Red Star / White Star: Tactical Combat in Europe in the 1970s

Red Star / White Star was released by SPI in 1972 as a stand-alone game (i.e. not sold as part of their magazine games via Strategy & Tactics). The game was ground breaking in many different ways but most interestingly today, it was the first tactical level game to deal with contemporary Cold War issues. While Grunt had been set on Vietnam, RS/WS squarely faced the challenge of depicting the unthinkable - a protracted war in Europe between American and NATO forces and the forces of the Warsaw Pact. From a design standpoint, the game billed itself as "the most sophisticated addition to the PanzerBlitz - Combat Command game-design series."1 1972, Dunnigan did it again, he crossed into another of those off limits areas. The game was Red Star/White Star: Tactical Combat in Western Europe in the 1970's. The controversial subject of potential future wars in Europe and the clear depiction of the Soviet Union as the real enemy opened another door. Since the release of Red Star/White Star we have seen numerous tactical level games on the subject and related subjects - not mention operational/strategic level designs. This dividing line between World War II and Modern Era tactical game designs remains today as most 20th Century tactical games fall into one of these two categories.

Red Star/White Star proved to be a big success for SPI, but ... its designer was disappointed with it..2

Dunnigan, who had designed the first tactical board wargames Tac Game 3 and PanzerBlitz, had earlier expressed disappointment that the culmination of those two games had been a final product in which a playable game had been loaded down with too much detail.3

Dunnigan wrote in 1973, only a year after RS/WS's release that PanzerBlitz and Combat Command (also released in 1972 and dealing with platoon-level combat in the Second World War in Northwest Europe in 1944-45) were already obsolete.

The reason for this rather negative attitude lies in the fact that tactical games are extremely difficult to design with a large degree of realism. This was readily apparent while designing PanzerBlitz. We went through a good half dozen approaches. The one we finally arrived at was not, in our opinion, the best one. In other words, the research and development on tactical game designs cold not stop with PanzerBlitz...The Tac3 approach was ultimately a blind alley. It could really go nowhere. In order to add any more realism to a game using this approach required enormous sacrifices in playability. A breakthrough, we feel, came with the development of a workable simultaneous movement system.

...The most important thing needed for the redesign of Red Star/White Star is the use of a simultaneous movement system...Of course...we could not merely be 'adding' simultaneous movement. Many other changes will be made also. This is, of course, because no game is ever finished as far as its design goes. Not only does the state of the art change and improve, but the historical data becomes more abundant, more insightful, and more useful, the longer the game is out. A game, after all, is a research tool...4

Unfortunately for RS/WS, there were a number of issues with simply adopting a simultaneous movement system; the game had no printed hex co-ordinates. Dunnigan addressed that point in his article in Moves by suggesting all one needed to do was indicate on the movement orders the direction and number of hexes for a "crude but fairly effective" method of implementation. A more critical problem was the large number of units in most scenarios, for which his solution was far less elegant: "simply cut the number of units involved in half, in those scenarios that you find to be too unwieldy."5

With tactical gaming in its infancy, Dunnigan was not just making decisions for one game.

Thus Dunnigan realized that tactical wargame design had reached a fork in the road and the correct direction was towards simultaneous movement. The first two games using this new system were released in 1973, Kampfpanzer and Desert War.

The concept of Simultaneous Movement was originated in the optional PanzerBlitz modular movement system, which was really only half-turns. The concept held that all combat is really simultaneous - one force doesn't sit back while the other moves past it or fires at it. The integration of movement/fire was the goal of this system. In part it was successful, but the cost in bookkeeping and recording each units action began to take its toll...Dunnigan's fear of sacrificing playability for realism was coming true. Tactical wargames were in danger of losing the "fun factor."6

In 1975, the original series of tactical games by SPI - RS/WS, Combat Command, and Grunt, a squad-based Vietnam era game, were all replaced by a new generation of titles, all with a Simultaneous-Sequential Play System (SSPS). RS/WS was officially obsolete, and in it's place, MechWar '77 was introduced. However, the bookkeeping of Simultaneous Movement (Si-Move) with its plotting pads had also been eliminated. While players committed units to firing without knowing the intentions of their opponents, movement was sequential. A solution to marrying playability and realism had apparently been found.

Red Star/White Star was resurrected in 1979 as part of Mech War 2, which was a combined product containing a thoroughly expanded and redesigned RS/WS and Suez to Golan in one large box, along with promises to update the unit and vehicle data available for that product annually to keep the game current.

The Game

The game included 10 scenarios, each of 10 turns in length, depicting a tank battle, a delaying action, a screening action, a deliberate assault, an extended assault, an airmobile delaying action, a meeting engagement, a rear guard action, an airmobile raid, and an airmobile attack. The scenarios were reworked and republished in issue 12 of Moves along with extensive errata for the game.

The designer's notes claim that

One thing Red Star/White Star does do that no previous tactical game has done is to re-create actual tactics. For example, an American battalion holding its "normal" front of 8 hexes would place observers well forward of the MLR (Main Line of Resistance). The forward edge of this zone would be the FEBA (Forward Edge of Battle Area). Attacking units would have to struggle through American artillery fire before reaching the MLR (where most of the defending units would be.) If things went right and the attacking force were not too strong (a Russian infantry regiment would normally attack on a 5 hex front) the attack would be "broken up" before reaching the MLR.

