Saturday, April 30, 2011

Fighting Formations Cage Match, Round 1 - Vs ASL

Laaaaaadiiiiieeees and Geeeeentlemeeeeeen!!!!!

I've always wanted to say that in print.

Today, I played my very first ASL game. Sure, it was the starter kit and sure, it had nothing but leaders and infantry, but it was ASL. And thank the gods of wargaming that my opponent was someone who'd played the game before, if ten years before.

Let's make no mistake, this is not a trivial game to learn, even using the Starter Kits. Perhaps *specifically* using the starter kits, which have some awkward language when compared with the actual ASL rules, which we had copies of. There were a few things that weren't allowed under the SK ruleset, such as combining half squads into full squads, some wacky things that happen when you roll 2's, and voluntary breaking, but otherwise it was pretty much ASL at this level.

Note that I have played Squad Leader (about a billion years ago) and Up Front, as well as hacking my way through about half a turn of the scenario we played today, S1 from ASLSK#1. This is not what you would call a huge amount of ASL, but I think it's enough for me to be able to make some judgement-free generalizations about the two game systems. While we didn't use a lot of the ASL play aids, we did use a few, including the sequence of play aid that is very handy (and there is no SK equivalent, at least that I had handy).

I plan to continue this series with at least a couple of other "cage matches" so I'll try to stick to a set series of comparisons. If I don't think of something, by all means pipe up and I'll try to include it in the future.

Comprehensiveness - ASL wins this in a landslide, but really there are few if any systems that even come close to the amount of gaming you can do with ASL, especially after nearly 30 years. From maps to units to scenarios, ASL has it all. FF doesn't even cover all of the actions that the Grossdeutchland unit took part in, or even all of the periods, as the unit was seeing action from 1940 onward. This is not to say that FF doesn't have a lot to offer, only that even this box only covers a small part of the war and the unit's "exploits". For what is effectively a proof of concept game, that's not a problem, but that narrow focus will turn off some gamers for now.

Historical Accuracy - By this I mean that you fight the battle with the units present over the terrain that the original armies fought. FF, by it's very design, does this when it comes to the terrain. ASL, with the exception of the Historical Modules, uses generic maps that are primarily intended to provide a wide variety of representative terrain. ASL does include overlays that can bring a map closer to it's real-world counterpart, so in maps I have to give this a tie.

Units are a different matter. If you want to have every variant of every T-34 tank that the Soviets used, including the wacky ones that had flamethrowers or could clear minefields, ASL is your pick. The units in FF are fairly generic and representative. At the same time, they are not intended to simulate battles at that level of detail. How fast does one tank's turret turn compared to another? Which ones were open turret and which ones were closed? What kind of MGs did a variant sport? All of these things are abstracted into a handful of factors in FF, whereas in ASL the amount of information that is present on a vehicle counter is a wonder to behold. And a wonder if you'll remember it all.

This one is probably too close to call at this point unless war gear is your thing.

Game Flow - ASL uses an interactive but rigid sequence of play that roughly follows a Yugo-Igo format. There are ample opportunities to opportunity fire at your opponent as he moves, but in the end your opponent is going to go through his steps before you go through yours. And it's a fairly detailed sequence of play, too, with two chances to move, two chances to fire (for the active player). The makers, brilliantly, made it a little easier by color coding the markers to the various phases so that you know when to remove all the markers that end up on the board! OK, they did it for ASL and completely left it out for ASLSK. WTF? Dudes, that's where you *need* it - for new players!

By comparison, FF has a much more interactive system based on Initiative costs due to complexity of orders chosen, what command you have on the board, and what units you activate. During a turn, you may activate the same units over and over. In fact, the concept of a "turn" between the two games is so fluid that it is probably impossible to compare them to each other, much less to two turns in the game itself. Both games give units multiple OpFire chances in a turn/order, which I like a lot, and both can result in a quasi-random number of opportunities, at least once you start getting into the weaponry in ASL.

In the end, this comes down to personal preference, although I believe that at this scale a more fluid interaction between players is better and leads to more interesting endgames and more cinematic storytelling effects. I give this a very grudging nod to FF.

Originality - At 30 years old, ASL is probably not what anyone would call "original" but at the time it (and Squad Leader before it) were very original in a lot of ways. There were very few board tactical level games at the time, certainly few that modeled morale directly. Games like Tobruk (which later morphed into Advanced Tobruk System) were simulating the firing of individual shells, but that level of detail was the sort of thing that became extremely difficult to enjoy once you got into larger scenarios.

In comparison, FF has several tactical systems to compare itself to. Even so, the Order/Initiative/Command complex is unique, as is the amazingly simple yet detailed Melee and Barrage systems. Melee in particular has been a difficult concept to work into wargames, primarily becaose most designers simply make it an extension of direct fire, using the same combat values with occasional modifications based on type. FF solves that problem by simply ignoring direct fire as a predictor of success and goes with a completely different set of numbers based on attacking and defending unit types. Including higher echelon assets such as artillery and command decisions, which from the point of view of the battalion commander are effectively random, as cards is also brilliantly done, although not original (Combat Commander and Conflict of Heroes both do this).

I am going to give a very slight advantage to FF with this category, although it's a tough call. Is it easier to be original in the absence of other systems or in the presences of several? I can't say, but I can say that FF does it in such an elegant way, both in terms of how the rules are explained and how they play out during a game, that I have to give it the nod here. By a nose.

Complexity - And here is the great differentiator. If you are going to learn ASL, even with the SKs, you are going to need to put some time and effort into learning the rules. You can pick them up a little bit at a time, but if you want the full experience with guns and vehicles, it's going to take some time. While rules are generally very clear (in the ASL book, less so in the ASLSK books, despite several examples), there are a lot of them. The basic infantry rules, barring terrain, cover 64 pages. You can probably play after reading about 40 of them. FF has 24, in large type, with lots of illustrations and white space, the equivalent of about 10 pages of ASL. You can't do a lot of things in FF that you can in ASL, but if you don't need that level of accuracy (or don't want it) then FF wins here.

The really great thing is that while ASL has tons of little subtle (and possibly gamey) things that you might do during play based on having certain types of units in certain types of terrain with certain weapons against certain nationalities, both games require you to use appropriate tactics to achieve your goals. Covering fire, combined arms, forces that are spread out to minimize damage but still staying close in to get the benefits of leadership, setting up firing lanes, taking advantage of the terrain - both games feel very similar at a high level. Of course, using mortars in FF is going to feel more generic than using a 57mm Soviet mortar in ASL.

Game Length - I'm not really able to give this a good estimate, but it seems to me that both games have a wide range of scenarios with a wide range of units and the more you have and the bigger the map and the more turns the game takes to play, the longer the game will be on both sides. Both certainly are playable in an evening or even an hour or two given a small enough scenario and familiarity with the rules and how best to prosecute your strategy. A tie.

Solitairability - You can do solitaire with FF, but some scenarios are going to be better at it than others. In comparison, ASL has a huge number of solitaireable scenarios that don't have secret information. That said, I am not anywhere near ready to play ASL solitaire without being willing to make all sorts of rules mistakes. For now, it's going to be a two-player game for me, as is FF. This goes to ASL by a length.

Dramatic Elements - One of the truly great things about a good tactical-level WW2 game is it's ability to let you feel like you are part of a movie - I don't know very many people who want to actually have someone shooting at them, and I am certainly not that guy. Personally I think that war should be a last resort, although I am also aware that I'm fighting biology when I say that. Nevertheless, war brings out the best and the worst in our species, and it is when a tactical game demonstrates the best qualities of humanity - sacrifice, bravery, heroism, and often plain amazing luck - that the game stays with me and I tell other people about how the scenario unfolded.

And I can tell you, from just one ASL scenario and just one FF scenario, that both of these games provide that dramatic sense. From things going really right to suddenly not being able to hit a single rally roll or fire roll, to units dodging bullets right up to the building they're rushing, to a human wave assault on the flank of a German position, my ASL game today was a hoot, with the outcome being in question right up to the very last player turn. While my FF game did not have those elements, largely because the addition of vehicles was not something I was really ready to take on from a tactical perspective (as opposed to rules complexity), at the same time I can see it present in the design, especially once I have a better sense of how to exploit the OIC complex. Especially because of the way the game flows, with big pushes by your opponent leaving the door open to lots of activity on your side.

Again, I think this is a tie, although for now FF allows me not to worry so much about the ruleset and instead worry on the game (which I will need).

Conclusion - I guess in the end the winner comes down to three things - how much detail you want in your order of battle, what level of granularity and flexibility you want in selecting your operations, and how complex of a ruleset you are willing (and able) to tolerate. After today, I can see ASL as being a particularly cool game to learn to play, even the full game. I may not get to vehicles in the next four years, but I greatly enjoyed the game. At the same time, I love the elegance of the FF design, even while I would wish for a slightly more varied OoB and will wait patiently for a wider range of campaigns and situations. North Africa in particular, especially in areas with a little more terrain, would be awesome (FF - Afrika Korps!) I'll certainly have more opponents at my disposal with FF, although I suspect I can find a lot of ASL folks around with just a little poking around. I certainly couldn't teach ASL at this time, and wouldn't be able to for at least a few more games.

