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Chris Montgomery
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"Field Commander: Rommel" a Short Dip Into the Shallow End of the Pool

Field Commander: Rommel is the first in a product line of solitaire wargames under the Field Commander moniker. Designed by Dan Verssen and published and distributed by his game company, Dan Verssen Games (DVG), Field Commander Rommel sends a player through the three major campaigns of Erwin Rommel's career.

Since there seemed to be relavitely few reviews about this game, and since I've been able to play it quite a few times already, I thought I would throw a slightly more negative review into the mix for players thinking about purchasing this game.



My Qualifications

The above image is from "Qualifying for the World," which is simply representative of this section: my qualifications to write about this game. You can see my more thorough wargaming experience here: http://www.boardgamegeek.com/thread/352674. I have played all three campaigns at least once (and the Africa campaign twice). I have experience with at least one other solitaire wargame: "Fields of Fire," which, though not an operational solitaire game, is solitaire nonetheless. And players of solitaire games, I think, would agree that solitaire wargames are an animal unto themselves. In addition to this, I frequently play games alone even though these game were not meant for solitaire play: Tide of Iron and Conflict of Heroes, among others.

Though I tend toward non-solitaire games and prefer the social interaction of a face-to-face play, I do have solitaire games, like Field Commander: Rommel, for an afternoon of diversion when I'm feeling up for a game and no one's available to play.

I am completely comfortable discussing this game.

Components, Bits, and Pieces

Field Commander: Rommel's production quality is what I would call "moderately high." While the maps are made of paper . . .



. . . the counter's are coated with a thickness of transparent adhesive that makes them quite sturdy and easy to handle, and apparently long-lasting . . .



In addition, the simple design of the counters makes the units easily identifiable and the type-setting and color choices provide good contrasts.

The rulebook is made of high-quality high-gloss paper stock, bound well, and well-edited, which is more than I can say for most wargames.

The packaging, while never that important of a feature (at least to me), was on the cheaper side, with a somewhat flimsy box that bowed on the top and bottom and was difficult to separate (at least for me). So, when opening the game, you have to slide your fingers underneath the sides of the box and gently shake it, rather than simply picking the game up by the lid and allowing the bottom to slide off. (And yes, I know that the last two sentences were nit-picky.)

So, overall, the production quality is moderately high. I know that such a term is rather vague, but I mean somewhere higher than "above-average" and somewhere lower than "excellent." If I had to grade it, I would give it a "B".

Rules

Rules are one of those subjective matters that will vary from gamer to gamer. This particular set of rules is well-written, coherent, and logically organized, but the rules-system is so simplistic (for a wargame) that it would be difficult to muck them up too much. I must say that I was impressed, nonetheless, with the attention to detail and careful editing.

Even so, there is an errata list and an FAQ for the rules, but it is much less intrusive and all-encompassing, than, say, the garish errata for "Fields of Fire,” or the ever-growing errata and FAQ sheet for Tide of Iron.

As a quick overview, the rules operate in an I-Go-You-Go fashion, with the player moving first, then the AI. During a player's turn, he moves, performs combat, and manages supply. Combat is triggered by moving onto a space containing enemy units (or in the case of the AI, if the AI moves onto your space). Combat is done with 1 d6 roll per unit--essentially, if you are under your combat factor you score a hit, and if you are over your combat factor, you miss, a la Axis & Allies. Each hit will either reduce a full-strength unit to its weaker backside, or the hit can be applied to an already reduced unit by eliminating it. In addition to these rules, units that survive combat may gain experience, which generally grants them either a higher combat modifier or more movement, or both. There are, obviously, more rules than these for combat, but not many. In addition to your basic combat phase, there are additional combat points each side is awarded during a combat phase, which allows them to purchase helpful actions, such as anti-tank guns, air support, ambush, etc. While all of these actions sound wonderful, they are generally reduced to generic additional attempts to hit, or they convey a slight advantage, such as allowing one side to inflict casualties before receiving hits from the other side. All in all, for players of wargames (especially for players of hex-and-counter wargames), these rules will be easily grasped and quickly digested. The problem is that they feel too "been there, done that." Not that it's a bad system, it's just not necessarily that exciting after the first two or three large battles.

