05 June 2011

Flames of War [Review]

We meet again IGOUGO and armor saves. Long time no see.

When I quit Warhammer and Warhammer 40.000 a few years back it marked the end of my gaming era of miniature wargames where players took turn activating their entire army and game mechanics that involved regular armor saves. I honestly didn’t think I would find myself back in a similar gaming situation again. Then I picked up Flames of War, and it should be noted that I was VERY skeptical about this game to begin with as the games I’ve seen had looked both silly, unhistorical and used … quite “innovative” tactics to say the least.

I tried out playing the game and liked what I saw and experienced it to be better after that. I think new players should try to play one of each of the periods this game is divided into Early/Mid/Late-War to see which style suits them best. The game IS different depending on what period you pick. I favored the Early War the most; it was less focused on massed tank rushes of heavy tanks and had lots of fun and quirky rules for the vehicles. Stuff doesn’t die as fast in Early War either.

This review/overview, will be in two parts. This first part will be about the core rulebook and how the game works to give you an idea what it is all about. The second part will be sort of “Flames of War for newbies” where I’ll try to cover all the questions a beginner might have – and questions I had myself as the game can be a bit confusing and overwhelming unless you get help from other gamers early on.

Flames of War is a somewhat abstract and streamlined WW2 experience but it does not lack depth and options for you to take during a game. When I say streamlined and abstract I mean that vehicles have been bundled together in classes such as tracked, wheeled, halftrack and have additional rules such as slow/fast etc. So you have no individual stats for all vehicles. So tanks that clearly had different speed limits are equally fast/slow in this game for the sake of simplicity. If you can look past this you will find a game that is more about fun than about realism but it should provide you with enough tactics and option to make it superior to games like Warhammer 40.000 which it was actually based on to begin with.

The backbone of the game is the morale, of platoons and companies. Victory can be achieved by breaking the enemy by inflicting sufficient losses. As soon as a platoon takes 50% or more losses they need to check their morale and see if they continue the fight or withdraw. A company where half or more of its platoons have withdrawn needs to take a similar test. And as soon as 1 company breaks it is game over for you.

The finer aspects of the game revolve around game mechanics such as digging in to increase the survival rate of your units, pin down enemy units with heavy fire before trying to assault them, use movement and positioning of troops in a way to maximize your rate of fire and using your commanders to keep the units together and fully operational. Terrain is important as it blocks line of sight and gives you a relative amount of cover which increases the survivability of your army a lot. The game is divided into a couple of phases, you check your company morale, move units about, fire your weapons and finally you can charge  into close combat if possible.

You can move normal or at the double, running and moving fast is great to cross the board in no time but all hits are doubled against units going at the double. Pinned down units have reduced rate of fire as they keep their heads down, artillery and mortars have to range in on their targets – the better you range in the more deadly your barrage becomes. Tanks can get stuck in terrain, bail out when fired at and abandoned by their crews completely if the losses are too great. There are game mechanis that allow you to tow broken down or bogged down vehicles with other vehicles of the same type or recovery vehicles.

What really makes this game fun though are the scenarios as they add multiple extra rules such as reinforcements arriving from the rear just in time to save your ass, forcing players to break through enemy lines where the opponent has dug in his entire army, make a last stand in the center of the table and others that steer the battle in a specific way where the roles of attacker/defender are clearly defined and those roles come with specific perks
The game also features a few interesting design choices. All armies, and sometimes branches within the same army, have two values - Skill and Motivation. Motivation being the morale value, willingness to fight against all odds or not. Skill being how good you are at using the terrain to your advantage making you harder to hit.

A Trained Fearless unit will be hit on 3+ by enemy units, and pass their morale checks on 3+. All armies in the army books are of different caliber and each country has its own special rules. For instance, the Polish in Early War can use their second in command officer to make morale related re-rolls just like the commander, while the Germans can replace their platoon leaders easily if they still have soldiers to fill the gap. The dynamic of army training and its morale along with the national special rules make each nation play a bit differently, and armies within the same nation can vary as well from an elite Panzer company to a conscript militia. These two values also determine how likely your tank crews are to get back into their bailed out vehicles, how likely your platoons and companies are to break and flee the fight and the skill of artillery crews among other things.

As I write this I find myself to really be all over the place, but I really think that Flames of War is one of those games that excel at being demonstrated rather than described. This makes it even more important to give the game an honest look or try IRL before disregarding it altogether.

I should also bring up what most people will find to be a turn off, the save rolls. Playing the game and feeling the game flow makes you understand the idea behind it better than just reading about it. All infantry have a 3+ save, all large gun teams have 5+ save which means that regardless of what hit these teams they always roll a save to see if they are killed. By digging in you enhance the survival rate even further by first having a save, and if you fail that save the enemy must roll again to see if their weapons had enough power to blast you out of cover or not (again making digging in and terrain vital for survival). This really makes dug in infantry hard to root out unless you charge them with other infantry, or have some very heavy artillery that will reduce the enemy positions to dust.