Perhaps the biggest problem with ASL for me is that I'm not willing to be exclusive with it. Many people who play make it the sole wargame they play, and I can understand why. You could play every published scenario at one a day and take years to get through them all, and every one will give you a different challenge. Unfortunately, that's not me - I like variety, and I like to play a lot of different games, even if I don't play most of them at all well. Fortunately, that means I can slowly add in ASL while retaining a lot of the rules, assuming I can get in a game every month or two. As I'm being more aggressive about getting in games on the weekends, and as I'm finding more and more opponents who are willing to play ASL, that won't be terribly difficult. Also fortunately, I think I'll be able to find FF opponents to play that once a month as well.

For this cage match, you get to be the judge of who wins. My vote is for people who like playing tactical WW2 wargames, because you have a lot of good choices and these are two of them.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Fighting Formations - Lessons Learned In First Play

I've covered the rules and the components of Fighting Formations, but how do those things translate to play? Here are the lessons I learned from my session with Matt on Monday evening. We played the Learning Scenario (#0, non-historical) on a half map with only vehicles, infantry and a machine gun on each side. Germans had the extremely effective but directional StuGIII self-propelled arty, while I had the excellent if relatively underpowered T34 tanks on the Soviet side.

  • Cover is fine, especially in buildings, but you aren't going to have the nearly-impregnable hexes like you might in Combat Commander when you get an effective leader in them. Woods in particular seem less effective.
  • LMG special actions might seem lame (adding one hex to range for an asset?) but when you consider that it actually can give you *three* extra hexes (for long and extreme range) it's a better deal. You still want to use it selectively.
  • There is an art to deploying vehicles/squads. Doing so dilutes your firepower but gives you more shots. It also increases your Initiative costs during activation. If you do deploy while under fire, it may make more sense to do it as part of an Advance action or Move action if you're going to Rally immediately afterward (and have the Initiative points to do so). Do not deploy before you fire if you think you'll get Return fire because it can chew you up fast if you have a platoon with a single hit on it.
  • Outside of cover, this game is much more about maneuver than CC is. It is hard to get hits on units with high armor values, you almost need to flank to get decent chances of hitting. 
  • Asset cards may be expensive to get, but they are generally going to be worth it even if you use them to discard to gain special actions. 
  • Every bump up in die size gives you an average of two extra points. It also improves your chances of avoiding hindrance or Rate of Fire penalties. Every bump down does the opposite. Note that going from d12s to d20s is much better in both regards. 
  • When going into Melee with infantry assaulting tanks, it's good to have external units that can fire on the hex with AP. You can set up traps around chokepoints that involve buildings or woods to force the enemy into column and really mess with their melee values. If you can get your infantry to d20s you are almost guaranteed hits. 
  • Don't forget the effect of command markers on arty. I got three arty cards but didn't have command in a place to exploit it, nor could I get them there. 
  • Even with a couple of command markers at your disposal, don't neglect snipers. A lucky roll can really put the hurt on your opponent. 
  • Pay close attention to what sort of Initiative costs your opponent will have if they perform Op or Return fire. I did not mention this before, but it's possible to push the Initiative marker into your opponent's side only to have your opponent do so much Op/Return fire that it comes back to your side for another order. 
  • If your opponent doesn't have asset cards, you can try to starve him for order cubes in the matrix if there are more than one or two on the 1 slot. Conversely, you can use expensive cubes to prevent types of orders that will allow entry into Melee, or prevent the drawing of asset cards, or generally just make your opponent's turn less effective. 
  • The more you think in terms of Initiative costs for the things you want to do, the better you will plan. The more you think in terms of your victory conditions as opposed to shooting every chance you get, the more efficient your Initiative costs will be. 
  • This game is a lot like American Football. You are going to get a set of orders (downs) based on where your opponent left the ball on the field (initiative track). Most of the time you are going to be concerned with taking ground, but even taking out units corresponds to gaining yardage depending on the scenario. Know what tools (plays) you have at your disposal and think strategically while still being effective tactically. 
  • Force your opponents into making hard decisions. If you can flank a tank on two sides, one of your units is going to get a flank shot, and even individual vehicles can do well against platoons if they're flanking them. 
  • The Fate card is best used as a threat in being rather than using it to save units. Right up until the unit is in a critical location or is all that's standing between you and victory. 
  • Use your infantry for melee in woods and buildings, use your tanks from a distance to soften them up. 
  • Whenever you can score two consecutive orders, do so. You should make your opponent pay for orders that activate a lot of units and have high Initiative costs. Using your command in a smart (or smarter) fashion will affect this more than I can emphasize. 
  • Get to know the maps and the fire lanes. Agree on the width of your sighing tool - I recommend a thin thread even though I also find it harder to manipulate and find easily. You can check LOS any time, but knowing where those lanes are will make a big difference when you plan out your attack or defense. 
  • You'll want to have a plan and group units for different tasks within the mission appropriately. Just sending everyone off and hoping there will be plenty of Initiative points to use will lose you the game.
  • Remember that when vehicles are in column and the hex they are in or moving into has the problem terrain under the LOS dot, you need to follow the road to enter *and* exit. 
  • Flanking maneuvers are going to require a certain amount of command to be efficient. Plan them carefully.
  • When a platoon starts to take hits, pull it out of the firing line to get it rallied and mustered (if necessary. Remember that you need on-board command to muster!
I made a lot of mistakes in this game, but perhaps the biggest one was not instructing Matt's dice that about the hindrance rules - I think he avoided hitting those numbers on 90% of his rolls, while I hit them regularly. ;-)

Seriously, I did a few things very poorly. First was violating the concept of getting your units broken up once they started taking hits. My units just sat there and took hit after hit because direct fire was so effective (and Matt's rolls so high). I moved a tank unit into what was a pretty good spot for shooting at German infantry at medium range, but had nowhere to go (buildings and woods all around) once his StuG moved into firing position. 

As such, Matt took out much of my main force in the center buildings pretty effectively, including the tank I had there, plus two rifle platoons and my Maxim MG. I moved too many units right into the firing lanes for his StuG and MG 34 and couldn't get them out again easily to recover. 

In our fourth turn, Matt started bringing up the StuGs to take the objective spaces, but we figured out quickly that was a bad idea. Much better to take an empty space, then wait for infantry to move into melee to beat them up using OpFire. Remember that you only fire at a single unit in Melee, though, and that the owner of the enemy units gets to decide which unit gets attacked, while any of his units in the hex (or outside of it) can Return/OpFire. 

Matt was doing well, but I had the advantage of having most of the objectives held so he was going to have to push me out. He kept the Fate card the entire game, but it would have been interesting to see where the Sudden Death roll would have put us. 

Our play was pretty fluid, although we took a leisurely pace to make sure we had all of the concepts down. I would expect a turn to take from 15-60 minutes depending upon Orders chosen and the size of the scenario, although Initiative limitations will keep things relatively tight around the 30 minute mark for experienced players, 45 minutes for the really big scenarios with lots of command markers keeping initiative costs lower. 

My initial impression is that this is a really great game that has a lot of depth and is going to require multiple playings before I can consider myself more than a mediocre player at best. Compare with CC, where I believed (incorrectly) that I had a good grasp of tactics and the system early on without understanding how important it was to acquire the right cards rather than just shoot at will and burn up the clock. In FF, the clock is the order cubes, and the more of them you use and prevent your opponent from using is important, although as the attacker you'll need to use them efficiently as well. If anything, I think that the biggest problem with getting this on the table will be that the scenarios seem like they'll take longer than a standard CC game, which I could general get done in two hours with brisk play even with a larger scenario. I would put the average play time at 3-4 hours for FF, although that's a very rough estimate on my part. 

I'm going to play some ASL this coming weekend (ASLSK #1 level scenarios) for the first time against an opponent, and frankly I've played a single player turn in preparation solitaire and aside from a little SL gaming back in the day, that's all I know about that system despite owning a lot of product (all the original AH core stuff along with a lot of the MMP product). Once I've played that, I'll do a comparative study of the tactical level games I'm familiar with (Combat Commander, ASL, Conflict of Heroes, Panzer Grenadier, Frontline) with FF in a future post.

Thanks for sticking with me this far. I've reposted my OIC Complex post on the 'Geek, as I do with my analysis posts.

Fighting Formations - The Rest Of The Rules

Matt R came over on Monday evening to give Fighting Formations it's first go. I've discussed the game earlier in some respects (components and the Order/Initiative/Command complex, or OIC as I will call it), but I haven't discussed how the rest of the game works so I'll cover it now. I'll give my thoughts on tactics in a different post.

There are ten different orders that can be given, and their cost changes depending on which side you're playing, but in reality there are four activities that those ten orders result in: Movement, Combat, Morale, and Assets. These are my terms and organization, not the game's, btw.

Dice in FF are not modified by adding or subtracting numbers, instead they are modified by changing the dice pair you use. Everything starts at 2d10 (two ten sided dice), with penalties moving you down to 2d8 or 2d6, or buffing you up to 2d12 or 2d20. As you can see, that last bump is a pretty big one. Dice are used for rallying, combat, and occasionally for assets, as well as for sniper checks during the end of turn sequence.

