Monday, September 7, 2009

Flames of War-A Personal Reaction

Please don't expect a detailed review or even "after-action report" on Flames of War. I've only played a few scenarios of the game, but I've enjoyed my experiences thus far. My first experience with the system was a minor meeting engagement using the starter set. This engagement, set late in the war and featuring smaller U.S. tanks versus larger German tanks was surprisingly well-balanced. My opponent and I played the same scenario, changing sides after each turn, before we finally managed a victory for the Allies.

The reason for this is that the system so accurately portrays the "tin-can" or "rolling coffin" nature of tanks that one doesn't need too many good shots to put a vehicle out of action. So, our very introductory scenario led us to believe that forsaking maneuver in favor of "dice" was the wiser course of action. Indeed, even with my propensity for lousy luck with these cubes of destruction masquerading as random number modifiers (random doesn't quite account for the number of poor die rolls I accumulate in the course of the average game), I always fared better eschewing maneuver for an extra die.

What our introductory experience didn't teach us was what would happen when an aggressive player inexorably moved in with adequate combined arms. At that point, those tanks with their big cannon didn't seem to accomplish much against infantry (all armor-piercing ammo) and my machine gun dice seem to have jammed. It seemed almost as easy for infantry to put my tank crews outside their vehicle as it had to put entire tanks out of action in that first meeting scenario. In short, once I teamed up with guys who had lots of models/bases and could take advantage of 2-3 books of the prolific series of expansion rules, the game simply became better.

Below are some pictures taken with my telephone's camera (sorry about the slight blur). First, my Soviet infantry group began to deploy on the grounds of this farm. Some tanks were already using the walls as partial cover and firing on the advancing Nazi units, so my units were reticent to enter what would soon become a killing zone. In other words, I failed a dice check.

However, I soon discovered a marvelous wrinkle in the Soviet infantry rules. Each infantry unit has a commissar (I believe they are referred to as "political officers" in some WWII accounts) who have the power of shooting a soldier as an example to the others. In Flames of War, one can place a base of infantry in the dead pile in order to get another die roll for maneuver. Wow! What a tough call!

I started the evening with so many troops that I felt like Zhukov himself. I had "high ideals" of serving the Motherland without having to sacrifice her precious soldiers. Yet, as the Nazis seemed to have sufficient momentum (die rolls) to keep moving in every situation, I ended up having to sacrifice three bases in this manner before I was through. I was certain that the troops would have killed the "political officer" (commissar) before they would have allowed this, but I was now desperate enough to give up my "ideals" and merely "game" the situation. We scrambled into position behind the haystacks (the round European-style painted by Monet) and quickly discovered that the line of sight problems we expected to cause the enemy had become as much of a problem for us.

Unfortunately, with all of my political posturing necessary to get my infantry to move, the Nazis attained the haystacks before we did. They crossed the bridge under abysmal machine-gun fire and managed to establish enough of a beachhead that the tanks had to focus on them instead of their opposite numbers. We might have been able to stalemate the enemy infantry with more consistent fire (again, the dice were not good to me), but things looked so bleak on my side of the farmhouse that my colleague tried almost a suicide attack (in all fairness, he was trying to work out some of the nuances of the Close Assault rules) on the left flank.

Our left flank faltered and it was only a matter of time before the Germans would have positioned all of their forces against my relatively tenuous position. In spite of the presence of the murderous commissar, Stavka (two tired Russian players, in this case) elected to surrender. You would think that losing so badly in one's first big engagement would have soured the entire experience. Instead, I found myself continually shaking my head in realizing what I had done. I had been as ruthless as Stalin himself in terms of sacrificing men for objectives (and, even then, as with Stalin, failed a lot). In spite of the fact that the flow of this game (in spite of all the rules expansions) is fast and many of the typical nuances of WWII miniatures have been abstracted away in a trade-off for fast, efficient play, I found that there was just enough color to get me hooked. What little I had played of the game felt just right. I experienced just enough sense of real history that I'll be back for more.