Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Field Commander Rommel: First Impressions

I finally got to try out Field Commander: Rommel, the first boxed game from DVG, or Dan Verssen Games. Dan is one of those designers who does some very cool things, but then puts out some very poor designs as well - the Lightning series comes to mind. One of the first designs of his that I was exposed to was Hornet Leader, a brilliant 90's solitaire game where you commanded the air wing of an American carrier group somewhere off the coast of a global hotspot. He also did Thunderbolt/Apache Leader, a related title that added a ground war component, and the Down In Flames series, which I love to this day. After that, he moved into CCGs for a little while (7th Sea) and found it to be pretty lucrative, or at least more so than wargames. Since then, he's mostly been self-publishing DTP titles, which I've more or less stayed away from. 

Dan's designs, at least the ones I like, tend to have a very heavy luck factor. One raid gone horribly wrong in any of the fun air-based titles I've listed above and you go from having a successful campaign to one that isn't. That's part of the fun for me, at least as long as the game isn't already heavily weighted toward the AI. However, more than one bad mission and the game stops being fun pretty fast. 

This is a common issue for non-computer-based solitaire wargames - the AI is rarely complex, at least by computer standards, so much of how the game ends up will be based, assuming you use effective strategy/tactics/doctrine, on whether or not that killer enemy unit shows up at the right time, or if your last man with a bazooka manages to get that 10% hit that knocks out the German Tiger tank driving down the street (an actual result in an Ambush game I played some years ago).

As such, I have to take most AI-based games as interactive storytelling rather than a competitive game, although it is fun to learn effective tactics as you go. This is more a flaw with the overall solitaire wargame niche than with Verssen's designs, although I find his games to rely more on luck than on skill in general. 

That out of the way, let's take a look at FC:R, which is ostensibly the first game in a series that will transcend eras and weapons systems - the second game is about Alexander the Great, about as far from WW2 tactics and systems as you could imagine. The game is actually three games in one, with campaigns set in 1940 France, North Africa (which I suspect is the real reason for the game, the rest is just extra), and back to Normandy in 1944 for the Allied Overlord invasion. Each game, oddly, uses largely different counters (one or two of the German Panzer units are used in all three), and at different scales. The "Ghost Division" map runs from the Rhine to Cherbourg, while the D-Day map covers the same amount of space as perhaps two or three areas on the first map, although with many more areas and units. I have not had the opportunity to play more than the first map, Ghost Division, so I can't comment on whether the system works equally well (or poorly) as the later maps. 

Each map is divided up into areas, and the areas are grouped into regions for purposes of "supply" for both sides. Interestingly, there are no "supply" rules as most wargamers understand them - instead supply is abstracted into "resupply" points which each side gets at the end of each turn, which can be used to recreate units or add "supply" points. The supply points themselves are used to allow units to move extra areas, rebuild depleted units, and to improve tactical factors during battles. The maps also contain the AI for the Allies (you always play the Axis in this game), from how they resupply to how they move on the map. This seems to be a pretty elegant way of handling the differences in scale, time, and environment.

Units are on fairly light stock, but in a smallish game like this I have no issues with them. There are a lot of chit draws, however, and had I been thinking I would have spray coated the various markers and units to protect them. Units are rated as being of one of three types - armor, mech, or foot, which only comes into play when using the Battle Plan markers (see below). Each unit is rated for attack, defense, and movement. The attack and defense values are simple "roll at or below" in combat, with attack values having a superscript number on some units that inflict an extra combat result if you roll below it. If you're attacking, you want to roll the attack number, and the defenders use their defense numbers. That makes armor much more effective when attacking, although they aren't slouches on defense either. Movement simply refers to how many areas a unit may move, although this is also limited beyond the first space by supply considerations (one supply point per extra space moved). 

The sequence of play is a little involved, as you'd expect in a solitaire game, with most of the Allies turn dictated by a certain amount of randomness. The rules specifically state that when there's a choice to be made that isn't covered by the rules, the player can decide which way the Allies will go, even if it's a bad choice. These sorts of things bother me a bit, but I think that the game balance was generated with this in mind, so I went ahead and made what I considered the "bad" choices to be. In retrospect, the one "bad" choice I made actually turned out to screw up the Germans, so there you go. In practice, the sequence of play becomes pretty easy to remember, and most phases involve a few die rolls to see what happens or a few decision points for the Axis, so it's not too bad for non-wargamers. 

The rules themselves are of the "chummy" sort, which I loathe in a wargame where clarity and precision are critical. I found one or two points that were not handled well in the game (when you are allowed to reroll one of your rolls, it isn't specifically stated if that includes you rolling for the Allies, which are sometimes referred to as "their" rolls), but in general the system was intended to be elegant and straightforward, so I suppose it's OK in this case. Still, nailing down the definitions of various game terms is a huge problem with some designers/developers - see Devil's Cauldron for an excellent example where the word "range" is used in two different contexts in the same die-roll modifier table! In the end, though, I was able to play through without making many (if any) mistakes because of rules misunderstandings, although I did refer to the rules frequently during my game. I was mostly able to find things quickly - there is a rather extensive (and unnecessary) index on the back page that I didn't need to use because the rules just aren't that long, but I appreciate the effort. 

