Sunday, January 25, 2009

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.

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