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  Nato The Cold War Goes Hot The Designer Signature Edition by Compass Games  "NATO, nukes, and Nazi's" are what sells wargame...

Nato: The Cold War Goes Hot Designer Signature Edition by Compass Games Nato: The Cold War Goes Hot Designer Signature Edition by Compass Games

For your Wargamer, Toy soldier collector, MiniFig collector, military history nut. Reviews, interviews, Model Making, AARs and books!

January 2022

Nato: The Cold War Goes Hot Designer Signature Edition by Compass Games

 Nato The Cold War Goes Hot

The Designer Signature Edition


Compass Games

 "NATO, nukes, and Nazi's" are what sells wargames. This concise aphorism from the late 70s or early 80s has been attributed to a number of wargame designers. The original game was released in 1983 by Victory Games. By the amount of press and pieces in the magazines of the time, I would think that every wargamer at the time had a copy. I know I had one, in those halcyon days before I was seduced by computer wargames. Well, it has now been recreated in a new wonderfully looking edition by Compass Games.

 Compass Games has been releasing some of the biggest games from the years of the last great board wargaming era. They are letting the original designers add or remove things from the games that they have been thinking about for the last forty-plus years. So, the gamer gets to have a fully revamped classic game that has also had all of the kinks, if there were any, worked out. This version has been printed with a lavishness that was not available at its first release.

 The Cold War going hot was a very big topic in both reality and the wargaming community in the 1980s. Tensions had risen between the East and the West, and there were countless books and articles written about the strength of both sides. 

  This is the blurb about the game from Compass Games. I like to include them to show the gaming company's thoughts on the game. Then I can compare my thoughts on the game to theirs. 

"NATO, Designer Signature Edition marks the return of a true wargaming classic by Bruce Maxwell. NATO simulates a potential NATO/Warsaw Pact conflict in Central Europe during the Cold War years of the 1980’s. First published in 1983, this game was Victory Games best-selling title, purchased by over 75,000 gamers worldwide. This new edition is based on an exhaustive two-year study by the Designer of the records that have come to light since the fall of the Berlin Wall. The game combines highly accurate information on the forces the Warsaw Pact actually had with now de-classified reports from the CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency regarding what satellite surveillance and HUMINT revealed about their actual plans. The map has also been extensively updated with new satellite geography. Finally, the game system has been reworked to better reflect the fluid, fast paced and deadly nature of modern warfare, while retaining the original intention of simple and intuitive play. Here is the ultimate Cold War game, remastered, and playable in a single sitting.

NATO is a division/brigade level simulation of a Warsaw Pact invasion of Western Europe. The game map depicts the area from Denmark to the Swiss Alps, and from France to Poland.  The time frame covers the first 14 days of war, after which one side or the other has usually run out of an army. The game offers four different Scenarios, covering 1) a surprise attack from a standing start, 2) an attempt by the WP to quietly prepare without tipping NATO off beforehand, 3) an extended buildup of forces by both sides before war breaks out, and 4) an introductory scenario covering the invasion of Denmark.

 Scenario can be played with an Order of Battle from 1983, when NATO was still relatively weak, or with an Order of Battle from 1988, when NATO had rearmed and reorganized and was at the peak of its strength. The difference is impressive.

The game features infantry, armor, airborne and airmobile troops, marines, with easy mechanics to leverage combined arms operations. It also has extensive options for employing air power, chemical weapons and, for the truly desperate player, a last resort to nuclear weapons. The combat system is built around the concept that the best defense is a good offense, and features artillery, tactical and operational air strikes, reserves, counterattacks and deep exploitation, allowing for a rich set of tactical nuances in play. This is not a game where the WP attacks and NATO defends. Both players have to attack relentlessly if they want to defeat their opponent.

This Designer Signature edition of the classic Bruce Maxwell game has been upgraded with new units, new scenarios, new terrain, new tables and new player aid cards. Additional enhancements introduced in this edition include:

Super-sized components feature 9/16” counters and two game maps with larger hexes

Game map information has been updated and includes all-new map artwork

New units have been added, unit information has been updated and all units produced with new artwork

Existing scenarios have been updated and two new scenarios added

Orders of Battle are provided for all Scenarios both 1983 and 1988, allowing players to see the impact of the Reagan Era rearmament programs

The game system has been redesigned and the new rules include extensive illustrations, examples of play and Designer’s Notes to aid clarity

Each rules section now begins with a summary, allowing experienced players to skip many rules sections that embody classic game mechanics they already know

Rules details and restriction have been summarized graphically in Player Aids for faster reference and easier play

Enhanced ergonomics are provided for Scenario set up and Reinforcement charts

A new set of Designer’s Notes contain a wealth of historical information on what the West discovered after the Warsaw Pact collapsed and most of its members joined NATO."

The two maps together in all their glory


One Rules Booklet

One Play Booklet with Scenarios & Designer’s Notes

Two 22″ x 34″ Maps

Four Counter Sheets (9/16″ size playing pieces)

