Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Teaching Fields of Fire

I've been asked to teach a few people in my game group how to play the recent solitaire wargame Fields of Fire. The game came out grossly underdeveloped, as regular readers of this blog will know, and GMT has said they are going to rewrite the rules, perhaps completely, so that those of us who aren't familiar with military documentation and the various light machinegun types used in the various conflicts will be able to follow it. In the meantime, it's going to fall to those of us who love the game despite it's flaws to put the word out and teach people how to play the game "by hand". 

One of the things I considered doing, aside from posting some overview materials on the game to this blog, is a video tutorial that will show the game via video captures of a VASSAL game. If only there was such a beast. Obviously, how you teach in a non-interactive environment is different from how you teach when people are asking questions, and to be very honest it's a much more pleasant experience if you are working with actual "students" instead of hoping that what you said makes sense. You also need to tailor the training strategy differently for an interactive situation, and there are a lot of choices to be made. While I'm not set on how I'll deliver this clinic, these are the sorts of decisions I'm making right up until this coming Sunday.

First of all, I think about the game itself and what sort of approach lends itself to the sequence of play. For example, with Android (which has a level of complexity commensurate with many low-complexity wargames), I could not jump in and start playing - there were too many different interconnecting systems, any of which could be used from the very first turn. In that situation, I used a high-concept approach at first, giving very simple overviews of the major systems and gradually introducing the mechanisms that supported those systems. This sort of approach requires much more thought - how much information goes into the hi-concept description, and how much gets added in with each sweep through the levels of the design? The approach I used at EGG was very successful, at least in terms of getting people up to speed, but it's a game that you simply won't get until you've played it a couple of times, so my approach could still use a little fine tuning. 

For games that are more process driven, like many wargames, diving right in and teaching as you go is a more successful approach. With some games, the way the game develops can inform the teacher as to how to proceed. For example, with 7 Ages (a game I have yet to play in any satisfying amount, but that appeals to me) you can simply begin by dealing out the 1st age empires, then telling each player to put out specific order chits in the first turn, namely expand and new empire. In the next turn, they can develop with one, expand with the second, and generate a third. Each turn, therefore, allows you to demonstrate one aspect of the game in isolation. 

Fields of Fire, however, doesn't really require this. For one thing, the actual sequence of play only really has one section where players have decision points, and that's the command phase. In every other section, things tend to happen *to* you and you see the results of your planning. In some ways, it's a lot like planning a Luftwaffe raid in Burning Blue - you don't have a lot of things you can adjust as you go, but you get to see how things work out. As such, the rest of the game is simply teaching people how to administer the AI, which is procedural rather than elective. 

However, that one phase has a lot in it. While it's easy to explain the command structure, and the impulses within the phase are clear once you understand how they work, you still need to teach a plethora of other concepts - volume of fire and primary direction of fire, communications nets, enemy actions, limited action teams, etc. There's a lot here to keep track of, and just telling them how to proceed early will only get you so far. 

Making things more complex is the vagueness of the preparation for a mission. I actually think this will consume a good part of the clinic after going through the process for myself today, and I'm torn as to whether I should approach this as a fait accompli with pre-set organization with them learning the value of the set up through play, or walking them through the process. This is an element that's still up in the air for me, although as I type I'm beginning to lean towards the fait accompli approach. 

There's a lot to set up - you need to assign your units to your platoons/staff, figure out who gets phone lines and who doesn't, determine what the pyrotechnic signals will do (and believe me, this entire part of the rule set was, to be brutally honest, fumbled in a way that usually results in me putting the components right back in the box and selling the game), figuring out what the battle plan is, setting the objectives and other mission parameters, it's all a huge amount of conceptual information that is very difficult to grasp until you've actually played through a mission. I think that I'm making up my mind quickly on this point. Except, of course, that how you plan to do all of that will be based in large part on what the terrain looks like, and I think I'm better off winging that part. Hmm.