The maps, especially the North Africa map, might as well have been a linear string of territories for all the good the regions do. Basically, in order for the player to defeat the AI, they have to run at the Allies quickly and hope that the dice rolls go their way. Otherwise, time is on the Allies’ (AI’s) side. The longer the game drags on, the more units the AI obtains and, especially in the North Africa campaign, Rommel can get buried by the Allied supply points very quickly.

Game Play: The Good

Fast Play. The first good thing about gameplay is that it is fast. You can play, for instance, the entire African Campaign in a couple hours. As I mentioned before, the rules are intuitive, easy to grasp and remember, and are quickly digested. So, if you have an hour to two with nothing going on, it is easy to set up the game and go.

Set Up Time (With Proper Organization). Another good thing about the game is the set up time; you can go from opening the box to make your first moves in about ten minutes if you have your counters organized.

Simple Rules. For those looking for a simplistic game, then this could be put in the Good column for those players. For me, it was a negative: see the next section.

Game Play: The Bad

Setup. Setup can be a nightmare if you haven't properly organized and sorted your counters beforehand. This can be further complicated by the fact that some units have the same name but different combat modifiers and different nationalities. This can lead to some confusion during set up when you are trying to decide which unit should be placed. Though, all-in-all, this is not that big of a deal. Set up can take anywhere from 10 minutes (for the well-organized player) to 30 minutes (for a horribly disorganized player).

Complexity. My biggest complaint with the game, as silly as it sounds, is that it is not complex enough. The failure in complexity may be a matter of taste, but the lack of complexity comes down to three issues in particular: (1) the maps, (2) the rules, and (3) the AI. Let's discuss each one in turn, and I will try to explain my complaints.

The maps for the game (as I mentioned earlier) might as well have been a linear string of spaces. Rommel usually has to march quickly and get lucky in order to overcome the inertia of the Allied supply points.

The rules, as I have already pointed out, are not complex. I see this as a problem because when I play a solitaire wargame, I am looking for a rich, imaginative experience that draws me into the game and allows me to get lost in the fantasy of being a general and imagining the battles. A great example of this is the recently released Fields of Fire, which I encourage anyone to take a look at if they are seeking a rich, complex, solitaire game (Fields of Fire also needs some work, though, so beware). Field Commander: Rommel fails on this complexity point in a big way. In all the games I played, I never thought about how to outflank the enemy, nor did I need to extend my lines, or think about strategy at all. The game is far less about strategy and being a clever general (like Rommel had to be historically), and is, instead, a game about min-maxing your supply and combat points to achieve victory. In other words, as much as it pains me to say it, the game doesn’t let me into my fantasy. When I play, I don’t feel like Erwin Rommel. I feel like a guy playing a game by himself, needing to roll well against a game system.

Finally, the AI is also pretty simplistic, which creates game play problems. Again, I would like to point out Field of Fire as an example of a more complex AI (though Fields of Fire is a tactical game, not an operational-level game). It “feels like” the game designers couldn’t achieve a successful AI just on random choices alone, and therefore, in order to create a challenging game, decided to dramatically increase the supply points given to the AI to help off-set the fact that the AI cannot react in any meaningful way to its human opponent. So, instead, it seems like they upped the Allied supply points to an astronomical level which allows the AI not to have to worry about any kind of tactics. This, combined with the narrow maps, creates a huge wall Allied units which the Rommel player cannot outflank or go around, cut supply off from, but must meet face-to-face, undersupplied, and hope that he can roll well and win the battle. I found that the Allies trounced me quite often (I have yet to win the Africa campaign), but I didn’t feel like I made any mistakes (there are precious few to make, actually), but instead, I felt drowned in a sea of Allied supply points that just kept coming and kept coming.

That might work for a zombie game, but in a wargame, especially a solitaire wargame, I want more--more strategy, a clever AI, a deep thinking game. And on those points, I do not feel Rommel delivers in sufficient quanitites.

Summary

Field Commander: Rommel is a simplistic solitaire game that can be played in just a couple hours, but the simplistic maps and poor AI deliver a game that is short on depth and strategy. I will get this game to the table again, but it will be few and far between.
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Caleb
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Hmm. Any North African campaign game where outflanking is not an option is probably a failure. Thanks for the heads-up.
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Paul Franklin-Bihary
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I heartily disagree with the flanking point. In every game I've played so far, flanking was a valid strategy, and it worked. Yes, the game is pretty simple, but, at least after 4 plays on my end, regular wargame strategies apply.
 