One WP Player Charts & Tables Card

One NATO Player Charts & Tables Card

One WP Sequence of Play Card

One NATO Sequence of Play Card

One Warsaw Pact Strategic Surprise Reinforcement Schedule Card

One Warsaw Pact Extended Buildup Reinforcement Schedule Card

One NATO Strategic Surprise Reinforcement Schedule Card

One NATO Extended Buildup Reinforcement Schedule Card

Two 6-Sided Dice

One Game Box and Lid

The Strategic Surprise Scenario setup 1983

 So, the first thing we will look at is the components. The above picture of the two maps do not do them justice. They are done in a wonderful color scheme that is both easy on the eye, and simple to discern what each hex's terrain is. It was kind of odd to me to see a map that shows East Germany. For more than half my life Germany has been united. The hexes are large which is great for both old eyes and hands. The maps are covered in a myriad of tables and charts that help speed up game play immensely. These are also large sized and easy to read. To sum up the maps, thank you and excellent work Compass Games. The counters are large as well at 9/16". The color schemes on the counters make it easy to see what country they belong to, without making it hard to read their information. That is set out in large bold printing, this is once again entirely appreciated. There are eleven! Players Aids in all, and they are all two-sided. These are in full color and made of hard stock. There are three Reinforcement Schedule Aids for the different scenarios. These are followed by six Players Aids with tables and charts. Next comes two oversized (these are double sized compared to the other) Players Aids that have on one side the Terrain Chart, and on the other the Sequence of Play. You will not need a magnifying glass to read any of these. The Rules Booklet is eighty-seven pages long. The Booklet has to be so long to deal with all of the different aspects of modern war. It is in full color and the pages are made of thicker laminated paper. The rules are set out in a very simple to follow format. They are not just a jumble of rules and exceptions to those rules. The Booklet has many examples of play in it. It even comes with a glossary of terms used militarily and in wargames. That is a very nice touch. The Playbook is fifty-five pages long. Included is an eight page Designer's Notes that go over both the game and the history of the period it is portraying. At the end of the Playbook is an eighteen page OOB, Order of Battle, for both sides in the conflict. The first twenty-five pages of the Playbook are for the setup for the different scenarios. The Playbook is printed exactly like the Rules Booklet. It is set out in the same easy to follow manner as the Rules Booklet. 

 This is the breakdown of the game:

Complexity: 7 out of 10

Solitaire Suitability: 7 out of 10 (no hidden units)

Time Scale: 24 hours per turn

Map Scale: 15 miles per hex

Unit Scale: regiments, brigades, and divisions, abstract air and naval forces

Players: one to four, best with two

Playing Time: 3-8 hours depending upon scenario 

All the Components laid out

  There you have what comes in the box. I am happy to report that Compass Games has hit one out of the park as far as the components of the game. 

 So, the game gives you the ability to play either the Warsaw Pact or NATO during this titanic class. One thing though, both sides were betting on a short, very short, war. The turn record track has only fourteen days in it. You read that right - fourteen! This might come as a shock to gamers who are used to the seemingly fast World War II pace, or the glacial pace of World War I and before. The designer makes his case on the fact of the almost total lethality of modern war. We are not talking nukes, but the lethality of regular munitions against each other. The dead pile of counters will show you the truth in this assumption. The Rhine River was only eighty-seven miles from the East German border. That would be less than six hexes at fifteen miles per hex. NATO had the thought that it had its back up against a wall, and it was quite correct in its assessment. 

 There are a few things about the original game that the designer, Bruce Maxwell, did not like. One of these was the tactical nuclear part of the game. Remember though, he has had almost forty years to work on the game. They spent another two years on the game before allowing Compass Games to reissue it. 

 NATO is one of those gems where a player has to take a long, long time to learn how to 'game' the rules and game. That is if you actually can do it. Each game plays out entirely differently than the next one. Each side is presented with so many choices. These are some of the weapons/strategies each can use:


Transport Movement/Interception

Air/Sea Ferry

Rail Movement


Offensive/Defensive Strikes (Defensive Strikes are only used by NATO)

Chemical Warfare (The WP must initiate it)

Air Power/Air Strikes

Nuclear Strikes

 As far as victory goes: The WP Player can win an Automatic Victory by having a Maneuver Unit (Not Airmobile, Airborne, or Marine Unit) in supply, west of the Rhine River and south of the Waal River. A NATO Automatic Victory can occur if they have been able to control two WP cities. The NATO Player can also get an Automatic Victory if he can relieve West Berlin or force Czechoslovakia to surrender. To relieve West Berlin the NATO Player must have a Maneuver Unit in Berlin with a Line of Supply to it. Each player must roll for the chance of causing 'Armageddon' when using nuclear weapons, with one caveat. The player who causes Armageddon loses automatically. Different levels of winning and losing are mostly defined by capturing and holding enemy cities. One very interesting rule is the 'Armistice' one. I do not think I remember a game having an actual rule for an armistice. Usually it is just something off the cuff by either player realizing he has lost. This game actually allows some structured give and take between each player.

Soviet Air Assets to the attack

 The scenarios are:

BALTAP Scenario (WP invasion of Denmark) This meant to be an introductory scenario.

Strategic Surprise Scenario 

Extended Buildup Scenario

War of Nerves Scenario (This is where the WP player secretly tries to build up his forces before attacking)

 There are OOBs and setup information for both the years 1983 and 1988. The year 1983 represents the low tide for US armaments. Where the year 1988 represents all of the buildup of the US Armed Forces under Reagan.

 As I mentioned, I had bought the original game years ago. You have to understand that I had almost zero wargaming interest in a WP vs NATO game, except for maybe a 1945 or 1946 outbreak of World War III. So, for me to pick it up is definitely a salute to a game that so many other gamers were raving about. I really liked the original game. This iteration with all of its bells and whistles I cannot speak highly about. From the first-rate components to the obvious care, and dare I say love, that the designer and his team put into this new version is very apparent. Thank you very much Compass Games for sending this excellent game to review. I can recommend it to anyone who is interested in the era, or is just looking for a great wargaming experience. Below are the links to NATO and to Compass Games. Do yourself a favor and take a look at what else is in their stable.


NATO: The Cold War Goes Hot Designer Signature Series:

NATO, Designer Signature Edition – Compass Games

Compass Games:

Compass Games – New Directions In Gaming


HOW THE UNION WAS SAVED: the AMERICAN CIVIL WAR  FROM STRATEGEMATA When Stephen Pole followed up Storm In The East with Storm In The West ...


