Monday, January 26, 2009

Fields of Fire Overview, Pt 3 – Sequence of Play

One of the difficult parts of learning this game is that, much like an opera singer's voice, you kind of have to understand a very large part of how the game works in order to operate any specific part of it. For this reason, I feel that this is a good time to introduce the sequence of play, and in fact it probably would have been a good idea to have introduced this before the preparation discussion (part 2). Water under the bridge. 

The underlying theme of this game is not about how hard it is to get people to do what you want them to do as a leader, as in Combat Commander. The underlying theme of this game is actually how effective your chain of command is. As company commander, you have to understand the operational reality of your situation, but you also have to somehow figure out what needs to be done and communicate that to your subordinates, who then have to communicate that to their soldiers. The net effect is very similar to one of the cardinal elements of eurogames - you have many things you want to do but can only do so much.

What might surprise people about the game is that combat is not as directed as you might think. Instead of shooting at a target, you are more or less shooting in the general direction of a target. As such, combat becomes something that happens rather than something you execute. In fact, it's often a bit of a trick to get your men to *stop* shooting at things. You also want to avoid having your men move into situations where there is already lead in the air unless there's a very good reason to. 

Of course, there is also a certain amount of AI that creates and directs your enemy's actions, which adds to your administrative burden but requires no extra decision making on your part. You might think of the sequence of play for a turn as you planning and (except for the shooty shooty part) executing your plan, then finding out what the enemy has been planning and executing, then everyone tries to kill everyone else. There are exceptions, but we'll cover that as we explore the Sequence of Play.

While the rules don't explicitly mention such trivia, each mission does have a set number of turns, and in most cases you must play all of them unless the mission goals explicitly state as much. In other words, just as soon as you start to relax because you don't have to move any more units into areas with PC markers that you'll have to resolve, the enemy might counterattack and stick PC markers of varying lethality into the cards you've already cleared, including your objectives. 

Like most wargames, there are a few exceptions in the first turn of the game, and we'll start right off with one of those. The first phase involves you checking for a Friendly Higher HQ event. This is a pretty simple process - you draw an action card, check the Higher HQ symbol (located, if there is one, just to the left of the AT number and right above the Hit Effect area). If you have a radio icon, you have an event, otherwise you can relax a bit. If you do, generate a random number between 1 and 10 using another action deck draw (discussed in part 1 of this overview) and refer to the Friendly Higher HQ table on your mission briefing. Note that this is the Friendly table, not the Enemy table, which you'll check later on. I found that some of these events were a little on the vague side, such as "You must move forward this turn". What's this "you" shit, Kimosabe? One unit? Every unit? There is no help. My assumption is that it means a unit must move from a row it is in to another card in row X+1, where X is the row it starts in. It's important to note that the penalty for failing to do so is... OK, there is no penalty, just a VP if you perform a starred event. Some are a little more useful, some a little more heinous. Like I said above, you won't worry about this until Turn 2.

Since we're using Mission 1 as our example, we skip the second phase, which has to do with enemy actions if you are in a defensive mission type. This is information given in your mission briefing, and in our mission we are of an Offensive mission type. The idea is that one side or the other will be acting, and the other side reacting, with the acting side doing it's thing first. 

Since we're the actors, we move right on to the third phase, which is where you earn your paycheck. I'll go into much more detail in the next part of this overview, which will focus on the Friendly Command Phase, but here's a general overview. The idea is that you get a certain number of Command Points during a turn, which you can convert into Orders that result in units taking Actions. There are two ways this happens, Activations and Initiative. Activations can be thought of as orders percolating down the chain of command, as discussed in Part 1, from the CO HQ to either Staff HQs or Platoon HQs, and from there potentially to the actual combat units. Initiative does not rely on the chain of command, instead having to do with individuals recognizing the need for immediate and specific action, and it is the only way that units that are out of command can be activated. 

The phase has two segments (one for activations, one for initiative), and each of the segments has a series of impulses. You finish one impulse before going on to the next, but within that impulse you have a lot of flexibility to do whatever you consider to be worthwhile. Here's the way it shakes out for Activations:
  1. Battalion HQ Activation – This impulse is where you get the "root" set of commands that you will use for the rest of the activation segment. Most of the time you won't have a higher level HQ on the map with you, so if your CO HQ has communications with the Battalion HQ (usually via the BN TAC network) you will draw an action card and note the big Command number in the upper left corner. Because you're a green commander, you have to subtract one, but there are other mods that will help, at least at first. This is the biggest reason you want to get your HQs bumped up in experience as quickly as possible - Commands are life. You note this number using the tracking chits for the CO HQ on the Command Display, and move on. It's important to note that activations always result in at least one Command, even if the mods reduce it to zero or below. This is not true for Initiative draws.
  2. CO HQ Impulse – Now, we can use the commands the CO got in the previous impulse to give orders, the vast bulk of which will be used to issue Activation orders to other HQs along the chain of command. When you give the order, you draw an action card to give commands to the HQ you activated. As such, you can turn the four or five commands your CO got into more like 20 or 30 for the other HQs. However, you are still at the mercy of the draw, and can end up with one CO command translating into one Platoon HQ command. Those are Bad Turns indeed. You will make all of your activations by your CO in this impulse, along with any other orders the CO might issue, such as ordering the mortar squad to move or fire. I will discuss the communication net in much more detail in a later section of the overview, but for now all you need to know is that the CO can only communicate with units in the immediate area or if there is a comm net in place.
  3. Platoon/Staff HQ Impulse – At this point, we can now use the Commands generated in the previous impulse through the various Platoon and Staff HQs. This is a good time to note that if you don't use all of your orders, you can save some of them depending upon HQ experience level and visibility conditions (day or night). However, if you haven't activated an HQ in a previous impulse this turn, you can't issue orders with it at this time, but will have to wait until the Initiative segment. 
Here's a quick example: My CO draws 3 command, which is modified for his Green experience level down to 2. In the next impulse, the CO activates the 1st Platoon HQ (1PHQ) and also orders the FO to Call For Fire (call in an artillery strike), and that action is executed at this time. He draws Command for 1PHQ of 4, reduced to 3 for it's relative inexperience. Now it is the Platoon/Staff HQ impulse, but only the 1PHQ can issue orders because it was the only HQ activated in the previous impulse, and the other HQs will have to wait for the Initiative Segment. 

Initiative works slightly differently. You won't make any HQ activations, and you'll use the smaller (both in size and in value) number just below and to the right of the Command number, called the Initiative (of course). Here's the Initiative Segment in all it's gory detail:
  1. CO HQ Initiative – You are very unlikely to do anything in this impulse, because you'll have to roll a specific Higher HQ Event that breaks contact with Battalion HQ (or move your CO out of communication, which is about the dumbest thing you can do in the game, but it does sometimes happen to you). If the CO wasn't activated in the previous segment, you'll roll initiative. No need to activate HQs here, in fact it's not allowed. Avoid at all costs.
  2. Platoon HQ Initiative – Any PHQs that weren't activated will now make an Initiative draw, again using any modifiers. In this case, it is entirely possible you will roll a zero, so it's not something you want to count on. You may, however, use saved commands if you are using initiative for a given HQ, and you may bank commands you didn't use assuming you stay within the limits of what can be saved. 
  3. Staff HQ Initiative – Unlike the CO or PHQs, your XO and/or 1SGT will automatically get one Command, no draw necessary. This is why I like to give the Jeep to the XO and a major weapon system to the 1st Sgt - you'll almost always get to use them. Again, you don't get to activate PHQs, but you can bank the Command if you don't need it or use it. 
  4. General Initiative – Now we draw Initiative, ignore *all* of the modifiers, and can use the resulting orders for any and all units on the map, even units that were activated or had initiative previously. You can't bank these orders, however, and again you can't activate HQs to draw Command. The orders are extremely useful to get units that have advanced out of command to look for cover, for example, or to shift fire. Sadly, you are not guaranteed you'll get any Command in this phase.
Continuing our last example, we would ignore the CO in this case (since he was activated), then move on to 2PHQ and 3PHQ, who each draw initiative rather than command (and can issue orders), then give one command to the 1SGT and the XO (who can issue orders), and finally make a single General Initiative draw. 

Again, the orders will convert into Actions, which are specific things that units do such as move, concentrate fire, rally, throw a grenade, cease fire, transport an asset or casualty, get in a Jeep, etc. We'll cover these in greater detail later. What you should know is that for the most part, you actually do all of these things in the Command Phase, but you may not see how the things that put lead in the air turn out for a little while. Congratulations, you've made pretty much all the decisions you're going to make for the turn, and now we see how things turn out. 

Next is the Enemy Action Phase, assuming that you are on an Offensive or Combat Patrol mission, otherwise you'd have done the next part before the Friendly Command Phase. First, you check for an Enemy Higher HQ event in exactly the same manner as the Friendly HHQ Event. Warning: this could ruin your whole day in many cases, especially if you just made a big push and advanced a bunch of units who now have Exposed markers on them. Trust me, it's a bad thing. 

While this part is involved, at the same time it's very straightforward. In a nutshell, you look at every enemy unit on the board in random order (using random number draws from the Action Deck - if you have six units, assign them numbers and check the 6 column on the draw), run through the appropriate enemy action chart (on one of the player aid sheets), and have them do that action. Simply note the condition of the unit: if it's pinned or an LAT, use that table, otherwise use the Defensive or Offensive table based on the enemy's status. In some cases, you may end up changing what table is used in the course of a mission, like if they get a Counterattack Higher HQ Event. Start at the top of the table, using the relevant column (in mission 1, the Germans start out on the Defensive table and use the Determined column), move down the list until you hit a condition that matches the unit in question, randomize if necessary, and then take that action. On some occasions, the unit will not have an appropriate condition, and in that case the unit takes no action at all. Work through all of the enemy units, and that's all for this phase. 

