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FREEZING INFERNO FROM  PRINCEPS GAMES A stunning box art Quite a bit of newness to open with here.  First off is the company, Princeps Games...







A stunning box art
Quite a bit of newness to open with here.  First off is the company, Princeps Games, who started out in 2019.  Second is that Freezing Inferno is only their second wargame.  Their first March on the Drina was reviewed last year by my fellow reviewer, Robert Peterson.  Third is the topic, the Finnish-Soviet war of 1939-40.  This campaign has been visited before, starting with SPI's Winter War back in 1972 and returned to in 2021 by Decision Games as a magazine issue in their World at War series.  In between came GMT's Arctic Storm in 1992, not to forget the recent Finnish Expansion for Russia Besieged Deluxe edition.  So, a very limited treatment for what remains a relatively little known conflict.
So, a little background information.  What's generally referred to as the Winter War was a Soviet invasion of Finland launched in November of 1939, soon after the beginning of WWII.  Finland successfully withstood these attacks for over two months, but was ultimately overwhelmed after renewed Soviet offensives in February 1940 and the war concluded in March with the signing of the Moscow Peace Treaty.  Though the gains made by the Soviets were more than they had ostensibly sought  in their demands before the war, many writers take the view that their real intentions had been to conquer and establish a puppet government.  Certainly, many are of the opinion that the Soviet effort reinforced Hitler's decision to invade Russia.
Whatever the reality, in Freezing Inferno, you now have the chance to experience this war in what, for any company, can only be described as an excellent deluxe package.  I'd been very impressed by what I'd seen of March on the Drina, which introduced the basics of the system used here. I've no hesitation in saying that this game takes everything even further.
The box art is truly dramatic with its roiling black smoke and menacing tank back-lit by the explosion just behind it.  Opening the deep box, revealed a very safely bubble-wrapped map and when you open it out, what a map!

The mounted board is stunning and as each player sits either on the west or east side, the orientation of trees, cities, charts and military capacity track are all easily readable.  However, if you don't like this perspective, flip the map over and you swop from a semi-natural rendering to a more conventional game map perspective.  The latter, seen below, looks less striking, but I confess that I prefer it for game play purposes and also because it names all the cities on the map unlike the other map side.  Congratulations to Princeps Games for going the extra mile to provide us with a choice.

Digging deeper into the very deep box, beneath five sheets of magnificent counters, this is what's revealed...

... and here they are lifted out of the main box.

Five very impressive storage boxes.  The largest one contains six super thick, rigid play aids. Of the first two smaller boxes, initially one is empty and the other contains a variety of dice: 1 D8, 1 D10, 1D12 and 2 D20.  However, from the flags on each they are presumably intended for each side's counters.  My preference has been to bag and label them as well for ease of setting up.  Finally, in the other two smaller boxes, one contains the Military Capacity Tokens and the other a deck of twenty four tarot-sized cards, three for each of the eight game rounds.  It’s important to note here the terminology, as the rules use the word round for what is normally in most games called a full game turn and instead uses turn for each player’s individual part.
Military Capacity Tokens in four denominations

Turn Cards
The quality of every single item is magnificent.  To some extent, you may consider that this is not the essential aspect of any game. Bells and whistles don’t necessarily guarantee a good game, but the current trend is for lavish production values and this is never more true than in the game funding process where often it seems that a game is only valued by how many stretch goals it can pile up.
That said, the historical war and rather unexceptional previous games that have dealt with it would not have been likely to draw my attention, but the striking visual appeal of the game did.  I was also amazed by the remarkable base cost of $58, though I have to thank the generosity of Princeps Games for their willingness to provide a review copy and not just a proto-type, but the finished product.
As you can see , I’ve been more than satisfied by everything so far that relates to what constitutes the physical qualities of this game.  So the crucial test was how does this game play and how successful is the system and the rules that explain it.
I confess I had some confidence from what I’d read and seen of their first war game, March on the Drina.  The reality far exceeded my expectations.  At heart it is a fairly simple hex and counter wargame with a familiar igo-ugo sequence of play.  So, what lifts it way beyond that simple premise?
For me the first thing was the large scale of the map and the surprisingly low unit density.  The latter was the biggest revelation, as with five sheets of counters that are almost entirely combat units, I’d anticipated a very heavy, dense and possibly complex affair.  Not so, at start 24 Finnish units face off against 29 Soviet units and the numbers on the map will rarely go much beyond those figures.   The reason is that the designers have chosen to create most units at start as five step units with each unit having a counter for each step. That’s why there are so many counter sheets.  Apart from HQs and AA units that are single step, what you see on the map at the beginning of the game are single unit stacks of 5 counters.  This adds to the impressive visual appeal of the game.  

