The Ballbusch Experience: Embers of War

Over the last few years I’ve had some harsh words for Battle
Front some of which I’ve posted on these esteemed pages.  I’m certainly not alone in that regard, BF
attracts more than its fair share of ire from the wargaming population at
large.  However, unlike GW, few people
genuinely dislike BF, rather, people are disappointed in BF.  And rightly so, if ever there was a company
that should be better than it is its BF. 
The slightest bit more courage and creativity and they could do some
truly impressive things.  Instead we just
get the same recycled ideas and blind flailing that characterizes all the
leaders in the wargaming industry today.

OH NO!  Something
touched the hull.  I’m sure it’s safer
outside with all the machine guns and explosions. 
 Time to bail out!  (again).
One of the fundamental pillars of my wargaming philosophy is
the concept of the rules agnostic miniatures collection.  I use army lists as the basis of some of my
armies, and I usually base with an eye towards a specific set.  But, I never think of my figures as limited
to one specific game.  Even my ever-loyal
Space Marines didn’t complain when used in a game of Tomorrow’s War

Personally, I feel no tribal loyalty to any wargames company
or rule set.  I pick and mix units from
different companies, happily shifting from ones rules set to another depending
on the needs of the moment, and have even been know to write-up my own homebrew
when the spirit moves me.  Now, as a
‘mostly historical’ wargamer I understand that it is a lot easier for me to
move from one system to another than it is for ‘mostly sci-fi’ gamers.  Sci-fi miniatures tend to be tied to specific
IPs that are bound to specialized rule sets.
A common theme of complaint threads is ‘I hate company X’s
rules, but I’ve sunk Y amount into the game I refuse to give up my collection
so I’ll continue to buy X’s crap release.’ 
That’s something no one should ever do, use your models to play a
different game.  Seriously. 
And that brings us out through the gift shop and back to
Flames of War.  Look, I like FoW, but the
game has its flaws.  Fortunately, there
are plenty of other WW2 games out there that you can play.  One WW2 miniature is much the same as
another, so a FoW army is very portable; it’s not like I’m suggesting something
as insane as using a warjack as a dreadnought, which will certainly cause
red-shirted thugs to appear and smash all your miniatures.                     
So, where’s a good place for the annoyed FoW-ite to
turn?  Well, we’re going to look at three
of the more popular WW2 rules sets out there are Bolt Action, I Ain’t Been Shot
Mum, and Battlegroup: Kursk.  I enjoy all of them, but I’m not married to
any of these sets–though I did get to second base with Bolt Action, and before
you ask, no, they aren’t real. 
Bolt Action is currently surging in popularity, and it seems
well on its way to becoming the WW2
game.  But, is it fun?  That depends on your taste.  Bolt Action feels like 2nd Edition
40k as written by Alessio Cavatore.  The
mechanics are very different from 40k, sort of the LotR-FoW mash-up
honestly.  But it is the same scale, both
players command, more or less a reinforced platoon; and it has that
streamlined, abstracted Cavatore-Hammer vibe.
There is no point in worrying about realism in Bolt Action
because the rules are plainly designed with easy, quick play, pick-up games in
mind.  You’ve got a point system, you’ve
got nice, sexy, glossy army books, and if you choose to go all out you’ve got a
wide range of 28mm figures to choose from. 
Now this is not a competitive game, and like 2nd Edition 40k the
army lists allow you to tool up you dudes with all manner of extra
goodies.  Still, Bolt Action is in many
ways more of a replacement for 40k than it is for FoW, particularly if they
ever release a WWW2 supplement.     
Rather than IGOUGO, Bolt Action uses random activation.  One player chosen at random gets to issue
orders to one of his units then this process continues unit every unit has been
activation, at which point a new turn begins. 
Unfortunately this means that one player could move all of his units
without his opponent ever getting the chance to react.  For different reasons the same problem exists
in all of Warlord’s rules offerings. 
Although nowhere near as bad as a 40k alpha strike, it is a weakness
that has always annoyed me.  
So, can you use your FoW miniatures?  Yes-to-maybe. 
As long as you think of each base as a collection of individuals on a
movement tray, and have a way to track individual causalities it should work
fine.  You might need to make some house
rules to cover a couple of odd situations, but overall it should work.
Anybody who’s played FoW probably has a heap of spare 15mm
WW2 guys lying around.  Even if you don’t
want to use FoW bases with Bolt Action it’s no great feat to mount your extra
dudes on pennies (as opposed to mounting Penny, which is an altogether
different activity) and create a Bolt Action army.  So, if you aren’t a stickler for detail,
don’t want to play ‘competitively’, and like skirmish games and/or WW2 I
recommend you give Bolt Action a try. 
Unlike Bolt Action, I Ain’t Been Shot Mum (hereafter IABSM)
is a company level game and is played at roughly the same scale as FoW.  IABSM doesn’t have a stated basing
convention, reading it I get the feeling that the designers lean towards
individual basing, but FoW bases will certainly work.
Now I don’t want to sound too dramatic, but IABSM
is something of the anti-FoW.  IABSM uses
a free form approach, there is no point system and the game is uncompetitive to
the point that it should probably be played with an umpire.  If no neutral third party is available you’ll
need an opponent who is above trying to manipulate the rules for his own
Play in IABSM revolves around friction and fog of war.  Unit activation, movement, spotting, and fire
combat are all random.  So, at any given
time the player has no idea when his units will act, how far they can go, what
they can see, or what their effective range is. 
The presence of officers attached to the unit can make their behavior
more predictable, but there are never enough of them to go around.  In that respect IABSM is one of the most
realistic sets out there.  In the middle
of a firefight can’t exert much control over troops not under his direct
command and those sections ‘on their own’ will begin to operate on their own
Obviously, people who like control are going to be
immediately and permanently frustrated by IABSM’s random elements, but unlike 6th
Edition the random elements actually exist for a good reason.  IABSM is very much a wargame, and is designed to make the player feel something of the
complexity of command.  There it
succeeds, when I play IABSM I don’t know what troops my opponent has, I don’t
know how my men will perform, and I certainly don’t know what’s behind that
hedge or in that barn.  Sometimes that is
a lot of fun and IABSM is truly an excellent set of rules.  The main drawback is that it isn’t designed
for easy pick-up play.  It isn’t for the
tournament crowd, but if competitive wargaming isn’t your thing you aren’t
going to do much better than IABSM.  
All that’s nice, but I couldn’t care less about playing
grab-ass with infantry.  I want to feel
men’s bodies pop like meat balloons beneath my panzer’s tracks. 

