Thursday, December 1, 2011

First session of Fighting Formations

I just came home from games night at the local boardgames club, Kärmes. On the table for the first time was Fighting Formations: Grossdeutschland Motorized Infantry Division, a new contender to the tactical WW2 arena. It's a new GMT series with a series rulebook weighing in at 23 pages. Each game in the series is supposed to concentrate on historical battles of a namesake formation, although as a series first is only out at the moment, we'll have to see what the future brings.

Me and Timo only managed to play a few turns, as neither of us had played before and gameplay was slowed down by frequent browsing of the manual. The Germans were attacking a hillside position of the Soviet forces across an open plain. Infantry supported by StuG III's. The soviets had only infantry and machine guns, but they also had lots of trenches, pillboxes, wire and minefields to help. During the turns we played, the German infantry suffered a lot of losses advancing towards to Soviet line over open ground, but the StuG's punched through the Soviet line with impunity. The Soviets found themselves in a position where most of their line was out of command and tried to redeploy, which the Germans exploited by advancing on the vacated trenchline. We stopped playing just before the Soviet armored reinforcements arrived. The Germans had taken the victory locations of the scenario with their nigh invulnerable tanks but the Soviets had gained a lot of casualty victory points from the Germans and would probably have win if they had managed to retake even one of the victory locations by game's end. We managed to play several rules wrong though, so it was more of a practice match anyway.

Fighting Formations is a veritable Smörgåsbord of game mechanics. The actions assignable to troops each turn are determined by randomly placing blocks on the command list. The damage dealt to soldiers is determined by random chit draw from cups. There is a deck of cards for artillery, air strikes and special actions. Modifiers to firing change the dice you roll, so where you normally roll 2D10 against targets in open ground and normal range, you reduce that to 2D8 because of cover or increase it to 2D12 for point blank fire. The list goes on and on.

The Initiative system is what I liked most about the rules. Each time you perform an action, the initiative track shifts towards your opponent, and once it slips to his side, it's his turn to act. The simpler your actions are, the more you can perform them in one go before giving the turn to your opponent. The more complex they are, the easier it is to lose the initiative to your opponent. This gives the game turns an unpredictable and simultaneous nature and is quite brilliant. When you pick a block on your turn, you can perform the action of the slot it is on, or any slot "under" it. This means you can generally do what you want (unlike in combat commander where you are shit out of luck if you don't have a correct card) but you have to pay for it by expending more initiative than the action would normally take. Defensive fire is also performed by expending initiative.

Command and Control is achieved in a simple manner. You place a commander token on the board, and can move it around with the troops, and perform actions like shooting and defensive fire for a lower initiative cost as long as troops are within the command radius of the token. After one turn, the token is flipped and everything costs more initiative within the commander's radius. After on more turn, the token is returned to a pool where it becomes available again after one turn of cooldown. This makes it smart not to spread out your troops too thin, as I noticed. When troops are not in command, you will find yourself having to expend precious initiative to do the simplest of tasks and your opponent will dictate the tempo. 

The last smart thing Fighting Formations does is have separate counters for platoons and squads. Units enter the game as platoons, consisting of three squads, and are treated as one counter in the beginning. They can (and will if they suffer casualties) split into their component squads which can operate individually. This reduces counter clutter a lot and is a smart move.

What about the bad? Well, it's not ASL to be sure. The simpler game mechanics make the dice a bit more dominating and I didn't like how some mechanics play, especially melee. My opponent drove his StuG platoon right through my infantry platoon in a trench and didn't have the odds stacked against him in melee at all. It was quite difficult for an entire platoon of infantry to scratch three tanks driving through a trenchline without support. I found that odd, but I suppose I'll just have to find new tank hunting techniques. Also, the German/Soviet counters have too little contrast between them. It is quite easy to mistake the two under bad lighting. I hope they pay attention to this in future modules.

The simpler mechanics aren't all bad. Our first match was an attack on a trenchline with pillboxes, wire, minefields and machine guns by German infantry and armor supported by Stuka swarms and artillery strikes on both sides. It has taken me dozens of matches of ASL to be so confident with the rules as to play something like that in ASL (although we haven't tried air strikes and artillery yet!). This was our first game of Fighting Formations and already we had all that going on. The barrage system especially was simple yet quite realistic enough.

We'll have to play more of this for my opinion to mature, but at the moment it seems much better than Combat Commander or Conflict of Heroes, becoming my pick for the medium complexity WW2 tactical stuff, but of course, ASL will not be dethroned by this usurper!

PS. Sorry, no pics this time. I have some finished Stone Trolls I'll try to photograph to liven up the blog that has been all dry and hex&countery of late.

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