NATO: The Next War in Europe (Review)


NATO: The Next War in Europe Board Game

Overview

NATO: The Next War in Europe, one of the “modern” era board war games produced by Victory Games in the 1980’s, was another of those games on my “must have” list that just somehow never made it to my gaming table. Last month, I decided that the time had finally come, opened the box, and began the setup.

NATO: The Next War in Europe is an operational level game of a hypothetical war in Europe between NATO and Warsaw Pact armed forces. It was touted as a finely crafted game that could be played in a single (albeit long) sitting. It covers all the important aspects of 1980’s warfare, at the army/division level, including fluid movement, supply, and combat rules. Special rules to handle chemical warfare and nuclear warfare are also included, as are special rules for NATO Border Troops, Refugees, Air Transport, Sea Transport and Rail Transport.

Air power is abstracted through the use of Air Points, so there is no complex or cumbersome air power management or combat systems. Victory is determined very simply by a victory point system that largely revolves around control of cities. Although simple and abstract, the designers claim the air combat system is a product of “sophisticated computer analysis”. Let’s see if that means anything…


The Setup

Those of you who have read any of my previous reviews know that nothing aggravates me more than poorly organized, misleading, or confusing setup instructions. I don’t want to waste a single minute trying to figure out how to begin playing a game. I want clear, concise setup instructions, a brief bit of background and color on the game situation, and then I’m ready to read the instructions for how to play and win the game. I always approach a new game cautiously because if it doesn’t pass the “setup test”, it’s going right on eBay. Simple as that.

Apparently there were multiple printings of this board game because I downloaded errata from Web-Grognards web site and found that all of the errata items, and there were quite a few, were already included in my version of the rule book. Good news. So, I started setting up the game. Here’s what I found:

  • Setup instructions could be a bit more organized. The Reinforcement Displays contain information on both sides, which I did not notice right away. Rule 046 does state that “on the back of each sheet is the appropriate player’s initial set-up”. But nowhere in the “Scenarios” section (start with paragraph # 217) does it make this clear. So you have to go to two different sections of the rulebook to get complete game setup information. I know it’s trivial, but this stuff bugs the hell out of me.
  • The initial setup display, on the back of the reinforcement sheet, shows some units shaded in gray. The title of the reinforcement sheet says “NATO INITIAL SETUP: All Untinted Pieces” (or “WARSAW PACT INITIAL SETUP…” on the Pact sheet). Cool, it explains the shading. It’s really a combination counter manifest and set-up list, which is odd but not a big concern. However, the Reinforcement/Track Display on the other side also has some units shaded. I still have not been able to figure out why. It makes no sense at all to show reinforcements for Game Turn 3, and then shade some of them to indicate that they are really NOT Game Turn 3 reinforcements after all. There’s probably a simple explanation for this shading, but I can’t find it.
  • The Dutch 4-4-5 Mech Division and American 1/VII units do not have starting hexes printed on the full strength face of the counters. I found mention of these units in section 090 (Recombination) where they explain that one Dutch and one American unit start the game split in two counters, and may be recombined, etc., etc. However, I cannot for the life of me find a second counter with the Dutch “41/4/I” or American “3/1/VII” desinations on them. Don’t know what the hell they’re talking about. And it’s doubly upsetting that there was no mention of this in the Setup section of the rules; I had to stumble across it while reading the rest of the rules. I’m getting more annoyed by the minute.
  • The British Berlin unit (hex 3007) does not appear in the “At Start” list with the other British units. It appears with the Belgian units instead. In any event, it should be placed in Berlin at game start for all scenarios.

After quite a while, I get everything set up and ready to go. The game has not even started and I’m already annoyed by the setup interpretation I had to do. But I’m forging ahead because I’ve waited so long to play this game in particular, and because I’m a big fan of Victory Games in general. I’m breaking the “eBay Rule” and hoping that I don’t regret it.

One last annoyance…Somewhere in the rule book, they could have included an identification chart so that it would be easy, at a glance, to know which color represents which country/army. I’m including it here for those who care:

  • Black Background/Yellow Symbols = West German Units (NATO)
  • Green Background/Yellow Symbols = American Units (NATO)
  • Green Background/White Symbols = Canadian Units (NATO)
  • Tan Background/White Symbol = Dutch Units (Netherlands – NATO)
  • Tan Background/Yellow Symbol = Belgian Units (Belgium – NATO)
  • Tan Background/Blue Symbols = British Units (NATO)
  • Tan Background/Red Symbols = Danish Units (Denmark – NATO)
  • Light Yellow Background/Blue Symbol = Austrian Units (NATO)
  • Light Yellow Background/Yellow Symbol = Italian Units (NATO)
  • Light Blue Background/Dark Blue Symbol = French Units (NATO)
  • Dark Red = East German Units (Warsaw Pact)
  • Red = USSR Units (Warsaw Pact)
  • Orange = Czech Units (Warsaw Pact)

You’re welcome.