That’s a good point Victoria, thank you for bringing that
up.  Bolt Action and IABSM are infantry
games.  They include rules for vehicles,
and an army is likely to include a couple, but both sets assume an encounter
between rifle platoons/companies.  What
about armor? 
Battlegroup: Kursk
is probably the most Flames-of-Waresque game you’re going to find without
actually playing FoW.  This is not to say
the BG: K is at all a FoW clone or derivative. 
However, it uses a complementary basing system, is at the same scale
(one figure equals one man), uses the same dice, and the same table size.  It also boasts a nice, glossy rulebook. 
Before we go any further, we’re going to have to talk about
the layout of the Battlegroup rules themselves. 
Battlegroup: Kursk is the
core rulebook for the Battlegroup series; however, it also includes the
campaign rules are army lists for Kursk,
or more widely the Eastern Front Summer ’43. 
Think of it as the FoW main rulebook coming packaged with Eastern Front
and you’ve got a pretty good idea of what you’re looking at.  The supplements don’t contain the core rules and
are sourcebooks like you’d see for any other game.
BG:K uses a collective morale system, something shockingly
absent in most wargames.  Each side has a
Battle Rating comprised of the total Battle Ratings of all the units in the
army.  Causalities, air strikes, heavy
bombardment, and the like reduce the army’s Battle Rating (by a random amount).  When an army’s Battle Rating is reduced to zero
the men, headquarters, or both have had enough and the army retreats. 
I like this mechanic. 
For one thing it goes a long way to simulate the psychological and
strategic pressures at work on that battle. 
No one wants to die in a losing battle (no, not even Russians) and no
officer wants to waste his men needlessly (no, not even Russian ones).  Since there are no tiny tin widows, wargames
too often encourage pointless waste. 
Global morale rules help prevent the player losing everything, but
winning the game because he achieved some abstract objective on turn 6. 
Secondly, you don’t know when the game is going to end.  Since the number of Battle Rating points lost
to a given event is random you don’t know how much punishment you or your
opponent’s army can take.  You know when
things are getting dicey, but there is no certainly, which greatly enhances the
tension in the game.
As with many historical rules sets BG:K employs an orders
system.  The player can only issue orders
to a (slightly) random number of units each turn, which adds a nice touch on
command and control friction to the game. 
While not terribly restrictive it does prevent the player from being
‘everywhere at once’.  This makes
simultaneously attacking and defending awkward and forces commitment towards a
single objective at a time. 
BG:K comes with army lists and a points system.  The lists are more ‘historical’ than the
corresponding FoW ones in that you can’t just grab a couple of stripped down
compulsory platoons and then spend the rest of your points on the sexy
stuff.  I don’t know if this is really to
the advantage of one side or the other. 
On the one hand it means the Axis can’t go overboard on modern super
weapons, on the other hand it also means that the Allies are stuck relying on
their rather lackluster medium tanks. 
Either way, it’s nice to have lists that direct the players towards
plausible forces.
Is BG:K a FoW killer? 
Depends.  While generally aimed at
the same level of play the two systems don’t exactly scratch the same
itch.  FoW is a plausible tournament set
with a lot of options aimed at pick-up game play.  BG:K isn’t especially tight or
competitive.  That said, if you’re bored
or frustrated with FoW BG:K should probably be your next
Obviously, there are a lot of other WW2 sets out there.  The three above are by no means the only
ones, or even the best.  However, if most
of your wargaming experience comes from FoW or 40k the way the rules are set up
and the general style should be familiar. 
So, go you, spread your wings and give another game a try.

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