Each campaign has different victory conditions for the Axis. In Ghost Division, the Germans must take three specific areas - Cambrai, another adjacent area whose name escapes me, and Cherbourg, all the way at the other end of the map. The two eastern areas are well defended by the British, while Cherbourg is undefended early on. The rules do not state if the Germans win *immediately* upon taking (and holding) all three areas, although there is no specific victory phase as there is in many other wargames, so my assumption was that victory was granted at the instant all areas became German-held. 

Allied forces are reinforced through a couple of different ways, but the most interesting is their Operations build-up. Every turn, the Allies draw an Operations chit, which adds units or movement points to a pool. When the Go! chit is drawn, that force enters the board at a semi-random location, the Ops chits go back into the pool, and there's a new force on the board that the Axis have to deal with. Not knowing when these forces will enter, or even how large they will be, adds both tension and a chaotic element that could really drive you nuts. There are only six or seven Operations chits, so you know they're coming at some point, but every turn they aren't on the board means they're probably bigger and faster. Of course, they can come in at various points on the board, so you also don't know where to defend. The Axis have a similar effect through a much different mechanism - they get extra resupply points for every unit that doesn't move during a turn, simulating an operational pause to build up materiel for a big push. 

Most of your decisions will occur in how to allocate your resupply points and in combat. Combat, aside from the obvious "roll your rating to cause a hit," has a fairly interesting mechanism that adds a lot of tension and is, I believe, the heart of the system. At the beginning of battle, the Allies get a certain number of "Battle Plan" chits which give various benefits during battle, from extra faux units that get to roll to drms to rerolls to extra units. The number of these is based on how much surplus supply the Allies have and how many full-strength units they have. Once these have been randomly drawn from the pool, the Axis gets a number of Battle Plan Points to spend on his pool, although these are chosen rather than drawn, and each chit costs a certain number of BPP. Each campaign limits what chits are available for each side, a clever way to reflect operational realities and combat posture in a relatively easy way. Verssen clearly learned a few things from his work on CCGs, the best of which was to increase complexity through point elements, in much the same way that Combat Commander adds complexity through Actions and Events rather than extensive core rules. 

One last mechanism I liked - combat units gain experience through enemy losses. For each enemy unit destroyed in combat, one unit gains a Veteran counter that improves (maybe) their values. Alternatively, an already veteran unit can have it's counter flipped to it's Elite side. This is another elegant way to demonstrate how units improve over time. 

I had two "false start" games before completing the full game. In both situations, the Germans advance into a specific area on the first turn (there are no choices, as the starting German area of Liege is only adjacent to one area), and both times the Germans were the victims of bad die rolls despite choosing BP counters that gave extra combat rounds and improved the odds of destroying enemy steps. Because of the supply rules, the end result was that the German initial force was effectively hobbled to the point where I felt they couldn't continue with the campaign because it would take two or three turns just to get the Germans back up to snuff. This was the first point where I got a little concerned that the solitaire nature of the game might have a little too much chaos for those who prefer tight games. I've said before that every wargame includes a chaos element of some sort (the Simmon's Napoleon titles excepted, and that instead substitutes fog of war), but to have a game go south on the first combat (and twice at that) is a concern. On the bright side, that was the main point where I knew things wouldn't work out, so once you get through that first battle you'll know if the game requires a restart or not. No idea if the other maps have similar situations.

After that, it became clear that the resupply rules require the Axis to go after the objective spaces early and often - there are two resupply points for each objective area that the Axis controls. At the same time, the Allies get supply and units (at least, a better chance of units) or a completely different set of areas, so the Axis have to decide which to go after. Given the victory conditions, in hindsight I'd say that the Axis need to focus on Objectives and hope that there aren't too many reinforcement units coming into Caen to block Cherbourg. Interestingly, Paris isn't an objective (although there are optional conditions that can be added that require the Germans to take it or face losing VP)! 

In my game, the Germans took Paris early to prevent resupply and reinforcements into that forward area, then struggled taking the two easternmost objectives. The Germans start with only four units, and although they get very strong early, they are also fragile and require you to spend a lot of supply refitting them to their full-strength sides. With a couple of turns left (in essence, time running out), I found myself needing to make a break for Cherbourg with my two strong panzer units, and they were wiped out against a depleted Allied force in Calais when the Allies drew the Ambush BP chit (which allows them to fire first), and then they rolled like demons to wipe out both panzers. At that point, I knew that the Germans had no chance to reform and make a drive on Cherbourg with a very large and very strong Allied force in the vicinity. Ironically, had I moved that large force into Calais earlier (that choice I mentioned above), I could have driven straight through to Cherbourg instead and won. 

My early verdict at this point is that this is perhaps one of the more interesting yet easy to learn solitaire games I've played yet. There are rules to connect the three campaigns, and the variant rules give what looks to be really nice replayability. However, the game, like every other solitaire title, suffers from the possibility of your forces getting wiped by a bad result at critical points, and if you prefer a tightly balanced affair every time this is probably not a good game for you. However, if you like solitaire wargames and prefer literary elements to balance, my initial recommendation is to give this one a look. Fortunately, the price is not too high, the rules are very simple as wargames go, and the three campaigns allow you to start with low unit density and work your way up. All in all, this title may beat out Hornet Leader in my list of top solitaire games, and were I traveling for work, I'd strongly consider taking it with me to play in my hotel room in the evenings (as I used to do with HL). 

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