Saturday, 23 December 2017

1985: Under an Iron Sky - Sample Markers

As the "Markers" theme came out on Consimworld Forums, I'm posting a sample here;
"1985" production version should have more or less 580 of them.

Friday, 22 December 2017

1985: Under an Iron Sky - Designer's Notes, Part 2

How the Game Was Made

SPI’s “The Next War” has obviously been a font of inspiration regarding the scale and general approach used to represent a NATO – Warsaw Pact conflict in Central Europe. 

Using this solid starting point, we wanted to develop something representing how the conflict could really have been, and not how we imagined it during the Cold War years.

The Order of Battle

The first decision was to avoid an order of battle covering a generic time frame like “mid ‘80s”; instead, we wanted to define a precise reference date for the scenario. It had to be after Gorbachev election, in order to allow the creation of a rationale for the game events (See “The End of Gerontocracy and Gorbachev”), but before the very final years of Communism, when in our opinion Warsaw Pact didn’t have any chances of victory. July, 1985 was the final choice.

OOBs research took several months. It was relatively easy for NATO countries, but quite difficult for Warsaw Pact despite the huge mass of disclosed documents. In particular, details on the exact date of equipment upgrade were not easy to find, and in some cases we had to extrapolate a generic “trend” using the available data.

The Map

We used “The Next War” as starting point, but after analyzing its map in detail it became clear that practically every single terrain feature had to be verified.

To name just a few, Poland was a flat, featureless plain, missing Vistula river and a few railroads; West Germany built an impressive number of new autobahns and channels in the 1977-1985 period, including a 120 km highway from Hamburg to West Berlin; a Dutch project to create new land North East of Amsterdam was never completed; urban areas in West Germany expanded; many new airfields became operative,and several presumed ones in Eastern Bloc were wrong or non-existant.

Regarding the map graphics,we wanted to have a “satellite view” style, similar to Google Earth. To obtain this effect, the basic terrain features have been created using a 3D landscape application, with cities, roads and more added with a more traditional 2D graphic application.

The Reinforcements

Determining which units would have been sent to Central Europe in case of war resembles more fortune telling than military science.

Even for the ultra-documented US Forces, things are not easy. Would National Guard roundup brigades have been mobilized? It may sound like a good idea, but during Gulf War they were not considered combat-ready until D+100. A little too late for a conflict against Warsaw Pact. Would 101st Airborne have been kept in reserve for emergencies? How many air squadrons, and which ones?

In the end, US and Soviet reinforcements have been determined by the events that our global 1985 scenario considers as most probable:
  • A half-hearted Soviet offensive in Middle East, using troops from the Asian and Caucasian Military Districts.
  • A strong Soviet attack against Norway, using troops from Leningrad and Moscow Districts.
  • An air / naval pressure against Turkey and East Mediterranean
This scenario ruled out most of US reinforcements earmarked for CENTCOM, and left a question mark on the possible arrival of 2nd Marine Division, depending on the outcome of the Battle for North Atlantic.

REFORGER reinforcements were easier to determine based on their official earmarking and their participation to specific exercises during the years preceding 1985.

CONUS reinforcement arrival schedule is based on official evaluations, but can be influenced by the Battle of North Atlantic. We ran several simulations using “Command: Modern Air / Naval Operations” to determine the possible delay caused by a Soviet occupation of Norway and Iceland, and by a NATO partial or total failure in detecting / sinking Soviet attack submarines transiting the GIUK Gap. In no case the Soviets were able to completely stop the North Atlantic routes, but they could have succeeded in causing a serious delay to the reinforcement flow by forcing NATO to use more Southern routes.

Soviet reinforcements are based on a very fast and far from optimal emergency mobilization, dictated by the contingency situation of the “1985” scenario:
  • Category I divisions ready for combat in 36 – 60 hours
  • Category II divisions mobilized in 2 - 4 days and used immediately, with no additional training.
  • Category III divisions mobilized in 4 - 9 days, plus a quick-and-dirty 10 days training period (with an impact on their combat capabilities).
  • Mobilization divisions mobilized in 5 - 10 days, plus a short 30 days training period (with an impact on their combat capabilities).

The Ground War

Ground combat mechanics are not particularly ground-breaking, but even during the execution of a standard assault modifiers and enemy actions may heavily interfere with attacker’s plan and create unpredictable results. Will enemy try to intercept friendly ground support? Will he use the last flak ammo available to fire at attack helicopters? Will airmobile antitank battalions intervene?

The much criticized Combat Result Table from The Next War was among the first things completely scrapped and rebuilt from scratch. We wanted a linear CRT, but with very little room for certain results.