The next phase is the Mutual Retreat and Capture Phase. Again, pretty simple. Any Paralyzed or Litter teams alone with the enemy on a card (or if all you have are P or L LATs), they are captured (or shot, if the mission/campaign calls for it). This goes both ways, so if you've managed to isolate an enemy P/L LAT then you've captured it and now someone gets to babysit them. After capture, if any unpinned P LATs are in a card that is under Volume of Fire (more later), they get to retreat a space. You can also capture enemy casualties, although you don't need babysitters for these for obvious reasons. 

The next phase is the Vehicle phase. I'm going to skip over this for now, as I think vehicles deserve their own section, and in general all you need to know is that if you activated the Jeep to move earlier during the Friendly Command Phase, this is when it actually moves. If you are using Aircraft, they do their thing now too.

The next part is a little confusing, but I'll flesh it out in greater detail as well in a later section. In essence, you find out in the Mutual Combat Phase what the result of all those bullets flying around is, but you also find out what enemy units might be lurking out there unseen. There are two important concepts that I'll flesh out a bit first; Volume of Fire (VoF) and Primary Direction of Fire (PDF).

VoF refers to the type and amount of bullets, shrapnel, etc are flying around in a given part of the map, to be specific a single card. You may have several different types (Small arms, Automatic fire, Grenades, etc), but only one type will be the most lethal and thus the one that is in effect. For example, if you have both Heavy weapons and Small arms (H and S VoF) in a card, only the H will take effect because the S fire is of no consequence in comparison. Like I said, it's not so much that you're shooting *at* someone, more that you're shooting *near* someone. In a similar fashion, if you have S fire coming in from more than one unit, that doesn't affect the VoF in a card *unless* it's coming from different directions, which results in a Crossfire modifier to the VoF. 

PDF refers to where the fire is coming from. It's important in determining Crossfire mods, grazing fire (in the case of tripod mounted MGs), where units can be placed, and where the units in a given card are firing. In a general sense, it lets you know that bullets are flying in that direction from one place to another. In almost every case, if PDF is pointing at a card, there should be a VoF marker on that card, and vice versa. If you have a strong engineering or math background, think of it as vector math or polar coordinates - you have a direction, and a magnitude. 

In general, both of these markers will adjust as the situation changes throughout the game, although there are a few cases where they change in very specific situations (such as handling artillery strikes and Incoming! VoF markers).

The Combat Phase has two segments, but really there are three as there's no real reason to group the first two. The first is very simple - you update Pending Fire and Airstrike missions to Incoming VoF, and remove Incoming VoF from earlier turns. 

The second phase, along with the earlier Enemy Higher HQ draw, is where you will have to change your underwear at times, as this is where you resolve PC markers in cards where you have units. Usually, this is done the first time you move units into a card, and an excellent reason why you use your platoon squads, one at a time, to do this. However, in a counterattack situation, you may find that PC markers are placed in cards where you already have units, and things sometimes get exciting. To resolve the PC marker, simply look at what type it is (A, B, or C) - if you have more than one marker, toss the rest and keep the one with the highest value, with A being highest - and then draw action cards (based on contact level and other mods) to see if you get a "Contact" result on one or more of them. If so, roll on the appropriate table in the mission briefing to see what Force Package shows up. 

Once you know the number and name of the force package, look in the campaign information to get the basic info on it. You'll find out what sort of unit(s) are involved, if they are on the same card or not, what cards you will place them on, whether or not they are generating VoF/PDF, and whether or not your units know where they are (whether they are spotted or not). In many cases, the units will have a default cover value, defined by the mission (in the first, it's trenches). Often there is additional information on the cover of the Briefing Booklet, so don't forget to look there if you're confused by a particular piece of information. 

Important things to know include - new enemy units will fire at your units on the card that generated said enemy units. If the enemy units are spotted, then *any* friendly unit within LOS and range of said new enemy unit will start firing on it whether you want them to or not, and generate VoF/PDF on the enemy card. If not, you'll have to spot them, and *that's* a lot of fun if you don't have an HQ under cover with the spotting unit. Since PC markers are resolved in alphabetical order (randomly within each letter), you can end up with some really wacky situations, just like real combat. Your units will continue to fire at the enemy until you either tell them to stop with a Cease Fire order, or tell them to fire at something else with a Shift Fire order. Like I said, combat is not something you have as much control over as you might like, and certainly less control than in other squad-level games. 

Once you've resolved the PC markers in question, now it's time to resolve the actual combat. This is time-consuming but pretty simple. You just add up the mods in a given card (you can do this in any order - the VoF/PDF won't change until after this segment is complete), roll on the appropriate line of the Combat Resolution chart along the left side of an action card draw, and get one of three results for each unit. If the result is a Miss, then the unit stays as is *unless* it had a Pinned marker, in which case you can now remove it. If the result is Pin, then the unit in question now becomes Pinned. If the result is Hit, then the unit becomes Pinned *and* you get to draw another action card and check the Hit Effect area cross-referenced with the experience level of the target unit. You'll get one or two letter codes, which correspond to replacing one or more steps with particular types of LATs. Note that in some cases, you might *improve* the morale of a LAT (a Paralyzed LAT getting an F result would become a Fire Team LAT). Casualties, however, are casualties for the remainder of the mission, and won't be fired on again. If the unit has more than one step, you apply both results, otherwise you just apply the first. If you have a three-step squad that has it's second step converted to a LAT, the squad itself is replaced with a Fire Team LAT. 

Here's an example: A three-step squad takes a Hit and gets a LP result. That means the squad counter flips to it's two-step side, and you put a Litter Team in the card/cover with the squad. Now we have to convert the next step to a Paralyzed team, so we place that LAT in the space as well, and replace the two-step squad with a Fire Team. All are given Pinned markers. As you can see, it's pretty easy to see a squad get more or less wiped out in a single turn if things don't go well. As I mentioned in an earlier section, LATs have limited orders they can be given or initiate, but it's still important to get them out of harms way. They are no longer considered part of a given platoon, so any HQ can command them, but they are all considered to be Green units (impairing their ability to perform actions) and they will also require XP points to improve their experience level as well. 

Lather, rinse, repeat for every unit on every card containing VoF on the map. Note that in some cases, units of both sides will be on the same card. In this case, you *don't* generate PDF (it's within the card), but you *do* generate VoF, and in fact you generate two sets of VoF for each side on the card. Unlike many games at this level, there is no differentiation for hand-to-hand combat, or "assault". 

Once you've completed this phase, all that's left is Clean Up, which mostly consists of adjusting VoF/PDF, removing a bunch of markers, and prepping for next turn. 

At this point you should have enough information to try to take on a mission if you like. However, I will go into greater detail about the communications net, the specific Actions that you can order units to perform, how to use the Jeep, details on the various LATs, and some details about VoF/PDF in future installments. 

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Solo Wargames

Fields of Fire has whetted my appetite for solitaire wargames, and I'm working through a few of the ones I have. I may ditch one of my NYRs in favor of getting through at least some of these. Here's what I own, and my take on each:

