Flames of War: Open Fire – A Review

FOW-logo-landscapeA couple of years ago I said I’d never play a World War II game. I said I didn’t feel comfortable with it seeing as it actually happened. Since then I’ve come to understand two things. 1. The logic of refusing to play a World War II game whilst being happy to watch a World War II movie or TV series is bogus. 2. Replaying a historical war doesn’t mean you condone it in the same way that playing a science fiction game doesn’t mean you want the future of humanity to be plagued by galactic war. With this in mind and our renewed commitment to writing about any and all games that cross our path, I decided it was about time I took a look at a couple of World War II titles. The first being Flames of War. Specifically the Open Fire starter set. FWBX03 Flames of War is a 15mm battalion level game which means lots of the toys you love. Infantry, tanks, artillery. And tanks. And artillery. And tanks. Which you get a fair bit of in the starter box. In truth  get a lot for your money. 6 Shermans, 2 Firefly tank hunters, 32 Paratroopers, 73 Grenadiers, 2 PAK40 artillery guns & 3 STUG Assault Guns and a V1 flying bomb. As well as the full rules and a quick start rules both of which are really quite pretty. You also get the associated bases, green and grey dice (no really) some counters and some truly horrid card scenery templates. You don’t get any templates. At all. That you need to play the game.

Open-Fire-54

This is a bit cheeky considering Battlefront went to the trouble of including the A5 complete Flames of War rulebook in the box. And on the subject of the rulebook: whilst it is very pretty and full of photos, nice artwork and certain parts are picked out like a 1940’s comic, it’s too heavy a book for the binding and within an hour of me reading the rules, the spine had cracked and pages started to fall out. This is a bit shit even if it is only worth a tenner on its own. It also doesn’t include any army lists at all. The big book does that’s three times the price. But if you want to do anything beyond muck about with the core box you’ve got to start spending money. Whilst I’m by no means opposed to army books, a basic list at the back would have been nice so at least players can buy a couple of boxes of blokes. That aside though, the production quality of the rule book was disappointing and will inevitably lead you to buying the hardback copy.

The models are ace however. The contrast between the German and Allied tanks is spot on. For those that didn’t know, I’m a bit of a World War II history nerd and so I appreciate the differences. The Sherman hull almost looks like a miscast. Everything’s a bit shonky. Which is exactly as it should be. They weren’t precision built machines so shouldn’t look like it. The STUG Assault Guns, on the other hand, were and so those models are crisp and clean. It’s that kind of attention to detail that only a handful of people are going to appreciate, and I’m one of them.

The infantry too are pretty good sculpts. They’ve got an impressive amount of detail for the size. Although this is a two-edged sword as it means a quick paint job will look poor. That said, the models don’t look immediately different from one another, and with the US Paratroopers and German Grenadiers all jumbled up on the same sprue it takes some time to find the models you’re looking for. Which is a bit of a pain and a bit unnecessary. Basically you’re only hope will be to refer to the assembly guide to make sure you’ve got the right blokes before you glue them to bases. The casting quality is a bit inconsistent. The Sherman tanks all had pretty bad mould lines which will mean lots of very careful filing around .50 cal machine guns and track sections. The infantry had a few bits around straps and the like but a careful and considered approach should avoid any breakages and such.

The game itself, considering Battlefront’s commitment to authenticity, is all about combined arms, manoeuvring, cover, more manoeuvring and a bit of shooting and more cover. Oh and some planes. It also means stands of infantry, precise facing and a bit of a fiddly mechanic. That’s not to say it’s not good it’s just borders on the hurry up and wait element of wargaming. A quick evening romp through the flood plains of Normandy this ain’t.

Like the models, the attention to detail is impressive to the point of obsessive. The types of movement are broken down into 12 groups for the 12 different unit types. There’s rules for towing guns, moving in buildings, driving through buildings, moving through alleyways between buildings, being bogged down. The list is long. And kinda boring. That’s not to say the game is boring just as I was reading the rules I spent a lot of time wishing they’d just cut to the chase. I’m not convinced there needs to be 12 types of movement or so many distinctions in how to move and least not without slowing the game down.

The most important part of the game is the movement so it’s almost counter productive to make it the most complicated part of the game. It kinda feels like someone got complex and complicated confused somewhere along the way because whilst I appreciate the orchestration of a battalion level engagement is a complex affair it isn’t, necessarily, complicated.

The shooting is, thankfully, a much more straight forward process. That’s not to say it isn’t detailed but it requires a lot less fussing and more rolling dice. Which is nice. And all the fussing and fiddling you did in the movement phase, providing you’ve done it right, will mean that your shooting will not only be potent but effective. I do like how you can opt for Conscripted, Trained or Veteran soldiers which will dictate their performance on the battlefield, to a certain degree. It does mean that two armies from the same side can look and play wildly different depending on the ability of the troops, not just the variety. Weapon systems also have a rate of fire so you can easily figure out how many dice you’re rolling and what you need to do to cause damage. It does get slightly more complicated with tanks and such because locations have to be determined which feels a little too 28mm than 15mm but I appreciate why it’s in there. That said the problem is more the specificity than the mechanic. Once you’ve played a few games all the various caveats for moving and shooting will become second nature much like it was for us old dogs and second edition 40k.