The photo really does not do justice to the visual impact of the game, nor can it convey the tactile pleasure of manoeuvring those counters.
As I did and several other commentators on the game, you may have initial reservations on learning about a counter for every strength step.  Will the stacks topple?  Will it make the game clumsy to manage?  Will it make unit strengths awkward to work out?  The answer is no, no and no.  One reason is that the hexes are so nice and large and the counters are equally large and solid.  Consequently the stacks are easy to handle and move around the map and it's far easier to see how many steps there are in them than having to lift up a counter to read a strength marker underneath.
There are so many small factors pertaining to these units that combine to make this both novel, easy to play and easy to understand.   But before moving into the smaller details that make this design shine, I'd like to outline some of the broader aspects of the rules that confirm the outstanding features of Freezing Inferno.  The first begins with set up and the great replay value it brings.  One of the game's contents is a pad of 48 mini-maps; 24 for each player.  The rules tell you how many of each type of unit you start with and all are at full strength (for most units, as I mentioned earlier, that's a maximum of 5 steps, except for HQs and AA units that can only ever have a single step). Each player designates the starting positions of their units on a mini-map and then sets up.  If this weren't enough to provide variety, the rule book contains eight different pre-designated set ups for each player.  The rules even suggest the two set-ups with which to start your first play of the game. Just personally choosing from these or even randomly rolling for them will keep you going for quite some time, but I'm quite sure that like me you'll soon want to experiment with your own planned set ups.  

Pad  of 48 mini-maps to log your initial set-up

Just in case that's not enough, an advanced option for set-up tells you how many strength points of each unit type you start with, but allows you to vary the strength of units.  This means that you can field more units, but some will be at less than full strength.  This one area of the game not only gives excellent replay value, but the chance to try out very different situations to begin the game and many different styles of play.   As the game comes with a straightforward bot for each side, solo play is also greatly enhanced by these rules.

Soviet BOT play aid

The next major area concerns the handling of reinforcements and directly links with the fact that each side's cities have a National Military Capacity (NMC) with which you buy your reinforcements.  Finland starts with cities totalling 28 NMC points and the Soviets 29 NMC points.  At the end of each player's turn, they will collect however many points worth of cities they control.  This is where those chunky oblong counters come in to record how many NMCs you possess and the large numerical track on the game board records what your current control level is.  Capturing an enemy city will deduct the full value of that city's points from your opponent, but will only gain you 1 NMC.  If your opponent retakes the city, you lose that 1 point and they regain its full value.  
How does all this then relate to and affect reinforcements? Very simply, at the beginning of specific rounds (3,5,7 & 8), each player can pay with the NMCs that they possess for reinforcements and build up steps lost in combat of units that are in supply on the map.  A very good point here is that replacement steps are allocated immediately at the beginning of the round, but reinforcements are only placed on the map at the end of a player’s turn,  Another very simple idea, but it creates for both players another small decision point.  It is these small incremental details that give the game so much flavour and individuality.
No more so than at least two of the three optional modules - all three of which add to the replay value and add a little more depth of game play without spoiling the basic simplicity and ease of play.  The first is weather which is rolled for at the beginning of rounds 2 -8. 

You roll for both temperature and weather conditions which are interlinked, affecting both terrain and movement costs.  Frankly, I don't think this should even be an option.  It's so quick and easy and was a significant factor in this war.  My advice - just include it from your very first game.  The other two modules bring in respectively technological-tactical factors and diplomacy.  Both involve expenditure of NMCs  and there is a chart in the rule book that shows how choice of either or both options marginally reduces the cost of replacement steps for each type of unit.  There is also a small section in the rules for Solo Mode that tells you how to prioritise bot choices if using these modules.  For me the Diplomacy Module offers least as, though you can affect the Diplomacy Track through Rounds 2-6, the potential effect may be very small and only comes in to play on round 7.  What is interesting about it is that the pro-Soviet benefit is hardly worth having, but the pro-Finnish one might just be enough to save the Finnish player from defeat.  So, if this option is chosen and the Finnish player decides to aim to use it to their best advantage, the Soviet player may feel forced to counter it just to avoid the possibility of a last minute influx of Finnish units.  A nice conundrum and so easy to include.  
The second module introduces the type of tech-tree concept found in  a range of WWII games.  What I like about this one is that again, for very little addition to the rules or game play time, it adds an element that contributes to the different feel of playing each side.  Some may perhaps feel that they don’t add enough difference, but I like the fact that none of them overbalance or over-complicate the  smooth and quick play of the game.  It also brings in such evocative words as sabotage and espionage, though what I think is most important for the game is that the benefits from the tech-tree add to the different and distinctive flavour of the two sides.