  • Fields of Fire. Revolutionary system, unlike anything else out there. Demonstrates beyond a doubt that junior officers have the hardest job in the world and they get shot at too.
  • RAF. 80's take on being in charge of the air defense network in 1940 southern Britain during the Blitz. I've only played the first scenario (which lasts maybe seven turns), but it's given me a good sense of the game. Your choices basically boil down to what to put up to patrol, and then how to use those resources. However, I have a sneaking suspicion that the real meat comes in deciding how to replace lost resources, as each has a cost in VP. 
  • London's Burning. Early 90's take on the BofB, this time from the POV of a couple of pilots flying around and shooting at aircraft. Unlike RAF, this one includes guessing at altitude the raid is at, coming out of the sun, and other tactical doctrine. The Burning Blue looks to me to be a two-player version of both this and RAF combined.
  • Ambush!/Battle Hymn (and assorted expansions). Great Victory Games title from the late 80's, this one covers tactical combat (each counter represents an individual soldier) on the Western Front c. 1943-45 (Ambush!) or the PTO (Battle Hymn). Very cool idea, especially at the time, but the "make your own adventure" system takes a lot of time to work through and there's little replayability if you've seen the game at all recently. In 2009, this one seems a bit fussy, although there is a VASSAL module that would hopefully make things faster. Open Fire was a tank-based version that was reputedly a bust, and the two-player version (Shell Shock, may have these backwards) was particularly bad. Same guy that did RAF, btw.
  • Carrier. Another Victory Games title from the late 80's, this one about naval combat in the Solomons in 1942, from Guadalcanal through Bougainville. The rules are presented in Programmed Instruction form, which has it's charms (and drawbacks - it's much harder to find rules later on). The biggest problem for me was that this has an extremely detailed sequence of play, and I kept forgetting to move markers when they were supposed to be moved. That and stacks of counters 15 or 20 deep at times. Get this on VASSAL so that it helps you stick to the sequence, and it could be very interesting. Especially interesting is the system for searching and identifying enemy task forces. 
  • Tokyo Express. Actually, I never pulled the trigger to buy this one back in the day, although Dave tells me it's one of his favorites. I should get him interested in Second World War at Sea, as I think it's got a lot of similarities... Also about the Solomons, but specifically about resupplying Guadalcanal through the Slot. I may look for a used copy. 
  • B-17. An incredibly detailed look at bomber command operations in the ETO. You can fly a campaign, tracking your crew and aircraft throughout. Sadly, there are almost zero decisions you make during the game, although I hear that it's a blast at the "real" WBC. Long out of print, there is now a "new" version (B-29, taking place in 1945 PTO bombing Japan) by Khyber Pass Games. 
  • Silent War. Ever want to prosecute the entire submarine war on shipping in the Pacific through WW2? Now you can. This game covers a huge number of possible events, from supporting invasions and surface actions to the fall of the Philippines, to fixing the broken torps the War Department got stuck with when Pearl was bombed. Biggest drawback (while being the coolest mechanism) goes to drawing the target fleets from four different draw cups, which must be reseeded every couple of months (game time). Whatever you do, don't mix them up. The game can go on for quite a long time, so VASSAL is the way to go (and it makes cup seeding relatively painless, although drawing them is a chore). Steel Wolves has been promised for some time, covering the early Battle for the Atlantic, and a followup is planned for the later war in the Atlantic, but SW covers the whole shootin' match. Tip: Sort the 'boats by entry date. Also: This is a design-for-effect game, so don't expect the combat system to reflect actual combat, but a higher level abstraction. Although you *can* track which boats have sunk the most tonnage!
  • Raid on St. Nazaire. 90's Avalon Hill title on the less-well-known attack on the Vichy port where the Germans kept the Tirpitz, sister ship to the Bismarck. The raid was fairly effective, given it's rather modest goals, but it was a huge morale booster for the Brits. The map covers the entire port facility, with spotlights and patrols and even the Campbelltowne that the raiders shot in on. I've tried to pick this one up, but Greenwoodese is a hard language for me to parse without assistance, so this one's never gotten a fair shot.
  • Patton's Best. B-17 with tanks and what appears to be a very novel system. Everything looks like it's sporting an 88mm cannon until you find otherwise, so it's a good idea to find otherwise as quickly as possible. The only game I know of that has a very detailed sequence of play printed on half the map (and getting harder to read all the time). Another 90's AH game that I pull out and try from time to time, but I keep running into either rules that don't make sense or panzerfausts and I lose interest. I'm hoping Matt G will show me how this one is done sometime.
  • Solitaire ASL. Including for completeness, as this is one I am almost certain never to learn. I have the AH edition, and am not sure if MMP ever reprinted it (I don't recall seeing it). I do know that the final "official" module from MMP, Armies of Oblivion, included some errata pages that didn't make much sense (page numbers that didn't fit or didn't exist in my set). I just can't see learning ASL, much less this system. Maybe the Starter Kits will work with it to some extent... Ha. 
  • Field Commander: Rommel. A new series of games from Dan Verssen, each focusing on a different military leader. A very light and enjoyable title that is easy to pick up even if you're not familiar with wargaming per se. Some very novel ideas, such as spending points on "battle plans" with your AI opponent getting a number of equivalent factors that make every battle different. There are also three different campaign games set in three different parts of the war, each with a different unit density, allowing you to learn the system a bit at a time to some extent. An Alexander title is in the works, so hopefully this one will translate time periods well (which I'd expect - combat is very abstracted and most of the tactics and weapons systems of a given period are represented by the battle plan tokens). 
I'm leaving off tons of games that can be played solitaire without too much effort, as well as a few magazine games (Antietam from Command magazine, another one on the Spartans and Persians a la 300 from Against The Odds, a few others), as well as games that have solitaire rules (Blackbeard, either edition). I'm sure someone will point a few out that I've forgotten, even the ones in my collection. The thing is that there's relatively little call for solitaire-specific games, and from a business standpoint it makes much more sense to print games that can be played solitaire but that are intended for ftf  or online play. In fact, of the above titles only Silent War, FC: Rommel, and Fields of Fire have come out in the 21st century, the rest all date back to a time when computers were still relatively novel in most homes, or else the game companies hadn't quite gotten that message just yet. 

For me, having played most of my wargames solitaire between the years of 1981 and 1999, I have a very soft spot in my heart for these titles. Of course, the biggest problem with solitaire games is that you are playing against a system, and the outcome, assuming you have some idea of how to play against it, will depend rather heavily on how the luck-dependent elements come out. Get a spot of bad weather, for example, in any Battle of Britain game, and things will start looking up, at least a bit. That's why the long games are so much more interesting, as they become about the story instead of about whether you are winning or losing. However, it's very easy for these titles to become a series of repeated actions where the only real differentiation is how the luck elements play out. 

Still, there will always be room on my shelf for these games, which seemed at the time to be the deathknell of board wargaming. In truth, we're nearing the end of a Belle Epoque (IMHO) of wargaming, which the sour economy will only accelerate. In a few years, I suspect that many of the companies we love to support that don't have deep pockets (MMP comes to mind) will have closed their doors. Given the aging of the hobby's population, it's hard to say if we'll ever have the incredible creativity and depth of titles that we're seeing now. It's a very good thing I have so many games I've never played, as I'll be able to pull them out in 20 years when the hobby is all but dead and enjoy them. If I can read the damned rules and see the counters, that is.

Fields of Fire Overview, Pt 2 - Preparation

In our last installment, we discussed the various components and some of the thinking that went behind them. In this installment, we'll go over how to prepare for a mission, as well as going into greater depth as to what constitutes a "mission" and also discuss the idea of a campaign (in this case, the Normandy 1944 campaign).

Unfortunately, this may be the least developed part of the rulebook, and can be a huge impediment to people learning the game. To make things worse, the very first thing that the rulebook tells you to do has almost no bearing on game systems (it gives a field manual presentation of how a mission is concocted). Ignore this part of the rules unless you're interested in how it's done in "real life". 

First, you choose a campaign to play, which will determine your opponent and terrain deck, what rules you have to worry about, and a few other things. Each campaign has it's own set of complexity (vehicles figure prominently in Korea, helicopters and LZs in Vietnam), so I recommend starting with the Normandy 1944 campaign and that's what I will focus on in this overview. Each campaign is made up of seven missions, each with varying goals, postures, forces, and maps. You don't have to finish every mission successfully on the first try, but if you can't finish in the designated number of attempts you will lose the entire campaign (in game terms, it doesn't mean that the war is lost, just that you are deemed not competent enough to continue leading your company). 

The campaign and mission information is given in the Briefing Booklet. Information for the campaigns precede the associated missions, and consists of two pages of information:
  • Order of Battle for your company. This includes the various units involved, how they are organized in your company, their experience levels, and also information on the various assets you receive. Because your forces and their experience levels will typically change from mission to mission (and even between missions), the unit information should be considered a baseline, while you will "refresh" your assets (such as ammo and pyrotechnics) between missions. 
  • Force Package for the enemy. Don't worry too much about this information for now, but as you make contact with enemy units this is the table you'll refer to regularly. For example, if you roll a contact that specifies Force Package 7 - LMG Nest, you'll refer to this table to find out specific information about that package. 
I recommend that you download the briefing booklet and print out the campaign information so that you don't need to have the book handy during play.

The Mission information for each campaign is listed in order immediately following the campaign info. Again, there are two pages of information for each mission, one for you and one for the enemy. Printing out this info, again, is very useful and you can even use it for record keeping if you wish.

Here's the lowdown on the US mission info page:
  • Background info - where, when, and who fought. Every mission actually happened, so you are literally reliving history in many ways with this game. If you aren't interested in the history, this is essentially "flavor text". 
  • Mission Details - Most of the game information you'll need for preparation is here - how long the game lasts, what the map looks like, your mission goals, the type of mission, etc. 
  • Attachments - These are additional units or assets that are unique to this mission, unlike the Order of Battle information on the Campaign page. This is usually artillery, vehicles, etc. 
  • Higher HQ Events - In war, shit happens. In FoF, it happens to a large extent here. Maybe something good, maybe something bad. 
  • Experience Points - A very good table to get to know before you start the mission. While this table won't help you succeed in the mission per se, it will help you get the XP you need to refill and train your platoon. The experience level of you units, and to a great extent, your HQs will have a big effect on how successful you are going forward, so think of this as what you want to do to improve your company for future success. 
The enemy information has a lot of information that you'll use during play, including how you resolve Potential Contact markers and Higher HQ Events (the rest of the shit). For now, you won't need this information. However, as before, it's worthwhile to print this information out ahead of time to avoid needing the Briefing Booklet during play.

You will want to have a blank Mission Log to fill out, the Command Display in easy reach, and a space to place your map, and we're ready to go. 

First, you'll lay out the map. Each mission will have a different configuration, located in the Mission Details. For the first mission of the Normandy campaign, you will shuffle the terrain deck for that campaign and lay out cards randomly. If you turn over Hill terrain, the next card should go on top of it and offset a bit so you know that it's at a higher elevation than the non-Hill terrain around it. If you draw multiple Hills for the same terrain "slot", that just means that terrain is at a higher elevation. I also recommend adding a row of cards placed face down closest to you as the Staging Area. These can even be cards from another deck if you wish, but you are unlikely to require all of the cards in a given terrain deck so feel free to use the Normandy cards. For the first mission, that means you'll have four columns of cards in four rows, with the row closest to you face down.

Next, you'll want to place Potential Contact markers on the map. Each mission is different, but in our first mission you'll place C markers in Row 1 (the face up cards closest to you), A markers in Row 2, and B markers in Row 3. As you move into each card, you will "resolve" these markers, many of which will result in placing enemy units, as well as often giving you victory points when you remove the marker after resolving it. Note that some Higher HQ events will place more PC markers into cards you have either cleared of PC markers or else that you haven't moved into yet. For both resolution and XP, you only take the "best" marker in a space, with A markers being the best and C being the worst. 

