Okay, here is a game on the short but spirited border war between Slovakia and Hungary that happened in March 1939! How long have you been waiting for this one? And what the heck happened anyway?
Territorial changes of Slovakia: land ceded to Hungary before (red) and after (blue) the war (Wikipedia)
Well, it’s kind of complicated. After Germany annexed the Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia in September 1938, other parts of that country started to fall away. In October Carpathian Ruthenia and Slovakia declared their autonomy within Czechoslovakia, and Poland took the Zaolzie (Teschen) region. The following month large strips of southern Slovakia and Carpathian Ruthenia, then called “Carpatho-Ukraine”, were ceded to Hungary under the First Vienna Award. On March 14, 1939, the government of Slovakia declared its independence from Czechoslovakia. The following day Germany invaded Bohemia and Moravia, completing the occupation and dismemberment of Czechoslovakia, and the Republic of Carpatho-Ukraine existed for one day before it was invaded and annexed by Hungary. One week after this, on March 23, 1939, Hungary invaded eastern Slovakia with a small force, taking advantage of the political and military confusion and before a treaty of protection between Slovakia and Germany guaranteeing the former’s borders went into effect. The Slovakians were unprepared, as the Czechoslovakian military was in the process of dissolving itself into a mass of Czech, Slovak, and Ruthenian individuals. Confused air and ground fighting lasted for several days until Germany imposed a ceasefire on March 31, followed by a peace treaty on April 4 that recognized Hungarian title to the amount of ground they had seized in their initial advance.
So, this game deals with that brief engagement in March that has been lost in the noise of the general European war that began five months later. Why was I interested in designing a game on this? Well, at the end of October 2015 some of us were goofing around on Consimworld talking about doing a mini-game on the Czech seizure of Teschen (Zaolzie) from Poland in January 1919 (which Poland grabbed back in October 1938). But it wasn’t a very interesting war, though it also lasted only one week - then I had the idea of doing a game on this other one-week border war, as a self-imposed challenge, and shortly had put together an order of battle, map, and game system to handle it. I mean, doesn’t this happen to people all the time?
The “hook” with this game is that it is driven by a deck of ordinary playing cards. In the past many miniatures wargames rulesets have used decks of playing cards as randomizing devices, as have some board wargames. But one of my earliest designs, Power Play from 1991, used a deck of cards to drive the action, and when I was working on Ukrainian Crisis, I had designed the near-diceless variant with the deck of cards I’ve already described, so I wanted to do a small game where playing cards provided even more of the game’s mechanisms.
In the game, players draw from a single deck of cards from which the face cards have been removed. The Hungarian player gets the red cards, the Slovakian the black ones. They use the cards to move the units and conduct combat with them during the turn. Face cards are given to the players at the beginning of the game and these can be used at the player’s discretion to: refit damaged and disrupted units; make a reaction move; or raid the enemy’s rear area airfields. Jokers are left in the deck and represent random events.
Each Game Turn is organized into the following Phases, performed in order.
- Card Selection Phase. Draw 6 cards from the deck. Hungarian player gets the red cards, Slovakian the black cards. Often one side will get more cards than the other but because the totals of red and black are the same, which side gets more changes constantly. I thought this worked well to reflect the confused, badly coordinated actions on both sides.
- Card Play and Resolution Phase. Players play one card each in alternating sequence. Hearts or Clubs are used for movement, Spades and Diamonds are used for combat. The rank of the card (Ace to 10) is the number of units that may be moved or used to attack.
- Final Phase. Check for game end, return air units to Airfield Box, check disrupted or damaged units for spontaneous recovery. Go to next turn.
The game is 7 turns long. Each turn represents about a day, as it assumes that Germany imposes a ceasefire after a week of fighting (though there is a random event that shortens the game by one turn). There are five areas on the map that are worth a total of 9 victory points, and they are worth more as you penetrate further into Slovakia. At the end of the game, if you are the sole undisrupted occupant of the area you get the points. The Hungarian player wins if he gets 4 or more points, otherwise it’s a draw or a Slovakian win. It may seem that the Slovakian player has the easier time of it because he needs only to defend, with terrain and time on his side. But he also has less combat power overall – the two sides have equal totals of ground combat strength but the Slovakian player doesn’t get all of it right away, and he is outclassed 2:1 in the air.
Combat is simple: the total number of units that can attack is limited by the rank of the card played. In a battle you roll a number of d6 equal to the total Combat Values involved, with dice added to the defender’s total for terrain (forest or hills) and to either side for participating aircraft. You hit on a 5 or 6. The player inflicting the hits decides how they are allocated on the enemy units, and depending on a unit’s CV and the number of hits allocated to it, a unit can retreat, be disrupted (flipped over to show it can move but cannot attack), or be damaged (it is removed from the map and must be recovered through die rolls or Special Action cards).
Paired with Ukrainian Crisis
Why did these two games end up in the same box? Well, a couple of reasons. I suppose the most important one for the pairing was components. Hollandspiele, bless ‘em, wanted to publish Ukrainian Crisis, but the free version of the game (then and still available on my website) used 70 counters and 48 cards. Hollandspiele couldn’t source that number of cards cheaply, so we used counters – “chits” – instead and expanded the count of each slightly, but that still left about 30 blanks in the 176-counter sheet. I said, “Oh hey, I have this game that uses 30 counters and has a small map and short rules; could we fit that in there?” So we did.
The two designs have some other common aspects:
- both conflicts are in the same part of the world generally, though they are separated by 75 years;
- both are border conflicts involving ethnicities divided by artificial political demarcations (Hungary’s reason for snapping up parts of Slovakia were claims laid to protect the numbers of ethnic Hungarians living there); and
- both games use a deck of common playing cards (though in Ukrainian Crisis it’s optional).
I had fun putting this design together and may end up using this system again in the future, to model other pointless chaotic and short conflicts between pipsqueak republics. Watch the skies!