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  • Keith

Tactical Genius: A Look at Fields of Fire

Wargaming has an existential crisis each time a player sits down at the table. Fields of Fire is one of the few titles that doesn’t suffer from this existential affliction. Players must ask themselves, “who am I?” In many cases, as the case of Normandy ’44 I am the operational and perhaps the battalion commander by turns. The answer is more evident in a game like Churchill or Pericles. Tactical wargames are less clear. A game like Advanced Squad Leader puts you in the role of the titular squad leader. You’re also a company and sometimes regimental commander. In other cases, you’re a sniper. Sometimes, you’re the radioman trying to secure radio connection to get a fire mission. At other times, you’re a single man charging heroically down the road. In short, you’re everything and the kitchen sink.

The ASL rules surely have rules for the kitchen sink now that I think about it!

This identity crisis isn’t limited to Advanced Squad Leader. It plagues nearly every tactical World War II wargame on the market!

What is tactical?

First, we have to set some parameters here for what tactical might be considered for the purposes of this article. We’ll be looking primarily at World War II tactical games though the focus will be largely on Fields of Fire. The WWII tactical wargame genre has some serious scope creep. A game like Soldiers from West End Games or Ambush! from Victory Games put you at the soldier level of a scenario. At the other end of the spectrum are games like Panzer Grenadier or Devil’s Cauldron. They are considered “grand tactical” because the map scale and unit sizes.

Part of the problem here is that there’s no “right fit” for all tactical games! Instead, each designer tailors the system to the taste. They decide to present the tactical puzzle to the situations they want to showcase. Inherently, there’s nothing wrong with this. That’s how games get made after all! However, it creates some odd trade-offs as the common rule elements and sequence of play expectations largely rely upon a core set of expectations from players.

What are the commonalities?

Most tactical wargames feature the following rule elements in common:

  1. Hex by hex movement

  2. Generous stacking

  3. Detailed representation of line of sight and terrain features

  4. Objective hexes, body counts, countdown timers, or exit conditions

  5. Detailed melee and fire combat rules that are equipment dependent

In effect, most tactical wargames offer granular control to players at the expense of requiring significant rules overhead necessary for these “sub-systems.” Of course, ASL is the most guilty here. Other titles like Lock ‘N Load Tactical Series games and the Adam Starkweather Company Scale System (CSS) and prior game system Grand Tactical Series (GTS) are both guilty of this as well.

It’s important to note that complexity and enjoyment are not inversely proportional concepts. In fact, many tactical wargamers feel just the opposite in fact. They want the granular control because it deepens the appreciation for the tactical situation. It also gives them as many choices as possible to solve the problems presented. The complexity gets as close to blurring the lines between a referee mediated game like NATO Division Commander from SPI and a competitive two-player title.

The New Wave

There are trade-offs, however, when a game becomes more complicated. The time to play, management of status markers, tracking “points” for command or other concepts, and the time to learn and master the game all significantly increase. A wave of games, beginning with Combat Commander: Europe from GMT Games attempted to rectify this complexity stagnation. CC:E was fast playing, easy to learn, fit well for tournament situations, and developed a rabid following! Consequently, many other games hit the market over the next few years that also attempted to take this approach. Some examples include the Conflict of Heroes system from Academy Games and Band of Brothers from Worthington.

To the extent possible though, these games yet retained the hex and counter approach that favored granular control. Each of these “new wave” tactical wargames took the approach that they found something in ASL that they either wanted to focus on or throw away. They effectively condensed the WW2 tactical experience which was widely popular. This is a fantastic approach, but it limits the game-play in service of showcasing this “central truth” about the genre. In the case of Jim Krohn’s fantastic Band of Brothers games, the focus is on suppressive fire and a nuanced approach to the relationship between morale and fire combat.

I thought this was about Fields of Fire????

It’s important, as I make this argument about Fields of Fire, that you the reader both understand my deep appreciation for the breadth of tactical WW2 titles. I also bring it up to set the stage as I gush about Fields of Fire. It is one of the most revolutionary tactical WW2 game systems ever released.

A word about the initial release

I fought it for a few years…but there’s no sense fighting it any more. The original rulebook was a complicated mess. For tactical wargamers weened on the very concepts I outlined above…there’s almost nothing familiar against which to set an anchor and learn. Further complicating the learning process are the many different ways the rules interact with each other and finding quality support early in the release cycle was sometimes difficult and contradictory.

The second edition rulebook is a major step forward. The re-released version of Volume 1 offered a superior experience in every way. It also eased the learning curve so anyone can learn this rewarding and infinitely replayable system.