Next, you will place Tactical Control markers on the map. The game gives you a ton of these, but for your first mission you are mostly concerned with the following:
  • Line of Departure - This "horizontal" line separates area you control or inhabit prior to the mission. If there is no designation for this line in the Mission Details, it goes between the Staging Area and Row 1.
  • Limit of Advance - This horizontal line limits how far your troops can advance forward during the game. Think of it as a mission parameter that reflects how far your commanders want to advance, at least in this particular mission.
  • Left and Right Boundaries - These "vertical" lines limit how far you can move to the left or right of the map. These usually reflect the lines separating your company's operational area from the companies operating on your flanks, although they may also be geographical boundaries or further mission parameters along the line of the Limit of Advance.
  • Casualty Collection Point - While the rules don't specify setting one up, I strongly recommend that you set this up for your mission in your Staging area, and it might as well be in the middle somewhere. Most missions give points for getting steps that have been turned into Casualties back to the collection point, plus you'll get some of these steps back in the form of more experienced units. 
  • Objectives and Attack Point - These are closely related to both mission success and XP bonuses, so place them carefully. Every mission will place these differently, but for our first mission you will want to pick two adjacent cards in Row 3 for the two objective markers, and an AP that is preferably adjacent to both. Having good cover in these cards is recommended so that you can keep them once you take them, even though it will make it a little harder to take the card in the first place.
  • Ignore the remaining Tactical Controls for now. Many are used for other campaigns, and some (like the Phase Lines) are more useful once you have a better idea of how to use Pyrotechnic signals. 
Now the map is ready, it's time to get your units set up. Locate the appropriate units (you'll use the "Indian head" squads for Normandy that have S/3/C factors) for your side as given in the OoB and the Mission-specific attachment list. The weapons teams will have relatively little information - the later campaigns will have specific units assigned to specific platoons, but in Normandy you have more flexibility. You will have one choice to make per choosing units, either the three-step 61mm mortar squad, or three one-step 61mm mortar teams. You have to dig through the rules to learn that the one-steppers can't fire indirectly, so I recommend that you use the three-step squad rather than the three one-steppers, at least for this mission. 

Once you have the units and assets sorted out, you'll need to start making a couple of decisions. Unless you have a particularly open map (lots of white LOS boundaries on the cards rather than green), you'll want to use phones instead of radios. These are on either side of the same counter, so this won't require you to grab extra counters. You will want to grab the phone lines, however (you always use eight of these if you have phones). 

Next, you'll need to think about how you want to assign the various weapon teams to different platoons. This is the point where you want to start thinking about what each platoon will be responsible for doing, and where having some military experience will save you a little pain. Sadly, I have none, but in general you will want one platoon to be your "point" unit, another to support it, and the third held in reserve if things go poorly. 

For my first successful run through this mission, I chose to assign the various teams and attachments as follows:
  • Weapons teams - One Bazooka with each platoon, and MG teams with the 1st and 3rd platoon (point and support).
  • .50 cal MG - this is your biggest weapon aside from the mortar and arty, but the most likely to do damage. I assigned it to the Staff, which means that the Platoon HQs can't command it, but it was important enough to have a Staff officer (I used the Sgt) to be with it at all times.
  • Arty FO - What went for the .50cal goes for the FO. However, keep in mind that if you put both in the same location, you will not be able to fire either at cards that are a "knight's move" away because of LOS rules. You might want to assign this to a platoon, although I assigned him to the Staff as well. 
  • Phones - Each HQ gets a CO TAC phone, don't give these to combat units. The CO HQ also gets the BN TAC radio. Give the Arty phone to the FO, as he is much more effective as calling in strikes than the CO HQ, although there is something to be said for keeping them in the same card and cover. These go on the Command Display.
  • Flare Pyrotechnics - Give these to the Staff HQs, two to the CO and one each to the XO and 1st Sgt. These go on the Command Display.
  • Colored Smoke - Give these to the platoon HQs, weighted toward the point and support HQs. These go on the Command Display too.
  • HC and WP Smoke - Usually, I would give these to the Platoon HQs in a similar fashion to the signal smoke assets, but since your HQs are so lame, I would give them instead to your "lead" platoon squads, especially the WP (which attacks enemies as well as lowering visibility), but at least one to your support platoon lead squad. If any go to your HQs, they go on the Command Display, otherwise they stack with the owning unit.
  • Phone Lines - Give two to each platoon, and one more each to your CO and 1st Sgt. I use the XO for driving the Jeep, so it's less useful to give him any. Your platoons will be the primary layers of the lines, so your Staff units are mostly using these for backup. These go on the Command Display as well.
  • Rifle Grenades - Each platoon gets one, give them to the second squad in each unit as your first squad is the most likely to get shot up before they can use it.
  • Runners - These will go with your CO HQ, the *only* unit (with a stacking point) that will go on the Command Display. That's because they aren't actually units just yet, only potential units. 
Now that you've organized your units, you'll want to put this information in the Mission Log. The front page contains information for the platoons, but unfortunately it's organized in a manner more effective for later campaigns. Keep in mind that the most important thing is to be able to find information quickly, so you can list things in different locations depending upon personal preference, but I will say how I listed things just to give you a starting point if you need one. 

First, you'll list out the mission and campaign your playing on the top line of the log. Next, you can list a set of circles for the mission duration in the Turns field, like so: 00000 00000. This allows you to mark off each turn and will be similar to what we'll use to mark off ammo. ignore the Experience field for now, as you'll use the Mission Briefing sheet you printed earlier to track XP as you earn it during the game. 

Next, we'll assign the weapons teams. You'll notice that each platoon has two MG and two bazooka teams listed for it, but they are intended for the later campaigns. What I did was line-out the teams that weren't assigned to a given platoon and overwriting the correct team designator when necessary. For example, I gave the MGs to Platoons 1 and 3, so I crossed out the 2/MG team in Platoon 1, both MG teams in Platoon 2, and the 1/MG team in platoon 3. For the Bazooka teams, each platoon crossed out one of the two and I just remembered that each platoon got the bazooka with it's platoon number, but you can also write over the team designator on the mission log. 

For the .50 cal, I chose to try to keep it on the front of the sheet because it uses ammo pretty regularly (unlike the arty or mortar units), so I stuck it on the "MG or Mortar Team" line under the Weapons Section. Note that you could also put the weapons teams here, but I like them in with the Platoons as that's who they are assigned to. I also put the Mortar Squad on the Mortar Section line as there isn't one for the specific squad. The artillery FO goes on the bottom under the Fire Support section as it requires some more involved information - just copy this from the Mission Briefing. In this case you'll use two lines to cover both types of rounds, both High Explosive and White Phosphorus. 

Now that everything is organized, go through your Order of Battle and write down the experience level for each unit. In the first mission, this is pretty simple. All of your HQs except the 1st Sergeant are Green, while everything else is Line. Note that for some reason there is no experience level noted for your arty FO - experience level doesn't affect this unit. Next, for each of your weapons teams, put a series of circles similar to what you used for Turns above to represent the amount of ammo each has, which you'll find on the Campaign page for the US forces. Note that the enemy forces will have a different amount of ammo in many cases, so be sure to get this from the right place. 

When you come into contact with enemy forces, you will enter their information from the campaign Force Package table and the Mission Briefing into the Enemy Info section. It is also possible that you will gain more attachments, such as vehicles, so best to put only the mission-specific attachments into the Attachments section. In all cases, I recommend using ammo circles to keep track, because you can always add in circles if the unit comes across more ammo as the game progresses, and you just 'x' them out as you use ammo (and you will use a lot of ammo).

The only remaining thing to do with your Mission Log is to assign actions for your pyro signals. Frankly, the rules are a complete mess on this topic, dodging the entire issue by suggesting that you'll learn what signals are useful in what situations as you go. Here's what I recommend for your first mission: leave these blank for now. If you find yourself in a situation where you think "boy, this would be a great thing to be able to communicate with smoke or a flare," write it in and use the smoke/flare to issue that order. I'd only do this for the first couple of missions, by which time you'll have a much better grip on the order/action system. 

Almost there! Now all you need to do is place your units in the staging area. Note that in different missions you will set up units in a wide variety of configurations, but for most "offensive" missions (such as the first one) everyone starts in the Staging Area. Here's my recommendation for starting placement. Note that normally you are limited to how many steps you can put on a card, but practical considerations that will become clear later will ensure that you rarely get up to that level. The Staging Area has *no* stacking limits. Here's how I'd do it, depending upon your terrain and objective locations:
  • Line up your first platoon (point) so that it has a direct line to the AP objective card. You can move diagonally, so choose the path that will have the most cover as you advance. There are some advantages to going for the objectives first, then clearing the PC markers from the first two rows later, but you can also do some in parallel if you start running into trouble (or out of time). Put the entire platoon - HQ, weapons teams, squads - into this card of the Staging Area.
  • Line up your third platoon (support) so that it has a second line to the AP, but can also get to the objectives if something goes wrong with the AP (like a minefield). Again, cover should be a consideration.
  • Set up your XO and Jeep in the Casualty Collection point, which should be one of the two central Staging Area cards. 
  • Set up your CO and FO in a location so that they can advance to a location that will give the FO good LOS across the board. Said locations include urban terrain with multi-story buildings or hills with good cover, or else clear LOS across the board to objective cards. 
  • Set up your 1st Sgt and .50cal unit to advance to a similar but different location that will complement the LOS of the CO/FO. Remember, LOS is always orthagonal or diagonal, so position these two assets to cover as much of the map as possible. 
  • Finally, set up your mortar to move into a good card to fire from. That means you avoid woods and buildings, and it should ideally cover any cards the .50cal and FO can't see. It's probably a good idea to have assigned this unit to the reserve platoon so that it will have an HQ that can assign it orders as the game goes on. The reserve platoon should probably go to a card that doesn't have one of the other platoons just to allow you to keep everything straight.
See? Hardly any work at all! Were you to biff this mission and have to repeat it, note that you won't get to apply any XP to your units, but you will be able to resupply ammo. You will also start in control of the cards you've already taken, so even if you've lost a few steps you'll also be getting a head-start on the objectives.

One last note: it's a good idea to leave enough space on your table for extra cards along the sides and back (columns 0 and 5, and row 4) as there will be times when enemy units may be placed in those cards even though you won't be able to move into them. 

In our next installment, we'll go through the general turn sequence and some basic concepts that you'll need to understand before you start play.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Combat Commander: Pacific

Matt R came over last night and we got to give the latest volume in the Combat Commander series a spin. There are now well over sixty different scenarios in this series, rivaled only by ASL and Panzer Grenadier in quantity. Pacific evolves the series in many ways, some of which can be seen in the Stalingrad battle pack that came out at the same time, and it's easy to see which of the changes are considered to be improvements to the base game and which are specific to the theater. 

