Over the weekend of March 14-16, 2014, the people of the Crimea held a referendum to decide whether they should stay in Ukraine. This came after months of escalating tension, brinkmanship and low-level violence between the Ukrainian and Russian ethnicities inside Ukraine, and between their “parent” countries. This looked like either a solution to the crisis, or an escalation. So, I did what anyone with an interest in current events and a few hours on his hands would do: I took some time over that weekend to create a game on the crisis, rather uncreatively titled Ukrainian Crisis (hey, I don’t make monkeys; I just train ‘em).
I posted the PnP game files to my website (http://brtrain.wordpress.com) for free download on the evening of March 16. Over the next 24 hours that page got over 1,800 hits from over 1,000 visitors, where up till then my main page would normally get no more than 8 and 3 respectively. But that didn’t last, because almost everyone who clicked in saw that, ohhh, it’s a paper game, and ohhh, I have to print it out and make up the bits, and ohhh, I have to find someone else to play it with… so they clicked away again. Only 32 people on Boardgamegeek.com own up to having a copy of the game, and while I know it’s not a great indicator of actual ownership, I am pretty sure the number of homemade copies is pretty small. But it’s been available as a free PnP from my website ever since, and will continue to be.
The game got a bit of attention on blogs here and there, and in Summer 2014 I got a tentative contract with Victory Point Games to publish it. Playtesting and development kind of stalled after a few months, but it prompted a few changes, so that near the end of 2015 I posted a refined and revised PnP version that concentrated specifically on the first six months of the crisis, from Yanukovytch’s departure in late February 2014 to the adoption of the first Minsk Protocol in September 2014. The ceasefire introduced by the Protocol did not last long, but it did mark a break in the action and an end to the period in which a large and overt Russian military intervention might have taken place. Important changes to the game included lengthening it to eight turns from six, to allow a bit more time to develop threats and strategies; and to reflect the start-and-stop nature of the historical action, players had the option each time of playing a Strategic Turn or a Combat Turn. The map was also revised slightly and some cards got additional or changed functions.
In 2016 I got a release from the Victory Point contract, and now with its first physical publication and sale, the Hollandspiele version of the game has a slightly larger number of unit counters, the Resource Cards are now chits due to production issues (but there are still 18 Event Cards), and the length of the game is now nine turns. And of course better graphics and art overall!
People who know my work know that I like to design games on contemporary and/or unusual topics, things that haven’t been done before through lack of interest or just plain recency. I think that working on games on these topics is a way for me to understand, organize and present my reading and thoughts on them, in a way that other people can pick up and explore, and perhaps tweak for themselves.
This is especially true when working on something that hasn’t quite finished happening yet, as was the case with this game and for A Distant Plain (since Volko Ruhnke and I were working on it in 2012, the Coalition’s exit from Afghanistan was still a year or two in the future). So you’re concerned not with what happened and its impact on everything else that happened, but with what MIGHT happen and what MIGHT have flowed from those events… an “exploration of the problem space”, as some people would put it. This is the kind of thing that is closer to the spirit of how the professional military approaches wargaming, where they try to work out the implications of current and future problems.
I think it’s a valuable way to try and make sense of the world we live in right now, and I offer the game as a combination of hypothetical exercise and the product of a one-man “game jam”. There are a few other examples of board wargames being produced during or very shortly after the conflict itself:
SPI's Strategy & Tactics back in the day
- John Prados’ Year of the Rat (SPI 1972, in Strategy and Tactics #35): covering the Easter Offensive in Vietnam in the spring of that year;
- Jim Dunnigan’s Sinai (SPI 1973): the 1973 Arab-Israeli war occurred just as the Sinai game was published, with its “1970s hypothetical” scenario (see and hear Jeremy Antley’s very intelligent and erudite analysis of this game as history and source at http://www.peasantmuse.com/2016/01/analysis-of-sinai-spi-1973.html); and
- Jim Dunnigan and Austin Bay’s Arabian Nightmare: the Kuwait War (3W 1990, in Strategy and Tactics #139): this was one of the first board wargames to be designed, tested and assembled via the Internet, as the designers used emails, bulletin boards and FTP sites to send files and playtesters’ comments back and forth.
