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Subject: Leading from the front rss

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Ryan Witmer
United States
Burien
Washington
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I don't recall exactly when I first became aware of Up Front, but after learning of its existence I knew it was something I had to play. Sadly, it was out of print, but around that time the ill-fated Kickstarter for a reprint showed up and I happily jumped in.

The Kickstarter debacle is well documented elsewhere, so I won't get into it here except to say that I had resigned myself to the notion that I would never locate a copy of this game. Cut to a few months ago when my wife and I joined a local game club and what do we see on the shelf? Up Front! With both expansions!

Thus began our Saturday ritual of heading to the club to get in a few runs of "The Squad Leader Card Game." We were both experienced Combat Commander players, so we had no trouble grasping the basic concepts. We began working our way through the scenarios and having a blast doing it.

Now, card games are typically something that I don't get too excited about (except for Hearts, I'm always up for that). One of the reasons I was underwhelmed by Twilight Struggle but enchanted by Labyrinth, Hannibal, and 1960 was that the former felt to me like "a card game with a board" while the others seemed like "board games with cards."

On the wargaming front I also tend to prefer larger scale strategic games over small scale tactical games. Combat Commander is fun, but I'd usually rather be playing World in Flames. So right from the beginning, Up Front had two strikes against it, it was a card game, and it was a tactical wargame. Despite this, I couldn't stop wondering about the game because it just sounded so bizarre, so oddly off-kilter that it just might break my prejudices.

Happily, this proved to be the case.

Up Front was a blast, and I knew I somehow had to procure a copy. Again, as if by divine providence, this thread appears and I'm off to buy some decks and have some counters made. Thus, The Squad Leader Card Game became mine.

How it works

Up Front depects squad level skirmishes between various World War II powers. The base set provides German, Soviet, and American forces while later expansions add the British, Japanese, French, and Italians. Each country has its own forces of varying ability, plus various rules regarding hand size and discard rules, and usually a couple other oddities. Each country has a very different feel to it, and they are further modified by rules for elite and second line troops, not to mention irregular partisans.

In each game you will have a squad of men, and possibly a vehicle and large gun or two. Each of these is represented by a card, and these cards must be split into groups. Actions are typically issued to entire groups, although there are also a number of individual actions. Each scenario generally has an objective that one or both sides is trying to achieve, usually advancing a fixed distance and finding cover. Games may also be won by inflicting enough losses on your opponent, which causes their squad to break. If the game hasn't been won before a certain number of runs through the deck, you either fall back on a point count or in attacker/defender type scenarios the defender usually wins at that point.

The game is driven by your cards, which are generally used to issue orders to your groups. The two most important are probably move and fire. Move cards are required for a group to seek new terrain, and movement can be forward, backward, or lateral. Once moving, in a future turn you can play a terrain card on your group, which places the group in (hopefully) some decent cover. While moving, your men are typically more vulnerable to enemy fire, as well as terrain placement by your opponent. Some terrain types (usually stream, marsh, and the horrible, horrible minefield) are "bad" and playing these on your opponent is a critical aspect of the game.

For me, the opponent delivered terrain is one of the game's best features. When we first started playing, the stream and marsh were the only cards we usually dropped on each other (minefields are usually only used in specific scenarios) but as we've become more experienced we've started hitting each other with other terrain types for nefarious purposes. My wife is fond of hiding her firebase in a gully, which renders them essentially invisible to anyone that's not on higher ground, then dropping a hill on one of my groups she wants to kill, thus making them visible to the death squad in the gully. Most opposing terrain placements can be rejected, which costs you your move card and is generally an agonizing decision to make, since those move cards can get rather scarce.

Terrain also gets a lot more interesting once vehicles enter the fray. Terrain that is good for infantry is, generally speaking, bad for vehicles so your options really open up.

Fire cards do what their name implies. They come in several strengths, and each requires a certain amount of firepower to use. Firepower is determined by the weapons your men are carrying and their distance from the target, so large groups can more easily muster the strength to use the nastier cards. Hits on enemy men pin them, really nasty hits can kill them outright. Pinned men can't do anything until they're rallied, which requires a valuable rally card. If a pinned man is hit a second time, he's generally eliminated from the game. A group containing pinned men is less versatile in several ways. Pinned men can't fire, so they can't contribute to fire cards, and certain actions like entrenchment cannot be performed if men are pinned. Perhaps most importantly, a group with pinned men cannot move, so getting those guys back on their feet is paramount.

A moving group is more vulnerable to enemy fire, and has its own firing effectiveness weakened. This is something that I think Up Front handles better than any other game I've played. Moving fire is something that you pretty much need to have in a tactical game, but it always comes off as clunky in traditional map based games, usually requiring out of order actions on your oppponent's turn and a hex-by-hex verification on whether or not you're being shot at. Up Front's abstract moving status solves all of this by keeping actions on each player's turn, where they should be.

This is just the basic stuff, and it just gets better from there. Eventually you'll be sprinting men between groups, taking prisoners and wounds, firing mortars, bogging tanks, breaking your weapons, hopefully fixing said weapons, recovering the weapons of your dead comrades, engaging the enemy in deadly close combat, fighting at night, and even more! All this with a deck of cards!

