Who in their right mind plays solo wargames? Me!
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 on the Fort, 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 here on the Fort, 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 of the readers 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 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 and 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 a 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 them 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 yield 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, icons on the cards that mean other 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 usually, 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 they check to see if they can do those things depending on their skills and luck. Commanders have limited number of commands every turn. And I mean 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 probable. 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 and 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 he 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 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 that is very simple but hard at first to understand. They almost always do what you'd expect in the 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 3 only 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 Barnes has mentioned in the past about the 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—concepts 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 mind set of thinking as a commander rather than an all powerful manipulator moving squads is hard to penetrate. It reminds me of Up Front in that way. 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 is... shall we say... not so brilliant.
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 of moving chits around and making small adjustments. The type of thing that 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.