NATO: The Next War - Strategic Surprise Scenario

1983 was a pretty scary year. Reagan made his famous  "Evil Empire" speech. Andropov was in the Kremlin and the Soviet rhetoric and alarm was just as palpable. Nuclear war was on everyone's minds as the Americans deployed Pershing II missiles to Europe (in response to Soviet SS-20 missiles) and "The Day After" aired on American television. The Soviets shot down Korean airliner 007, further inflaming international tension. Years later, we would learn just how close we came to the end with "Able Archer '83" as well as the false detection of American missile launches by Soviet missile commanders. It felt like things were coming to a head.

It was fitting that NATO: The Next War in Europe from Victory Games was published that year. Designers Bruce S. Maxwell and Richard J.Trup attempted to build a game based on three scenarios of an East-West conflict in 1980s Europe. At the time, it must have seemed that all of them were plausible, considering the international atmosphere at the time.

VG's NATO: The Next War in Europe

The Plan

I just finished playing my first game of NATO: The Next War in Europe and it was fantastic. It felt like it captured all the important elements of a 1980s ground war in Central Europe without too much detail but with just enough cool decisions.

I'm pretty poor at planning Warsaw Pact strategy in these kinds of games, so I'm going to base the Soviet strategy on this map from Dr. Graham Turbiville's 1976 article, "Invasion in Europe: A Scenario".

In this AAR, I'm going to do something different. I'm not going to go through the game analyzing every move in detail or narrating my decisions as a player. I just want to tell the story that came about from my most recent game. It's no Red Storm Rising or Red Army but it is very much the kind of story that was going through my brain while I played this game.

Scenario:  Strategic Surprise

The Warsaw Pact catches NATO fully unaware of its intentions to invade Western Europe. In a "Red Storm Rising" scenario, the Russians have pulled off a successful maskirovka and hidden their movements of troops and supplies until right up to the invasion day. NATO scrambles to respond but it is caught badly out of position and must do the best with what it already has on the table.

Turn 1:

On Turn 1, the special scenario rules state that the Soviets cannot enter West Germany. There is only a WP Reinforcement and Movement phase on this turn. NATO cannot move at all. I snuggle my Soviet units in East Germany right up to the border with West Germany. The 20th Guards surround West Berlin and prepare to pound on it at the beginning of the next turn when the attack will be unleashed upon an unsuspecting foe while the Iron Curtain is closed tight to conceal my intentions.

Three airborne divisions and a special forces airmobile brigade arrive in Rostock, ready to infiltrate NATO's rear positions in turn 2.

Turn 2

The morning started like any other Saturday. Dawn brought with it the usual promise of a warm early spring morning. The residents of the sleepy city of Bielefeld, West Germany stirred awake and the slow steady rhythm of daily life began once again. Newspapers were delivered. Dogs were walked. Children flicked on their televisions and absorbed a steady stream of advertisements masquerading as entertainment. Shortly after 7:15 a.m., the explosions heard near the base to the south of the city were a signal to the residents of Belefeld that daily life would never be the same again.

Soviet paratroopers land outside Odense and Esbjerge in Denmark and seize control of the city's administrative offices and local television and radio stations. Residents are told to stay indoors and the army is told to stand down. Prime Minister Poul Schl├╝ter appears on national television a short while later. He announces a state of national emergency and makes vague reference to a European crisis. He orders the armed forces to stand down and informs the citizenry that an interim government will take over until the crisis passes.

Confusion and panic spread across western Europe as rumors of a surprise Soviet invasion of West Germany are heard. No one seems to know what is going on or why. Just two months ago, the United States had reached an historic agreement with the Soviets to drastically reduce their stockpiles of intermediate nuclear forces. It makes no sense.

Soviet airborne and airmobile invade Denmark
Soviet special forces raid reforger sites near Bielefeld.

A massive tide of T-72 tanks and BMPs race west across the inter-German border. NATO border troops attempt to delay the oncoming flood of men and machines as best as they can but it is hopeless. To maximize the shock and chaos, the Soviets use electronic jamming to deny their enemy any communications. Whatever token NATO resistance manages to pop up is quickly overwhelmed with massive artillery strikes.  

