Victory Games’ NATO: the Next War In Europe was an excellent change of pace. While each turn had a rather lengthy order of play with dozens of phases, it actually played out quite smoothly! We made a few mistakes our first time through, but it still ended up being a fun and fast-paced strategic level game with tons of fluidity, quite the opposite of Guns of August.
NATO is a WW3 “what if” focusing on theoretical ground war scenarios in Central Europe. The scope covers both Germanys, Denmark, Belgium, the Netherlands, and chunks of France and a few other countries. The three primary scenarios NATO offers are Strategic Surprise (radical political shifts within the Warsaw Pact lead to a ground invasion at a time when NATO perceives geopolitical stability between the factions), Tactical Surprise (NATO anticipates the possibility of immediate Warsaw Pact aggression, though cannot be certain of concrete plans or timetables), and Extended Buildup (both sides are preparing for a conventional war).
My dad and I opted to play the Strategic Surprise scenario, and wow, this one had some perks for the Rooskies! A lot of NATO’s forces they would get in the Tactical Surprise and Extended Buildup are either undeployed or just plain unavailable in this scenario. The principal goal for the NATO player is to prevent a rout and avoid world-ending thermonuclear war.
Among the many mechanics are rules for chemical warfare (WP player only) and tactical nukes. Each have pros and cons. Chemical weapons give you strong column shift modifiers early on (prior to NATO getting gas masks distributed a couple turns later) and halves(!) NATO tactical air points; on the other hand, it gives the NATO player 2 points per turn beginning with the first turn you use it. Attempting to use tactical nukes has a 50/50 chance of instantly provoking ICBM warfare and ending the game instantly with a pre-emptive nuclear strike on the capital of whichever player announces they will attempt to mobilize their tactical nuclear capabilities. So, uh… unless you hand wave this rule, chance are you won’t be using nukes.
One of the fun parts of playing as the Warsaw Pact is you get LOTS of airborne units; in the Strategic Surprise scenario, NATO has only a slim chance of shooting down your planes, so you can pull off a lot of rather asinine and implausible commando missions deep in enemy territory. I made a point of taking Denmark with paratroopers on the first real turn of the game (SS scenario begins with a special movement only turn for WP). With calculated use of air strikes and harrying paradrops behind enemy lines, I was able to push back the NATO defenders and roll across West Germany and the Low Countries. I didn’t resort to using chemical weapons until 2/3s of the way through the game–at that point, I’d needed to strategically crush the northern flank of the NATO forces so I could pour into Belgium and Holland, while my substantially weakened center held against the one possible counter thrust into East Germany. By the time it was over, I was one point shy of a decisive victory.
In one of those “I’m absolutely certain we’re doing this wrong, but neither of us can find it in the rules” cases, one can send a marine detachment or paratroopers to land in The Hague fairly early in the game. Even though chances are they’ll become pinned down and forever out of supply, the Netherlands can be knocked out of the game by just a couple pieces. It feels oddly wrong that NATO doesn’t have a better chance of sinking Russian transport ships.
We’re on our second playthrough now, with my dad as Warsaw Pact, but I foresee this being a short game. Early on, my dad made a couple of strategic mistakes that will cripple him.
First off, he sent his paratroopers to try to fight their way into Copenhagen rather than seizing the unguarded ports around Denmark. By failing to take Copenhagen early in an all or nothing play, the Danish guards had time to muster and move to the ports; while they’re defensive only, they will almost completely prevent the WP player from taking Denmark unless they choose to spare at least two groups to fight for it, costing resources that really need to be spent pushing west. My airborne troops who took Denmark did not make it back into the game until turn 10 or 11, but they freed up tougher formations to maintain the attack across Germany.
The real coup was in taking out two of the central WP HQs early game, pushing through openings with fast moving West German tank groups. All units in any given formation have to trace supply to their formation’s HQ; once an HQ is destroyed, that formation will be unsupplied outside of its home country for the duration of the game. In my own turn as WP, I’d lost an HQ by letting an enemy get behind me and failing to leave at least one unit to stay with it. I was still able to make some use of that formation, leaving them to guard other formations’ HQs and participate in some attacks when they could muster overwhelming odds against a stray unit, but that was mid-to-late game, not turn 3. In some games, like Fortress Europa, an HQ loss is a minor inconvenience, quickly recovered from. In NATO, it is devastating. So, I expect the next session to probably be our last.
While there are a lot of rules in this game, and while you’re certainly going to mess up a couple things in your first playthroughs, this game is a lot of fun and will move a lot quicker than it looks like it will. It also has the advantage of moving quicker as the game progresses rather than bogging down. Once you get past the idea that players don’t take turns but follow a sequence of 30ish phases during which one player or the other takes action, it’s pretty easy! There were a number of things that never came up, so it’s hard to say how they would’ve affected play. Tactical airstrikes always seemed like the best use of airpower, so there’s never been any interdiction or suppression of rail movement. Also, the chances that you’ll be doing anything during things like the “NATO Defensive Nuclear Strike Phase” are going to be slim, so you don’t need to worry about them.
There aren’t many war games I’d say this about, but NATO: The Next War in Europe is one I could play over and over again.