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GMT Games: Fields of Fire Visited and Revisited

posted Aug 7, 2012, 11:44 PM by Douglas Sun
Originally posted: April 1, 2009

I see where GMT is starting to lay it on thick with the support for Fields of Fire, Ben Hull’s modern infantry combat solitaire game. A three-part 40+ page example of play PDF, live online tutorial sessions, a VASSAL module (for a solitaire game?).... That’s a lot of explaining to do after the fact for a game that was supposed to be polished enough to publish, especially given the lack of time pressure built into GMT’s development process. It’s pretty much a tacit admission that it was lacking something important when it went out the door.

Fields of Fire was a game that I’d anticipated quite keenly. I put in a P500 order just about as soon as it was announced. Pure solitaire board wargames are strangely hard to come by; I liked the idea of trying to give you a look through the eyes of an infantry company commander; I really liked the linked campaigns; and frankly, after he made such a strong debut with the Musket & Pike system, anything designed by Ben Hull will get my attention. My copy arrived before Christmas in the same box as Combat Commander: Pacific, and there was no question that I was going to unwrap and paw through Fields of Fire first.

As soon as I started reading the rules, however, I knew I was going to have problems. It’s not that they were badly written, but that they clearly assume a prior understanding of concepts that I lack and knowledge of terminology and acronyms that I never learned. In short, Ben seems to have written them for an audience of his brother infantry officers, not dumbass civilians like me. I stuck it out, read and re-read the stuff that seemed important several times over, and played through the entire Normandy campaign. But I was never quite sure that I was playing it correctly.

And I’m not the only one who feels this way. A couple of months later, Steve Carey and I talked about the game, and this particular observation was basically the first thing out of both of our mouths. And now it looks like there’s more than two people who feel this way... and that Gene Billingsley is hearing it from them.

That being said, I don’t blame the designer here so much as I consider it a failure of development. It’s the designer’s job to propose according to his vision; it’s the developer’s job to rein him in. It’s up to the developer to read the designer’s draft of the rules and point out, “Y’know, the audience isn’t going to understand what this means.”

In fact, I don’t think there’s anything really wrong with using a military professional’s conceptual structure and terminology in Fields of Fire or any game. But the concepts and terms do need to be explained clearly and carefully for a general audience. If I had been the developer on this project, I think I would have insisted on using the rules for the Combat Commander games as a model, in that all of the proper game terms are explained precisely and in several different places, and everything is cross-referenced multiple times so that you can find what you need to know efficiently. One of Combat Commander’s virtues is that there isn’t much excuse for not knowing what’s what.

And all this being said, I haven’t given up on Fields of Fire. A live tutorial via Skype is a bit much for me, but I will check out the examples of play when my oh-so-copious free time allows. I’m actually itching to know how much I actually got right on my first turn through Normandy with the 9th Infantry.