Friday, August 27, 2010

Frontline: D-Day First Impression

Earlier in the year, Matt R and I played an entire Combat Commander: Europe campaign game from the Stalingrad Battle Pack during what we called our Third Monday gaming sessions, which took place on (wait for it) the third Monday of each month. After finishing the campaign, we decided to take a bit of a break over the next few months because of GameStorm, WBC West, and other planned events. My mother's health crisis killed any chance of renewing in July, but we did pick up our monthly light wargaming again this month, and I was very glad we did.

There have been several lighter wargames that have come out over the past year, from Panzer General: Allied Assault to Washington's War, but the one that has really grabbed my attention is Frontline: D-Day, a card-based game from Dan Verssen Games (DVG) that covers the fighting in France and Holland in 1944. While the game has, with some justification, gotten dinged for it's overly cartoonish art, I have to say that this is a game that's worth getting and playing for a number of reasons.

One hilarious note: I wrote a comment on a forum concerning Frontline: D-Day on Boardgame Geek, and shortened the name to F:DD. Astute readers will note that the middle characters are the metacode for a particular type of smiley, so my post looked a little manic when I first posted it. I will use FDD instead in this post as a shorthand.

I spend quite a bit of time discussing the system, so if all you want to know is how my game with Matt went, just skip to the end. Sorry about that.

FDD purports to game tactical combat in the above-mentioned theatre at the level of the individual soldier/vehicle/gun level through the use of cards. Like the venerable Up Front, these soldiers are organized into Sections for purposes of generating firepower, moving, or being fired upon, and indeed it's clear that the older game was an inspiration for FDD, even to the degree of abstracting terrain to some extent. However, as I said in a post on BGG, FDD is Rent to Up Front's La Boheme. UF is considerably more detailed and harder to get into, using a Programmed Instruction manual to teach gamers the game a bit at a time. FDD, on the other hand, is actually a very elegant game in comparison, although it's ruleset is not what I would call "clear".

FDD can be played as a force-building game, where both sides choose their weapons, or you can play using one of 20 preset historical scenarios, ranging from the airdrop to take Pegasus Bridge to the city fighting around Arnhem during Market-Garden. I would expect that, like other tactical level games like Combat Commander or Advanced Squad Leader, that there would be ample opportunity to recreate just about any small scale operation fought in this theatre, although at a much higher level of abstraction.

The "map" is created from a set of nine terrain cards set down in a linear fashion. Yes, the map is a straight line, which would seem to prevent much in the way of maneuver. However, there are ways the game does allow maneuver to some degree, and it is possible to "surround" and "flank" your opponent despite the linear nature of the map. Each of the nine terrain slots has three double-sided cards, each with a different terrain type, so there are a lot of permutations to the map. Some of the scenarios use special rules that do a very good job of simulating terrain in a given situation. For example, in the Pointe du Hoc scenario, where US Army Rangers scaled cliffs to reach a gun emplacement only to find that the guns had been moved, so they had to continue inland to locate and destroy them, the first three cards they have to move through are Open Ground, with Fortifications set at the 4th slot to simulate the emplacements that are considered in this scenario to be in Heavy cover rather than the marked Medium Cover. Even with a hex map, this would result in pretty much the same early part of the game without much chance for maneuver. While it's not as exciting as in Up Front, where you actually generate the terrain as you advance (or retreat), it can be more historical. Of course, the various terrain types provide varying levels of Cover (light to heavy) as well as special properties such as improved firepower, drawing of cards when you enter or leave, and requiring units to take morale hits when entering.

We only played using Soldiers, no Guns or Vehicles (such as tanks), so I will only discuss that unit type. Soldiers each represent a single person with a variety of characteristics. Perhaps most important is the firepower they produce, which I will discuss in more detail in the discussion on combat. Second most important is their Victory Point cost, which is used both to determine victory as well as count toward building a force in non-scenario games. There is a Morale factor, which is how many Morale Hits a unit can take in combat before they start converting to Wounds, a Command factor that has to do with Section organization, and an Equipment value that allows you to customize the unit to a certain extent. Soldiers may also have a Special Mutant Power (SMP, my term) that gives them, well, a Special Mutant Power, such as being able to take an additional wound, or throw a grenade further.