I should also mention the importance of the Deploy and Muster mechanisms at this point. Deploying is taking a Platoon unit (one with three bars to the immediate left of the unit name) and replacing it with three squads of the same type (one bar next to the name). You can do this after you announce the order type you are undertaking but before actually taking any actions. Initiative cost is paid before you deploy, so it's relatively cheap. Mustering works the same way but in the opposite direction - three squads can reform into a platoon, but require three initiative expenditures and the hex must be under command, either Mission or Tactical. I'll discuss the advantages and disadvantages of each in the orders where it's appropriate.

Movement is pretty straight-forward once you understand two concepts - the difference between terrain types and terrain features. A "type" is the predominant element - woods, buildings, marsh, open. A "feature" is an element that is not dominant physically, but that does override some of the facets of the terrain type - roads, walls, hills. The key thing to realize is that the feature will probably affect or override some aspect of the type in the hex in question. For example, it normally costs 2 or more MP to move into a building hex, but if you are on a road then that cost will be reduced. For most experienced wargamers, this will seem pretty standard, but by breaking up terrain into two sub-types it allows the rules to be more elegant as there are assumptions made based on the presence of features.

The other difficult concept has to do with pivoting. Because there are vehicles and guns for whom facing is an essential part of their nature, you need to understand how this works, and it's a little overwhelming at first. For MP-related movement, you can pivot to any hexside for 1MP. If you move into a hex you are facing (and for vehicles and guns this is the only option), you may make a 60 degree pivot for free (and before Op Fire). If you are Advancing (which does not involve MP), you may pivot before you move one hex or after, but not both.

A third complex topic is having vehicles in Column. Buildings and woods that have the center dot over the terrain depiction cannot be entered by vehicles except by road, and only if they are in Column, which is noted by a marker when the unit enters the hex. Buildings and woods that don't have the center dot over the terrain depiction may be entered, but again only in column. Column messes with melee combat, ignores any cover benefits of that terrain, and has a strict stacking limit at all time of three vehicles total in the hex, ignoring guns and infantry. Believe me when I say the last thing you want is to have the enemy's infantry in a building hex with your armored units and the ability to engage in melee combat.

Movement comes in three flavors, Movement, Assault, and Advance orders. Movement is exactly what you'd expect, just movement. Activated units show their movement allowance as well as type - leg, tracked, or wheeled - which determines the cost to enter a given hex. Infantry, of course, is not directional, but guns and vehicles are - basically, anything with a double-wide counter is going to require specific facing and extra rules. Movement is the only way a gun can enter a space containing enemy units. Vehicles may use "reverse" movement to back up one hex at triple cost.

Assault is movement with two caveats - your allowance is halved, retaining fractions, and you may use one MP during your move to engage in fire, whether that's direct or melee, albeit at a hit in dice size. It is also the only order that allows vehicles to enter into melee. In both movement and assault, any MP expenditure, whether it's a stationary pivot, moving to a new hex, or firing in Assault orders, can trigger Opportunity Fire, or OpFire.

Finally, there is the Advance order, which allows activated units to move one hex, providing it is a permitted hex for regular movement, without expending any MP, and thus not allowing your opponent to engage in OpFire. This is the only order that allows infantry to enter into melee.

Rallying is the second general type of order, and there is only one - the Rally action. When a unit has a hit marker generated by an asset or combat, you want to get that marker removed even if it isn't harshing your buzz by limiting fire or movement. If you take a second hit, that unit is eliminated, which means different things if the unit is a platoon vs a squad. Squads are simply removed from the game on the second hit, but platoons are replaced with two corresponding squads, one left fresh (unhit) and the other gets the old hit marker. In general, it's a good idea to deploy your platoon into squads if you get a particular nasty hit type, such as Unconfirmed Kill. At the same time, if they are taking fire then deploying without spreading out the units will only give your opponent more chances to wipe them out quickly as combat affects every unit in a hex under direct fire or barrages.

To rally, all you do is activate the units you wish to rally, then roll the target number or higher that's on the hit marker. There are die modifications for being in cover or with a command marker (not in range but in the same hex), and nerfs for being in melee. Thus, it's possible to get all three mods, which would result in no effect! Some hit markers have a target number in red, which means that if you fail the roll the unit is eliminated (so platoons become two squads as above). Target numbers range from 6 to 18, with the larger numbers tending to be the red ones. If you are going to take a chance on an Unconfirmed Kill hit on a platoon, believe me when I say you want to deploy first so as not to pass that bad boy onto another squad.

Asset management takes, surprisingly, the most orders. Asset cards come in two flavors, Orders and Reactions. You can play a reaction asset any time the card says you can, but you can only play an Order card by taking an Asset Order from the matrix. While playing an Order asset can be cheap (it's a 1 Initiative cost for both sides, assuming there are cubes in that slot), *getting* the cards is exactly the opposite. You can draw 1, 2, or 3 cards for 8, 9, or 10 Initiative respectively, again assuming that there is a cube in that slot on the matrix. In general, you will want to pay 10 if you can as it's more efficient, but there will be times when paying less is required or advisable (such as if the Initiative marker is on your 10 space and you'd like to take another action and your opponent has the Fate card).

Assets range in effect based on your deck, and sometimes assets are given to you at the start of the game, either randomly or specifically. They include artillery that makes Barrage attacks, affect Command values of markers or unit costs, lay smoke, conduct air attacks, or get special weapons like the Soviet anti-tank rifles that make otherwise wimpy infantry into flanking threats on your vehicles. You also need asset cards to discard if you wish to use any Special Actions, which are allowed if the unit in question has the corresponding letter code visible on it's counter. They range from special AP rounds that improve firepower ratings to LMGs in squads that allow for extended range, to laying smoke, to three or four other things I haven't needed to look at just yet. As with everything in this game, assets are great but you need to consider how and when you get them carefully in the context of the OIC.

That brings us at last to combat. While there is only a single order that is specifically combat, Fire, at the same time about half of the other actions can result in combat, whether it's OpFire, Assault Fire, or Return Fire. There are three types of fire, all managed differently - Direct Fire, Melee, and Barrages. Direct Fire is by far the most common.

Direct Fire is done via a differential system that should be fairly familiar to anyone who's played Combat Commander, but with some twists. The system is pretty simple - you state your target and firing unit, you figure out what type of dice you'll use (mods are for range, if the unit is Assaulting per the order, or if your unit is firing outside of it's fire arc and whether or not it has a loose arc (has a turret or swivel) or a strict arc (doesn't) and needed to pivot before firing. Next, you figure out any hindrances between you and the target, based on smoke and terrain features. Figure out if you're firing High Explosive (HE, which correspond to "soft" targets that have Morale defensive values in white-filled boxes) or Armor Piercing (AP, against "hard" targets with Armor defensive values in black-filled boxes), which of course is determined by the unit(s) you wish to target. If there are units of each type in a target hex, you have to pick which type you fire, otherwise it's set for you. Note that not all units can fire both types of rounds, most only fire one.

You roll two dice of the required type and see if either die is at or below the hindrance value (it's always at least 1). If so, you miss. If not, then you add the number on the dice to your attack number for your attack total. The defender then rolls defense for each unit in the attacked hex, adding in any Cover values, always rolling 2d10, and adding in their Morale or Armor value. If the attack total exceeds the defender total, you draw a hit counter from the pool and place it on the unit on it's appropriate side based on the defensive type of the unit. Hit markers that have an F or M on them prohibit the unit from firing or making any movement action, including pivoting or advancing.

Melee fire is very different, but is extremely clever given how complex this could be. In melee, you don't use any of the values on your counter, you simply ask your opponent to pick a target unit in the hex (the reason why you have infantry accompany tanks into building hex melee), look up a target number based on the unit types involved, modify the dice based on vehicles in column, whether or not the attacker is in a platoon, a couple other things I forget, and then roll the dice to see if you hit the target number and generate a hit. This is a brilliant design solution to what has been a consistent bugaboo for tactical wargames - how to deal with this special situation where all the normal rules no longer apply? Infantry can attack tanks, special unit types are suddenly much more effective, but without having to fuss with counter factors. The hit system works exactly the same way as with direct fire, making everything very streamlined and quick-playing.

Barrages come from assets, or occasionally from units. A barrage is very similar to melee in that you compare the two unit types on a lookup table, but with the additional step of determining accuracy. Unlike Combat Commander, you can actually hit the hex you are aiming for. ;-) I also like that you can throw in the Fate card, if you have it, for increased accuracy in some cases. Asset barrages require a command marker in the LOS of the target hex, although some assets like light mortars use a fresh infantry unit instead. Most barrages affect the target hex and the six surrounding hexes, but Soviet rocket attacks affect all units *two* hexes out, so best to be sure you're pointing those things in the right direction.

Finally, a Fire order does not allow OpFire because no MP are expended, but it does allow Return Fire. After the fire attack of a unit is finished, regardless of whether it hits or not, one unit of the inactive player in the LOS of the firing unit may fire on that unit's hex. OpFire, on the other hand, is always used during Assault or Move orders, and can have as many firing units as the inactive player wishes that are unspent, and if they continue to be unspent may fire at the moving unit each time it expends an MP.

At this point you are thinking that anything moving in the open is going to get chewed up pretty good if units can OpFire at will. Except for one thing - Rate of Fire. Each unit has, on it's inactive side, a Rate of Fire rating in a diamond (where the movement allowance box is when the unit is on it's active side). Rate of Fire works exactly like hindrance does, except instead of negating the attack it means that the unit can't OpFire or Return Fire for the rest of the order. The numbers seem to range from 2 to 4, at least in the learning scenario.

