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Posted on Oct 24, 2007 in Electronic Games, Front Page Features

Squad Battles: Soviet Afghan War Review

By Larry Levandowski

Passed Inspection: Solid turn-based squad combat. Loads of detail. Easy to learn.

Failed Basic: Some scenarios have unrealistic time limits.

The last gasp of the Soviet Army came with its sullen withdraw from Afghanistan in February 1989. The Soviet’s war in Afghanistan started well, with the Russians rolling over the small nation with lightning speed. But holding the country against a boiling insurgency was the real trick. After ten years of ambushes and hill fights, the result was a Goliath story of defeat for the Soviets. Now, with their 8th installment in the Squad Battles series, John Tiller and HPS Games take us to the war ravaged mountain passes of Afghanistan. The Soviet Afghan War is a welcome addition to the series of games that portrays squad level combat in WWII. Gamers familiar with the series will know exactly what they are getting; a solid, hex based tactical wargame in the hills and valleys of Afghanistan . At the same time, those unfamiliar with John’s Tiller’s way of war will find a highly detailed, but accessible game that nicely depicts a conflict which has so little wargame coverage.


SAW, just like it’s brethren in the series, looks and feels like a tactical board game. Scale is five minutes per turn, and each hex represents 40 meters of ground. Each hex is rated for terrain type, and has different cover, concealment and movement penalties. Units represent individual squads, vehicles, or crew-served weapons. Game-play is turn-based, with each player moving and / or firing his units one-by-one, with fire effects happening immediately. When the player’s forces take an action in the line-of-sight of an enemy unit, the game engine automatically handles opportunity fire, giving a somewhat real-time feel to play. Units take casualties in terms of individual soldiers, and the dead drop weapon counters to be picked up if necessary by other troops.

The game engine has echoes of Avalon Hill’s classic Squad Leader. But unlike a board game, this complex simulation handles all of the detail and number crunching behind the screens, so play is fast. Against the AI, even large battalion sized scenarios can be completed in a couple of hours. Smaller platoon actions can even be completed while waiting for dinner to come out of the oven.

The game is very faithful to the period. The weapons, organization, and capabilities of the combatants are all correct for 1980s Afghanistan. Each squad is represented with all of its weapons, AK-47s, RPGs, Sniper Rifles, etc., and the interface allows players to micromanage how and where they fire. The name and a very nicely done portrait of each squad leader appear on the interface, adding to the historical feel of the game.

In SAW, the Soviets are masters of the heavy. Tanks, artillery, and helicopter gunships are their tools of choice. The Afghans on the other hand, fight spread out, and dug in. The sad truth for Big Red is that in hill fighting, a few RPGs are an even match for even the best armor.

Out of the CD case, SAW has 57 scenarios and three campaigns; plenty to keep any gamer busy. Campaigns are interesting because they allow the player to follow the combat career of a Soviet or Afghan commander through a group of related combat situations. But despite the large number of scenarios, most of them are either ambushes, or Soviet attacks on Afghan strong points. A prevalent image of combat in the game is a Soviet platoon, in a valley, fighting Mujahadeen in the hills. Variations of the theme involve helicopter assault, or Soviet armor supported attacks. Players looking for armor on armor action will need to look elsewhere. But lack of armor fights is no omission in design; just SAW staying true to the conflict.

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