Red Storm Rising is a novel about a hypothetical WW3 fought between NATO and the Warsaw Pact during the mid- to late 1980s. Written by Tom Clancy and co-authored by Larry Bond, it was published by Putnam in 1986 and has ever since lived on as one of the best examples of the Cold-War-Turned-Hot genre. Not only is it a very good thriller, its depiction of naval and land warfare was heavily based on how experts and simulations predicted the military hardware might perform.
I first read this book in 1987 as a teenager and I was immediately hooked on this genre. In fact, I still occasionally pull my old copy from the shelf and lose myself in its pages describing huge tank battles on the northern plains of West Germany and tense submarine warfare in the Atlantic Ocean. I can’t remember anything about the movie I watched last week but I can always vividly picture the scene in “The Dance of the Vampire” where a US carrier group is severely mauled after the Soviets use drones to lure away the American interceptors from the real bomber group. My jaw nearly hit the floor when I read that the first time around. Who needs Game of Thrones, right?
The book was a big hit and a #1 bestseller. Only a year after the book was published, it had already sold well over 1 million copies. A computer game was released in 1987 with the same name as the book. Players could command a modern US nuclear submarine and go hunting around the North Atlantic. Despite the limitations of computer PC hardware in 1987, the game was pretty good for its time!
In 1989, we got another game based on Red Storm Rising – this time it was a boardgame. Based on the battle for Germany as depicted in the novel, this was the second boardgame to come out that was based on a Tom Clancy novel. The Hunt for Red October boardgame was published in 1988 and awesomely enough, it can be combined with Red Storm Rising for one big giant game of both naval and land action to create a huge WW3 battle that you could play over the course of days.
|Yes, that bit about “Eastern Europe” irks me too. Ah well!|
Instead of going for the traditional grognard audience, TSR went straight for the general public with the design of the game. I’m guessing they were trying to follow up the success of Axis & Allies with a wargame that would appeal to casuals. They did, however, make allowances for those who wanted something a little deeper than just a “roll the die” and try-your-luck game. The advanced rules for Red Storm Rising include a surprising amount of chrome. There is an air war component as well as different kinds of assets for each side to use (chemical, engineers, artillery, and armor). There are airmobile and paratroop rules and terrain effects that also come into play.
The basic rules strip all of this right down to a simple slugfest between units. Each turn in the basic game is broken down into a Warsaw Pact attack phase, Warsaw Pact movement phase, NATO movement, NATO attack, and finally a reinforcement phase. Players roll a 10-sided die to conduct an attack. If they can roll equal to or under the attack rating of their unit, the attack succeeds. If you roll equal to your unit’s attack rating, the enemy must retreat or take a hit (different strength units can take different numbers of hits before being destroyed). If you roll under your unit’s attack rating, the enemy must do both. If you roll a “1”, the enemy is destroyed outright (if they have the same or less combat rating as the attacker). If you have an armor unit in reserve after a successful attack, it can make a breakthrough move into the vacated space and attack. As the Warsaw Pact player, you are always hoping to gain and keep momentum as the clock ticks down towards game end.
To say that the outcome of the basic game is mostly governed by luck would be an understatement. If you can manage to roll better than your opponent, you are certainly going to win no matter what decisions you make. There is very little real strategy involved as setup areas are confined to certain areas on the board. The NATO player is especially hamstrung by this as the rules dictate that he must have at least one unit in every space adjacent to the Iron Curtain at setup. It should be noted that there are optional rules to get rid of this setup rule and also to semi-randomize the game’s end point with a die roll from the end of turn 4 onwards.
In the basic game, each side gets a limited number of support markers it can use to help out an attack. When you plunk down a support marker, your attacking unit gets to roll two dice for the attack and take the best result. So there is some strategy here but it is kept very light and luck-based.
I admit that I played this solo for my first run-through. When I played the NATO side during each turn, I simply turned the Warsaw Pact counters around and vice versa when I played the Pact. Luckily, I am getting old so I quickly forgot about the combat values of the enemy counters when it came time to switch sides.
|Peekaboo! The game is played blind with counters facing away from the enemy player – much like a block game.|
After playing lots of complex games, I was worried that I would be bored with Red Storm Rising. I probably would have if there was only the Basic Rules to play with and I were only playing solo. I could definitely see myself playing this with my young son some day, which was my main motivation for getting it.
