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Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Land of the Free Review

by Frank Popecki
Recently, I was offered the opportunity to write a first impressions review of Land Of The Free, by Joe Krone. As I am a big American Revolutionary War buff, I jumped at the chance to not only review the rules but add to my already growing pile of unpainted pewter if the rules grabbed me. So, having said that, on with my first impressions.

First off, the quality of the book itself is very good. Sizing in at roughly 7 1/2" by 9 1/2", and 191 pages, it is a very manageable book yet loaded with features.

The page quality is excellent and I like the reduced glare when reading under a light. Despite the glare in the photos I took, no book can withstand direct flash without some washing out of the page.

The binding is tight and appears it will stand the test of time and use. The book is well laid out with full color diagrams and photos weaving well through the rules text. Based on this alone, the price tag is very reasonable.

The book opens to a Table of Contents showing you what is in store as well as an Author's Note giving you some background on him and his war gaming walk down memory lane. A nice read. 

 Following along is an Introduction giving a brief history summary of the period covered by the rules and a few pages of "Essential Items" needed for the play of the game. Items such as Tabletop size, Scenery, Range Rulers, Dice, and Game Markers (there will be a lot of those) are explained.

 Land Of The Free is a tactical level game and, as such, great attention is paid to defining the elements in the game; Organizing Your Forces, and Building and Collecting Forces. The author walks you through step by step in brief well explained paragraphs. So far, the rules are treating the gamer as if this is their first tabletop miniatures game but I read through it without boredom and agree with the need to introduce newer players to the hobby.

 By the use of relevant photos and clearly written text, the author walks you through what your units (elements) and Forces (groups of elements) should look like. There are useful references to actual military organization and officer ranks spelled out in the text so players get a feel for what their army represents and at what level of command they are portrayed.

 Basing conventions and element types, sizes and stats, as well as unit point costs, are provided along with bold headed sections explaining each statistic.  What I find interesting is the various sizes of the elements and the relative stats. Ranging from "tiny" to "large", players appear to have some flexibility in organizing their forces at least in the points based games to be played. More on that later.

 The next section deals with the various formations for infantry, cavalry and artillery used in the game while also defining Lines of Sight and Arc of Sight. All LOS measurements are from the leader of the element while AOS defines the unit's Front, the rest defining the unit's Flank. There is essentially no Rear. The section also defines all measurement conventions and Spheres of Influence for the various Leaders and Commanders in the game. This section also introduces the concept of a Threat Zone projected from a unit's front. This will be a key factor in the game and governs what opposing units can do in your threat zone and what reactions you can do when an enemy is in your TZ. I like the simplicity of this and the impact it will have on the play of the game. Most ZOC rules get a bit cumbersome or vague. Threat Zone in Land Of The Free is well designed. I like it.

 As I stated, Land Of The Free is a tactical game. We now enter the "meat and potatoes" of the game - the Orders. After reading this section I can only envision Commanders continuously barking out orders to get their elements to do even the most basic tasks; ofttimes without success. This section clearly defines the types of Orders. Orders can be Active or Passive so both players can be involved each game turn. The types of Orders are Maneuver and Combat. The number of orders that can be issued to an element are based on the element's stat line. Most get 3 of each.

Unlike many orders phases in other games that can be a series of modified die rolls or layers of chits and/or plotting, LOTF has a simple, effective system. Issue an order within your commander's Sphere of Influence and the element performs it. When you run out of orders for that element, you can issue Forced Orders from the commander's pool but this will require the unit to test morale to see if the order is carried out. Additionally, you may "store" one maneuver and/or one combat order for use on the opponent's turn. This is the Passive Order I alluded to and is executed when the enemy executes an order in your Threat Zone.

The orders themselves are briefly, yet clearly defined in this section. Each order is very specific and details what a unit can do within their Arc of Sight, and the parameters in which they can do it. For example, I issue a maneuver order to the 17th Albany Militia. The order is to March in Column, 6". I move it forward within its AoS up to the stated distance, I then issue an order to Turn Right and finally Store one order for later. I can then issue my Combat Orders to that element. When I am done I move on to the next element. To speed play, this section also allows for Group Orders which are clean and simple. The section adds the necessary diagrams to aid the reader. All told, a very clean set of Order rules.

