Frontline D-Day has caused quite a splash in wargaming circles of late because it’s been styled by some people as a long-awaited spiritual successor to Up Front, only a successor which is easier and faster to play. Having never played Up Front myself this is rather an academic question for me: what I found attractive in the game was the combination of quick-playing fire team level combat with a wide range of potential player numbers (1-4) the latter being a particular rarity for wargames of any sort. The publisher and designer, Dan Verssen, was kind enough to send me a copy to review so I was able to judge for myself whether or not it checked the boxes for me on the points I found most interesting.
The first thing you’ll notice about Frontline D-Day when you open the box is that it’s almost entirely card driven: there’s a sheet of chits for tracking things like wounds and equipment but all the soldiers and vehicles are represented by cards, all the terrain is represented by cards and so are all the actions the soldiers can take. To play you can either pick one of 19 historical scenarios from the rulebook or create a custom game on the fly. In both cases you start out by dealing nine terrain cards to represent the battlefield either a fixed set of nine for a scenario or a random set of nine for a custom game. Once both players have seen these and randomly determined who will start they get their soldier cards which are, again, either fixed for a scenario or chosen by the player up to a VP value that the players agree on. There are all sorts of troops to pick from with various weapons which are simply modelled by a set of firepower values at different ranges, but the key division is between commanders and commanded. A few soliders have a command rating which allows them to form a section with other cards, and these can then all act together, gaining the crucial advantages of being able to combine their firepower together into a single value.
Once you’ve chosen your forces you set them up on the table, a process which I found really quite awkward. The rulebook suggests that you put your soldiers in front of you and then lay the nine terrain cards out in the middle or to one side between the two players, and then track the card each section is in by taking the terrain card and placing it next to the soldier cards for that section. This not only makes it difficult to track the sequence of terrain cards (although they’re numbered 1-9, otherwise it’d be impossible) when calculating range or moving, but can get massively confusing when some sections are in the same terrain card. In the end I made up some little counters to represent the soldiers and moved them across the terrain cards directly instead - much neater. The game would look really cool with some little miniatures instead (I reckon Tide of Iron figures would work a treat since they can be combined into sections on the same base) but I think the omission of some professionally printed counters for this purpose is an unfortunate omission, especially given the relatively high RRP for a game without any kind of map.
Anyway, however you choose to set up your table, each player then gets to pick some equipment for their troops like grenades and medical kits and gets dealt a hand of action cards. These represent actions (duh!) such as attacking, moving, taking cover and so on and there are three basic types. Attack and move should be self-explanatory but the third, prepare, is vital as it allows you to get more cards, remove damage from your troops and reload any unloaded weapons. To take an action, just play a card on a section. In a neat twist you can use the actions from your hand, or you can simply play any card for a lower powered “default” action: for example you can play any card to attack, but if you use an actual attack card you’ll get a bonus to your firepower. This makes your hand tremendously flexible and offers an interesting dilemma of whether to try and make the best of the cards you’ve got and perhaps perform actions you didn’t really want, or whether to perform the actions you were planning but at lower intensity. Usually a section can only take one action during your turn.
Once you’ve announced your action your opponent gets a chance for a reaction. They also have to play a card to perform this. The reaction step is absolutely crucial because the key way of defending your troops from enemy attacks in this game is to counter-attack. In an attack you check the range and total up the firepower for the cards in the section - most cards also have a “rapid fire” option to give them more firepower for the attack but leaving them unable to attack again until they’re reloaded their weapon. To counter attack you do the same, then halve the total and compare the two values. The attack value is reduced by the amount of firepower in the counter-attack and if the counter-attack value is actually higher, it’s the original attacking section who’ll find themselves taking damage.
What I found particularly interesting about this action-reaction system is that it managed to give a game which is, to be honest, really quite abstract in mechanical terms, a real feel of the find-fix-flank-finish tactics of real World War 2 combat. As an I-go-you-go game the “fix” bit is going to be hard to model and given that the terrain is totally linear, with soldiers stepping direct from one to the other, any concept of “find” or “flank” is totally impossible to model: the game represents the latter through a flanking card which offers cumulative firepower bonuses the further you advance but that’s an abstraction, not a simulation. But by drawing sections in, one at a time, to a chain of events which sees them unable to act again afterward and possibly for several turns after if they decide to rapid fire or taking damage, the game is leant a strange cat-and-mouse feeling which gives the sensation of move and counter-move without actually having to represent tactical movement round a map. The fact that each unit can only perform a single action each turn adds to the illusion: either your dashing from shelter to shelter hoping covering fire from another section will save your skins, or you’re attacking or you’re hunkered down gathering your mental resources for the next push.
The game scores another notable and unexpected win in terms of thematics in the way it makes you feel about the soldiers under your command. The art in the game is cartoon-style which personally I didn’t find suited the subject matter very well, and the cards are all given generic names suitable to the nationality (UK, US or German) they represent. As such I didn’t expect to find them any different or more interesting than a plastic or wooden military piece from any other game. But in general you have so few soldiers, and each one has an individual (albeit cartoon) face, that loosing one of them comes as a serious blow. I found myself referring to them by name, game after game, and getting excited when particular heroes (and particular failures) made themselves stand out over a run of sessions. There are also no easy wins in this game: every point of damage you push through onto opposing sections has to be fought hard for, and every point of damage to inflict or receive feels like a major event, unlike a lot of higher-scale combat games where you can simply push over an enemy unit with no great thought. In short the game does rather a better job of putting you close to the visceral action of team-level combat than you’d have any particular right to expect from a game with no map, no counters and no figures.
