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Posted on Nov 2, 2019 in Boardgames, Front Page Features

Fields of Fire, Volumes 1 and 2: The most frustrating great game on the market.

Fields of Fire, Volumes 1 and 2: The most frustrating great game on the market.

Tyler Freese

Fields of Fire Volumes 1 and 2. Board Game Review.  Publisher: GMT Games.   DESIGNER: Ben Hull  ORIGINAL DEVELOPER: Dick Vohlers
SERIES DEVELOPER: Richard Gray  Price:  $75.00 (Vol 1) $82.00 (Vol 2)

Passed Inspection- generates excellent narratives, replayability, and models the problems of command very well.

Failed Basic- A rulebook and playbook that are in dire need of revision

Fields of Fire is a solitaire company level simulation of combat during the Second World War, Korean War, and the Vietnam War. Rather than being a game specifically focused on infantry tactics, it tries to model the problems of command, with a skilled player being one who understands how to use is order points efficiently by taking advantage of the command hierarchy. The actual combat is abstracted out to a high degree, revolving around the draw of action cards.

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Both volumes of Fields of Fire contain an action deck, 3 different map decks representing the different eras of play, and 5 counter sheets totaling something over 800 different counters. Along with this are various information sheets, a rule book, and 2 playbooks for the different campaigns. The pieces are thick and large enough to be easily readable, and the cards have a nice glossy finish that will make them relatively tough and easy to shuffle. Nothing in these boxes feels cheap or like corners were cut in production.

When it works, Fields of Fire is great at generating some amazing narratives. 

Fighting in Normandy during 1944, I had to take a village that was on the other side of a small woods and a farm, with a gully leading straight up the left flank. I sent the 1st platoon up the gully, trying to use it as cover to move my heavy machine gun to get a good line of sight on the target. On the way, my men ran into a bunker with a German infantry squad, which they took down by calling down a mortar strike and swamping it with grenades, moving into position for the final strike.

Meanwhile, the 2nd and 3rd platoons moved across the woods in the center and on the right. 2nd platoon ran into a minefield, taking many casualties before crossing into the open area around the farm where they ran into sniper fire. 3rd platoon was hit by mortars in the woods, pretty much the worst possible place for that to happen. On the other side they catch a German squad moving in the open, dealing with it quickly. 

All that done, we are finally ready to storm the village. The German sniper has been firing at us from there, and we find a machine gun squad in the houses. We lay down some machine gun fire, call down the mortars, and drive them out relatively quickly, completing our mission.

Not pictured in all of this is a profusion of counters and nearly nonstop references to a rulebook and reference sheets that are almost deliberately hard to understand. 

Fields of Fire is not the most complicated game around, in fact it’s relatively straightforward. Every turn, you start at the top of your command hierarchy- usually, this is company HQ but occasionally the battalion HQ makes an appearance. Headquarters units can order units below them in the hierarchy, and various staff units can such as the company XO or sergeant can directly order units, so long as there is a line of communication.

Communication can take several forms. Phones are generally more reliable, but you

need to drop wire behind your units as they move to create a network. These wires are vulnerable to being cut by artillery and explosions, but can be repaired. However, these repairs are costly in terms of command points and are not the most efficient use of these points. You can opt for radios to keep in contact, but then you have to be very concerned with maintaining line of sight between these units. Radios get much better as you progress through the campaigns- obviously a radio from the Vietnam War is a good deal better than one from the Second World War. 

            You also have many different flare and smoke signals you can make use of, assigning them at the start of the mission to the various HQs or staff officers. You assign a command to a specific type of flare or smokes at the start of the mission- for example, cease fire or all units advance. Flares can be seen by any unit on the map, but smoke only by units with a line of sight to that card. 

            Company HQ can order individual units that they have communication with, but the most efficient use of your points is to have the company HQ order platoon HQs to activate and get their own command points. You can spend one point from the company HQ to activate the platoon HQ, which then gets to draw a card for a larger number of commands, modified by the experience of the unit, which can then order its subordinate units. 

            You have a huge number of options when ordering your units- telling them to advance, attack, or to split up into smaller teams to assault specific positions or take wounded men to the rear for evacuation. Some missions will include vehicles like tanks, jeeps, or helicopters. I enjoy having my company sergeant roaring around the battlefield in a jeep picking up wounded men and taking them to the rear. Pretty much every possible order you could imagine is covered somewhere, and frankly, there are too many for me to list them all in a review. 

            Enemies are generated by, for lack of a better word, AI. When you enter a new terrain card, there is a potential contact marker with a severity rating, and then you draw a number of cards modified by the number of enemies already present and the severity of the marker. Generally speaking, the game is tilted towards you being more likely to draw a new enemy when there are less on the field, and once you reach a critical number of units you become very unlikely to create a new one. 

            If one of the cards you draw in this phase has a contact symbol, you draw another card, compare a random number available at the bottom against a chart that changes by the mission with different possible contacts, then draw another card to determine the placement of the unit. On the one hand, this allows a lot of differences between missions and some clever ways to include different units and placements for them, but on the other hand, you will be drawing a lot of cards. It is quite possible to enter a new card, draw 5 cards to determine if you have a contact (you always draw the full number of cards required, even if the first one is a contact card), draw another to determine the type of unit, and another to determine the placement. 

