Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Fighting Formations preview #2: The frakkin' game!

(A quick note: this post was supposed to go up soon after the first part, posted a fortnight ago. Unfortunately the CSW website crashed for more than a week so that I couldn't get the information I needed to complete the article, hence the long delay.)

Fighting Formations went live on the GMT P500 at the end of June. It crossed the 500 preorders line in mid-August (17th AFAIK), meaning that will go into production. An xmas release is possible although I'm not holding my breath on that score to be honest: it's just a bit too much to hope for.

Opening FF@CSW last November, Chad announced:
I'll begin by answering the obvious question first: "No, this is not Combat Commander with tanks."
The most obvious difference was made clear immediately: FF is not card-driven. This should've been obvious to fans of CC who've followed Chad's oft rehearsed explanations of why the inclusion of tanks would quickly overload and crash the CC card engine.

On a grander scale
The maps on which Combat Commander is played are very confined, uniquely so in WW2 tactical gaming AFAIK. At 30m/hex, the 15-hex long-edge represents 450m; so that each CC map is effectively 5 Up Front games side by side. FF's maps are on a grander scale. The scaled down CC map tucked into the corner of the sample preproduction FF map- left, shows how significant is this difference. Also, some scenarios use 2 maps so that FF will see grognards make another return to the sweeping battlefield expanses of the early days of Panzerblitz and Squad Leader.

The scenarios are similarly greater in scope, as can be seen from the sample scenario 2- right. The number of infantry units alone would make this a large game in CC terms. All those AFV's suggest that Chad is aiming high with FF: looking for a game approximating Squad Leader in scale and Panzerblitz in level; and playable enough that a high unit count won't make the game unwieldy in the way that has driven ASL scenario development down the road of smaller engagements. And scenario 2 isn't even one of FF's 'monster scenarios'.

On a finer scale
AFV's are more complex beasts than infantry so the AFV counters in FF are more complex than CC's infantry counters, as you'd expect. A comparison of FF's sample PzIV F2 with similiar counters from other games is above. A quick count shows that there are 12 data on the FF counter (front: left to right, top to bottom):
  • AP attack w/range (superscript).
  • HE/small arms attack w/range (AP and HE have to be distinguished; this is as about as clean a way of doing this as any).
  • Special action 'A'.
  • Opportunity fire number.
  • Fire arc type (circle- top right); eg. turret versus fixed mount.
  • Defence: armoured (black again), front and flank (subscript).
This is an information load comparable with that of most games of this level, meaning that there should be an satisfying degree of resolution.

On a variable scale
More striking at first sight than on subsequent reflection is the variable unit scale: basic units are platoons, but these can be broken down into individual elements. Even so, easy as it might be to see the mechanic's roots in 1979's Cross of Iron, knowing that these variable unit densities are integrated into the spatiotemporal dynamics of FF's C3 system means that what was initially simply startling, on reflection appears pregnant with possibilities.

A greater oddity in a WW2 tacsim is FF's use of polyhedral dice: d6, d8, d10, d12 and d20. The basic dice roll is 2d10. Modifiers are expressed in 'dice shifts' so that, eg. a +1 modifier would have you rolling 2d12. I confess that I wasn't too keen on this at first sight, because I really disliked a similar mechanic in the Serenity RPG. A picture of a playtest game at a GMT open day overcame this prejudice, when I realised that players would be able to collect their own sets of FF dice. How could a grognard resist?

FF's polyhedral diceshift mechanic also looks cleaner than that of the Serenity RPG's Cortex System (the system the game shares with other RPG's from Margaret Weis Productions). Compared to FF's base 2d10 shifted up or down, Cortex's dice rolls are based on the use of 2 character attributes, each liable to be different dice- a system the use of which I found intrusive enough to undermine my willing suspension; bonuses are expressed as extra dice- themselves varying in kind; and it uses d2, d4, d6, d10 and d12- those d2's and d4's really bugged me.

I noted above that FF isn't card-driven. There are cards in the game though. These are Assets. They'll represent various things, from air strikes to wirecutters. Exactly as in CC these will enable players to build a plan around the use of an asset at a key point on the battlefield.

It is interesting to think about how these should reinforce player point-of-view. Ranging from the smallest element right at the sharp end up to operational elements utterly beyond the control of the commanders the players represent, the assets 'bracket' the players as commanders. The net result should be to strengthen the players' identification with their nominal commanders.

Command and control
Exactly as CC fans would expect from a new Chad Jensen design, C3 is the heart of FF. The Orders Matrix shown left is the heart of C3 in FF. These are the key elements in the C3 system:
  • Order cubes: wooden cubes determining the command potentialities in a turn.
  • Command markers: counters placed on the map to represent the command radius, to determine whether units are in or out of command.
  • Mission/Tactical command: command markers start as Mission command when they are placed; they are flipped over to Tactical command at the end of the turn in which they are placed.
  • Initiative: all orders- active or reactive, cost initiative; the player with the initiative is the active player.
The way the system will work will be something like this:
  • The order cubes will be randomly seeded onto the Orders Matrix.
  • The player who has the initiative picks one cube from the matrix, pays the initiative cost (the number of the space) and may execute any order in or below that space; eg. a German player picking a cube from space 3 pays 3 initiative to Move, Fire or use an Asset.
  • Any number of units may carry out the chosen order; each unit might cost the player extra initiative:
  1. Unit(s) under Mission command: 0 extra initiative/unit.
  2. Unit(s) under Tactical command: +1 initiative/unit.
  3. Unit(s) out of command: +2 initiative/unit.
  • The opposing player may react; reactive orders cost initiative, which amounts to giving initiative back to the opposing player.
  • The player who now owns the initiative selects another order cube.
  • The process is repeated until all 10 order cubes have been selected and the turn is over; Mission command markers are flipped to their Tactical command side for the next turn; Tactical command markers are removed to the ready box for the next turn.
I'll leave it to my readers to work through the nuances of this intriguing multidimensional C3 model. I just want here to note the concepts at play in FF:
  • The command cycle and its uncertainties.
  • Battlefield friction reducing C3 capacity.
  • Proper disposition of forces to maximise command effectiveness so that your units can maintain the momentum of their attack.
  • Competition for battlefield initiative to manoeuvre your forces in response to changing battlefield conditions.
I am really looking forward to seeing how Chad has tied all this together with the elements of fire and movement in his new game. Expect to hear more! ;)

Addendum 21/8/09
Just found this post on FF@BGG which has corrected my remark about the timing of the FF's crossing the 500 preorders point: it was the 14th. Good to keep on top of these minor details, eh? ;)

- Fighting Formations preview #1: Some background