The 2nd Guards Tank Army sweeps towards the outskirts of Hamburg and enters the eastern part of the city after inflicting heavy losses on elements of the Bundeswehr's I Corps 6th Panzergrenadier Division. Further south, the 3rd Shock Army has slammed into the British 1st Armored Division east of Bremen. The Brits are far from their HQ and badly out of position.  The commander of the 3rd Shock Army is so confident that he splits his forces, with two divisions hitting NATO forces south of the Elbe River and the rest of his forces attacking the West German 1st Mechanized Division in Hannover.

The 1st Guards Tank Division ambles across the central border route en masse. There is little more than a lonely 2nd Mechanized Division from West German III Corps to keep it from racing all the way to the Ruhr. 

Along the southern front, the 8th Guards Army heads straight into the Fulda Gap, licking its lips as it will be the first Soviet army to fight the Americans in this war. The 79th Guards Tank Division and the 39th Guards Mechanized Division get into a brawl with the US VII Corps' 3 Mech Division. 

The Czechoslovakians join in on the fun, piling two armies at their southern border. Their aim is to help pin down the West German divisions in the area so the Soviet 8th Guards can focus on the Americans.

Most alarmingly, everyone seems to have lost contact with West Berlin. The city has gone completely "dark" and no news seems to be coming in or out of it. Sporadic transmissions from radio nets indicate that the American and British sectors have been quickly overrun. There are reports that the French make a stand in their sector but their radio net goes dark the next day too. 

Turn 3

Once the initial shock of invasion wore off, the West German reservists mobilized to help defend their country from Soviet attack. As quick as their activation may have been in light of the circumstances, the pace of NATO's response still seemed glacial. By now, Hamburg was under complete control of the Soviet 2nd Guards Tank Army.  A small NATO contingent (US  III Corps, 2/A Mech. Brigade, British 1st Armored Division and the West German I Corps 1st Mechanized Division) were trying to fend off the Soviet advance near Bremerhaven. Even if the NATO units could somehow hold the city, the Poles were right behind the Soviets - fresh-faced and eager to join the fight.

Things looked even more hopeless in Holland. Soviet marines had landed in The Hague and the Dutch PM declared the country as a neutral in the conflict. Before a news blackout had been declared, several news agencies reported about more Reforger sites being sabotaged by elite Spetsnaz troops. The Russians seemed to be everywhere all at once and the psychological impact of these sudden strikes had sown fear and mistrust among the West German civilians and military. The police in West Germany and France quietly began conducting mass arrests of known leftist activists and union leaders, which only further inflamed the paranoia.

As media blackouts spread, gossip and rumor became the only way to share information. Oddly enough, everyone's greatest fear - that the war would go nuclear - was barely mentioned. Everyone from Bonn to Burbank just quickly and quietly began to prepare a shelter for their family.

The 1st Guards Tank Army was almost halfway to the Ruhr. Soviet military doctrine had been predicated on a fast advance through enemy territory - but none of the commanders could believe just how fast they were moving. Supply trucks from East Germany were having a hard time keeping up with the advance and if it had not been for their constant need to gas up the tanks, the 1GTA would have been at the Rhine already. The old-timers back home still talked bitterly about the surprise of 1941. Now the Soviet commanders were giving the West Germans a long-awaited taste of their own medicine in this reverse Barbarossa more than forty years later.

On the southern flank, the 8th Guards Army was pushing back against the US VII Corps and was nearing the town of Wurzburg. An American mechanized brigade held the town but three Soviet divisions would soon come crashing down on it. The US V Corps had not yet made its move but the gap left between the 8th Guards Army and the 1st Guards Tank Army was big enough for the Americans to dash through into East Germany and cut off Pact supplies. Soviet planes ran interdiction on the roads to prevent this and so far it seemed to have worked.

Turn 4

Minden, West Germany - The commander of British I Corps stared at the map and swore quietly to himself. For the last two days, he had been in charge of organizing West German reservists, Belgian regulars, and his own armored divisions to form a defensive line just east of Dortmund. High command had ordered him to scrape together as many troops as possible to face off against the oncoming Soviet 1st Guards Tank Army and the 3rd Shock Army. What he had ended up with was totally inadequate but it would have to do. The men dug in and waited.

