I wear two gaming hats. One as a miniatures gamer, the other as a boardgamer. Sometimes the two hats overlap, but usually not. The most common crossover is where I am playing a boardgame and distracted by the possibility of generating believable miniatures scenarios. Now, at last, someone has done a proper job. I give you Frontline General.
Being a long time reviewer, I have seen a lot of boardgames. Very few have been as luxurious as Frontline General, and hardly any have been as heavy. This is a game with serious heft. I would not be surprised if it became a murder weapon in the wrong hands. The components are remarkable: a vast number of cards, rulebook on CD, maps and counters fill the bulging box. They even include several packs of card protectors. The quality goes on, as CEW have a very good website, forum and a regular newsletter packed full of new scenarios, rules and session reports. You can also download and print the key components to try out the game for free, though do expect to use a couple of ink cartridges in so doing.
Frontline General lets you play the Southern Italian theatre of WWII. You will fight the campaign at the operational level on a traditional hex map, and tactical games either with cards or miniatures. This is all very interesting, except that the unit sizes are the same in both modes. This gives rise to infantry squads and single tanks moving around on a large map of Italy, where each hex represents around eight miles. Normally, based on boardgame traditions, an operational game would probably have regiments, brigades and perhaps divisions per counter rather than sections, platoons and companies. For this grognard, this feels decidedly odd.
But Mr Collins offers an explanation to repair my broken visualisation. He suggests that there are other, larger, units moving around on the map, but you are commanding just a small selection of these forces. So while 54th Panzer may be attacking Anzio, dictating your position, operational role and tactical objectives, you have just a sub-section of a sub-section under your direct command. This explanation helps. Indeed, it could even work.
This means (for instance) you will be handling supply and replacements for the large organisation, artillery support, air cover, minefield and wire placement, and also keeping your tactical forces in order. While many games require you to assume one command level, this game has many going on all at once.
At this point one is conscious of being narrow minded, reactionary, or even just plain old. The possibility arises that one may just be in the presence of genius, and that I have been doing it wrong for years. For now, I am going with ‘different’, and working with the game on the same basis as any number of gaming compromises.
So you can now see how this one comes together. While there is a slight feel of ‘kitchen sink’, it is interesting to balance all the various tasks. If you do it well, your representative units eventually come into contact with opposing forces. There are simple and quick rules for ground combat and Mr Collins is an air wargame fan, so there is often an aerial element mixing it up. You also have the option of using the system as is, or setting up a miniatures game with more detailed rules to resolve the generated combats.
Should you choose the latter route the transition is smooth but, predictably, more time consuming - table set up, troop/card selection and playing are always going to take some time. The trade off is one we are all familiar with - the spectacle comes alive. The miniatures rules are, as you might expect, also rather unusual. They are fairly standard in terms of combat - each unit has movement, attack, defence and endurance (hit point) ratings - but these are spiced up with event and strategy cards which can really throw a spanner in the works.
Frontline General is an unusual package. That is not necessarily a bad thing but I did feel that some of the ‘asks’ of the game were not in keeping with commanding squad level units. That said, I am very much a gamer that likes to play the role of one person rather than the entire command chain, so this game may be exactly what you have been looking for. What the game certainly achieves is to make one look at the many aspects in a new light. Whether they are deemed historical or gamey, or simple or complex, will be a personal decision. What I can say is that if Frontline General appeals, and you can find out very cheaply, there is a good year of gaming in this box.
Originally published in Battlegames 17.