In my first game, the Soviets managed a breakthrough near Hannover on the first turn. British and Belgian troops managed to keep the Russian tanks from completely getting through by counterattacking against the lead Russian units. However, on turn 2, the Soviets took three more cities. Kiel, Hamburg, and Kassel fell in the north and it looked very bad for NATO. The Soviets only needed one more city for a victory. In the second half of turn 2, NATO counterattacked in the northern sector, mauling several Soviet divisions but failing to take back any of their cities.
|The Soviets grab several cities in the northern sector – turn 2.|
In turn 3, the Soviets finally achieved the breakthrough they were hoping for in the south, capturing Nurnburg and with enough cities to declare victory if they could hold on to them until the end of turn 4. The West Germans managed to place several reinforcements near Dortmund and moved them west in an organized push. The Soviets tried to consolidate their gains in turn 4, making space around Nurnburg. Although it held into turn 4, the West Germans in the northern sector used their armor to great effect and rolled several “1”s, which destroyed at least 4 Soviet divisions near Kassel. The Brits followed up with a counterattack and the city fell back into NATO’s hands. Game Result: Draw.
|The Warsaw Pact makes headway into the southern sector (left) while pushing towards Dortmund in the north (right).|
Having played through the basic game in about two hours, I decided to try and take on the advanced game. As I mentioned above, the advanced game has several additional bells and whistles. The Land Game introduces assets such as artillery, armor, engineers, and chemical munitions. Artillery and armor increase a unit’s attack rating by 1 while engineers allow you to cross rivers without incurring a movement penalty. Chemical munitions increase your attack value rating by 2 but at the cost of losing East German support (all EG pieces are immediately removed from the game when they are used).
The Air/Land Game introduces air units into the game. We get out the air board that splits Central Europe into a northern and southern sector and work out most of the game’s air phase here. At the start of each turn, players assign command missions for surveillance aircraft, which can be used to give bonuses to air-to-air combat. Air units on both sides vie for air superiority in a way that is very similar to GDW’s Third World War: The Battle for Germany game. Once you go through the air superiority phase, remaining air units can be assigned to tactical air missions at the start of your side’s attack phase. You check an air superiority table and make a roll to see if your tac air unit gets to perform its mission or is shot down or damaged or aborted on the way. You can use tac air to either hit and damage enemy ground units or you can perform interdiction.
I randomly assigned missions here as I was playing solo. The Pact player assigned two Mainstays to command missions in the northern sector while NATO put AWACs into both sectors.
One of the cool things is that the F-19 can be used to perform a one-time mission at the start of the game to try and shoot down the opposing player’s command aircraft and the WP player doesn’t even get a chance to fire back or defend their command aircraft in any way. BOOM! Both F-19s scream into East Germany on the first night of the war and shoot down one of their Mainstays. That felt great.
In the air superiority phase, the Pact player lost a considerable number of airplanes. Two MiG-27 squadrons in the northern sector were damaged and aborted while one Su-27 and two MiG-29 squadrons were outright eliminated in the north. Down in the south, Pact air losses were kept to two MiG-29s. Two Su-27s were damaged and aborted their mission.
NATO air fared well in the northern sector. There were some light losses, including a Dutch F-16 squadron that aborted, while an American F-15 and F-16 squadron and a French F-1 squadron were damaged and aborted. Oddly enough, it was nearly the same in the southern sector with an F-15, F-16 and French F-1 damaged and aborted. No NATO planes in either sector were eliminated.
|NATO whittles down the Soviet air force on turn 1.|
The Warsaw Pact ground attack phase started and I assigned assets across the front. No real surprises here. I spread out the love with artillery and armor assets given to units attacking towards key target cities like Kassel and Hamburg in the north as well as any units that would be attacking into mountainous or rough terrain in the southern sector.
Hinds, Su-25s, and Hips were sent out in search of ground targets. I tried my best to hit the Danes and the Belgians as hard as possible to pave the way for a northern sector victory. About half of my tac air got shot down on the way to the target since air superiority was contested. Down south, I assigned a Hind, Su-25 and other ground attack aircraft the mission of hitting units near the border closest to Nurnberg. Unfortunately, nearly all Pact air units were shot down or aborted on the way to the target in the southern sector. Two paratroop landings were attempted near Dortmund but both were shot down on the way to target and the units were destroyed.