            There are several mission types: you have to attack positions, hold the line, or conduct combat patrols. Each one of these has different objectives, enemy force packages, and some special rules for each. Even the feel of the specific missions will change based on the campaign- fighting the Germans in Normandy is relatively straight forward, but Korean battles are more often defensive firefights focused on stopping huge waves of opponents with a steadily dwindling force. Battles in the pacific feature Japanese troops emerging from caves behind the lines, and in Vietnam you will be hopping around in helicopters. 

You will be fighting in the bocage, jungles, islands, mountains, jungles, and cities. All of these are represented by different decks of cards that are used to generate the maps and change the setting of your battles for different campaigns. All of the maps are randomly generated by the draw of the card. 

            So much of the game is generated by the draw of the card that there is essentially unlimited replayability. You could run a specific campaign 5 times and never repeat a map or enemy force. 

            The two volumes of the game have the same rulebook, and the only serious difference rules wise is the inclusion of demo charges in the second volume. The first volume follows the 9th Infantry Division through Normandy, Korea, and the jungles of Vietnam. The Second Volume follows the 5th Marines through the Pacific, Korea, and Vietnam (specifically the battle of Hue). 

            From here, I am going to be quite critical of the game. I want to say first: this is a really, really good game. If you put in the time to learn this, it is very worth it, but there are some serious problems. 

            The rulebook and charts of this game have something of a reputation. It is very poorly organized, and has no index. Want to understand how your mortars work? First, check under the section for generating enemy units to get a description of the basics of mortars, and then it’ll reference the different fire missions they can conduct, which are located in a section about indirect fire earlier in the rule book. Another section explains that mortars and grenades function the same in terms of potential to hit as a result of the way the combat in this game is abstracted. 

As near as I can tell, there is no specific section that really explains the process for placement of enemy units. You are supposed to draw to determine if there is a contact, then draw to determine the force package, then draw again and compare a random number against a chart that determines the placement of the unit, but this was unclear to me until I went online and found a clear summary of this process. 

The first page of the Normandy campaign booklet charts your available forces for the campaign, but has a major typo. One of the headings on the chart simply says “mission,” which leads a person to think that the number below it is the mission a unit becomes available. However, it is meant to say “Ammo per mission.” So some players, myself included, are trying to play the first mission without machine guns or mortars! 

            Also, you will be flipping through a lot of charts, and the rule book continuously. Let’s go back to the example of generating an enemy. I step into a new card, check a chart to figure out how many cards to draw, and draw a number of cards ranging from 1 to 7. Always draw the full number of cards, even if you get a contact right away. Get a contact? Draw another card; compare the random number against a specific chart for the severity of the contact marker to determine the force package. Draw another one for placement of the unit, and compare that against another chart to determine where it is in relation to the unit that created it. One possibility for placement has you going back to the second chart in this sequence to get a specific placement unique to that force package. By my count, this is a possibility of seven card draws and three different charts at least, which, by the way, are in two different pages of the scenario book and another in the player aid. Eventually you will get pretty good at knowing all of the units and how they work, but be prepared to check the rule book for the specific differences between a mortar unit and a mortar observer while you are still learning the game. 

I have a theory about the rulebook of this game, as well. It seems like it was written by two people. Some rules will be explained with quite a simple set of bullet points and a step by step process for completion, and then explained again immediately after in prose. Other rules are only in prose, and still others only with a list. It really feels like two people were trying to clarify each other in the rules and didn’t agree on how to organize the book, and this can make figuring out a specific rule very difficult. 

Truly understanding this game practically requires going online and finding the compilation thread of clarifications and errata on boardgamegeek. It is essentially required reading. A game with this much complexity basically requires an index, and I have no idea why they failed to include one. This is why I say this is the most frustrating great game on the market. There is so much potential here, but it is so difficult to find it beneath the mess that is the rules.

There are great resources online that can make this game much easier to understand, and if you are willing to either use those or to really take your time to grok the rule book you will be extremely well rewarded. The stories that you get out of this game are amazing, the game itself is very fun, and I would actually like to see this system further expanded, perhaps to more modern conflicts (I think this could work well with the War in Iraq).

So, should you buy these games? If you want a fantastic solitaire experience that has basically unlimited replayability, absolutely. But you need to be prepared for a game that is made far more difficult than it needs to be by a confusing and unorganized rulebook. It really depends on how much you, reader, want to invest into learning the game.

Armchair General Score: 80%

Solitaire suitability (1-5, with one being basically impossible to Solo and 5 being completely soloable): 5

About the Author:

            Tyler is an English teacher in Taiwan, with a huge interest in military and naval history, and war gaming. His first war game was Axis and Allies when he was 10 and he has never stopped moving cardboard squares. 

Box Art Vol 1
Box Art Vol 2
Counters
Set up and game play
US forces starting positions
battle in the hedge rows
Advancing US forces catch a German Patrol in the Open

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