Soldiers are typically organized into Sections. Sections are important for a couple of reasons: it is part of the formula that dictates your maximum hand size, and when you activate units you activate them as Sections, which has a major effect on operational flexibility as we will see. A Section consists of a Soldier who acts as the Section Leader and has a Command value of 1 or greater. The Command value limits how many Soldiers can be in that Section, so a Soldier with a value of 1 is his own Led Section. Soldiers with a value of 0 can form their own Unled Section of 1 as well, but Unled Sections do not increase your hand limit, and using the optional rules may not be able to draw cards when that sections performs a Prepare action. A Soldier with a Command of 3 can lead a section with two other soldiers, both of which must have the same or lower values than he (a higher Command value on a Soldier would make him the leader). Once per scenario, you may convert a 0 Command Soldier to a 3 Command Soldier at a specific point in your turn through the Field Promotion mechanism, and sometimes that's a really good idea. You can also manipulate your Sections in a given Terrain card as well.

The currency in FDD is the Action Card. Unlike some games, you don't draw cards just because it is your turn, so how you use your cards will often determine success or failure. More cards in hand means more operational flexibility, so your maximum hand size is a direct measure of the quality of your forces. Your max hand size is determined by seeing how many terrain cards you control (which takes into account whether or not enemy units are "beihind" your forwardmost units) plus the number of Led Sections you have. Action cards can be used to initiate certain types of actions or respond to various situations, and some are persistent after being played. We found that in general the card text was very clear and did not require frequent rules lookups, although there were a couple of exceptions.

The game is played in Turns, one player followed by the other. During your Turn, you will Activate one Section at a time, which will allow your opponent to Activate one Section in response if they so choose, based upon the initial Action. Once one player has Activated all of his Sections (or passes), the Turn ends and it becomes the other player's Turn. Between turns, all Sections once again become available to be Activated, so there is no Opportunity Fire type mechanism where you "use up" a unit's firepower in reaction to a move, such as in ASL or CC. Players also have the opportunity to do some administrative chores at the start of their turn, such as reorganize Sections, use specific types of Equipment such as Bandages to remove Wounds, and get any special benefits from unit quality (an optional rule with DYI games, mandatory for scenarios).

And, quite frankly, this is where the rules more or less collapse into a counter-example of how to write a clear ruleset. First of all, the sequence of play is not discussed until page 16 of a 24 page ruleset - the preceding matter covers almost every other element of the game other than how Actions work. Even the text of Action cards comes out before this, making it hard to figure out exactly what all of the text on them means until you've read further. Second, the sequence of play is formatted in such a way that it can be confusing as to whether they happen in order or not, and also whether the action descriptions that follow are part of the SoP or not. Third, it is not at all clear that one player activates all of their Sections in turn, with the other player strictly reacting. The game flow is fairly novel, but the way it is described in a piecemeal fashion is a bit of a travesty. I love many of Dan Verssen's games and was delighted when he started his own company, but rule writing is not his strong suit and he would benefit tremendously from having a tech writer go over his material. He would also benefit from examples that covered more corner cases that discussed the more complex situations rather than lots of very simple examples. It's a bit of a shame, because I can see these rules completely flummoxing even experienced gamers who will stick what is a very good game on the shelf to collect dust. Dan put these rules out piecemeal on his website prior to publication for review, which is great, but they need to be seen in total, with the components, to be blind tested to avoid unnecessary confusion.

Enough of my complaining about the rules. I find most rulesets in wargames these days to be a mess and poorly worded, and understand that blind testing the rules with someone with editorial skills is perhaps asking a bit much. However, I will try to do more to search out publishers who make the rules available ahead of time to try to make what improvements I can prior to publication.

