The ultimate David & Goliath story, set in the frigid north.
Type: Singleplayer, Multiplayer
Developer: Avalon Digital
Publisher: Avalon Digital
Release date: 28 Apr, 2020
The Winter War was a short war between Finland and the Soviet Union that’s often heralded as one of the greatest David & Goliath moments in history, where scrappy Finland beat back the much more powerful Soviet horde.
Winter War is a turn-based strategy game that deals with the war in its entirety. You get to take control of either the Finnish or Soviet forces and try to turn the war in your favour, in either some smaller scenarios that cover parts of the war or one that covers all of Finland.
Story & Setting
The winter war took place between November of 1939 and March of 1940. The Soviet Union had demanded that they would get land from Finland, near the southern end of the Finnish/Soviet border, in exchange for less valuable land elsewhere. When Finland refused, the Soviet Union invaded.
The popular narrative these days is that the small nation of Finland held back the Soviet army, and won the war. It makes for a great story, where the Finnish underdog beat the massive Soviet Bear (fitting, as Finland was portrayed as a small dog in Soviet propaganda). The truth is not as glamorous though, Finland ultimately lost the war, and had to sign a peace treaty that was favourable to the Soviet Union. But Finland still held out longer and inflicted greater casualties on the Soviet Union than any nation predicted, and the Soviet Union did not gain as much land as they likely had anticipated. And this despite the fact that no other nation really stepped in to aid Finland. Germany and Sweden did send some support, while France and Britain drew up a plan that never came into fruition, and their attempts to send military equipment was blocked by Germany.
Graphics & Sound
Winter War looks like it could be a board game. You’ve got a map of Finland, and the area of Russia bordering Finland, split up in different named zones. Units are made up of square counters, that look a lot like the cardboard counters you find in tabletop wargames. Small numbers represent things like firepower and movement. The graphics won’t wow anyone, but it’s not bad, and the art that’s used for the map and counters is good.
The game’s soundtrack seems to be made out of stock music, but it’s fitting for the setting and does its job well. Sound effects are also not half bad, and give good feedback to your actions. In other words, they do exactly what you want them to do in a game like this.
In Winter War you take control of either Finland, or the Soviet Union, in either one huge scenario that lets you play through the entire war, or a few smaller scenarios, that only deal with small portions of it. The smaller scenarios are treated as learning scenarios, meant to prepare you for the big one. Each scenario has set starting conditions, that is you’ve got a bunch of units on the map, in set locations, and your goal is to use your resources as well as possible, in order to score more victory points than the opposing side.
This is a turn-based strategy game using a so-called IGOUGO system, that is one side makes its moves, then the other makes its moves, and you repeat this process until the scenario ends. Each turn is split into a series of smaller segments, that you always do in order, like drawing cards, moving planes, moving troops and so on, on a strategic map. This way of splitting up the turn into parts makes the game feel a lot less overwhelming, as, despite the large scope of it, it’s quite easy to keep track of everything. It’s also not an incredibly complex game, although there’s enough going on here to give it a good bit of depth.
Combat is handled with simple dice rolls. Once two armies end up in the same territory, they’ll fight, and both sides keep swinging at each other until one retreats or is killed. When a unit attacks, a die or two is rolled, and if the roll is low enough (how low it needs to depend on the unit, and any modifiers), it inflicts damage on the enemy. Combat is, in other words, a bit random, but with the number of dice you roll, it’s rare for the outcome of a fight to end up being significantly different than average, other than times when one or two very wounded or weak units end up fighting each other. The random factor might make one army come out a bit worse for wear than it normally would though, but it’s very unlikely that it will swing the battle significantly in favour of one side or the other.
Cards are used to influence both combat, and events on the strategic map. At the start of the turn you draw a few, and then you can play them for specific effects. The effects are generally not drastic, but they can be enough to turn things in your favour, when played at the right time. These cards also add a bit of flavour to the game, as they’re themed to the two sides. Finland might receive Swedish volunteers with one of their cards, while the Soviet Union might be doing a bombing run on Helsinki, which earns them some victory points.
The two sides of the conflict were quite different. The Soviet Union had a clear numbers advantage, while the Finnish troops were well dug in, and they also have a mobility advantage, due to their ski troops and fighting in their home turf. For Finland, the goal is to hold out as long as possible. Almost all the victory point locations are on their side of the border, and they have a defensive advantage, while for the Soviet Union, the goal is to break through the Finnish defenses and claim the valuable land on the other side of the border. Having the two sides play that differently gives the game a bit of replay value, which is good, as the game is a bit on the short side.
The Finnish winter war is rarely covered by games to any great extent, and when it does get covered it’s usually relegated to a single scenario or a DLC. In fact, I can only think of a single other game that focuses on the winter war exclusively, and that’s the RTS Talvisota: Icy Hell. So it’s nice to play a game based on this often-overlooked conflict.
The game is currently in its final stage of early access, but I can’t imagine it changing much at this point, and I only experience one noticeable bug, that forced me to reload a previous save, but the game autosaves often, so it was not even a minute lost.
Winter War is a solid turn-based strategy game. Its theme helps set it apart from the plethora of other World War 2 strategy games, but even without that, it would be a good game. The way turns are split up makes it surprisingly approachable, for a game on this scale, and the mechanics are quite straight forward. At least as someone with a bit of strategy game experience, I could just jump right in, and everything felt natural. This is not a particularly complex game, but there’s still enough depth here to keep a strategy game fan entertained for a while.
Where the game might suffer a bit is with its replay value. Having such a limited scope, there’s not a whole lot of variety between two playthroughs where you play the same side. The difference between the two sides is pretty big, once you’re able to beat the big scenario with both sides, there’s not much reason to return to the game, beyond trying to beat your own score. Things will play out similarly, even if the cards can mix things up a bit. But those two playthroughs are at least likely to be fun.