Tom Grant
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THE EXECUTIVE SUMMARY
I sense that a lot of BGGers are either on the fence about Fields of Fire, or they’ve been put off the game altogether because of the early feedback about the rules. For anyone interested in military history, that’s a big mistake. I’m writing this lengthy review of Fields of Fire to help people who might be the ideal audience for this excellent game take another look at it.

Unfortunately, this review has to be much longer than usual. A blurb probably won’t convince you that, once you get past the dry rulebook, or some of the unfamiliar mechanics, you’ll discover a game that you genuinely want to play. For those who don’t want to read the whole enchilada, here’s the quick summary.

Fields of Fire is...

(1) The best solitaire WWII game since the beloved Ambush! series.
(2) A very credible simulation of some of the most dramatic, interesting, and
(3) A landmark game that depicts, for the first time in the wargaming hobby, critical aspects of modern infantry combat. (At least, in this 30-year veteran of wargaming’s memory, I’ve never seen these things simulated.)
(4) A highly playable game, with enormous replay value.
(5) Something that GMT might have published in three parts (core release plus expansions), but instead crammed everything into a single box.
(6) Once you learn the game, turns go quickly.

If you’re interested in the arguments behind these statements, read on.




IS THIS GAME FOR ME?
Fields of Fire is a game for military history buffs. If you’re not really interested in details like the deadly challenges American GIs faced in the Norman bocage, or the nasty surprises that the North Koreans and Chinese sprang on American forces in Korea, or how useful airmobility and improved radios were for the Vietnam-era soldier, this game is not for you.

Here’s another test: Do you care that Fields of Fire is based on the experiences of a single US infantry division, the 9th, through those three wars (World War II, Korea, and Vietnam)?

And here’s another: Do you care that C3I (command, control, communications, and intelligence) are central to this game?

If you answer No to those questions, then Fields of Fire is definitely not for you. Issues like the evolution of military technology across three wars are central to the appeal of Fields of Fire. If you’re more interested in "World War II as seen in the movies," or some way of approaching wargames, then Fields of Fire won’t hold your interest.

However, if you’re the kind of person who jumps to the historical notes in the Playbook, or can’t wait to see how the game simulates the differences between WWII-era and Vietnam-era combat, Fields of Fire is your game. In fact, it might grab you by the shirt, and then drag you behind it as it tells a series of improvised stories about the management of violence at the company level.


WHAT MAKES THIS GAME STAND OUT?
Ever since, decades ago, James Dunnigan, one of the granddaddies of the hobby, pointed out the high incidence of solitaire wargaming, there are still very few solitaire wargames. While that alone might make Fields of Fire worth some attention, what really sets it aside is the C3I factor.

In Fields of Fire, you play the role of a captain commanding an infantry company. Your subordinates include two staff officers, the company executive officer (XO) and 1st sergeant, and your platoon commanders. Normally, you have three platoons under your command, each consisting of three squads. You also have other units attached to your company--some all the time, such as machine gun teams, and others on a mission-by-mission basis.

PLAN, THEN EXECUTE
And, unlike practically every other wargame I’ve ever played, you really do feel as though you’re in command. You don’t have complete control over the battlefield, including the actions of your subordinates. (I’ll explain how the game simulates these challenges in the next section.) You need to approach each mission in the same fashion that real infantry captains do:

Plan what you’re going to do. Instead of improvising, you need to think ahead. For example, where’s the attack point from which the company will direct its attack?
Shape to the plan to the battlefield. Since combat isn’t a simple walk from point A to point B, you need to think about the likely routes of attack and retreat. On the attack, where should the first waypoint (in infantry terms, phase line) be? On defense, where should your troops retreat, once the front line begins to buckle?
Build some contingency plans. If the battle starts to turn against you, you may need to re-direct your troops--backing off the objective, moving to the secondary objective, or making other changes to the plan. Since you may be out of direct contact with the forces under your command, you need to devise some signals with the tools at hand, such as, "The red flare means retreat."
Expect Fate to bite you in the ass. No matter how well you plan, it will. While you’ll lose badly if you don’t plan, even the best plan can’t anticipate everything. You need to position yourself where you can best direct the battle. If enemy mortar fire cuts the line with your 1st platoon, you may need a runner to carry your order to shift their fire to a different target. To keep the command loop short, you may want to be close to the action, but not so close that you’re fighting for your life instead of commanding your troops.
In short, you’ll need to plan carefully before the battle begins. You’ll sit down with your company roster and work out pre-arranged signals. You’ll need to place important operational landmarks, such as the attack point, to make best use of the terrain. And, ultimately, you’ll learn what the phrase “Plan for the unexpected” really means.