The Soviets had not been shy about landing more airborne troops into Reforger sites, which meant the loss or delay of NATO reinforcements. The US V Corps was supposed to be hitting at the left flank of the 1GTA and so far it had made a couple of small counterattacks but it was not enough to stem the tide. Air assets were also supposed to turn the war in NATO's favor but most of their planes had been lost on the first day from surprise air attacks and Spetsnaz raids. Much to the tankers' displeasure, NATO air had been slow coming back online and direct support was rare, if available at all. It had been explained to the men that most NATO air assets were being used for deep raids or suppression of HQ support. It was hard to feel happy about that when Hinds roamed the battlefield virtually at will, picking off tanks and men with relative ease.

The commander of the 3rd Shock Army had his own problems.  He had been ordered to divert several divisions from the advance west to help take care of a British armored division south of Bremen. Even though the 1st Guards Tank Army was more than capable of managing the situation, his so-called superiors back in Moscow had placed all their bets on a full sweep of the northern flank.

The Poles were to help the 3rd Shock Army dislodge a small but determined group of Bundeswehr from Hannover. Fighting with the Poles was a mixed bunch - they were steely and determined but so damned stubborn. No sooner had he given orders for them to encircle the city before the attack than he heard radio reports that they were already advancing into the city.

In the end, it didn't really matter anyway. Hannover was taken but with higher than necessary casualties. The Poles had done most of the fighting and dying in the city streets. Meanwhile, the 3rd Shock Army commander waited only to hear the first few positive reports from the Polish commanders before immediately declaring them in charge of the situation and advancing his own divisions southwest. The Poles were left to mop up and enjoy their victory. For the 3rd Shock Army commander, the real prize lay west of here. The cities of the Ruhr were lightly defended and just over 130 miles away. The 1st Guards Tank Army was already on the move towards Bonn but the commander of the 3rd Shock Army would be damned if his men wouldn't get there first instead. He could practically see the Order of Lenin medal being pinned on his chest.

Turn 5

Much of the fighting in the southwest had stalled out. The Americans had made a few attacks along the 8th Guards right flank but they were disorganized and haphazard. The US VII Corps was facing serious supply problems and their commanders in Frankfurt had not ventured out of the city and into the field. Although the mighty 8th Guards Army had not much made progress in its journey south, the nearby NATO units had failed to overcome their own inertia.  The West Germans were faster to respond by sending their units up from Munich towards the East German border.

The Czechs, however, had swarmed around their flanks and the Soviets surprised everyone yet again by sending an airborne division to seize the unprotected cities behind the German lines. Divisions that were mobilized towards the front soon found themselves turning back to their hometowns in order to fight these small groups of Russian troops. The idea of "heading to the front" had become a bad joke to most West German reservists as they received a constant stream of orders sending them back and forth - sometimes at the same time.

The lead divisions of the 2nd Guards Tank Army were now across the Elbe River. The meager NATO defense of Bremen crumbled quickly in the face of overwhelming numbers. NATO tactical airpower had finally made its first impressive appearance, knocking out an entire Soviet tank division and badly mauling a mechanized infantry division.  Once the West Germans and British were routed from this area, the way lay open all the way to Antwerp and the war was as good as over.  The men of the 2nd Guards Tank Army had seen nothing but quick advances the last several days and victory seemed well within their grasp.

Morale was high among the Pact forces and although the generals had turned a blind eye to the rabid looting of West German stores and homes in the first few days, they had begun to crack down on it. The men's initial surprise and delight at the quality and abundance of western goods had started to become a dangerous infatuation that the political officers were unable to counter with the usual arguments about western decadence and exploitation. It was difficult to buy into the superiority of the moral high road when you were wearing a shiny new Rolex. In any case, the political and military leaders of the Soviet Union were keenly aware that history was watching now and the reputation of the victors should remain unscuffed. To make a point of it, a few of the worst offenders without any political connection were pulled off the line this morning and shot as an example.

Turn 6

The keys had been turned only a few seconds ago and the computers would take care of the rest. Moments later, the Pershing II missile arced into the bright blue sky towards its target in northern Germany. A few minutes later, an entire Soviet tank division from the 2nd Guards Tank Army was simply gone - wiped off the map as if it never existed. The same scene was replayed across a wide front as two of the 3rd Shock Army's divisions were erased from existence. The Czechs paid the most with the loss of four entire divisions. NATO commanders hoped this would make them think very hard about the cost of supporting their Soviet ally in this war.

