A few years back I asked my personal historian Paul what the deal was with the Thirty Years War. Why did it start, who was involved, what were the driving motivations of the people involved? Paul’s response – “if you figure it out let me know. I’ve never really gotten my arms around it.” This came from a guy that could name the English and French monarchs off the top of his head in order. The Thirty Years era was quite the complication.
So when I stumbled across Hold the Line: Frederick’s War late in its preorder cycle (thank you Mr. Putnam) I was pleased to see a game approaching the subject matter with a C&C level of complexity. I like early gunpowder era for my wargames so the period was a fit, and given the time constraints of being a father of four the sixty minute playtime seemed right in the pocket for me personally. I jumped on board after a little sniffing around. Its delivery date was a mere 90 days away, something quite refreshing for a prepub title.
Frederick’s War is based on Hold the Line, a game about the American Revolution. The Thirty Years War era is significantly earlier for the new title, but combat didn’t change very quickly in the 150 years between them so the fundamental concepts of the original title apply very well to the new. Chit density is low, there are just a few categories of unit and each has a single number assigned to it, the value of the unit’s effectiveness in battle. The entirety of the rules fit onto six well-illustrated pages. For those of you that have played Battle Cry or Memoir you’ll be very comfortable with the concepts at hand, but fair warning -- you’ll have to settle for nicely illustrated cardboard chits. The Thirty Years War is just too hoity-toity a subject matter for plastic army men, and too obscure to draw the kinds of sales that would justify the cost. It’s a Worthington Games publication and they did a nice job, but it’s about cardboard pieces and good old fashioned six-sided dice. A few typos in the rulebook and an unforced error on the chit sheet detract just a shade from what is otherwise a very conservative, nicely crafted traditional wargame look and feel.
And it plays more traditionally as well. Frederick’s War will inevitably draw comparisons with the Commands & Colors line since they’re similar in weight, playtime and form. But I’ll tell you what – I’ve come to the conclusion that C&C and Memoir both suffer from a drawback that I don’t find very palatable. The card-driven left-center-right concept of their command execution has started to really irk me, to the point that we’ve been house-ruling around it. Cards that give you capabilities on your left are of no interest when the action is on the right, and having them stuck in your hand turn after turn doesn’t strike me as a particularly useful way to simulate fog of war. Frederick’s War doesn’t use cards, instead relying on a more traditional action points concept to simulate the ebb and flow of command effectivity. Each scenario provides a fixed number of action points for each side (based upon the overall quality of the commander on the field) and you add one to three more determined by die roll. All units are available for activation on all turns regardless of location. The result is that you can focus your efforts on the most critical points of the battle even when you roll a paltry 1 for your additional action allowance. In my opinion this does a better job of evoking the limitations of command, a general puts his weight into where it matters most. That’s what mid-millennium warfare was like -- a charismatic leader could get to where he needed to be in a timely fashion (given the speed of battle of the day) and respond. It also provides for better gaming, because you’re not looking at a hand of cards trying to decide which is the least-worst option. Instead you’re looking at the board deciding on what is most-important, and that’s where a gamer’s eyes should be. Your ability to respond may ebb and flow from one turn to the next but you never feel like you lack viable options. There’s always plenty to do and always a way to take care of the crisis most pressing. That’s fun gaming.
As someone with limited time and limited options for play partners in the wargame genre Frederick’s War has additional attractive qualities. It plays in a very reasonable one hour time frame, there’s no hidden information that gives away the plans of the two armies, and the complexity of the rules is low enough that I don’t find myself nose-down in the book for most of the game. That last point sounds like a cop-out, but I’ll be honest – I play about a dozen wargame titles in a year. It’s not uncommon for a box to sit on my shelf for several weeks or months before I get back to it (and it’s all too easy for the rules of one wargame to inadvertently blend into the next) so most sessions start with a refresher in the core concepts. The first turns move slowly until I get my head back in the game. For games like Warriors of God or Valor & Victory that play in two or three hours this need for a refresher turns a single play into an all-evening affair. It’s a lot of fun when I can get it, but that’s not often the case. I can start Frederick’s War at 10pm and make it to bed on time.