WHO GOES WHERE
These C3I challenges open a door to understanding something about military operations that often seems baffling or unimportant to outsiders. While reading a first-hand account of a battle, you might have read something like, "For this mission, we attached a heavy machine gun to the platoon that provided our fire base."

In wargame terms, this statement is usually meaningless. You have a counter for the platoon, and a counter for the HMG team. If the cardboard representation of the platoon needs help from the cardboard representation of the HMG team, you move the latter over to stack with the former.

And that shows exactly how unrealistic, at times, perfect C3I in most wargames can be. In contrast, Fields of Fire shows you how, when you don’t have god-like control over your forces, attaching that MG team can be critically important. If you’re already planning on making 2nd platoon your main source of hitting power, put the HMG there now. You’ll have less of a chance in the chaos and din of battle to shift assets like these around, and in Fields of Fire terms, the extra hitting power makes a big difference.

These choices aren’t as obvious as they sound, however. You might want the heavy machine gun to be part of 2nd platoon, but you might also face a situation in which 1st or 3rd platoon really needs the help. In that case, putting the 1st Sergeant in charge of the HMG team might be a better idea. What you gain in flexibility, however, you’ll lose in direct and immediate support for 2nd platoon.

WORTH MENTIONING
A couple of other things that make Fields of Fire stand out:

(1) The opportunity to play in three different time periods is very intriguing. My experience so far is limited to WWII, but I can’t wait to see what changes when my radios work beyond line-of-sight range, or when helicopters make it possible for my troops and their fire support to zip around the battlefield.
(2) Casualties matter. Once you start taking them, the game penalizes you for not evacuating them from the battlefield. Since planning is critical to everything in this game, you’ll need to think about how to handle casualties before the mission starts.




HOW DOES THIS GAME PLAY?
While I don’t want to waste too much electronic ink on re-hashing the rules, it’s worth summarizing the game system enough to see that (1) it’s not as complicated as it might seem at first glance at the fat rulebook and table-packed player aid, and (2) once you understand the core mechanics, the rest are mere details that you’ll pick up along the way without too much trouble.

PRE-GAME
Before the game starts, you do the following:

Pick a mission. If you’re playing a campaign, and you should, the mission is the next in the series. Missions are widely varied, from perilous patrols to desperate defenses.
Collect your forces. These include the core units for the company, which remain the same from one mission to another, plus extra units assigned for this mission.
Distribute your resources. Attach support units to different point in the command structure. You also need to distribute equipment, such as radios and smoke, among your units. (There’s ammunition, too, but there are fewer choices to be made here.)
Lay out the map. The map is a grid of cards from a terrain deck specific to the time period (WWII, Korea, and Vietnam.)
Make your plan. Place important landmarks, such as the primary objective, phase lines, and casualty collection points. Set your pre-arranged signals. Cross your fingers.

THE TURN
Once the mission starts, a turn consists of the following:

