Red Russia Developer’s Notes
By Kevin Canada
December 2022

Note: We have a small number of Red Russia complete copies left (and a large number of assorted parts for it), but the game has had its day and this Christmas season we’re giving the final copies to our Gold Club – among the many gifts they’ll receive. Developer Kevin Canada tells of this fine game.

Let’s just start by saying that Red Russia is one game every gamer needs in his or her collection. I don’t say this as the rather biased developer, but as a serious historical gamer. I love titles which revel in gobs of chrome to no end: Home Before the Leaves Fall is one of my all-time favorites; unfortunately, I’ve played it exactly once. The historical detail I derived from that game was huge, but for me it was just too big for a light evening’s play.

While Red Russia isn’t heavy on the chrome, and doesn’t aspire to be a replacement for a history book, it does try to balance that ever-so-fine line between historicity and playability. To this end, I think that Red Russia succeeds quite nicely, and is a very successful game. You can read Bruce Lincoln’s Red Victory in one hand and play Red Russia with the other and find that the game, while not mirroring actual events, doesn’t let you go off in the alt.history weeds, either. It gives players lots of historical options and opportunities, while applying some of the very real constraints that faced the national and factional leaders of the day.

I’ve been fascinated by the events of the Russian Revolution since my undergraduate days, when I took a course on European socialism with Victoria DeGrazia and wrote a report on Stephen Cohen’s political biography of Bukharin — heady stuff for a child of the Dallas working-class suburbs. I even planned to write my doctoral dissertation on the role of the Russian avant-garde in the revolution and its aftermath: El Lissitsky’s Beat the Whites With the Red Wedge is probably among my all-time favorite pieces of Russian Constructivist artwork ever (regrettably, my complete inability to read Russian put a quick end to that educational goal).

But while I was enthralled with the Proletarian victory of 1917, I was rather uncurious about the events that transpired during the Russian Civil War that followed. It was the Black Period in Russian history, when the great hope of the revolution degenerated into the Stalinist paranoia and purges that we know today as Soviet Communism. My few exposures to the period were an interesting revisionist article on the Russo-Polish War and two or three playings of the SPI “classic” The Russian Civil War. At one point I bought a game called Reds, which despite the name had none of the romance I recalled from that film with Warren Beatty and Diane Keaton.

The games were confusing: What were the Whites fighting for, why were there so many factions, why didn’t the Reds just roll over them like the old propaganda posters showed? Buying a copy of Rossiya 1917 didn’t help clear things up, either. Well, I couldn’t speak Russian, so it really wasn’t a big deal. This wasn’t my area of study, or my period, so I could move on without any guilt or concern.

That all changed in February 2007. Mike Bennighof asked me to develop a new title from William Sariego on the subject of the Russian Civil War. The system was based on APL’s Soldier Kings, so it was fairly tried and true, since by that time there were three titles using the system. Naively, I thought “no problem!” and trotted home with the hand-crafted package under my arm. I opened the box and reviewed the pieces, put together the map, and perused the rules. A quick play-through of the first few turns revealed an interesting game, but I still had no clue “what’re we fightin’ for.” There were some random events, which reminded me of Reds in their historical sparseness, but like chefs on so many cooking shows, I thought “needs salt.”

The first order of business was the map.


As it arrived in the playtest kit, the map reminded me of a bit of the Constructivist and Supremacist paintings I love: highly geometric, almost absolutely abstract, and utterly confusing. Actually, that’s too harsh — it was more like a game I'd played called Great War in the Near East, with its differently-scaled mini-maps, arranged at various angles without really giving the gamer a clear indication of the entire scope of the struggle at hand without a copy of The Times Atlas of the World close at hand.

The problem was that Russia is just too massive, and its expanse filled with too many “empty” areas, for Sariego to easily and effectively portray the entire geopolitical arena with any degree of accuracy. His design followed in the tradition of the Soldier series with subset maps highlighting smaller or more out-of-the-way regions like the Caucasus. However, I kept recalling two maps I was most impressed by in my younger days: SPI’s Objective: Moscow and Victory Games’ Pax Britannia. Both of these games allowed a player to survey the playing area from the perspective of the North Pole — something that doesn’t happen all too often in wargames — and get a sense of the utter massiveness of the campaign area being fought over. Indeed, I wanted the player to feel the “sweep” of the campaign from that same geographic angle.

Being the old-style graphic artist that I was in my 20s (can you say Line-O-Type?) I resolved to develop a new map with pencil, pen and ruler. The difficulty lay in trying to fit the entirety of the campaign area in a space of 34”x24”. Ideally, I wanted a map where the Russian geography was warped by a perspective that maximized the space needed on the western end of the playing area (where most of the game areas are located) and minimize the eastern end (in order to allow space for the various tracks and charts). I really wanted something that resembled a cornucopia, or a megaphone. I almost pulled it off.

Not having a good program on my computer for properly distorting images according to my desires, I was forced to sketch the frontiers of Russia by hand. My first attempt was too cramped, with game areas nearly on top of one another. My second version left the Black Sea and Caucasus looking OK, but the Caspian was WAY out of scale with the rest of the country, and Siberia looked a bit odd. I was willing to work to some compromise, however, and twisted and turned various drawings until I was able to place Areas near their approximate locations on real maps, while still shooting for that “scope” I wanted.

