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Subject: Fields of Fire: Deep, Playable, Innovative and Often Confusing rss

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Steve
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I recently purchased Fields of Fire, a solo only winter GMT wargame release. I’ve played about 4 missions of the game, all in the WWII era, and I think I can safely say that it is a game of interest for some individuals here, with some major qualifications. I cannot stop playing it and have been playing it most nights for the past week or two.

It has the strongest narrative of any game I've ever played. We talk a lot about narrative on the F:AT, but this really is the ultimate form of narrative in a game, through a simulation. I can remember 3-4 amazing, movie quality (not in an action hero way) moments in my mind's eye from my last game as I sit here. It presents a viewpoint on combat that is far, far different than anything I've ever played. And not in a gamey way a la Combat Commander. It also has an insane amount of replayability. Having 3 eras, WWII, Korea and Vietnam, that all play differently in the box means there is a lot of gameplay to be had.

I am still not sure I can recommend it in good faith to most here, however. But if the description sounds interesting, and you do not mind doing some major rules wrestling to get there, you will find a very rewarding game. It seems I am always writing these wargame reviews for BGG and F:AT---fight through the rules and you will be rewarded. Nevertheless, I think good design ideas should be rewarded and are worth fighting for. Fields of Fire counts as one of those designs.

What is the Game About?

Fields of Fire is essentially a solo tactical game, designed by Ben Hull, who has experience commanding in the Marines. Units represent squads and individual assets (heavy machine gun, artillery observer, etc). The player sets up the terrain, then comes up with a plan and assigns assets for his given forces (an infantry company, usually). The player then attempts to accomplish whatever the goals are (attacking, defending or patrolling) against an uncertain enemy in a given time.

There is no traditional map. In fact, the map is generated at the beginning of the mission dynamically by drawing terrain cards and placing them on the table. Each war has a different terrain deck (Vietnam has lots of jungles and nasty terrain, while Normandy has a lot of bocage and farmhouses). The map can be drastically different from mission to mission, even when replaying the same mission. You might draw a mostly forest and bocage Normandy mission, or you might draw more urban farmhouses and villages.

The enemy forces are similarly dynamically created; there is no simple mission scenario setup or anything of that nature. Enemies are simulated not by placing enemies on the board at the start, but through placing various strength potential contact markers. These resolve differently whether you attack or defend. Resolving a contact chit means the potential of enemies appearing in cards. The placement and units vary dramatically. You may resolve several markers without any enemy forces appearing but it is more likely forces will appear in front of you and begin firing on you, oftentimes unobserved. There is a rhyme and reason to encounters, however, as dangerous markers yield enemies far more often and tend to produce more dangerous unit types.

Combat results and the like are handled by a similar mechanism to the legendary game Up Front. No dice. There is a card deck that has various random indicators on it, a random number generator for truly random draws, and various icons on the cards that indicate things such as the results of hits, if shots hit. Etc, etc. All attempts to follow orders and act are handled with this deck. This means lots of reshuffling, which is a definite annoyance of the system. And unlike Up Front, which has a truly massive action deck that takes a while to cycle through, Fields of Fire has a much smaller deck that you burn through quickly and reshuffle.

A Simulation of Commanding, Not Controlling

I must say Fields of Fire is quite a unique experience. In particular, it has a singular viewpoint of combat that bears no resemblance to current tactical wargame systems (ASL, Company of Heroes, Combat Commander, etc). That viewpoint is command, not control. Everybody who plays wargames constantly talks about command, what it means and how it is one of the most important things in simulating war. But in practice, command generally just means units have to be X number of hexes from a commander or, more commonly, the leader adds combat power to the army since he is so smart.

The viewpoint here is different. It is simulating commanders as the actors. All other units, outside of commanders, behave with some manner of AI. The best example is friendly units. Basically, friendly AI is pretty rudimentary. It will fire at units it sees and even continue fire into the brush if the enemy leaves. Troops on their own are just doing their thing, trying to get by. They protect themselves but they will not generally go anywhere or do anything. They will just sit there if there is no one telling it what to do.

