The designer of the acclaimed Combat Commander series must have got sick and tired of being asked where all the tanks were in that game, so often did questions or criticisms along that line pop up on gaming forums. But instead of doing what the rest of us would have done, get angry and type capitalised abuse at his tormentors, Chad Jensen went and designed another tactical-level rules framework. A very different tactical-level framework. Which, incidentally, features tanks. It’s called Fighting Formations and the first iteration in the series, detailing the exploits of the Grossdeutschland Infantry Division on the Eastern front sold out like hot cakes. It’s about to be reprinted and publishers GMT sent me a copy to see what I’d make of it.
At its heart, Fighting Formations clearly builds on a lot of tried and tested tactical war gaming concepts that have been used and gradually refined over decades. Movement costs that vary by terrain, return and opportunity fire, the simulation of “assets” such as artillery through a hand of cards, different attack and defensive values for armour piercing and high-explosive fire, degradation of the standard platoon-level units into squads.
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If you’re a war gamer of any stripe you’ll have seen all this sorts of stuff before, although not all in the same place, and it’s implemented well here and explained clearly in the daunting but ultimately entirely digestible rulebook. But aside from doing a great job of amalgamating a disparate bunch of design evolutions into one package, what distinguishes the game from its peers are two very innovative mechanics dealing with command and combat.
The first is the command matrix, a mechanic which is far harder to explain on paper than it is to use in practice. This is wedded to two other clever mechanics: command placement and the initiative track. The initiative track see-saws between values of 1-20 for each of the two players: if it’s at any number on your side of the track, you’re the active player. At the start of each turn, ten markers are randomly distributed amongst the ten boxes on the command matrix, and each box has a value from one to ten and an associated order type such as “assault” or “move” or “sniper”. If you’re the active player you remove a marker from it’s box, move the initiative pawn that many spaces down the track toward your opponent and then pay some more initiative to activate some units and issue either the command you just took a marker for, or anything cheaper on the matrix. What you pay depends on whether they’re in command – at any point you can place one of your limited pool of command markers onto the map, and units in the command radius cost nothing extra to activate. One turn later these markers flip over and then anything in command radius costs one, then on the following turn it goes back into your supply. Units out of command cost two. So you may end up moving the initiative marker more spaces. If it’s still on your side of the track, you repeat until it’s not, otherwise your opponent gets to go. And when all the markers on the matrix are gone, the turn ends and you start over.
I don’t normally like giving detailed rules explanations but here it’s necessary so you can appreciate how this works, how unusual it is and most of all so that I can explain how clever it is. See, it offers the flexibility to allow each player to have totally different command allowances depending on side and scenario. The order matrix has different values for the two sides: a “2” value order is Fire for the Germans, or Move for the Soviets – so the Soviets generally pay less initiative to move, but more to fire and vice-versa, and remember that there are ten spaces on that track, six of which are in different positions on each side, so this translates into a significantly variable experience across the two players. This simply but effectively models in quite fine detail the different command and control doctrines between the two armies. Most of the scenarios also bake in further details by giving one side more command control markers than the other and by giving them a different command radius. It’s very simple. And it works to a very high level of detail. But it’s also very abstract, which seems odd when many other parts of the system clearly strive to be highly realistic. Weirdly I find this abstraction marginally more jarring than, say, the even more abstract concept of “command points” found in the Conflict of Heroes games. Exactly why this is, I can’t say, and I can’t say largely because I don’t care: I’m far more interested in how the game plays than how well it works as a simulation. But it’s the sort of thing that bothers a certain sort of historical gamer so I feel compelled to mention it, just in case.
And in gameplay terms the order matrix certainly delivers the goods. Those three relatively simple mechanics interconnect in any number of mind-boggling ways when you try and plan your turn. If you dump command markers on the map and move, your units may not be in command radius next turn, unless you save one. But if you execute orders without command markers, you’ll pay a huge initiative cost. And then, do you pull out the big stops and activate half your units before handing control to your opponent, or take baby steps and try and retain the initiative for multiple orders of your own? When you pick orders, do you do so on the basis of what you need to do, or do you try and play both sides of the matrix and keep one eye on denying cheap, useful orders to your opponent, resulting in less effective moves for yourself but huge initiative expense for the enemy? There are no easy answers, and tactically speaking it’s an excruciating delight.