The astute among you have noticed that a Fire order doesn't allow for group fire. Nope. I assume that massed fire has the advantage of creating additional hits rather than improving the chance to hit. I'll also note that vehicles have two defensive ratings, one if you are firing at them from outside their fire arc (also called flanking), and this number is often half of what the frontal number is. For example, the StuGIII has a defense of 22 Armor from the front, but only 12 from the flank. So yes, this is a game of maneuver as much as brute force.

There is one final Order that I haven't covered, which is the Sniper action. Taking this Order allows you to do any order underneath it (which means it's cheaper for the Soviets but they can't do an Assault or Advance order as part of a Sniper action), as well as flip the Sniper counter to their side. That's important because during the end of turn sequence, before command levels are cycled (pending to available, tactical to pending, mission to tactical), whoever controls the sniper can roll 1d10. If the number is at or below the number of command markers your opponent has on the board, they have the choice to remove one permanently (of the rolling player's choice) or lower their command range by one for the rest of the game. As good a reason as any to keep your command focused!

I'll also note the Sighting markers, which were not in the learning scenario. This is a brilliant way to show all sorts of negative fortifications (like wire, AT ditches, etc) in a way that keeps your opponent guessing exactly where the problem will be, but also allowing for a very elegant way to set up hidden units without the pain of having to look up hex numbers and/or keep track on a separate sheet of paper. Interestingly, sighting markers are subject to barrages, and possibly direct fire (by the time you're in melee, you know what's there).

And that, along with OIC, is the game. Every scenario is going to have different victory conditions, some of which will involve killing units, some of which will involve taking objective hexes, some of which will involve getting your units off of the board, all determined by the specific scenario. One of the fun parts of CC was that sometimes you didn't know exactly what you got VP for during a game, at least in terms of the objective hexes, but FF is much different in that these are specific maps for specific historical battles at a slightly higher level of command, so having very clear objectives makes more sense than with a squad-level action where the goals are much more localized and often subject to individual initiative or leadership.

In practice, while that seems like a lot of description (and it is, wargames are not simple beasts for simple minds), the game flows very quickly at a pace very similar to CC, although some of the scenarios are much larger and there isn't as much digging for the right cards in your deck. Taking the time to figure out which units to give orders to seems to be the biggest timesink, although deciding which order to take comes in a close second. I'll talk more about my first ftf game in another post, but we were getting in about one turn per hour. I'll also note that we had almost no rules lookups other than for some of the chromier elements (such as whether that second hit on a platoon moves the existing hit marker to the squad - correct - or a new hit marker - incorrect) and exactly what the negative effects of being in column were. The play aids allowed us to conduct barrages and melee without even looking up the rules.

For anyone with any tactical-level wargaming experience, this is a very quick game to learn, although I think it's going to take some time to get good play habits locked in. As someone on the 'Geek said, Chad likes games where you think you need to do what is right in front of you but what you really need to do is remember your victory conditions. In FF, that has more to do with the OIC complex than in building up the orders you have in hand (as in CC), but it's still there. The player with a plan who executes it most efficiently and effectively is going to win games, and that's the way I like it.

Monday, April 25, 2011

WBC West Prep

It's April again, which means that I spend a lot of my time prepping to play wargames at our group's invite-only nano-con, WBC West. We have no affiliation with the actual WBC, but since Chuck and I, while sitting on a tarmac in Baltimore waiting for God's own string of thunderstorms to clear out between us and Chicago for the first leg home, thought that maybe we'd have nearly as much fun (and less gamer funk) playing out at my family's place in Sunriver instead of sitting on tarmacs. While the two experiences are distinctly different, there's no question that we have a lot of fun at our own event. We run from Sunday to Sunday, and people may come and go as they wish during that time - you can almost always find a game for people to play.

The event is held in mid-May, and we start the planning process in late January or early February. Because wargames are so much more complex than Euros in terms of their rulesets and game situations (there are exceptions, but the general rule holds), we have learned to decide on a daytime gaming schedule which includes what games each person will play, who they will play against, and on what day. We have also learned to leave the evenings free for multiplayer or light wargame play, as the daytime schedule is grueling. Fun, but grueling. Trying to learn a game on the fly, even if you've read the rules prior, is just too much wear and tear on my aging brain, at least.

When we started WBC West, it was primarily Chuck and I during the week with a few extra people coming out for the weekend. That was in 2004. This year, we will have (probably) seven gamers present on Monday, working our way slowly up to ten by Thursday. As you can imagine, that puts a strain not only on sleeping space when so many of us really can't do the floor or the couch anymore, but also on table space. Throw in Mimi doing one of her brain-squeezing jigsaw puzzles and it's a tight fit. In response, we've arranged for a second house to let everyone sleep in a bed (although there will be two days when it's not quite as comfy before we get the extra house on Wednesday) and to give us room for two extra games, assuming they're of the one-map variety.

Our process for preparation starts by setting the date and getting commitments from everyone by the beginning of April. There is usually a certain amount of shifting around, but I've found that the process gets people thinking hard about what they want to play and with whom. As a result, it's easier to shift things around if someone changes their arrival date or drops out. Once the start of April has come and gone, we start locking in the schedule during the day. I personally prefer to keep the evening schedule open, but with so many people who all want to play specific things in the evenings, I'm finding that the attendees are starting to schedule these games as well. Back in the day (2007) we could all play one game in the evening, but now it's going to be more like two or three evening games.

With that preamble, here is my schedule for the week, at least of daytime games, as well as the games I hope to play in the evenings. As the host, I will be attending for the entire week. I also get the good bedroom. ;-) AM refers to morning, PM refers to afternoon. Evening games will be listed as a group.

Sunday - Chuck, Mike, and myself will arrive in the early to mid afternoon. Once we've unloaded, we plan to play three-player Here I Stand. I have not played this much, perhaps four or five times and then a few of those games were very short (and incomplete). We plan to play the full game, and I'm hoping to get the English and Protestants. This is also the only night we're likely to continue wargame play, although if the game is moving along quickly I may end up teaching Fighting Formations.

Monday AM - Eric and Tex are expected to arrive sometime around noonish, so Chuck and Mike and I will finish our HiS game. This will be, if all goes well, my very first complete full game of this title.

Monday PM - Mike, Eric, and myself are going to play Maria. It's a bit on the bubble for being a wargame per se, but after a narrow win as the Prussians in Frederick some years ago, I'm looking forward to it. Most importantly, it's playable in an afternoon.

Tuesday - Tuesday is a bit of a conundrum, as we aren't sure when Alex and Dan plan to arrive. Eric, Tex, and myself were scheduled to play a three-player game, but there was some miscommunication as to what game so it's still a bit up in the air. There's a very good chance it will be Dan, Tex, and myself playing Napoleonic Wars as Alex and Eric don't have any games scheduled together.

Wednesday - Wednesday is Federation Commander day with Alex. If Matt arrives Wednesday around noon, then Dan will probably join us. Otherwise, he'll play Matt on Tuesday morning. I owned Star Fleet Battles back when it was a ziplock game, and got the first boxed edition, but didn't follow it into crazy-land when it turned into a lifestyle choice. I'm happy to see it stripped down and looking forward to giving this a shot. I'm still considering which scenario to take on. At this point I own Klingon Border, Klingon Attack, and the associated ship packs, so we can do a lot of things. I'm especially excited to be playing against my nephew, who is turning out to me smarter than me.

Thursday - Fleet Day! Yay! Chuck and I recently pulled out the awesome Victory Games' title Fifth Fleet (the one set in the Indian Ocean/Persian Gulf), and thought it would be good fun to play a larger scenario with teams. Joining us will be Alex and Matt. I chose 2nd Fleet as it fits on two maps but isn't as constrained as Sixth Fleet is (being set, as it is, in the Med). I'm not sure which ruleset we'll use just yet, but it will either be the set that came in the box or 3rd Fleet (the last in the series, and three rulesets on). If I ever need a major project to keep me busy, coming up with a combined ruleset would be good. We will play scenario 8, which involves both US and UK forces on one side, and two Soviet surface groups with their puny carriers on the other (really only CAP). I figure the Soviets will divvy up subs and aircraft upon agreement, although I think it will be more instructive to have some of each force with each member of the team. If by some fluke we get done fast, we may give scenario 9 a try, which uses many of the same counters.

Friday - New attendee Chris S. and I will be playing a trio of games - Labyrinth, Warriors of God, and Hammer of the Scots. This will probably take us all the way into the evening hours, so I don't anticipate playing any multiplayer games that night. I expect we'll play over at the "Sandtrap" house (about a five minute walk away) so that we don't take up space for any multiplayer games going on that night. Quite a mix of games, fortunately I've played and am familiar with all three.

Saturday - This day, if any, will be the brain burner for me. I play Burning Blue with Roger in the morning in a rematch of last year, then PQ-17 with Tex in the afternoon. I've played BB once before (last year against Roger with me as the Luftwaffe), and PQ-17 not at all. Two games that require a certain amount of planning ahead of time. Rog and I got through BB by 1pm last year, so I should be ready for my afternoon game. Doing this so late in the week is probably going to wipe me out, but since I am not scheduling myself for any gaming on Sunday in order to get the house closed up (and make sure the rental, which is in my name, is good to go) I really have nothing to "save" myself for.