The Soviet tanks rolled west and, despite the poor start to the air war, they did a nice job of establishing breakthroughs thanks to the liberal use of support markers and assets. Kassel fell to Pact forces on turn 1 and Munich appeared to be left wide open for Soviet forces as a Soviet spearhead worked its way along the northern banks of the Danube.
NATO pulled back its forces in the north to accommodate the Soviets but kept hold of Kiel and Hamburg. NATO air was spent on trying to support a failed attempt at taking back Kassel but A-10s did manage to blunt the Soviet advance west of the city, keeping the Pact forces contained. In the south, NATO air struggled to do any good whatsoever. Several planes were lost on the way to the target and although helicopters were very effective in their attacks, they took losses in turn.
By the end of the turn, NATO was attempting to shore up Nurnburg in the south and putting West German reinforcements in the Ruhr. The French reinforced Strasbourg and sent some armor towards Munich to help keep the Soviets from taking the city unopposed. The Soviets reinforced success by putting several armored divisions near Magdeburg, ready to help with the drive towards the Ruhr.
|A look at the front lines near the border at the end of turn 1.|
Each side gets air reinforcements. NATO pulls a couple of F-16s and an AWACs while the Soviets get two MiG-23s and an Su-24.
The air war goes badly for the Soviets at the start of the turn. Much of the Soviet air force is knocked out of the air in the north while it is entirely wiped out in the southern sector. Having said that, NATO has taken higher than expected losses. The Americans have shouldered much of the pain, losing two F-15 squadrons, both Stealth fighters, and several F-16s.
|Air board at the end of Air Superiority Combat phase in turn 2. NATO owns the south.|
The Soviets went for an even split of tactical aircraft between the two theaters again this time. Most of the air in the north is sent in to support the furthest advances west. Assignment of air assets in the south is evenly split along the front. The Pact player really wants to dislodge more American and West German units along the Czech-German border as the Soviet “breakthrough” down here is more of a trickle of armor rather than a river of angry men and steel.
There are no more artillery assets to assign but there is still plenty of armor and engineers to go around. Most of the available assets are assigned to the northern sector. Engineers are assigned to the mechanized infantry divisions northeast of Kassel in hopes of prying open the NATO defense around the lead elements of the northern advance.
|Soviet 39 Guards, 3rd Shock and East German 7th Armored get fresh assets: start of Turn 2|
The Pact player starts rolling for his attacks in the north, checking the results of each air mission on a particular space prior to hitting it with land forces. The Danes retreat from Kiel and lose the city while Hamburg holds on against repeated assaults. Some air gets through but it is mostly ineffective.
The real surprise comes when the 39th Guards MRD completely annihilates a strength 4 British armored unit defending in the forests north of Kassel. The linchpin of NATO’s defense in the northern sector is completely gone in a surprise victory for the Pact player. To both players’ astonishment, the way to the Ruhr is now wide open!
In the south, every single Pact aircraft (save for two) assigned to tactical air missions is either shot down or mission aborted (most are shot down) by NATO fighters. There are a couple of minor NATO retreats along the inter-German border but the front is largely stabilized down here at this point.
By the end of the Pact movement phase, the Soviets have taken Dortmund and things are looking very bad for NATO indeed as several key German cities are in easy reach of the Soviets. It is staring to look like an unqualified disaster for NATO. Probably should have used some aircraft for interdiction. Oops!
|Looking west…Soviet units have reached the Ruhr. The north is in peril.|
During the NATO move phase, West German and British units are rushed back west to help try and stop the bleeding in the northern sector. West German paratroops land in Dortmund and US 101st also lands in the city to help secure it. NATO tactical air is mostly ineffective here but the West Germans manage to destroy a large East German “5 strength division south of Dortmund with the help of A-10s.
In the south, NATO tactical air has pretty much free reign to do whatever it wants since NATO has air superiority in this sector. NATO attempts a counterattack into East Germany with a mechanized infantry and armored division. By the end of the turn, they are threatening Leipzig, much to the Soviets’ dismay.