Check for random events related to you. Not surprisingly, some are good, such as ammo replenishment. Some are unwelcome, such as some meddling senior officer from battalion decides to check on your work. As with everything that might require a roll of the dice in other games, you use an action deck, in much the same fashion as Up Front!. Flip a card, look at the numbers at the bottom, see what happens.
Determine how many orders you get, at the company level. Draw a card, and look at the larger number in the upper left. That’s how many subordinate units you can activate. It’s often wise to save an order or two for later, when you really need it. (And you will need it.) You can add the saved orders to next turn’s card draw.
Activate subordinate units. Spend the orders you have to activate platoons, your 1st sergeant, and your XO, as long as they’re in communications with you.
Have the other units do something. Units that didn’t get activated aren’t paralyzed, but they can do less. You still flip a card for each of them to determine the number of orders they can execute, but it’s going to be a smaller number. Usually, it’s not enough to extricate them from a dicey situation, and definitely not enough to execute anything that requires a lot of coordination.
Draw and execute orders for these activated units. You determine the number of orders the same way: draw a card, look at the number, and add to it the number of saved orders. There’s a limit, based on the quality of the unit (green, line, or veteran), how many orders a unit can execute per turn, and how many it can save until next turn.
Figure out what the enemy does this turn. Any enemy units on the map take their actions, determined by flipping a card and comparing the result against the list of actions for that scenario.
Check for new enemy units. On the attack, every card has a potential contact marker. (Not surprisingly, on defense, new units may appear regardless of where you move.) During the turn when one of your units moves onto that card, you then check to see what happens. Nobody might appear, or an enemy sniper might start making your life miserable. Or a squad. Or a tank. You never know. The enemy might not appear on that card, too, which is important when considering how to advance.
Determine where people are shooting. Maneuvering units on both sides might add to existing firefights, or start firing at other targets. In all cases, you place a volume of fire (VOF) to indicate the type of fire (small arms, automatic weapons, etc.) and the direction from which it’s coming. Once engaged, your units don’t switch targets until you tell them to do so.

It's important to note that, once you get the core mechanics down, the game goes quickly. You pretty much know what to do each turn, even if it's not always clear how best to do it. Pool your orders, pick your actions, move on.

OTHER DETAILS
Of course, I’m leaving out a lot of details, but only because of the number of possible actions you might take. Resolving them usually follows the same mechanic: flip two cards, check the results. Under certain conditions, the number of cards flipped may go up or down, depending on troop quality and other variables.

In some cases, you’re looking for a particular icon or word on the card. For example, when checking for new enemy units, you’re looking for the word Contact on the card. To see if a grenade attack works, you flip cards to see if the grenade icon appears. When you’re resolving the effects of incoming fire, you look for the amount of total protection the unit has, in a range of negative to positive numbers, and then see what keyword is next to that entry.A squad might have a lot of protection (say, +4) but still get a Hit result, which means you have to see exactly how damaged the unit is.

By the way, get ready to shuffle the deck a lot. Not only do you use the cards for everything, but you’re re-shuffling the deck midway through it. I’m not 100% convinced of the necessity of this mechanic, but I’ll admit that I haven’t done a rigorous analysis of how this changes the odds.

Once the scenario is finished, you total up your successes, and apply the number of points you’ve earned to re-build or improve your units. It’s a credit to the game that you might start seeing these units in personal terms. ("Why should I give 3rd platoon anything, if all they did in the last battle was sit on their hands?")



HOW SHOULD I LEARN THIS GAME?
Your mileage might vary, but here’s what worked for me:

Treat Fields of Fire as a role-playing game. Most gamers hardly blink at the D&D Player’s Manual, and the Fields of Fire rules are a slender fraction of that content.
Read the rules. For the first couple of WWII missions, you can skip the vehicles section, except the small amount of information you need to drive people around in a jeep.
Read the list of actions. Again, think of Fields of Fire as a military role-playing game. In D&D, you can move, cast a spell, or swing your battleaxe at a monster. In Fields of Fire, you can move a single squad or a platoon, rally a pinned unit, or call in an artillery strike. (Plus a whole bunch of other actions.)
Read the example of play. Unfortunately, it’s on the GMT web site, instead of the rulebook. However, many aspects of the game make a lot more sense seeing the course of a complete turn.
Read this other example of play. The designer posted several diagrams illustrating several turns. If the one-turn example on the GMT site doesn’t make things click for you, give these examples a look.
Suck it up and play your first mission. Sure, there isn’t another player to help you. But don’t worry, you’ll figure it out. The mechanics are fairly logical, without initially counter-intuitive aspects like Up Front’s concept of relative range. (“You mean as the range number goes up, we’re actually getting closer?”)

WHAT CHALLENGES DOES THE GAME POSE?
Not surprisingly, you’ll be learning the system during your first couple of missions. Once you get comfortable with the rules, you’ll face a new set of challenges. Here are a few examples.

Planning for too many contingencies, or too few
Obviously, you want a Plan B, and probably a Plan C. However, you also don’t want to dilute your available resources trying to cover too many contingencies. For example, you get only so many colors of smoke and flares. That’s a limited vocabulary for battlefield improvisation. Make sure you don’t dilute it with a lot of messages about things that have a small probability of happening.

