Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Up Front, Behind Schedule

It's been too long, I acknowledge that. Schoolwork, a new job training program, geography, and lack of discipline have kept me away from the blog, but we were only sleeping, not dead! A recent Tuesday night game group meeting had a headcount and game selections such that Tim and I decided to split off and do our own thing for the evening. We played one or two other things, but we're here today to talk about Up Front, Courtney F. Allen's unique take on the WWII tactical combat genre, published in 1983 by Avalon Hill. This is the same guy who designed Storm over Arnhem, the very influential area-impulse game that spawned Breakout: Normandy and a host of other games. As different as the area-impulse games are from the hex-and-counter games that preceded them, it's no surprise to learn that Allen's treatment of WWII tactical combat would be groundbreaking, too.

Unlike 99.9% of all other such games, Up Front has no board, instead relying on a deck of multi-function playing cards to represent, well, most of the stuff in the game. In various ways, the main deck of cards represents the terrain over which the combatants fight, environmental effects like wind, all kinds of morale effects, command and control limitations, sniper attacks, and much more, as well as acting as a sort of "deck of dice." If you've played games like Glory to Rome, you'll be familiar with this sort of situation where a card is different things at different times; San Juan / Race for the Galaxy come to mind, too, with cards sometime representing "bucks." The result of all this in Up Front is that there's a lot of information packed onto these somewhat undersized playing cards, and it looks pretty damned confusing at first. The rulebook, as was the custom, has been translated from English into Avalonhillese, an arcane dialect of Lawyerish. That's a little bit of hyperbole, I suppose. The rules aren't a total disaster, but their Avalon Hill style, along with the decidedly unconventional mechanisms of the game, make this a tough one to learn on your own. Many, many times you'll hear someone say, "The best way to learn Up Front is to have someone who knows the game teach it to you," and they're probably right. Still, it's doable, and Tim and I did.

Each player gets a hand of cards: six for the resourceful Americans, five for the well-led Germans, and four for the stout Russians. These can be Fire cards, representing opportunities to attack, Move cards, cards representing beneficial terrain such as Woods or Buildings, cards to lay Smoke, cards to Rally troops, and others. There are also some nasty cards that can be discarded on one's opponent, such as hindering terrain like Wire or Streams, or Sniper attacks, plus the dreaded Cower card, which does nothing but eat a slot in your hand until you're able to discard it. Having the correct card(s) in hand is critical to remaining flexible and moving towards your goal, so it follows that having too many of one kind of card, even an otherwise great card, is not good. So playing cards and refilling your hand to keep cards flowing is important, as is discarding. The Germans are the only nationality that get to do useful stuff and discard a card on the same turn, so they rarely pause long for a break. Both the Russians and the Americans must forgo taking any actions on a turn in which they want to discard (the Americans can discard two cards in that situation, the Russian as many as he wants). This affects the Allies' ability to discard hindering terrain on the opponent's group and to attack with Snipers. This is only a taste of the game's mechanisms, but I think it illustrates the sometimes subtle ways that things like national differences are modeled in this game.

Now, we'd played the game before, about once every eighteen months or so, but we still needed a few minutes to refresh our memories about the game before diving into Scenario A: Meeting of Patrols. I didn't know at the time that we'd be writing about this game, so I wasn't really taking notes during the action, so forgive my sketchy recollection of the sequence of events. Basically, this is a sandbox style battle between roughly equal forces, and the victory conditions – either advance a group of at least four men four "spaces" across the "board" and have them occupy defensive terrain, or win on victory points when time runs out, which mainly means advancing men up the field and causing more enemy casualties than you sustain yourself – encourage aggression and forward movement rather than turtling.

Acting somewhat randomly, I split my force of twelve men down the middle and proceeded to march one group off toward the German lines. The German fire group spent much of the early part of the game – well, OK, much of the game – mired in a Stream into which they'd stumbled. Eventually, the two Stream cards, really quite nasty to wind up in, since they offer no cover and are difficult to get out of – showed up a total of three times, slowing things up a bit. There was a middle part to the game where we each discarded and cycled cards looking for the magic card we needed...a Ford movement card for Tim to help his guys out of the stream bed, and a Fire card for me to allow me to meaningfully return fire against the Germans I crept ever closer towards. Near the end, my maneuver group got to Range Chit 4, quite close to the Germans opposite them (behind the German fire group, actually), and then promptly withered under a hail of close-range German gunfire. I had caused some German casualties, though, including his precious machine gunner (or was it just the Squad Leader?), but with the instant victory condition now out of reach, I thought I was cooked; Tim had simply caused more casualties. When the game ended after our third pass through the deck, we counted up victory points was a tie. I had managed, on a very late turn, to advance my fire group a bit, and was rewarded with enough VPs for "aggressive action" that I avoided defeat. Night fell, the two patrols moved back to their own lines, and nothing was decided.

What was decided was that this is fun. Anyone who's read my comments about Combat Commander must think I'm schizophrenic if I like this very abstracted game, and they might be right. I can't explain why the seemingly random appearance of a stream in the path of a moving group of men doesn't bother me as much as having a unit resurrect on the map in CC:E. I suspect that it has to do with the level of abstraction: in Combat Commander, there's still a map and the turns are rigid enough that there's a sense of a constant, regular division of time, so things that seem "unrealistic" grate on me. In Up Front, everything's a blur: time is measured in cards and decks, the battlefield is a hazy abstraction. I don't just is different for me. I'll ask my therapist for help resolving this issue. In any case, I'm hopeful we'll get to play again soon so we don't forget all the rules we just relearned. And hey, maybe we'll actually move on to Scenario B!