For your Wargamer, Toy soldier collector, MiniFig collector, military history nut. Reviews, interviews, Model Making, AARs and books!

January 2022






When Stephen Pole followed up Storm In The East with Storm In The West that seemed a reasonable and logical progression and I thoroughly enjoyed the basic system both games employed.  When he subsequently tweaked that same system for How the West Was Saved, I was a shade concerned that he was trying to shoe-horn the system into a very different period and conflict - that of the Russo/Polish war of 1920.  I wasn't over-thrilled with the title either.  However, if you read my review of that previous game you'll know that I was won over.

So, before Christmas when I received How The Union Was Saved: the American Civil War from Strategemata, my immediate thoughts were that, if nothing else, this title was just too repetitive and unimaginative!  But wait... that box art full of drama and action wasn't bad at all.  Opening the box things got  even better.  

A very nicely designed mounted board presented a simplified, but very playable map. flanked by display charts for each sides forces and two solid and beautifully illustrated screens to hide those units.  I was already beginning to be won over.

The map may have more than a little of the simplicity and austerity of early Avalon Hill years, but it is wholly practical for this strategic level of play.

Then three counter sheets follow - one consists almost entirely of leaders, while the other two contain unit strength counters for all three combat arms and plenty of markers for such things as supply depots, activation markers, garrisons and redoubts.  All these are the very solid, thick, laser-cut counters that are familiar now in several companies' games.  Though rather plain and simple, they are all clear and functional, while the leader counters are graced with black and white, head and shoulder photos.  Another plus.

The rule book is a compact 12 pages dedicated to the rules, but with limited illustration and an additional three pages of excellent design notes - though you may want to copy the latter and expand the font size which is microscopic!  Accompanying the rules booklet is a very good 7 page Example of Play booklet.  This is becoming a more frequent feature in game design and one that I heartily endorse, even for a game such as this.  Physically none of these have the glossy luxury of the larger games producers, but are workman-like and very serviceable.

Nor had I been deterred by the fact that this was another iteration of Stephen Pole's major game system.  When I first encountered it for his series of three WWII games, my first thoughts had been that it might serve even more appropriately for the American Civil War. Now was my chance to find out.

As always the central factor is the use of Resource Points [RPs].  Their fixed allocation helps to establish an appropriately historical pattern to all the games using it, but with a simple positive and negative dice mechanism which adds in just the right amount of potential variation.

These RPs are absolutely essential to virtually every aspect of the game.  First of all they are used to set up and pay for  new supply depots and also pay for the maintenance of existing ones.  Next they pay for the placement of all activation markers that each player will use during the current turn.  For me this is one of the best elements in the system. Each player alternately places an activation marker leading to a subtle tension between executing your intended plans, reacting to your opponent's placements and trying to divine from them what their intentions are. Finally, your RPs are used once again alternately to pay for the movement and combat of activated units.  
So far so familiar and working very nicely.

At this point, Stephen Pole has introduced to the mix the single most effective and important new feature: apart from garrisons, the only "units" to appear on the map are the Field Army stands,  each with its Commanding Leader!  Again, this may not be a new concept.  [I'd refer you to Shako's Napoleon 1806 or Napoleon 1807 for a couple of further excellent games using the same concept, but with more conventional blocks.]  Nevertheless, it is the perfect accompaniment to the cat and mouse manoeuvring - and often blundering - of the historical ACW campaigns.  All that you ever see on the map {apart from a few garrison markers} are a maximum of eight Confederate Armies and ten Union Armies designated by an alphabetically labelled base and the counter of its Commanding Officer.

Here you see the opening set up, with each side's Field Armies deployed and their unit strengths laid out on the corresponding charts hidden by a pair of vividly illustrated screens, such as the Confederate one below.

Considering the few Armies involved, I was also pleased to see that Stephen Pole had avoided the danger of massive over-strength armies.  Instead he has provided a combination of ideas that are another reason for my wholehearted praise and enjoyment of this game.  Crucially, a Field Army can only have a maximum strength of 12  points. While at their heart are the Commanders, who are divided into two levels: Senior [3 stars] and Junior [2 stars].  This is all- important for combat. 

A Junior Commander is marked with a crossed sabre and rifle symbol and a number which indicates how many men they may include in a combat. Whereas, a Senior Commander may command both their own unit strength, again indicated by crossed sabre and rifle, and also a number of Junior Commanders, this time marked by a kepi symbol and number.  Below are two typical Senior Commanders.

Thus, in the photo above, Union Senior Commander Halleck can command 1 strength point himself in combat and two Junior Commanders and their unit strengths.  Confederate Beauregard has an edge as he can command 3 strength points himself, plus 2 Junior Commanders and their strength points. 

All Commanders, with the exception of Robert E. Lee, begin the war at Level 1 and many have the potential to be upgraded to Level 2 as the game progresses.  I like this simple way of factoring in the basic overall inexperience as both sides began the conflict.  On the other hand, I'm not so sure that I wholeheartedly agree with the decision to make available from the start a totally free choice of all Commanders, though this is well explained in the design notes.  After more plays, I will probably work on a more historical chart for their availability.  

As with his previous designs, the historical element is further catered for by a series of Event Card decks, one for each year.  Though I rank very highly some CDGs [Card Driven Games], above all the classic Twilight Struggle , I've always been a greater fan of card assisted games as here.

First of all, the choice of the yearly decks ensures that nothing too anomalous occurs and this is further curtailed by each player drawing a single card per turn.  So that, starting from Turn 2, you play just one of your two Event cards held in hand.  For me, this gives just the right balance of a little historicity per turn and a small element of surprise for your opponent rather than allowing a near re-write of history and too much control of how it unwinds!