There are a lot of changes to the Orders that you can give in this game. Rally and Rout are big changes, now replaced by Revive orders that force you to triage your forces rather than hope you get the right rolls for them. Asset Request/Denial replace the more random granting of artillery elements (or airstrikes), as well as weapon jamming. For both of these systems, the new cards give more choice and less luck elements, and the result is a plus for the system as a whole. While there are also major changes to the Actions and Events, these seem to be more fine-tunings than evolutionary rethinkings of the subsystems. 

Stacking changes slightly - no longer do you lose men because too many are in a hex (which was more of a design for effect feature than simulation), now you simply increase the chance that these soldiers will be tagged if fired upon, a much more natural encouragement than a hard rule. Melee, as a corollary, demonstrates the Japanese advantage in hand-to-hand combat through several factors, the most important of which is that you don't actually *perform* the combat until the beginning of the next Allied turn. This gives the Japanese the chance to dig for Ambush or Bayonet cards, or even bring in more units (seeing as if they survive they won't be immediately eliminated for overstacking, although they'll be a tasty target). 

Other elemental changes include banzai charges, an incredibly effective but focused Japanese sniper, mortar spotting by forward observers (called "scouts"), changes to VP for exiting the map (it's now limited to specific hexes on a map and not related to the size of unit that exits), infiltration tactics by the Japanese that can really screw with the Allies minds, and lots of new terrain (including caves that act like trenches except they can be separated in space - go in one, pop up in another). 

All in all, I think that pretty much all of the changes go a long way to addressing some of the earlier elements that bothered people, especially getting lucky with drawing arty (now it costs you VP and isn't quite as random) or those Rally rolls. It's a tribute to the system that it adapts so well to a different theater and a different opponent as well as it does. 

We played Scenario A, as I like to do these things in order for the most part. Also, it's in the Philippines (where my wife was born) and features a hemp field. What's not to like? I took the Japanese because of the Sighting marker and the need to understand the infiltration rules a little bit better, but poor Matt got stuck with the Americans and struggled to get his units forward to take the all important Objective 5 (worth 14 points after my secret objective increased it by 4). In the end, I got lucky with the sudden death roll right off the bat, and won the scenario. It took us quite a while, but there was considerable looking up of specifics in the rules, and considering what was a good use of a card. 

Some of the more entertaining moments:
  • Matt managed to get an air unit on the board about a third of the way into the game, and he was all lined up to make a dive bombing run, but it took a while for him to get the Asset Request that would allow him to do it. When he finally made the run, looking like he would totally kick my ass, he also had to draw an event, and it was Air Support. By the rules, if that happens the pilot gets anxious and "pulls up" and the attack is not only cancelled, but you lose the aircraft as well. 
  • One of the new rules is that you can break the other side's weapon if you have an Asset Denied card, and if you play it on a broken weapon it is eliminated. Matt managed to draw two of these almost immediately and took out my big gun within two or three turns. He also managed to kill the only leader I had on the board a turn or two later, so I was thinking that the game was over pretty early, but I managed to persevere, and even managed to bring in another leader later on through an event. 
  • The Filipino guerrillas spent a lot of time trying to knock out the foxhole containing the one decent weapon I had left, and when they did, while they caused some chaos, the follow-on melee didn't help them at all and the guerrilla squad fell to a reduced team and reduced leader. The survivors retreated into the woods, for only one point of cover lost. As a side note, I managed to win a whopping two of the three melees of the game, which stands as a statistical anomaly as usually my melee attempts are as successful as an Austro-Hungarian flank attempt in Paths of Glory. 
  • The terrain kind of threw us a bit. The bush terrain is actually better than the jungle - it gives equally good cover, isn't as susceptible to arty and mortar fire, and you can move faster (a bit). About all it doesn't do is block LOS. I think this threw Matt, as he parked a big gun on the verge of the bush and sat there right up until the end of the game when he probably should have been advancing. 
  • Matt got a *very* big arty gun fairly early, but despite repeated attempts managed mostly to break his own unit. He did get a very nice shot at my bunker on one try, but despite a 21 point FP total, the 7 cover of the bunker against air managed to prevent any damage to my units. Had he rolled a 7 instead of an 11, it would have made for a considerably better result for him, and in Pacific arty can destroy fortifications with specific rolls (bigger has more chances, but oddly that means lower rolls). 
All in all, I was impressed with the game, although I agree that this is a toughie for the US. What it requires is a rather aggressive move up through the left side of the map (US orientation), bringing on the Filipino guerrillas to try to distract the Japanese units spread out around the map (with so few leaders, much better to put them all in different places), and then use the last Filipino to try to use their special rule improvised explosives to take out the Bunker, assuming the Japanese player is smart and puts it in the money space. 

I can definitely see how this game will get my attention for a little while, although the campaign game in Stalingrad (which now shares some of the same rules, such as for melee) is calling my name too. A good game made better, with the same excellent and transparent rules, and translated to a very interesting theater. I wonder how this would do in different eras, such as Korea (admittedly very close to WW2 in terms of tech), Vietnam, or even WW1. I'm sure Chad is at least thinking about it, at least once he's recovered from this most recent bout of production mania. 

Morning In America

I woke up early enough (remember, I'm retired) to see the important parts of the Inauguration, the entrance of the notables through the Benediction. Here are a few thoughts:

  • Wow, that's a lot of people. I'll be curious to see what the attendance numbers were for this Inauguration compared to the past several (back to Carter, or even Kennedy). 
  • I hear the crabs complaining that $150 mil was spent on the various events, the most ever. Considering that my guess is that this Inauguration has generated the largest attendance ever, and I'm guessing this is breaking the record by a factor of, oh, 2 or more, that's not a big surprise. Certainly the security is going to be very high as there are still people in our country who want to judge people by their racial background and not by their acts or motives.
  • How wonderful to have a person representing this country who can speak in public. Sure, he bobbled the Oath of Office a bit, but I see that as showing that he recognized the import of the occasion. 
  • I saw a letter to the editor today that said that "true" change will come when a woman takes the Oath. At first, I dismissed this, thinking that African Americans emerged first from systematic bondage to at least nominal equal protection and opportunity over a 100 year period, and then I realized that many black men could vote decades before women could, and that women are still fighting to keep their reproductive rights in an era when African Americans largely don't have to fight these sorts of legal battles. The day we stop caring what someone looks like who runs for office is the day we can put these sorts of concerns to rest. 
  • Dick Cheney, arguably the most powerful man in the world, leaves office in a wheelchair. An incredibly apt metaphor for the condition he leaves the country in. Hopefully both will recover. 
  • Now comes the hard part. 
I say now to those who felt incredible relief when Bill Clinton left office, that the joy and elation you felt to see a man whom you felt had no morals, who would do whatever he wanted whenever he wanted for whatever reason he felt like, that the joy and elation some of us now feel in exactly the same situation is no less valid, real, or great. History will judge both presidents, but you'll pardon me if I say that somehow torture, unnecessary and unjust war, secrecy, invasion of privacy, incompetence in the aftermath of natural disaster, politicization of what should have been the most partisan-free element of the federal government (Justice), disregard of the rule of law, and the myriad other sins of the Bush administration seem to be just a little more compelling than lying about a blowjob or crimes of similar magnitude. 

Many of us gave GWB the benefit of the doubt when he became president. It says a lot about those who label the new President a "confidence man" (Rick Lowry) before he's signed a single law. Bush had at the very least a pretty cushy job to start, and a prosperous and respected nation to lead. Obama begins with no room for error, a trampled Constitution, and multiple foreign crises, from Korea to Gaza. Perhaps this might be a good time to give him the benefit of the doubt for at least a little while before you go sharpening *your* knives, seeing as it's in all of our best interests that he is successful. 

Today, I feel like the Who's at the end of How The Grinch Stole Christmas. Our cupboards are bare, our presents stolen, and yet we stand and sing praise to the day, because we believe that some things are more important than ideology or winning at all costs and against all common sense. We see a bright future, and a bright leader to inspire us, because in the end it's not his job to fix our foundering ship, it is all of our jobs to do so. And that is what Barack Obama represents, a renewed belief that America really *is* of the people, for the people, and by the people. For too long, it's been very hard to believe that. 

Monday, January 19, 2009

Fields of Fire Overview, Pt 1 - Components

I trashed the development of Fields of Fire a week or so back, but I hope that the essential message in my post wasn't lost - this is a great game, worthy of your time and effort to learn, just perhaps not quite yet. 

For those of you who have decided to take the plunge anyway, here is a "quick" overview of the various systems. Because this is a complex game with unique elements, I'm going to discuss the various parts of the game in sections. Today, I will talk about the various components and what they do in the game. 

The components are, by and large, well done, although there will clearly be a few places where the designer/developer can improve things going forward. The game makes use of a variety of ways to represent information, from direct text to iconography to tables, and I'm not quite sure why in some cases. For the most part, text is readable by my 45-year-old eyes, and the colors dont' seem to get in the way too much. 

To start with, there is no map per se. Instead, the game comes with three decks of terrain cards, one for each period/conflict represented - Normandy 1944, Korea 1950, and the Vietnam Lowlands 1968 (or so). These cards are laid out in a grid to form the map, arranged in columns and rows, with Row #1 (an important concept) being the row closest to you. In addition, there is considered to be a "virtual" row of cards below Row 1 called the Staging Area, which is used mostly as a starting point for many Offensive missions. 

Each mission (detailed below) will outline various objectives that your company must achieve to consider the mission a success, and while they largely depend upon the mission, some are pretty stock items. To start with, you have a "line of departure" that more or less identifies the line between what you control and what you don't. There are also boundaries that form the operational area for your company - remember that you are, often, one company among many involved in a larger operation, and while it is possible that the map will expand over the course of the game that you can't leave those boundaries. In the first mission, the map is three rows deep by four columns wide, and this happens to be the operational boundaries for this mission, with the line of departure between the Staging Area and Row 1. 