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Chris Montgomery
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paulus22 wrote:
I heartily disagree with the flanking point. In every game I've played so far, flanking was a valid strategy, and it worked. Yes, the game is pretty simple, but, at least after 4 plays on my end, regular wargame strategies apply.


It is true that you can "outflank" the enemy in the North African campaign in the sense that you can attack a territory from more than one side, but the rules provide no benefit for doing so. It is similarly true for any type of envelopment strategy. You can attempt to "cut off supply" between the AI's units and their base of operations, but doing so generally will deplete your defensive lines to the point that the AI will easily make huge advances (and probably capture a supply point in doing so). In other words, the concept of flanking and the advantages it is supposed to grant are simply not supported by the rules. Unless, of course (and it's entirely possible, I suppose), I have missed the mark in my understanding of the rules.

Could you elaborate a little about how flanking worked for you in your games? I'm very interested in that, because the apparent lack of strategy is what turned me off of this game.
 
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Donald Wilbur III
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cmontgo2 wrote:

...Basically, in order for the player to defeat the AI, they have to run at the Allies quickly and hope that the dice rolls go their way. Otherwise, time is on the Allies’ (AI’s) side. The longer the game drags on, the more units the AI obtains and, especially in the North Africa campaign, Rommel can get buried by the Allied supply points very quickly.
...

But isn't that a pretty good representation of what happened historically?


An excellent review. Thank you!
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Tim Gamer
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I felt drowned in a sea of Allied supply points that just kept coming and kept coming.


I would imagine that is how Rommel himself must have felt most all of the time.
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Chris Montgomery
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gilesclone wrote:
cmontgo2 wrote:

...Basically, in order for the player to defeat the AI, they have to run at the Allies quickly and hope that the dice rolls go their way. Otherwise, time is on the Allies’ (AI’s) side. The longer the game drags on, the more units the AI obtains and, especially in the North Africa campaign, Rommel can get buried by the Allied supply points very quickly.
...

But isn't that a pretty good representation of what happened historically?


An excellent review. Thank you!


Heh. I will be honest with you that I am not absolutely sure if that is what happened historically or not. I do know that Rommel was called the Desert Fox because the Allies had a difficult time figuring out where he was and how strong he was at any given time. He did have a knack for hitting the Allies where the least expected it, and yes, at the end of the day, supply issues caused Rommel to lose the North African campaign. All of that being said, this game's North African campaign does not create the kind of "feel" I expected, at least for me. Again, my complaints aren't with the game itself, it's with my expectations--I expected more complexity, depth, etc. The design itself is good, just not enjoyable for me, and doesn't capture the "feel" I was expecting.

Cheers!
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Chris Montgomery
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timmy65 wrote:
Quote:
I felt drowned in a sea of Allied supply points that just kept coming and kept coming.


I would imagine that is how Rommel himself must have felt most all of the time.


True, he may have felt that way, but I know for certain that Allies had a lot more to contend with when month after month, they kept getting hit where they least expected it. In this game, it's pretty much a head-to-head fight, throw the dice and see who wins. Again, just my opinion.
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Dennis FitzPatrick
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I must disagree. I found the decisions I had to make rather tough. Certainly more limited than many other wargames but enough to keep me coming back for more. I found this on the same complexity as say, "The Russian Campaign" from AH.

On the other hand, I've put my copy of "Fields of Fire" up for trade because, the rules as written are simply incomprehensible. I've read the rulebook twice, set up the game 3 times--with the aid, and failed to get into the play of the game. Not since "MBT" or "Magic Realm" have I found myself so confounded by a game system.
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John Echeverria
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Field Commander: Alexander, the next game in the series due to be released in about a month, promises to be a more complex game. Unlike Rommel, Alexander appears to emphasize grand strategy by incorporating politics and advisers, and the battle mechanic looks more complex based on my reading of the draft rules. The game will definitely be weightier than Rommel. Obviously, talking about the merits of Alexander, a different game, does not directly address your issues with Rommel, but I think it shows that Dan Verssen is open to taking the series in different directions that you may appreciate.
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Chris Montgomery
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Gearhead wrote:
I must disagree. I found the decisions I had to make rather tough. Certainly more limited than many other wargames but enough to keep me coming back for more. I found this on the same complexity as say, "The Russian Campaign" from AH.

