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Posted on Apr 14, 2020 in Boardgames, Front Page Features

Your Own Private Cold War. High Flying Dice Games ‘Cold Confusion: The Soviet Raid on Iceland 1985’. Tabletop Game Review.

Your Own Private Cold War. High Flying Dice Games ‘Cold Confusion: The Soviet Raid on Iceland 1985’. Tabletop Game Review.

Ray Garbee

Cold Confusion: The Soviet Raid on Iceland 1985. Publisher: High Flying Dice Games.  Designers: Paul Rohrbaugh.  Price $14.95-$28.95 (depending on options – zip lock or box, mounted counters, etc.)

Passed inspection: Small, fast playing game of the Soviet raid on Iceland. Good replay value with variable reinforcements and set up. Card deck provides for a good fog of war.

Failed basic: Unpredictable length of the game turn can be aggravating as players are constrained by the random appearance of the turn end cards. Personnel carriers are fire support vehicles and not used for carrying personnel.

The first mention I can remember of Soviet troops invading Iceland was Tom Clancy’s novel ‘Red Storm Rising’. If the book did one thing, it was elevating the strategic importance of Iceland in the minds of thousands of readers. The novel delves into the invasion, occupation and eventual (spoiler alert) liberation of the island as one thread within the larger story of a ‘cold war gone hot’.

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Games focused on the invasion of Iceland are few and far between.  Oh sure, Iceland is included as part of the operations in Victory Games ‘2nd Fleet’ boardgame or the more recent ‘Blue Water Navy’ from Compass Games. But as for a game focused solely on military conflict within Iceland, you’ll have an easier time finding a game on the ‘Cod Wars’ between the United Kingdom and Iceland.

But no more! Paul Rohrbaugh designed a game that does focus on the conflict in Iceland – ‘Cold Confusion: The Soviet Raid on Iceland, 1985.’ Cold Confusion is the latest in High Flying Dice Games Land of Confusion series of battles set in a hypothetical cold war gone hot. Leveraging the mechanics from the series, Cold Confusion focuses on a Soviet raid of Iceland designed to disrupt NATO’s anti-submarine warfare activities as well as glean useful intelligence that the Soviets can leverage in support of their broader war effort. 

This is a relatively small game when compared to other entries in the ‘Land of Confusion’ series. The game depicts company level units rather than the more command regiment/brigade found in the main series of games.

There is only a single map sheet depicting the terrain between the town and airbase of Keflavik and the capital city of Reykjavik. This represents a small fraction of the total area of Iceland, but nicely encompasses the majority of the important military objectives on the island. These include the major airfields, the naval facility supporting the Iceland SOSUS array as well as the radar stations that provide long range detection and command control for air operations over the North Atlantic.

The map sheet depicts the various land forms of Iceland including the most common – lava fields. Forget about finding woods or forests here. The map does good job of depicting the geography and also contains a well-constructed legend with the terrain effects and movement effect summary.

The rule book is relatively short. It does a solid job laying out how the game is played. If you’ve played other games from the ‘Land of Confusion’ series, you will not be surprised by what you find here.  However, if you’ve never played a game from High Flying Dice Games, here’s short recap of the rules.

 The rulebook is seven pages long – and that includes the cover page and half a page of designer’s notes and bibliography! The rules cover a summary of the game components, the rules governing setting up the game, rules on unit activations, and winning the game.

The rules on activations are the heart of the game. Activations are how units move, attack and either dig in or recover. Activations are determined by card draw. There’s no IGO-UGO sequence here, unless the cards randomly happen to come up that way. Each card provides a number of activations and may indicate air or artillery support.

The counters are done in the same style as those in used in Hof Gap. Personnel units have a standard NATO unit symbol while vehicle units have a side profile of the primary vehicle in the unit.

Unit counters carry two main values – a combat factor and a movement factor. Beyond that, each counter has a unit id defining which parent unit it is assigned. The net effect is that the counters are pretty clean and not cluttered with special use case symbols.

Beyond the unit counters, there are two types of markers used to depict unit status on the game board – emplaced and low on ammo. While either side may choose to have their units emplace (i.e. ‘dig in’), only the Soviets are subject to the effects of being low on ammunition.

A handful of additional markers are used to track the game turn, the status of airfield and objective damage, as well as the number of victory points that each side has earned.