The cards have a few different bits of information on all of them, regardless of the campaign you are playing. First is, of course, a text description of the terrain (bocage, village, cemetery, forest, etc), along with a prominent greyscale photo of the terrain in the middle of the card, which is where your units will go as you move from card to card. Around the perimeter is a green, white, or mixed color border, divided into eight segments, four being the "sides" of the card, and the other four being the "corners" of the card. For reasons I don't understand, the side borders are dashed, and the corners are solid, but this has no effect on gameplay. This border determines whether or not you can see through the card to another card, or whether the terrain blocks line of sight (LOS) or not. Green represents blocking terrain, white represents a clear LOS. If you have three cards lined up in a row or column (or diagonal), and the middle card has white borders adjacent to the outer cards, you could be able to see the outer cards from each other. Interestingly, you cannot see another terrain card if it is not orthogonally or diagonally lined up with the sighting card, so a card a "knight's jump" away can't be seen under any circumstances. The designer has rationalized this choice for environmental/simulation reasons, but I believe it was done to keep the LOS rules simple. 

Elevation also plays a role in the game in two respects. First of all, you might draw a Hill card for a given slot of the map grid, but it only determines elevation and you'll place another card on the Hill card to demonstrate what the terrain is. You can see over lower terrain if you are on higher terrain, and it is possible to have multiple levels of terrain if you draw multiple Hill cards. There are also cards with buildings on them, some of which are designated "multi-story" terrain. In these cards, it is possible to find a church tower or second story, which function similarly to Hill cards but don't block LOS like Hills do. 

Each card has a few more pieces of information, mostly to do with cover, which most of us would call "landscaping" or "buildings". Each card has a terrain modifier to combat, which is a +modifier. Some cards, the ones with two types of LOS into the card, use a smaller number to represent the modifier for fire coming into the card through an open LOS, for indirect fire (mortars or artillery), grenades, or fire from enemy units in the same card. These mods will apply to every unit in the card, regardless of whether they have found "cover" and represent the general environment. 

Cover, on the other hand, represents specific elements of the landscape, such as a copse of trees, a group of bushes, or a building. Each card will have a maximum number of such elements, and they can be either natural (a shrubbery) or urban (an outhouse). Natural cover always gives a small improvement defensively, while urban cover can be two or three times as effective. There is also a number that indicates how easy or difficult it is to find cover once you've moved a unit into that card, which I'll discuss in more detail in a later entry.

Finally, the terrain will sometimes have special icons that represent the unique features of that card. For example, some cards tell you whether vehicles have to stop or are prohibited from entering that card. Some give a negative modifier if there is incoming indirect fire. Some designate the presence of multi-story buildings. All cards have a unique number for that deck, allowing us to specify what cards we are using in a given mission session report.

The end result of this card system, while having some limitations, is to allow for a wide range of potential terrain when replaying missions. While I dislike a few things (no knight's move LOS, the dashed/solid LOS lines), in general the effect is extremely useful and versatile. For example, you can have areas of the map that are unrevealed at the start of the mission, as well as areas outside of your operational area that come into play as enemy units appear. It's a very flexible system, and well suited for tactical operations at this level. 

On to the units. The rules are particularly vague in many respects, with some critical information stuck on the back cover of the book with no real explanation of use, so I consider this section of these overviews to be of particular interest. A unit is a little hard to describe. There are "infantry" units, which is any unit that isn't a vehicle. They are, for the most part, identified by the use of their "stacking" dots on the bottom edge of the counter. Most units are either one dot/step "teams", while most of the rest are three step "squads". A few units, such as the German 88mm FLAK team, have two steps on the front side of the counter, one on the back. The three steppers all are platoon squads, and have a two step side on the back. 

There are also a large number of Limited Action Team counters as well, some of which are on the back side of "normal" counters. LATs are used in many situations, usually from taking combat losses but not always. As their name suggests, they are somewhat limited in what they can do during the course of the game, and they also do not have an association with specific company elements, unlike weapons teams or squads. There are Fire Teams, Litter Teams, Paralyzed Teams, and Casualties, in descending order of effectiveness. Casualties won't ever improve their status as the game continues, but the other teams may be improved through rallying or changed (sometimes for the better) by combat results. In addition, units that have become Pinned by fire are also considered LATs in many respects. Finally, many weapons teams and HQs with a single step have Fire Teams on their reverse sides, which occurs if the team runs out of ammo, or through combat. The best way to think of LATs is that they are breakdowns of larger units or less effective versions of single-step units, and have a hierarchy that allows some of them to regain their status in certain situations.

Infantry units also have two other bits of information on them, the weapon type and their range. Range is, for some reason, given as a letter code instead of a numeric range. I understand that Point Blank the same card, a range of zero, but it's another example of how a game was designed by a soldier without regard to his audience being people without military experience. The weapon code has to do with how much lead/shrapnel goes into the air when the unit is firing, so Small Arms (S), Automatic Weapons (A), Grenades (G), Incoming rounds from airstrikes, arty, etc (I) and heavy weapons such as .50 cal MGs (H) all designate how effective the different weapons systems are. There are other designations such as G! that shows ranged grenades (bazookas or mortar teams firing directly), or "tripod" designations that create certain conditions and opportunites for some weapons. 

Included in infantry units are the HQs, the units that give the player the access to ordering their men and weapons. These units don't have weapon types or range on their counters, as they represent individuals with small sidearms that are mostly used in emergencies. They have Fire Teams on their reverse sides if they are converted during combat, but otherwise they are part of the comm net and the heart of the game. 

Other special units include Runners that can be broken off from larger units to relay orders and Snipers that your enemy deploys against you. Funny how you never get to deploy snipers in these games, at least not usually as the US. There are also Forward Observers to spot for arty or off-board mortar units, and several other special units that I haven't run into yet.

There are also a plethora of vehicle units, which thankfully you don't have to worry too much about early on aside from a single Jeep unit in the first mission (which has a whole host of special rules, unfortunately). Vehicles don't have steps, but they do have AT (anti-tank) modifiers in little circles, and drawings of the vehicle in question along with a text description of what they are. Vehicles often have much of their information on tables rather than 

Aside from the many markers in the game, there are also a handful of other weapons that don't represent personnel but are often one or two shot units, such as rifle grenades, panzerschreck, and panzerfaust (for the Germans, I haven't really seen what the Koreans or Vietnamese have). There are also pyrotechnic "assets" such as high-concentration smoke for concealing movement, white phosphorus that's like HC smoke but nastier to anyone around it, colored smoke and flares for providing signals to units (we'll get into that later), and phone lines that allow you to extend your communications net (also discussed in a later entry). 

Units come in three colors, kind of a strange choice seeing as there are four different nationalities (and effectively five): US, German, Korean, North Vietnamese regulars, and Viet Cong units. The US and German units have their own colors, green and gray respectively, but for reasons that I can only imagine had to do with conservation of countersheets, the Korean and Vietnamese units are both the same color. The Vietnamese infantry units all have designations (AVN or VC) to differentiate them, but the Koreans have no such designation, and the vehicles don't either, making sorting a little complex. The rules and the countersheet tell you which parts of the sheet have what units on them, but it's useless information once the counters have been punched. 

Making things more interesting is the bewildering array of weapons illustrations on the various counters. For example, the US fire teams come in three or four different flavors, some identical, some not. The designer has frequently identified the different counters by the weapon designation of the illustration, which is completely useless for me as I'm not a gear-head as many military folks are. For the various squads, they are broken down according to an illustration in the back of the rules that isn't referenced anywhere else, and to make things more complicated they are shown in more or less *reverse* order of how things break down. 

For example, say we have a German MG squad, which consists of three steps and has a weapon type of A, which is more effective that S. Let's say the squad takes an F result, so it flips to it's two step side and you are supposed to replace the third step with a Fire Team. Which one to use? The chart shows (first) an A team, then two S teams (in some cases with different weapon pictures, although they are identical in function). However, the rules say that the *last* step should be the A step, so you choose between the two S Fire Teams, unsure of whether there should be a specific type of unit on it's reverse. In our example, the squad flips to it's two step side and an S fire team is placed in the card with the squad. If the squad loses another step (let's say to a Litter Team with an L result), then the squad is removed, a litter team is placed on the card, as is an A fire team. It can be a confusing system and this is one of many places where examples in the rules would have helped tremendously. All of the markers will be discussed as their functions come up.

What I'm really trying to say here is that you will be presented with many situations where you have no idea which of several seemingly similar counters should be employed. There are even two sets of US squad counters, one for Germany/Korea, the other for Vietnam. Be sure to reference the inside back cover of the rulebook, as well as use some common sense. Also remember that units like the 88mm with two steps don't follow the rule that says that the final step of a unit should become a fire team - that applies only to squads. To my knowledge, this hasn't been included in the errata yet. 

So much for units. There are also a ton of markers, and like most games with a lot of markers I like to use a counter tray for these so that I can prep them very quickly (just take the tray out and remove the lid) and access them easily during gameplay. The red markers refer to various elements of combat and weapons fire, the blue ones that aren't specifically ammo are general markers, and there are a lot of LATs that look remarkably like markers but aren't, identifiable via the step dot on the bottom edge. There are also a bunch of Potential Contact markers that are blue - I recommend bagging these instead, as often you will need to draw them blind and they have the same back to create some fog of war. Unfortunately, a few were misaligned and have easily distinguishable backs, but you can "fix" this by taking out a proportional number of the other counters (they come in A, B, and C flavors).

The next element is the Action Deck, which I strongly recommend sleeving. You will shuffle this deck about 30 times in a game, so sleeves will definitely protect your investment (compared to the terrain cards, which don't really need the sleeving as they are handled much less often). The action deck is essentially the random number generator for the game, and it does it in a lot of interesting and conflicting ways. There are several sections of the card used in different functions, and to be honest this could just as easily have used tables to achieve the same effect. I think that the designer is an Up Front! fan, as at least one part of the card mimics the RNG function of the Up Front! cards. 