Monday, May 4, 2009

Up Front: Battle to a Standstill

Randy and I pulled out an old school game last Tuesday - Up Front, a long OOP Avalon Hill card game that represents, on some level (I hesitate to say simulates, although it may do that) conflicts between squads of individuals. At more advanced points in the game, those "individuals" can include vehicles like tanks and other armor, although we played the most basic scenario, A Meeting of Patrols, with nothing but infantry and some support weapons. Randy and I have played Up Front previously, but there is almost always many months between playings, and while the game isn't complex (at this level), it has lots of small details that can be hard to keep to mind when playing. In fact, we messed up on rule - in the scenario we played, the first five buildings should have been treated as Cower cards (useless cards that clog up your hand). This didn't have a major effect on the events of the evening, though - we just hand-waved that we were in a more built up area than initially thought. The objective of this particular scenario is simply to move up to close range with you opponent, and occupy good terrain with at least four of your guys ready to fight (i.e. not pinned or otherwise disabled). The range rules of Up Front are NOT as complicated as they sound on initial reading, although the rules certainly make them seem quite complicated.

I think we randomized who was going to be who, but in any case I ended up as the Germans - the main thing with the Germans is they have pretty good quality troops, but not many of them, AND they have the ability to regularly churn through at least a card a turn even while doing other actions. Most other nationalities must spend an entire turn discarding OR doing actions, while the Germans have the ability to do both, although they only discard a single card. Randy ended up with the Americans, who have more guys (he had 12 guys to my 10) and some more advanced weapons, like a BAR (essentially a very light machine gun that requires only a single guy to operate). The game starts with each player having the option to play any terrain cards they may have started with, either on themselves OR on their opponent - I started the game with a stream card, one of the worst possible terrains to be caught in, and promptly put that on Randy's Squad A, otherwise I don't think much in the way of Terrain happened initially. As it turned out, starting Randy in that stream had a major effect, in that Randy spent the entire game with his first squad at far range, only moving up one increment at the very end. The main difficulty with streams is getting out of them - they make it harder for you to shoot, and make it easier for opponents to shoot you, and to get out you either need to draw a particular card (a movement marked as a ford) OR succeed at a roughly 50% change on a regular lateral movement, rather than using movement to advance on the enemy. It took Randy's Americans a good long while to get out of the stream I'd stuck him with, which turned out to be critical for the end results.

The Germans were not having much luck advancing (I couldn't draw movement cards, despite discarding every turn), and the Americans came up quickly on one flank (Squad B, the one that hadn't started out in a stream). They made it to one shy of the range they needed to win, and we settled in for a fairly long period of back and forth firing. The biggest event here was the American's making short worth of the MG squad, including removing Sgt. Diettinger (at this point, I can't remember if he routed - ran away - or was killed out right, but either way he wasn't around). Also, by this mid-point in the game the American's had managed to get out of the stream, and apparently Randy managed to draw both of the stream cards, as when I was finally able to get a movement card, he dumped a stream on me. And every time I tried to move (probably 4-5 times, for the rest of the game) I failed the 50% success check to get out of the stream. Then, I finally tried moving the other squad, and he dumped ANOTHER stream on them. Apparently, there are only two stream cards in the entire deck, and for a good bit of the latter part of the game, I had both of them on my squads.

The Americans finally made a big push for the victory, closing in to the correct range, but I had saved a Marsh (a fairly bad terrain in it's own right, though not as awful as a stream), and discarded that to be his new location. He refused this, giving up his advance, which kept me in the game. About this time, the Germans came into some very powerful fire cards, and managed to pour a steady stream of fire down on the American squad, eventually eliminating all but one squad member, who remained pinned for the remainder of the game. We were rapidly approaching a timed end of the game (in this particular scenario, three times through the deck), so we both wanted to advance as far as we could, but do so in such a way as to keep our guys intact (only intact guys score points at game end, as well as points being available for routing/killing opponents). I pushed hard to get to the end, as I was pretty sure I was ahead, with all the kills from Baker squad.

So, at the point the game ended (with the final draw from the third time through the deck), we counted up the scores. I had 17 points, mainly from kills and routs, with a few points from advancing (I ended up with both squads at range 1 or 2, which is to say they hadn't advanced much at all). Randy counted his points, and he ALSO ended up with 17 points, although in his case it was mainly from having advanced his units to a good range (he had one squad of 6 at range 2, which was worth 12 points all by itself). So, after a hard fought battle over the fields and villages of France (or, that's what I'm going with at this point), we ended up with an inconclusive encouter between two patrols. An entire American squad had been eliminated, and the Germans had taken some fairly heavy casualties as well.

So, what did I think? I enjoyed the experience quite a bit, although I will admit that it felt like the game dragged quite a bit in the middle, when both Randy and I were mainly discarding trying to find decent cards - me to get out of the streams, Randy (I think) looking for fire cards and rally cards to unpin his guys. The fact that the game ended up in a tie doesn't bother me in the slightest - I had a lot of fun playing, and I can definitely develop a narrative to the game in my head, which is pretty important for me, at least in war games. If you get a chance to play this, don't be daunted by the reputation of impenaterable rules - although if you can get someone to teach you, it'll be easier, the rules aren't THAT bad - not good, mind you, just not as bad as they have the reputation of being. Give Up Front a chance - it's a lot of fun (although fairly hard to come by, sadly).