Evening Games - I am expecting to play multiplayer games five nights out of the seven, as Sunday and Friday will be wargaming continued over from the afternoon. There is also a fairly good chance that I'll end up continuing PQ-17 on Saturday as well, but we'll just have to see how that goes. In the meantime, I have a few games I'd really like to get in, and here they are:

Through the Ages - Three-player only for me, too much downtime with four and not enough of an interesting situation with two. That said, a huge favorite with this group.

Mansions of Madness - This will be my first play of this game. I expect that, in a rare twist, that I will *not* be the Keeper, as I so often am in games like this.

Dominant Species - Without question the heaviest game I'll play in the evenings. I love this game.

Conquest of Paradise - A game close to my heart (my wife is Filipina and her parents live in Hawaii), and I loves me some exploration games. I have played this two player only, and have been waiting for the chance to play with four, where I suspect it shines.

Fighting Formations - The new Chad Jensen wargame, and one that has some really great elements in it. I expect to be teaching this a couple of times (between other games or after an evening game), as it has a really elegant ruleset and system that feels very Euro-ish (and I mean that in a good way for you wargame snobs).

Thunderstone - The one deck-building game I plan to bring. I have all of the cards published (at least that I'm aware of) and expect that this will see play when people are between games or waiting for others. If Nightfall had even one expansion, I'd consider it instead.

Battlestar Galactica - Obviously I'm running out of slots for games here. I know this will be pulled out on Saturday night, and we'll just have to see whether there is a place for me or not. Of course, I suppose we could play *two* games at once...

Civilization - The new FFG version. Again, probably a game too far, but one that I really enjoy and that I'd happily play.

This year I don't have nearly as much prep as I've had in previous years. I'll need to skim the rules for Here I Stand, Hammer, Warriors of God, Conquest, and 2nd Fleet, but none should take more than an hour and some will take 15 minutes. The games I really need study with are Federation Commander (already read), PQ-17 (for which I have a prototype 2nd edition copy from the designer who wants to see if it works well for learning the game), and Burning Blue (because I didn't really read up on the RAF rules in our first game, just for the Luftwaffe). I'll need to come up with a plan for PQ-17, although that's just so I can better understand how the Royal Navy thinks if I'm the Germans.

My schedule for the next three weeks is to start by focusing on PQ-17, the only game I've never played before in any form. I figure I'll spend about a week on and off, running through a VASSAL game solitaire (if possible, otherwise on a board) to try to internalize the various systems and see how well the rules work for learning the game. After that, I'll refresh HiS and 2nd Fleet, which will take more time than the others (HotS, WofG, CoP). My last preparation will be to refresh BB and PQ one more time so as to have them as fresh as possible for the late week gaming.

It's funny how our little wargaming group has taken to the whole preparation metagame. It may seem incredibly anal to many of my readers, but year after year it's proven itself to be worth the effort as we all end the week tired but sated. Too many early years were marked by burnout days before the end of gaming, even when it was only four or five days long. Like any event requiring a training regimen, you come out of the event itself happier if you put the prep time in that you needed, and WBC West is no exception.

Now I just need someone from the group to buy a vacation house across the street from ours...

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Fighting Formations - Initial Impressions of Components

I've discussed the Order/Initiative/Command complex in a separate post, now it's time to take a closer look at the rest of the package. This time we'll look at the components.

Rules - It's Chad Jensen's design and rules, so you know they're going to be well organized, thorough, and concise. And they are. Rules are divided up so that you can find all the info you need on terrain and orders very quickly, the things you'll most likely need to refer to early on. Because this is intended to be a series, there is a series rulebook and a playbook that contains additional rules, asset card information, the scenarios, and examples of play.

Don't misunderstand, I understand that a game series needs to have two separate rulebooks. I just don't like it, especially in digital form, because I have to open two documents to find what I need. I would *love* to see the extra rules in the playbook incorporated with the series rules in a Living Rulebook for those of us who keep our errata'd rulesets on a tablet device or similar.

That said, the rules are a delight. They are a very quick read, presenting information in a manner that I not only find extremely efficient and complete but in a manner that I was suggesting to rules writers nearly ten years ago. Chad continues to be the gold standard for clarity in rules. Only one thing escaped my reading of the rules - what did a 0 mean on a d10? I had to do some extrapolating from the statistical model to make an educated guess that it was a 10 (all of the other dice start at 1 and go up).

A standard that I'm coming to like more is that of putting the designer notes inline with the rules, meaning that the rationale is given along with the rule, preferably well-marked and in italics, which Chad does. While I also like to read the design notes after having played the game a couple of times, at the same time I think that understanding design rationale as you learn the game makes the game easier to retain. Hopefully Chad will put more extensive designer's notes online in the future.

Chad uses examples of play extensively in his games, and fully half of the playbook in this case is examples. They cover most if not all orders and are fairly comprehensive. In fact, I skipped over the Barrage and Rally sections of the rules in my initial readthrough, but read the examples and felt like I had a very thorough understanding of how these orders work.

The scenarios are laid out in a very similar fashion to the way they are in Combat Commander, which is to say that they walk you through most of the setup process. It works well when you are learning the game, and it's effective for experienced players as well. Chad could teach college courses on human factors, and it's a delight to scan these scenarios as casual reading.

Counters - The counters come in three sizes - 1/2" squares for markers, 3/4" squares for leg units, and double-width counters for vehicles and ordnance (big guns). Strangely, the unit counters, both square and rectangular, are backprinted so that rather than flipping the counter left to right, you flip the counter top to bottom. Seeing as the backprinting is all correct, this had to be a conscious design decision that goes against decades of wargaming tradition. I'm not saying it isn't a good choice, I'm saying I'm not used to it yet. I could see that it's easier to flip the long counters by their short axis, which means top to bottom, so there you go. And you will be flipping the counters, a lot - you designate a counter as activated by flipping it, which not only changes the counter information set, but sometimes the values.

Which is a really nice feature. When a unit isn't activated, it might be used for return fire or op fire at some point in the game, and so it's Rate of Fire value needs to be visible, but not it's movement value. At the same time, when it's activated you won't need RoF but may need movement. The only downside to this is that you have to flip over a unit to see what it's movement factor is, important information to parse as you decide what order to choose. I would have liked to have seen this value on the front in an unobtrusive manner. At the same time, since the fire values and the morale/armor (defense) values might also change by flipping the unit to an active state, I guess you're going to be flipping anyway. A very minor nit.

I do have a bigger nit, and that is that the color palette used for the Soviet and German units is a little too close for me in bad light. You can fix this a bit by orienting the units to your side of the board (except longs, for which facing is an important game function), but I could see this being a major problem for people with color issues, or even those with aging eyes. It's a relatively minor issue and certainly more closely linked to production than to design, but it is perhaps the biggest issue I have with the game components. Otherwise, the counters are typical for a GMT game published in 2010-2011, which is to say well made.

Note that unlike CC, there are no weapons counters. The scale is actually up a level, being platoon/squad based instead of squad/team/leader based. Also note that there are no leader counters in the game, being replaced by the Command system I discussed in an earlier post. Finally, all units come in Platoon and Squad form, and a big part of the game is knowing when to move back and forth between the two scales - more expensive to activate squads overall, and they are less effective in combat (no grouped fire) but squads are also safer to rally or when the platoon takes damage. There is no maximum stacking unless you are moving vehicles through terrain that requires them to be in column (woods and buildings with roads), and then it's limited to a platoon (three vehicles).

Maps - The maps are paper maps, and there are a lot of them. I think there's a map for every scenario in the game other than the learning scenario. Some are the half-size we're all used to with Combat Commander, but most are full sized. The hexes are large enough for the double-wides, so you can fit a lot of counters in a hex and still be able to see them all. Given the chit-based damage system, it's important to be able to see the status of your units, and the combat system encourages you to have only one unit of a given defense type (morale/armor) in a hex at any given time.

Iconography is very straightforward. Obstructions are based on the terrain feature rather than the hex, but you can check LOS at any time (which I like - ASL makes you check only when necessary, but I feel that gives too much of an advantage to those who have played on the map before and encourages pre-scenario scouting which defeats the purpose). As in CC, there are obstacles to LOS as well as hindrances, but hindrances are handled much differently - they give a lower limit for the dice you roll, so that if one or more of your dice is at or below the hindrance value of the intervening terrain the attack fails. The color palette is on the muted pastel side, but I have no problem with that. I prefer my maps to be dull but effectively convey information, and the units and markers providing the splash. In this game, that falls to the damage markers, and that was a good choice in my book.

I understand that one scenario actually uses two map sheets, so maneuver will play it's role in the game. That was a bit of a knock on CC, for better or worse, but it won't be a problem here. All in all, the maps are very serviceable and the variety is nice to have seeing as they are specific terrain for specific battles, as opposed to the more generic CC maps (or ASL, or PG, or CoH, etc).