The units act because your commanders tell them what to do. So what you control in this game is not your units, but rather you control your commanders, rushing from cover to cover and card to card, trying to get your guys moving to the right places and doing the right things. Then the troops check to see if they can do those things depending on their skills and luck. Commanders have limited number of commands every turn. Very limited. Commanders under fire and in stressful situations generate fewer and fewer commands. Your best move, unlike most tactical games, is *not* to have your commanders in the middle of the shit because they a) may die, which is a disaster and b) will not receive many commands while being shot at and are no good anybody behind cover where they cannot see and talk to most units.

What I Enjoy about Fields of Fire

The combat system is very interesting. As with most other parts of the game, it also presents a non-traditional view of combat. Far different from one man rolls up one shot on a particular other unit. Instead, a single unit on a card generates fire in a direction onto one other card. Having more than one squad or unit of that same fire level generates the same fire marker. So if you have a heavy machine gun on a card firing into another card, from the perspective of damage caused it is the same as having 10 heavy machine guns firing from the same direction (there are other reasons you would want 10 heavy machine guns, but for the most part there isn't as much reason to mass troops).

In fact, having many troops on the same terrain means you have to check for each one being hit when shot at which means that a hit is more likely on someone in the card. The game really incentivizes you to maneuver and not bunch up. Yet, and herein lies the conflict, your commanders need their troops somewhat bunched up to effectively issue commands like movement, infiltration, concentrating fire, finding cover, etc.

Even getting into cover is a hard choice. On one hand, you want your guys in strong cover so they will be less likely to get hit. On the other hand, once you send them into different covers, even on a single card, your commander is now out of voice/visual range meaning to get them back together you need to rush between covers wasting a lot of time with your CO, generally once the fire has stopped or died down a bit. Or you can send up a flare w/a predetermined signal that they can all see. Etc, etc.

Another amazing thing about the game is the sense of place it creates. For a map that seems abstract, made up of 15-20 terrain cards, you really get a sense of how important the good terrain is and what the linchpins of the map are. And you get a totally unique map. There is also cover *within* terrain which adds a lot of character.

I had an epic battle, like 5 or 6 turns, in my last game between #3 squad of my 3rd platoon who never took anything worse than a pin result when sent alone into some rubble. They kept assaulting a squad of 88s in a trench near a farm. They were out of command range and I did not want my HQs running into such deadly fire, so I was mostly helpless to assist---I also couldn't fire into the card for fear of friendly fire. The 88s ended up running out of ammo and falling back on the very last turn of the game. Triumph.

Or the farmhouse we found that ended up being a tall sturdily built structure. I dashed my 50 cal, arty forward observer and 1st Sarge into the upper level while under fire from a German LMG, where the 1st Sergeant could direct machine gun fire and artillery barrages. That ended up being the key to the mission. I took my attack position and primary objective after that, assisted especially by the .50 (my arty FO couldn't get into contact with battalion enough, someone issue that man a new radio!). Meanwhile, my CO HQ never moved out of the staging area.

All of this leads into the strongest part of the game. Narrative. This game is incredibly memorable and also a detailed enough simulation for a huge variety of things to happen. Signal flares, artillery missions, mortars, machine gun crossfires, helicopter drops, RPG fire, airstrikes, tank battles: you get the point. And it is not created by totally unpredictable events from cards, a la Combat Commander. Instead the narrative is a much more rational and logical process that creates extraordinarily exciting events.

The enemy is also part of this narrative. It is controlled by a very nice, quick, and easy to use but detailed AI reference card system. Enemy AI almost always does what you'd expect in a situation (i.e. rip you apart in some way) but it's varied up by occasional unexpected moves like falling back if they've been put under heavy fire. It also makes each of the many types of unit do things you think they should, using only 3 reference tables.

There Are, of Course, Warts

The rules are a disaster. They are abominably organized. Nothing seems to be in the right section. I found myself rules hunting constantly until I internalized the rules. The first game I played of the game was a complete cluster fuck. I did not know what I was doing or why I was doing it. Not a terribly fun experience and since the game was progressing so slowly I was not getting any sense of the powerful narrative. Supposedly GMT is working on new rules. This is a Good Idea. But more importantly it is working on a comprehensive example of play. This is a Very Good Idea. This game desperately needs more examples of play. In particular a long one, covering some of the minor stuff, would be most welcome for new players.