The player aid sheet is a single page that houses a short glossary of game abbreviations, a terrain effects chart, the random events table and the garrison alert level effects (which is nice as I kept forgetting all the effects that the garrison level has on game play.)

Game play in Cold Confusion is very similar to that found in other games in the ‘Land of Confusion’ series. A card deck is used to drive the action in the game. You can use a standard playing card deck, or you can purchase a dedicated deck of cards specific to the game.

Each game turn consists of shuffling the deck and flipping cards over one at a time. Red cards mean actions for the Soviet player, while black cards mean actions for the NATO player. There are special cases that trigger air support or artillery strikes for each side.

Players expend their activations to move, attack, emplace or attempt to regroup disrupted units. The Soviet player has some additional actions that focus on the purpose of the raid – gathering intelligence information from NATO facilities and damaging the airfield infrastructure so that it’s of no use to NATO for a while.

Combat is straightforward. You activate an attacking unit, determine if there are any combat factor modifiers to its strength (like AFV support) and then flip over the next card. That card may be modified by the terrain or a handful of other modifiers. Generally, if the card value is equal to or lower than the modified combat factor, a ‘hit’ is scored and the target suffers a step loss.

This is fun game. There are not a large number of pieces on either side. That’s good as it moves game play along while at the same time making every decision important.  Cold Confusion does use the same card draw mechanic seen in many other High-Flying Dice Games. That model provides much of the tension found within the game.

The random end of turn effect caused by drawing the joker cards encourage players to be as active as possible as you never know when the game turn will end.  (It can also be exasperating as your plans are often interrupted just before your ummm, ‘tactical brilliance’ is about to be revealed.) The same random turn length also drives a great sense of tension for the players. Each turn they strive for a balance between the need for a strong offensive spirit and the needs to try and keep their forces intact. The Soviet player also has to balance keeping the airfields open long enough to recover from being low on ammo, until it becomes imperative that they blow the snot out of them for the victory points.

The game gives a fun experience. The Soviet forces are drawn from the crack 106th Guards Desant (airborne) division. These troops are supplemented by a number of Soviet Spetsnaz (special forces) troops. Opposing them is the small garrison of military police and local law enforcement, massively reinforced by a battalion of paratroopers the US 82nd Airborne division backed up with the airborne division’s battalion of M551 Sheridan light tanks. (As an aside, this represents more Sheridans than actually saw action in Desert Storm, so enjoy the experience!) Later in the game the NATO forces are reinforced with US Marines and later a sizable contingent from the UK’s Special Air Service.

The game’s narrative breaks down into roughly three acts. In the first act, the initial Soviet invasion crashes ashore and attempts to overwhelm the defending forces.

The second act commences with the arrival of the Marine Expeditionary Unit. This is a battalion sized formation of United States Marines, along with their amtracs and supporting air assets. Depending on how the first act played out, the Marines will either move to stabilize the front lines or begin counterattacks designed to roll back the Soviet gains.

The end phase for the game starts with the arrival of the SAS troops. These highly trained troops are the equal of the Soviet para troopers and will be a great aid in recapturing key objectives before the end of the game.

For the Soviets, the game is a series of decisions on whether or not to focus on this being a ‘smash and grab’, or bludgeoning the NATO units into submission. The victory points earned for intel and airfield demolition are a nice perk, but not a real substitute for winning the ground war against Iceland’s defender.

The broad strategic picture can be summed up as the Soviets have the opportunity to achieve victory by fighting each force in detail. NATO needs to avoid this defeat and detail and buy time for the Marines and SAS to arrive. 

This segues into the next point – the pacing of the game is heavily dependent on the ‘at start’ die rolls for each side’s reinforcement schedule. These initial die rolls shape the tone for the rest of the game. If the NATO troops arrive late, and USSR troops are early, this is a very tough game for NATO. The converse is also true. If the Marines and SAS arrive before the third Soviet desant battalion, it’s unlikely that the Soviets will be able to achieve enough victory points to win the game.

There are a couple of things that give Cold Confusion a different feel than a traditional hex and counter game. One of those is that there is rarely a penalty for making an attack with a low chance of success. It’s a feature of the combat system that is very different from a conventional odds-based combat resolution mechanic. In Cold Confusion, you can make attacks with almost no chance of success and not worry about repercussions. The exception being the Soviets who risk going ‘low on ammo’. But for NATO, this is a good strategy as it burns through the card deck faster, denies the Soviet player some cards and takes time off the clock.

