Monday, 17 November 2014

Flames of War?

Last Saturday (15 Nov 2014) I went to the Warfare show in Reading. I try to attend this show every year because it provides an ideal opportunity to stock my lead pile prior to the approaching festive period. This year my shopping requirements were heightened due to the cancellation of the September show, Colours. As usual I met up with my long time gaming friend, Graham, who was playing in the Flames of War (FoW) competition. Graham is a keen competition gamer who has focussed on FoW for a few years now and I have seen him play many times. Clearly FoW are a set of rules he very much enjoys and I find it strange that this set of rules has never truly grabbed my attention. My feelings towards FoW are ambivalent, which is strange because most gamers seem to either love or hate them, with little in between. I hope by writing this post I can perhaps clarify my thoughts and move towards solving the conundrum posed by FoW.

I should state that I have all 3 versions of the rules and many of the supplements, most of which I bought via ‘Bring and Buy’ stalls. I think these purchases were worth buying if only for the eye-candy they contain; many excellent photos of figures and vehicles, short background articles and OOB’s.  I have also been moved to buy and paint 2 matched armies (mid-war DAK and 8th Army), but they have only been used 3-4 times and spend their life in boxes under my wargames table. Why is this? Why doesn’t FoW appeal to me in the way it clearly does to many others? Or should the question be re-phrased, why was I motivated by FoW to spend money on these armies?

I think I will start by examining what I see as the significant positives about FoW. They are beautifully presented publications that certainly hooked me and prised open my wallet a few times. I suspect there are too many supplements and they are now going into diverse areas (WW1, Vietnam etc.), which is strange considering there are still many WW2 theatres not covered (I am thinking especially of the Pacific war). The rules themselves are clearly written and have simple basic mechanics. This is not to say that the rules are simple because there are numerous unit, weapon, nationality etc. specific rules and modifications that tailor an army’s performance to their historical counterparts. How well this is achieved I will not comment on here because of limited space and time! There is a strong element of luck within the game, but FoW is not a dice-fest and after watching many competitive games I think I can appreciate the skill and knowledge that players display. In fact I think the luck element has a huge positive impact on the competitive wargaming scene. Competitive FoW players seem to have more fun than other competitive gamers; they laugh more, they realise that the dice gods can undermine the best of plans, they accept defeat more gracefully, and pick themselves up to go again. I do find it disturbing how many competitive FoW players can reel off weapon stats and points values from memory and argue about whether taking a PaK40 platoon represents value or not! I’m sure I would drive them crazy, slowing down play by constantly referring back to lists. They don’t even seem to require a QRS to play! The next major positive about FoW is more general: As a whole I think FoW armies are some of the best painted and modelled miniatures that can be seen within the competitive wargaming environment. Walking around the other wargame competitions I am always shocked about how varied the quality of armies are: some are good but a surprising number are poor (partly painted and bashed figures, temporary basing, and even occasionally unpainted figures). FoW gamers seem to take pride in their collections and take any opportunity to add vignettes to boost the character of their force. I also like the more obscure forces (Hungarian, Finnish etc.) frequently fielded by players, and any rules that encourages players to use early war French or Italian armies should be commended. I do think that Battlefront miniatures are over-priced and this has certainly deterred me from jumping into FoW with more enthusiasm. Another aspect of FoW I really appreciate are the different missions available. They shift gamers away from the bland meeting engagement and enable more varied, challenging scenarios to be played out. Even though I’m not a FoW player I do use the different missions with other gaming rules.

With all these positives, what puts me off using FoW? There are some problems with the mechanics. Some players have commented that FoW is merely a WW2 version of 40K. I have never played 40K so cannot say if this is correct (or even if this is a bad thing!) but I do feel there are some basic omissions and problems. There is no overwatch mechanic which strikes me as bizarre and would have been easy to correct with little added complexity for the game system. The bailing/remounting mechanic is understandable from a game perspective but it is funny having tank crews acting like demented jack-in-the-box characters. I have frequently seen players using massed tanks moving bumper-to-bumper like formation dance teams. Tanks seem able to perform amazing feats of driving agility such as turning on a sixpence in narrow lanes, all the while maintaining perfect formation. Having artillery on-table when they should be miles to the rear (scalability has always been a bugbear for rules authors but this is taking it to the extreme). Then scattering your artillery battery across the whole baseline rather than keeping it as a coherent formation. It appears the primary role for air defence units is frontline ground attack close support. I could go on and on, and I’m sure other gamers would refute each and every point I raise, but from my perspective FoW does not simulate WW2 tactics/action well. I have no personal military or combat experience to base this assertion and it is merely a reflection of my reading of accounts and histories. It fact, it can be argued (correctly in my opinion) that no wargame rules come close to accurately simulating combat in any period of history, but I feel FoW is a poorer simulation than other WW2 rules on the market.
To conclude, FoW is not for me. I am glad FoW exists and that so many gamers enjoy playing. It has re-invigorated WW2 gaming and has brought many new gamers in to the fold. It has improved the painting and modelling standards within the competitive gaming community. Long live Flames of War...but can I play another, different game, please? (Now I will put my steel helmet on, go to ground, dig in and await the flak. Let’s hope my opponent has not invested in combat engineers with flamethrowers!).

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