The Ballbusch Experience: Burnouts of War

2013 was a busy year over at Battlefront HQ.  In addition to releasing a couple of
compilations of updated books and popping out the inexplicitly titled Rising Sun (which focuses on the armies
of the pre-war Soviet Union, rather than the land of the rising sun), BF
wandered in to new periods: Vietnam and the Six-Day War.  Of course, BF had already dipped their toes
in the brown waters of Vietnam with the old Tropic Thunder booklet, so the
updated, full volume treatment was not exactly a bolt from the blue; on the
other hand, Fate of a Nation is, although a small supplement, new ground.

Don’t let this happen to you: regularly check your tank for bunny girls
In addition to this two newish periods BF has announced
‘something new’ for 2014.  The received
wisdom of the internet is that this will be The Great War (aka World War I), as
of press time I have no evidence that either proves or disproves this
theory.  Also, the highly-placed,
deep-cover HoP mole/double agent at BF HQ continues to report that the long-anticipated
Flames of War: Spanish Civil War supplement is play-tested, proof-read, and
ready for print. 

That means that by the close of 2014 we can expect BF to
cover three-to-four periods in addition to its flagship World War II product,
up from nothing more than the barely supported Tropic Thunder book in
2012.  Admittedly, both Tour of Duty and Fate of a Nation feel like flashes in the pan (dare I liken them to
Gorkamorka?) and yet more supplements makes the further expansion of either
subject even more unlikely.  However,
none of the new periods, current or rumored, are outside BF’s comfort
zone.  So, this is nothing like Hawk
wargames getting into 40mm fantasy or Mantic suddenly releasing a 15mm WW2 game
(which at this point wouldn’t surprise me, but I suspect they’ll do not-Epic
first).  Still this is a lot of new stuff
from a company that really isn’t noted for making new stuff.    
I’m not sure why BF has suddenly chosen to expand.  But, several reasons come to mind.  There is always the possibility that the
fellows at BF are simply bored.  No man
can live on a diet of WW2 alone, and after similar material on similar topics
for years on end I can see the appeal of new periods for purely personal and
creative reasons.  Of course, BF has also
come under increased market pressure lately. 
None of these periods are exactly virgin wargaming territory, but PSC
doesn’t make figures for any of these periods either (yet).  And while they manage to hold their own
against other manufacturers of metal figures, BF seems to have no answer to
plastic competition, their own offerings in that field being, shall we say,
uninspired.         
World War 2 is a limited period, there is only so much you
can cover, and historical wargames can’t take the sort of constant tweaking
that is so popular with sci-fi/fantasy games. 
So, at some point if BF is to survive it has to find another
subject.  That said, BF hasn’t exactly
touched every aspect of WW2.  The last
year of the war has been covered to the point of absurdity, but entire theaters
have zero support from BF. 