The “ideal” combat ratio for the attacker has been set at 5 to 1 or more, as Soviet operational manuals and commanders with combat experience consider the traditional 3 to 1 force ratio obsolete in a modern, mechanized war.

As in any combat situation in history, quality and force multipliers make a difference, no matter what the combat ratio is. To reflect this, combat modifiers have been incorporated in the CRT as a separate axis with the same level of importance of force ratio: a 2-1 assault with 4 favorable modifiers has more success chances than a 5-1 assault with 1 unfavorable modifier. As Players will quickly discover, combat modifiers are the real key for winning a Ground Combat.

Specific tactics have been implemented in the rules, giving the defender additional possibilities to influence combat during its resolution. Some examples are Active Defense, based on John Boyd’s “Counter-Blitz”, and German / British Airmobile Antitank Battalions.

Assault from March, probably the most dangerous type of attack available to Warsaw Pact, was indicated on Soviet manuals as the preferred assault method, but its execution needed well trained officers and troops and a fully mechanized (i.e., not simply motorized but mounted on BMPs) division. Hence, its usage has been limited to Soviet category I divisions only.

The Air War

Aircrafts capabilities and performance in combat were initially extrapolated by technical data on speed, maneuverability, on-board equipment and possible loadouts. The resulting values were tested using the air combat model of the game, and combat outcomes confronted with simulations made using “Command: Modern Air / Naval Operations” by Matrix Games and adjusted accordingly.

Simulations with Command also helped us to define that, with the 1985 available technology, it was extremely difficult to identify the exact type of aircrafts composing a flight, unless the enemy was stupid enough to fly within a 2 mile distance from an active radar emitter. Therefore, the only information available for deciding whether or not to intercept an enemy mission are the number of Escort and Strike squadrons, as their roles may be deduced from the behavior during the approach flight.

Pilots skill are mostly extrapolated by the number of yearly flight hours in each country.

The Air Superiority and Strike - Escort - Intercept mechanisms give a detailed representation of the air war, in my opinion the real core of the game. No matter how many tanks you put on the field, sky is where the conflict will be probably decided.
Air Areas were added after the first playtest to avoid unwanted results and gamey tactics during the Air Superiority Phase. Their introduction also allowed including a previously missing element, the Intercept probability modifier: intercepting an enemy mission flying over friendly territory is of course easier than intercepting one that never gets closer than 200 km to your nearest airfield.

Friday, 1 December 2017

1985: Under an Iron Sky - Designer's Notes, Part 1

As the date of publication is getting near, I want to share a draft of the Designer's Notes. This first part focuses on the global international situation and on each side's efforts to gain the military edge over the other.

Of course, you'll find the final, complete and polished version in the Scenarios and Designer's Notes Booklet. An overview of the game can be found here.

A Changing World

In 1985 world was beginning to change. Nobody really noticed it until four years later, when Berlin Wall suddenly became nothing more than a sad, ugly remain of a failed regime. After that first step had been taken, the whole Communist bloc practically disappeared in a matter of months.

The chain of events leading to this dramatic dissolution has been debated by people more qualified than me, but I wish to highlight some points that influenced the game development and our evaluation of the balance of power in 1985.


In 1979, Soviet Union embarked itself in the ill-conceived invasion of Afghanistan, a nominally allied and communist country.

After six years of war, 30,000 killed or wounded and 200,000 hospitalized for serious diseases, perception of the Red Army as a force capable of crushing dissent under any condition had been mortally eroded.

The cost of war also put an unbearable pressure over an already struggling economy and wore down Soviet capacity to maintain and support an army of three million men, fifty thousand tanks and seven thousand aircrafts.

This is represented in game by the relatively low combat values of Soviet category II and III divisions, by their mobilization time and by the less than optimal readiness of Warsaw Pact’s supply infrastructure.

Solidarnosc and the Growing Unrest

On December 17th, 1980 the first independent trade union not controlled by the Communist Party emerged in Poland, reaching 10 million members in 1981. Unfavorable domestic situation, Afghan war and Pope John Paul II’s open support to Solidarnosc forced Soviet Union to discard the possibility of a direct military intervention, despite secret requests for help by Polish First Secretary General Jaruzelski.

In the end, declaration of Martial Law partially restored Communist Party’s control over the country, but despite that, a fact had emerged: Soviet Union was no longer able to force obedience by military means. The end of the so-called Brezhnev’s Doctrine strengthened dissention in Eastern Europe and weakened the Communist governments of Warsaw Pact, no longer able to count on Soviet intervention should internal problems arise.

