It’s time to reflect on a year of wargaming. Sadly, the transition to a new job with significantly increased hours has limited my availability to play wargames. I used to have more time for this! Enough excuses. If 2016 was a banner year in wargaming with new designs, series, designers, and a bumper crop of fantastic games, then 2017 must be magic. It was everything 2016 was and then some.
Fields of Despair was everything I was told it would be. I found out about this game a few years back playing a VASSAL game with a guy who knew Kurt and said this was going to be a special title based on the handful of playthroughs he had with it. I felt like I had enough WW1 games at the time and opted to P500 it knowing full well that I might cancel it. I didn’t and I couldn’t be happier about it.
I’ll lead off with my skepticism over wargames featuring blocks. I don’t consider myself a connoisseur of wargames featuring blocks. However, Triumph & Tragedy, 1805 Sea of Glory, and now Fields of Despair have totally changed my mind. The fear of the unknown is a powerful tool when you’re sitting across the table from a savvy wargamer. Bluffing and pulling off feints are actually legitimate options when you have imperfect knowledge of forces across from you. This is not new though and certainly not unique to Fields of Despair.
The tech investment available to players, in my mind, is an area where this game shines. Early on, my opponent and I were pretty much in lockstep teching up aircraft and Tanks. However, as soon as we realized the power of the logistics points in the game everything changed. It is easy to discount how powerful these things are until you NEED an attack to succeed or you NEED to preserve your forces as the French. That’s when the whole technology investment in advancements changed. Soon, as the German player, I was going all-in on Poison Gas hoping my opponent would stick with aircraft and tanks. I was struggling to keep my artillery ready to fire and the “cliff” of Economic Points was looming.
In a sense, the urgency felt by both players in Fields of Despair is both immediate and vastly different. For the French, they must hang on at all costs. Clever bluffing and shuffling units during Strategic Re-organization become critically important skills. You need to be ready to pounce on opportunities and ensure that you’re reading where the Germans are building up for an attack. The Germans are faced with the grim reality that every failed siege hurts them both in units and in time. A concentration of force risks losing out on opportunities to seize French forts early on in the game while you’re struggling through Belgium.
During my playthroughs of the game, the Allied player also had to contend with the German staying north to contest allied reinforcement landings. It was a sacrifice, but allowed a two-pronged push for the Germans that swept in behind the Allied lines until they could adjust and set up a new solid front. This stalemate, breakthrough, stalemate and then in reverse is exactly what I wanted to see. It was fun, both players have a chance for excitement and deception. I can’t speak to the historical accuracy of everything in the game, but it sure feels right and that was good enough for me!
How About Holland ’44?
Holland ’44, on the other hand, was like sitting down with an old friend having a new adventure. Simonitch’s games aren’t a series but they share so many elements that it’s hard for me not to think of them as one. Holland ’44 was a prime example of the power of building an eminently playable base set of rules that you customize for each game. In this case, getting the airborne landings and supply drama captured was critical and Simonitch rose to the occasion with aplomb. At no point have I felt comfortable as the allied player even when beating up on the ingenious anonymous units who start the game unknown to both players. Germans, as they should, trace supply almost automatically as they should reinforcing the concept that this was a risky enterprise for the allies.
The ZOC bonds are a core feature of the game and, again, savvy German players can use these to their advantage as they work to slow the 30th’s push northward as a relief force. The first turn is a bit brutal for the Germans, but over time their increasing strength and the flood of reinforcements means the Allied player has to be almost perfect in the way they conceive of holding cities, rebuilding bridges, and deploying their reinforcements.
Speaking of bridges, Simonitch captures the race for bridges in a tense manner. The early detonations of bridges and missed opportunities mean that both sides are either re-wiring bridges or repairing them making the Engineer units the Allies bring to play valuable as the crown jewels. Without ferries and bridging opportunities the Allies get stuck. In my playthroughs, that has been the learning curve for the Allied player because you need to understand the bridge and water crossing rules in order to make the most of your units.
While combat is a relatively standard affair here that reflects years of refinement in the series, it is still tense. The presence of armor can be a game changer and for the Germans, particularly as time goes on, that advantage wears down the Allied player as effectively as massing forces.
So, which of these games wins the Game of the Year?
Just kidding…that would be lame.
Fields of Despair gets the nod this time around for me. There’s just so much to like in addition to the ~4’ish hour playtime, the ease of teaching the rules, and the sometimes agonizing decision-making required to be effective at the game. I think enough digital ink has been spilled about it over the past 8 months in particular that I’m only really gilding the lilly at this point.
What was your game of the year?