I also favour the design that the Decks are shared by each player and so each card has a Confederate and a Union Event, as seen here in these four drawn from the 1861 Deck.

The final design feature that works to create the right historical feel is the division of strength points into full strength and weakened ones.  At the beginning of the war both sides Field Armies contain purely weakened ones.  This is visually well handled on the Field Army Display charts in two ways: firstly, each Army's Display is divided into a Full Strength and a Weakened Strength area and this is reinforced by Full Strength counters being numbered in red and Weakened Strength counters being numbered in black. 
Strength Markers for the three combat arms

As the war progresses, starting from 1862, both sides are allowed a number of upgrades both to units and to Commanders at the end of that year's Spring Turn.  Again, I like the basic concept very much, but would like to have had a little less blanket uniformity.  [A slight variation by die roll, perhaps affected by the previous year's losses might be a possible house rule.]

The last area I want to explore is combat which I would describe as the icing on the cake.  As mentioned earlier, a key factor is the number of strength points that a Field Army can actually bring to bear in combat depends on the Commanders' abilities.  It's next affected by whether those strength points are Full or Weakened troops, as in Combat a Full Strength point counts double.  

All that I've described works to blend familiar aspects with new variations retaining an overall clarity of rules that is strongly supported by the eight page Extended Example of Play. 
A typical page from the excellent Extended Example of Play
Having worked out the number of strength points [SPs] that can be committed to a battle, each player chooses the types of SPs from those available on their Field Army display [e.g. Infantry, Cavalry or Artillery and whether Full Strength or Weakened] and places them secretly on the Hidden Battlefield Display.  Once more a very simple process, easily understood and carried out, but introducing another level of choice seldom seen in most games.

A number of modifiers from typical factors like terrain or adjacent friendly units are applied.  Included in this process is another new idea that I strongly applaud: a simple 2D6 die roll by each player which will result in either being able to add 1 strength of any available type to your combat strength or deduct 1 strength of any available type from your opponent's battle strength.

I greatly enjoy the many uncertainties that derive from hidden displays, the alternating activation of individual Armies and the uncertainty of just what composition of units you're going to meet in battle.  This is all achieved through  a very accessible and well exemplified set of rules.  Once again Stephen Pole has given us a design for a highly playable, fast-paced game that deserves to be in your collection. 

Many thanks as always to Strategemata for providing this review copy.



Decisive Campaigns: Ardennes Offensive From Matrix/Slitherine Games and Developer VR Design       If there's one thing most wargamers ap...

Decisive Campaigns: Ardennes Offensive Indepth Review Special Decisive Campaigns: Ardennes Offensive Indepth Review Special

For your Wargamer, Toy soldier collector, MiniFig collector, military history nut. Reviews, interviews, Model Making, AARs and books!

January 2022

Decisive Campaigns: Ardennes Offensive Indepth Review Special

Decisive Campaigns: Ardennes Offensive

From Matrix/Slitherine Games and Developer VR Design


If there's one thing most wargamers appreciate, it's the numbers. For example, the nitty-gritty combat factors that can make or break an in-game assault.

Well, digital wargamers can rejoice because VR Design's latest offering, Decisive Campaigns: Ardennes Offensive (AO for short) includes more "column shifts" than the average grognard would have thought possible in a strategy game. And all of this is courtesy of a simulation that takes maximum advantage of the number-crunching capabilities of modern computers.


When one includes these features with a UI that's easy to navigate without ever opening the 110-page manual, and strategy gamers have a product that offers (almost) immediate gratification, as well as a respectable measure of historical accuracy.


What's clear after 50 hours of playing time on the smaller scenarios alone is that, from almost every angle, the game has been polished to a brilliant shine.


"It's really just a counter-pusher and nothing more than that," writes developer Victor (Vic) Reijkersz in the game's manual. However, what he adds next perfectly sums up VR Design's creative efforts: "By really focusing on making it do what it does well, I think we have delivered a fun and realistic game."


In that respect, and in our humble opinion, VR Design has accomplished its primary mission.


The 'Screaming Eagles' defend Bastogne


But before we continue with the accolades, we need to conduct a few reality checks:


1. The game was released on November 18, 2021 on while this review was still being written. This means that a large portion of the existing Matrix/Slitherine customer base interested in the game before release probably owns it by now. And that may include you.


2. The remaining buyers of the game who are still on the fence have several good-to-excellent video reviews to sit through if they have the patience.


3. The much wider Steam audience will be introduced to the game when it is available on that platform in a few months. Our guess is that only a few of these customers are regular visitors to AWNT's web site. And yes, we forgive them.


4. Nevertheless, AWNT will still lasso a significant number of potential buyers post-release who are searching the web for reviews of this game. So this article may be helpful if that is you.


5. And finally, we come to this review's primary raison d'etre: To introduce board wargamers to a digital product they may have otherwise missed.


In fact, there are several reasons why AWNT's audience might be keenly interested in this game, while those who enjoy lighter-weight titles like Matrix Games Panzer Corps 2 might want to give it a pass.


The first of these reasons was touched on at the beginning of this article: the countless algorithms used for sighting, terrain affects, weather, movement, command-and-control, supply, morale, and most especially - combat - are deliciously detailed and skillfully displayed for the player. In addition, the game map has the looks and quality of a modern board game release, although different heights can be difficult to discern.

The Bottom-line

For those of you in a rush to get to the bottom-line, there's no need to search further for a summation: It's all right here:


For computer wargamers looking for a medium-complexity, battalion-level simulation (1 km per hex) with a comprehensive suite of editors, this game is the literal "critic's choice," and the $40 U.S. asking price is a mere pittance for the content one will receive. And, most importantly, for board game players who have thus far resisted the urge to purchase a digital wargame? Well, this is the product you really want to consider.


