Fire & Movement
Fire & Movement. Christopher Cummins, ed. (Jon Compton, ed., from Number 132). Published by Decision Games, P.O. Box 21598, Bakersfield, California 93390. Web site: www.decisiongames.com/mags/fm.htm. Quarterly. $7.99/issue; $22.00/year.
The second oldest survivor among wargaming periodicals, Fire & Movement specializes in reviewing new games. It used to be essential reading before any buying decision. Under the rather somnolent guidance of Decision Games, which acquired it when founder Rodger MacGowan grew weary, it lost timeliness, and its choice of subjects grew increasingly eccentric. Jon Compton, took over as editor with Number 132, declaring his intention to revamp the magazine. The review infra of Number 133, the first to feel his editorial hand, evaluates the opening phase of his campaign.
Number 133 (Spring 2004)
Now begins the promised rejuvenation of Fire & Movement after a long spell in the doldrums. Jon Compton took over as editor with the last issue and stated that the magazine would undergo a major facelift, including shorter, more timely reviews, up-to-date industry information, and feature articles on game design and tactics. How well has he succeeded in attaining those objectives?
Physically, the magazine is improved. The layout and typeface are livelier, less crowded and less taxing to read. The content, too, has leaped forward: not yet all that Mr. Compton might wish but distinctly worth the price of a four-issue annual subscription.
“Industry News” is a new column with a mission that may be neither necessary nor possible in the age of the Internet: “keeping our readership informed as to ‘what’s happening’ in the conflict simulation boardgame industry”. A quarterly publication with the usual magazine lead times is more likely to feature what was than what is happening. The inaugural column doesn’t do a terrible job, though most of its information has the bubbly feel of lightly rewritten press releases. The longest item (placed last to avoid the appearance of favoring the publisher) outlines Decision Games’ lineup for 2004. Other news comes from Bunker Hill Games (a retail store whose co-proprietor is on active duty in Iraq), designer Rob Markham, the Boardgame Players Association, Against the Odds, the Australian Design Group, Columbia Games, Clash of Arms Games, Khyber Pass Games, Multi-Man Publishing and three conventions. Amazingly for F&M, the convention info (for Origins 2004, the Boardgame Players Association Block Party and Historicon) comes in time to be useful to prospective attendees.
“Designer’s Corner” offers three prominent wargame figures’ opinions on the slightly stale subject of whether and why board wargaming is declining. Jim Dunnigan thinks that it has shrunk irreversibly down to a niche market. He blames increasing rules complexity for the initial collapse but does not try to explain why the industry did not recover. By his account, designers have become “more skilled and resourceful” and the Internet has led to a “vibrant on-line community”. Nonetheless he concludes by recalling what he “used to tell the folks at SPI during the 1970s, ‘these are the good old days, enjoy them while you can’”.
Joseph Miranda looks at the quality rather than the quantity of wargamers, calling the hobby “the niche of people who take military history seriously”. At the present time, that is an important group, and Mr. Miranda suggests ways to design games that will appeal more strongly to its interests. Not surprisingly, the recommended approach very closely resembles his own.
Brian R. Train is best known for his innovative desk-top published designs, primarily for Microgame Design Group. Would you be startled to learn that he considers DTP to be one of the major positives for the hobby? His most original point is that the guys who played Avalon Hill and SPI games 30 years ago are now nearing retirement age. “They are nostalgic for their youth, they have experience and interest in the subject, and they have time on their hands. This can’t be bad.” (They also, one might note, have a lot more money than when they were college students, which has to be better yet.)
“Basic Tactics” is intended as a guide for newcomers to wargaming. The short initial column by Mike Eckenfels unfortunately isn’t very useful. Its most misguided advice is, “Start out by looking for games that are less complex rather than ones that may be of more interest.” The author concedes that such counsel may seem “odd”, but he seems unaware of its fatuity. Nobody has a duty to take up wargaming, and the only people who will take it up are those who have found games that look interesting. What they need is advice on how to proceed from that point. In the next issue Mr. Eckenfels “will discuss more about hex-based games and how they work”. Perhaps he will grow into his assignment.
The “Advanced Tactics” column will feature advice on how to win particular games. The first outing, by Rick Willis, covers War of 1812, which appeared in Strategy & Tactics #207. The recommendations are doubtless cogent, but the game sounds boring, with a high probability of draws and large rewards for “game-y” maneuvers.