But the hidden draw that made me order this game prior to seeing it in real life can be stated very simply: Sean Chick. He’s the game’s designer, and for those of you not familiar with him it’s worth your time to have a look at his writings on BGG, particularly his historically-oriented line of Geeklists. His is some of the best writing on the site, providing the level of insight you’ll find in graduate level college texts. It doesn’t hurt that his style is a genuine pleasure to read either. Given that the Hold the Line system was already mature and well-respected, the addition on someone of Mr. Chick’s storytelling abilities makes for quite a combination. By his own admission his ability to write rule books is not the best (more on that in a moment) but the two or three paragraph descriptions of the scenarios included in the game though oh so short provide wonderful footing and the kind of narrative detail that gets you excited about the play. You don’t merely sit down to the game looking to figure out your most efficient tactical options, you sit down looking to settle a score, or to keep the scare up, or to turn the tide. You’re dropped into the moment with an understanding of the personalities and broader tasks at hand, something that should be difficult due to the complexity of the era. But Mr. Chick is wise enough to focus on the details that matter to a player:
The Seven Years’ War saw a vastly improved Austrian army confronting the still vaunted Prussian military machine. Following his costly victory at Prague, Frederick was forced to meet an Austrian relief column under Leopold von Daun. Despite the obvious improvements in the Austrian army, Frederick remained contemptuous. At Kolín he ignored most of his generals and attacked the Austrians up hill. He was perhaps looking to reenact his victory at Soor. It did not occur. The Austrian lines bent but did not break, and in the end Frederick was forced to quit the field and abandon the siege of Prague. Although Frederick unfairly blamed the defeat on others, he did manage to reorganize his forces. Daun, for all his tactical skill, failed to follow up his impressive victory.
Sean Chick, describing the battle of Kolín (June 18, 1757).
If “Frederick remained contemptuous” doesn’t tell you how you should be playing the Prussians I don’t know what will, and in my opinion that is something missing from most light modern wargames. Focus on mechanics is fine, but the personalities involved and the historical moment add rich flavors to the mix. Even a few short sentences can make a big difference to how players approach a game, and with any luck how they choose to play.
There are a few shortcomings in Frederick’s War that I’ll point out, all but one very minor. Some typos got through the publishing process. This certainly isn’t a crisis and quite frankly the game’s forefathers from AH and SPI had plenty more than this one. But given the brevity of the rulebook they should have been caught and corrected, especially since the rulebook was crowd-sourced prior to printing where a few of them were pointed out. This is likely a reflection on the small size of the operation of Worthington Games. There’s some color overrun (i.e., a white edge on the bottom of blue chits) on my Prussian leaders which detracts a bit from appearance but has no effect on play whatsoever. More of a foible than an error. But the shortcoming that does matter regards the clarity of the rules. Before the Internet the level of ambiguity displayed on page 5 of Frederick’s War’s rulebook would have been acceptable, and players would have simply agreed in advance on how to interpret soft passages. But modern eurogames have raised the bar. Rules for games that fit on two sides of a piece of paper are expected to be razor sharp and unambiguous, and these higher user expectations have bled over into wargames at this level of complexity. Chick freely admits that his narrative talents are not well-suited to the structured writing style needed for rule exposition and overall he’s done well, but you’ll want to review page 5 thoroughly before going in to your first game. After my second play I took the time to break down the entire close-infantry-assault and cavalry-charge options into an ordered list of actions to make them easier for me to execute (the only complicated parts of the game) and when questions started coming in on the game’s web page I took the liberty to publish them. They’re worth your time to download in order to expedite your first couple of plays. But the good news is that Frederick’s War is simple enough; the rules as written are sufficient if not stellar. I played the game correctly right out of the box without looking to the Internet for clarification.
As for gameplay, Frederick’s War is brisk and bloody. Scenarios are designed so that first turns generally result in contact and there’s good incentive to take it to the enemy instead of holding back. I played my first two games using just the core rules and there was plenty of dead cardboard strewn about the board. After playing the Leuthen scenario via core rules I repeated it with the more advanced “optional rules” and found things flowed much more smoothly and presented tougher decisions on how to proceed. In particular the Rapid Movement rule (allowing units not engaged in battle to deploy more quickly) let the Austrians rapidly support their attacked flank, producing a punchier play. I have no intention to play without it again. Other optional rules fine-tune the different unit types instead of producing major changes which deepens the game with little additional overhead. The one exception is Attacker Morale Checks, that forces an attacking commander to commit to action prior to knowing if their men will carry it out. Exhausted men balk orders in combat – Attacker Morale Check means you issue your orders (and lose the actions points doing it) and then roll a die to determine if your unit will actually advance into the enemy via close assault when commanded to. The more beaten down a unit is the less likely it is to respond, though getting a leader into the hex with them provides additional bonuses. It’s a real game changer from a decision perspective. With action points so precious (often only four or five) you hate to expend two of them only to have your troops balk the command. But close assault yields big results. You have to decide how lucky you feel, and frankly you have to press that luck in order to make headway in Frederick’s War.
And lucky I feel to have gotten in on Frederick’s War on its prepub, though some copies are still floating around the Internet at discount prices. I don’t think that’s going to last, largely due to a small print run and the suitability of this game for players such as me with limited windows of play time available for this sort of gaming. Hold the Line has been hard to find for years and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Frederick’s War follow suit. If you get a chance to sit down to this one go for it. You won't be disappointed.