Western politicians made several warnings over the past few days that this would happen but the Soviets refused to listen. With the collapse of NATO defenses imminent, commanders on the ground were given full authority to release battlefield nuclear weapons. In the blink of an eye, the world changed forever as the first nuclear warhead exploded in anger since August 1945.

Despite the news blackout, it was impossible to hide the fact that nuclear weapons had been used. Western politicians go on television to keep the fragile bonds of society from ripping apart in panic and mayhem. Ronald and Nancy Reagan invite their fellow Americans to pray together with them for peace in a special broadcast during prime time.  That same night, martial law is declared in almost every American city and strict curfews are put in place. As soon as stores open the next morning, their shelves are emptied in mere minutes as panicked efforts are made to stock up for the coming apocalypse. There are shootouts in some stores as people kill each other over a can of tuna. By early afternoon, most supermarkets in America are on a rationing system.

The world waits for the end to come in a hail of missiles. The Soviets later admit to staring long and hard down into the abyss of nuclear holocaust and eventually dismissing it. The Warsaw Pact military leaders, seeing victory still well within their reach, decide on a policy of "proportional response". The Soviet strategic nuclear missiles stay in their silos...for now.

Turn 7

Soviet SS-20 intermediate-range nuclear missiles found most of their targets - more or less. Using satellite information and decoded radio signals to locate them, a series of low-yield airbursts destroyed four points worth of fixed nuclear launch sites and two points of active mobile nuclear launchers. If NATO was planning to win the war with nuclear weapons alone, it would need to think again.

Warsaw Pact orders sent towards the front urged the men to stay inside NBC-shielded vehicles and commanders were to disperse their division as much as possible. The Soviet leadership in Moscow was uncharacteristically sympathetic towards the Czechs, hoping to keep their alliance held together with promises of a greater share in the spoils of victory.

A small but determined group of West German reservists in Dusseldorf was the sole defending  unit on the east bank of the Rhine river.  British and Belgian units were on the west side, waiting for the Soviets to show up in Koln, Bonn, and Krefeld. They hoped to bog down the lead Soviet units in street-to-street fighting while NATO commanders and politicians reached a decision about capitulation or continuing the fight.

The 3rd Shock Army commander listened carefully to the casualty reports and slugged down another glass of vodka. The bottle he would use to celebrate upon arriving in the Ruhr clattered empty down at his feet. Four of his divisions had been utterly destroyed in nuclear fireballs. The nearby field hospitals were flooded with radiation victims, burnt and irradiated young men whose wounds would charitably be described as indescribable.  To make matters even worse, the Polish army that took Hannover only a few days ago was now advancing west of his own remaining units. The humiliation was complete. Moscow ordered the 3rd Shock back towards Hannover to lick its wounds.

The 20th Guards Army and the 1st Guards Tank Army slid into their positions next to the Rhine. The night attack on the West German reservists would begin with a special surprise. The men of the 6th Mechanized Division put on their masks and waited for the signal. Twenty minutes later, they arrived in the center of Dusseldorf only to find everyone and everything frozen dead in contorted masks of pain, most of them clutching at their throats in a vain effort to breathe.  The poison air was still very much around them and would last for weeks still. A few of the Soviet troops who had not put on their protective gear properly soon found out in the most unfortunate way after disembarking from their BMPs.

Down south, the scene was nearly repeated in a pitched battle between the 8th Guards Tank Army and two divisions from the US VII Corps.  The Americans and West Germans had been successfully holding the Czechs and Soviets from any advance by forming a flexible defensive line centered around the city of Nurnberg.  The Americans and West Germans were expecting the Soviets to use chemical weapons at some point but the full impact of fighting in NBC suits was hard to psychologically adapt to when it really happened. The Americans held their part of the line with heavy losses but two of the four West German divisions were completely wiped out as the Czechs and Soviets pummeled them with tanks and infantry.

While the 20th Guards Army took care of the West Germans in Dusseldorf, the 1st Guard Tank Division crossed over the Rhine. People in Moscow cheered at the news. The war, it seemed, was nearly over now.