On the other hand, I've put my copy of "Fields of Fire" up for trade because, the rules as written are simply incomprehensible. I've read the rulebook twice, set up the game 3 times--with the aid, and failed to get into the play of the game. Not since "MBT" or "Magic Realm" have I found myself so confounded by a game system.


Thanks for the comments, Mobius! I absolutely agree about Fields of Fire. GMT is working on a complete rewrite, I think, which would greatly benefit everyone. The rules are confounding and complicated and require a huge time investment before you can even play your first game. Nonetheless, I enjoyed Fields of Fire (after all the mucking around) much, much more than this title.

Cheers.
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Joseph
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Hi Chris.

Thanks for taking the time to review a solo game!

I've got 7 plays of FCR completed, and they all have been the "Ghost Division" campaign. I wanted to play that one until I was able to win the scenario. I do enjoy the game, but have some serious reservations about the playtesting and the completeness of the rules. I intend at writing my own review down the road, so I'll just share my biggest gripe. I think you're cutting the rules way too much slack. While the presentation is quite nice, and they read well, they're not complete.

Specifically, the relationships between the various battle orders is woefully unexplored. They need to be completely mapped out and explained in detail. This can shipwreck the whole game for you if you don't have the patience for such things. Wargamers like complete and detailed rules. They don't like ambiguities and omissions.

The rules manual could have easily been 3-4 pages longer. It's very frustrating when situations that arise in the very first combat, are not covered by the rules.

But I do enjoy the game and will play it some more. I hope you continue writing reviews of solo games!

Respectfully.

Falloutfan.
 
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While I don't agree with your conclusions, I'm glad you took the time to share them so that others may be better informed.

That's what this place is all about, after all!
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Mathew Schemenaur
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I enjoyed Field Commander: Rommel and Fields of Fire. Rommel is much simpler to learn but I found it enjoyable. Fields of File is difficult to learn, but I did find a richer experience once I invested the time. However, Fields of Fire is a squad level game and Rommel is a strategic level game.

The France 1940 scenario is alot harder than it was for the German army historically. Surprisingly, the one campaign Rommel did win is the hardest to win in this game. But, if you are finding it impossible to beat any of the other campaigns, you man be interpreting some rule wrong. Unfortunately, with solo games there is no one to help you find your mistakes. It is best to re-read the rules after you plan a game to discover what you are doing wrong. But, I did get good answers at consim world.

Unless you are a very experience war gamer, I would play Field Commander Rommel before trying Fields of Fire.

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Don Cooper
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I read in the review some of the same reservations that I have about the game. The maps, by design, had to be simple. It reduced the size of the rules, complexity and countermix size. The system is well integrated in that respect. I am not sure how the game would translate to larger more complex maps and campaigns. However, it is a bit on the simplistic side and in a solitaire game that opens up the game to be largely contolled by chit pulls and dice rather than strategy and tactics. A game like "Field of Fire, chose another route in the development of the game. You have a lot of decisions and choices to make. In FC: Rommel game it can be frustrating, as you try to figure out how to win a scenario and come to the conclusion that is largely about luck. That said the game draws you in and because of the easy setup time allows for repeat plays. A thought provoking review on solitaire games. Thanks.
 
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Dan Verssen
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Hello Chris!

Thank you for taking the time to review our game. I completely agree with all the positive things you had to say.

As for the negative...

Maps - The North Africa map is pretty linear. Which on a strategic level is true. Very rarely did the forces in mass head south in to the desert. Small scout forces did head south, but those units are below the level covered in the game.

The Ghost Division and D-Day maps are not linear. Each game has units moving all over these maps.

Complexity - You're right. This is not a deep complex game. The complexity rating on the back of the box is "Low to Moderate". Our goal in designing the FC series is to open the topics to people who are interested in these subjects, but not interested enough to sit down for 6 hours and wade through a complex game. The estimated time to play a campaign is 1 to 2 hours. Which again supports the fast-play low complexity games series we are trying to design. If you want to see these campaigns depicted in detail with loads of rules, and a 12 hour play time, the FC series is not for you.