The NATO counters are not as snazzy at the silhouettes but equally informative.

The scenarios included with the game include four "smaller" engagements (West Wall, To Dinant, Arracourt, and Stavelot); six "medium-size" scenarios (St. Vith, 82nd Airborne, Bastogne, Elsenborn Ridge, Skyline Drive and Windhund (116th Panzer Division)); and, two huge campaign games (Wacht Am Rhein, and the Allied counterattack, The Tide Turns).


Several weeks after release, some of the more experienced wargamers on the Matrix/Slitherine forums are still embroiled with the smaller stuff; And Stavelot, arguably the simplest of the offerings, is challenging some of the best and brightest. These players are finding that there's always a way to win the introductory scenarios, but it's going to take a few tries and several different strategies. Kudos to Reijkersz's partner in VR Design's latest effort - Davide Gambina - who is responsible for scenario design and the significant amount of historical research required to publish a game of this depth.


What experienced gamers may be surprised to find in a product depicting an impressive level of tactical detail in an operational-level wargame is just how easy the game is to play. The challenge is in beating the pants off the AI. PBEM is accomplished the old-fashioned way - via file transfer - with no dedicated server available yet. But the AI is aggressive on the attack and stubborn on the defense. With an artificial opponent like this, who needs friends anyway? However, head-to-head mode is likely to be extremely intense for players looking for the ultimate challenge.


Players can also expect history to repeat itself in terms of Axis fuel shortages and Allied air superiority. However, in the warm-up scenarios at least, these historical realities don't come across as too heavy-handed.


The engagements seem nicely balanced but do require the Axis side to take risks to achieve the ahistorical victories that eluded the Wehrmacht. This means blowing past the more immediate victory locations and stretching German troop movements to the limit in a December 1944 version of the blitzkrieg.


Playing the aggressor against an equally competent human opponent is going to be tough. Likewise, when defending against an AI attacker, experienced players may want to adjust the difficulty level from "normal" (the easiest setting) to "challenging." Fortunately, with scenarios like West Wall and The Tide Turns campaign, both sides get to play as the attacker in a game that realistically favors defensive operations.


The strategic map for the Wacht Am Rhein campaign game.

In a game as calculation-centric as AO, it's a marvel the engine doesn't bog down. Even when playing the big campaign scenarios against the AI, the initial turn preparation phase never exceeds more than several seconds. Game phases for the smaller scenarios are processed with lightning-quick speed.


Even better, the mouse feels like a scalpel under this new Decisive Battles series UI, with the most important actions falling readily to-hand. We have all fussed with wargame interfaces that remind us of what a Trabant must have been like to drive in Eastern Europe during the Cold War. The switch-gear in this game, however, is both tactile and intuitive - the BMW M5 sports sedan of wargame interfaces.


A big part of the success of this newest Decisive Battles interface is that there are tool tips for nearly everything. And "everything" means much more detailed information in the tool tips than most WW2 grognards could ever wish for.


The combat routines are immersive, detailed and immensely satisfying, while also managing to move the battles along at a brisk pace. When tested on a i7, 3.6 ghz system with a lowly GeForce GTX 745 graphics card, the game phases for the largest scenarios advance in less than 15 seconds, and the quality of the 1900x1200 desktop resolution used to run the game was better than average. Higher screen resolutions will most likely result in more razor-sharp images.


In this game, troops are modeled per squad of 10 men or a single vehicle, with new rules for LOS, traffic jams, height levels, and much more. Six different ground states are displayed on the map, three of which are for aesthetic purposes.


It all begins with the intuitive MOVE mode: a simple "left-click" to select a unit and a "right-click" to move and/or attack.


An attack brings up the all-important combat set-up screen, which is masterfully well-designed. In the center is a zoomed-in map view showing the immediate area of the combat, reminiscent of Strategic Studies Group's "Kharkov - Disaster on the Donets" combat screen. Except here we have a high-res view of the counters and terrain, with the combat odds and attack options properly put forward.


In fact, this may well be the best combat strategy screen ever created for a wargame. It's simply amazing how uncluttered this screen is when considering the reams of data available to the player when planning an attack.


The combat set-up screen in a small engagement outside of Stavelot.

The small- and medium-size scenarios included with this game are rewarding enough, but there are two marquee battles that really define the title. The first is Wacht Am Rhein (Dec. 16-31, 1944), which will be easier to play as the Allied defender simply because there are fewer units to manage compared with the Axis attacker.


The second campaign game, The Tide Turns (Jan. 1-16, 1945) will be the more innovative choice, and starting on Turn 1, players will find a huge number of Allied counters waiting for orders. Fortunately, they can be moved by group as well as individually. Managing the defense for the Axis forces in this large campaign will also be an appealing challenge, with fewer units to micromanage.


In terms of raw data, VR Design's previous effort, Decisive Campaigns Barbarossa (DCB) features only one campaign (and no scenarios) and takes up 583 mb of hard drive space. AO requires 900 mb, and that's still quite tidy considering the greater emphasis on graphics for the new title, not to mention 10 scenarios and two large campaign games. There's more content for one's money here compared with the developer's last game. Oh, and the previous title featured a significantly smaller (and graphically much simpler) terrain map at 98x74 hexes.

Decisive Campaigns Barbarosa, VR Design's previous effort.

One thing VR Design hasn't done is rest on its laurels: DCB (the third game in the DC series) was released six years ago and was most recently updated in March of 2020; and, based on popular reviews, Shadow Empire, a turn-based 4X role-playing strategy/wargame, has been a runaway success for the developer since its release by Matrix/Slitherine. It is also available on Steam.


