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. 


Luke Sineath said...

"their head honcho was embroiled in a little legal problem (and ended up in jail for a while)"

WOAH, what?

Dug said...

Well, I'm glad to see *someone* was reading carefully.

I don't mean to be coy, and it probably was something that shouldn't have been brought up at all, but I also think that he paid for his crime and has largely been forgiven by the wargaming community. There was a big brouhaha on CSW at the time, but pretty much every post concerning the issue was deleted by the sysop. I really know very little about the particulars, and don't really wish to know more, but I do know that the individual's service to the wargaming community has been unflagging and in what I consider to be the best possible spirit.

However, it does speak to how small wargame companies (and they are all small) can drop the ball from time to time when the situation is right. In the case of FoF, there was a bit of a perfect storm of too many games going out for GMT to be able to ensure all of them were of sufficient quality combined with a developer doing a poor job with a game that required more than the usual amount of care. I believe that Thirty Years War was in a similar situation, resulting in a game that never caught on with the majority of CDG players at a time when pretty much every game using that mechanism was gold. I know at least one person who stopped preordering games from GMT as a direct result of that game.

Brian E. Knoll said...

Hi, Dug. Very interesting write-up! I recently bought a copy of FoF and am learning, as you stated, that you have to learn this game via community; BGG and the FieldsOfFireBootCamp are helping. I was wondering if, now that the Vassal Modules are out, you've had the chance to create any of those FoF for Dummies tutorials, as I'd love to see them. Thanks!

Brian E. Knoll said...

Dug, I did just find a few of the posts about teaching FoF on your blog, so I'm going to check those out too. Thanks again.