Tuesday, August 30, 2005

A rash of enthusiasm...

... for Up Front

Readers who know me might be surprised that I haven't already filled page after page about this great game (or about, y'know... No, no, he's another story).

Up Front (UF), designed by Courtney Allen and published by Avalon Hill in its pre-Hasbro days back in 1983 is, in my opinion, the greatest wargame since chess. Such (possible?) hyperbole aside, it is certainly my desert-island game of choice. With the possible exception of backgammon it is the single game I have played more than any other, ever.

So having announced my fondess for UF in such grandiloquent terms, how can I explain what it is about this game that makes it the WW2 tacsim which comes closest to giving me the same buzz that I get from a good roleplaying session with a favourite PC in the hands of a class GM?

I think I can make a stab at a start by summing up its appeal as:
  1. Sheer playability
  2. Superb authenticity
  3. Groundbreaking design conception
Sheer playability
Well I've already said that this is the most played game ever in my adventure games collection; which amounts to some thousand and more games, most of them over a period of 5/6 years' intensive play right after I'd got it.

This is the game that, back in the days when none of us had day-jobs to worry about, we would literally play for 24 hours or more at a stretch. And that's a gang of us playing winner-stays-on round robin with a single set. Just how many boardgames can you think of that are so compelling that more than half of a group of hardcore gamers there assembled would be willing to sit out all that time just for their game? (Not unlike playing pool in a pub.)

UF is also the only boardgame that's ever reduced me to a heap of hysterical laughter rolling on the floor due to the sheer madness of the play.

More objectively, UF is a game that a smart player can learn in less than half an hour with the help of a good teacher; which you can play in 45-90 minutes once you've mastered the rules- allowing several games in a reasonable evening's gaming. UF was also the first game that gave us what we came to call the 'arcade game' effect - that irresistable desire to have another go because you just know you can do it next time.

You don't have to be a grognard - let alone a WW2 buff - to enjoy UF; you just have to enjoy a supreme tactical challenge and the experience of increasing mastery of a vivid recreation of the problems of squad-level combat in WW2.

Superb authenticity
Sheer damn good fun aside, the authenticity of UF as a simulation of its chosen subject is the single issue that most strongly divides its fans from its detractors (and the latter most certainly outnumber the former I'd have to admit I guess). It's the cardplay that is the kicker here, with the opinions of the nay-sayers most often summed-up under terms like 'floating terrain'.

This arises because everything that happens in a game of UF is driven by an action deck. That's not just doing the obvious things like issing orders, eg. movement, firing and rallying; nor even the use of card-draw action resolution; but also determining the very shape of the battlefield itself, eg. that building out there you're looking for?- well you don't know where it is until you draw a building card from the action deck; and you can't get there without a movement card.

The M:tG generation might find this unexceptional, but I can assure you that those aging fans of hexmaps, CRT's, ZoC's of the 70's school of SPI, GDW, and so on, well a lot of them just didn't get it, so that UF has basically taken on geek cult status amongst grognards. All the same it remains my contention that precisely what UF lacks - ie. the omniscient overview and the omnipotentence of the turn-by-turn counter pushing; well, this is what gives the game its unique feel for that old chestnut of wargames design - the fog of war.

In UF, you know your enemy - your opponent's squad; and you know your mission - the victory conditions; otherwise, well you can have a pretty good idea of what's out there, but you're not sure where it is, how long it'll take you to get there, nor even how well-prepared the enemy will be in the face of your plan. And even if you do figure that out, you can't be sure how well your men will perform, if their morale will hold, or if there'll be enough of them left once you've closed with the enemy for you to be able to achieve your objective.

On top of this psychology provided by the action deck, UF also enjoys some neat games mechanics demonstrating a painstaking study of its subject. The best features of the mechanics aside from the cardplay are the morale and shooting rules.

Morale is handled by the by now familiar 2-state: good order and pinned. Pinned men can't move or fire, which hampers and slows down the rest of their group (fireteam).