AI - Board game AIs are tricky. As they go up in smarts, they take an ever increasing toll on player fatigue. Because ultimately it is the player who must work their way through charts, if-then statements, and modifiers. Again, this goes back to complexity. The AI is very interactive in that it is used for enemy reinforcement, movement, and combat. To increase its complexity would soon taken its toll on the player.

Summary:
I think you played one game, but were looking for a different one. It seems like the game you want is much more complex, and takes much more time to play.

If looked at from the point of view of what is claimed on the box, a game that is of low to moderate complexity and takes 90 minutes to play, I think Rommel does an excellent job of delivering on that promise.
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simon thornton
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Quote:
a game that is of low to moderate complexity and takes 90 minutes to play, I think Rommel does an excellent job of delivering on that promise.


Amen to that.
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Chris Montgomery
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DanVerssen wrote:
Hello Chris!

Thank you for taking the time to review our game. I completely agree with all the positive things you had to say.

As for the negative...

Maps - The North Africa map is pretty linear. Which on a strategic level is true. Very rarely did the forces in mass head south in to the desert. Small scout forces did head south, but those units are below the level covered in the game.

The Ghost Division and D-Day maps are not linear. Each game has units moving all over these maps.

Complexity - You're right. This is not a deep complex game. The complexity rating on the back of the box is "Low to Moderate". Our goal in designing the FC series is to open the topics to people who are interested in these subjects, but not interested enough to sit down for 6 hours and wade through a complex game. The estimated time to play a campaign is 1 to 2 hours. Which again supports the fast-play low complexity games series we are trying to design. If you want to see these campaigns depicted in detail with loads of rules, and a 12 hour play time, the FC series is not for you.

AI - Board game AIs are tricky. As they go up in smarts, they take an ever increasing toll on player fatigue. Because ultimately it is the player who must work their way through charts, if-then statements, and modifiers. Again, this goes back to complexity. The AI is very interactive in that it is used for enemy reinforcement, movement, and combat. To increase its complexity would soon taken its toll on the player.

Summary:
I think you played one game, but were looking for a different one. It seems like the game you want is much more complex, and takes much more time to play.

If looked at from the point of view of what is claimed on the box, a game that is of low to moderate complexity and takes 90 minutes to play, I think Rommel does an excellent job of delivering on that promise.


All good points, and perhaps you are right about playing one game but expecting another. Thanks for responding to my review!

I do believe I probably had false expectations about the game. It's not that I thought the game was "bad" by any means, but it fell below my expectations, and that is probably as you say: playing one game and expecting another.

Keep making games! I hope my review didn't sound utterly and completely negative. I did enjoy the games I played, but for my personal tastes, yes, I had (unfair?) expectations that were not fulfilled.

Just so you know I'm not a Negative Nancy about it all, I enjoyed FC: Rommel enough to put FC: Alexander on preorder with my on-line store. And I will be playing FC: Rommel again, just not as often as I first expected.

Cheers, Dan.

Chris
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If I could, I'll put a "thumb down" on this review.

Sorry to be so brutal, but It prevented me from sleeping. I was so angry.

Comparing FC:Rommel with Fields of Fire is a complete nonsense. You can prefer one to the other, but you CANNOT compare them.

I find stupid to say that a game is bad just because it is "simple". It is not because the rules are overcomplicated that a game is better. FC:R is a really "tour de force". It combines fun and accessibility. I want to underline that I Hate WW2.

I add that you can know a game after playing once each campaign. Did you win ? I lost 90% of them ^^

I have both FC and FoF. I love FC system > simple, immersive. I find FoF OVER-complicated and not so fun/enjoyable. I understand you can dislike it but your arguments are not receivable (IMO). Are mine receivable ? I don't know ^^.

Friendly,
Arnauld

ps : sorry, sometimes I love to uprise against injustice.
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I also disliked this game very much. I had the feel that the AI was nothing but a division throwing machine.
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Ryan Heac0ck
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I enjoyed the review and the discussion that followed. I believe that one of the strengths of this site as a resource shines when someone takes a risk and offers a critical review of a popular (or generally well-received game). He clearly stated where he was coming from, and before I read the review I could see where it was going to end (I have done a bit of reading on FC:R). This game does not appear to have much appeal for moderate/heavy grogs and that POV was reflected in the review. On the other hand....I am a novice wanna-be wargamer whom has little time to slog through a huge rule book loaded with exceptions (recently purchased Phase Line Smash *whew*). I think that, partially based on this 'Not So Positive Review', FC:R would be a better fit for my level of expertise.