“Wargaming the Revolution in Military Affairs, and Iraq” by Richard Andres is a short but interesting insider’s account of the U.S. military’s pre-invasion Iraqi wargames. Dr. Andres was part of the team that put together the Air Force version, which contrasted sharply with the Army’s more conventional design. The latter essentially supported the view that we should wait another half year to assemble an overwhelming force of half a million men in the theater of operations. Happily, the decision makers, whether or not influenced by the wargamers’ debate, chose a course of action more like what the flyboys recommended. The article closes with encouragement for civilian wargame designers:
It has often been the case throughout history that hobby gamers are better than professional military planners at modeling the implications of emerging technology and geopolitics. Unlike wargaming professionals, who must fight bureaucracies to make even the smallest changes in their games, hobbyists are free to innovate and play with different designs. This is a good time to be a wargame designer.
One of the most space-wasting features of the “old” F&M was ill-chosen variants for existing games. The new F&M has variants, too, but the first pair presented are vast improvements over what we saw in the last several issues. Hunter Johnson has devised a new campaign system for Up Front, the card game spinoff from Advanced Squad Leader, and demonstrates how it works with a campaign based on the battle for Stalingrad. Joe Miranda titles his article, “Oh No – Another Stalingrad Variant!”, and it is indeed a set of revised rules for Avalon Hill’s first Russian Front game. The interesting twist is that his goal is “to turn Stalingrad into a reasonably faithful historical simulation using the types of game systems available to Avalon Hill in the 1960’s. The idea was to turn out a game which could have been done way back when, making Stalingrad a true ‘classic’”. The variant rules aren’t greatly more complex than the original ones and look quite playable. I am almost tempted to pull out my elderly copy and give them a whirl.
The material just described, plus advertisements, takes up just about exactly two-thirds of the issue. The rest is reviews: 14 of them, all of games that haven’t yet vanished into the dustbins. Here is a quick overview of what is covered:
Corsairs and Hellcats (GMT Games), reviewed by Stefan Patejak. “. . . an excellent, although pricey, addition to the Down in Flames family. . . . Although the game adds a great deal more, it does not add much that is new or different.”
Millennium Wars (One Small Step), reviewed by Michael Eckenfels. “The Millennium Wars series is a short and sweet simulation of modern strategic combat, portraying modern combat units with real-world abilities.”
Ardennes ‘44 (GMT Games), reviewed by Steve Dworschak. After offering a number of not-too-damaging criticisms, the reviewer concludes, “Except for those few areas just mentioned, Ardennes ‘44 is a fine game and simulation. . . . Both sides face tough challenges, but the combination of graphic appeal, dynamic game mechanics, and the inherent excitement of the historical situation make it a fine experience for any veteran wargamer.”
Iron Tide: Panzers in the Ardennes (Pacific Rim Publishing), reviewed by Michael Eckenfels. “In the end, Iron Tide has much combat system appeal but otherwise not enough originality to justify its cost.” But I worry about the judgement of a reviewer who seems unable to figure out the concept of a “soak-off” attack.
Lock ‘N Load (Shrapnel Games, which apparently wants the game to be referred to as “Mark H. Walker’s Lock ‘N Load” and has persuaded the reviewer to go along), reviewed by Maximillian Ben Hanan. “Mark H. Walker’s Lock ‘N Load lives up well to its goal of making the Vietnam Conflict both entertaining and accessible to gamers of different experience levels.”
Rebels and Redcoats, Volume III (Decision Games), reviewed by Jean Jodoin. “A player looking for simpler rules . . . and smaller battles to introduce newcomers to the hobby will be satisfied. . . . Gamers looking for the latest in tactical gaming, interactive sequence of play, unit formation and perhaps weaponry differentiation should look elsewhere: this simple design will not keep their interest past the initial look.”
The Lost Battalion: The Meuse-Argonne Offensive 1918 (Strategy & Tactics #217), reviewed by David Newport. “I like Lost Battalion, despite the large errata sheet. The game captures the impression of a large offensive through the shattered hell of WWI’s western front trench lines. The rules are simple. . . . Players interested in the period or those who enjoy trying to crack open tough fortifications will find a very good game here.”
Ignorant Armies: The Iran-Iraq War, 1980-88 (Strategy & Tactics #215), reviewed by Jon Compton. The reviewer played the game four times, and each game ended much more quickly than the real war, suggesting that wargamers are better strategists than Saddam Hussein or Ayatollah Khomeini. “Although not a revolutionary design, IA is a solid effort that well presents the historical conflict and lends many insights into the actual event. New players will be able to grasp the system easily enough . . . while veteran players will find plenty of depth and unpredictability. . . .”