In the game, the concrete possibility of some Warsaw Pact’s countries not fully joining the “War of Liberation” and the related Unrest and Revolt rules are based on these events.

Ronald Reagan and the “Evil Empire”

In 1981, Ronald Reagan became President of the United States. Despite being considered by someone as little more than a bad actor with the political knowledge of a cowboy, Reagan had a vision and the inner strength to pursue it.

During his two Presidency terms, he abandoned the so-called D├ętente policy, labeled Soviet Union as an “Evil Empire” , increased US military spending and forced an already weakened Soviet Union to enter an economically unsustainable arms race.

Reagan’s approach to international policy and increase of military budget has several effects in the game: US reinforcements to European Central Front arrive rather quickly, and their number may easily prove decisive in the conflict. Moreover, US ground and air units are definitely stronger than 10 years before (more on this later).

The End of Gerontocracy and Gorbachev

In 1982, Leonid Brezhnev died, after an eighteen-years term as General Secretary of the Communist Party of Soviet Union. Both his successors, Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko, being of the same age as Brezhnev, died in the following three years.

Possibly out of plausible candidates, the Central Committee elected the reformer Mikhail Gorbachev as General Secretary on March, 11th 1985.

Gorbachev made immediately clear that something had to be changed in Soviet Union, and pushed forward ideas like Perestroika and Glasnost in the sincere attempt to reform the Communist state from within. Unfortunately for him, the sequence of events he put in motion ended with the dissolution of Soviet Union, six years later.

Gorbachev and his announced, and at that time radical, reforms provide the starting point for the game. The real military coup to destitute Gorbachev in August, 1991 has been anticipated to June, 1985 and the result changed from a failure to a successful return to power of Kremlin’s military wing. The events that could have followed this only slightly hypothetical situation are not hard to imagine.

NATO Armed Forces in 1985

Thanks to increased military spending, new technologies and a more aggressive approach to confrontation with the East Bloc, most NATO Armed Forces were quickly recovering from their lowest point of the ‘70s years.

United States

With the beginning of Reagan Presidency in 1981, military expenses increased by 40% and a whole array of new weapon systems started to be fielded. In 1985, US Armed Forces were in a much better shape than only 5 years before.

M1 Abrams MBT and M2 Bradley AFV were gradually replacing the old M60 and M113, giving an impressive boost in offensive and defensive capabilities to Armored and Mechanized Brigades. Stinger missiles offered a better air defense to field troops, and the first Patriot batteries were becoming operational in CENTAG area. M270 MRLS artillery was being introduced, even though not in sufficient number to have a real impact in game.

US Army was in the process of moving to the new “Army of Excellence” organization, a compromise between the old Vietnam structure and the already half-in-place, expensive “Army 86” one. With heavier Armored Divisions and lighter, more transportable Infantry Divisions, the Army of Excellence surely had a positive impact on US capabilities in Central Europe.

The creation of three new POMCUS site in NORTHAG area and the assignment of US III Corps to REFORGER brought to six the total number of US division earmarked for Europe. Several large scale REFORGER exercises allowed a better and more realistic logistical planning.

In the air, F-16 and EF-111 reinforced the already strong US Air Force, and the new AirLand Battle doctrine allowed an approach more tailored to an European conflict. Moreover, strategic airlift capacity was improved by acquiring several dozens of C-5B Galaxy air transport.

US Navy acquired 8 Fast Sealift Ships with Roll-On/Roll-Off capability, giving the capacity to transport an Armored or Mechanized Division to Europe in only 5 days.

United Kingdom

Despite Margaret Thatcher and a renewed Imperial pride resulting from the successful Falkland War, 1985’s British Army Of The Rhine was still struggling with personnel and equipment cuts.

The ill-conceived idea of “Field Forces” had been abandoned three years before, and Armored Divisions were back to the old three brigades structure; this resulted in stronger divisions, but budget constraints forced the relocation of some brigades in the UK.

With only eight armored brigades in Germany, BAOR was barely up to the task of defending the central area of NORTHAG; scarcity of attack helicopters and air defense assets didn’t help to improve the situation.

On the plus side, Falkland war showed once again that training and motivation of British soldiers were above average. Equipment was being updated too, with Challenger MBT and Javelin SAM slowly replacing Chieftain and Blowpipe.

Royal Air Force was in better shape, thanks to the introduction of Tornado GR1 and F-4M Phantom FGR.2 strike squadrons, and ready to challenge Warsaw Pact SAM defenses in the AirLand Battle.

