The Third World War: Battle for Germany is part of a series of GDW games that postulated a world wide war between America and the Soviet Union in the late 1980’s to early 1990’s. I had seen this game over the years in gaming stores, magazine articles, eBay, etc, and it always looked interesting to me. Finally, a friend brought the game to my house and we decided to give it a shot.
This particular installment, “The Battle for Germany”, focuses exclusively on a Warsaw Pact/NATO slugfest in the European theater of operations. It’s a relatively low complexity game, which is kind of a nice change of pace from the old “monster” World War III games that SPI put out in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Don’t misunderstand; I love those games. But there was definitely a need for a less complex, quicker playing WWIII type game and I had hopes that The Third World War might be such a game.
The movement and combat mechanics of the game were very basic and standard. The supply, stacking, zones of control, etc. rules were all straight-forward and easy to understand. The Air War rules were surprisingly detailed and complex (more about that later). Victory conditions were based exclusively on control of cities, and there are 3-Turn and 12-Turn versions of the game, with victory point levels adjusted for each.
At first glance, the game appealed to me and I was looking forward to playing it.
The game setup instructions were pretty clear. Most of the units had setup hexes on them so there was not a lot of confusion. There are quite a few units to set up so it took a while, but that can’t be helped sometimes.
Components and Rules
The rules were on par with other similar games of the period: generally clear and concise, with a few glaring exceptions (mostly involving the air system; see below).
I think the components are sub-standard, even by 1980’s standards. The map (particularly the Mountain and Mountain Pass hexes) looks very amateur-ish and the unit counters were kind of dull. There was insufficient differentiation between the colors of the various armies and nationalities. To be fair there was a “National/Factional” Data Chart that listed all the Nations/Factions in the game along with pertinent info about each as well as the color coding. But I still often found myself confused about who was who because the colors were so similar. For example, West German units showed black symbols on an olive green background and American units showed white symbols on an olive green background. And it’s not like differentiating between the two wasn’t important. For example, all US units had an “Airmobile” Zone of Control, which was much more restricting on enemy units, but standard West German combat units did not.
As I said before, the rules were generally clear, but certain sections required numerous re-readings before the light bulb over my head lit up. Here’s one of my favorite sentences from the rule book: “The Pact player may attack with any of his units which did not begin the sub-impulse in enemy ZOCs during the combat phase of the second echelon/breakthrough sub-impulse in both Pact impulses”.
When you actually play the game and see how the impulses flow, that rule finally made sense to me. But there were a few doozies like that in the rulebook which almost put me off playing.
The Air System
What bogged the game down and turned me off completely was the Air Combat system. While in and of itself, it was not the worst air system I’ve seen, it just did not fit in with the rest of the game. The ground combat system had more of a “beer & pretzels” kind of feel to it, resolving quickly and decisively. But the air power portion of the game turn, and the air power sub-phase of the ground combat phase, just seemed to drag on forever. The air war added at least an extra 1.5 hours to each turn. Not so bad, you say? Well consider that, since we were new to the game, it was taking us about 3 hours to complete each turn. And at least half of that time was spent on air combat stuff. Not good.
The “Strike/Interdiction” phase, which preceded any movement or combat phases by either player, instructs the Pact player to declare all strike missions, identifying both strike aircraft and escorts. Then, the NATO player had to announce all interception attempts, followed by their own strike/escort missions. Next, the Pact player must announce all interception attempts against NATO strike missions. Mind you there are no “combat boards” or any other special place to keep track of who is attacking where and who is intercepting who… you just have to find your own method for keeping it all straight.
Next, all air units have to suffer Air Defense fire. The results of Air Defense sometimes called for air units to be allowed to complete their missions but only at half strength and then, upon mission competion, to be considered “shot down”. Again, all of this has to be kept straight by the players using methods of their own choosing.
Then, during the Combat Phase, both players can again declare ground attack (ground support) along with escort, or “Top Cover” missions and then must resolve air combat and ground defense fire again.
I’m not saying it was the most complex air combat system I’ve ever seen or played. I’m just saying that it did not fit in with the generally low complexity level of the game. And it sucked a lot of the fun out of the gaming experience.
The Ground War
The ground combat system flowed nicely and was of an appropriate complexity for this game. But by the time you worked your way through all the air war stuff, you kind of forgot what your ground plan was! I thought that the NATO offensive capability in the early stages of the conflict might be a bit too awesome. But this war game simulates a war that was never fought, so we really have no idea how it would have played out.
The key to ground combat success in this game was the “Proficiency Rating”. A unit or force with a higher average Proficiency Rating gains favorable column shifts on the ground combat resolution table. Combat strength odds are calculated, then column shift modifiers are applied for air support and supply consideration before resolving combat.
Overall, my opponent and I were both happy with the ground combat system, and the way the ground war progressed.
The most notable “Other Stuff” item in this game was the optional “Nuclear Warfare” rules section. Most WWIII war games try real hard to steer you away from using nuclear weapons of any type by imposing very harsh penalties or by simply making you risk losing the game instantly for having made the attempt to use them. The designers of this game, however, felt that tactical nuclear weapons would be used in a real war and thus added extensive rules governing their usage. The situation could escalate to a strategic nuclear exchange. It actually looks like an interesting sub-game, but it would most likely force the game to morph into something completely different than what it started out to be.
We did not use the optional nuclear rules in the game I played so I can’t really comment on how interesting it might have been. It might actually work as a standalone game! But, as with the air rules, I just don’t think the complexity and depth of the nuclear rules fit in with the game.
I was quite disappointed with this game, having had such high hopes for it initially. My opponent and I did not even complete the game. We completed five full game turns and then decided that we were just not enjoying the game enough to continue (largely due to the aforementioned air combat stuff). I suppose we could have stuck it out to see if the excitement level picked up as the game went on, but there are just too many unplayed games out there to waste time on a board game that doesn’t grab me right away.