It all works on modifiers so it should feel familiar to most, the challenge will be remembering all the various qualifying modifications and at which points they apply.

Then there are rules for assaults, aircraft and artillery – which includes cool stuff like rockets and smoke bombardments. It really is, as mentioned, a very thorough rule set. And, of course, it means if there are rules for them then there are toys for them. At least there should be. There’s a lot to remember in Flames of War. In many ways it reminds me of Warhammer 40,000 in so much as there are lots of rules that you’ll struggle to remember. But whereas 40k is a simple mechanic made more complicated by rules designed to jazz it up, Flames of War has lots of rules because it needs them to create an authentic gaming experience.

The up shot of this is that some gamers – myself among them – wouldn’t stray very far from the Quick Start rules for quite some time. This isn’t a bad thing as such as there won’t be that sudden rush to buy loads of stuff only to find you don’t want this or that, or you want to sell the Americans and collect Russians instead. It is also a tad too restrictive for the same reason. It’s worth noting, however, that the quick play rules are well worth reading. They’re far more digestible and take you through a

Flames of War is a good, complex, historically loyal and detailed game. It’s let down by a rulebook that’s overly woolly that takes too long to get to the point and too many hairs are split when it does. It is coming from the right place though as Battlefront were determined to write the most historical game they could and at times it really shows. The quick play rules are slick and nicely presented and a far safer bet to work from than the core rules if you’re new to a game as…well, fiddly, as this one. The models look great and you get plenty of them in the box. When the step up is made to bigger games at least you’ll have a decent foundation.

Flames of War will not appeal to everyone. Its OCD attention to detail will mean that the first few games will not be quick. It will also mean lots of different units, with different rules, to get to grips with. However, with some time and effort (and lots of green or grey paint) you will end up with an awesome looking army, playing a game that is every bit as tactical as the period in history that inspired it.

Flames of War: Open Fire is available from Firestorm Games priced £45.00.

SAGA: Dark Age Skirmishes

Lately, I’ve stepped away from playing big, time-consuming, games and instead have been enjoying lots of skirmish games. My favorite so far has been SAGA, made by Gripping Beast and Studio Tomahawk.

It’s a medium-sized game with 30-40 models per side. You can choose from many different factions including Bretons, Normans, Scots, Anglo-Danes, and of course, Vikings. There are also many others, and more being introduced in a new expansion coming out in May called Crescent and Cross. It will include rules for Saracens, which I’m jazzed about.

Bretons vs. Vikings!
Bretons vs. Vikings!

What makes this game so great? Vikings, obviously. Ok, honestly, it’s not just that you can play Vikings. But really, that’s all I needed to hear in order to try it.

Actually, what intrigued me about the game was the simplicity, the battle boards, and the dice. This game has a truly unique play style, without getting bogged down in overly complex rules that many games suffer from. It’s really quite elegant. Instead of equipping everyone with different weapons, giving them special powers, and carefully tooling your lists within a large points constraint, you get just 6 points.

Your Warlord is free. You then choose to spend your points on Levies, Warriors, and Hearthguard. Levies are the least experienced, and Hearthguard are the most. 1 point gives you 12 Levies, 8 Warriors, or 4 Hearthguard. Now, you don’t have to keep them in units as you’ve purchase them. You could take 8 Warriors and split them into 2 units of 4. Or, you could put 2 points of Hearthguard into a single unit of 8. As long as you have 4-12 models per unit, you’re good to go.

Each army has a unique battle board. The column on the left is for activation, the two on the right are for your actions.

Battle Board

Each faction has their own dice, although a few are shared between different armies.

Breton Dice
These dice work for Normans or Bretons.

These are partly what gives each army their own flavour. Each die has 3 different symbols that match up to ones on the battle board. You get one die per unit, maximum of 6 (Warlord gives you 2, but levies give you 0 because, well, they’re basically peasants). You roll and allocate them to the abilities you want, matching the symbols. Most actions need one die, some need two. Sounds kind of simple, right?

The trick is figuring out how to combine them into some nasty attacks on your enemies. You can also place a die on your board and keep it there until your next turn. One of the symbols is only on your die once, making it rarest, so it can be sometimes advantageous to keep a die or two on your board.

Additionally, each army has their own unique Warlords, called Heroes of the Viking age, that cost 1 point instead of being free. They have some cool abilities that the basic Warlord does not. You could have Ragnar Lothbrok leading your Viking army. What’s not to love about that? [I know what I’m spending some money on at Salute – Ed]

Some armies, such as my Bretons or Normans, are also mainly cavalry based. That makes them faster, but they lose a point of armor against ranged weapons. It provides a good balance, which I find lacking in other games. In fact, no one army is “the” army to have, so you can chose one that appeals to you without concern for competitiveness.

