I have a history with this game. Many moons ago when I was still in the Army, Uncle Sam shipped my household goods to my new duty station only to have the moving van burn up outside St Louis. We are talking near total loss here. I dutifully consoled my wife on the loss of our fine wedding china. She visited me every day in Behavioral Health Lockup on my learning I had lost every cardboard counter wargame I owned. One of those games was Red Star – White Eagle, the Russo-Polish War 1920 (RSWE) by GDW, a personal favorite. It was nothing special, just a good, fun to play game on a unique subject. I must have played the damn thing a hundred of times, becoming the resident expert on the Bolshevik 1st Konarmiya. I was never able to replace it.
Until now. Compass Games has released the 1979 classic as the latest entry in their Designer Signature Edition series, and I was able to finally pick up a copy at the recent Historicon convention. Cost was $79, a bit more than the suspected $20 for games like this back then (even friend, colleague and former GDW honcho Frank Chadwick wasn’t sure). Here are my thoughts as to whether my shekels were well spent.
As regards actual gameplay almost nothing has changed between the two RSWE editions. In fact, back then the game was not known to be a revolution in game design or technique. It was pretty much like all the other games out there, with a scale of 23 km per hex, one week per turn and units ranging from battalion to division, but mostly the latter and brigades. Unit types are mostly infantry and cavalry with only a few artillery formations, but also armored cars, tanks, naval flotillas, one aircraft unit (the Kosciuszko Squadron) and a LOT of fortified trains. Counters have NATO symbology along with the three ubiquitous numbers for Attack/Defense/Movement.
Each game turn also has the three classic wargame phases, those being a) Reinforcement and Replacement Phase, b) Movement Phase and c) Combat Phase. There are no command and control rules to speak of, and supply is pretty standard. Each side traces supply to off map locations, or if Polish, via railway to specific cities each having a limit as to how many divisions it can support. Combat is typical Defender or Attacker Eliminated, Half Eliminated, Exchange, ½ Exchange along with retreating a certain number of hexes. There are also a host of game options to add more realism appropriate to the campaign, such as a Polish Rally rule, use of a Polish Railway Reserve, Ukrainian units switching side depending on who held Kiev last, Polish use of Upper Silesian railways and so on. RSWE melds all of this into a campaign and three shorter scenarios.
Nothing earth-shattering to be sure, yet the game did offer a few unique concepts specific to the historical era simulated, one of which was the Russian Fronts rule. The bottom line is that a combination of pathetic logistics and Bolshevik command rivalry means that units from the two fronts (West and Southwest) can not combine to attack an enemy unit, and a unit from one front forced into another front’s turf is Out of Supply. Another nifty rule IMHO is the way Zones of Control (ZOCs and talk about classic, do we still use those anymore?). ZOCs add movement penalties to those units trying to pass through them, and while some formations have no ZOC, those that do base the penalty on what the game calls a Delay Factor. Units going through an enemy ZOC with a Delay Factor of one pay one additional movement point for each hex entered. If the Delay Factor is three, then the penalty is three additional. There is also unlimited movement on National Rail Nets as well as a few other things.
What made the game special? Well, it was realistic, easy and uber fun to play with rules that simply worked, for one. But it also had the advantage of covering a niche period of history totally different from the popular view of the Great War that spawned it. Think World War I and terms like defense, trenches, “mud and blood to the green fields beyond” come to mind. Not in this game. In this game attacking is key to victory and maneuver is key to attacking. Historically this was due to a wide geographic front with not near the density of troops to cover it as in Flanders. Additionally, the two competitors did not have the industrial base to supply large numbers of death dealing hardware. In 1914 French battalions had two machineguns assigned and by 1918 the number was 54, but in Poland 1920, not so much. Think World War I without trenches, barbed wire 600 rounds a minute, and Compass has kept all of this intact. Yes, the rules now have all of the errata directly incorporated, yes there are some expanded Warsaw fortification and naval flotilla rules, but that’s it.