It is hard to say if bad rules are the source of all the rules frustration, however. As M. Barnes has mentioned in the past on F:AT about this game, it is also incredibly unconventional. And that plays a big part in why it is hard to learn. Most wargames build off each other, with concepts that carry over from one to another easily. The only game that would be helpful to have played for Fields of Fire is Up Front, and then only for some of the combat resolution and random number generation mechanics. The basic strategy and tactics are completely new. And your new mindset of thinking as a commander rather than an all powerful manipulator moving squads is hard to penetrate. Fields of Fire suggests to me that the designer of this game (Ben Hull of Musket and Pike games) is absolutely brilliant, but whoever developed it and approved the rules really struggled.

The game also errs on the side of simulation. There are a *ton* of little command details. The types of details you are not used to dealing with. Laying phone wires. Different radio models. Signal flares, smoke to plan. Visual verbal communication restrictions. All that sort of thing. Probably a little too much. It can occasionally feel more simulation than game.

Finally, the game has lots and lots of moving chits around and making small adjustments. The type of thing that most BGG players abhor,
"Fiddliness." It is a very fiddly game with lots of counter on individual cards and lots of different statuses for units. Also it has things that need to be written down on a piece of paper and kept track of.

Summing it Up

This is a unique game. Not only is it solitaire, it is a very dynamic solitaire. Not only is it tactical, it is a completely different type of tactical about commanding rather than controlling units. The rules are a mess, it is a bear. In the end, Fields of Fire still creates a narrative that often impresses. It creates games that are memorable. Remember when you told all your friends about the amazing adventure you had during your pen and paper RPG session when you were in middle school and they looked at you funny, wondering why you were telling them? This game makes me want to tell the same stories to people about the crazy situations my company has gotten into and out of.

(Originally posted on Fortress:Ameritrash)
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Stephan Tourville
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Outstanding review! I just got this in the mail today, and it looks exciting. I have to admit I was hesitant to order it after reading the scores of frustrated posts on the ruleset, but there were also a sprinkling of comments such as yours from players who'd devoted time to the game and come out of it feeling excited and rewarded.

So I took the leap and bought it. And after reading this article, I'm confident that whatever struggles I have with the rules will be offset by what look to be some great gaming experiences.

Thanks man!
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William Crispin
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I received it on preorder from GMT but I have just been waiting to start playing until others have had the chance to work through it. I know I want to play it but I just want the learning curve to be a little lower.

Progress is definitely being made with better examples, numerous AARs and an improved manual in the works.
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Robert Ramirez
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SgtShellback wrote:
there were also a sprinkling of comments such as yours from players who'd devoted time to the game and come out of it feeling excited and rewarded.


Add me to this list. I couldn't agree more. It takes dedication devotion to muster the mental energy to make sense of it all.

Quote:
As M. Barnes has mentioned in the past on the F:AT about this game, it is also incredibly unconventional.


Exactly. It's like NOTHING I've played before. I haven't been a long time wargamer, but I do own a few. Even with perfect rules, I see some struggling in just getting this outstanding but unique system.
 
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Kazunori Iriya
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Hi Steve,

Great Review!

Kazunori
 
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Steve Herron
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You hit the nail on the head Steve, you decribed Fields very well. Good job!
 
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Chris Ferejohn
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Sounds very cool. The order system sounds a little like Battleground.
 
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Karl Kreder
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Good review, but I don't know what F:AT is???
 
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Marco Lippolis
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Thanks for your review.

I bought this game in spite of all the bad things I read about the rules. I'm a Eurogamer and wargames are not my cup o' tea, but I really wanted to like this game.

I have a few questions though:

1. Are you wargamers REALLY happy about the way rules are usually written??? You see, a Euro rulebook is always so well organised, things are taught in such a logical way and they all start by saying 'open the gameboard a place it in the centre of the table ...' Why can't wargames follow such a scheme?

