Chris Jones on Up Front

Have you received the latest S&T containing the game 'Reinforce the Right'. A topic that has my interest (a good book on the subject both in detail and readability is Barbara Tuchman's 'The Guns of August') and a Joseph Miranda design - the game appealed to me. Having played it a few times (albeit only solitaire) I can't say I'm overexcited. The desire to limit the size of the rules has led to some confusion. Still I'm happy to reserve judgement and await the Q and As.

One game I have recently been introduced to is AHs 'Up Front' labelled a Squad Leader card game. I can't say how close it is to SL but can give it a definite endorsement in terms of realism and interest in small-scale tactics. The scenarios are progressive introducing new rules as players skills grow and, since there are three nations represented: US, Russian and German; the options are pretty great. Dependent upon the scenario and nations chosen each of the two players receive a certain number of troops (represented by character cards) which are laid out in front of the player divided into groups of between one to all of them. I find that three groups of between 3 and 5 men each gives ideal tactical flexibility.

Each character is rated for morale and firepower. Morale represents staying power, the higher the better. If, as the enemy, you can fire on a group you may well cause some of the to panic or rout. KIA results are also available. Firepower depends upon weapon and range from the enemy.

The players also receive action cards dependent upon the nation chosen: 6 American, 5 German and 4 Russian. The ways in which the cards can be played iron out this imbalance and also highlight doctrinal differences. The action cards come in several types. Terrain which mainly affords some protection to the occupying group (some terrain can be disadvantageous and is played on a group by an opponent). Movement cards allow groups to move forward, backwards or sideways thus allowing flanking manoeuvres. Rally cards return panicked troops back to action and fire cards allow just that if the group has sufficient fire points at that range. Other cards perform specific functions. Each group can only perform one action each turn so moving takes an action, drop into good terrain next turn and then blast away at the enemy the turn after that. Of course the enemy won't just let you do all that and moving groups are very vulnerable however there is no guarantee that the enemy has the cards to do that so risks can be taken. The results of combats are decided by drawing an action card all of which are printed with a random number. At the end of a turn a player refills his hand to capacity. Once the deck of 162 cards is finished they are shuffled and played again. Most games go through the deck three times.

So, how does it play? Very well indeed. The key to success is fire and movement and maintenance of the aim. Players need to plan but seize opportunities when they arise (i.e. the right action card is picked-up). The Designer's notes explain well the rationale behind his thinking and are well worth reading. Up Front can be purchased second-hand for between 10 t0 20. It can't be played solitaire but takes little room and several scenarios can be played in a few hours. It also has a great feeling for section battles and advance to contact.

Ellis Simpson P>I wanted to comment on Up Front. It is somewhat ironic that this card game was not as successful as some of the glitzier fantasy card games that now flood the market. For one thing, Up Front was based on the very successful Squad Leader design. Squad Leader was a best-selling game and was supposed to be a built in market. As I understand it, that is not how it worked out. This is probably because Up Front is actually as far removed from Squad Leader as one can get in the amount of control that the player exercises. In Squad Leader when it is your turn to move you move. In Up Front when it is your turn to do anything you are dependent on the cards.

At first glance some people would deride Up Front as a game of pure chance. I suspect that anybody who has played at least once would be very unlikely to adhere to that view. There is a random element. This seems to reflect what happens in real life. From my readings of battles at this level there are plenty of instances when a particular force just could not get going for any apparent reason. This can happen in Up Front. Similarly, the game does re-create the sudden swings of fortune that can occur. There is nothing quite like having your squad leader picked off by a sniper!

I was also interested to see that it was suggested that players group their soldiers to give then a tactical flexibility. There was a fairly extensive set of number crunching tables in The General which featured this game showing the optimum groupings and optimum ranges for each of the nationalities. I have seen some expert players up close who appear to follow this philosophy very rigidly. I am not sure if this gives them or their opponent a competitive advantage or if you really have to know the numbers to play the game well. I play it for fun and that is probably more important to me than understanding the numbers behind the game.

Lastly it is worth noting that although the basic set has only Americans, Russians and Germans there are 2 expansions. Banzai adds the British and Japanese. Desert War adds the French and Italians.

From a design point of view I have often wondered whether or not the same philosophy (using cards and an abstract battlefield) could be applied to a larger scale where the personality cards represented fire groups or squads or even bigger forces. I think the main difficulty is the suspension of disbelief. It is all very well rationalising the appearance of a stream or a wooded area in a tactical context. However, if you move up the scale I think it is unrealistic to assume that the terrain could be as randomly found. I wonder if the solution is to have the battlefield terrain laid out at the beginning with face down cards. Perhaps the card could be scouted by the force as it moves adjacent. Alternatively each card might have a general type of terrain (for example farmland) and when a combat force entered the area they might find varying degrees of cover available. Using the previous example they might find farm buildings, a wall or just be stuck in the open.