During the course of World War II, both the technology of warfare and how war was conducted changed greatly. The importance of combined arms - infantry, armor, artillery, and airpower - quickly became obvious to all major powers as the German Blitzkrieg rapidly subjugated much of Europe and spread into North Africa. Rapid technological advances in tanks, aircraft, guns and rockets quickly rendered what had once been cutting edge designs obsolete - necessitating ever more capable weapons.
This technology race, combined with often desperate conditions at the front, resulted in a number of unusual or rare weapons being fielded. In some cases these weapons were expedient conversions of existing vehicles to fill a specific battlefield role. In other cases, prototype or limited production vehicles were committed to the front. Various gaming systems deal with the more unusual weapon systems in different ways, but this article will be primarily focused on how these units are fielded in Flames of War.
One core component of any wargame is how any particular tabletop force is assembled or selected. Some systems allow a more a la carte selection of units, meaning there is the concern that a player could "cherry pick" the most effective units and gain an unfair advantage on the tabletop. Other systems limit the number of "rare" units that can be fielded - or provide a point cost or other penalty to limit the use of rare units. Flames of War, however, goes a slightly different route which I believe leads to a reasonable middle ground, though its approach is not without controversy.
In order to fairly evaluate the various approaches, one first needs an accurate or at least consistent set of criteria that would encapsulate the hallmarks of an unusual unit - usually referred to as its "rarity." The concept of "rarity" is as old as wargaming itself. Properly applied, unit rarity should represent a combination of factors including how many of a particular vehicle or unit were fielded, how long a vehicle or unit was deployed at the front, and what units a particular vehicle or unit were deployed with. However, contrary to my Niece's belief, it has nothing to do with the Rarity below...
It is generally easy to define a "rare" unit. For example, there were only 45 German Elefant tank destroyers produced - so they would be fairly rare. Several of the heavier Italian self-propelled guns were also produced and fielded in roughly equal numbers - so they too would be fairly rare. Approximately 12 of the Japanese Type 4 Ho-Ro self-propelled gun were produced, with actual combat deployments generally limited to two or three vehicles. The American M26 Pershing tank, though it would be manufactured in relatively large number, saw limited combat use with only 20 reaching the front before the end of the war.
More common units would also seem to be easy to identify. The normal infantry squad and vehicles such as the ubiquitous 75mm and 76mm armed versions of the Sherman tank, the T-34, the T-34/85, the German Sturmgeschutz III and Panzer IV. All of these vehicles were produced in the thousands - or even tens of thousands - and were fielded by a variety of units. However even in the "common" unit bucket, there is disagreement. A long-running misconception about late war German armor is that the Panther was rarer than the Panzer IV. I looked at this perception in detail in a 2013 blog entry over at Miniature Ordnance Review. Using numbers from Jentz's Panzer Truppen books, I demonstrated that by mid-1944 Panther production had actually outstripped Panzer IV production, and the number of vehicles in the field was roughly equivalent from mid to late 1944 with Panthers beginning to outnumber Panzer IV's beginning in December 1944.
Good wargames should blend accuracy and playability, and how rare units are included in the system is an important consideration for both of those criteria. Flames of War addresses the issue of rarity using the force diagram system central to any of the published lists. Less common units are generally going to have fewer "slots" available on any given force diagram than more common units, though there are exceptions. In cases where a rare unit, in terms of the total production of the vehicle for example, was fielded en masse, Flames of War force diagrams allow combining many of these rare vehicles into a single force. German heavy tank companies based on the Tiger I or Tiger II tanks are good examples of units that combine multiple uncommon or rare vehicles into a single unit. Similarly, German heavy tank destroyer companies fielding the Elefant or Jagdtiger are allowed in Flames of War as they are another example of very rare vehicle that was used in groups rather than being parceled out individually.
Some of the additional concerns regarding the use of rare units on the tabletop are more philosophical in nature. There is a perception that some players choose rare units purely to provide an unbalanced advantage on the tabletop. In terms of offensive capability, a King Tiger is more powerful than a Sherman on a one for one basis. In addition to the Force Organization, Flames of War uses a point system where more powerful weapon systems or units are assigned a higher point value - meaning the force should still be balanced assuming the more unusual weapon system is correctly pointed.
Some fraction of players advocate that forces played should look more like an "average" force encountered on the battlefield rather than having easy access to unusual equipment, and that more unusual equipment and force organizations should be limited to specific scenarios rather than being generally available. I can understand this perspective purely from a historical accuracy in terms of match-ups perspective. Because Flames of War is organized into relatively broad eras, you can end up where the army fielded by Player 1 would have never encountered the army fielded by Player 2 (such as when my EW Polish Black Brigade encountered Japanese and Italian opponents in a recent tournament). However, I honestly believe the "portability" of armies is one of the strengths of Flames of War. It takes a lot of time and effort to collect, construct, and paint a force, and if that force is unplayable in many tournaments, it would dampen enthusiasm for the game.
Ultimately each player will have to decide what units to include in their force (or forces) on the tabletop. From a force organization standpoint, Flames of War does a good job of properly representing rare equipment available for various formations, and unlike other game systems, especially the non-historical ones, it is harder to max/min using over powered rare units. At this point in time most of the balance issues in Flames of War have little to do with rare units and more to do with synergies between special rules. It is my personal belief that the less typical units add a lot of flavor and variety to the game, which can only broaden its appeal in the long run.
Dr. Michael McSwiney has been playing wargames since the early 1980's and Flames of War since 2008. He is an author, contributor, and former playtester for Battlefront and maintains his own wargaming blog Miniature Ordnance Review.