Pushing hard, but not too hard
First-time players will be tempted to play it safe. However, you don’t have infinite time to complete the mission. Excessive caution is often counterproductive: moving one squad forward, then waiting to see what happens, usually spells disaster for that exposed unit, who’s not getting help from the rest of the platoon. As in the real world, when the shooting starts, you need to keep move forward, instead of listening to that frightened little voice telling you to stay put. On the other hand, pushing too hard can cause a plan to fall apart quickly.

Playing the odds, but not pushing your luck
Bad things happen in Fields of Fire, but in a different (and, arguably, more realistic way) than in Combat Commander, the new paragon of random events in wargaming. In Combat Commander, game mechanics will trigger random events. Flipping cards to determine the outcome of a volley of small arms fire may cause an enemy squad to materialize in your rear. In Fields of Fire, the more you push forward in a patrol or assault, the more likely it is you’ll bump into something nasty. You don’t control what pops out of the bocage, or the elephant grass. However, there is a direct connection between your actions (for example, do you advance into one new location, or two? ) and the risks you take.

These are all tough balancing acts. So, too, is being a company commander. Because this is a very, very good game, the simulated challenges closely approximate the real ones. I have other good things to say about Fields of Fire, but I’ve clearly said enough already.
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Chick Lewis
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Great review, I agree with pretty much everything you have written.

Chick
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Chris Montgomery
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Ditto. Great review.

Chris
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Dustin Jessup
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Excellent review, thanks. I am looking forward to getting my hands on this game in a couple weeks.
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Adam D.
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This really is an exceptional review. I differ with you on several points, but if you are on the fence, this review provides good information. For the record I have problems with: rules length (long), and the fact that you have to order things like create a runner or disembark from truck which I feel is far outside the scope of a company commander point of view. Nonetheless, fine overview.
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Mosse Stenström
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Fantastic review!

I got the game a while ago, but a murderous schedule at work has meant I haven't had the energy to plow through the rulebook yet. I think this writing was what I needed to get inspired to pick it up again. Lucky for me, I have next week off for winter holiday. :-)
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James Fung
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So some of my reservations about this game:

1) The amount of card pulls each turn. As mentioned in your review: draw a card for the primary HQ; draw a card for activated HQs/leaders; draw cards for units that weren't activated through the chain of command; draw cards to resolve actions; draw cards to resolve enemy actions. Playing around with the playtest version of FoF (admittedly this was years ago, so the game may have considerably changed since then) felt like I spent more time going through the process than making decisions, and it made me really wish it was computerized and automated. Does it really get better?

2) How do you handle the bookkeeping of which HQs have how many commands?

3) Is the marker density with all the VOF markers and status markers low enough that you can see at a glance what's happening?

I agree that Ben Hull has filled a very great need, a realistic examination of the difficulties of command at the infantry company level (an area I've been very interested in since picking up Up Front! and choosing between at all the tactical-level games) and showing its evolution across 3 wars. But has development streamlined the game enough to have a decent fun:time investment ratio?
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Pelle Nilsson
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fusag wrote:
So some of my reservations about this game:

...

3) Is the marker density with all the VOF markers and status markers low enough that you can see at a glance what's happening?


No problems at all to me so far. I even keep stacks laid out horizontally instead of stacked, so to speak, so if I have three pinned units I put them side by side with the PIN counter to their far left or right. A very nice thing about solitaire games is that you can organize counters any way you like without upsetting your opponent.
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Mats Lintonsson
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Nice review! Fully agree!
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Jan Salomonsson
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Great review, one little nitpick:

Kingdaddy wrote:

Activate subordinate units. Spend the orders you have to activate platoons, your 1st sergeant, and your XO, as long as they’re in communications with you.
Have the other units do something. Units that didn’t get activated aren’t paralyzed, but they can do less. You still flip a card for each of them to determine the number of orders they can execute, but it’s going to be a smaller number. Usually, it’s not enough to extricate them from a dicey situation, and definitely not enough to execute anything that requires a lot of coordination.
Draw and execute orders for these activated units. You determine the number of orders the same way: draw a card, look at the number, and add to it the number of saved orders. There’s a limit, based on the quality of the unit (green, line, or veteran), how many orders a unit can execute per turn, and how many it can save until next turn.