The other tricky part of the command phase is that you issue orders, and there are a lot of orders to choose from. While you only do it in a small part of the sequence of play, it's a huge amount of choices. I think that it might help for me to produce a cheat sheet of Actions that you might consider in a variety of situations. For example, if you have units that are under fire by unspotted units, you might decide that finding cover would be a good choice, as would spotting the firing units so you can shoot back at them. Instead of organizing actions according to broad groups such as Combat, Movement, Rally, and Command, perhaps it's best to organize them by what sort of things you need to consider in each section. In the above example, while the friendlies are definitely in combat, the things you want them to consider are in the Movement and Combat charts. 

Perhaps the hardest thing for new players to understand is the entire volume of fire/primary direction of fire concept (VoF/PDF). Unlike most games, you aren't firing at units, you are firing in their general direction. As such, the issue is not so much that A fires at B, but that A is firing toward B, which generates a volume of fire in B's location, which may or may not cause problems for B. In fact, if B suddenly isn't in the picture anymore (because they ran out of ammo, or fell back), A keeps right on firing until someone tells them to stop. This is not a concept wargamers are terribly familiar with. This is a game where you are playing the role of company commander, and everyone else is following what orders you give, with a small dash of initiative if you can't tell them to do something. 

Given all of the above, here's a general outline of how I intend to approach teaching this game:

1) Generate the mission logs ahead of time. This is an easy and time-saving step, and shouldn't have to be messed with too much based on the board layouts. I will use some generic organization (one HMG/LMG, one bazooka, and one mortar team per platoon, for instance, rifle grenades all given one to a platoon).

2) Lay out the maps. Here we can discuss the basic elements of the map: LOS, terrain, the various mission parameters, what spots are going to be particularly valuable and why.

3) Discuss in general terms what it is that the mission is trying to accomplish, avoiding game terminology for the most part, but using consistent language where I can. 

4) Set up the units in the staging area based on the mission parameters. Identify where FOs and the HMG will do the most good, and the general sense of how the mission will proceed.

5) Start running the sequence of play. The first turn will feature some number of advance squads moving forward, which will allow us to resolve contact and get us into how VoF/PDF is determined. We'll also see how the command system works in a very basic sense. 

6) Continue into the second turn, where we'll discover not only how to react to enemy units, but how they react to the player. It goes without saying that the use of the action deck will be helpful. Early actions will include movement, seeking cover, infiltration, spotting units, concentrating fire, and exhortation. A big part of this will be reading the action tables in the manual to see exactly what information they give on how to proceed. For example, seeking cover uses a different number of card draws than, say, spotting. 

The games will proceed from here at this point. I expect that Grenade attacks, opening fire on spotted units, calling in arty or offboard mortars, all of these will start to come into play as the game advances. Same goes for Higher HQ Events, using the Jeep, retrieving casualties, etc. 

I'm figuring that we'll be at this for about four hours, and that we'll get about four or five turns into the mission at best. When we get down to about 30 minutes left, I will call the mission complete, and will demonstrate how to refit the company based on experience and replacement points. 

I will not be able to cover vehicles in any great detail, other than using the Jeep. For one thing, I've never really used anything else, I've not played in any era other than 1944 so no helicopters or landing zones. I've also not dealt with combat patrols or defensive missions, many of which have generated a lot of questions on CSW and the 'Geek. 

Again, the goal is to get people to a point where they can get past the mess that is the rulebook and get into the game. Once they've done that, there are a lot of sources of information online that will help, but without the foundation it's a very tough game to understand in any depth. 

I'll post after the clinic and talk about how effective this teaching strategy was. As always, you have to tailor your lesson for your audience, and fortunately these people know me pretty well. One was actually in the armed services, although it was Air Force so how much ground combat do you see there? Plus, he was an officer, and we all know what *great* pupils they are. 


1 comment:

Mike said...

> One was actually in the armed services, although it was Air Force so how much ground combat do you see there? Plus, he was an officer, and we all know what *great* pupils they are.

Actually, we both were. I was a Royal Air Force University Air Squadron cadet officer. Maybe not full service, but squaddies had to salute me, as I was, technically, an officer. Just a very, very, very lowly officer. Perhaps that explains a lot.