game have not been flipped on. Some functions in the game have been flipped on but may not work correctly or work contrary to the historical record. Thus, changes are likely, and the final product may play much differently than the version you are plinking on the keyboard with currently.

For example, although a video tutorial comes with the game, clicking the associated button brings up... zip, nada, zilch. The tutorials haven’t been added yet.

Likewise, instead of a detailed manual, you have a small five page rules document that gives some overall understanding of the entire product line, while clicking on Scenario Information will impart some details about game specific concepts. Changes that have already dropped include making Breakthrough and Pursuit into forested and marshy areas a possibility if you run the Finnish army, giving the Finns one extra replacement point per turn, and reducing supply ranges from 4 to 3 regions due to the hip deep to a moose snow fall in the country.

Winter War Map

The game covers the Soviet invasion of Finland from November 1939 to March 1940. The Red Army eventually won but emerged from the conflict looking like the Laurel and Hardy of world military forces. Each turn in the game represents one week of real time, with the grand campaign lasting 15 turns or no more than 4 ½ hours of play. Units can range from division size down to a multitude of royal pain in the ass Finnish ski companies. You can play either side, against the AI or against another person with victory determined by achieving Victory Points due to geographic control of various areas or triggering foreign intervention if you play Finland. The five scenarios given include Invasion 1939 covering the first four turns, the Winter War grand campaign of 15, plus the battles of Tolvajarvi, Soumussalmi (seriously, look up the Finnish word “Motti” for this one) and the assault on the Mannerheim Line.

This game is really Avalon’s Wars Across the World (WAW) on steroids, very similar to the company’s Battles for Spain which I reviewed here on Wargamer some time back. Winter War plays pretty much the same way although it has been modified to reflect the unique, sub zero military aspects of this blustery campaign. This means there is now an Ambush function as part of the combat routine, although only one of the two warring powers seems able to use it. Wanna guess which one?

Winter War Battle Screen

The interface is also typical of the game’s ancestry and continues a distinctly European design style. True, there is no formal manual, but the way the UI functions is so intuitive that it really takes only a minimum of fiddling to figure out how to play. Part of this is due another point of continuity for Avalon games in that they really hold the player’s proverbial hand and take baby steps thru the entire turn by turn play process. For example, Winter War retains the ubiquitous card deck bidding procedure, both as regards random events and influencing combat. When battle occurs, the AI will highlight those cards able to be played so the player doesn’t have to go searching around himself. Same with replacements. If one is available at turn’s start, the AI highlights those areas where you can drop it.

Once again the graphics are spectacular, very European, very Vae Victis like, properly described as the best graphics both GMT Games and Compass Games had to offer kicked up a notch. The troops and combat hardware are detailed and exquisitely rendered, down to proper uniforms and vehicle markings (so yes, Finnish aircraft have that very unpolitically correct light blue “hooked cross” insignia). Also, the proper hardware is displayed as well as exact historical unit designations. Images of the various commander’s faces follow suit, and all of this gives a very thick air of authenticity to playing the game. No, its not a generic Finnish infantry unit, but the 16th Jaeger Regiment that was actually deployed where the game map says it was. It may be a little thing, but my feeling has always been that if the designers take this much care in getting this cosmetic stuff right, I’m betting my last Markka the rest of the game is just as historically accurate.

Winter War Air Movement

Finally, we come to game play, and I have to say that Winter War gave me one of the most unique experiences I’ve had in this hobby. It invoked an almost emotional kinship with the historical commanders that fought this campaign. It was though I could sense exactly how they felt after the fighting had ceased and the peace negotiators had signed the final document. I won the game, but I felt like I lost the peace. Let me explain.

I played two scenarios of Winter War; the introductory Invasion 1939 battle and the entire grand campaign. I know that everyone likes an underdog, and everyone wants to see the 'good guys' win, so most folks will opt to play the Finns. However, I decided to take the road less travelled and play the Red Army in both contests. Remembering that success is determined by geographic control of certain areas and claiming the Victory Points they awarded, I was able to pretty much bludgeon my way through. Helping the Soviet cause were far more areas available for MSU Timoshenko and the lads to capture than there were for the Finns to control. So, in the end, victory was mine and my inner Stalin was... actually not one damn bit happy.

Winter War Turn Summary

I prevailed, but it didn’t seem that way. Every time fighting was over, those prissy little Finnish Sissipataljoona had caused yet another of my Russian units to rout, or retreat or do something else to drive the notional Kommissars present nuts. Rather than a victory toast of Vodka, at the game's end I felt like I had just forced marched from Leningrad to Sevastopol with some grizzled Finnish ski trooper kicking my butt every inch of the way. And every time the combat results chart popped up and I saw the list of Soviet defeats, racking up a few more Victory Points on my side of the ledger just didn’t seem to make it better. It's no wonder Adolph Hitler looked at the bumbling Soviet effort and figured sending out the Berlin police force to arrest the Red Army was probably overkill.

But ultimately, I guess that’s the point, and that’s what makes a good wargame a great one. Its something to ensure the accuracy of gameplay and results, quite another to invoke an emotional catharsis while doing it. Yes, there are a few things left to fix – the popup combat charts are too in your face and obscure the map – but overall, I think Winter War has already succeeded in the important parts. And this means the final software package ought to be more fun than a Molotov Cocktail in a Russian fuel depot.

Winter War was released into Steam Early Access on April 28th, 2020. At the time of writing it was due to remain in early access for up to 75 days, which would put a full release sometime in July.

This article was kindly donated to Wargamer.com by the author.

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