New Features

The new game represents units at the battalion (operational) level, but there is still a tactical feel to the proceedings. LOS is now a "thing" in this game and is governed by several factors, including terrain type and height, weather, unit types, and the recon point value of each hex. All this information together can result in either full, partial or fully-blocked LOS. As wargamers might expect, building up a high recon point value through probes, etc., gives players more accurate information on enemy units, while no recon at all invites an ambush.


While the designer uses a full page of the manual and a detailed chart to explain recon in the game, let's just say one of its best features is that it makes sense to actually use small scouting forces - and especially reconnaissance-trained troops - for recon-only missions.


Recon levels are shown directly on the map using an "eye" icon that is shaded green for strong recon or red for the opposite. Considering there's a lot going on graphically in the map display, the recon function is well designed and doesn't contribute to map clutter. The recon value is also displayed numerically on the combat set-up screen.

The green-colored "eyes" feature the highest recon levels.

Another new factor to consider with this game is "intercept fire." Your units may be fired upon when moving and will obviously take more potential damage if in "march" mode. Friendly forces also conduct intercept fire on enemy units automatically, which gives the game a slightly more WEGO turn resolution feel when playing.


Of course, like most aspects of the game, intercept fire mode can be modified by selecting the "trigger happy," "regular," "conservative" and "never" standing orders for each unit. As an example, when using the "conservative" setting, your units will only attempt intercept fire if they have a 66% chance (or more) of hitting the enemy.


With all there is to do in the game, this writer was content to leave the settings at "regular" to avoid excessive micromanagement. However, in certain tactical situations it probably pays to "get one's hands dirty" and experiment with the settings. Enemy intercept fire never appeared overly deadly in terms of friendly casualties but was able to stop a unit in its tracks, which was often a worse outcome than taking a few losses.


The new Uncertainty rule is a feature that's rarely, if ever, seen in digital wargames and adds more suspense and randomness to combat and formation quality on a unit-wide basis. It took the designer a full page of the manual to explain just how the "dice" modify things when using this rule. Let's just say that you won't be able to discover the true quality of a unit until after it has participated in multiple combats. Under rare circumstances, the rule can actually quadruple the performance of a troop based on modified attack and hit points.


Another feature not present in most wargames is that when Fog of War is disabled, the player can see all the units on the map, but the combat calculations still consider only what your units and the enemy's can actually see.

Designing Your Own Kampfgruppe

A significant new game feature is that units in the same hex can now be transferred from one formation to another using a similar, but more highly polished and detailed mechanism first seen in VR Design's classic, and still popular Advanced Tactics Gold wargame. New battlegroups can be created on-the-fly, with the program providing an appropriate name for the new formation, such as KG (kampfgruppe) Gutmann or Battlegroup Smith.


This feature is more than just an enjoyable new piece of chrome, as it allows strategists to create task-specific formations for upcoming duties. And it's also a heck of a lot of fun to use.


For example, rather than being stuck with an overly large regiment consisting of mixed battalions and companies for a critical attack, the transfer feature allows one to create an artillery-heavy battalion to soften up the enemy; a veteran group of panzer grenadiers and engineers for the assault; and, a pure armored formation for the breakthrough. Of course, custom units formed using this utility cannot more or attack in the same turn they are created.


In the same way, a defensive-oriented unit made up of "fortress" infantry and anti-tank guns can be whipped up quickly and assigned to defend the hex, rather than using (and possibly wasting) the services of a larger battalion or regiment. A situation like this can be doubly important when attacking with a large vanilla unit, as an "overkill" penalty in combat triggers various penalties and useless losses.


The 84th SS Flak Abt. (highlighted in red) is created in order to ambush American armor.

It's also important to note that while newly formed units are temporarily "disorganized," the penalty is far from crippling. The bottom line is the player has the ability (and the responsibility) to ensure there are no awkward or inappropriate formations in his or her army.


In this latest version of the Decisive Campaigns series, the variety of Action Cards has been greatly and generously expanded to fit the operational level of the game. The card's in VR Design's previous strategic-level DCB game seem quite skimpy in comparison.


For example, a survey of available action cards in AO scenarios number as many as 15 for the Axis, separated into four categories: Combat Units, Rear Area, Air Support, and Depots. Naturally, the Air Support category is minimal for the Germans and more plentiful for the Allies - depending on the weather. Like so many other aspects of the game, the decision of how and where to spend one's precious Political Points on Action Cards in a given situation can be immensely rewarding for the player.


A sampling of Axis Combat Unit Action Cards.

Command Points differ from Political Points in that the former are used to activate a variety of different Action Cards that are shown for each officer, and also to create new kampfgruppes/battlegroups, among other things. These command points are generated by the Command Rating of the various personnel in one's officer corps. In addition, each personality is rated in five areas, such as Audacity (think Gen. Patton), Determination (Patton again), Charisma (Rommel (yes, he lurks in the editor)), as well as Intuition and Organization.


Simulating the Bulge: Comparing Panzer Campaigns with Decisive Battles

The game scale used in the late John Tiller's Panzer Campaigns Bulge '44 Gold edition (patch circa 12/09/18) matches AO's closely at 1 km per hex with each counter representing a roughly battalion-size unit. The southwest corner of Tiller's Bulge game is anchored by the four-hex (4 km) city of Charleville. AO's map is pretty close, with that city about five hexes from the western map edge and seven hexes from the bottom.


Likewise, the large, Allied-held city of Verviers sits at the top (northern) edge of the Bulge map, where strategists tackling VR Design's game get seven extra km of maneuvering space north of that city.


AO's campaign map (155x116) is a few 'clicks larger overall than the Panzer Campaigns map (169x98) for a total of 17,980 square km vs. 16,562 square km, respectively.