OK, so as I said, I’m already aggravated and will have very little tolerance for a poorly designed game. But I plowed ahead and starting playing anyway. And, you know what? This is a pretty tense and exciting game! Surprisingly, right from the first few turns, I could tell that this was going to be a war game that would have a permanent place on my game shelf. I enjoyed it tremendously.


Planning to Win

Gamers who enjoy the “planning” aspect of war games will really appreciate the different strategic approaches that can be followed. But before I get into the planning, let me tell you briefly how the game is won (or lost).

There are three different scenarios, Strategic SurpriseTactical Surprise, and Extended Build-Up (more about these later), and each scenario can be played as either an 8 Game Turn or 15 Game Turn variety. Regardless of scenario or duration, at the end of the game you subtract NATO’s victory points from Pact victory points and compare the result to the victory point schedule for the particular scenario being played. It’s a standard “Draw”, “Marginal Victory”, “Substantial Victory”, “Decisive Victory” type of victory chart. The Pact scores victory points for capturing cities. Major cities and “Key” cities are worth more victory points than other cities. Denmark, The Netherlands, and Belgium can be made to surrender if a certain number of their cities fall. Once a country surrenders, the Pact automatically gets control of ALL cities in that country (and their army disappears). It’s the most economical way to snag city points, so having a plan to take down these countries is a good idea.

NATO can score victory points for capturing cities east of the Iron Curtain, but that’s a tough move. They do, however, have other options for acquiring victory points:

  • One victory point each turn they can hang on to West Berlin.
  • One or two victory points (depending on scenario) after the Pact starts using Chemical Weapons.
  • Five victory points for each turn that the Pact does not control ANY cities in West Germany (doesn’t get awarded very often, I’ll wager).
  • One victory point for each Czech or East German territorial unit that appears (only happens when NATO invades the east, so the NATO player will have to be kicking a bit of tail to find themselves getting this victory point award).

As you may have guessed, the pressure is really on the Warsaw Pact player to bring the conflict to a swift conclusion since the longer it goes on, the less likely they’ll come out on top. So, you’ve got to have a plan. Will it be possible to take Denmark down using just Soviet Marine and Airborne units? Not having to divert a heavy armor formation north to accomplish this task will help the war effort in central Europe considerably. How can you insure that West Berlin goes down on turn 2 (which is the first turn where combat is allowed)? Every victory point counts! Do you reserve your Airborne units for siezing the NATO “Reforger” sites so that US reinforcements cannot arrive and are lost forever? Or do you dedicate them all to the seizure of Denmark and the Netherlands?

“Reforger” was the code name for locations where military equipment for US divisions was pre-positioned (REturn of FORces to GERmany). In the event of war, the US would only have to worry about getting the men to Germany where the hardware would be waiting.

In addition to the simple surrender rules, there are special rules for Austria and conditional reinforcements for Italy. If the Warsaw Pact do not invade Austria, then there will be no Austrians or Italians activated, so that’s kind of a no-brainer for the Pact player. But maybe a late-game grab of the (few) Austrian cities might put the Pact over the top, victory point wise, before the Italian reinforcements can make their presence felt? Your plan must be flexible enough to adapt to changing circumstances.

Should the Pact player move aggressively in the north, pushing on to the cluster of Ruhr cities (Essen, Dusseldorf, etc.), possibly leaving their southern flank weak and susceptible to counter-attack? Or should he deal with the powerful American and West German formations in the Frankfurt area first, thereby largely neutralizing the NATO counter-offensive power? There are many of these types of decisions to be made. As the NATO player, you must be quick to identify the major Pact push and have a plan to counter it effectively. Not only is it a lot of fun, but it should provide players with a considerable measure of replay value.


Playing the Game

We chose to play the “Strategic Surprise” scenario since it seemed to have potential to develop into a real nailbiter as NATO tries to weather the “Red Storm”. The game flows nicely and, after a few turns of getting familiar with the Sequence of Play I found myself switching to auto-pilot, free to concentrate on strategy rather than expending mental energy flipping through the rule book every two minutes.