So back to the game itself. The meat of the game is in the actions and reactions. Players have three choices of action: Move, Combat, and Prepare. Prepare requires no card play, you simply choose a section, mark them as Acted, then each soldier in that section can do one of a number of things: draw a card, remove a Pinned marker from itself, or "reload" it's ammo. In reaction, the non-phasing player can Prepare one of their own sections, marking it as Acted as well (and thus unable to react to a different Action during this player Turn).

The Move action is a little more involved. The phasing player plays either a Move card, getting the benefit of it's action text, or plays any card as a "default" Move card and does *not* get the benefit of it's text. In other words, you need to have a card in hand to perform a Move action. As a result, you activate a section, marking it as Acted, and may either Advance it toward your opponent's end of the terrain cards, Retreat toward your own, or remain in the card you are in. You may wonder at what the value is in staying in your card, but there are Action cards such as Flanking that give you a firepower bonus and you may want to stay in the card you are in for a wide variety of reasons. And that's just one example, there are also Key Position cards, or cards that give you additional Cover that comes off of the Firepower value of an attack. You may move into and even past terrain cards with enemy units on them unless scenario rules dictate otherwise.

In response, your opponent can activate one of their Sections to Move in exactly the same way as listed above, burning a card in exactly the same way. They can also Attack (covered below) or Prepare (as above). In every case they mark the Section as having Acted for that particular player turn. The reactive Action does not have to involve the originally activated Section in any way - you don't have to Attack the activated section, for example. If the reactive action is an Attack, the phasing player may choose to activate yet another Section to Counter-Attack, which I discuss below. In brief, a Counter-Attack will reduce the firepower of the Attacking unit.

The third action type is Attack. Like Move, it requires an action card, either explicitly an Attack type using the card text, or a "default" Attack that doesn't. In this case, the Attacking section designates an enemy Section to attack. During the Attack process, the non-phasing player may react by Moving (as above, which may or may not be the attacked Section), Counter-Attacking (again, non necessarily the same section), or Prepare.

Here's how the combat system works. It's actually very elegant considering the tactical nature of the game - most tactical wargames involve line of sight, range, firepower, and cover in a fairly sophisticated system, but in this game it's all just a series of fairly straightforward choices.

First, the Attacking player declares the attack, in other words, what section they are attacking. In this game, you attack entire sections (unless you are using a sniper, outside this discussion) and the owner distributes damage in the section.

Second, the attacker computes their firepower. Each Soldier has a firepower chart that dictates a value based on range. If there is more than one value for a given range, the player gets to choose which value to use. Black numbers are "aimed" fire, which does not consume ammo, while red numbers are "rapid" fire which are typically larger but force the soldier to reload during a Prepare step before they can fire again. Range is simply the difference between the Terrain card numbers, so if you are on card 2 firing at card 7 the range is 5. Some units are limited in what ranges they can fire at at all - mortars, for example, can't fire at very short range of 0-1. Add up all of these numbers, expending ammo as necessary, to determine the base firepower.

Third, the enemy may react as given above. If they move, the range does not change, nor does the base firepower change at this time. If they counterattack, they compute their firepower in a similar fashion for the section involved, and it is subtracted from the base firepower computed in step 2. If the counterattack ends up reducing the base firepower to a negative number, the counterattack becomes the attack and the originally firing unit takes fire instead! A good reason to come with all you've got in many cases! Counterattacks use Attack cards, so a default card or Attack card must be used, same for move reactions, while Preparing does not require a card. Counterattack firepower values are always halved (rounded down) unless a Covering Fire Attack card is played to activate the counterattack.

Fourth, the player undergoing attack may play Instant cards that improve their Cover value (which always starts at 0), or a Move card may increase the cover value. This value is subtracted from the firepower, but does *not* switch who is attacking who as can happen as the result of a counterattack - the attacker always remains the attacker in this step.