Different armies also have different weapons. Scots have spears, Vikings have swords and axes, Bretons have javelins, and Anglo-Danes have 2-handed axes. All things that lend to their flavour, without making the game overly complex. Everything you need to know about playing the game is in the main rulebook or on your battleboard. Although, each book has additional scenarios as well.

Right now, there is the main rulebook which provides 4 factions and battle boards (Vikings, Normans, Welsh, and Anglo-Danes) and three supplement books: Northern Fury (Anglo-Saxons, Scots, Bretons, Jomsvikinigs), Raven’s Shadow (Irish, Franks, Strathclyde Welsh, and Norse-Gaels), and Varjazi & Basileus (Pagan Rus, Era of Princes Rus, and the Byzantines). The Crescent and the Cross, which I mentioned before, is the latest supplement due out in May.

Gripping Beast also provides some nice and tidy 6-point complete army boxes that cost £50.00-55.00. Not bad for a little box that has all the models you need for an entire army! If that’s a little too much, though, they also have 4-point starter warbands, in the £33.00-64.50 range.

I got the 4 point Bretons starter and some additional blisters to fill out my army. But wait, you thought I was all about the Vikings? I was, I am, but I ended up being the last of my friends to start my army so Vikings (and my second choice Normans) were already taken. No sense in doubling up when I have more SAGA armies to choose from than friends who play it.

They’re fully painted now and I am taking them to Adepticon (in Chicago, IL) for my very first SAGA tournament! I’m very much looking forward to getting in some games with new people and seeing all the different armies, fully painted and in action.

SAGA starter sets and rule books are available from Firestorm Games starting at £10.80

The Shell Case visits Colours 2013

Or rather, I, the dopey, head-in-the-clouds member of the Shellcase did*. Due to an invite to help demo a game of a buddy of mine**, I ended up at the Colours Wargaming Convention in Newbury.  I managed to grab a few pics with my camera phone, due to me forgetting to charge my actual camera before the event so they will be spotted throughout this post.

Cards on the table, I’m not really a con person. Being an awkward social misfit the idea of paying lots of money to walk around a large area and be sold things, all the while being surrounded by strangers, never quite gelled. My past experiences at the UK Games Day and Destination Star Trek London never really changed that opinion.

My usual reaction to cons

Yet, coming out of Colours, I want to go to other cons and I feel really refreshed in my enthusiasm of the wargaming hobby in a way I’ve never quite experienced before. So what makes Colours different?

The location for a start I guess. Colours is based at Newbury Racecourse. An odd location for sure, but one that works well, as it splits the event over 3 floors. The bottom floor is Traders alone. The middle floor is a mixture of demos games and a few traders and the top floor is an explosion of demo games and a small historical tournament.

The layout of the place means that it’s a large event, but it feels very inmate. People stop to chat and just talk. Traders run back and forth between competitors tables and compliment them on their banners or displays. It’s a very different feel to Games Day, where there’s always a feeling of separation between you and the people running it.

Colours is quite different to a lot of the other events in the UK, in that its dominated by historical gaming. Not that it stopped a lot of Fantasy and Science Fiction based wargames from popping up. But the absence of any GW or PP games did feel odd. In a very good, healthy way though. All the people who visited (make no mistake, A LOT of people came to Colours) were looking to expand the borders of their wargaming experience and knowledge.

So day one, I arrived nice and early and helped Marcin set up his demo table, whist checking out everyone around us. Between munching on bacon butties, to watch a slowly evolving tapestry change and grow from its foundations each day was something very enjoyable to my eyes.***

Whilst on breaks I got a chance to pop upstairs and see what was happening there. It was quite phenomenal really. Dominating one corner was Crucible, which must have been spread out on at least a 16 foot table, not to mention other games like the large-scale Napoleonic game.

Thats not me zooming it with the camera, thats real size!

I managed to play a game of Dead Mans Hand by Great Escape Games too. They had a great board set out for it and I marveled at the terrain by 4Ground and models that was all made by them, including dead horses, dogs and even a chicken!

A gang of desperadoes face down a sheriffs posse.

Thats just to give you a small idea of the variety there. I saw card games being played, a large-scale Indian warfare scenario and this beautiful table.

If you think thats impressive…
…check out the details!

There was a bring and buy over the weekend which let me grab some cheap stuff (Some Sov City Judges, a Dark Eldar Razorwing and the Hoards Rulebook for under £30 total). There was a charity raffle as well, which raised over £1000!

All in all, it just such a freeing experience, to know there was a large section of the community out there that were quite happy doing their own thing, free from larger companies machinations. It was a good weekend, where I experienced the wealth of gaming that’s out there outside the GW sphere, chatted with like-minded people and met an online friend for the first time. Then I introduced him to cider…

Oh and I met a cat.

Yes. Really.

I dunno about you, but I’ll be at Colours next year.

*I’m listening to a mixture of Radiohead, Nine Inch Nails, David Bowie and Atari Teenage riot whilst typing this. You may start throwing insults of ‘Fucking Poser’ now.

**That will be another article all together, but for now, check out PMC 2640, it’s a good 15mm game.

***As I said, fucking poser.