Saturday, April 23, 2011

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.

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