2. I had a similar bad experience with Blackbeard (Avalon Hill) so I thought of buying the new GMT version only to find that the rules were written in the same manner! Chapters, sub-chapters and sub-sub-chapters all placed in the wrong place. And even in that case, various threads started here on BGG about the way the rules had been written.

3. Talking about FoF now. If, as you wargamers say, the design is SO innovative, wouldn't it have been better if GMT took some time and some effort to write a decent rulebook and not the nightmare you find in the box. I can only blame myself for buying the game and having so much difficulty with it, but dozens of experienced gamers are having trouble with it. FoF is one of those games that really call for expansions, so isn't it a stupid thing for GMT to turn away so many potential buyers from what is certainly a good game, just because they do not intend paying a good rule editor?

I'm eagerly waiting for some kind of rule revision and/or examples from GMT because the only thing I did for the moment is sort out and bag the different counters

Mark
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Matthias
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zeotter wrote:
Good review, but I don't know what F:AT is???


Fortress Ameritrash ( http://fortressat.com )
A very different boardgaming site with sometimes great articles.
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Karl Kreder
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Ahhh thank you.
 
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Steve
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Quote:
Thanks for your review.

1. Are you wargamers REALLY happy about the way rules are usually written??? You see, a Euro rulebook is always so well organised, things are taught in such a logical way and they all start by saying 'open the gameboard a place it in the centre of the table ...' Why can't wargames follow such a scheme?

2. I had a similar bad experience with Blackbeard (Avalon Hill) so I thought of buying the new GMT version only to find that the rules were written in the same manner! Chapters, sub-chapters and sub-sub-chapters all placed in the wrong place. And even in that case, various threads started here on BGG about the way the rules had been written.


You're welcome. My thoughts...

Step by step instructions like that would require 100s of pages of rules, unless it is a simple wargame. On top of that chapters and subchapters, bullets, etc are necessary when playing a game with any kind of complexity for reference. On the other hand, no, we are not always happy about our rules. Complex wargame rules are both the hardest to write (IMHO) and also have the fewest resources dedicated to them because of the niche size of the market. Not a great combination.

But oftentimes rules really go right. To see a great example of an incredibly complex game with *great* rules read them for Here I Stand. There are other examples but that one stands out. Here I Stand is an incredibly deep and complex system that has a pretty much perfect rulebook. Organized well, comprehensive and still very approachable, though not in the way that you suggest.

Quote:
3. Talking about FoF now. If, as you wargamers say, the design is SO innovative, wouldn't it have been better if GMT took some time and some effort to write a decent rulebook and not the nightmare you find in the box. I can only blame myself for buying the game and having so much difficulty with it, but dozens of experienced gamers are having trouble with it. FoF is one of those games that really call for expansions, so isn't it a stupid thing for GMT to turn away so many potential buyers from what is certainly a good game, just because they do not intend paying a good rule editor?


It would be nice, but it's one of the things that I accept from the wargame industry given the small number of copies a game typically sells. Print runs are very small relative to euros. Wargame companies also release a lot of games with small print runs instead of a few big games. I think for GMT to truly commit euro style resources to development would require that they only release a product or two a year--meaning conservative topics and games. And I know what I think that would mean: game after game of various straight ahead 2 player traditional WWII games. No thank you.

A good example, actually, is Columbia games. They don't release many games, devote a lot of time and energy to development, but end up being *extremely* conservative in their releases. I don't really like Columbia games and they all feel very samey to me. I can't imagine something like Fields of Fire or really any of the innovative games of the past 10 years coming out of such a system. The great advantage of the P500 is that it gets innovative great games out the door, with small print runs. Take Twilight Struggle--it barely got enough orders. Look at it now. No wargame company would ever have printed TS outside a P500 IMHO.

One could always make the argument that no resources are spent because I don't expect the rules to be tight. But I don't buy it. The economics of the industry point to the other causal story to me.

I appreciate why people don't want to try these games and feel they're underdeveloped. Sometimes they are. I don't begrudge anyone who doesn't want to bother with it. For me, though, I'd rather fight through an innovative, underdeveloped, Fields of Fire than play another cookie cutter wargame. Which I believe is the choice I would be making in the face of a euro style development for wargames.
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Robert Fox
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Ditto this review.