On the top is the Activation/Initiative number set in the upper left corner. These numbers are used to determine how many Orders a given HQ unit has available during the Command phase, which we'll discuss in a later entry. To it's right may be one of a number of text terms such as Cover, Rally, Contact, etc. Below this text, if it's there at all, is one or more icons representing spotting/concentrated fire, infiltration, grenades, etc. While there will only be one piece of text, there may be multiple icons. Below the icon field is another place for icons that are used in vehicle combat and to determine if "higher HQ" events occur. Again, all of this could easily have been represented by a set of tables using percentages and a pair of d10s.

There are three areas for tables on the cards as well. Along the left edge is a table with entries running from -4 to +6, used to determine combat results of Miss, Pin, and Hit. Below the vehicle and HQ icon area is a section that determines the status of a unit if it is hit, and the results are given as a set of letter codes matching LATs (P for pinned, F for Fire team, etc). There will often be two results, only used if the target has more than one step. Along the bottom will be a sight familiar to Up Front! players, a table that creates random numbers for a wide variety of integers from 2 to 14 or so. If you ever need to randomize between, say, one and five, you simply turn over a card and reference that column of that table to get a number in that range. 

While I get that the card provides a very fast means of determining a result, and that this is a good thing, at the same time the designer assumes that we're all able to take the information on seventy different cards, note that certain cards with certain results have come up during that deck, and will adjust our play accordingly. This guy is a freakin' genius if that's the case. When I turn over a card to see if I found Cover, for example, I don't look at any of the iconography or table data, much less remember it. To keep the numbers sufficiently "random" (as if having multipurpose cards doesn't already satisfy that condition), you have a "reshuffle" card that is placed about halfway into the deck. Believe me, you turn over cards for everything in this game - finding cover, rallying, firing arty, determining orders - you will reshuffle the deck once or twice per turn as you only get through 35-40 cards before hitting reshuffle. I think that the convenience of the system he's created is negated by this constant reshuffling, especially when you are drawing four cards and looking for a result, but have to reshuffle after drawing two, then remember if you got a certain result. Were I even more anal than I already am, I'd go ahead and generate tables after determining percentages and use Dicenomicon on my iPhone to cover the odd RNG things like 1-7. This sort of thing strikes me as a lot of design/development time spent to get the right balance on the cards when it could have been used to, oh, edit the rules and provide decent examples. 

Almost done! All we have left are the rules, the mission playbook (which consists mostly of the mission logs, force package tables, and some designer notes and play suggestions that use a lot of terminology foreign to the game itself), and the mission log pad. There are also several player aids, many of which are less than useful when you get started because they don't contain all of the info you need (I'm talking to you, action tables). One thing I do recommend strongly is that you download and print out both the campaign information (two pages) and the mission briefing (another two pages) rather than constantly refer to the playbook. However, you will want to refer to the cover of the playbook on occasion because it has *more rules* on it. There were a couple of bits there that I spent a good 30 minutes perusing the rules for. Rules, my friends, go in the rule book. I also recommend putting the enemy player aids and mission info in one stack on your table, and leaving the US mission info in front of you to record experience points as you progress through the mission. 

That's it for the components. In my next installment (later this week) I will cover preparing for play (including conceptual info such as Chain of Command and communications nets), followed by the Command Phase, Enemy Action Phase, and Combat. 

Friday, January 16, 2009

B-Star G - It's Back, Baby

I'm very glad I didn't have anything else going on this evening. Had I scheduled something, I think my wife would have killed me, as tonight was when the long-awaited final set of episodes for Battlestar Galactica finally aired. 

I am *not* going to give any spoilers, but if you haven't seen the series up until now, I strongly suggest that you just stop reading as I'll mention things leading up to tonight's episode.

Last chance. Be strong. Turn away now. It will all be worth it. Trust me.

First off, it turns out that Captain Picard is, in fact, a cylon.

Whoops, wrong series. But I'm sure at least one of you was trying to remember which character Captain Picard is, and who plays him. Hint: ST:TNG. 

Now that I've shamed the last of those who aren't following this show like it's the Second Coming (and frankly, I think it's probably more interesting than the Second Coming, at least if you're an unapologetic apathist like I am), you're probably wondering whether the show has lived up to the hype. Of course, we won't really know the answer to that until the series has run it's course, but I will say that this was a very satisfying episode in many ways, and there were surprises at every turn. I'm not one to follow the fan-based forums (or the official ones, for that matter), but I will say that there were several developments that I never saw coming. Not even a little. 

When we last left the cast, they had finally found Earth, in conjunction with a splinter group of Cylons who had broken with their brethren for the simple fact that they felt that immortality robbed them of treasuring their lives. If every time you die you are resurrected into a new (but identical) body, you start to wonder what the point is. Which is ironic, because I'm sure a lot of people who are getting up in years start to wonder what the point of their lives has been if it's going to be so short. 

I can answer that question in a heartbeat, and it's called your offspring. 

So here they are on Earth, but it's a wasteland, and has been for some time (as the latest episode will reveal). Some other things that are developed further are insights into the people who were living on the Earth (which was, of course, the "lost tribe" of the human culture), who the four "final five" cylons who were outed close to the end of the first half of the season are and where they might have come from, how Starbuck could have had her ship explode yet return in a brand-spankin' new Viper after finding Earth, and what happens when the thing that has kept you going for lo these many months and years, that you have fought tooth and nail to achieve, suddenly isn't at all what you thought it would be. 

And that last topic is really where the meat of the episode is, as with all well done drama. It's not really about spaceships or skinjobs or funny-shaped paper. It's about us, about how we respond under pressure, how we grieve, how we love, and all of the other things that make us human. Flaws and all, because if nothing else, B-star G shows just how deeply flawed we all are. That's part of why Lost has been so good (when it's been good, which is most of the time) - the characters all make mistakes, sometimes knowing full well that they are sacrificing their ethics to serve the greater good. And sometimes to serve the immediate personal good at the expense of others. 

As we get close (oh, so very close!) to the end of the Bush administration, I find this sort of removed soul searching to be very cathartic. After all, I didn't drive out to Washington, D.C. after the botched Katrina relief efforts and protest in the streets. I didn't write letters to my congresscritters telling them that they must oppose the invasion of Iraq, that we must stop torturing for any reason, that we must stop selling our souls just so that we can maintain an illusion of prosperity and decency. It's pretty clear that the main players in the Bush administration, starting at the very top, are spending a great deal of time trying to convince us all (and failing utterly in the attempt) that they really did a very good job. In the end, however, it's pretty hollow to say that we haven't been attacked since 9/11 when we hadn't been attacked *before* 9/11. If your only accomplishment is that no one has snuck in a suitcase nuke and detonated it when no one has even *tried* to do it (and believe me, they trumpeted every single tiny "success" of disaffected crazies who would struggle to hold up a Mini-Mart, it happened in Portland), then you really haven't done much at all. at least to the good. 

So it is that we sit on the edge of hope for a return to decency in America, watching a mirror of ourselves on what I am convinced may have been the best television series of all time (The West Wing came very close, had it not gotten *so* lost around season 4) in what are clearly the darkest ethical and economic times in decades. B-star G showed us all sides of the Iraq War, the War on Terror, our use of torture, the leverage of individual differences for political gain, the dangers of stepping outside of our ethics in the quest for a "greater good" when all you really gain is the loss of your own soul. And they did it using a franchise that was known primarily for it's cheesiness (look! the Cylon is dressed like a Sheriff!) and made it into commentary on living in America during the Bush years, and did it in about as evenhanded a way as anyone could hope for. 

We've got nine episodes to go, and I've got to tell you that they could probably have dragged this out for at least another year (unlike Lost, which really has me starting to get a little worried that maybe we're going on a very long ride that will end up with Wallyworld closed for renovations). There were some major surprises in the episode that look to end this ride on a very tight and well-done note. What a great series. It, along with The Daily Show, has kept me sane for the last eight years, and I will miss it terribly when it's gone. 

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Fields of Fire

Those who know and have gamed with me know that I am very fussy about rules. I do not like ambiguity in a ruleset, not one bit. I have given away games with rules that were ambiguous, and in one case, I no longer will purchase games from a particular company, Phalanx, because not only do they seem to have no one checking the rules, but they don't seem terribly interested in answering questions if you write to them in English (they will quickly respond if you send in Dutch, as evidenced when my friend George, a Nederlander himself, asked exactly the same question to exactly the same e-mail address five minutes later, while I was never responded to. Ever.) The worst of the bunch was Revolution, which contains multiple ambiguous definitions of the term "province" that they, to my knowledge, refuse to clear up. 

I find this sort of thing inexcusable. A little research on the subject shows that various groups play with different interpretations, resulting in a much different game. My understanding is that when the Blennemanns buy a design for publication, they have little or no contact with the original designer, as when they ruined Ted Raicer's The First World War by adding in a random game ending element. 

Enough whining about Phalanx, bless their pointy little heads. This post is about Fields of Fire, put out by a company that usually does a much better job of checking the games that go out under their banner, GMT Games. 

This time, GMT was asleep at the wheel. 

I believe that GMT got stuck in a production crunch, when several games went out over a period of a couple of months, plus they did their big year-end sale. Unhappy King Charles!, Successors, Clash of Monarchs, Combat Commander (both Pacific and Stalingrad flavors), and Fields of Fire all went out since mid-October, and I'm sure they spent a huge amount of time just assembling and mailing out what must have been something close to 30,000 games. 