The other aspect which offers significant innovation is the combat system. It uses neither the traditional combat resolution table or attack totals versus defence totals but a bizarre amalgamation of both, with knobs on. For artillery and close assaults it uses something that looks a lot like a combat resolution table. For normal fire attacks you start off with two ten-sided dice, but rather than modifying the total according to factors such as range and facing, you modify the dice you roll: up to a pair of d12’s or d20’s or down to d8’s or d6’s. Then, instead of having things like terrain and elevation affect the target’s defense these contribute to a “hindrance” factor and if either dice value drops below this, the shot misses. If it’s an opportunity fire attack and either dice drops below the “rate of fire” factor of the firing unit, it can no longer issue opportunity fire during this order. Finally, if it hits, you add your dice together and add the unit’s attack power to compare against 2d10 plus the target defense value. It’s a fiddly, procedural system which I would be happy to use if I could see some sort of interest or benefit over traditional systems, but unlike the order matrix, I can’t see what it adds either in terms of realism or game play over just rolling dice, adding defensive and offensive factors, and comparing the totals. Perhaps I can’t see what the designers intentions were because I don’t have much background in simulation-heavy war games, but I just don’t see the point in these extra swings and roundabouts.
It has to be said that swings and roundabouts are very much the order of the day here. The order matrix is a compelling mechanic, but it presents players with so many options to consider that it slows down the pace of the game considerably. The counters are crowded with information and, irritatingly, have an “inactive” and “active” side with different values, and you often need to know what’s on the “active” side in order to decide what order you’re going to pick, a phase of the game when all your counters will be on the “inactive” side, hiding that information. The resolution of opportunity fire as an interrupt slows the game down as well, and as we’ve discussed the combat mechanic is also somewhat awkward, especially when you have to start consulting tables. A lot of rulebook-thumbing will occur, a lot of markers will be got out of the box, placed and then returned later, a lot of counters will be flipped and a lot of lines of sight checked with a ruler. Again, all of this stuff will be familiar to a certain type of war gamer, and a lot of it is symptomatic of tactical and mechanical depth, but there just seems to be an immense disconnect between what the game is trying to simulate – fast paced, intense firefights – and the actuality of resolution. Not to mention what it does to the play time. For even the smallest scenarios you’re looking at 2-3 hours, with the bigger ones allegedly (I haven’t tried one) clocking in at three times that.
And this is an important thing to be aware of because you need to exercise a little caution in picking a scenario. The playbook contains the obligatory but very interesting historical background but it does something particularly interesting, which is to tell the reader where in the combat history of the unit the various scenarios occurred. This is a great little addition if you have even the vaguest interest in the history, but it does mean that the scenarios are presented in chronological order rather than the more usual order of complexity, which may prove a nasty gotcha for new players. The playbook itself is excellent, stuffed with optional rules for added tension and realism should you want them, and long, detailed and highly readable examples of play to make sure you understand the system.
Ultimately though, however clever the order matrix, however laborious the actuality of playing through the combat system, however well written the play book, what made this game stand out for me was the manner in which it straddled the mechanical and maneuver aspects of play to become something that’s greater than the sum of its parts. Most games fall down one side or other of this particular divide. European-style games are all about leveraging the mechanics to give the players interesting strategic and tactical decisions to make. Historically, war games have paradoxically tended to employ often quite complex rules in an effort to put the focus squarely on maneuver and position. But in Fighting Formations successful play manages to tax both at once: you’ll need to work over some optimisation-style decisions to get the order matrix to work for you while at the same time making best use of the units and terrain at your disposal to win the scenario. And what’s utterly brilliant about this is that one manages to influence the other whilst both remain mechanically separate entities that you can consider in isolation.
To be honest, Fighting Formations is a game that I admire, rather than enjoy. It’s particular brand of slow-paced, methodical, demanding play isn’t very well suited to someone like me who has poor impulse control and the attention span of a gnat. Trying to shoe-horn it’s considerable play time into my hectic lifestyle doesn’t help. But I do admire it, and indeed it makes we wish that I did have the patience for it, and it’s a testament to the underlying quality of the design that it’s the first of the slow-and-steady war game brigade I’ve tried that’s made me feel that way.
Matt Thrower is officially just as creative as the entire history of Western civilization. Follow him on Twitter and be delighted by his musings: @mattthr