Barbarossa: you know you want it
Blitzkrieg could use some spit and polish; Barbarossa is
much rumored, but nowhere to be seen; the second Shino-Japanese War and the
entire Pacific Theater aren’t even on the radar.  Despite such massive gaps an extra-curricular
brawl between the Red Army and the Imperial Japanese Army was the subject of BF’s
big WW2 release of 2013.
The PTO is ideally suited to the FoW system, being
characterized by just the sort of vicious firefights between relatively small
units that FoW plays out on the tabletop. 
Of course, that really is the last “big thing” for BF to do, so it is
understandable that they’d want to hold off until the right time for a massive
roll-out.  Other than a massive decline
in quality, the IJA changed little over the course of the war; therefore, Rising Sun’s associated model range lays
the groundwork for further expansion into the far eastern campaigns. 
A bigger issue than what hasn’t been covered is what has
been covered, or rather how it’s been covered. 
Let’s face it: Late War is a bit of a mess.  The situation is far less serious than it is
sometimes made out to be, but Axis players are at a disadvantage against the
most powerful Allied lists.  Letting
armies for Normandy fight armies from the
Bulge, or Kursk
is always going to lead to strange situations. 
However, BF allows, even encourages, encounters between forces from
different campaigns, and so should double down and maintain proper balance
across the entire period.   
Of course, you’re going to have people who relentlessly
complain about anything less than perfect accuracy, but many yelps of protest
about a-historical FoW match-ups come from the same people who happily pit
Julio-Claudian Romans against post-Mongol Samurai.  Even the most committed and depraved
fluff-bunnies happily engage in Space Marine on Space Marine action.  According to the fluff such battles should be
super rare, yet they make up the majority of 40k games, and no one much seems
to mind. 
Nonsensical match-ups are part of the landscape with any game
that it based around PuGing.  Therefore,
balance should trump logic.  We already
tossed sanity out the window when we let the Poles fight the Japanese.  If you want solid historical simulation or
tighter focus on a single campaign there are games that do that (and yes, a
review of some of the other WW2 sets on the market will be forthcoming later in
the month).
Now, all complaints aside, I actually like the FoW core
rules.  Yes, they gloss over a lot of
spotting and command and control issues; and the rules tend not to encourage
period-appropriate combined arms tactics. 
But, I think they do the job they set out to do, provide a fun, fast
playing, historicalish game that doesn’t require a lot of charts or
number-crunching. 
Not much armor, but an interesting conflict
Nothing in FoW’s basic mechanics limits it to WW2.  With a little tweaking the rules would work
fine for any period from the abandonment of close-order infantry formations
until the wide-spread introduction of body armor capable of defeating small
arms fire, which more or less correlates to the exact span of the 20th
century.  The main problem with taking
FoW back in time is that organizes units as platoons.  Prior to the middle of the First World War
the platoon was generally an administrative, rather than tactical concept; and
the smallest tactical unit was a company. 
Machine gunners and grenadiers wouldn’t be integrated into rifle
platoons until 1917.  Before the Germans
began developing ‘storm trooper’ tactics officers and men were not trained for independent
action below the company level.  A rifle
section maneuvering and fighting independently on a Russo-Japanese War
battlefield doesn’t make much sense. 
Obviously, BF could get around this by having their armies
be battalions rather than companies as they already do with underperforming
armies like Italians and Soviets (which I think is unfair, the Red Army of
1944-45 was a well equipped, professional force).  Of course, at a 1:1 scale this would make FoW
WW1 very large and figure intensive.  They
could go up a level and make a base stand for a platoon rather than a
team.  But, I can’t think of any
mainstream game that uses a ratio other than 1:1 and I don’t know how well that
would go over.
Then we have the odd choice of new periods.  I rather like Tour of Duty; however, Force
on Force: Ambush Alley
and Charlie
Don’t Surf
are both superior and anyone really interested in gaming Vietnam
should look into those sets.  ARVN vs.
PRVN gives an interesting game, but everyone wants to play the Americans (maybe
in NZ they all play the ANZACs).  The
Americans are also insanely overpowered. 
Frankly these kinds of games are more fun as solo or co-operative games with
either the conventional or guerrilla forces being controlled by a game master
or random charts.  Then we have the
surreal inclusion of armored company lists in ToD does anyone have a PRVN
armored battalion?  I mean anyone in the
whole world, including BF staff.  Also,
ToD is more or less designed for small (600pts) games, which is fine, but you
can spend more than 600pts just on compulsory platoons. 
Most FoW players come for the tanks
I get the Six Day War, because, hey, tanks, metric fucktons
of tanks (that’s .8 of an Imperial fuckton). 
The problem, clearly, is inherent in the name: the war only lasted six
days.  While the shiftiness and scale of
the Israeli victory was not anticipated by the great powers at the time, the
war was still a one-sided affair and I don’t see how you can get a lot of game
out of it.  I suspect that the choice was
based largely on the overlap between the armor used in the Six Day War and
Vietnam, allowing BF to piggyback Fate of
a Nation
on Tour of Duty and
avoid large sculpting costs. 
The elephant in the room is the Cold War, or rather the Cold
War gone hot and with it the great modern tank battles that never happened, but
so many FoW-playing treadheads lust for. 
I don’t know how much pent-up demand there is for this sort of
speculative fiction FoW game, but it is a period that routinely comes up
whenever FoW players start wishlisting about future releases.  Maybe I reading too much into it, but just as
Rising Sun lays the foundation for
the PTO, both Tour of Duty and Fate of a Nation provide a lot of the
figures that would be necessary for an early NATO-Soviet War.               
There is also the distinct possibility that BF is simply
throwing stuff at the wall and seeing what sticks.  While I like BF (and I truly do enjoy their
game, although I’m not blind to its flaws), my expectations are not very
high.  Blood, Guts, and Glory was very much FoW’s Warhammer Armies: Demons, and BF hasn’t really been able to get back
on the right foot since.  Maybe I’m
wrong, but there is the definite scent of more wrong-footedness in the
air.  Time will tell I suppose.

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