However, much as when Thirty Years War went out some years ago while their head honcho was embroiled in a little legal problem (and ended up in jail for a while), I think they took their eye off of the ball and the result was perhaps the most underdeveloped game they've put out in years. Even the Great War in Europe Deluxe Countersheet SNAFU, where they not only held up a game for a month because they had so much counter errata that it required a full countersheet extra in the box, but also had to send out a *second* sheet a couple of months later to fix the mistakes they missed or introduced (and this on a game that was a *reprint* of an earlier Command Magazine game) wasn't as bad as this. 

The game is Fields of Fire, which is by all accounts a brilliant design, unlike anything I've ever seen in a consim. You play a company commander, and your job is primarily to issue orders through your chain of command, taking the comm net into account, and watching your men shoot at the first target they see, even if it's wiped out. Where Combat Commander demonstrates that war is chaos, and that men often won't take orders, Fields of Fire demonstrates that getting the orders *to* the men is just as problematic. 

The designer, Ben Hull (currently serving in Iraq with the Marines) is an officer, and understands that most of the job of a second lieutenant is running from bush to bush screaming orders at the top of his lungs, and this game does a bang up job of showing just how well that works when you're under enemy fire. It's a miracle anything gets done at all, but on the other hand you can bet that for the most part, your enemy has the same problems. Ben, unfortunately, wrote the rules in a military style rather than a wargamer style, and as such there can be a bit of ambiguity as to exactly how something is supposed to work. The military loves to give you the parts and a sketch of the finished product, and expect you to get from A to ZZZZZZZ on your own, do it quickly, do it well, and then berate you if one of the bolts isn't as tight as they'd like. 

As you can imagine, it's dangerous to do this with a ruleset in most cases. Fields of Fire compounds the original sin in three ways. First, this is truly an evolutionary game. It's not ASL, it's not Combat Commander. Your only decision points are in what commands you give to your men, and that includes telling them to *stop* shooting, or to shoot at something else. If you tell them to stop shooting, and the *only* thing they can see to shoot at is the thing they were shooting at before, they'll start right back up again. And if you don't have a *way* to tell them to stop shooting (you have to be pretty much under the same bush), good luck with that. You do have a General Initiative rule that allows units to do things even if they haven't been commanded to, but as you can imagine it's not something you want to count on. As such, it's vitally important to explain not only the rules, but the underlying concepts. In this game, often you get high concept or you get details, but rarely both. 

Second, the rules are spread out all over the place. For example, the use of Potential Contact (PC) markers are in at least four different parts of the rules, but in only one location are you told that you should remove the PC marker after resolving it. Worse, there are some rules that are placed on the front page of the Briefing Booklet (essentially the Playbook), which is ridiculous as they apply to all of the scenarios in the game. Some rules aren't mentioned at all, such as the concept of duration, or how long each mission (scenario) lasts. Some rules are flat out wrong, telling you that when a unit gets down to it's last step it should be replaced with a Fire Team counter, but what it really means is that it only applies to squads (which have three and two-step sides), but not to units that occasionally have two and one-step sides. 

Third, and in my opinion the most egregious of the three sins, is that there are exactly two examples in the rules, and one of them is misleading in how it describes the process of activating HQs. The other demonstrates line of sight, using pictures of cards with the numbers so small that you can't read them, then using those numbers to describe the example. Really, really, really, really incredible that this was left out. 

Now take all of this in a solitaire game, where you don't have an opponent to help you mash through the rules on the first playthrough. I spent five hours with this game, getting to the point where I actually got through an entire turn by going through the sequence of play and reading the rules for that section as I went. I spent 30 minutes trying to figure out which row was Row #1. It is not defined in the rules, but rather you are supposed to infer it. There is *no* definition of when the missions end, just a condition and a duration (completely ignored in the rules). As such, who knows whether you are supposed to stop the mission when you meet the condition, or continue through the number of turns (given, I must infer, from the "duration").

There are already five pages of errata for the game, but to my mind there should be more like ten, as several of the questions I've asked that were not covered in the rules haven't been included yet. The rules should simply be tossed out and started over from scratch, they are that bad. 

Of course, there are the apologists for the game, one of which spent something like 50 paragraphs defending the rules, saying they were crystal clear, that anyone should be able to figure them out without any problem, that it just required careful reading, blah blah blah. Two weeks later, the chucklehead posts that he's just played the game for the first time. He hadn't even tried to play from the rules yet. ConSimWorld is worse, with the designer pulling the fact that he's in Iraq on someone who called it as they saw it and said they were the most confusing rules he'd ever seen. To Ben's credit, he is in a very difficult situation and answering the questions, but he kind of has to because it's pretty clear that the developer didn't even start to do his job. I see now that he's developing the new Musket and Pike game, which astonishes me as I can't believe that GMT would ever let him develop again. 

All of the above is really a crime because this is a great game. It really is. Like CC before it, it shows a side of warfare that those of us who are not in the military will never (hopefully) see. Unlike any game I'm aware of, it demonstrates in great detail how the improvements in communications technology have changed how commanders communicate with their men, from 1944 Normandy to 1972 Vietnam. The use of cards for maps ensures massive replayability, even given that there are 21 different scenarios in the box, from combat patrols (complete with LZs in the Vietnam era) to defensive and offensive missions. The missions link together with your company improving in capability from mission to mission, and stiff penalties if you fail to complete a mission in a certain number of tries (you do get to start from where you left off a failed mission, thankfully). The use of the concepts of Volume of Fire (how much lead is in the air around you) and Primary Direction of Fire (where it's coming from) combine with artillery, grenades, heavy machine guns, bazookas in a way that, while a little hard to grok initially, becomes extremely intuitive once you understand what the game is trying to do - show you that people don't die in war because people are shooting at *them*, but because people are shooting in their general direction. 

So it is that I am literally gobsmacked (don't ask me how exactly I can be "literally" gobsmacked with there being no actual verb going by that name) that the only way I could learn this game was to post a trial game as I went on BoardGameGeek, getting feedback and questions as I went from others on the group. I'm still trying to figure out some things, such as how you might group actions together to, say, load up folks in a Jeep and drive them across the board. The rules specifically suggest that the best way to learn how to use pyrotechnic signals (colored smoke, flares) is to "try stuff". I still don't know if bazookas generate PDF since you must specifically order them to fire grenades, in contrast to LMG teams, which fire early and at every opportunity. But I did well enough that I was able to start the whole thing over and get through an entire mission successfully (hint: if they counterattack, don't move.)

I've been in contact with something like 25 people all trying to learn the game, and as frustrated as I am at how poor the rules are for learning it. Some want to rewrite the rules. Some (like me) want to generate videos to teach the game (I intend to do this once the damned VASSAL module comes out - the guy who did the playtest version won't answer my requests for it so that I can work up effective scripts, and he hasn't gotten the production version out as I write this). GMT very thoughtfully put out a much-needed example of play with illustrations but that didn't go far enough in covering certain situations (such as whether General Initiative can be used for more than one unit, seeing as the rules uses the singular "unit"). Clearly it's a very cool game, and it's equally clear that those who get it have been following the design in the ConSimWorld folder for three years. In fact, someone gave me a link to a three-year-old example of play on CSW. I'm thinking a few things may have changed since then. 

GMT, to their credit, has started a folder to take a closer look at how they can improve the rules so that people can learn the damned game. I pity anyone who buys this in a store, takes it home, and doesn't realize that the only way to figure it out is by going online. 

As I've said, the designer is doing what he can to rectify the situation, although often his answers are less than clear (if I say "a or b?" and he replies "yes" that is not clear). The real problem with this game is that the developer didn't do his job. His job is to take a design and put it into a printable form. That means having cards in the game that add up to a multiple of 55. That means counters that will fit on a multiple of 280 counters (one sheet of 5/8" counters). The page count for rules and playbook have to be laid out and edited. The rules themselves must be pared down for clarity, the modified component list, and accessibility (you'd be amazed how many designs contain enough chrome to choke an elephant when they first go to the publisher). And the publisher has their own issues - finding the right price point, making sure it's something that will sell, etc. It's a difficult job. This guy, he shouldn't be given this job again, as he very nearly killed a cutting edge game through sheer incompetence. There, I've said it publicly. I've been told this privately by at least 15 people who are afraid to stir up the waters on CSW (BGG is more tolerant, other than above-mentioned chuckleheads), and I'm saying it for the world to hear. Don't let this guy develop again, I will not buy a game that he's worked on unless the game is on the fifth iteration and is now bulletproof (such as Musket and Pike). 

If I were going to do it over again (and keep in mind I've spent something like 60 hours on this game getting to the point where I felt I could get through *one* mission), I'd stick it on the shelf and pull it out in a year when they have a usable set of rules. Because it will come to rule your life if you're determined enough to learn it through multiple sources of information. Writing a thesis was easier. 

However, once there *is* a useful ruleset, if you have the slightest interest in mid-20th Century squad-level tactical warfare simulations focusing on command and communications (and while that may sound dry, it's not - think of playing the Luftwaffe in a Battle of Britain game where you plan the raid in advance then see how things turn out; it's like that but more interactive), this is *the* game on the subject. There is talk of future modules (this one covers Korea as well as Normandy and Vietnam Lowlands, and focuses on one infantry division), and I can see how this could be translated into any conflict since 1925 including Iraq, Afghanistan, the Balkans, just about anywhere the US or any Western power has seen action. And it is, Solitaire ASL aside, the only solitaire boardgame at this level out there (Ambush and it's followons are OOS, and haven't stood up well over time in any event - the paragraph lookup system was novel, but there was no replayability and it was far too easy to lose your place if you read the number incorrectly). 

Wait until there are a few more learning aids out there. I will post once I've started to put up my FoF For Dummies videos sometime after the VASSAL module comes out. 

GMT, please please please please - I love your games, and love that you try to get a lot of them out at the holidays. I don't love it when you aren't paying attention to what you publish. Please keep it down to a volume that you can actually handle in the future. This was too many games in too short a time, and I hope that you would have caught it under different circumstances. You almost killed a very good system.