The end result comes close to my original ideal, but geographic purists may complain (you have to admit that Red Russia’s bulky Siberia is a far cry better than the “Big Dot” from SPI’s The Russian Civil War!). Beth Donahue did a superb job of translating my original drawings into what you see today, and I am most satisfied with the final outcome. I think I even convinced William Sariego that the map’s redesign was a good idea!

Factions and Activations

Concurrently with the map re-design effort, I pondered the game itself. It played well as a wargame, but I just couldn’t get a feel for the history behind it. Why, after all, were so many factions in existence? Why did they not just gang up and do a “dogpile on the red rabbit”? What about the Western Allies, which in the original design were far and away the weakest power, yet represented by an individual player? The politics of the Minor Factions didn’t seem to square with history, either. Finally, while the Random Events Tables introduced some interesting variables, they were only 12 rather generic events.

As I struggled with these questions, I quickly discovered that my understanding of the historical record was very poor. To remedy this, I spent several weeks at local libraries and bookshops looking for anything that dealt with the Civil War in Russia. One of the best books on the White causes, by the way, is Richard Luckett’s The White Generals: An Account of the White Movement and the Russian Civil War, which helped me get a good appreciation for the ebb and flow of the White movements from the start of the conflict to its final sputtering conclusion. Lincoln’s Red Victory gave me a good historical timeline to work with, and in the end remains my favorite of the titles I collected for this effort, despite its reddish tinge.

With my newfound knowledge, I tried several approaches to adding more historical flavor into the game without adding new components other than a chart or two. After working up a fairly complex table of events, weighted by year and faction, I met with Mike to show off my monstrosity. He offhandedly noted that the original budget for the game allowed for cards — why not develop some? I leapt at the opportunity, and converted my events table into the cards that are now in the game. This gave me three things no table could easily provide — tying a random event to a player (restricting who can play a card) or date (playable year(s)) or phase in the game. While I think the game could actually use more cards, their inclusion gives players a bit of period flavor.

An added bit of historical “balance” was the introduction of uneven size of hands. By default, normal hand sizes are set according to the relative military and political strength of each faction. The weakest, the White North/Asian Major Faction, gets only four cards, the other White factions get 5 each, and the Reds get 6. However, a faction/player may increase his or her hand size equal to the status on the One Russia Index.

Incidentally, the One Russia Index was developed as a means to demonstrate the faction’s political strength or weakness. Historically, each faction tried to claim political legitimacy for all of Russia, not just a region/political/social group. For every faction, the ability to demonstrate military prowess through battlefield victory, the capture of politically important locations, or even political unity helped reinforce to popular image of the legitimacy of the claim to be Ruler of All Russia.

Not surprisingly, failure in these areas helped paint a different picture entirely. In game terms, the One Russia Index (ORI) is primarily a tool to influence the flow of the game, but it is not a final arbiter. More than one faction may be at the highest level on the index at the same time, and all factions start at zero at the outset of the game.

Other bits of historical “detail” which came into being during the game’s development included a fairly restrictive approach to the use of the various minor factions, such as Finland or Ukraine. For the most part, these factions represented nationalist movements of different ethnic minorities which had been previously absorbed into Russia at different points in time. In all cases, involvement in the Russian Civil War was to further the nationalist ambitions of these territories and peoples, not to conquer Russia, or to necessarily further the interests of the Russian major factions. As such, Minor Factions are activated at two levels: Limited and Active.

A Limited Activation severely restricts how many units of a minor faction may move or engage in military operations in a given turn, and only within specific territorial boundaries. An Active Minor operates as an extension of the controlling faction, and is able to engage in most activities normally. However, even Active Minor Factions are usually limited to how far from their national borders they may operate. The major exception to this is Poland, which has several special rules to amplify its role in the struggle, and is a power to be reckoned with by any Major Faction (although it will most likely be pitted against the Red faction when it does enter play).

The Western Allies do deserve some mention, since they are the exception to the exception, as it were. While originally a Major Faction, their weak position, lack of units, and historical inactivity meant that their play would be very dull or very ahistorical. Making them a Minor Faction seemed a natural move, and further adding rules to govern their utility for any White faction lucky enough to gain their use for a turn or two helps keep them from becoming a kind of bizarre shock troop force. Yet their potential usefulness for the Whites is vital to forcing the Red player to garrison backwater fronts with troops urgently needed elsewhere.

While there are many more nuggets embedded in the game than I want to cover here, I would like to emphasize that all were included to reinforce (reintroduce?) the history behind the game, and add to enjoyment and frustration of the players. The Russian Civil War was a complex military and political conflict; Red Russia is a game that seeks to give players a good impression of the chaos and violence of the struggle without extraordinary detail. I hope players will find it as enjoyable to play as I did to develop.

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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and NASA Journalist in Space finalist, he has published a great many books, games and articles on historical subjects; people are saying that some of them are actually good. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife and three children. He misses his Iron Dog, Leopold. There was only one copy of Leopold.

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