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Fighting Formations: Is it my ASL-lite?

Jim Cote
United States
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In the midst of a two-week-long effort writing an essay on real-time simulation in tactical wargames, Fighting Formations leaped onto my radar thanks to GMT's new Facebook presence. Although a rookie with Advanced Squad Leader, I am a huge fan, and for years have been looking for a lighter version of it to play with those not inclined to learn even the modest Starter Kit #1 ruleset. Combat Commander is too lateral/euro a design to be a contender, and Tide of Iron and Conflict of Heroes miss the mark with their handling of defensive fire, among other things.

So let's walk through a list of the ASL sequence of play, and other design concepts, to see how FF compares. Any differences noted are not intended to be criticisms, just comparisons. If you know ASL, this will help you understand FF, and vice versa. I am hopeful that FF will become my ASL-lite.

Phase Structure: ASL has a 2-player-turn, 8-phase structure. Various things happen automatically in many phases. Almost every action in FF happens by executing orders, which may occur in any order, and may be intermixed with the opponent's actions.

Total Unit Actions Over Time: In ASL, a given infantry unit may fire at full OR move and fire at half (during a player's half of a full turn), and then fire at full+ (during the opponent's half of a full turn). Given the right circumstances, every infantry unit could potentially fire 2+ times, or move and fire at 1.5+ times, during a full turn. The philosophy here is that everything is happening in real-time (and sort of simultaneously), so every unit is always doing something (if the player wishes it to). In FF, the ability of units to act is defined by command. The philosophy is that units not under command are more difficult to direct. More complex commands cost more initiative. Initiative goes back and forth as players spend it, which determines who acts next. This very similar to the time track in Thebes.

Rally Phase: In ASL, both players may attempt to rally all their broken units on each player's rally phase. In FF, rally occurs as an order, and is limited by command range and initiative costs. FF has no notion of broken units, simply units with hit markers on them (which have random penalties, as in CoH). In both games, it's easier to rally successfully in cover and with leadership.

Prep Fire Phase: In ASL, this is where every unit may fire on your player turn. Units that do fire may not move or fire later in that player turn. In FF, any units (within command/initiative limits) may fire during a fire attack order. And since units are not deactivated in any way, they may continue to fire for all future fire attack orders unless they acquire a hit marker preventing it.

Movement Phase: In ASL this is where almost all normal movement occurs. All units that didn't prep fire may move. Maximum distance is determined by leadership, terrain, and if the unit is using double-time. The opponent may use defensive fire during movement. This allows 1 fire attack per defending unit per movement POINT spent. Subsequent fire attacks have less effect and more restrictions. Fire attacks ONLY affect moving units. In FF, movement is by order. The opponent may use defensive fire during movement. This allows 1 fire attack per defending unit per movement ACTION taken (pivot, new hex). Defending units may continue to fire as the moving units act until they fail Rate of Fire (below). Fire attacks affect ALL units in the target hex.

Defensive Fire Phase: In ASL, this is after all movement is completed. The defender may now fire with any units that didn't fire during the movement phase (or still have fire opportunities remaining). This is irrelevant in FF, since fire attacks and defensive fire (Op Fire) are handled elsewhere. See Rate of Fire (below) for more detail on the overall balance of defensive fire.

Advancing Fire Phase: In ASL, units that did not prep fire (ie units that might have moved) may now fire at half their firepower. Units with certain inherent weapon types (Assault Fire Capability) get a bonus. In FF, a player may use the Assault order to move and fire in combination, at the cost of fewer movement points.

Rout Phase: In ASL, this is where broken units must/may move to cover from vulnerable positions. In some cases, the player has no control over where the units move. Units that cannot rout according to the rout rules are eliminated/captured. FF has no notion of routing. Units (with or without hit markers) may be repositioned at will using orders (assuming they have no hit marker that prevents movement).

Advance Phase: In ASL, most units may now move a single hex without any possibility of defensive fire. This notion is maintained almost exactly in FF, although it is an order, not a phase.