Movement

Considering the scale of the game, movement is quite simplified. Only major rivers and mountain hexes will cost a unit more than a single movement point so there’s not a lot of time spent looking stuff up in the terrain chart. There are, however, eight different types of movement:

  • Tactical Road Movement: The basic form of movement where a unit is allowed to spend it’s printed movement allowance.
  • Strategic Road Movement: Units are allowed to spend double their movement allowance under certain conditions.
  • Rail Transport: A finite number of units may be “entrained” and moved up to 20 hexes, but must remain within friendly territory, among other conditions. Each side has a “Rail Capacity” which sets the maximum number of “steps” that may be entrained at any given moment. The “Rail Capacity” is subject to degradation via enemy air power.
  • Air Ferry: Airborne or airmobile units are permitted to ferry an unlimited distance between friendly, controlled hexes.
  • Airborne Transport: Basically the same as Air Ferry, except that the movement either begins or ends in enemy territory.
  • Sea Ferry: Units are permitted to travel an unlimited distance over water (and along major rivers) from one friendly port to another.
  • Amphibious Transport: Marine units only are permitted to move from one coastal hex to another, even if in enemy territory.
  • Helicopter Transport: Airborne or airmobile regiments or brigades may move from one hex to any other hex, in either friendly or enemy territory, within 10 hexes.

NATO: The Next War in Europe Board Game

Air Ferry and Sea Ferry were not included in the graphic because they’re basically the same as Airborne Transport and Amphibious Transport, except that they may not enter enemy territory or zones of control at any point during movement.

Note that Air Ferry, Airborne Transport, Sea Ferry, Amphibious Transport and Helicopter Transport all require the availability of appropriate transport points in order to be undertaken. For example, in order to launch an Airborne Transport mission, one “Airborne Transport Point” must be available for each step of combat unit that is to be transported. Also note that each of these missions are subject to interception via a simplified “Interception Value Chart”. As with most things in this game, it’s an uncomplicated process: Player A specifies the unit(s) he wishes to move, spends the appropriate type of transport point, and moves the unit. Player B then rolls on the Interception Value Chart, using the chart column/row that factors in the Game Turn in progress, the scenario being played, and the location of the movement. The Interception Value Chart is a clever way of cramming a lot of information into a simplified chart.

NATO: The Next War in Europe Board Game

Supply

The supply rules are straightforward and about right for a game of this complexity and scale. Basically all combat units must be able to trace a supply line, free of enemy territory, units or zones of control/delay, back to a supply source. Each nationality has it’s own supply source(s). Additionally, if a unit is in enemy territory or is a NATO unit that is not in its home country (i.e. US units are NEVER in their home country), then they must trace supply back to an appropriate HQ unit and from the HQ unit back to the ultimate supply source.

Supply is checked for each player just before their movement phase (player Supply Determination Phase), and is checked again for both players (Joint Supply Determination Phase) just before their combat phase. So each unit is checked three times per game turn: once during their own player Supply Determination Phase and then one each during the two Joint Supply Determination Phases.

Lack of supply will cause units to have their movement allowance halved, and renders them ineligible for many things, such as most of the other movement types (i.e. Rail Transport, Airborne Transport, etc.). Unsupplied HQ will lose their “Offensive Support” benefit until such time as they’re in supply again. Attack strength is cut in half, but Defensive strength is not affected at all.

Air Power

NATO: The Next War in Europe Board Game

Airpower is abstracted nicely. Rather than having actual air units and a complex air combat system, NATO: The Next War in Europe simply uses Air Points that are recorded and tracked via the “Attack Air Point Track”. There are two types of Air Points: Tactical Air Points and Operational Air Points, and there are four available Air Missions:

  • Airstrike Mission: Actually targets enemy ground units for destruction. Both Operational and Tactical Air Points can be used for this mission.
  • Support Suppression: Targets enemy HQ units that are currently enhanced with “Offensive Support” markers (more about this in the Combat section). If the mission is successful, the HQ’s offensive support capability is suppressed for the game turn. Only Operational Air Points can be used for this mission.
  • Road Interdiction: Used to disrupt movement through a hex. Can raise the cost to enter or leave a hex by +1, +2 or +3. Both Operational and Tactical Air Points can be used for this mission.
  • Rail Interdiction: Used to reduce enemy Rail Capacity. Only Operational Air Points can be used to perform this mission.

NATO: The Next War in Europe Board Game

I have to say that I did find the Air Power to be awfully limited. I mean that, although you would not expect there to be enough air power available to accomplish every single mission you have in mind, it seemed that often times there was insufficient air power to accomplish ANY mission at all, which did not strike me as a reasonable simulation of events as they might have occurred (and I’m thankful that we’ll never know for sure). I read the Designer Notes in the back of the rule book where they describe the rigorous process used to arrive at the air power capacities provided in the game. I suppose I’ll have to take their word for this, but it’s awfully frustrating to spend your entire complement of air points for a given turn and accomplish very little of what you set out to do.