All armored vehicles have different kind of save that combines their own armor with a roll of 1D6. The combined value should beat the enemy gun strength. If you beat the enemy gun strength your vehicle is unharmed by the hit. If you roll equal to the enemy gun strength it is a glancing hit and your crew may panic and abandon the vehicle temporarily. If the enemy punches through your armor your crew always bail out – but the vehicle also has a change of being destroyed if the enemy pass their “firepower test” – again like with the dug in infantry – to see whether the weapon was devastating enough to blow you up. Anti tank rifles may only punch small holes in enemy armor and make them panic and bail out, but you will rarely make a tank explode. An anti tank gun on the other hand may hit you so hard the vehicle is torn to pieces by the explosion. Of all the saves in the game I think the save that armored vehicles have is the most “logical” and natural as you have a set armor value which can be tested by the caliber of enemy guns. Giving you a decent gun vs armor strength test, puny guns having a harder time while larger guns barely give you a chance to withstand the impact. It is simple enough to make the game flow fast, but not simple enough to be completely taken out of the blue and always giving you the same survival rate as with the infantry 3+ save.

Looking at the game as a whole the “saves” are justified, and the game mechanics work pretty well towards what the rules want to achieve.

The last thing would be artillery on the table, we’re talking long range heavy artillery and rocket batteries. I myself, (not being alone either) , find it slightly silly but it is not a game breaker for me. Playing against like minded players you can either play with artillery on the table or use the “Across the Volga” rule which means artillery only has observer teams on the table who direct artillery fire from off table. A decent solution if it annoys you too much.

The rulebook is really thick and packed with stuff, luckily it is all described in a logical order with good examples and pictures to go along with it. And , thank God, someone actually thought of including a complete sequence by sequence fully detailed crib sheet at the end of the rulebook – color coded as well! Great feature that allow both veterans and newbies to quickly check what they can do and what they should to in each phase. This is a huge time saver.

The core rulebook also includes, beside the core and advanced rules, a number of scenarios and special scenario rules. It also features a small Italy 1944 campaign for mid war gamers. Players hoping to find army lists in this book however will be disappointed. You need to buy the source books separately, the pro’s and con’s of that will be described in the “Flames of War for newbies” with all the other frequently asked questions you have starting with this game.

What more could be said, if you know a club nearby that plays this game try to check this game out. Have a sober approach and don’t get overwhelmed. Try to give each of the 3 periods (Early/Mid/Late-war) a try to see which one you like the most. Tigers may be cool as hell but you might find the period not to your taste. You need to do some research and read up on what to buy before actually buying models and books or else your early steps will become way more expensive than need be. Also, if you are put off by the tactics used by some players, like Warhammer 40k style truck assaults into tank formations – then just try to find players who share your sentiment. I myself was put off by the game after having watched a few crazy looking games, it was not until a couple of years later when I ran into some players with a playing style more to my liking which showed the game in a different light.
My conclusion is that Flames of War has just the right amount of complexity to make it interesting even for a veteran wargamer, while not being to top heavy on realism and rules to slow the game down to a crawling pace.  We’re talking about a reasonably fast game that can be resolved in about 3 hours if you play 1500pts. Others have probably written more thought out reviews of this game but I’ll leave it at that.

Check back again soon for the “Flames of War for newbies” where I talk about how army building, source books and basing your units among other things work!



You can get the core rulebook, sourcebooks and models for this game over at GameManiacs

6 comments:

  1. We had a massive game Friday night:

    http://28mmww2.blogspot.com/2011/06/americans-take-bloody-nose-during.html

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  2. this was a great review of the game thanks.

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  3. Thanks for that, very interesting post.

    I'd be very interested to see if the game's strengths survive the shift to the Vietnam era - a really interesting period which has proven very difficult to recreate effectively on the games table.

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  4. The Vietnam stuff looks interesting, I find the Vietnam war to be very interesting as well. Though the problem would be the limit of the conflict, only 2 nations and limited troop types and variations of armies. And also the imbalance between what the US and what the Vietnamese get. If I picked it up I would be playing the US because of the helicopters.

    I think it could be fun, but I'm afraid that the lasting appeal will be less than that of the WW2 version of the game. Time will tell. I use to say that there is no "modern era" war like WW2 when it comes to recreating it in a miniature wargame. The depth and scope of that war overshadows anything that has come after - mainly due to the advance in technology making wars small scale in comparison.

    That said, I would love to try out the Vietnam game but I don't think it will be picked up by anyone in my area, especially since you'll have to make completely new terrain to go with that game :-/

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  5. Good review. Could you consider some introduction of the rules to newbie like me? I'm sifting from 40k and I find the rulebook bit overwhelming.

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  6. Yes I'll do that. I just finished writing my exam for school so I will have more time for a rule tutorial with pictures and more "newbie" related articles for Flames of War. I will post part 1 tomorrow, it wont be about the rules but more about the first steps getting into FoW, building units, picking source books etc. But this will be expanded soon enough :-)

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