Firepower works as volume fire against morale instead of individual direct fire conducted man-to-man, which was the typical mechanic back in UF's day. Basic infantry weapons are richly rendered, with simple rules reflecting the differences between rifles, SMG, and MG's, and between, say, the bolt-action, semi-automatic and fully automatic versions of the former. Actual fire attacks are executed via action card draws, with some simple and neat mechanics which work out to give an excellent feel for the effects of cover, and for the difference between sporadic fire that keeps your men's heads down, and sustained bursts that gun them down in droves.

Around this core of fire and movement are many other neat rules: infiltration and close combat; weapons malfunctions and repairs; special weapons, eg. the dreaded flamethrower; pillboxes, minefields, ordnance, and tanks.

The tank rules are really nice, smoothly presenting them in a form appropriate to their power at this level of combat, which includes their vulnerablities too naturally enough. Even something as complex as the difference between solid and shaped-charge AT munitions is presented with rules so subtle that you might not even notice what's going on.

All in all then, I would be very surprised if someone could present a sustainable case that UF is a poor simulation of its chosen subject, even if the game was to remain not to their taste.

Groundbreaking design conception
The use of cardplay to control and to resolve actions wasn't pioneered by UF. Avalon Hill's Gunslinger is but one example of a game that uses cards for both these purposes. What marks UF out from the other examples with which I am familiar is the integration of these functions into a single deck (Gunslinger gives each player their own - fixed - set of action cards, and uses a separate resolution deck). More than that too is the integration of the battlefield itself into the very same deck (Gunslinger uses the familar board and counters).

It is this integration of space and time on the battlefield into a seamless whole via the medium of the action deck that was unique to UF. The overall effect was to give the game a definite viewpoint analagous to that of a PC in an rpg. I mean, tabletop military simulation games had hitherto presented a viewpoint that was, by and large, totally unreal: that of the top-down map view.

This is something that was just about credible in the days of Napoleon and hilltop generalship on the field of battle. Even then the lie of the land would typically give the lie to this perspective. In the 20th century this viewpoint basically could and did not exist. What UF confronted then was a deeply rooted trend in simulationist gaming where the players' viewpoints in practice represented some nebulous notion of the staff and the command structure, not the generals themselves as so fondly imagined by grognards everywhere.

In UF, the players represent the platoon commanders (they have to: if they were actually on the table, then their death would be an immediate defeat, surely?), located somewhere just off the table. The effect of the cards is to distill into an easy playable form the way in which they would receive information and give orders about a situation they basically cannot see, and over which they have limited control.

It has to be said that Allen himself wasn't completely responsible for the design innovations that he was using here. The simple fact that UF was billed as the "Squad Leader card game" tells us that he owed a debt to John Hill's trailblazing work on the idea of modelling the effects of a given thing (or set of things if those things all have the same overall effect) instead of modelling each particular way in which that effect is delivered. I happen to believe that Hill's work also influenced George MacDonald and Steve Peterson - whose similarly groundbreaking rpg Champions used the same approach to the modelling of comicbook superpowers.

I also happen to believe that this posited parallel influence is more than merely fortuitous. What I mean here is that what underpins the levels of abstraction that make the UF action deck such a joyous gaming engine is exactly the principle Allen developed from Hill's work, ie. model effect and not mechanism.

In this case though Allen went further than just reducing the effects of a variety of different weapons to a single unified mechanic, as had Hill. In UF, Allen went on to model the 'effect' of the squad level action on the platoon leader existing in a location separate from the action the game actually plays out, and vice versa. In other words the uncertainties of the action deck are a mechanism to model the effects of the distance between leader and led, with the resultant communications lag and general lack of specific information.

What made this so exciting at the time was the sense that this was a design concern - that of adequately modelling a single and definite viewpoint - which we were all convinced was a direct product of the advent, in the preceding decade, of the rpg.

And that's it:- Up Front: great game; fine simulation; and tacsim schwerpunkt of the post-D&D history of adventure gaming.

"Take fire 10!"

- A rash of enthusiasm for Memoir'44, Part 1: Another hymn of praise to cardplay
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