Ground Combat

Combat is also a very basic affair in NATO: The Next War in Europe. Attack strengths are compared with Defense strengths to arrive at a combat odds ratio. Attack and defense strengths can be modified for various reasons. Column shifts may apply as may attacker die roll modifiers. All of these items are summarized conveniently on each player’s Chart/Summary Sheet.

NATO: The Next War in Europe Board Game

The important numbers on combat units (non-HQ) are defined as follows:
Bottom Left = Attack strength
2nd from Left = Movement allowance
3rd from Left = Defense strength
Bottom Right (in brackets) = Size of unit, in “steps”

NATO: The Next War in Europe Board Game

The numbers on an HQ unit mean the following:
Bottom Left = Support Range
2nd from Left = Movement allowance
3rd from Left (P) = Provisional Defense strength. HQ add nothing to the defense of a stack, but have a “provisional” defense strength of 1 when defending alone. Bottom Right (in brackets) = Size of the HQ, in “steps”

Attack strength can be modified for the following reasons:

  • Doubled if the attacking HQ is providing Offensive Support. Each player is allowed a certain number of “Offensive Support” markers that can be placed on any desired HQ unit before combat. In order to change the HQ to which the Offensive Support is assigned, you must remove the marker from the current HQ during the “Offensive Support Phase”, let it sit on the Game Turn Track until the next turn’s Offensive Support Phase when it can be reassigned to any eligible HQ on the map.
  • Doubled if the defending unit is isolated (i.e. surrounded by attacker zones, and not adjacent to any friendly unit).
  • Halved if attacking across a Major River.
  • Halved if currently unsupplied.

Defender strength can be doubled if the defending unit is a modified for the following reasons:

  • Doubled if “Soft Unit” (mostly infantry types) and in Major City, Mountain, Rough or Minor City hex.

Next, column shifts, in favor of the Pact player, can be gained by application of Chemical warfare. Chemical warfare is most effective on the first turn used, but the number of column shifts diminish as the game goes on.

Finally, Attack die roll penalties (-1 to -3) might apply if the following conditions are met:

  • If the defender occupies a Major City, Minor City, Mountain, Rough or Forest Hex. The Minor City penalty is cumulative with Rough and Forest terrain penalties.
  • If all attacking units are attacking across Major and/or Minor River hexsides.

Note that losses are expressed in terms of step losses. For example, if the Ground Combat Results Table result shows “2/1”, it would indicate that the Attacker (left side of the slash) must suffer 2 step losses and the Defender (right side of the slash) is assessed 1 step loss.

The following graphic illustrates a few different combat situations and is followed by a brief explanation of each situation.

NATO: The Next War in Europe Board Game


Combat A: The better part of a Czech Army is attacking a West German mechanized division.
The defending West German unit is in a Clear hex so there will be no combat benefit from terrain.
The attacking units have the defender completely surround by zones, so all attack values will be doubled.
However, the “c15/Olo” Czech division cannot trace supply through its Headquarters because it is more than 3 hexes away (cannot trace through hex 3222 because that hex is in the West German unit’s Zone of Control), so its combat strength will be cut in half. Combined with the doubling, mentioned above, the division will be left with printed attack strength (i.e. doubled then halved).

So, the final combat odds for Combat A are 32:6, which simplifies to 5: 1. There are no column shifts or die roll modifiers, so the “5 – 1” column on the Ground Combat Results Table will be used to resolve this combat. The Warsaw Pact player rolls the die and applies the result.

(Note: Although the West German division is also cut off from its HQ, it’s not relevant for this combat since a unit’s Defense strength is not affected by being out of supply)


Combat B: Three divisions of the 1st Guards Tank Army (1GT) are attacking the 8th Division of the US V Corps.
The 1GT Division HQ unit has a “WP Offensive Support Marker” on it so all 1GT divisions within support range of the HQ will have their attack strength doubled (and they are all within the 3 hex support range).
The defending American unit is located in a Key City, forcing an Attack Die Roll penalty of -3 against the Soviet attacker.
The defender is not a “soft” unit (since its an armored division) and therefore will not benefit from the doubling of soft unit defense strength in major/key cities.

The final combat odds for Combat B will be 34:6, which simplifies to “5 – 1” on the Combat Chart. The Soviet player rolls the die, assesses the -3 and applies the result.