Back to our regularly scheduled gushing…

I was gifted Fields of Fire during the 2008 BoardGameGeek Wargamer Secret Santa. I didn’t have it on my wish list, but whoever got me as their target was a straight up genius because the game has been a part of my life since that time. At the time, I had no idea what the game was and it sort of flew under the radar because I was deeply in the throes of trying to re-acquire all the ASL goodness that I sold 9 years prior.

I was instantly deeply confused. The game was nothing like what I expected! It also lacked any familiar concepts for me to base my understanding of the game. I was aware of Up Front! and its card based tactical system. This was nothing like that. I was aware of area-based movement…and this had some of those features. Additionally, I was tangentially aware that Ben Hull was active duty military and was bringing a warrior philosopher’s approach to the game. I had no idea what any of that would mean though or how to understand the game.

I started to get more acquainted with the title as I played. There are some excellent YouTube videos and as I kept trying to crack the code of why I enjoyed this oddball release so much, everything started to come together for me. I had a better conceptualization of why this game was so special. I have no clue how this game was sold or how it was ever even identified for publication! It’s just a radical departure so I will always feel like Gene, or whoever brought this one into the GMT Games family, was visionary to say the least to recognize the awesome innovation of this game.

Same & Different

We already touched on the common rules across tactical WW2 titles. So, let’s take a crack at Fields of Fire and see how it stacks up…

  1. Hex by hex movement – NOPE. Card and card location based movement system.

  2. Generous stacking – NOPE. You can quickly overwhelm a location with units.

  3. Detailed representation of line of sight and terrain features – NOPE. The LOS rules are pretty straight forward and terrain is also straightforward.

  4. Objective hexes, body counts, countdown timers, or exit conditions – SORT OF. Objectives are set by the player based on the mission setup and scenario type.

  5. Detailed melee and fire combat rules that are equipment dependent – YES.

The thing is, it’s not even so much what’s common that separates this game as it is what’s wholly and radically different. Going against my best judgment I’m going to come out of my corner swinging and say that the single most innovative and impressive thing about Fields of Fire is its approach to C3i (Command, Control, Communications and Intelligence) as the central driving force of the game.

C3i in practice

In Fields of Fire you spent points to issue orders, those orders are carried out by in-communication squads through a chain of command that must be activated in hierarchical order to maximize the use of limited activation points. The squads then move across cards which act as areas with a general descriptor of the terrain on the card and the relative line of sight to and from that card depicted by the border of the terrain card.

The enemy is represented as potential contacts until you have the chance to spot them…or…in a lot of cases…they have the chance to get the drop on your unsuspecting squad or advanced team element you sent to scout forward. As your company moves further away from the line of departure they must remain inside their area of operations and link back to rear echelon command elements via wired or wireless radios. Cuts to these key communication lines must be addressed and there are limited phone line markers so maximizing mutually supportive positions on the board is not only rewarded bu demanded.

That’s the game in a nutshell!

Of course it’s far more complex than that, but everything your squads do comes back to their state of communication, access to commanders who in turn control the units who must obtain intelligence on the disposition of enemy forces in their area of operations. This is accomplished by selecting from a pretty robust menu of commands laid out in a tabular style. If anything, I think one of the reforms for this game might be creating two player decks that would ease the new player experience. There’s something tactile about having command cards in your hand that reference the relevant rules sections and let new players really explore the variety of commands at their disposal. That said, the 2nd Edition release of Volume 1 and the upcoming Volume 2 release have significantly improved rulebooks and player aid cards compared to the 1st Edition releases.

Solitaire as an Advantage

While many wargamers have no problem playing a two-player wargame solo, these games aren’t necessarily tuned for solo play. For many who haven’t experienced a quality solo wargame, the distinction may not be apparent or relevant to them. It’s hardly my place to tell people what kind of fun they can have after all. Fields of Fire offers the best solitaire tactical ww2 combat since Ambush! nearly 20 years its predecessor. It speaks volumes about:

  1. the quality of BOTH John Butter field AND Ben Hull as solo game designers.

  2. the depth of experience that both game systems offer.

  3. the difficulty in pulling off a solo-specific tooled WW2 tactical wargame!

There are plenty of WW2 tactical games that offer a solo experience. Advanced Squad Leader offers what amounts to a mini-game played with ASL rules that offers a solo opponent in a fairly convincing fashion. Both Lock ‘N Load Tactical and Conflict of Heroes share a card-driven solo system envisioned by the legendary John Butterfield. These systems layer a solitaire component on top of a system that’s designed from the start for opposed play. Consequently, the “AI” has to attempt to act as an opponent might act given their forces and tactical disposition (defensive, offensive, meeting engagement, morale, etc.). In effect, you get a checklist of things to complete that attempts to act as a proxy opponent. More recent systems like the Butterfield designed ones mentioned here do an admirable job at something that’s wildly complex.