Finally, you determine damage, and this is the really clever part of the game. There are a set of Hit counters in the game that have a damage type (Pin, Morale, Wound, and Dead) that each have a set of values on them which correspond to terrain cover types (heavy, medium, and light). Don't confuse terrain cover with a Cover value, they are different. For example, a Pin Hit counter absorbs one attacking firepower point in Light cover, 2 in Medium, and 3 in Heavy. Morale Hits cost 2/3/4, Wounds cost 3/4/5, and Dead cost 5/6/7. You continue drawing hit counters, assigning them to individual soldiers as they are drawn, until the incoming Firepower value has been absorbed. Soldiers must each receive a hit counter before any soldier can receive a second, then each must receive a second before each can receive a third, and so on, so you need to be careful about who gets stuck with what might be a Dead counter. Unit status is not determined until all hit counters are assigned, so a unit that gets a Dead counter can still absorb hit counters even though he will die, which can be handy.

For example, a player's total firepower after all steps is 10, firing on a Section in medium terrain. The first hit counter drawn is a Pin, which absorbs 2 firepower and is assigned to one of the soldiers, leaving 8 firepower to be absorbed. The next counter is a Dead counter, which absorbs 6 in Medium terrain, so the owning player must assign it to one of the Soldiers that has not gotten a hit counter assigned yet, and the incoming firepower is down to 2. A Wound counter is drawn next, with a value of 4 in Medium terrain, so it is ignored since it exceeds the firepower available.

Once all hit counters are assigned, you then replace them with damage counters. A Pin counter means that that soldier can't do anything other than Prepare until the pin is removed, although the Section itself might still move or attack. A second Pin result escalates to a Morale hit. Morale hits count against the Morale level of the soldier, and once that level is met additional morale hits become Wounds. A soldier can have one wound, but the second one will kill it, and wounded soldiers may not Advance (more forward), although they can retreat. Pins can be removed through a Prepare action, while wounds can be removed through the use of Bandage equipment. Morale can be removed by a Medic unit. All three can be removed using Rally actions.

As you can imagine, a unit that has a Pin, is maxed out on Morale, and has one Wound will be killed by a single Pin result - the Pin escalates to a Morale as there is already a Pin marker, the Morale can't be absorbed because there are as many markers as the unit's rating, so it becomes a wound, which is the second wound that kills the Soldier.

I really like this system. I think it accurately demonstrates several elements of tactical combat in a very easy to execute and remember fashion. A reference card lays out the effects of each type of damage. Another cool element is that Prepare actions can fix *one* thing for a given soldier per activation - remove the Pin, allowing it to perform Move or Combat actions, reload the ammo, allowing it to fire, or draw a card, allowing for Move/Combat activations. But only one. Thus, a unit that is both pinned and out of ammo and almost certain to die the next time it is attacked may give more bang for the buck if it is used to instead draw a card if you are out of cards, essentially sacrificing itself for other soldiers.

As you can also imagine, having fewer sections than your opponent means that if they all attack (and you can attack a given section multiple times in your turn) that eventually you won't be able to counterattack and lower the firepower value of the attacking section. Similarly, if you advance without a section to perform covering fire, you are at the mercy of the full firepower of a reacting enemy section, so you need to have an Instant action card that prohibits enemy reaction to advance safely, or make sure that your opponent is out of ammo, or pinned, or some other way of minimizing firepower.

It's very elegant, really. All of the core aspects of tactical combat are there, if in different forms that you might expect. Op Fire, advancing under covering fire, flanking (highly abstracted), finding a key position (also abstracted), smoke (obscured action cards), benefits *and* liabilities of various terrain, operational flexibility, leadership, even unit quality, which improves or penalizes various game factors such as who can draw cards during Prepare actions, drawing extra cards, improved hand size, etc. While the linear nature and relative lack of maneuverability may put off some hardcore wargamers, as well as things like a lack of Line of Sight rules, at the same time it does everything else and in a very easy to teach package with a ton of replayability. Throw in being able to customize units through Equipment that can improve firepower, allow you to pull up discards, draw extra cards, bind wounds, dig for cover, among other things, and also have tanks! Really, it's quite a cool little system, and one that deserves your attention if you can get past the small number of things that, frankly, weren't really all that present or well implemented in Up Front anyway, it's closest relative.