Play Aids - Scenario-based games have an additional design constraint that other wargames don't - you can't put play aid information on the map with scenario-based games because you'd have to put them on all of the maps. Instead, a game like this needs to have all of the play aids as separate sheets. FF provides three double-sided sheets, one of them double sided to provide the initiative track. The other two are standard sheet sized, both of them double-sided. One has terrain info on one side, and melee combat on the other, while the second has general info, including fortifications and direct fire combat, while the other has barrage info. Interestingly, the long play aid can be flipped over with the only difference being that one side has the Soviet and German sides switched. That might seem silly, but now you can put the play aid on either side of the map per your preference. It's a very simple thing, but it shows the thoughtfulness that went into the entire design and development.

For my part, I found the play aids to be as comprehensive as anything I've seen in a wargame. Every modifier (which tend to shift the die size in combat) is listed somewhere, although it took me a while to find the rally modifiers (they're listed with the order descriptions next to the order matrix). The playbook even includes an in-depth list of the orders you can choose, although you won't need this after a few turns as the order matrix covers this in depth. There is a box for used order cubes, and a box for your Command tokens on each side of the board. It's a clean design, and will help even new players get up and running in no more than 15-30 minutes. Really well done - there are few wargames where I don't feel like there needed to be some other type of play aid, but not here.

Dice and Cards - Unlike CC, cards don't drive this game but instead are used to give each side additional assets and capabilities that can't be easily added in with the units. They serve three possible purposes - discarding to allow units to perform special actions specified by codes on the units, or played as orders or reactions. Order cards require an Asset Order to be used, while Reaction cards can be played anytime. Some Orders can be held in hand after play or be discarded to increase their effectiveness. This mechanism covers things like air power and artillery, but there are also cards that provide smoke. Some scenarios specify certain cards each side starts with, and they can be purchased (at a fairly steep cost in Initiative) through the Order system. I get the sense that deciding how much of your strategy to devote to these additional assets will only make the game more interesting, as you can ignore these completely if you wish, although there are some pretty sweet special orders (like A-enabled tanks/guns to fire ACPR rounds) that will make them a little more desirable. Most importantly, every card is useful so long as you have units with special order capability.

The game comes with a lot of dice. Two d6, two d8, two d10, two d12, and two d20. This has to do with the combat system, which is a differential system similar to CC but adds in a couple of twists regarding hindrance and Rate of Fire. By bumping up a die size, you effectively increase your average roll on two dice by two points. It's extremely elegant and combined with wanting to avoid low rolls on either die with hindrance/RoF, it creates a system that is easy to work and compute while giving a wide range of combat outcomes. In a related matter, the Initiative marker is a wooden pawn, as opposed to the Attack Total marker (similar to that in CC), so no more screwing up by moving the wrong marker as I have done with the VP marker in many many CC games. My only disappointment here is that I would have liked four of each dice so as to give each player a full set of matched dice, but I can always do this on my own. I'm certainly going to use a pawn for VP in CC from now on, although I'll need to be able to flip it once the points get high enough.

Quality on both is good. I like dice that have some heft, and these are of middling weight. I prefer pips on my d6s, but having consistent numbers on the dice will help with tracking those hindrance/RoF numbers, and frankly if you're rolling d6 then you probably shouldn't have been firing in the first place. The cards are also of good heft and have a smooth finish. I sleeve *all* of my wargaming cards before play in premium sleeves, although you might get away without doing that with this game as the cards aren't shuffled nearly as much as in other games, and there are only 55 of them in the box (including the Fate card). If you shuffle more than once per scenario, it will be an unusual event.

Box - Finally, the box. GMT has been using heftier box stock recently, especially on their 3" box games. FF uses a 2" box that's pretty hefty, but not as much as some games. I am a big fan of counter trays for markers and for units in scenario-based games, and there is barely enough room for me to fit two trays (markers and square units) with the cards separated into four piles and the double-wides and hit chits in 3" ziplocks. Since the cards are sleeved, I didn't feel like I needed to put them in baggie or tuck box, and in fact the box *just* closes with this configuration. Fortunately, unlike CC, this game won't see expansion components mixed in the box (unless they add more scenarios/maps for the GD specific game), so a larger box wasn't as important.

Finally, the art. This is the first GMT game I've seen where the art looked like it was an afterthought. OK, there was Manifest Destiny, where the art looked like (and almost certainly was) clip art. This is probably the least important element to hobbyists, who are more aware of what's in the box than consumers in other niches, but at the same time this is not a box that is going to call out to the window shopper. I have a suspicion that all of the brouhaha about "glorifying" a formation that committed some well-documented atrocities (none of which are represented in the box) that led up to publication may have driven a certain amount of caution from GMT. Remember the SS officer on the Up Front box? That was Roger MacGowan, who runs the art department for GMT. The line art soldier depiction on the box is hidden under cover and looks pretty generic, and I have to wonder if there was an active decision to *not* play to the controversy. In that sense, I think it was a good idea, especially seeing as how even the box art for Labyrinth got people arguing. From an aesthetic sense, it leaves me a little cold, but as a preorderer, I am not the person they need to impress with box art.

While I have mentioned a few things that I would have liked to see done differently, the only real issue I have is with the separation of rules, and that can *very* easily be rectified in a Living Rules set in PDF format. As components coming out of a box for physical play, my sole issue is color registration between the two sides, and for me it's tolerable (if barely).

Otherwise, the components for this game are fantastic. The information you need is mostly right there, and the parts that aren't are a flipped counter away (and, given the relatively few unit types, pretty memorizable as you gain familiarity with the game). The play aids are close to perfect, the rules *are* perfect as far as I can tell, and the whole set can go on the shelf with Combat Commander as how to package a wargame for effective learning and enjoyable play. Well done to GMT, but especially to Chad and Kai for another really well-considered game that will see a lot of table time, at least as far as the production values go.

Fighting Formations - The Order/Initiative/Command Complex

There are few wargames that have had as much buzz preceding them as Fighting Formations has. Not a huge surprise, seeing as the last wargame Chad Jensen designed was Combat Commander, a game that broke the mold for tactical-level gaming. While not everyone likes it, there is no question that the system was novel, had the most air-tight ruleset perhaps ever seen in wargaming, and took the genre in a different direction after being dominated by such heavyweights as ASL and ATS for decades.

I got my pre-order copy a little more than a week ago, and after running over the rules I gave it a quick spin (solitaire) using the learning scenario (non-historical) that gives you a good sense of how the system works. Even after a single turn, I feel I have enough of a sense of the game to put down my thoughts. As always, this is not intended as a review to help people decide if they want to buy a game, but instead to give some insight into how the system and it's subsystems interconnect and how that defines effective gameplay.

Perhaps most importantly, it needs to be stated that this game is not Combat Commander with tanks. Not even sort of. There are cards, there are counters, there are hexes, there are scenarios, there is an extremely well-written rulebook and lots of examples of play. And that's about as far as it goes.

The core of the game has to do with three elements that interlock, and it is the player who best utilizes these three elements who will win the game on a regular basis. The elements are: Orders, Initiative, and Command. It is this complex that is the subject of this post.

Orders define what a player does during his turn. In CC, Orders came from the play of cards. In FF (and by the way, EE called and is feeling a little left out here), orders are generated through an "Order Matrix", which is simply a set of boxes, containing some set of wooden cubes, arranged in a linear fashion. Each box has three bits of data associated with it - an activation cost, which uses up Initiative points that I'll refer to more in a minute, and a set of orders that can be used by each side. When the Initiative marker is on your side of the track, you get to choose one of the cubes from the matrix, which is then removed. You pay the cost in Initiative, remove the cube, then decide which of the orders that correspond to that particular box or any of the boxes that cost less than it (i.e.; below it) you wish to undertake.

Making things more interesting is that the German and Soviet list of orders for a given box are not always the same. For example, the German Sniper order is in the box that will cost 7 Initiative, while the Russian Sniper box is at 5. In case it's not clear, each box has a different cost, running sequentially from 1 (to play an Order Asset card) up to 10 (to draw three Asset cards). How the cubes are arranged in the boxes will change from scenario to scenario, and they are often assigned randomly.

Once you've chosen the order, which again does *not* need to be the one associated with the box you took the cube from (that determines Initiative cost and the *set* of orders you can choose from), you decide which of your units you will activate. Each unit will have an Initiative cost based on the type of Command it is in, which can range from free to 4 Initiative. During a turn, units may be activated numerous times, limited solely by how much Initiative you have to work with and any hits currently on the units. The rule with Initiative is that you can't push the marker past the end of your opponent's track, which corresponds to them having 20 points to work with.

An example will probably make this clearer. I am the Sovs and you are the Germans, and I start with 1 Initiative, as happens in the learning scenario. Because the Initiative marker is on my side of the track, I get to choose a cube from the matrix, and then a legitimate order as a result. Because it's the beginning of the game, I want to get my units into position quickly, so I choose a Move order. This scenario dictates that one cube is placed in each box of the matrix, 1-10, so I can be efficient and choose the cube that corresponds directly with the Move order, which for the Soviets is box 2 (I may have this wrong, but for the purposes of the example assume I'm correct). I spend two Initiative for the order itself, moving the marker to the German 1 spot on the track (passing by the 0 box), then choose which units I want to activate. For now, we say that I spend four points activating, which moves the Initiative marker to the German 5 spot. I carry out my orders, and now the Germans will get to decide. If they chose, for example, the cube in the 1 box on the matrix, which only allows you to play an Order Asset card, and no units were activated, then the marker would move to the German 4 spot and the German could choose another cube.