Turn 8

Remnants of the US VII Corps pulled back towards Frankfurt and formed a new defensive line with French troops and West German Bundeswehr and reserve units. The news reached the men that the northern German plain had been cleared of Soviet troops. In truth, the 2nd Guards Tank and 3rd Shock Armies had mostly ceased to exist as of this morning but most of NATO's battlefield nuclear weapons had been destroyed by repeated Soviet targeting of fixed and mobile nuclear sites. The Soviets were reluctant to use their nuclear weapons on West German cities full of enemy troops. The Warsaw Pact was winning the war and they did not want to win a bunch of uninhabitable and irradiated land.

As the 20th Guards and 1st Guards Tank Armies crossed the Rhine together, the Belgian and British units retreated into Belgium and France. Much of the French army had been mobilized near the border area and had been digging in for at least a week. The French president warned the Soviets publicly of his resolve to use nuclear weapons on a far more liberal scale than his fellow NATO counterparts should the Russians decide to cross the French or Belgian border. With options dwindling now, the West German president unilaterally declared a cease fire and opened negotiations with the Soviets. His last act in office was to order NATO troops to leave the country within 24 hours and for the Bundeswehr to stand down.

Western leaders faced intense pressure from their civilian populations to end the war before it spiralled further out of control. The whole of human civilization walked along the edge of a knife. With West Germany acceded to the Soviet Union in return for some minor face-saving concessions, NATO quietly dissolved over the next several months while the rest of the world prepared to live with the fall of one superpower and the rise of another.

The first morning of peace came. It started like any other Saturday.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. Wow great write up! VG's NATO has always been my favorite board game. I've found it's very difficult for the Soviets to win with the other scenarios.

    One of my favorite strategies was to try Ralph Peters' Soviet plan from "Red Army" where those Soviet airborne brigades are sent in to draw away British and German reserves (even the paratroopers don't know they're part of the deception plan).

    It's amazing how tempting it is to use nukes in the game, especially when you get an impasse on the battlefield.

    Wonderful write up! Thanks for sharing.

    1. Thanks very much, Steven! I read Red Army a while back and I had forgotten about that part of the book. I'll have to try the game again with a similar strategy and see how it works out. Thanks again for reading and your kind comment.

  3. Great story!
    The Soviet response to NATO's nuclear escalation is very realistic too, given the circumstances. Warsaw Pact not only won the war, but also avoided the nuclear apocalypse so much wanted by the capitalist oppressors ;)

    1. Thanks Fabrizio! The Soviets were so deep into West Germany at that point, I almost considered just ending the game after the nukes started falling in turn 6 but I really felt there was a good story left to tell. Glad you liked it.

  4. Just excellent. Thanks for posting! I wanted to let you know that your blog is a staple - I always check to see if there are new posts. Really enjoy your stuff!

    1. Thank you David! Glad you enjoyed it and thanks always for reading.

  5. This game is one of my all-time favorites. Your review did it justice and has inspired me to start a blog about how a NATO-WP war in the 80s may have gone, and I'm looking around for a copy of this game as I type LOL

    1. That's great, Mike! Sign me up as a subscriber. Sounds like a cool idea for a blog.

  6. WTF? I played NATO a kazillion times and even in the complete surprise scenario, NATO airpower (and mind you this was well before anyone knew of Colonel John Warden) always decimated WP counters without any need for tac nukes flying.

    1. Well, Chris, I don't rightly know how to explain it. We just do what we do and others can come along and analyze it and say what they would have done differently or where the mistakes were. Almost like two totally different people might play a game totally different and end up with different results. That's the beauty of the whole thing. I think the lyrics to an old TV show theme say it best. Sing along with me now:

      Now, the world don't move to the beat of just one drum,
      What might be right for you, may not be right for some.
      A man is born, he's a man of means.
      Then along come two, they got nothing but their jeans.

      But they got, Diff'rent Strokes.
      It takes Diff'rent Strokes.
      It takes Diff'rent Strokes to move the world.

      Everybody's got a special kind of story;
      Everybody finds a way to shine.
      It don't matter that you got not alot.
      So what?
      They'll have theirs, you'll have yours, and I'll have mine.
      And together we'll be fine!

      'Cuz it takes Diff'rent Strokes to move the world,
      Yes it does.
      It takes Diff'rent Strokes to move the world.


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