Saturday, March 17, 2012

Fields of Fire

Fields of Fire is a solitaire game focusing on the 9th U.S. Infantry.  I have the first edition of the game (from 2008), which includes three campaigns, one each from World War II, Korea, and Vietnam.  The second edition of the game includes a second Korean campaign.  Each campaign consists of a series of linked missions.  At the beginning of each campaign you start out with a set number of forces.  As each mission is played, your units take casualties which degrades their combat effectiveness.  At the end of each mission, you can spend experience points earned in the mission to upgrade the quality of your surviving soldiers, and at set points in each campaign you get new recruits to fill in open spots due to casualties.  Thus, the focus of the game really is on managing your forces throughout an entire campaign.  Throwing your soldiers into the teeth of enemy fire in order to capture an objective might look like a good idea in the short term, but if you take too many casualties in one mission you won't have enough forces to succeed in the remaining missions.  So, unit management is the name of the game.

There are three overall types of missions: attack (seize an objective), defend (protect an objective), and patrol (move through the patrol area to see what is there).  All missions take place on a randomly-assigned play area, which is created using the terrain deck.  While this is technically a board game, there isn't an actual board.  Instead, each war period has a separate terrain deck, and you deal out a number of terrain cards onto the table as indicated in the mission setup.  For example, I played the first mission of the Korean campaign, which had me lay out 25 cards, face down, in a 5x5 grid.  This was an attack mission with unknown terrain, so I could only turn a terrain card face-up when I had units in line of sight of that card.  Some terrain cards block line of sight, and some don't, so you don't know what you are dealing with until you are looking at it.

Enemy units are generated dynamically, but there are no dice involved.  Instead, there is a separate deck of cards used for all campaigns called the command deck.  This deck will be shuffled A LOT during the course of the game, because you draw cards to determine everything: random numbers, whether actions succeed, combat results, whether random events occur, etc.  If I am going to play this game much, I am going to need to sleeve the command cards.  I must admit that I found the frequent shuffling of the command deck to be annoying; even more annoying is the fact that one of the command cards says to reshuffle the command deck, and you are supposed to put that halfway into the deck each time you shuffle, so you really are only going to get halfway through before you have to shuffle for the umpteenth time.

But back to enemy units.  In most missions, certain actions or events instruct you to check for potential enemy contact (yes, you use the command deck for this, as well).  If there is contact, then you draw a random number and compare it to the encounter table for your mission, indicating what happens (enemy units are spotted, unspotted enemy units fire on you, artillery or mortar attack happens on a specific terrain card, etc.).  You can not really plan for what happens, but careful inspection of the possibilities before the game can at least help you figure out what appropriate reactions should be in certain situations.  I should also mention one aspect of this game that caught me off guard the first time I played it: attacks are made against all units in a specific terrain card.  For this reason, moving your units in bunches is asking for them to get shot.  You need to carefully move squads up to clear terrain, and only then do you move in your heavy support weapons.  Don't bunch them up, though, as large clumps of units draw enemy fire like moths to a flame.

This game is pretty intimidating.  Because it is so unlike any other game I have played, it took a lot of time to really understand it.  The first edition rulebook is pretty poorly organized, too, which made it harder to understand.  For example, at the beginning of a mission you assign pyrotechnics to your commands (colored flares, colored smoke grenades, etc.).  The rules indicate that you use these to automatically get units to take specific actions, but exactly HOW this is supposed to work is not mentioned.  What types of actions should I assign my pyrotechnics to?  I have no idea.  This is the kind of oversight that should not happen.  I guess I'll have to find a 9th infantry veteran and ask him what pyrotechnics were used for back in Korea, which isn't going to happen just so I can use them in a board game.  On the plus side, the publisher has done a good job of posting videos on the game's website, so you can watch other people play the game and explain it to you.  It sure feels like taking distance learning classes, though, which is more work than I want to put into a board game.  At this point I am undecided whether I will keep this game in my collection or not.  It promises to be fun, but there is a LOT of work involved to achieve a tenuous payoff.

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