So what is this thing? In general terms, it is a fairly simple “pol-mil” game for two players that concentrates on the buildup and resolution of threatened territorial annexation of parts of Ukraine by Russia. An overt military invasion of Eastern Ukraine is possible, but not necessary for the Russian player to win the game. Meanwhile, the Ukrainian player desperately mobilizes to defend himself, suppress internal revolt and build a coalition of allies to support him.
The main currency in the game is “Prestige”, a kind of catch-all concept that encompasses a side’s dominance, stability, resolve, or moral high ground. In the original version of the game I compared it to the concept of having “hand”, from that Seinfeld episode about the Pez dispenser (https://theseinfelddictionary.com/2008/02/22/hand/) but that allusion doesn’t travel well.
Anyway, the game ends when one side has been reduced to zero Prestige, or players have reached the end of nine turns (at which time we assume some kind of ceasefire or armistice is reached or brokered).
In each turn, players do the following:
- Event Card Phase
- Chit Play, Turn Type and Resolution Phase
- Operations Phase (Combat Turn only)
- Final Phase
Event Card Phase
Each player draws a random Event Card at the beginning of the turn and may play it or not during the turn, depending on its instructions or their inclination. Event Cards do things like add or deduct units from play, change the attitudes of foreign countries, or resolve the status of neighbouring minor countries such as Moldova or Belarus. Some are just snarky.
Chit Play, Turn Type and Resolution Phase
Resource Chits are divided into three categories of Minor, Moderate, and Maximum Effort. Each one is scarcer than the last and yields larger amounts of Resource Points when played. Each turn each player chooses three Resource Chits from his initial stock of 27; they are not drawn randomly but once you have played them they are gone. One chit is placed face-down in each of the three areas of the Matrix: Military, Diplomatic and Information. The main action of the turn is in resolving the activity prompted by chit play in these three areas, depending on what kind of turn the players are conducting.
So players decide that next: if both sides want a Combat Turn, then they have one; if only one player wants one, the other can try to stop it through attempting to get a ceasefire. If he succeeds, or if neither player wants to fight, they play a Strategic Turn. Area by area, the players resolve the action by revealing their played chits and determine how many Resource Points they have to work with in that area.
Military: use Resource and Prestige to mobilize and deploy units on the map
Diplomatic: use Resource and Prestige to attempt to move one or more countries “up” or “down” on the Foreign Relations Display
Information: reduce enemy’s Prestige or add to own Prestige, or attempt to Neutralize deployed enemy units
Military: move, fight and recover units on the map in a variable number of Action Segments
Diplomatic: attempt to get a Ceasefire (which stops a Combat Turn before it gets started)
Information: attempt to Neutralize enemy units
During Strategic Turns there will be some action on the Foreign Relations Display on the map that shows the state of each country as “Neutral”, “Support”, or “Intervention”. Most countries start at Neutral. The Ukrainian player is trying to create an alliance of countries that will support him, so he has to expend Resource Points and not a little Prestige to try and beat a 2d6 dice roll to shove these countries “up” the slope towards Intervention, while the Russian player expends the same to try and keep or move countries “down” to Neutral. Countries have Ranks in terms of their ability to affect the situation, so the USA is Rank 3 while Romania is 1.
And while the lower rank countries are easier to influence, the rewards of having higher rank countries at Support or Intervention are also good: countries at Support or Intervention either add Prestige equal to their rank to the Ukrainian total at the end of the game turn if it was a Strategic Turn, or subtract it from the Russian total if it was a Combat Turn. Countries at Intervention also yield “at large” Resource Points equal to their Rank at the beginning of the game turn, for the Ukrainian player to use as he pleases.
In a Combat Turn, the kinds of cards played by both sides will determine how many Action Segments (mini-turns) there will be within the Operations Phase, and how many units may move or recover from Neutralization during each Action Segment.