Finnish tech-tree
Turning to the basic game play, on your turn you move and have combat with one unit against one enemy unit before activating the next unit.  No adding up combat factors and dividing them by enemy combat factors.  Just determine what is the attacking unit’s attack strength and what is the defending unit’s defence strength.  Look this ratio up directly on the appropriate combat chart and roll the die.  It is as simple and quick as that.  Both combat results tables are printed on one of the excellent, solid card Play Aids.  Ground to Ground & Air to Air is on one side and on the reverse side is Air to Ground.
There are several novel , but easy to understand features related to Combat.  First of all, each unit has an initial attack value and defence value (as well as its movement value )clearly printed on its counter. To determine its strength, you simply add the value to the number of steps the unit currently has.  So, an infantry unit of attack value 2 with 4 steps would have an attack strength of 6.  If the defending unit was a tank of defence value 4 that had 2 steps, then the total defence strength of the tank would be 6.  Combat modifiers provided by terrain are very straightforward and easy to remember, though there is a very nice large, clear chart printed on the map and reproduced in the rule book.

Next important detail is that whichever unit suffers losses retreats one hex.  The only exceptions to this is the result where both sides suffer 1 loss in which case neither side retreats or the Defender 1(DR) result where the defender has the option not to retreat.   Additionally there are two other possible combat results.  CA is very familiar, the defending unit can CounterAttack, the other is - as far as I’m aware - totally original and that is NONT.  This means that a defending unit cannot attack or move on its next turn and also, if it suffers another NONT result during this same opponent’s turn, it will take a step loss.
These few rules are so easy to remember and apply and this is true of just about all the rules in this game.  This is a major reason why I like this game so much.  All your focus goes into the battle, not the rule book. There is a final and unusual option related to combat that I have similar praise for and this is Rule 6.4 Adjusting Luck! At the beginning of the game you decide whether you want to reduce the element of luck in your combats.  This is done by your choice of combat die.  The basic die for combat is a standard D8, but the game includes two different D20 dice that have the numbers 1-8 on them.  Because of the distribution of the numbers on the dice, each of these dice reduces the chances of rolling very high or very low.  Such a simple idea, but perhaps not for those who like to blame their defeats on the roll of the dice!!

Play aid for Sequence of Play
What other factors give this game its individuality?  Supply rather unusually is just a question of being within 7 hexes of an HQ and that’s it.  The HQ itself doesn’t have to be linked to any supply source.A little unusual, but it does throw even more emphasis on seeking to take out HQs and on protecting them. The next factor is air power.  At this scale it’s often just a question of air points.  Freezing Inferno gives you air units, but only a handful.  So, they play their role, but don’t overshadow the main ground game.  The rules too are clear and simple, with fighters only used to intercept bombers, not to directly attack ground units.  The air presence brings in a few AA units to add to the counter mix and what I really, really like most of all is the presence of airports - though, perhaps, a better translation would have been airdromes or even airfields!  A plane must have enough movement points to fly from an airfield to attack its target and return to another airfield - no kamikaze attacks in the European theatre!  Consequently, it does give the opportunity to have runways and control towers depicted on the map and, even more to my liking, the need to capture the hex with the control tower in order to control the whole 2 or even 3 hexes that make up the airport.  Again lots of feel added through some simple rules here and capturing airports is very important for the Soviet player if they are to maintain their bombers as a strength in the progress of their invasion, both directly as attackers or because of their capacity to transport infantry.

Soviets within striking distance of enemy airfield

Next up is how recording each Round is dealt with.  What the game calls Calendar cards don't just help you keep track of what Round you're playing, they add another small variable to the game!   Each Round has three cards and at the beginning of the game you randomly draw unseen one card for each Round.  These make up your Round Deck.  When you reveal the current Round card, it has a brief outline of an historical event and a small benefit or disadvantage for one side or the other.  Great stuff - I get to learn a bit about this little known war and it adds to play too.

The history and game effect for Round 4 of my current play

Finally, just a last couple of original ideas that are worth mentioning; neither of them have I encountered in any other game. The first is related to ZOCs.  Control of a hex’s ZOC is determined by which side has the most units imposing a ZOC on a hex.  Watch out for this one, as it obviously tends to benefit the Soviet player, as they are more likely to be able to muster the units to control a ZOC and deprive the Finnish player of control.  A useful minor but additional tool when you’re the main attacker.  
Last of all is what is called unit regrouping, not at all what I expected. Essentially, units can transfer strength between units of the same type by movement.  For example, a unit of strength 5 could detach say 2 strength steps using movement points to travel three hexes to a unit that has only a single step left.  If it wishes, the newly formed unit (now containing 3 steps) can move as far as the remaining movement points possessed by the unit that joined it.  This is, for me, an idea that I strongly welcome and is part of the great marriage this game creates between simple, familiar rules and equally simple, but innovative additions.
So, in conclusion, Freezing Inferno is a huge success in every aspect of its production qualities and gives excellent playability and play value in its rules.  It’s swift moving and wholly enjoyable whichever side you play.  It has bags of replay value and I believe successfully creates the feel of the Winter War.  What I don’t think it gives you is the historical Winter War.  As my previous games involving this war that strove for an historical simulation weren’t exactly the most exciting or enjoyable to play, I know that Freezing Inferno gets my vote for a great gaming session.