 Summaries, diagrams and brief, clear text fully explain each section of LOTF.

The last section of definitions and rules deals with the Commanders. As with the previous sections, everything you need to know about the placement, use, ratings, attachments, death, replacement etc. of your commanders is clearly laid out.

 Well, we are 50 pages into the rules and we can now see the Game Turn and how LOTF plays. As you can see, the game turn is fully laid out explaining almost everything you need to know in easy to read text. It looks like a lot of steps per turn, however; the first 5 or so steps are only needed for set up, scenario and preparation for the battle ahead. The sequence of play is a UGO-IGO sequence but each player alternates after they have completed all their orders for a Group. Orders of Battle for each army comprise multiple groups, so a player can only activate part of their army at a time; then the opponent activates a group and so on. Also, as mentioned earlier, a player can "interrupt" a phasing player's phase with "stored" orders and either Counter-charge or Snap Fire the enemy within the friendly element's Threat Zone. This sequence keeps both players active throughout the game turn and I like what I see of the game turn sequence.

 Units that are reloaded and given an order to fire may do so. Obvious line of sight rules apply and then the rules clearly define what enemies are priorities as targets based on the Threat Zone of the firing unit. You may not be firing at the closest enemy but will be concerned with the closest, most numerous threat. Now, before you fire, something happens I think is interesting. Instead of units that normally fire out 45 degrees, in LOTF, the firing unit must pivot to face the enemy and fire straight ahead. Interestingly, since firing is an Order, if you are in an enemy threat zone, they may Snap Fire on your unit if they have a "stored" combat order! The effects are applied after you resolve your fire. This is another example of the constant interaction between the players throughout the turn handled in a clean, orderly, way.

Firing starts with 2d6 and add the unit's Action Dice. There is a short list of Shooting Modifiers which will add or subtract dice from your total. The final number of dice rolled score hits on 5s or 6s. A fun extra is 1s and 6s. Two or more 1s rolled reduce a hit for a Ragged Volley while two or more 6s rolled is a Punishing Volley causing automatic Disorder and the hits scored. Some fun stuff is added for artillery firing solid shot in LOTF. Every "6" rolled while firing solid shot scores a hit as usual but is then rolled again. If it is a 6, it hits, and is rolled again! Raking fire is the same but 5s and 6s are hits and rerolls! Do not get flanking fire from an artillery unit!!! Quick rules are added for mortars and rockets as well.

Now we see what happens. You have received "hits" from firing. Your unit has a Discipline Rating. If the hits scored are equal to that rating, a Discipline Morale Test is made applying any modifiers. If the test is passed, move along and continue your activation. If failed, the unit withdraws d3 maneuver distances towards its own lines. All hits are cleared and the unit's discipline is downgraded one level.

 The Melee Combat section is laid out in a clear and detailed sequence of steps that need to be performed. While it appears to be a lot of steps, a few combats, turns or games will make the sequence second nature. This appears to be the case for the rules in general.

 All events, formations, charge reactions and other "interruptions" are defined throughout the section and are referenced in the overall melee combat sequence. Again, this lends itself to participation by both players throughout the turn and is a key feature of LOTF.

Melee Combat is resolved the same as Fire Combat starting with your pool of dice, Modifiers, rolling for hits, etc. The final melee resolution is comparing the hits scored by each side, applying combat resolution modifiers with the loser being the side with the lower final score. The loser automatically withdraws a random distance; checks morale, and withdraws further if the test if failed. If the losing unit lost by a number greater than its Discipline rating, the unit's discipline is downgraded an additional level. Winners become disordered and must test morale if it suffered hits equal to or greater than its Discipline Rating as well applying any failed results.

We have talked a lot about Morale and Discipline and this section brings it all together.

Every element has a Level of Discipline: Fit, Shaken, Exhausted and Shattered.

When a unit becomes Shattered, it is removed from the game. There is no casualty or stand removal from combat. A unit either exists or it doesn't. There are three types of Tests in the game. The first is a Morale Test. This is typically taken when you want a unit to do something special like Declare an Inspirational Charge or Rally. There are no negative effects for failing other than the unit simply doesn't complete the action. The second type is a Disorder Test. Usually taken when you want a unit to exceed its Action Abilities (Forced Order) or some some other combat situation, failure results in the unit gaining a Disorder Marker. Finally there is the dreaded Discipline Test. This test, if failed, is what downgrades your level of discipline and forces withdrawals on the battlefield.