There are three kinds of combat: Symbolic, Asymmetric and Kinetic. The player who is attacking in an area first organizes the units of both sides in it into groups as he desires. What kind of combat can be used by or against a group depends on whether it is made up of Regular or Irregular units (the majority rules). If a group is attacking a group of the same type it can use Symbolic or Kinetic combat; otherwise, only Symbolic or Asymmetric. Players throw a number of d6 equal to the total Combat Values involved and score hits on 5s or 6s. Hits in Symbolic combat only affect the enemy’s Prestige; hits in Asymmetric combat affect Prestige (if inflicted by an Irregular group) or Neutralize enemy units (if inflicted by a Regular group); hits in Kinetic combat Neutralize or eliminate enemy units. Neutralized units cannot attack, only move.
Players check to see if the game has ended, and if it hasn’t they discard any chits and cards and prepare for the next turn. The Ukrainian player checks the strength of the alliances he has with other countries on the Foreign Relations Track; any countries at “Support” or Intervention” will yield Prestige, which will be added to his score if it was a Strategic Turn, or subtracted from the Russian score if it was a Combat Turn.
The game ends when one side has been reduced to zero Prestige or if it is the end of the 9th turn. At that time the two players compare their Victory Point scores. If no Combat Turns were played during the game, each player’s Victory Points are equal to their current Prestige. If one or more Combat Turns were played, the players’ Victory Points are equal to half of their current Prestige (round up) PLUS the Victory Point value of each area on the map where they are the sole player with non-neutralized units. The amount by which one player is leading determines the scale of his victory: Draw, Tactical or Smashing.
Each area on the map is equivalent to an oblast, an administrative division something like a province. The Victory Point values for the map areas in the pro-Russian Ethnic Zone were assigned in rough proportion to the number of people in each oblast, about one per million, adjusted upward for each area in the Zone that has an especially strong (40-80+%) ethnic Russian population. The thinking here is that the avowed casus belli for a Russian military incursion is to protect these people, and not to conquer Ukraine completely – which is why one-third of Ukraine, containing about 11 million people but only a small minority of Russians, was left off the map, and there are no Victory Points awarded for areas in the Ukrainian Ethnic Zone. Similarly, the Ukrainian player is motivated not to accept a partition of his country and therefore to fight for its eastern areas.
It is possible to play the game to a conclusion without playing any Combat Turns. Both players have an ability to reduce the other’s Prestige to zero, through adroit Chit Play on the Diplomatic and Information fronts while the other’s main effort is spent on mobilizing for war; however, as in the military arena most of the advantages lie with the Russian player, who may also be reverse-provoked into an invasion if he sees the Prestige clock winding down too fast on him.
Final thoughts, variations and opinions
I’m glad that this game has finally received a physical, nicely printed edition. The situation in the Ukraine continues to spiral downward to the heart of darkness, but this game tries to capture its first six months, when all eyes were on the Crimea.
People always ask, where are the NATO units? Well, there aren’t any and there won’t be. In my opinion, it is highly unlikely that troops from any country that is a full member of NATO would be placed by their government in a position where they would be shooting at Russian soldiers. And so far, the governments of NATO’s member countries seem still to be firmly of the opinion that while Ukraine should be supported against overt Russian aggression, it is not worth starting World War III over.
Oh, and just for fun, I added a semi-deterministic way to play the game, for people who don’t like throwing loads and loads of dice. It uses a deck of ordinary playing cards; the Russian player takes the red cards, ranks Ace to 9, and the Ukrainian player the same with the black cards. During the game, the players can choose which card to play in the different areas in the Matrix, and the rank of the card (1 to 9) is the number of Resource Points applied. Some cards are recycled for the final three turns. This will give a higher-powered game as this gives each player at least 120 Points to distribute by choice during the game, versus the average expected total of about 100 from the various random die rolls. The dice are still used for combat. It’s an interesting tweak.