West Germany

During the last two centuries German Army has always been among the most efficient war machines in the world, and 1985 was no exception. With good equipment, realistic training, strongly motivated soldiers and twelve Divisions, Bundeswehr was one the major problems for any Warsaw Pact invasion plan.

The Heer (Army) was reorganized in 1980 and adopted HeerStrutktur IV. Corps Artillery units were disbanded, and the resulting batteries reassigned as independent units to each Division; Brigades structure was also changed from 3 to 4 smaller battalions, in order to gain flexibility and mobility. On the equipment front, Leopard I was being replaced by Leopard II, with approximately half of the Panzer and PanzerGrenadier brigades already equipped.

Mobilization was also revised and strengthened, giving West Germany a notable force of 28 additional reserve Brigades / Regiments within D+8 (Four Game Turns).

Luftwaffe (Air Force) equipped four of its squadrons with Tornado IDS (Interdictor / Strike) aircrafts, a quantum leap from the F-104 and Alphajet previously used in this role.


In 1977 French Army moved from old-style 3 brigades Divisions to “light” Divisions, each having more or less the size of a heavily reinforced Brigade.

Despite the obvious loss in firepower at single unit level, the increased number of available Divisions allowed the constitution of the III Corps, based at Lille (FR) and unofficially earmarked as reinforcement for NORTHAG. This also has a positive in-game effect for NATO: plenty of French ground forces, with each Division able to defend a section of the front better than a Brigade.

Equipment didn’t have really significant upgrades, with the notable exception of the all-weather SAM Roland II.

Warsaw Pact Armed Forces in 1985

Generally speaking, technology gap with the West was increasing and overall Armed Forces quality was decreasing. Despite introducing several new weapon systems in the decade before 1985, Soviet Union failed to field a real game changer comparable to the Mig21, T-64 or BMP-1.

The Armies

T-80 MBT should have replaced T-64 as the backbone of Soviet Tank Divisions, but excessive cost not justified by better performance limited its production. In the end, Soviet Union reverted to the cheaper T-72 or the upgraded T-64B.

On the positive side, Mi24 attack helicopter became an integral part of Warsaw Pact Army structure, giving a powerful boost to offensive capabilities.

The Soviet arsenal was beginning to feel the effects of economic stagnation, as several Category II and III Division didn’t have any significant equipment upgrade since the ‘70s. The mobilization system was also under strain: the initial invasion of Afghanistan was conducted primarily by reservists divisions, but their poor performance forced Soviet Union to send conscripts troops, consequently stripping Cat II and III divisions of their best recruits.

If Soviet Union had difficulties in keeping NATO pace, its Eastern allies were having even bigger problems. With the (partial) exception of East Germany, Warsaw Pact countries’ economy was unable to sustain further modernization of the armed forces. Several Motorized regiments were using Gaz-66 trucks for troops transport, and most Tank Regiments were still equipped with T-54 and T-55. Polish air force still fielded Su7, Mig17 and old Mig21 versions.

As usual, deficiencies in quality were at least partially filled by quantity, with a significant increase in the total number of artillery and ADA weapons available.

One last consideration derives from several studies on US POMCUS sites. Giving the immense parked arsenal for category II and III divisions and the problems US Army encountered in maintaining a much smaller quantity of equipment in controlled-humidity sites in West Germany, it is improbable that Soviet Union did better in keeping efficient tens of thousands of parked vehicles in areas with inclement weather like Byelorussia. Soviet Category II and III division have been penalized accordingly in game.

The Airborne Forces

Airborne Divisions have been another surprise emerged from previously classified documents.
Of the four divisions usually considered available for an offensive against NATO, two did not exist (31st Guards and 102nd Guards), and one (103rd Guards) had been committed to Afghanistan.

This leaves Group of Soviet Forces in Germany with 106th Guards Airborne Division, plus 35th Guards and 37th Air Assault Brigades. This force could be increased with 76th Guards Division and 36th Air Assault Brigade by forfeiting any offensive operation against Norway.

The Air Forces

Modernization of Air Forces encountered several problems too.

Introduction of Su24 was probably the best result obtained, giving Soviet Union a good strike aircraft that could also be used as interceptor.

Mig23 proved itself a valid replacement to Mig21 and became the new backbone of several Warsaw Pact air forces, but failed to reduce the technological gap with newest NATO aircrafts like F-15, F-16 and Mirage.

Mig29, another breakthrough in Soviet aircraft design, was being fielded but in limited numbers. Mig25, after an initial hype and waves of panic in the West, had been relegated to reconnaissance role.

Another unresolved problem was the shorter operational range of Soviet aircraft compared to NATO ones. This is reflected in game by different penalties on the Interception attempts.