The section goes on detailing how to withdraw (Good Order or Rout Step): Artillery; Rallying; Excess Hits; Broken Groups; Supported Elements; Disorder Markers; and Leaving The Field Of Battle. All are simple and concise rules adding flavor and understanding to the game.

 The final section of the basic rules addresses everything you need to know about the scenery and terrain you may have on your battlefield. As with the other sections, the rules are clear and concise. At this point you know all the rules to play a basic game of Land Of The Free. What follows is all the cool stuff that is period specific!

 The Advanced Rules introduce specialized element types and advanced skills. Elite, Minutemen, Indians, Grenadiers and Rangers are only some of the entries here. Each has its rules spelled out, including their Special Skills, and the related cost in points for those playing points games. Special Skills section defines what each skill does in the game. For example, one of the special skills listed for a Minuteman is Self-Preservation. In games terms, units with this "skill" start the game Shaken instead of Fit. Nobody said all the skills were good!

 Finally we come to a brief section where the author speaks to some of the historical elements in the game so new players to the period can familiarize themselves with the combatants of the era. A few Optional Rules fill out the rules.

 LOTF comes loaded with 8 generic scenarios for your points based battles. Each scenario is clearly defined with a background, objective, setup  and victory conditions, The scenarios are each a different tactical challenge and I feel good choices were made here. This is where LOTF will shine as a tactical level game. Players get to organize their own forces, pay for them, and see if they are flexible enough to fight the varied tactical challenges presented to them. These smaller level games are a great introduction to learning the mechanics of the rules and grow in size as you muster more and more painted figures.

Here is a brief introduction to the many historical scenarios included in the book. The author defines his scale chosen for these refights and encourages players to write their own and submit them to a website provided. A different website is provided where players can download these community generated scenarios.

 Scenarios are detailed providing everything you need. The first period covers The Battle of the Monongahela, Battle of Ticonderoga, Battle of the Plains of Abraham and the Battle of Sainte-Foy. All appear to be manageable games with each side up to a max of 20 elements in 4-5 groups.

 Here is why I wanted to review these rules. I am a huge fan of the American Revolutionary War but most rules do not fulfill what I want from a game about the smaller battles so critical to the war on both sides. LOTF covers Second Battle of Trenton, Battle of Princeton, Battle of Brandywine, Battle of Germantown, Battle of King's Mountain, Battle of Cowpens and finally the Battle of Guilford Court House.

I was initially disappointed by the selection of battles as most of the initial scenarios are BIG battles by AWI standards. At the recommended scale of elements ranging from 50 - 200+ men, these battles would need 50 -100 elements per side! That, in my opinion, is outside the level of this game and would lose the flavor so well woven into the rules. However; more on that in my summary. The smaller battles look fun and what I had hoped to be included in the rules. Hopefully there will be even more submission by the fan base. The final two scenario sections cover the Northwest Indian War and the War of 1812. The former has two small scenarios and 1812 has 6 manageable scenarios included. These are two periods I have rarely, if ever, gamed, but would like to give them a go with these rules and well laid scenarios!

 Very nice quick reference charts are included at the end along with...

 Roster Sheets and other player aids.

In summary, Land Of The Free appears to be the game I would like to use for my American Revolutionary War and related periods. The simplicity of the rules, albeit a lot of them, clearly written and easy to understand, coupled with rules that adds a lot of flavor and fluid, interactive turns should define Land Of The Free as a very popular gaming success. For smaller battles especially, I feel I may have found the game.

Now, I was critical of the inclusion of large battles in the book sensing these would be unmanageable due to the sheer size of the miniatures collection needed, the vast number of elements to command and the myriad of tokens and other tabletop markers needed to keep track of the various stats, orders and battlefield conditions of the fighting units and commanders. However; we have all been to the convention scene where clubs put together 6' x 12' tables littered with troops and terrain fighting very "thick" rules sets inundated with minutiae. So, maybe this is the game for them as well. It is certainly cleaner than many rules I've seen, and played, so maybe there is something for everyone in Land Of The Free. Now it is time to start collecting armies and playing!!!

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