Freezing Death: Finnish Winter War

Freezing Death box cover

Freezing Death: Finnish Winter War by Antti Lehmusjärvi and Olli Kleemola, published by Linden Lake Games after a successful Kickstarter campaign in 2019.

I got a review copy on loan from Linden Lake Games. I know Antti and have a professional relationship with him: I have used his services as a lawyer and have built and maintain the Linden Lake Games web site.

Elevator pitch: An introductory level war game on the Winter War.

What’s in the box? The box immediately reminds me of 1918: Brother Against Brother, the previous title from Linden Lake Games. Standard size box contains a board, couple of decks of cards, some dize and a sheet of cardboard tokens.

The look of the game is neat and generally well done. The cards are illustrated with period photographs. The photos are small, and so is the text on the cards, but the general graphic design is well done. The board depicts the battlegrounds, abstracted as bunch of tracks. The board also has a wide swath of rules in it, which I find a curious decision.

The component quality is ok. The chits are a bit small and the cardstock isn’t perfect, but this was a $10k Kickstarter project, and from that context, everything’s just fine.

What do you do in the game? The game is about Winter War. One player plays Finland, trying to remain independent, while the other player plays the Soviet Union, trying to invade.

The game lasts for six rounds: two pre-war rounds (1935–1938 and 1939) and four war rounds (December 1939 and January, February and March 1940), after which the war is over and the points are calculated. Finland can win directly by reaching the end of the foreign intervention track (unlikely), while the Soviets can win by crushing Finnish defenses (more likely).

The war is abstracted into three fronts, which are represented by three tracks on the board: there’s Suomussalmi in the north, Ladoga Karelia in the middle and the Karelian Isthmus, the main front, in the south. In the pre-war rounts players prepare their forces and once the war begins, are allowed to cross the border. Soviet Union has more forces and will do the invading.

The game is a card-driven war game, much like 1918: Brother Against Brother. Each round players play all eight cards in their hand. Cards are played either as events or as action points. Events do various things, but may come with restrictions: some can be played just once per game and some can only be played in particular rounds (for example, there’s a Christmas card which can only be played as an event in December).

After each round, players get new round-specific cards to use and draw back to eight cards. Used cards circulate back.

Action points are used to make units stronger and to activate units. Activated units move and fight. To fight, units must be in a same square with an enemy. In combat players roll one dice per strenght point of their fighting units. Infantry hits with sixes, Finnish ski infantry hits with fives and sixes and tanks hit with fives and sixes on Karelian Isthmus and with sixes on other fronts. Each hit reduces the strongest opposing unit by one strength point. Since units can have up to four strength points, the combat is a slow battle of attrition – it’s unlikely to see quick advances, as inflicting lots of damage is rare.

The Soviet Union tries to advance on the tracks. Each step on the track they can advance is points at the end of the game. At the end of the Karelian Isthmus track the Soviet Union wins the game. Reaching the end of the Ladoga Karelia track lets the Soviet Union attack the Karelian Isthmus track from the flank and completing the Suomussalmi track will move Finland back on the foreign intervention track.

The historical result was a marginal Soviet victory: Finland remained independent, but had to accept Soviet military bases and was considered the losing side. So far our games have been fairly tight, but dominated by the Finnish, thanks to advances on the foreign intervention track and the way the Mannerheim Line fortifications tend to stop the Soviet Union from advancing.

Lucky or skillful? Both. Of course a good strategy is needed – if you just move around willy-nilly and throw your power around carelessly, you won’t do anything. But good or bad luck will also make a huge difference. Drawing the Motti card at the right time will be a killer and rolling a large number of hits in one attack and breaking through the Mannerheim Line will help a lot. Everything is pretty much as you would expect from a war game like this.

Abstract or thematic? Lots of theme here. Winter War has gone through a ton of abstraction here and it’s safe to say this is not a simulation in the least, but if you didn’t know anything about the Winter War before the game, you’ll know a lot more after you’ve played the game on both sides and have seen all the cards.

The action/event system allows the designer to inject lots of theme and historical detail in the game without bogging it down with chrome rules and the game has a designer credit from Olli Kleemola, a historian who has also written a good, short introduction to the topic to come with the game.

Solitaire or interactive? This is a war game where every step you move onwards is taken from your opponent. So yes, it’s very interactive. There’s a tug of war feeling to the game, but it’s fairly moderate here – I hate tug of war games, but enjoyed this.

Players: 2. I suppose you can also play solo by playing both sides, but the game does have some hidden information.

Who can play? The publisher age recommendation is 12+. I’ll agree: the rules are very simple and especially if you can teach them, this is a game you can play with inexperienced war gamers and smart kids without problems.

What’s to like: Freezing Death does a great job depicting the Finnish Winter War with simple, clean game mechanisms. The game looks nice, plays relatively quickly and gives a good overview of what the war was like. If you want to try war games or to learn about the Winter War, here’s a good game for that.

What’s not to like: From a euro gamer point of view, I’m not sure about the replay value here. I got the review copy on loan, which is perfectly fine for me: I’ll play the game few times with both sides, then I’m ready to pass it on. The tracks make the game a bit static and the way the deck is stacked means the events always come up in the same order.

My verdict: For me, Freezing Death isn’t a keeper. My war game needs are covered by Conflict of Heroes, which provides more excitement and a larger variety in the scenarios.

However, I’ve enjoyed my time with Freezing Death and it’s a design I appreciate, and I think Linden Lake Games is doing a good thing here. Like 1918: Brother Against Brother, it takes a Finnish war, gives it a historically solid shake with such smooth game play that the game is easy to teach to someone who’s just interested in the topic and not necessarily a gamer by nature.

I’m looking forward to seeing the Linden Lake approach applied to other Finnish wars. Continuation War or Lapland War? Or perhaps something further away in history, like the Cudgel War? Lots of possibilities here.

On the scale of Enthusiastic, Suggest, Indifferent or Avoid, Freezing Death: Finnish Winter War gets Suggest from me.

The Finnish defend the Mannerheim Line successfully.

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