I absolutely love the level of decision making in this game. It's the first wargame I've played where I feel the leaders are acting like leaders and not some super combat modifier with a bullhorn.

Most of the time you'll have your leaders just behind the front line trying to move people and equipment into the right positions. If you do need to move them onto the front line, you'll usually want them in the best cover available, which will also then make them pretty worthless to everyone but the one or two units in the same cover.

General initiative and all units automatically opening fire allows for units to act somewhat independently (especially those on the front line where you don't want your leaders), but only on a very limited basis (general initiative is small and always in short supply to your actual needs). To get effective use out of your combat units, the leaders need to be there.

It's also interesting to watch how your leaders will build command points early on, but once heavy combat starts, that command reserve dwindles quickly to zero. Having a platoon in reserve not only gives you an intact platoon for the final push, but the reserve platoon leader will usually be the only leader with any command points built up for that final push ... that cannot be underestimated.

Yes, the rules are a nightmarish mess. It takes a lot of research and work to get the game playable ... but for me the work has totally been worth it. I hope they get the rules rewrite correct, as I'd love to have an expansion or two for this.
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Robert Fox
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lippo wrote:

1. Are you wargamers REALLY happy about the way rules are usually written??? You see, a Euro rulebook is always so well organised, things are taught in such a logical way and they all start by saying 'open the gameboard a place it in the centre of the table ...' Why can't wargames follow such a scheme?


I think this is just a factor of how difficult *most* wargames are. Many wargames have many systems and subsystems that all interact in many unpredictable ways. For example ... take a typical detailed Napoleonic wargame. There have to be rules to govern cavalry charges ... which can cause infantry to form square (cavalry charge defense of the time) which will change how artillery interacts with the infantry and how the infantry can fire at other infantry. All that has to have every aspect covered and it's a situation that won't come up very often.

Most eurogames have one or two main systems that are very procedural in how they are resolved and typically don't involve allowing others to directly respond or supercede that resolution. This makes rules much easier to write and explain.

Also, many wargamers rely on past experience to help fill in the gaps. A game like Fields of Fire really don't build on many past games, so we're sort of lost when it comes to relying on past experience to fill the gaps.

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Marco Lippolis
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Steve, Robert,

thank you for taking some time to reply to my post.

Of course I am well aware of the differences between wargames and Euros from a complexity standpoint: much more rules with exceptions that lead to more rules and exceptions and so on. One of the reasons I refuse to play Warhammer Fantasy Battles anymore.

Anyway I am quite sure that something could be done a little better. Blackbeard or Manoeuvre (which I've also got) are less complex than FoF or many other wargames and, what's more, they were intended not to appeal to the old wargamer (or not only to), but to a new public, maybe people like me that might be interested in something different from the usual German games and maybe one day purchase something else from the same company.

And yet even a game like Manoeuvre, something pretty close to a Euro, had to have threads because of doubts, corrections, clarifications and official errata. I'd rather spend my time playing the game than having to look up Q & A on the Net.

I WANT to play FoF and eventually will, but believe me, unless things change in the future I shall not buy anything else from GMT.

Thank you again and don't worry, I won't bother you anymore

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Great review Steve!laugh
 
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Robert Fox
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It's never a bother! (at least for me).

It was touched on by Steve that the much smaller print run on wargames could be a contributing factor to how unclear some games rules seem to be (I agree). I think wargames tend to be in development for a longer period of time, but have smaller playtest groups (mostly consisting of wargaming veterans) to refine wargames. I suspect the wargame playtesters are used to large rulebooks, so when they read the rules for an easier game, most mechanics seem obvious to them so they don't think to question the rules much. Perhaps this is another reason the wargame rulebooks aren't as polished as a euro counterpart?

Personally, I've never really had many problems with most wargames. I actually prefer the old style AH rulebooks ... although they can be harder to read, many were referenced/cross referenced enough that it was easy looking up rules, or seeing which rules affected other rules.