Close Combat Phase: In ASL, units in the same location now exchange fire, trying to eliminate each other outright. This is handled differently from fire attacks. Again, this notion is maintained almost exactly in FF, although it is an order, not a phase.

Rate of Fire: In ASL, most fire attacks allow for ROF on weapons that have them. If a given weapon has a ROF number, and the colored die (ASL uses a colored d6 and a white d6) used for the attack roll is less than or equal to that number, the weapon is considered NOT to have fired. ROF applies to Prep Fire and Defensive Fire, so units with such weapons have an unknown extra number of fire attacks possible.

In FF, ROF only applies to Op Fire (multiple attacks against moving units) and Return Fire (a single attack against a firing unit). Every unit has a ROF number. If EITHER die used for the attack roll is less than or equal to that number, after resolving the fire attack, the unit is spent for the duration of this order. Moving multiple units in a single order, therefore, splits the opponents attention. If he makes ROF with each Op Fire shot, he could fire at each moving unit with all of his units. But even with a ROF of 3, a unit has a 50% chance of being spent after each shot. Also (as I have just been corrected), some units have a higher defense value on their inactive side, which mitigates Op Fire against their hex when they are not moving.

Thus, in both games, ROF serves the same purpose and has similar effect in both extra firepower as well as the difficulty in choosing when and where to use a unit effectively.

Leadership: In ASL, leaders are actual counters with various numerical properties. They permit rally attempts, squad deployment, allow additional movement for squads they move with, have (usually) positive effects on fire attacks and morale checks (see Fire Attacks), and participate in Close Combat (melee). They may move alone or with other units.

In FF, leadership has been abstracted into markers that may be placed into play in any hex and at any time. The current command radius of the given player determines how far away from EVERY marker that units may be activated for the current order. Thus if all your units are within command range, you may activate them ALL to move with a single move order. Command markers have 2 sides: mission and tactical. Command markers go from an available box, onto the board as mission command, then flipped to tactical command, then moved to the pending box, then back to the available box, at the end of each game turn. Units under mission command activate for free. Units under tactical command activate for 1 additional initiative. Units not under command activate an additional 2 initiative. In summary, you can order a lot of units every order if you have a few command markers in play.

Fire Attacks: In ASL, an infantry fire attack has 2 basic values: firepower and modifiers. The firepower is the left number on the unit's chit (or the sum of the firepowers of all the units and support weapons forming a fire group). The FP may be halved (long range, subsequent defensive fire, advancing fire phase, etc), or doubled (point blank). This number is then rounded down to the column less than or equal to the firepower on the Infantry Fire Table (IFT). The modifiers are a sum of leadership, hindrances, target terrain, and movement penalties. Leadership is simply the leader's bonus (could be a penalty). The hindrance total is the SUM of every intervening hindrance from the source to the target hexes, exclusive (except for smoke). The target terrain modifier is based on the location of the target (woods, stone building, etc). Infantry is more vulnerable when it is moving and gets cumulative penalties for moving in the open and NOT using assault movement. 2d6 are rolled, and the total modifiers are applied. The result is looked up in the applicable FP column on the IFT. The most common kind of result is some kind of morale check (MC). This means that the target unit(s) much each roll 2d6 less than or equal to their morale or be broken. Only extreme circumstances result in units being outright eliminated (see Taking Hits for more detail).

In FF, the default fire attack roll for any unit is 2d10. This is modified up and down (auto-miss ... 2d6 ... 2d8 ... 2d10 ... 2d12 ... 2d20) by various conditions: unit using assault, range of target, fire arc and pivoting issues). The hindrance of the shot is the SINGLE LARGEST hindrance value of every intervening hindrance from the source to the target hexes, exclusive (except for smoke). If either die rolled for the attack is less than or equal to the hindrance, the shot automatically misses. Otherwise, each unit in the target hex, including friendly units, must roll 2d10 and add its defense value and the cover value for the hex. If the attack is greater than the defense, a hit marker is drawn for that unit (see Taking Hits for more detail).

