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. 

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