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Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Well Isn’t that Special; Examining the Special Rules in Flames of War pt 1

By Mitch Reed

*Mitch and I were discussing this article and he asked that I look over it and add my "two cents" since this is also something I feel strongly about.  Anywhere you see italics is where I have entered my thoughts and please be aware that they do not always agree with Mitch.  Thanks - Luke
The fallout of my recent article on “Meta” got me re-thinking about some of the special rules in Flames of War.  Do these rules fit the nationality they represent and are they balanced?   So here we go, once more into the breach and stirring up a possible hornet's nest.  Since I have only been playing the game for the last four years my knowledge is limited to what has been published within the context of the 3rd Edition of the rules, so I do not have a lot of the historical context of how these rules evolved as the game grew.  What I have seen during my period with the game is how each new book seems to expand these special rules and it seems almost every major unique unit has its own special rules in addition to the special rules afforded to them due to their nationality.
I will not break down the merits of every single special rule since the game has so many, however I will say that the special rules  and the fact there are so many of them does impact the game a great deal, perhaps even more than actual weapons values and platoon point cost.

The reasons we get into this game are much different than why we keep playing so I will start off with how we pick that first army.  In my case I wanted to field a Canadian force because of my pure interest in Canadian history during the two world wars.  Being a lover of history I had a basic knowledge of the arms and force composition of the Canucks in WWII; so I knew my force would have Shermans, 25-Pdr guns, and of course infantry.  When collecting and painting this force if someone said “hey they get the Woodsman special rule” I would not have known what they were talking about.  So I think we all can agree that selecting that first force is based more on interest and passion more than anything else. 



My First Force, the Canucks
After we collect this initial army, do the special rules of some of the other forces make us want to build other armies utilizing other nationalities?  I have never said ‘Gee I want to start a Soviet tank list so I can use that great Hen and Chicks rule”.  However on the flip side, my second force choice was the Germans because I thought that the Mounted Assault special rule was baller.   So after we end our rookie phase. I would say that we do think about certain special rules as we look to grow our collection.

I think as we mature in the game it really depends on what we want to get out of it that affects our choices.  Those who play casually who enjoy the history will lean towards armies that appeal to a historical affinity we may have for a particular Nationality or perhaps a particular unit.  I also think popular culture can influence us from an early age.  I saw "The Big Red One" when I was a kid and have always liked playing the 1st Infantry Division.  How many people saw Band of Brothers and when Nutz came out began working on an airborne force?
National Special Rules
No matter what book you take your force out of the National Special Rules (NSR) applies to your list.  The NSRs gives each nationality a unique “flavor” that is either based on historical facts or historical perceptions from WWII.  Like it or not these rules probably have the most impact of any in the game and shape how we play more than we realize.   It is also my opinion that the NSRs does help create a balance within the game; such as with my British Artillery, with a 5+ Firepower rating it won’t kill much, but with the British NSRs, it makes taking a battery or three worthwhile.  The same could be said for some of the Soviet rules where “Hen and Chicks” does help you from being bum-rushed by a horde of tanks.
The first question I will tackle is "do these special rules really reflect the nation that can utilize them"? My blanket answer is that sometimes these rules are pretty accurate and other times they reinforce the myths surrounding the war. Not every tank platoon commander who found himself in the turret of a Tiger of King Tiger tank was an “Ace”, however unless disallowed by a list specific special rule each platoon of these big cats can benefit from the “Tiger Ace” rule. 
By lumping the various NSRs for the four major nations you can see what “flavor” the designers were going for’
  • Germans: A mechanized and aggressive army who utilized decentralized control over their forces.
  • Soviets: A proud but unsophisticated peasant army who feared their own leaders as much as the enemy
  • Americans: Civilian Soldiers who utilized technology over tactical prowess and somehow invented a combat boot that can make them run faster.
  • British: Masters of the set piece battle who used long distance firepower to spare lives, the living embodiment of the Thin Red line in defense and believes the tow hook is required on tanks just like it is on pick-up trucks.   I call these the Monty rules.
As we know; the Germans were still a horse drawn army during the war and many of their leaders hesitated making bold decisions because they feared their leadership.   The cutting edge of US technology did not lead to radio every foxhole and every tank having the skill to fire while moving.  I could go on, but I think the point is made.  I do not really have an issue with the NSRs in this respect, remember it’s a game that covers a lot of ground, so norming to the stereotype is fine with me. 
I know what many are thinking by now: when am I going to state that the NSRs heavily favor the Americans.  With the Tank Destroyer Doctrine and Time on Target it’s just not fair many have said.

I am not so sure that all the National rules always represent the armies in the game.  A lot of this is due to how much training, discipline, quality of troops, morale and equipment changed during the course of the war. For example, Soviets have the quality of quantity rule and it is handy in EW and MW, but rarely ever used in LW.  Most German forces still have Stormtrooper and mission tactics in the game (yes I know there are some exceptions to particular units in some LW books, like CT Tigers without Tiger Ace Skills) Even in LW when the army was all but depleted and the training, discipline and morale that give them these NSR's early in the war should not apply to them much later in the conflict.
US Forward Observer; on the paper he typed "Time on Target"
Before I comment I will tell you a story from 1999 when I was on active duty in Italy and the Portuguese Air Force showed up just before Operation Allied Force. Their commander reported into me.  He asked “have you worked with the Portuguese Air Force before?” I said “No but they are the bravest pilots in the world”.  He smiled and asked me why, and I said, “You have to be brave to fly those old F-16A’s in combat”. Just like the Block 10 F-16A, the basic Sherman tank is one of the weakest in the game, so you have to be brave or have a huge incentive to run a unit with those tanks.  I feel the “Tank Destroyer Doctrine” rule was that incentive, and kept things balanced for a little while. However as the game expanded; deadlier and better protected Sherman’s became available for the US player and rule like “Tank Destroyer Doctrine” now creates an advantage for the US player.  While I am guessing at the rationale for this rule, I cannot figure out any other reason to have such a rule in the game.  Yes the US had that doctrine, but in reality it was not followed that well.  In fact if you want to really make that doctrine a rule, then you should have a rule where only US Tank Destroyers can fire on enemy tanks, and US tanks can only support infantry. While it is true that the British also use the Sherman, I think the fact they have a Firefly in Late War and the option to use the well protected Churchill  and a rule like Semi-indirect fire gives them some balance with other nationalities. So while I will agree that the US NSRs suck to play against and does give them an advantage, and am not 100% convinced (maybe 60%) that they are unfair. 

Time on target has existed for a long time.  Why is it a problem for people now?  The answer is when version three came out the rules changed and you could combine batteries and their stats.  As more LW books were released more American books had access to the AOP.  So it is not a single rule that is causing distress to people, it is when you combine multiple special rules that issues seem to arise more frequently.
Maybe as new toys get added to the toy chest the NSRs should be looked at in order to keep things balanced.  Maybe you can purchase some NSRs for your force while others should be kept as mandatory is a way to fix that. Perhaps you will need to purchase “cards” for your force to give them special abilities like “Push the Limit” or “Twin Laser Turret”…… wait… bad idea. 

Check back tomorrow for Part Two!
  

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