John Tiller's Panzer Campaigns Bulge '44 Gold edition map.

We could go on with our comparison, but a close study of the many cities and towns included in both games shows creative choices were used by the designers of both products, making it crystal clear that Gamina did not borrow from Tiller when creating AO's campaign map.


Mr. Tiller's original Wach Am Rhein campaign game weighs in at a hefty 164 turns, vs. AO's relatively brief 64 tries, albeit with up to 10 combat rounds simulated per turn. However, these rounds can be resolved in a flash if the player so wishes.


In terms of unit placement, the U.S. 102nd Cavalry Group is located exactly where it "should be" in both games - about two 'clicks north of Monschau.


In general, there's only a few natural map and unit variations between the two excellent game designs, and the differences make each a true "original."


For example, Tiller's team chose to highlight the town of St. Vith as a one-hex, 1,000 point objective, whereas Gambina spreads things out by using four separate objective hexes to mark the town.


It should be noted that Tiller's research and scenario design team included Panzer Campaigns veterans Greg Smith, Glenn Saunders and the late Dave "Blackie" Blackburn, while Gambina handled all the OOB and scenario design work himself.


In fact, the fidelity of both games is such that players of AO may want to seriously consider picking up Bulge '44 Gold at


The 116th Panzer Regiment highlighted in AO's map.(Compare this screen shot with the Panzer Campaigns map showing the same game situation in the screen shot above.)

 The Counters Explained

While the standard NATO counters are both informative and relatively readable (even when some screen displays considerably reduce their size), the Silhouette counter option can be deeply gratifying.


However, not all the symbology on the counters will be clear at first glance. Fortunately, there is an excellent tutorial video on the topic ( that will cost you 11 minutes of your life. So, it may be quicker to just do the reading below. The following screen shot comes directly from the game manual:

The 'key' to the counters.

  • The Regime icon is either the vintage-look German Cross shown in the counter above, or a green-colored star for the Allies.

  • The Name (162. here) is where players may find some inconsistencies with OOB naming and labeling that can make units of the same formation a bit more difficult to identify. (These names can be changed in the program's Simple Editor, and at least one modder on the forums is hard at work attempting to clarify these situations.)

  • The tiny Supplies Received square is colored green, yellow, blue or red, showing a progressively decreasing access to supplies. Black means the unit is out-of-supply.

  • The shield or symbol of the unit's HQ is displayed next; there are a plethora of colorful (and historically-accurate) icons available for HQs of both sides.

  • The color of the vertical readiness/integrity bar below the shield goes from green/yellow/blue/red, with the latter color showing readiness below 25. One does not want to attack using units with low readiness.

  •  The green crate icon in the lower right corner of the counter shows supply reserves using the same color coding for increasingly lower stocks. The larger numeral to its left is quite handy and depicts the abstract strength of a unit compared with others on the game board.

  • The number within the circle is the unit's Action Points; the highlighted circle is white if the formation is in March mode and black for units in Combat mode.

  • The "oil drum" in the lower left corner of the counter shows fuel reserves from green (full) to red (low).

  • Last and largest is the actual unit silhouette in the center of the counter, which shows the most prevalent troop type in the formation and its means of transport, if any. The unit in the screen shot above is shown as mechanized infantry (notice the halftrack icon), while other icons include horse-drawn transport or nothing at all for foot sloggers.

The screen shot show below shows a close-up of several British formations surrounding the city of Huy at the start of the Wacht Am Rhein campaign scenario. One notices that the rather nicely drawn British roundels and the vertical (green) readiness/integrity bars have been shifted from the right to the left edge of the counters to further differentiate Allied from Axis units.


British formations, including HQ units.

One notices the HQ of the 152nd Infantry Brigade (sporting the large British roundel) on the left side of the screenie. Its HQ is the 51st Infantry Division "Highland" off map to the southwest. The "2SH" (2nd Seaforth Highlanders) is positioned directly northeast of 152 Infantry Brigade HQ, while the 127th Royal Field Artillery is a bit further northeast and features the "HD" roundel atop its readiness bar signifying it as a member of the Highland (HD) Division.


In this microcosm of an OOB, the naming, labeling and shading is quite well done. But one can imagine things can get a bit sticky at times. In the release version of the game, there may be inconsistencies with the historical designations of the units on several of the 200+ counters created for the game.


Combat Planning In-Depth

How much data does the player have at his/her disposal in the combat set-up screen alone? Below is a sampling using the screen shot we posted previously:


The combat set-up screen examined.
In the upper left of the screen shot above we have the Eligible Forces available for the proposed attack - up to 24 (or more) distinct little counters just large enough so one can read the various attributes of each when actually playing the game. Like past Decisive Campaigns games, the player can select and de-select each counter and instantly see how the estimated attack data changes.

Directly below the Eligible Forces is the box containing the "estimation of offensive mods" table, which includes the affects of the landscape, rivers, concentric attack modifiers (if any); readiness and unit experience modifiers; an attack saturation modifier (if too much power is being used on too small a target); a HQ/Staff/Officer bonus modifier; a high-ground modifier; two "offensive power" modifiers; and, last but not least, a "cumulative modifier" that multiplies all the estimated modifiers with one another.


On the opposite side of the main combat set-up window is a table showing the same detailed combat modifiers for the defending forces. The units of both sides involved in the combat are also shown in the bottom left and right corners of the screen.


Obviously, calculating all these modifiers by hand in a board game would be a stiff challenge, but it's a breeze for today's modern CPUs.

Four attack options (Probe, Recon in Force, Attack, and All-Out Attack) are shown as brownish buttons at the bottom center of the display, and all feature tool tips on what they do. Just above these buttons is the large, green-colored combat odds box (i.e., Odds 4:1, as shown in the screen above).