Combat C: Combat C pits 3 Warsaw Pact divisions up against a single British division.
The Soviet Divisions do not have any HQ within range and so will have their combat Attack strengths halved.
In addition, each of the Soviet divisions is attacking across a Major River, which also halves Attack strength. In this game, however, Attack strengths are never reduced below half, so they shall remain halved.
Since all attacking units are attacking across some type of river (major or minor) an Attack Die Roll penalty of -1 will be applied.
The defending British unit is located in a Key City hex, providing another Attack Die Roll penalty of -3.

The final combat odds are 8:5, which simplifies to 1:1. Therefore combat will take place on the “1 – 1” column of the Combat Chart and a total Attack Die Roll Penalty of -4 will be enforced. Not a great battle for the Soviets…


Combat D: A single Soviet division (p4/SM) is attacking a single defending American division.
The terrain with the highest “precedence” in the hex is Rough terrain, so an Attack Die Roll penalty of -1 will apply to this combat.
However, the Warsaw Pact player has opted to use Chemicals in this attack and has indicated such by expending a point on his Chemical Warefare Track, and placing the “Chem x 2” marker on the defending unit. We’ll assume that this is the first turn Chemicals are being used, so the final column on the Ground Combat Results Table will shift 4 columns to the right.

(Note: Don’t know why the Chem marker says “x 2” on it since Chemical Warefare actually provides column shifts (2, 3, or 4 of them), but does not provide any combat multiplier)
The final combat odds for Combat D will be 2:1. The 4 column shifts for Chemical Warfare will push it into the “6 – 1” column and, finally, a -1 will be applied to the Warsaw Pact Attack Die Roll.

As you can see, the combat system is fairly simple yet appropriate for the game and effective. The counter tray will fill up quite quickly with casualties, as would be expected in a war of this size and intensity.

Tactical Nuclear Warfare

No “WWIII in Central Europe” can ignore the reality of all the tactical nukes available to the combatants. NATO: The Next War in Europe chose to handle this topic quite elegantly.

First of all, if you’re the one who makes first use of nukes, you must roll a die. On a roll of 1, 2, or 3, you lose instantly. So there’s a 50/50 chance of losing the game outright if you even attempt to use nukes. Assuming the game continues, tac nukes wreak havoc on Europe. Rail Capacity is immediately and permanently reduced to zero. All Air Attack Points are eliminated. No unit, for the rest of the game, can move by any means other than tactical road movement. All future Air Transport, Reforger and Naval Transport reinforcements are permanently eliminated from play, and future Road and Rail reinforcements are delayed.

Other than that, each player has a certain number of Nuclear Delivery Points which they use to strike each other’s combat units, or to strike at each other’s Nuclear Delivery points before they can be used (effectively destroying them in the silo).

No one in our game attempted to use nukes, so I really don’t know how it would have played out. But it’s guaranteed to be messy…


The Scenarios

There are three different scenarios:

  • Strategic Surprise: This scenario postulates that NATO is caught totally flat-footed by a masterful rapid buildup by the Warsaw Pact.
  • Tactical Surprise: In this situation, NATO gets wise the Soviet buildup, allowing for 48 hours of NATO mobilization time.
  • Extended Buildup: In this scenario, both sides have made extensive preparations for war before hostilities actually commence.

In the “Strategic Surprise” scenario (the only one I’ve played so far), turn one consists only of Warsaw Pact tactical movement; nothing else. Allows them to somewhat get into position, but not completely. Hence the “Surprise” when they come crashing across the border on Turn 2. NATO is really caught flat-footed and must scramble to get forces into some type of sustainable defensive posture. It’s really a tense situation and there’s no guarantee that NATO will prevail.

We’ll be giving the other scenarios a whirl over the coming months and I may expand and amend this review accordingly.


Summary

I’m glad I finally got this game on the table and found out what I’ve been missing all these years. I’m already looking forward to my next game, mentally laying out the strategies that I intend to employ next time. Victory Games was such a great design company that I should have known this game would be a winner as well. I’ve read a few negative reviews of the game over the years (which is probably really why I put off playing for so long), but I suspect that most of the discontented were really looking for a more detailed treatment of WWIII than is provided by this game.

One final note about the “playable in a single sitting” claim: First of all, I’m sure they’re referring to an 8-Turn game, because there’s no way you’re playing 15 turns in a single sitting (and here I refer to a “human” sitting of a maximum of 8 hours… which is a good long sitting!). I don’t really think you can play an 8-turn game in under 4 hours, unless you put a chess-clock on the table and use it to move the game along. But who wants to rush through these games anyway?

The bottom line: I loved this game and will play it at every opportunity. I’ll hold my nose during the setup every time, because I’m still kind of aggravated by that, but I will play again. I hope this article was helpful in providing a bit more tangible detail about this game.