Another aspect is that for the Soviets, there is not a good counter to NATO’s air support. Partly this represents that it’s depicting naval aviation support which is to a large degree immune to a good counter by the Soviets. You just need to hope that those aviators roll high and miss their targets when they show up!

Another item that can frustrate the Soviet player is the variable activation points assigned to the Soviet invasion at the start of the game. The variation between 2 and 7 activations will have a huge impact on just how well the Soviets get started. Now this is a classic economist joke as ‘on the one hand’, this introduces a degree of friction that complicates Soviet planning, while on the other hand, that variation helps makes each game unique. Which hand you happen to get will shape the experience of your game almost as much as the reinforcement die rolls.

While the measure of victory is clearly defined, the game’s narrative would benefit from a little more detail explaining how the Soviet raid against NATO facilities ties in to the larger course of the war. A little more description about the various objective hexes would be nice. Sure, the airports are obviously valuable, but how about the other hexes – do they tie into the SOSUS network, the air surveillance network or some other aspects of the NATO war machine.

 On the subject of the objective hexes, the airfields are not uniquely defined as such on the map. They are classified as objective hexes along with the other two such objective hexes. You have to pull the identity of the airfield hexes out of the rule book. It would have been nice if the artist could have depicted them on the map. Yeah, I know, it has no real impact on play and would have complicated the map legend and made the rules a tad longer. I get all that, but it’s still something I would have enjoyed seeing depicted on the map.

Cold Confusion is an interesting subject for a game. Iceland’s role in NATO has always been complicated. Its geographic location makes it a key position to hold, while at the same time the nation does not possess a standing army and was reluctant to embrace formal membership in NATO. Iceland relied on the United States and NATO for its defense, yet was repeatedly in conflict with its nearest NATO ally – the United Kingdom – over fishing rights (the aforementioned ‘Cod Wars’). It’s an interesting history well worth exploring.

Given these factors, in the event of a shooting war, Iceland’s government lacks a sense of agency to govern and control its fate. The game captures aspects of this as it feels like Iceland and its people are just a stage setting in which the soldiers of NATO and the Soviet Union wage their war with no regard for the population of the villages and towns on the landscape. Granted, neither side is here to win ‘hearts and minds’, but rather stay focused on the purely military task at hand. That focus on the mission comes through clearly in the game.

No game review would be complete without an assessment of how well a game handles solitaire play. It’s a fact that a lot of wargames are still played by one person. It’s even more important in the current time of social distancing we’re experiencing. If you can’t get to an opponent, can you play the game by yourself? The good news is that ‘Cold Confusion’ is an attractive candidate for a solitaire game. While there are no dedicated AI ‘bots’ to automate the play of either side, the card draw mechanism itself provides a good randomized way to determine which side takes a turn. For a player willing to wear both hats, you can play both sides with relative ease.  The card draw mechanic means that you can’t predict who will have the next card draw, or even when the game turn will end. The lack of hidden information (other than the card deck) makes this a fun playing experience for the solitaire gamer.

Should you buy the game? Well, it’s a relatively affordable game on a unique topic with a variety of elite troops, that is easy to play for a solitaire gamer. With all that going for it, yes – it’s a game that will appeal to cold warriors and solo gamers alike. It sparked a curiosity to learn more about Iceland’s experience within NATO. It’s definitely a win when a game gets you motivated to learn the history behind the events. If you enjoy pushing cardboard, you’ll enjoy this game. As of last report, High Flying Dice Games is still operating through the current unpleasantness, so you can order a copy from their website and expect delivery in a reasonable amount of time.  Don’t let the rising red storm get you down—get this fun little game on your table!

Armchair General Score: 95%

Solitaire suitability (1–5 scale, with 1 being virtually unplayable as a solitaire game and 5 being completely suitable for solitaire play):  4

Ray Garbee has been a gamer for the past four decades. Ray’s interests include the Anglo-Sikh Wars through the conflicts of the 20th Century and beyond but his passion remains American Civil War naval gaming. His past works include Iron Thunder, Anaconda, Anaconda: Capital Navies and articles in a number of defunct hobby magazines. When not busy gaming, Ray enjoys working on his model railroad, hiking and sport shooting at the local range.

Cold Confusion cover
ready to start
activation card
Soviet Invasion

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