So, today I enjoyed a brand new miniatures wargaming experience which rekindled my enthusiasm for the hobby.
That’s right, I’ve had my first game of Flames of War. (What do you think I was talking about? Age of Sig-who?) Enough of my friends had been getting into it that I thought it was worth a look, especially considering that 15mm scale World War II miniatures are very competitively priced – for a small outlay I was able to put together a battlefield force that allows me to field a legal army at a wide range of points values and with plenty of options at each level, using a combination of newly bought miniatures from the publishers and the Plastic Soldier Company (one advantage of historical miniatures gaming is that no one company owns the IP on the past…) and some second-hand minis bought from a friend who was rationalising their army selection.
Even setting aside the second-hand purchase, this was at a fraction of the cost that required to get a comparably large and diverse force for a Games Workshop army. Even so, it’s still wasted money in my book if you don’t actually get to play with the miniatures and enjoy yourself when you are playing with them, and today’s go at Flames of War has convinced me that the game is a bit more of a keeper than my previous brief engagements with Warhammer have been.
For one thing, the game materials present just the right level of research – enough to tell the significant differences between different models of tank and so on, whilst at the same time keeping the focus on factors that have interesting game-related consequences. To give an example, the Atlantik Wall supplement provides army lists for the German forces fighting in Normandy against the Overlord invasion force. Not only are there marked differences between the SS, Heer, and Luftwaffe forces (for one thing, the SS are much more keen on this whole “genocidal war of world domination deal” than many of the other German groups, and this is reflected in their morale), but you can even pick specific divisions to field forces from, and those have interesting game-related effects. For instance, my army is built up from the SS-Hitlerjugend division, which as the name implies combined veteran SS officers with fresh young 17 year old lads recruited directly from the Hitler Youth. The upshot of this is that, as well as having the high levels of training and morale that the SS as a whole enjoys, they’re also super-keen on suicide missions and get to ignore certain morale-related rules, at the risk of total destruction.
This allows the game to hit a level where on the one hand the army you end up building feels decidedly individual – there’s distinct differences in flavour and mechanics within each national subfaction, let alone within each nation – whilst at the same time you’re not going 100% off-piste when it comes to the historical record. Whilst the rules prioritise presenting a balanced, exciting game over absolute realism and accuracy, at the same time it would feel both disrespectful and a missed opportunity for personal education to entirely throw history out of the window, particularly when you’re dealing with a part of history that’s already subject to a lot of poisonous revisionism. Obviously the game doesn’t put a big focus on actual war crimes – playing through such a thing in a game would be a monstrous exercise in bad taste – but at the same time it doesn’t kid itself about the nature of the forces you’re dealing with either.
So much for background and army-building, but how does it actually play? As I found, surprisingly well. Rules are implemented for all sorts of options, from your basic infantry and tanks to advanced options like air support, artillery, and snipers, but due to the company design rules and the points limits put on most games it will be a rare game where both sides are evenly matched in all fields. We played a two-on-one game, with the Allied player fielding two companies and each of the German players fielding one company with a budget of 3000 points on either side, which allowed for a fairly extensive game involving a lot of different units; games with smaller points totals naturally involve a less diverse range of units (because your core picks eat up a proportionally greater total of your budget) and can last a shorter period of time.
As far as our side went, we pretty much just selected 1500 points of stuff independently of each other, which I think meant that we fielded a different force from the one we might have had we conferred more on what we each had. At the same time, whilst this was a mild disadvantage I don’t think it was overwhelmingly so – I suspect the company selection rules are optimised to rule out brutally suboptimal combinations, and overall the battle itself was pretty tight. On the one hand, random luck definitely played a part here and there and each side had to deal with some brutal reversals of fortune; on the other hand, until the very end I don’t think the game ever got so one-sided that effective tactics couldn’t turn a bad situation around. Although I was a beginner, I had the advantage of playing alongside a more experienced player, and I definitely think that the game was as even as it was because the strategic knowhow available to both parties was broadly comparable.
This more or less hits the sort of balance I like in a wargame – good strategy and tactics remain important enough that the superior player should win most of the time, but the random element should be significant enough to make sure that no player can allow themselves to become completely complacent whilst at the same time not being so important as to neutralise any advantage obtained through skilled play. This is a tricky balance to strike, and obviously whether it has been struck is to a certain extent a personal, subjective assessment; at the same time, I trust that Flames of War has hit that balance far better than those iterations of Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000 that I have played, let alone Age of Sigmar. I certainly think Flames of War is worth the price of entry, and will definitely look forward to future battles and further expanding my forces.