I wish I had a better answer. Interesting discussion though.
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Bob Fees
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I have played the first mission a few times now. I want a complete understanding before taking my company through a campaign. This said, each time played it was a very different story. This is what holds me to learning the complexity of FoF. Kudos to the genius of Ben Hull. I enjoyed reading your review and couldn't agree more.
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Michael Brugato
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Great review Steve. It mirrors my play experience and impression of the game perfectly. Well written.
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Christian Moura
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lippo wrote:
Steve, Robert,

I WANT to play FoF and eventually will, but believe me, unless things change in the future I shall not buy anything else from GMT.

Thank you again and don't worry, I won't bother you anymore



I haven't read the rules to Maneouver, but I think you are unfourtunate to only own two other GMT games, FoF and Blackbeard; few people would argue that the original rules for either are very, very poorly written. They are extreme examples of GMT's standard, which is unlucky for you.

Not saying that GMT can't improve as a whole when it comes to writing and proof reading rules to new games, they certainly can. On the other end of the spectrum, a game like Combat Commander has crystal clear rules.


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Guy Riessen
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garysax wrote:
I can't imagine something like Fields of Fire or really any of the innovative games of the past 10 years coming out of such a system. The great advantage of the P500 is that it gets innovative great games out the door, with small print runs. Take Twilight Struggle--it barely got enough orders. Look at it now. No wargame company would ever have printed TS outside a P500 IMHO.

One could always make the argument that no resources are spent because I don't expect the rules to be tight. But I don't buy it. The economics of the industry point to the other causal story to me.

I appreciate why people don't want to try these games and feel they're underdeveloped. Sometimes they are. I don't begrudge anyone who doesn't want to bother with it. For me, though, I'd rather fight through an innovative, underdeveloped, Fields of Fire than play another cookie cutter wargame. Which I believe is the choice I would be making in the face of a euro style development for wargames.


Wow, This is a brilliantly put answer to a question so often asked. Seriously, this is the best answer I've read as to why wargame rules are what they are, and why we wargamers accept them for what they are.

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Steve
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Thank you, Guy. That is very kind of you to say. It's something I've thought a lot about. It's definitely a strong, frequent criticism from many outside the wargame hobby about current wargames and the P500.
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Steve, I've been enjoying FoF for a couple weeks now, and I just got around to reading your excellent review. It sums up my feelings on the game very well. Thanks for taking the time to write it.
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Steve
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Apropos of its 2nd edition (and Pacific campaign later this year or next, hopefully), I played this a couple times over the past few weeks. It still holds up, despite how messy it is and the rules. Review still captures all of my thoughts after all these years. If you get frustrated or tired of playing the WWII campaign---the place to start, it is the simplest---try the Heartbreak Ridge campaign.

The Germans are incredibly frustrating, as they are tactically disciplined, always dug in, and the terrain in the bocage is insanely close and often solid defensively. You can rarely do more than flush the opponent out or maybe make them withdraw using close combat assault or large scale artillery strike. By contrast, if you crack Heartbreak Ridge you will be on a huge map with large numbers of forces but, crucially, on a huge open map that you can develop fire positions from. In addition, many of the encounters are with less experienced, lower quality North Korean troops than the German veterans you initially face in the WWII campaign. Sometimes you'll even catch like 3 squads in the open upon encounter! And their responses are much less disciplined in the AI section and they run away much more easily and often not very strategically.
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Mark Russo
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The historical bocage fighting was incredibly frustrating, especially for green troops with green leadership. The distance a FoF player's infantry Company moves if they complete a scenario, 4-5 card rows equating to roughly 4-5 sections of bocage, would have been seen as a very good day by his Battalion and Regimental leadership.

It's been mentioned over the years about FoF, and I agree that, the game would do well to have one-two learning scenarios to help the player get started.
Some said the player can make up their own learning scenario's, true but most players want to jump right in and by the time they get frustrated the game is put away and they've moved on.

Some said the historical leaders were thrown right into the fire so why shouldn't the player, semi-true (they had at least a year of training in the US and England) but unlike their historical counter-parts once frustrated with the situation the player can just pack up the game, throw it in the closet and come to BGG to complain about their frustration.
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