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 and...it 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 know...it 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!

1 comment:

  1. I'll respond to your Combat Commander comments - while you MAY be taking it as time being "regularly divided", that's explicitly NOT the way the designer intended it, and in fact isn't the way the game plays out. That's why the "Time Triggers" are measured by - cards, and running through the deck. Just like in Up Front.
    The "times a blur" thing is an explicit design goal in CC:E, and to my mind, at least, it accomplishes it at least as well (I'll say better, though I know you disagree) as Up Front.

    So - I'll call schizophrenia, as I REALLY don't understand why it's different in Up Front, and not in CC:E, since to ME, it feels almost exactly the same (and, in fact, quite a bit LESS abstracted in CC:E than in Up Front).

    Still, I enjoy Up Front quite a bit, and am definitely willing to try and get into some of the other scenarios (to this point, we've not played consistently enough to move past the initial scenario).

    ReplyDelete