NATO reinforcements come online at the end of the turn and we get a Belgian infantry division, French tank division, and a US division. The Americans are placed in Ostebruck while the Belgians are placed west of the cities of the Ruhr. The Soviets get three mech infantry divisions, two of which are placed near Leipzig and two of which go near Magdeburg. East German cities near the NATO breakthrough look quite secure.
For air reinforcements, NATO gets an French Jaguar (attack value 4 for tactical air use), a Belgian Alphajet and a West German F-4 squadron (both of whom are attack value 4). Not a minute too soon, the Soviets get another Mainstay AWACs and a couple fighter squadrons (Mig-23 and Mig-21 both with yellow air attack rating of 3). I wouldn’t exactly say that the Soviets are back in the game for the air war but they might be able to keep their hold on one of the sectors next turn if they don’t get too greedy and dilute their existing airpower by spreading it out across both sectors.
|End of Turn 2|
The turn started off with the Pact player facing a decision – either place two AWACs in one sector or spread them out and risk an attack on them by NATO aircraft. Interceptors were running low for the Soviets so they played it safe and put both Mainstay command aircraft in the north. Of course, NATO was amply supplied with its own AWACs and put two in each sector.
The Warsaw Pact failed to shoot down any full strength NATO planes though it did manage a couple of aborts and finished off a damaged squadron or two. Most NATO aircraft were fighting in the south with only a handful of jets in the north. Still, the fighters in the north fended off the worst of the Soviet attacks and had a single Alphajet in the sector by the end of the air superiority combat phase, which left the skies contested. The Soviets had absolutely no luck in the south but NATO couldn’t manage to do much either. The result was a contested southern sector and both sides were left fuming and frustrated by the end of the phase.
NATO finally got wise and assigned several planes to interdiction this turn. Tactical aircraft swept across the areas east of Dortmund in hopes of slowing the Pact’s advance to the Ruhr. In the south, NATO helos were sent to interdict any enemy troops headed towards Nurnburg. However, poor rolling on the air superiority table ended up removing pretty much all NATO tactical aircraft in the south.
During the attack phase, the Pact has some very nice success all across the board. In the south, the Soviets and Czechs take Nurnburg. In the far north, Hamburg and Hannover are taken next. The WP has a total of six German cities under its boot – one more than is required for victory. Two tank divisions manage a breakthrough near the center of the map and nearly reach Frankfurt during the move phase. The Soviets manage to miraculously get an airmobile unit into Dortmund to help hang on to their precious gain.
|Things starting to look desperate for NATO now.|
NATO is left reeling and scrambles to put together a counterattack near Nurnburg while Belgians and US airmobile units and paratroopers move into the West German cities west of the Rhine. NATO manages to take back Nurnburg in its planned counterattack. The last NATO unit (a Dutch infantry unit) pulls back across the Elbe. There is an US armored unit and infantry unit running around in the Pact rear through East Germany. If it can take an East German city, the Soviet margin of victory will be seriously reduced. The Soviets are forced to park their reinforcements in Magdeburg and near other East German cities to help prevent this.
One of the things about playing this game solo is that you have to randomize certain parts of the game because so much of it is double blind. The way I get around this in the air phase of each turn is to basically consider myself as a ground theater commander making a request to the air force commanders for allocation of resources to a certain sector. This influences a d6 roll to determine where each plane gets sent. So if the NATO ground commander wants air primarily assigned to the northern sector, for example, a given aircraft will be sent there on a d6 roll of 1-4. Otherwise, it goes to the south. This has worked very well for me so far during the game and has kept things interesting (and sometimes frustrating). This turn was no different.
In the northern sector, NATO assigns six squadrons of aircraft while 5 go to the southern sector. I actually was trying to get more aircraft sent south but the die roll leaned north instead. The Pact commander also requested forces in the south and largely got what he wanted. Three squadrons are assigned northern sector and 5 are sent south.
|Northern and Southern sector air superiority assignments (before tac air assignments)|
The results of air combat were not too surprising. NATO completely wiped out the Pact forces in the north and gained air superiority in the sector. It had less success in the south, where it lost a Belgian F-16 and suffered a damaged British F-4. The southern sector remained contested.