The Italian Front: 1915-1918 (Schroeder Publishing & Wargames), reviewed by Chuck Synold. The eighth installment of the publisher’s hyper-ambitious Der Weltkrieg series. “I would highly recommend this game system to anyone who really wants to dedicate themselves [sic – sounds like he’s thinking of the Borg Collective] to a system they can really get involved with.”
Fading Legions (Avalanche Press), reviewed by David Newport. “I can certainly appreciate simple, fast playing wargames that capture the essence of their subject matter. FL has the simple, fast playing part down, but it totally missed the part where it is supposed to capture the flavor of ancient battle.”
The Ancient World: Rise of the Roman Republic (GMT Games), reviewed by Vince Blackburn. “Those who enjoy modifying rules systems will find Roman Republic fairly amenable to experimentation, although it would have been nice if GMT had done enough experimentation to bring out this game’s full potential.”
Waterloo: Napoleon’s Last Battle (Phalanx Games), reviewed by Stefan Patejak. “. . . a beer and pretzels game, where the beer is Heineken.”
Sweden Fights On (GMT Games), reviewed by Chuck Synold. “As an educational tool, as well as a fun game, SFO is well worth owning. Mr. Hull and GMT can be credited with a job well done. However, I would suggest that only more experienced gamers tackle this series.”
Spanish Civil War Battles: Brunete & Jarama (Strategy & Tactics #213), reviewed by Chuck Synold. “Through continued play testing by the design team, combined with player feedback concerning B&J, a smoother running, omission-free rules system should result. With this in mind, I’m looking forward to the next couple of games in this series.”
All in all, the mix of reviews and reviewers is excellent. As the excerpts show, firmer editing would be helpful, but stylistic deficiencies detract little from the magazine’s substance.
Number 129 (Spring 2003)
The lead article features a celebrity reviewer, Stephen Newberg of Simulations Canada fame, writing about a celebrated game, the third edition of History of the World (Hasbro/Avalon Hill, 2002). Mr. Newberg offers a good overview of the this version, with particular attention to its lavish components, but unfortunately seems to have a slightly fuzzy memory of its predecessor. His discussion of the differences between the two editions overlooks most of the actual rules changes and erroneously praises the new one for introducing a seventh empire into each epoch. The game would indeed be much diminished if there were not more available empires than players, but that has been one of its features from the beginning. Also suggesting a lack of recent playing experience is a proposed house rule to make it impossible for the Roman player in Epoch 3 to claim the first-moving empire in Epoch 4. That situation will not, however, arise more often than one game in 40 or 50, unless the opposing players are stunningly incompetent. The tiny chance of a lucky card draw bringing about that stroke of good fortune impresses me as a reasonable hope to hold out to the guy who gets stuck with Rome. (For readers who aren't familiar with the game: Rome is the strongest of all the empires, but playing it virtually guarantees nothing but weakling powers from then on).
Fear God & Dread Nought (Clash of Arms, 2001), reviewed by John Docwra, is a $95 (sic!) set of naval miniatures rules covering the first quarter of the 20th Century. The outlay brings 128 pages of rules, 128 of scenarios, 144 of ship data and a set of counters that can be used in place of miniatures. (But anybody who can afford this game surely can afford all the ship models that he needs.) The bulk of the review consists of a long, thoroughly worked-out example of play that illustrates the plethora of detail and the length of time needed to get through a few minutes of a small action. For those who yearn for additional paper, Clash of Arms offers a $10 Players' Handbook, which the reviewer contradictory says "isn't essential" and, some paragraphs later, "is". The verdict: Despite less than optimal organization, "I consider this the best game rules set I've seen for this era."
Sam Sheikh's review of Caesar in Alexandria (GMT Games, 2001) praises the game's physical design but complains that neither side has much incentive to do anything, because attacking is overly risky and there is no time pressure on either Caesar or this enemies. Comparing the course of play to history shows little or no role for supply, reinforcements, morale and fatigue, all of which were crucial to the real outcome. Moreover, the system, though based on Simple Great Battles of History, achieves a fair degree of complexity through its combination of hex with point-to-point movement. Included in the review are errata and a pair of good examples of land and sea combat.
"Zhukov's Dilemma: A Soviet Commander's Notebook in Ukraine '43" by Lew Ritter presents tactical advice for GMT's well-regarded but out-of-print portrayal of the Kharkov campaign. The writer warns that the appearance of one-sided Soviet superiority is deceiving, as the Reds must meet stiff Victory Point targets to avoid "sudden death" defeat. The article concentrates on the placement of tank armies, optional exploitation of breakthroughs and the proper utilization of air power. The advice is a bit "gamey" but looks more useful than the generalities ("Make the best use of your resources", etc.) often found in such pieces.