The game appears to have been rushed through production and in addition to the minor errata sheet shipped in 1973, and the additional errata appearing in Moves, extensive additional errors have been compiled at the Web Grognard website by Alan R. Arvold.7 In particular, the Red Army units appear to be exclusively made up of units of 1960s vintage while U.S. and Bundeswehr units are of then-contemporary 1970s era equipment.

Dunnigan described the genesis of the game in his Wargames Handbook:

Designed at the request (and support) of the Infantry School. A tactical (maneuver units represented platoons) level simulation of combat in the Central Front. Stressed use of (Anti Tank Guided Missiles), coordination of mech(anized) infantry, armor and artillery. This was the first commercial simulation on modern combat. Very successful commercially.8



No. 9 Jun/Jul 1973 ►Errata: Red Star/White Star
►"Red Star/White Star First Hand" by Mark S. Powell (Critique)
►"Vulcan/Chaparrel Weapons System" by James G. Jones (Variant)
No. 10 Aug-Sep 1973 ►"White Star Rising?" by C. King Sargent (Critique)
No. 11 Oct-Nov 1973 ►"Red Star/White Star and the Paper Tiger" by L.F.W. Beck (Critique)
►"Wargame Reviews" by Martin Campion (Review)
No. 12 Dec '73-Jan '74 ►"Red Star/White Star: A Revision" by Abe Fox (Scenarios and Variant)
►"White Star Viewpoint" by John P. Schneider and Albert R. Amos Jr.(Critique)
►"The Designer Redesigns" by James F. Dunnigan (Analysis)
No.17 Oct-Nov 1974 ►"Red Star/White Star Weapons Systems" by R.E. Wilson (Critique)

Strategy & Tactics

No. 36   ►"Red Star/White Star: Warsaw Pact and NATO Forces in the1970's: by Stephen B. Patrick (historical article)

Fire & Movement

No. 15   ►"Panorama: Is Paris Burning?: The Games of the Next War" by Rodger MacGowan and Mark Saha (Discussion of contemporary-era games)


No. 74   ►"A Panzerblitz Ramble" by Herschel M. Sarnoff (Survey of tactical armoured games)


No. 3   ►"Black Star/Blue Star" by Stephen V. Cole (Variant)


  1. Box top copy on the clear box version. Like all SPI games, RS/WS shipped in a variety of containers during its life. The initial containers were folded and glued white boxes that had been introduced in September 1972; these boxes were complicated containers with integral counter wells and were only in use for a short while before being replaced. There were also white boxes with plastic counter trays inside - RS/WS apparently shipped in both types, before the move by SPI to the most common container, the "black box", about three months after introducing trays to their white boxes. The standard black box was actually a plastic counter tray which served as the main storage compartment, to which was glued a piece of stiffener (surviving examples rarely have the glue intact and the cardboard is usually loose or even missing). Maps and other paper components were slid on top of the counter tray, and held the clear tray covers in place; a clear plastic cover went over the entire "box" and a paper insert with the box top art advertised the title and subject of the game. Part of this insert actually extended outside the lid of the box and folded onto the underside, and the entire package was shrink-wrapped before delivery to retailers.

  2. MacGowan, Rodger B. "20 Years Later and 10 Years After Squad Leader" (F&M Special Report: History of Tactical Games.) Fire & Movement Magazine Number 53 (May-Jun 1987)

  3. His exact words in F&M 15 had been "...I always felt that Tactical Game 3 was a better game than PanzerBlitz. I think we just added a lot of accessories on a small, but nimble little vehicle and thus loaded it down..."

  4. Dunnigan, James F. "The Designer Redesigns" Moves No. 12 (Dec '73-Jan '74)

  5. Ibid

  6. MacGowan, Ibid


  8. Dunnigan, James F. Wargames Handbook, Third Edition: How to Play and Design Commercial and Professional Wargames (Writers Club Press, 2000, ISBN 0-595-15546-4) p. 397


Red Star / White Star
Tactical Combat in Europe in the 1970s

Developer: James F. Dunnigan (Game System); John Young, Kevin Zucker, Bill Sullivan (Game Development); Kevin Zucker, Redmond A. Simonsen (Rules Composition)
Publisher: SPI
Date of Release: 1972
Scale: Platoon level
Players: 2
Campaign Type: None
Components: ► unmounted 34" x 22" map
► concertina folded rule sheet
► 4 page oversize scenario and designer's notes booklet
► 1973 errata sheet in later versions
► 500+ 1/2" counters
Sequels: ► MechWar '77
► Mech War 2
Add-ons: none

SPI's early games shipped in white boxes before being replaced with the more familiar black boxes/counter trays. See footnotes for details.

This photo of the the early white boxes appeared on ebay. The counter wells were poorly designed and the playing pieces slipped out from behind the insert, which was made of cardboard. Later on, a plastic counter tray was added to the white box instead, before the standard 'black box" as shown in the main article was adopted.

Instructions on the inside of the cover of the white box.

The maps and rules fit into a folder on the left, and there were two counter wells on the right.

Magazine ad from Issue 36 of Strategy & Tactics. Click to enlarge.

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