You inflict damage on your unfortunate subordinates by drawing counters from a container which represent hit results: pin, morale, wound and dead in increasing order of severity. Each counter has three point values on it and you “pay” the cost from the firepower damage you’ve inflicted depending on the cover your target is in, so any given counter costs more if the target is in heavy cover than if in medium cover. You keep on drawing and assigning the counters to soliders in the target section one by one until the total firepower damage you’ve taken in exhausted and only when they’ve all been drawn do you apply the effects. This means that an already dead solider has a limited capacity for absorbing wounds that might have gone onto his comrades instead and makes the system slightly more random than it may sounds. It’s a clever and unusual mechanic and works well, modelling a variety of effects whilst keeping things fast and simple.
However the firepower/damage system does have a significant fault. Unresisted firepower is incredibly dangerous, especially in light cover, and if a single attack gets through that you can’t counter it can often spell doom for the section taking the damage. And because the game is small in scale, once you’ve lost a section you’re in serious trouble because it means one less counter-attack per turn and that means heading down a slippery slope of further unresisted damage and further carnage. This in itself isn’t necessarily much of an issue. After all if a fire team is caught by MG fire out in the open you might realistically expect them to get cut to pieces and for the most part attacks go get countered and there is a satisfying slow descent into chaos until finally one side makes the breakthrough. The problem comes because the game has an unfortunate habit of setting up situations where you can get caught unable to counter-attack through no great fault of your own. The most common complaint is that this situation arises simply from the choice of who gets to start, a fault which is compounded by the fact that the introductory game suggested in the rulebook sets up that exact problem game after game. In reality my experience is that first-player isn’t a common cause of this issue (it never is in the carefully designed historical scenarios which specify which side gets to start) but it can still happen with unfortunate frequency from other causes. A card which allows a section to act twice is a particular culprit, since the extra action can often take place after all the opposing sections have been already used up in reactions but you can get similar effects from mass grenade attacks and a shortage of the powerful counter-attack card. I can’t help but to compare this with my experiences of playing Hannibal: Rome vs Carthage, a game which has a similar habit of going horribly wrong through little fault on the part of the player. I found it a major fault with Hannibal. It’s much less of a problem in Frontline D-Day simply because the game is so much quicker to play. In a 3-4 hour session of Hannibal an unfortunate moment can flush the entire evenings’ gaming down the pan, but in Frontline, which lasts 60-90 minutes, you can generally just pack up and start again. But it’s still an unfortunate issue.
Another parallel which I could draw with Hannibal is one of tactical depth. It might not have come across from this review so far but this is game manages to pack a surprising amount of tough choices under the bonnet. Because the consequences of failing to deal with enemy attacks is so severe, every decision you make it fraught with difficulty and tension from a variety of sources. Which section to activate first? What to do with it? How is your opponent likely to react? Do you dare burn up valuable equipment counters or leave your men defenceless by reverting to rapid fire? How are you going to manage your hand, make best use of your actions, get more cards into your hand when it runs dry? How do you orchestrate things to leave your enemy with as unpalatable set of choices before him as possible? Make one slip and you’ll be punished severely and remember this is actually a game with a relatively minimal random element: sure the action cards you get are random but you always have the flexibility to fall back on default actions at a relatively small cost. And yet there is easily sufficient randomness and variability in the game to keep things interesting and ensure that the decisions are non-obvious and can’t always be worked through in a mathematical manner. Toss in a high level of direct player interaction and you have a card game which actually has some small echoes of the “what can everything do and how can everything respond” feeling of working through possibilities of a game of chess.
Speaking of player interaction I can’t really wind this review up without harking back to what was, for me, one of the key selling points of the game: that wide range of player numbers. Its primary function is as a two-player game, no doubt, but instructions are given for solo and 3/4 player games. The solo game has an AI whose actions are controlled by a deck of cards. You might have thought that was a pretty silly idea for a solo game and you’d be very wrong. It works exceptionally well, especially when playing some of the historical scenarios that mimic attacking fortified positions. To compensate for its obvious inflexibility the AI is given a huge hand up in the form of its sections being able to effectively take “prepare” actions, removing pins and gaining back ammo, in addition to move or attack actions and as a result it becomes a very tough adversary, almost impossible to beat in some circumstances. But trying is still tremendously entertaining and is a good way to hone your tactical skills for play against real people. The multi-player option is, by comparison, a complete disappointment. It’s just a team game, the same sort of team game as you can play with any 2-player title by splitting up the command and as such actually including rules for it and claiming the game “supports” more players is a bit disingenuous.
The fact remains though that in Frontline D-Day you’ve bought a game which can be played in a variety of player-number modes. Look in the rulebook and you’ll find nineteen historical scenarios. Look on the web and you’ll find a couple more historical scenarios and the potential for fans to be writing their own in future. Look in the box and you’ll find a deck of terrain cards which offers huge variability for custom scenarios and three decks of troops, none of which is the same, offering further variations to try out including some vehicles (which are handled in a very simple but satisfying manner in the rules). Look at the counter sheet and you’ll see a variety of equipment to deck your troops out with offering a great deal of tactical creativity. Basically you haven’t just bought a game here: you’ve bought a game system. And a proper game system too, all in one go, not like the Memoir ‘44 system which, fun though it is, forces adopters to buy multiple expansions and learn multiple rule updates. Frontline D-Day offers a truly staggering amount of potential play time right out of the box, in total contrast to the vast majority of its peers in both the wargame world and indeed the wider board game fraternity and for that, if nothing else it should receive huge plaudits. But there is more to praise: the variability is ably supported by a very deep well of tactical and mechanical choice on which to draw, and it offers a surprising level of thematic immersion too. So, as long as you stay interested in the subject matter and can put up with the irritating niggle of a significant minority of games that career off the rails out of your control, this is a game you could be playing for a very long time indeed.