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.

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