The 2nd and 3rd bullets are in the wrong order. This becomes important in some situations, the fact that activated officers and platoon hqs have to finish their actions in their own phase before initiative actions happen.

It also means some units can get two chances at, say, a rally action that turn since, for example, the platoon hq was activated (but they failed the rally) and the XO, who is close enough to get in contact and still have orders left, was not activated.

In theory, using company hq, platoon hq, xo/1sgt, and general initiative, FOUR identical attempts are possible in a turn. But that would hinge on a strange battle situation occurring.
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Alpha Mastrano
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fusag wrote:

3) Is the marker density with all the VOF markers and status markers low enough that you can see at a glance what's happening?


If you use perspex and space your cards out a bit, you should be able to spread the counters out, but yeah things can get a bit cluttered.

Like when you're facing VC human waves from 3 different directions...
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the scrub
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Terrific review kingdaddy. I was not only on the fence, I was backing away from it. Now I'm, uh, firmly teetering back over... Just need to scrounge up some money now...
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Jack Defevers
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Great review. I've moved the game up a notch on my wish list. (That doesn't sound like much, but in reality it took the game from "interested, but probably won't buy this" to "going to get this at some point" territory.) Thanks for taking the time to write and post this.
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Dave Langdon
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Great review, you really nailed it as to who the game will appeal to.

@jgf

As to how much card drawing theres no real difference to Combat commander. You'll only draw a total of 7 cards for type of commands, and that can drop to 5 given Sgt and Xo get an auto one command for iniative. Its not as excessive as you make it sound, and at least for me theres real tension drawing those cards when you are in the thick of a firefight and need to get things done.

I note down saved commands on paper, as a habit i actually note down each order i give. Helps keep a plan in mind.

There is never enough commands for the perfect battle plan and occasionally theres not even enough for a rubbish battleplan.

I dont have problems with marker density, and combat doesnt encourage stacking to the limit.

I'd hark back to the OP review, this "game" isn't going to appeal to everyone.

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Gustav Åkerfelt
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Hmm.. a single player wargame, for those time i really want to exerice some grey cells, but have no gamer-friends around. That sounds good. And from what i can gather from the review, this feels quite like a interesting choice. Both mechanic- and themewise. Thanks for great review.

Game going on wishlist for now, thumbs up for you.
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Ben Tate
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Great review and I'll echo Gustav's comments...
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Chris Montgomery
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I would tack on one important "con" to the game that the review talks about, but only gets at obliquely. It says something like "turns go faster once you learn the rules." While this is generally true for most games, FoF has a definite long-a$$ learning curve.

I read the rules booklet, slowly, over the course of two days, investing about four (4) hours to it, maybe more.

My first mission--and granted, I was keeping detailed notes for an AAR--took eight (8) hours!! It should be noted that this is far outside the 1-2 hour advertised time (but I was learning). I generally had to look up one or two rules every Phase after the activation/initiative phase. "Can a grenadge be fired here?" "Can my XO just hop in the Jeep and drive to those casualties?" "How many fewer orders can I give if my PLT HQ is under Automatic Volume of Fire?" "What happens to my Primary Direction of Fire if the Enemy Retreats?" And on, and on. A large part of the learning curve is learning the charts and tables and where things are located on the charts and tables. The second largest part of the learning curve is learning were the rules-sections are located in the rule book.

And to top it off, I lost. I was engaged on the Primary and Secondary Objective on the last turn, but the bull$hitting Germans would not budge. A huge time investment to lose a game with myself!

All of the above being said, the above is not a complaint. I am loving this game.

The next mission (actually, I just started the Normandy campaign over againi), I only had to look up maybe half-as-many rules and didn't keep detailed notes on it. That game took four hours. If I get to the point that I know the rules forwards and back, the game will probably fall into the 1-2 hour range.

Then again, I've only played the Offensive First Mission of the Normandy Campaign. I still have missions of different types coming up: Defensive and Combat Patrol, as well as new rules coming into play: tanks, trucks, and differences between the mission types.