Now let's say, given the same example setup, that I choose an Assault order, using the 7 cube, and I want to activate all of my units. Choosing the cube costs 7 Initiative, so the marker moves to the G6 position. I also have two radioless tanks not in command, which will cost 4 Initiative each, that I want to activate. That moves me to the G14 position. If I had four such tanks, I could not activate them all for the order because that would cost 16 Initiative, of which I only had 14 left after choosing that particular cube.

Clearly, as the turn goes on, the pool of cubes in the matrix thins out and you have to either spend more Initiative to get in a normally cheap order, or you will find your options more limited because the cubes are in lower positions and thus have fewer orders to choose from.

In general, the more coordinated units would have to be to pull off an order, the more expensive it is. Thus, a move or fire order is relatively cheap, but an Assault or Advance order (which lets you move and fire in the former case, or just move one hex in the latter with no chance of Op Fire) is double the cost, sometimes triple. A large and expensive order will place the Initiative marker well into your opponent's territory, giving them the chance to do the same to you. The combination of how well they've executed Command and what cubes are in the Order Matrix will often drive your decisions in what position to leave them in.

Which leaves us with the concept of Command. Perhaps the most complex part of Combat Commander was the leadership model. It was actually a fairly elegant construct, with only the idea of the Command factor applying both to what units could be ordered while simultaneously increasing the factors of other units but only in the leader's hex being tricky for some players. In FF, it's stripped down to the essentials, abstracted out to a point where it can model leadership with very few rules.

Command consists of two things - a set of Command counters that is given to each side based on the scenario, and a Command Range that dictates how far each counter affects units. Unlike CC, you don't have to have units within range of a counter to activate them, instead it affects the Initiative cost to activate them. If you have a Command counter in your Available box, you can place it anywhere on the map at any time. That sounds very powerful, and it is, but the counters are limited and once on the board they will be there for a while, losing their effectiveness, for three turns before you get the counter back in the available box. When and where you place Command may be the most important set of decisions you make in the entire game.

When you first play a Command counter, it is placed on it's Mission Command side, which has a cost of 0 to activate any units within it's command radius. You'll want to place it on a unit that won't get too shot up, because it can only move with units it's stacked with. A Command counter left alone is asking to be lost for the rest of the game if you aren't careful. At the end of each turn, any counters in your pending box are moved to the Available box, then any Tactical Command counters on the board are removed to the Pending box, and finally any Mission Command counters are flipped to their Tactical Command sides. Tac Command gives an Initiative cost of 1 to any units in it's radius (Mission Command overrides, so if a unit is in both radiuses it costs 0 to activate), and units outside of any command range cost 2. For some actions with "radioless" units (notably Soviet tanks), some costs are doubled, which are marked on the matrix.

Note that there are also mechanisms for both Return Fire (for after the active player makes a fire attack, whether melee or direct fire) and Opportunity Fire (for after the active player expends a movement point with a unit) that have Initiative costs. In other words, you as the inactive player could propel the Initiative marker back into your opponent's range so that they would get to choose another order if you aren't careful. Not that there aren't times where the potential payoff exceeds the cost, but it's one more thing to consider during gameplay. I should also note that just because a unit takes advantage of Return or Op fire doesn't mean they don't get to fire again during that same order, so it can get expensive for an inactive player to continually activate an unordered unit to participate in such fire. Of course, you can always plop down one of your precious Command counters to make it cheap...

With me so far? The basic concept of this game is performing Orders in as efficient and effective a manner as possible, and to do that you need to be aware of Initiative costs, both those associated with issuing the order and those associated with activating units, which is managed through use of Command counters that, once put into play, will enter a fixed three-turn life cycle that will dictate operational tempo. The price of Initiative is that it both gives your opponent more operation freedom if you take more operational complexity (or inefficiency) and allow them to activate more units, as well as potentially use more orders. For example, giving your opponent 16 points might allow them to perform two badly needed Rally actions (if the first one didn't go well). When to push and when to conserve your resources, in the form of Initiative, is the other key decision to be made in this game.

For the new player, this might seem like a lot of work. It's not, really. By the second or third order, I had no problem identifying what I wanted to do and using my Initiative in such a way as to allow me to get things done. It seemed pretty clear that having one Command counter available for "reserves" was a good idea, and that forcing your opponent to use theirs before they wanted to could also be useful.

Obviously, there's a lot more to this game than just the O/I/C complex, but this is where the game breaks new ground. An obvious comparison is Conflict of Heroes, which uses an Action Point system which, combined with Command Points (and Opportunity Actions, which are much less compelling under the newer ruleset), gives a similar feel. What is novel in FF is the way you get those points and how you can hang yourself with your own rope by not anticipating not only where you will want to going in the future, but what orders your opponent will want to perform. They are both brilliant systems, and both owe a certain amount of their concept to the Eurogame tradition, and both provide great tension in a two player game, but FF feels like the next generation of this "abstracted command" concept. BTW, Chad Jensen comments in his inline design notes that a Command counter is intended to represent more than a single leader, but more the concentration of HQ resources, both in focus and materiel. I think I'm going to like it quite a bit.

I'll write a little more on the game in future posts, specifically on component quality, other aspects of the gameplay, and perhaps a little editorializing on some of the controversy surrounding the decision to focus a game on a combat formation that committed atrocities during it's career.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Things I Learned From Cruising Last Week

  • On vacation, people don't pay the slightest attention to anything around them, including you. I guess they've decided to turn off their brains for the duration. Best to pretend you are a bicyclist on a busy urban road surrounded by semi-trucks (which is really not that far from the situation). Cruise lines can be very crowded and you need to put on your PolitenessMan (or Woman) hat from the moment you leave your house.
  • If you're expecting to get drunk, you're going to need to do it onshore or be pretty determined on the boat. 
  • Don't touch anything and wash your hands often. We live in a world where antibiotics are overused and no longer work in some situations, and people are slobs on vacation. 
  • People are very friendly, but don't bring up another country's politics unless there's only one person present from said country. I got asked by a British couple if I thought Obama would be re-elected and what I thought was a pretty neutral answer (US is extremely polarized right now and the result largely depended upon what last minute problems or revelations or accusations came out) was met with another guy telling me that he hoped I had a nice day even if I was a Democrat (I'm not). 
  • If you're counting your pennies when it comes to additional charges, you are taking the wrong trip. Figure that your passage is about 50% of what you'll spend, depending upon how many excursions you go on and how much you drink. 
  • The people who aren't officers that you'll interact with are getting about $5 a day (or close enough for government work) and will go for months without seeing their families. Whatever the company suggests to tip them is between 50-20% of what you should tip them. Tip generously on board the ship. Also, be very nice to them. They work in conditions that are illegal in the US and even an offhand comment or joke can have a negative effect on them. Above all, avoid being patronizing or snide to them, and avoid jokes about their culture or where they come from. Get to know their names and greet them when you see them. Service on a cruise ship when you have a family back home is a very hard job with few if any benefits. 
  • Cruises have become marketing opportunities for captive audiences. You will be besieged with "special offers" to buy all sorts of things, from fake diamonds to duty free booze. The chances are extremely good that this is no deal at all. 
  • Unless you have a good reason not to, take the stairs. 
  • Unless you have a good reason not to, avoid the buffet and stick with the dining room. 
  • You will need a bigger suitcase because you will go through a *lot* of clothing. At least one extra change of clothes per day. 
  • You cannot overdress. You can definitely underdress.
  • Just because you won't see anyone you know does not mean that you can dress like you did 20 or 30 or even 40 years ago. If you are over 30, and possibly over 10, I really don't need to see the tattoos on your midriff. 
  • If you can barely squeeze through your stateroom door, probably best to cut it down to three meals a day. 
  • Sometimes the entertainment is good. Sometimes not. If you aren't sure, sit near the back. 
  • If you don't want to swim, a deck chair on the Promenade is a better bet. 
  • Don't assume anything that runs on batteries will still be charged when you get on board. My blood pressure meter, freshly charged when we left and with me not bringing a basic USB cable to recharge if necessary (and no laptop to charge it with) was useless after one use. 
  • Old people are going to complain. A lot. About everything. Especially trivia answers. 
  • The winetasting can actually work out pretty well. We had an excellent sommelier on board and some excellent canapes to go with the wine. 
  • Did I mention washing your hands often and avoiding touching handrails unless you have to? Especially true before meals. I even stopped biting my fingernails for the week. 
  • If you are prone to seasickness, acupressure bracelets are great and have no side effects. Research anything else carefully - we were warned off of patches, but other people have had good results with them. Treat it like any other medication you would take. 
  • Once it's time to leave the boat, you are just another piece of luggage to be loaded off onto the dock. Get over it. 
  • Book your cruise through an experienced travel agent. Every boat and every cruise is different and you'll want to get on the one that doesn't have all Central Europeans hogging the deck chairs and chain smoking. 
  • Always choose to sit with people you don't know, then get to know them. Even if they tell you to have a nice day even if you're a Democrat. 
  • Everyone will have a line they prefer, and a line they won't go on it you give them a free ride. I have had good experiences on Regent and Princess, less good experiences on Holland and Royal Caribbean. Apparently no one likes Norwegian, but I've never been on that line.
  • If the cruise offers lectures on the area you're cruising in, attend at least one. I learned a lot about the Mexican-American War, as well as the Spanish colonization of the Americas, and even got in the Mexican Armada Museum in Puerto Vallarta. Better than gambling. 
This was my fourth cruise, and (barring my first experience on a very small boat that is no longer in service) my best experience with the sole exception of the music, which was awful except for the production band which also made up a jazz trio that was excellent. The food was good (away from the buffet), the ship was clean, there were no breakouts of the plague (and that happens, more than you'd think), and the staff was excellent. BTW, we did a seven day cruise down the Mexican Riviera (Cabo, Puerto Vallarta) on the Sapphire Princess. 