Fields of Fire, on the other hand, is a solo-first design. Consequently, the “AI” is baked right into the way the game works from the very start. There’s no “and also” feeling to the rules. Instead, Fields of Fire presents a competent and deadly enemy that often capitalizes on mistakes and sets the tactical tempo against which the player must operate. In this way, every resolution of a Potential Contact marker can be literally life or death for your forces…often the latter.

This is further enhanced by the simplified location based system and line of sight rules which facilitate dramatic encounters.

We’re Not in Call of Duty Any More!

Fields of Fire requires players to carefully consider the way they deploy their forces because the combat model is based on volume of fire generated by squads. Bringing maximum firepower and focusing it on an enemy position is how the enemy is most affected. The micromanagement of ammo selection, target selection, tedious string or laser-pointer line of sight calculations found in most other WW2 tactical games is absent. Instead, players must rely on superior positioning, timing, command availability, and ensuring a superior volume of fire.

The closest thing to this is probably Band of Brothers from Jim Krohn which looks at the power of suppressive fire and morale as the key element to fire and movement in tactical WW2 conflict. Fields of Fire uses the primary direction of fire and the volume of fire based on broad categorical definitions of WW2, Korea, and Vietnam combat weaponry. Players are forced to consider where they can hold, maneuver, and fire instead of the minutia of managing fire combat. Units are magnetically drawn into a firefight. The elegant dance of a game like ASL or Conflict of Heroes where units opt when and when not to engage is thrown out the window.

The run and gun tactics of many micro-management heavy tactical games that feel like EA’s Call of Duty are missing. It’s refreshing to know that you’re commanding, not fighting. This distinction is what helps to drive home the answer to the question of “who am I?” when playing Fields of Fire. The knowledge that much is out of your control and that your units respond in very particular ways to situations as they arise means that you’re trying to gain positional advantage without over committing.

Enemy Forces Ahead!

Any discussion of Fields of Fire would be remiss without a discussion of the the “enemy force packages” that are unique to the campaign. Again, this concept serves many purposes, but it is a key differentiator between Fields of Fire and its tactical wargaming peers.

Like other solitaire peers, “not knowing” what enemies might exist serves as the dual-role of design challenge and player command obstacle. Games that add on a solitaire mode do this in a number of ways, but typically they rely on chits or use existing unit counters. The demigod mode continues to exist. A further weakness of others designs is that the challenge rarely adapts to how embroiled in the conflict the player becomes.

With these existing designs as a template, Hull crafted a system that responds to both concerns. First, enemy units are simply an array of likely enemy force packages that run the gamut from a machine gun nest to a mortar attack to an infantry or armored unit. Additionally, as the number of Volume of Fire (VoF) counters increases on the map, the likelihood and enemy makeup of the forces changes to adapt. This maps, especially patrol scenarios, so critically important to understand the command tools at your ready and to not simply dive in head first with all your forces.

This system results in punishing combat that will end a scenario pretty quickly if you’re not paying attention to getting your squads into cover. The exposed modifier is horrendous and given that Line of Sight (LoS) can potentially extend all over the map. This can be particularly punishing when enemy units pop up in hard to dislodge locations like modified terrain such as hills or jungles. In effect, there’s no simply skirting the combat focus of this game and the way in which enemy unit engagement tends to compound the player’s problems things go from well-in-hand to out of control with a single card draw at times!

Wrapping it Up

I could continue to opine about the brilliance of this design. Ben Hull has created one of the most underrated games of all time. The approach is truly innovative. The execution is nothing short of brilliant. It is with great appreciation that GMT Games has stuck by this design to do a second printing, a second edition, and now releasing Volume 2: With the Old Breed which adds new urban combat scenario types to the Vietnam-era game.

Solitaire designs are incredibly tough. The balance between giving players choice and letting the system “play” the programmed opponent is tricky. Too much control in either direction unbalances the game or makes it a yawn-fest where players don’t feel engaged. Further complicating these design challenges are ensuring that players have a good “puzzle” to figure out. Fields of Fire layers on the challenge by tackling a beloved scale and era. Though the initial reception was lukewarm for a variety of reasons, Fields of Fire persists because players can appreciate the significant step forward in solitaire game design as the original approach to tactical command that Ben Hull brings to the table with this game.

I cannot encourage you strongly enough to pick up this game as soon as you possibly can and give it a shot!

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