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GMT Games: Arctic Stormin’ With Ken Tee

posted Sep 21, 2012, 1:22 AM by Douglas Sun
Originally posted: November 1, 2009

More to come on the GMT Weekend West event just past, but it occurs to me that my much-anticipated go at Arctic Storm with Ken Tee is probably worth a post in itself. So anyone interested in how I spent the other three days of the con will have to wait a bit longer.

As I think I've mentioned elsewhere, Arctic Storm was one of the very first GMT games to catch my attention, and I've always been very fond of it. The subject — a strategic overview of the Soviet invasion of Finland in 1939-40 —is a classic example of how styles makes fights (as they say in boxing), and David James Ritchie gave it a deft treatment that is easy to grasp and plays quickly, yet feels detailed and flavorful at the same time. For me, it was almost the perfect game with which to re-enter the hobby after ten years of focusing on school because it grabbed my interest without putting me through much work. So when Ken told me that he was interested in revisiting it, he didn't have to ask me twice.

Ken started setting up right after Gene Billingsley's "State of GMT" talk on Saturday morning, while I was finishing up my Battlestar Galactica game ("I'm not the Cyclon, he's the Cylon!") from the night before, and the Soviet guns were booming by noon. Much to my surprise, Ken was eager to take the Soviet side; I recollected that the Soviets have their work cut out for them under Ritchie's rule set, but he claimed that he had a strategy worked out to roll the Finns and he wanted to try it out.

Intrigued and a little apprehensive, I waited like the black player at the beginning of a chess game for what this plan of his entailed. Having played the game solitaire before, I knew that the Soviets would have the initiative through the first half of the game in that exactly what the Finns do depends on where the Soviets choose to make their main effort. The Soviets also have serious advantages through the first few turns in their CRT column shifts, so the Finns need to conserve their forces and weather that initial onslaught. I seriously wondered if Ken had thought of something that I had never considered, like a new approach to the Ruy Lopez or the Queen's Gambit.

As it turned out, Ken's great strategic innovation was to pull the Soviet armor facing the Mannerheim Line and threaten a flanking move across the frozen-over Gulf of Finland while pressing moderately on all other fronts. His thinking, as he explained later, was that — knowing that it would be useless to batter the fortifications on the Karelian Isthmus — he wanted to draw my reserves to the southern end of Finland and away from the north, where he felt the Finns were most vulnerable.

So how well did it work? Probably not as well as he had expected. I'll cut to the chase and state that I won a decisive victory, and a thumpingly decisive one at that. The feint did force me to thin out

Ken ponders the dilemma facing the Soviets — and it’s only Turn 3. At this point, it actually looks kind of bad for the Finns, with the Reds massed on either side of Lake Ladoga and the north open for the taking. But the Soviet CRT advantages have just expired, and you can already see the key points around which I will build my northern defense line.

my defenses to cover Helsinki and the open ground south of Viipuri for a while. But I did so with units taken from the Mannerheim Line, knowing that Ken had just diluted any potential attack from that area, and knowing that he would need a truly overwhelming advantage to capture the Finnish capital. Furthermore, I knew that the rail movement rules would allow me to shift reserves rapidly from one area to another. When Ken gave up on his feint, I was able to commit those forces elsewhere within a couple of turns.

To that end, I didn't bother trying to defend anything north of the Arctic Circle, basically giving up northern Finland so that it would be easier to conduct a defense along interior lines. While Petsamo may seem like an important objective, there isn't anything in the north that can't be conceded in order to secure the VPs that the Finns will get by extending the game all way through Turn 18 — something that you can only accomplish by preserving the Finnish army. The fact that the Cloudy Skies random event makes it impossible for the Soviets to use their air power advantage anywhere except above the Arctic Circle renders this approach all the more viable. If there are no Finnish units in the north, the Sturmoviks have nothing to attack but barren ground. And with a shorter, more flexible line to defend, I was able to send smaller units across the border to capture Soviet towns for VPs. In fact I would say that at least a third of the combat south of the Arctic Circle occurred in Soviet territory.

Ken's desire to use the his armored units in a grand feint, combined with his reluctance to attack through the Karelian Isthmus, also diluted his offensive punch at exactly the point in the game where it is most advantageous for the Soviets to attack, because of the CRT column shifts that they receive on Turns 1 and 2. I'll readily grant that attacking the Mannerheim Line head-on is a daunting prospect even with the column shifts. But it's also true that if a game designer presents you with a use-or-lose-it proposition, you should consider making as much use as you can of whatever it is. One consequence of Ken’s plan was that the Soviets got practically no use out of his armor at the time when it was probably most advantageous to use them. Soviet armor units are only useful on the attack, and at that they are quite good; the closest Ken came to breaking me was when he deployed his armor reinforcements north of Lake Ladoga late in the game. They formed powerful attacking stacks when concentrated, and their mobility kept me from deploying my 1-1-4 ski-mobile units into gaps in the front to cut supply lines.

In the end, though, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that the victory point schedule and the CRT effectively offset the Soviets' material edge, and that even with all of their obvious advantages, the Reds have a tough road to hoe in Arctic Storm. If they go all in early, they attack when the Finns are strongest, and they will lose VPs by incurring casualties; if they wait until the weather allows them more opportunities to use their air power, they will lose VPs the longer the game extends beyond Turn 5. There was no blaming the outcome on the dice here; as Ken himself noted, neither of us rolled any 2's or 20's. There were quite a few 11's and 12's. So the results were well within the mean for rolling 2 d10s. Cloudy Skies was the most commonly rolled random event, as one would expect. In fact, the most eccentric random event that we rolled — the arrival of Soviet paratroopers — favored the Soviet side.

For comparison, we had Mark Kaczmarek and John Leggatt's Arctic Storm game running side-by-side with ours. In a remarkable coincidence, they had decided to have their own go at it, independent of me and Ken. As the Finns, John took a somewhat different approach from mine; he was more interested in defending the north, and more aggressive about forming the dreaded motti. He, too, won pretty decisively, with Mark throwing in the towel around Turn 8. However, Mark blamed the result (and probably with some justice) on eccentric die rolls both on the CRT and for random events. I'll stop short of declaring that

Mark and John’s game; they also appear to be on Turn 3 (or they’re getting close to it). John seems to have given relatively little thought to his northern flank, even though the road from Petsamo is open. But it also seems that Mark is putting more pressure on the Mannerheim Line than Ken did. 

it's impossible for the Soviets to win Arctic Storm, especially since John swore that he's heard of occasions where the Soviet player has won, and without freak occurrences like sudden opponent insanity or the intervention of UFOs. But it does seem that Ritchie tailored the victory conditions so that the Soviet player must at least match historical performance in order to win.

As an aside, it should be noted that just before GMT West, word circulated around Consim World that David Ritchie had recently passed away. Ritchie only executed three designs for GMT — Victory in the West and Lost Victory being the other two — and he more or less disappeared from the hobby after that. It was wargaming's loss, as he was clearly a talented designer with a rare sense of how to make a game flow smoothly for the players. I like to think of these two games of Arctic Storm as an unplanned tribute to him, because it is a tribute to a designer that one of his games should still feel so fresh and engaging 15 years after it was published. Hail and farewell.