Dan's designs are clearly intended to be very accessible, and if you can get past the rules, this game meets that challenge. Highly recommended, especially if you have a budding wargamer that you'd like to introduce to tactical combat.

And did I mention the game has a solitaire system as well that can be used for any scenario or DYI game? Score.

This has been a very long post, so here's a brief recap of my game with Matt (we also played the "starter" game to get the rules down), which was scenario 2, Pointe du Hoc. Online this is referred to as "Where Rangers Go To Die" which I didn't realize until we were already playing, and Matt had chosen the Rangers. Whoops.

The situation is a bunch of Rangers scaling the cliffs west of Omaha Beach to take out a worrisome set of large bore arty. They got to the top only to realize the guns had been moved, so they had to go inland to locate and take them out. In this scenario, I had a bunch of Germans who couldn't move from terrain card 4, considered heavy fortifications, organized in two sections. The Rangers had three undermanned sections, but with very good quality troops compared to my Reserve quality troops (meaning that drawing enough action cards was going to be a challenge for me). Matt's Rangers had 15 turns to clear me out of my fort, then either take out the resulting (crap) German reinforcements or taking terrain card 8.

In the early rounds, I chewed up two of his sections rather badly, coming within one Pin result of killing the last Soldier necessary to take the game. Unfortunately, this was the one guy who could take two wounds without dying, and Matt kept drawing Rally cards to get his wounds removed. My thinking was that Matt needed to be doing more Move actions in reaction to my Attacks, but he stalled out with the tough guy in card 2 while everyone else sat in card 1. Having a soldier who could throw grenades two spaces did not hurt, as I was in High Ground which improved my range by 1.

Then, disaster struck rather quickly. First of all, he finally got a good combination of pins and me out of cards so that he could Double Time his one remaining multiman section up to terrain card 3, grabbing four cards in the process as everything was Open Terrain (which you draw when you move into *and* out of). Now his firepower was at a point where it was increasingly difficult for me to counter it, and both my lack of cards and his larger number of sections finally began to pay off. The back breaker, though, was when he drew two Dead results for his first two hits on my smaller section, and it went downhill from there quickly. His intact large section had enough firepower to take out my reinforcements from terrain card 4 (they were in 7 in Heavy terrain), and the reinforcements didn't have close to enough responding firepower to be able to mount an effective counterattack. He wiped them out in a couple of turns easily, enough to win on VP.

I love games that come within a hair of victory for one side, only to have the other side prevail and turn the tide. This was one of those game, and a great first "real" game using the system. One Pin result away! Curse you, Red Baron, urm, Ranger!

Anyway, a lot of fun, and we may end up playing a campaign series using this system (also supported in the box).

Give 'er a shot, it's a very cool little game.

3 comments: said...

It is a very cool little game! I've never played Up Front, but having read reviews and session reports and so on, and having tried this... I'm fine with just Frontline: D-Day. I'd rather spend the money on the new boxed Hornet Leader when it's out than finding a copy of Up Front, anyway :P

One kinda-officially-suggested house-rule is that in randomly-generated scenarios (rather than historical ones) all firepower in the first turn is halved as if it was a counterattack.

Dug said...

I like that house rule. It minimizes the effects of random terrain, whereas the terrain is set in historical scenarios.

Enjoy the new Hornet Leader. I've been playing that game since it came out, as well as the PDF/VASSAL version of the current game (which does quite a bit to streamline the original system). If you like it, consider trying out Phantom Leader too, as it gives you an idea of how far things came over a 25 year period ('65 to '90). Like most solitaire systems, you can see just how fast even a well-planned mission can go pear shaped when things aren't what you were expecting. said...

I have Phantom Leader and the VASSAL version of the main Hornet Leader II, none of the expansions. They're really really good, although I haven't played a long campaign in either of them yet. Hopefully I'll get to spend a whole day playing Phantom Leader soon.