On the other hand, if you are talking graphics, then strap in tight because we’re going hyperdrive. Compass is fast becoming part of a new triumvirate ruling the cardboard wargaming world, and part of the reason is their art and graphics. I’ve always thought GMT top dog here, but I am very ready to reconsider. From a presentation standpoint, everything about this game is just plain spectacular. Most of this is (really damn good) cosmetic, and some of it is not, but all of it is in blazing color.
The game weighs in with a bookcase game box emblazoned with a painting showing Polish infantry driving away the Russian invader into the gates of Hell, while overhead the Virgin Mary and 10,000 thundering Winged Hussars urge them forward (and considering the stunt the Poles pulled at Warsaw, divine intervention cannot be discounted).* Inside there are two color maps totaling 42 x 39 inches, two 5/8-inch countersheets with 344 double sided counters, an 8 x 17-inch campaign deployment map, two player aid cards with combat and movement tables, two Russian set-up charts, two Polish set-up charts, a turn chart and an SPI style six-sided mini die. The rule book is 28 pages long of which only 17 are rules. The rest cover scenarios, optional rules and a new and very well-done set of historical notes.
All of this is full color, but only the counters have a glossy sheen. The rest of the material has more of a matte or semi-gloss look about it, somewhat reminiscent of the old SPI games which contrasted so greatly with their Avalon Hill competitors. The high production value is especially evident in the rule book where it seems every section, if not every paragraph, has an accompanying illustration describing rule or game play. The four Russian and Polish deployment charts are also a brilliant cavalcade of color but are also keyed to identify those units that begin festivities inverted indicating a reduced state.
The maps and counters are also noteworthy for a couple of reasons. First, everything is bigger than before with larger hexes and counters. There is also a smaller, double-sided, supporting map that shows initial deployment areas for the entire campaign or the Belarussian scenarios, vice annotating them on the primary playing surface. Obviously, the map graphics have been redone, but it’s the counters where the revisions really shine. Yes, more colorful, but more practical as well. Setup or Reinforcement codes are now printed on the counters, as is a small square indicating the unit is non-replaceable. Several of the unit icons have been totally redone with the single Polish air unit (because I am not writing that name again) having a top down view of a Polish insignia bearing a German Albatross D III and armored units with a French Renault FT-17. Even some of the NATO symbols are unique for the Poles. There are now revised icons for peasant (shovel and pick), student (open library book), women (the female gender symbol) and Roman Catholic priest (Latin cross; like I said, divine intervention) regiments. Other nice updates include things like Ukrainian or Galician units in both Bolshevik (red) and Polish (light blue) colors, to reflect those faction’s shifting loyalties during the campaign.
Bottom line is that the new edition of RSWE is really pretty, but often pretty with a purpose. That’s something I don’t see often with reissues like this.
Something Borrowed or Blue (my final word)
OK, this is a tough one. If you ask me if the game is worth the price, I’m going to say definitively and with absolute certainty, “maybe.” It really depends on your current gaming status and overall wargaming personality. If you are a Grognard and already own a copy of the original, I’m not sure the increase in price is worth it. For all the updates and spectacular graphics, it is still the same 1979 game (which was not revolutionary by any means) and still plays the same way. Likewise, if you are one of the Young Guard and have no fear of keyboards or mice, the equally well designed and eye-candy heavy Russo-Polish War scenario in Matrix Games The Operational Art of War is $40 US less expensive and has an additional 200 + scenarios to tickle your marshal’s baton.
BUT if you don’t own this game (or maybe something similar like White Eagle Eastward in S&T 156), have seen it torched (that would be me), haven’t received your geek certification yet or simply like good board wargaming over anything else. . . OH. HELL. YES. It’s a design from a time when fun had a little more equality with historical accuracy than with many current games, and it covers a fascinating, yet counter-intuitive part of the Great War era little remembered today.
So, pour yourself some Polish Vodka, relax and watch the 2011 film Battle for Warsaw 1920 (legally downloadable from Youtube), then at the very least give this period of history a shot. Preferably with a French 75 towards the nearest Bolshevik within range.
* Actually the 1930 Wojciech Kossak painting Miracle on the Vistula, 15 August 1920.