John Docwra's second appearance in this issue is a rather odd review of Eastern Fleet (Avalanche Press, 2001), one of the Second World War at Sea series. He claims to detect an anti-British bias in the scenario commentary and says that "U.S. gamers will find little to interest them", presumably because no American vessels take part. (I wonder who buys all those Eastern Front and Napoleonic titles.) If the game lacks interest, I might venture to suggest, that may be the fault of the not-very-exciting historical situation rather than American chauvinism. As is this reviewer's practice, he presents a very long example of play taken from a "what-if" scenario in which the Japanese fleet is trying to intercept British convoys. His conclusion is that, like Avalanche's other naval games, this one is excellent in simulating operations but falls down at the tactical level.
Liberté (Bullfrog, 2001), a themed, "German-style" game rather than a wargame, is reviewed by Greg Schloesser. The game's subject is the French Revolution, but it is really an election game with local color. The review is mostly a summary of the rules, and the reviewer's verdict is strongly favorable: "I feel confident my enjoyment an d appreciation of this game will continue to climb as I gain more experience and a better understanding of its strategies."
Number 128 (Winter 2002)
Owing either to serious editorial misjudgment or a desperate shortage of submissions, over 25 percent of this issue is taken up with a set of home-brewed rules for combining Hasbro's Axis & Allies Europe and Axis & Allies Pacific into a single game embracing all of World War II. Since the original Axis & Allies already does that and is still in print, I wonder why anyone except its author would be interested in this variant - particularly in 14 pages of it.
Happily, the reviews are on a considerably higher level. Three deal with wargames, illustrating three different styles of reviewing.
Jean Jodoin's review of Brandywine & Germantown (Clash of Arms Games, 2002) takes as its starting point the Battles of the Age of Reason series, of which B&G is the latest installment. Its predecessors were set during the Seven Years War (Kölin, Zorndorf and Leuthen), so we are first told, in moderate detail, about the changes made to adapt the system to the smaller scale encounters of the American Revolution. Hexes now represent less terrain and strength points fewer men, leaving a less crowded map with more room for maneuver, consequences that the reviewer applauds. The bulk of the article then discusses the scenarios (five for Brandywine, two for Germantown), describing their scope and how they appear from the opposite sides of the board. There is also one lengthy example of play illustrated by a small and not too legible diagram. The author's verdict on the game is positive. He judges it the best of the series to date, though not for players who are afraid to tackle complex mechanics and a user-unfriendly rulebook.
John Docwra treats Cherkassy Pocket (Decision Games, 2001) in a more conventional fashion, by summarizing the rules. That is not the most interesting or imaginative technique, but it does give an idea of the game's qualities. This one is a straightforward portrayal of of the battle in early 1944 that is also known as the "Korsun Pocket". The only unusual mechanic is that players have a choice of taking their combat phase either before or after their movement phase. The example of play unfortunately has no accompanying diagram, so that only readers who already own the game can easily follow it.
Sam Sheikh reviews Infernal Machines (Clash of Arms Games, 2000), an expansion for Landships!. The subject is World War I tank engagements on a scale of 100 meters per hex and five minutes per turn. Though not the longest, this is the most comprehensive of the reviews, discussing the basic features of the parent game, additions and modifications made by the expansion, comparisons with other World War I tactical games, the scenarios, problems with the rules, and the game's overall strengths and weaknesses. Also included are a useful example of play and a page of errata. The conclusion: "Those who liked the original and tolerated its weaknesses should grab this module."
A fourth review illustrates the danger of straying into unfamiliar territory. Jean Jodoin offers a thoroughly negative assessment of German designer Wolfgang Kramer's Top Secret Spies (Rio Grande Games, 2001). I haven't played the game, but it made the Games 100 this year, and the German original, under the name Heimlich & Co., was the 1986 Spiel des Jahres winner. Those accolades, plus a certain confidence in Rio Grande's editorial judgment, lead me to doubt that the game is as dreadful as the reviewer declares. Rather, we see the effect of approaching German-style strategy games with a wargamer's mentality. (The phenomenon is reciprocal: Writers for magazines like Counter seem unable to grasp what wargames are all about.) If F&M is going to cover "German games" (and there is no strong reason why it should), it needs to assign them to reviewers who understand and appreciate the genre.