How To Keep It Clean - Die Rolling Edition

Someone on the 'Geek asked about what to do when your dice come up a little less than perfectly flat on the table, and after I responded I thought this might make for a good blog entry. Here are my thoughts on how to keep die rolls fair in a game. First some thoughts on dice themselves and how they are rolled:

  • Rule 1 - Agree ahead of time with your opponents about what situations will require rerolls. 
  • Use a dice tower or cups. Cups are better with up to six dice, and there's very little chance of getting a cocked die.
  • I don't mind using a phone app for die rolling (especially solitaire) but I would not use one in a competitive situation, such as at a tournament unless the tournament was held online. Just a little too easy to rig them if you've got coding chops. 
  • Use dice from the same lot if at all possible. I got a Perudo (Liar's Dice set) years ago with five dice in each of six colors with cups that is a staple when we play. The weighting should be about the same and thus even if they aren't perfectly balanced you should get similar results for all players. 
  • The most balanced dice are big casino dice. Weight and size are the best way to achieve balance in a die if that's a concern. 
  • No matter what method you use, a determined cheater will find a way to skew the results their way. If you are fairly certain an opponent is cheating, ask them if they would mind if they used another method for rolling. I was actually accused of this once after a really good round of dice at a game at WBC ten years ago, and once people started looking at me funny I simply told them that I did not cheat under any circumstances and that I was happy to let them decide how my dice would be rolled (even by someone else) and they relaxed quite a bit after that. My dice going stone cold after that point did not hurt either. 
  • If you roll too many dice in any situation, the entire roll is rerolled.
  • If you roll too few dice and are using a cup, set aside the rolled dice and roll the extras. If you are using a tower, toss the extra dice in and accept any resulting changes to already rolled dice that get hit by the new dice. 
  • If you are ever in a situation where you and your opponent disagree about what to do with a die, roll a die (or pick a hand with a counter or die in it) to determine whose interpretation is the right one. Be consistent from that point on if the situation comes up again. 
  • Don't lawyer situations to your advantage, but instead focus on consistency and fairness. 
  • Even if you are playing solitaire against a "system" (and thus can win or lose the game), have a set of rules for ambiguous dice that you use by default. 
Some rules for cocked and "escaped" dice:
  • Agree ahead of time what constitutes a cocked die. I prefer dice to be laying flat on a single surface (or partially on a thin sheet of paper) to be "legit" but YMMV. 
  • If using a tower, decide if "escaped" dice qualify for rerolling. If there are a lot of dice being rolled, I prefer to just accept the roll. If there are a small number of dice, I reroll them if they escape, keeping the existing dice in the tower as for rolling too few dice above. 
  • If using a tower and you get a cocked die, bump the top of the tower straight down. This will "flatten" dice that are "close" to being perfectly flat but up against a wall or another die. 
  • If using a tower and the die is seriously cocked (near a 45 degree angle from flat) I will pull the die and reroll it if possible as with rolling too few dice above. 
  • If I can't easily extract the cocked die, or if there are too many dice cocked to do this adequately, reroll the whole thing. If this happens more than once in a game, you are rolling too many dice at once and you need to consider rolling fewer at a time. 

If you are playing a solitaire game, especially where you are playing two sides against each other and are playing to learn the system, feel free to "cheat" if you think it would result in a more interesting or educational situation.

In a tournament or other competitive situation, unless there are specific rules governing ambiguous dice rolls you should most definitely get in the habit of agreeing on what to do up front. If you have a problem with your opponent or you run into regular situations where you don't agree, seek the assistance of the GM or referee, that's what they are there for.

Kind of anal? Maybe. But I've found that the more transparent you are about this kind of situation up front, the more enjoyable the game is because both players know neither is going to try to turn an ambiguous situation to their advantage because you've dealt with it up front. In a friendly game with a familiar opponent, it's less important (depending upon your opponent), and almost any disagreement is easily solved with a die roll.

Friday, April 01, 2011

Richard Nixon And Historical Revisionism

In January of 2002, not long after I retired, I drove down from Portland to San Diego to deliver and install an iMac for my wife's nephew. I drove down pretty quickly, despite snow in the Siskiyou Pass, but on the way home I planned to stop and see some wackiness in the Southern California area. Stops were to include the Lawrence Welk Resort and Golf Course, the giant dinosaurs featured in Pee Wee's Big Adventure (a revisionist wonderland all it's own, as the gift shop sells t-shirts that proclaim that humans lived alongside dinosaurs a few thousand years ago, and sorry if you believe in that on at least a couple of levels), the Queen Mary in Long Beach, and the Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo, where you can sleep in a room made of rock. 

The high point, however (as I never did make it out to ExoticWorld, feel free to look it up yourself) was a morning at the Richard M. Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in Yorba Linda near LA. I was just old enough to have been put out by the preemption of network television in prime time (this was pre-cable) but not nearly old enough to understand what a big deal this was at the time. Nine years old, in other words. When I was in college, I took on the challenge of making a speech when I was a freshman to give a defense of Nixon, although I had no love for the man or his legacy and by that time I was much less enamored of conservative politics, largely because of Reagan. 

In other words, there was really no reason other than a love of history and the recognition that the history we read is someone's point of view. And I figured that if anyone was going to try to whitewash the Watergate scandal, the scandal that was so big that we now append the syllable "-gate" to everything else that comes along, it would be the Nixon Library. 

The museum itself was a hoot, and actually pretty nice as a museum. There were very few people there, as it was a weekday morning, so I more or less had the run of the place with the exception of a few roaming tours of schoolkids. Strangely, the few (bored) attendants at the exhibits seemed to be much more impressed with the technical aspects of a given display than the history behind it. For example, there was an exhibit that had bronze statues of every world leader that Nixon had met with, including Brezhnev and whoever was running China at the time. The message that the staff wanted me to take away? That the statues weighed practically nothing because they were just shells. Really. 

Of course, the high point of the tour for me was the Watergate exhibit. I wondered how the curators were going to handle this particular episode, seeing as it was perhaps the most important political scandal until Iran-Contra. The exhibit was a long dark hallway with a set of photographs and text illuminated from behind on one wall. I actually thought that it was a very appropriate metaphor even if the message it gave was that Nixon hadn't really done anything wrong or different than other presidents and that the "smoking gun" that Congress brought out during the impeachment hearings that forced Nixon to resign was circumstantial at best. I actually think that there's a pretty good chance that Nixon was not accorded due process, but I do think that he was behind violations of election law among other things. I think that pretty much every president that gets elected has dirty, dirty hands, and if not they get dirty pretty quickly. Nixon was just the first president who was exposed for what he was. Of course, in the post 2000 election world, we all can see what a country that holds itself up as a shining beacon of democracy and clean elections is willing to do, but back in 1973 it was pretty shocking. 

Today I see that this exhibit is getting a long-deserved face-lift. Or face-drop, depending upon how you look at it. The missing 18 minutes is acknowledged to almost certainly have been erased deliberately, Nixon is given a more prominent role in decisions to interfere with elections through break-ins and digging up dirt on Democrats. Maybe it's because these sort of tactics seem so commonplace now that even the last bastion of Nixon's reputation and legacy is willing to say, "Yeah, he was a bastard. But he was tough on the commies when it counted!" Because believe me, the rest of the museum is all about him being tough on the commies. 

The most chilling part of my visit to the library, however, came not from the exhibits but from a tour guide. A group of 12-14 year olds were on a tour right behind me while I was in the Watergate exhibit, just about to enter the hall. The guide stopped them, and I will never forget what she said to them:

"Alright, everyone. This next exhibit is about something called 'Watergate'. It happened a long time ago and it was very complicated and you'll be writing a paper on it once you get to high school, so for now we're going to just move through it quickly and end the tour."

That's close enough to verbatim. I can hear her voice to this day, and it still chills me to the bone. Apparently those kids learned the lessons of willful ignorance and the value of only taking in information that reinforces your narrative in support of a specific agenda. I don't care who you vote for, that kind of attitude is advancing the collapse of the American state on a daily basis. 

Even in what was ostensibly the most whitewashed account of Nixon's presidency, no one wanted to acknowledge how their hero had fallen, but they had to have something on the wall seeing as he was the only president to resign in disgrace. I wonder if they will still scoot the kids through that hallway after the turd isn't quite so shiny. The moment when Americans, weary of seeing what their tax dollars were doing in Viet Nam, learned that their leaders were in it for themselves. 

I'll tell you one thing - I hope the tour guides do more than hustle the kids down the hall now. Maybe it will teach them to expect more from their leaders. Because we need more from them, and we need it right freakin' now.