Thanks for taking the time to write a review Chris, for a game that is not your cup of tea, how many of us would even bother???
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Sean Chick (Formerly Paul O'Sullivan)
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I actually agree with many of your criticisms, but for me the good out-weights the bad in this game.

Thanks for the counter to the positive reviews.
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Arnauld DELLA SIEGA
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Chris, what you say about this game in your profile (section : owned game) is very interesting.
 
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Chris Montgomery
United States
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The Coat of Arms of Clan Montgomery - Scotland. Yes, that's a woman with the head of a savage in her hand, and an anchor. No clue what it means, but it's cool.
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arnauld wrote:
Chris, what you say about this game in your profile (section : owned game) is very interesting.


Hi Arnauld. Your comments and anger are fine! That's what this site is about. I know that posting a "negative review" draws fire. Thanks for taking the time to respond and I'm sorry that you lost sleep over it.

I wold like to point out that my argument was not "I think the game is bad because it is simple." The argument was "I think the game could be better if it were more complex." I know that's a little nuanced, but I think the game is a fun play--it's just that after three or so times, it feels repetitious to me. This game is a good design, and I look forward the later titles, but I did feel a review was warranted for people who were thinking about buying this game and (without reading the rules prior to their purchase) finds that they are somewhat let down when their expectations did not match up with the game they purchased.

As I said above in response to Dan Verssen, I still intend to purchase and try the next game in the series. I did not feel this was a "bad" game--I have rated it a 6.2 (willing to play). It certainly fills a very much-needed niche, since it is very difficult to find those 1-2 hour wargames.

Cheers! And again, thanks for the response.

Chris
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James Fung
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Thank you for the review. I was hoping the battle plans would add some interesting decisions in what otherwise looks like a fairly typical area move wargame, but I'll probably pass if what you say about it losing its novelty is true.

In response to your complaint that you don't feel like Rommel: if you read The Rommel Papers, his motto was whoever has effective fire first wins the day (a take on get there the firstest with the mostest). However, this usually happened on a tactical level, and FC:R is an operational level game. At that level, the north Africa campaign was pretty linear due to terrain and the road network. There was, however, Rommel's dash across the Cyrenaica plateau, bypassing Benghazi and laying siege to Tobruk in 1941 because the British thought fighting would only occur on the coastal road. So you can create some of the dramatics in an operational game. As you note in your review, this involves jeopardizing your own supply.

In response to your comparison of FC:R and FoF: I have about 10 solitaire wargame titles, and it is difficult to compare them because they tend to be unique creatures. I believe this mainly happens because, when a designer decides to make a game solitaire rather 2+ player, it's often because he feels the situation demands it. In Carrier and Tokyo Express, it's to handle the hidden enemy forces without resorting to a double-blind system possibly requiring an umpire. In Raid on St. Nazaire, the historical enemy was so handicapped that it would be boring for a real player to operate under such constraints. And in the Ambush! series, B-17: Queen of the Skies, Hornet Leader, Patton's Best, and Ranger, the focus is on your people, and the opposition are just a revolving set of extras. And some games fall into more than one category.

The complexity of these games, to accommodate the unique situation, AI, and the player's interaction with it, range from simple (in B-17, enemy fighters keep coming until they miss or you chase them off) to horrendously complicated (I think the winner here is Carrier, if you include the intel and detection rules). I would rate FC:R at low-medium and FoF to possibly replacing Carrier as most complicated.

Beyond the difference in complexity, FoF is a very low-level game from platoon to fire team level where command & control is center stage while FC:R is operational to strategic about position, conservation of force, and supply. It is apples and oranges.

However, I think a valid criticism of FC:R's AI is this: it seems like someone took a 2-player game about Rommel and replaced one of the players with a simple AI. There are plenty of games on Rommel's campaigns with 2 players, and they work just fine. Thus, the 'innovation' of the solitaire opponent may be completely unnecessary or even detrimental. And if you remove the solitaire AI, what's left is a pretty typical area move wargame.
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