I don't want to discourage anyone from getting this game. I think it is truly fun and excellent. The enemy behaves in a way that feels realistic. I want everyone to purchase a copy so that we can get even more expansions and campaigns and missions, but I felt that the time investment involved in learning the game (and playing it) is so significant that potential buyers should be forewarned.

Chris

PS--I'll probably be writing an extended review of the game and include the above (in some form) in it. The game has many positives, but you have to be willing to savor it, and wait for it.
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Dave Langdon
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Sounds very similar to my whole experience on the first mission Chris..rulewise and on the battlefield!
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Tom Grant
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TheCollector wrote:
This really is an exceptional review. I differ with you on several points, but if you are on the fence, this review provides good information. For the record I have problems with: rules length (long), and the fact that you have to order things like create a runner or disembark from truck which I feel is far outside the scope of a company commander point of view. Nonetheless, fine overview.


Fair points. I have some nits to pick with the game, such as the frequency of re-shuffling, and the frequency with which some random events appear in the scenarios. The review was already pretty long, though, and my complaints so far have been minor.

Except for the rulebook. As a reference, it's fine. As a teaching instrument, it's not enough. Plus, a few paragraphs definitely need to go under the editor's knife again.
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Tom Grant
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fusag wrote:
1) The amount of card pulls each turn.


As an Up Front! fan, the card pulls didn't seem excessive. What bothers me more is the number of re-shuffles. Finding the Re-Shuffle card midway through the deck, shuffle; find the Re-shuffle again, shuffle...At least, in Up Front!, you have a big deck that you go completely through before re-shuffling.

fusag wrote:
But has development streamlined the game enough to have a decent fun:time investment ratio?


Most definitely. One I got a basic handle on the rules, I started blowing through turns--both because the game really isn't that complex, and because I was eager to see what happened next.

Here's another sign of an enjoyable game: I found myself thinking about the last game I played. Was I too cautious? Is it better to rush in and grenade a machine gun nest, or stand off and hit it with mortar fire?

I also looked forward to the next one. For example, after playing the first two scenarios, which are straightforward advances to an objective, the third scenario is a series of individual patrols. Each platoon is on its own when its turn comes, a long way from the cluster of other platoons and support units you get in an advance. Neat.
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Stephen Shaw
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Very nice review!

The only thing I disagree with is the statement regarding "whether Fields of Fire is for you." In my opinion, neither of these statements need be true (no, I am NOT concerned about the fact that this is only the 9th represented -- in my view, the chits are generic enough to represent any company. And also, I am not concerned about the evolution of technology nor about the C3 aspect). I see a game with great tactical reproduction, enormous replayability, and what appears to me to be accuracy in simulation. And its fun! So FoF is for me, despite the author's statements.
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Mark Christopher
United States
Salem
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In the wonderful game, Bonaparte at Marengo, this is how to get nasty Frenchies out of a village.
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Greywing wrote:
Great review. I've moved the game up a notch on my wish list. (That doesn't sound like much, but in reality it took the game from "interested, but probably won't buy this" to "going to get this at some point" territory.) Thanks for taking the time to write and post this.


Agreed! This review has pushed me off the fence, too.
 
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James Fung
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San Diego
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Kingdaddy wrote:
fusag wrote:
But has development streamlined the game enough to have a decent fun:time investment ratio?


Most definitely. One I got a basic handle on the rules, I started blowing through turns--both because the game really isn't that complex, and because I was eager to see what happened next.

Thanks, that's what I wanted to know. I'm moving this up my wishlist. Review objective accomplished.
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zachary johnston
Australia
Northcote
victoria
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Dumdidumdidumdum...
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Quote:
(6) Once you learn the game, turns go quickly.

So true - once you see the daylight beyond the steaming jungles of the rules, the game flows so well.
When i put my money down for this in June last year it was simply because it was a solitaire boardgame.
I'm SO pleased with where the game has ended up.
The rules need to be reworked, but only to clarify and making jumping into the game that much easier.

Excellent review!
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Freakin' Ed
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Saylorsburg
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Big thanx, Kingdaddy, for posting this review. I'm not really sure how I missed this game, being a solitaire wargame and all, but it's now something I'm gonna definitely have to give a deeper look.
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