In ASL, the magnitude of the attack (firepower and resulting die roll) affects the chance of a hit, and the kind of result. That is, the more firepower and the lower the roll (lower is better), the greater the penalties on the morale checks, and the greater the chance of an automatic break/kill. In FF, the chances to hit increase with firepower and dice roll total, but the best you can hope for it a hit.

Both games recognize the differences between armor piercing (AP) ammo and high explosives (HE). FF limits the effects of AP to units with armor, and HE to units with morale. That is, AP attacks cannot affect infantry, and HE attacks cannot affect tanks. I have limited experience in this area with ASL, but I believe it allows all types of attacks against all types of units, but the obvious mismatches occur with severe penalties.

Taking Hits: In ASL, there are 2 basic infantry sizes: full squads and half-squads. A unit may be broken, which prevents it from doing anything other than routing until it rallies. Units have a quality value (elite, 1st line, 2nd line, green/conscript). When a squad is "hit", it most often breaks. If a broken squad is hit again, it is replaced with a broken half-squad. Certain morale check failures can also result in a unit losing a level of quality. For example, an elite squad becomes a (broken) 1st line squad, with a numerical loss in one or more of its properties.

In FF, there are platoons and squads. A platoon can be viewed as composed of 3 squads. If any unit takes a hit, it acquires a random hit marker which affects it's abilities (no move, no fire, etc). This marker can be removed with a rally order by rolling 2d10 (adjusted up or down) greater than or equal to the rally number on the marker. In some cases, failure to rally results in elimination. Acquiring a second hit market eliminates a unit. Eliminated squads are removed from play. Eliminated platoons are converted into 2 squads, placing the existing hit marker on one of them.

Fire Arcs: Both games have the notion that some units (vehicles and guns) have an inherent facing, and that turning is not an instant thing. The costs and penalties for turning units with loose fire arcs is lower, and with strict fire arcs is higher. FF does not seem to have vehicles with turrets that rotate separate from their motion.

Snipers: In ASL, each scenario specifies what value triggers a sniper for each side. Every time you take a shot, you run the possibility of a sniper event occurring. This provides a small disincentive to taking unlikely shots. If a sniper is triggered, a sniper chit on the board is moved in a random direction and distance, and the closest enemy occupied hex is "attacked". A die roll of 1 or 2 has various results: pin/break a squad, wound/kill a leader, etc.

In FF, the sniper marker is always set to one player's side. Executing a sniper order flips this marker to your side (and allows you to take another order below sniper). At the end of each full turn, the player whose side is face up on the sniper chit gets to "take a shot". He selects a command marker on the board, and must roll less than or equal to the total number of command markers on the board. If he does, the opponent must either remove the selected marker, or lower is command range by one. Given the abstracted nature of leadership in FF, this is a pretty thematic solution.

Stacking: In ASL, a given location may contain (without penalty) 3 squads and 4 leaders. In FF, there is no limit of any kind except for vehicles in a column (on a road in otherwise impassable terrain).

Buildings: In ASL, buildings may have multiple floors (resulting in multiple locations within each hex), stairwells, etc. There's no mention of this in the FF series rules, but it's possible that the playbook (or future expansions) will add more such features.

Cards: ASL has no special cards for events. Various extreme situations (eg heat of battle) are triggered by extreme die rolls. Concepts like Off Board Artillery are specified by the scenario. FF adds scenario-defined side-specific cards. These cards are called Assets, and may be drawn (by order) and played (by order, by reaction, or as a cost).

Summary: At this point, there are no red flags for me. There were originally two (unit actions per turn, and the strength of defensive fire), but more reading, some thought, and some good discussions in the FF forums have addressed my concerns. I still wonder if FF is too much for those who are afraid of or overwhelmed by SK1, but at least it should be easier to explain and remember, while still feeling like a true wargame.

Discussion is encouraged. Please correct any factual errors I have made.
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