Above the Odds box is the map or "porthole" view, showing each attacking counter with the defending unit(s) in the center. The player can also add or remove an attacking counter from the combat by clicking directly on the unit in the map view.


Finally, the Combat Totals are shown numerically in the upper right-hand table, including individual Infantry, Guns, Motorized, and Tank units committed to the assault, as well as the attacker's and defender's Stack and Recon points.


And, of course, all of this information is updated instantly every time the player adds or removes a unit counter to or from the attack.


Once the player confirms the chosen attack type by pushing its button, the full map is shown briefly (centered in the combat location) with an "explosion" icon over the targeted hex.


There are three combat resolution screens available: Graphic, Textual, and Detail views, similar to the previous Decisive Campaigns games.


The graphic view shows tiny unit counters on each side of the screen (attacker and defender, respectively), with equally tiny graphic icons of the units themselves in the center (infantry, bazookas, trucks, jeeps, tanks, etc.). A number is shown in white below each icon and turns red when losses occur.


The player can choose to resolve each of 10 or more rounds of combat all at once by selecting the "auto-play" button or show the results of each round manually by pressing the space bar or "next round" button.


The "textual" combat resolution option shows a spreadsheet-type view of each combat round in numerical format, with unit types, losses, and various other stats updating with each round of combat.


The "detail" combat resolution screen is just that: more details, with a screen full of data showing individual combat losses each round, as well as a variety of other reports.


In this writer's opinion, the textual combat report is the easiest to absorb, but the player has the ability to change the resolution screens on-the-fly for every round of combat.


Ranged Combat

The screen shot below illustrates the Ranged Attack planning window, with the indirect fire bonus modifier tool tip enabled in the center. The Eligible Forces available to fire are included in the upper-left corner, and in this example, the sole German unit selected is shooting from 2 km (two hex) range.


A trio of 81mm mortars is selected in the upper left and ready to fire on the Americans.

Let's savor some of the details depicted on this screen for a moment. This particular shot is from a modified version of the Stavelot scenario - the smallest battle included with the game. The single formation highlighted under Attacking Forces is shown in the bottom-left box and ready to shoot with its three 81mm mortars, as part of an editor-modified and enhanced 11th VolksSturm Battalion.


In this case, full LOS, height affects and several other modifiers matter in what is otherwise a tiny firing mission. Experienced users are split on whether the player should highlight and attack with every ranged unit individually for maximum effect, or instead, avoid micromanagement and fire with all the available units listed in the Attacking forces box. In this case, the result of our three-tube mortar mission is masked because the fog-of-war setting is on.


Nevertheless, this is a battalion-level game with the granularity approaching a squad-based title. The possible outcomes of every combat are nearly limitless.


And besides the combat resolutions, there is the amazing amount of data tracked when accessing the Stats tab at the top of the main screen. More than 165 unit types are listed alphabetically, from the 105mm Howitzer to the German Wirbelwind. Losses and kills can be tracked for each type of infantry squad, artillery piece or armored vehicle in the game using an easy-to-read graph.


The Stats screen also gives commanders a quick way to access the equipment being used in the game by unit type, as well as its effectiveness. In terms of numbers tracked, this game arguable drills as deep as Matrix Games' legendary War in the East series, except the information is generally easier to digest.


Total motorized losses for each side. The green data track shows friendly losses.

The Editorial Suite

And oh, how sweet it is. Most players won't even touch the Simple Editor, as well as the Troop-Type, Historical Unit, Officer, and Map editors. And the primary reason is the legitimate desire to be chained by historicity. And we respect that.


Nevertheless, this writer is now officially off-the-leash. It's Patton's Third Armored Division against the Wehrmacht's finest panzer troops untouched by bad weather and previous casualties in a colossal meeting engagement with Bastogne as the prize. This imaginary scenario is easier to set up than one might think.


The editors give players the ability to change nearly everything about the forces involved in a scenario, as illustrated by one of the many available editing tools shown in the screen shot below:


Unit stats ready for modification in the Historical Unit Editor.

One can also use some restraint and just give the Axis some extra fuel, or political and command points, to see if it can accomplish what turned out to be a near-impossible historical mission. All it takes is a few key strokes.


Using the Table function in the Simple Editor also makes it easy to scroll down a long list of scenario-specific modifications. Want to swap out a particular division's Panthers for Tiger IIs? It literally takes a few seconds. In fact, most budding scenario designers can stick to the "Simple" Editor and modify a vast number of game parameters.


For example, by selecting Map and then Units from the upper tab in the Simple Editor, one can quickly remove, relocate or chose from a satisfyingly-long list of new combat formations and historical leaders to include in an edited scenario.


The screen shot below shows a partial list of historical Wehrmacht leaders included with the game, along with their statistics. American, British and SS officers are included in separate files.


The German officer line-up in the Historical Officer editor.

As of this writing, the official documentation for the editors can be found here:


Other than graphics mods, all the important files one will be editing, overwriting or renaming are all located in the "ardennesscenarios" folder in the main game directory. This makes it easy for modders to back up the original files and save their modified works-in-progress, as only one folder needs to be protected from unintentional overwriting.


The modding of game files at this stage of the release using the Simple Editor is easy enough, but few players typically take advantage of the power inside this utility. What experimentation with the basic editor does show is just how robust the AI appears to be: Even when modding the small West Wall scenario into a mammoth slug-fest, the computer opponent somehow refuses to be confused with all the tinkering. So one can imagine just how well the AI handles the stock scenarios. And PBEM as the Axis may well be the greatest and most enjoyable challenge board wargamers have yet to face in the digital game arena.\


And that is by far the strongest "must buy" recommendation we can currently offer.


Decisive Campaigns: Ardennes Offensive