Frustratingly, the Pact air commander insisted on sending the bulk of tactical air to the northern sector where it would likely be shredded by NATO interceptors. The Soviets debate a bit about using chemical munitions for what may be the final turn of the game It ends on a roll of 7 to 10 at the end of this turn. If not, the same roll is made each subsequent turn. The East Germans, however, are holding in and around some key cities in the north so whatever short term gains might be made with chemical munitions would probably be lost due to lack of manpower. The war is going well for the Soviets so far so it makes no sense.
Three WP tactical aircraft are assigned to attack Dusseldorf while two attack Bremen. Amazingly, two tactical aircraft (both Su-24s) make it through NATO’s air screen and attack Dusseldorf, inflicting a hit on the defending West German paratroopers defending the city. Soviet infantry invades the city from nearby Dortsmund and eliminate them shortly afterwards. The tip of the Soviet invasion has now reached the east bank of the Rhine. An East German armored division attacks Bremen and manages a success, sending the defending Dutch retreating. Seven German cities are now in the hands of the Pact player. The only good news for NATO commanders is that the planned attack on Frankfurt fails miserably.
Pact forces double up their defenses on each of their captured cities during their movement phase. Taking back anything will be a tough nut to crack. NATO maneuvers a few units around the tip of the Soviet spear and send a West German armored division and a US infantry and armored division to take back Dusseldorf and Dortmund. The West German counterattack fails but the US infantry lays a beating on the defending Soviet infantry in the city. The Soviets lose a defending unit and tactical air manages a hit on the defending armored unit but the city is still held by the Russians at the end of the turn.
|Soviets push through all the way to the Rhine.|
US infantry across the Rhine attack into Dusseldorf, scoring a die roll that matches their attack rating value. The Soviets decide to soak up the damage and stubbornly remain there. Another “Hail Mary” attack from the Danes manages to dislodge the Soviets temporarily from Hannover but a retreating Soviet tank division falls back into the city to secure it.
A few counterattacks are attempted in the south but NATO cannot seem to get anything going here. It seems the front has stabilized mostly around Nurnberg. French reinforcements arrive near Frankfurt to help with the city’s defense.
|End of Turn 4: NATO counterattacks…but it isn’t enough.|
We roll to see if the game is over and a “10” is rolled. With seven NATO cities in Soviet hands, the Russians have won with an overwhelming victory.
I really enjoyed Red Storm Rising. It was deeper than I thought it would be. Although the basic game is ruled almost entirely by the luck of the die, the advanced game offers both players some interesting decisions like air and asset allocation, which plays a very influential role on the overall outcome of the war. For a light wargame, I think Red Storm is just the right balance of fun and strategy with a nice theme on top of it. For anyone wanting anything even slightly deeper, VG’s NATO: The Next War in Europe is what you are looking for.
In terms of balance, I think NATO has a very tough job of it going into this game because of the setup rules. Luckily, there are optional setup rules that allow for the NATO player to pick and choose where to deploy his initial units. On the other hand, NATO air ratings are way better than Pact air units and a decent player would have probably gained air superiority more quickly than I did in my game. I also didn’t use NATO aircraft for interdiction until turn 3. A smarter allocation of air resources might have halted the Soviet thrust towards the Ruhr. I could have also assigned planes to attack Warsaw Pact assets. If I played this again, I would send a plane at anything that had an engineer attached to it because those assets basically nullified my river defense strategy.
I made a couple of house rules during my game, which I would state below:
1.) Units cannot retreat into cities captured by the enemy, even if they are vacant. Units can always retreat into friendly-captured cities no matter what.
2.) If a unit’s attack rating is reduced to 1 or less, it cannot destroy an enemy unit on a roll of 1. Instead, the attack is treated as if the roll was equal to the attacker’s combat value. That means the enemy unit can either retreat or opt to remain in its location and take a hit.
I can see pulling this thing out when my son gets older and giving it a go. It’s probably one of the best beer & pretzels (or coke & chips) game I’ve played in a long time. It is a very nice entry-level wargame that has all the basic ideas (breakthrough, asset allocation, maneuver) of a deeper wargame in there. What’s more, you can play this through in a single sitting. I would recommend Red Storm Rising to anyone interested in a game with this kind of theme and weight to it.