Variety

Up Front offers several scenarios, but the real fun is in the different countries. They each have their own rules for hand size and discard rate which is way more important than it first sounds. At the extremes are the four card Russian hand, which can be discarded in its entirety, and the six card French hand which can only be dumped a single card at a time. This seemingly small difference makes playing these two countries entirely different, and this is before you consider the abilities of the individual men and their weapons. There is a ton to master here, and it's so much fun to do it.

When you're ready for more, the campaign game awaits. Campaigns are simply a string of scenarios, but you track the fate of your men through the whole ordeal. Men can become better, worse, earn promotions, die, miss battles while recovering from wounds, and more. We're currently nearing the end of our first campaign and it's been tons of fun. We elected to play France vs. Italy, generally considered the two worst countries, but probably our favorites. Yes, they're bad, but their misadventures are so entertaining that we don't care. In our last game, my wife's Italians managed to break both of their infantry guns on successive draws, which might be our best story so far.

The two expansions also offer rules for jungle and desert engagements. These change the nature of the terrain and also add a few other odd rules. We haven't run any jungle fights yet, but we've used the desert rules several times (twice in our campaign) and they're a lot of fun.

On rules

One thing I encountered over and over again in my research was that the Up Front rulebook was a tough one to handle. I didn't have too many problems with it, but I cut my teeth on the official rules of baseball back when I was an umpire, so my perspective may be a bit different (if you think wargame rulebooks are bad, I assure you that they have nothing on sports rulebooks).

That being said, there were still a few sections that gave me trouble. The paragraph on panic vs. rout still convinces me that I'm doing it wrong every time I read it, and the infantry gun section still confuses me, although I think we're doing it mostly right at this point. I can understand why people would have trouble with this book, but the effort is worth it.

The final word

For me, Up Front is a game that far exceeds any expectations I had for it. For at least a week after building my copy, I was having dreams about the damn thing. It's one of the most fun and engaging games I've ever come across and it's unfortunate that no one can seem to get a reprint done. Every new rule we added as we learned the game just made it better, and once the picture is complete, the result is so compelling that you'll want to come back to it again and again.
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David Janik-Jones
Canada
Waterloo
Ontario
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Up Front fan | In ancient times cats were worshipped as gods; they have not forgotten this | Combat Commander series fan | The Raven King (game publisher) ... that's me! | Fields of Fire fan
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Slywester Janik, awarded the Krzyż Walecznych (Polish Cross of Valour), August 1944
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Best wargame ever made. Been playing since 1983 and still not tired of it.
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Mark J
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drop a hill on an enemy so your gully fire time can attack... interesting. I've never thought of that.

Nice review.
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Warren Davis
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Very nice review. I've been playing since '91, & I've never looked back. Don't believe me? Check the Up Front comment on my profile...
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The Redheaded Pharmacist
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Great review...... That just makes me sad about the reprint prospects of this game. I may just break down and try to find an old copy on EBay. But I shouldn't have to. Oh well. cry
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Mark J
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I think the shared deck is another key part of what makes this game great. There's always this dilemma if you're the attacker about making an attack that'll be burning 7 or 8 cards in the 3rd deck. Which also leads you to avoid making a really large firing group since the defender would love to burn cards on that group (plus large groups are really hard to keep moving).

Also, it adds more depth to the game. There may be some cards you don't want your opponent to get so you use it for open terrain or you just keep it in your hand. Both of which are a sacrifice and one you need to consider whether its worth it or not.

It is sad that no one seems capable of getting this game reprinted. Why is the game so cursed?
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Doug Evans
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yeah, I've been infatuated with this game. The mechanic is one I have yet to see replicated anywhere.
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Sean McCormick
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Games get no better.
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Greg Barker
United States
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I have played a lot of games through the years. There are a few that I continue to play. But I'd have say that Up Front is my favorite. It seems that just about every game you play is tense and once it's over your ready to play again.
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Michael Liljequist
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Well put Greg...
That's why I play a lot of Campaigns...no choice but to play more...lol
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Doug Evans
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Ryan,
Also, how to I get my wife to join a game club or at least play games with me ? cry
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Togu Oppusunggu
United States
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What a great review. I've always wondered "Why play Up Front? What does it do better?". You've really explained all the salient points for me, along with Diploguy's comments.
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Mark J
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Oh and also no LOS checking... ever! "But that's unrealistic for a tactical level game..." You may ask? Actually the game doesn't ignore this, like many things in the game, it handles it more abstractly. Perhaps the reason you aren't getting the correct fire cards or any at all or your fire attack didn't do a darn thing is because you don't have LOS.
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Tom Duensing
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I've been playing UpFront since I bought when it was released. It really is a fantastic game--especially because of the random terrain. I used to play a lot of Squad Leader--which is also a lot of fun--but the boards never change and you have a near-perfect knowledge of the terrain. That always bugged me a bit.

I think UpFront is one of the best war games ever made.

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Greg Barker
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I wish someone like MMP or GMT Games would try to get the rights to publish it.
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John Dietrich
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Bought this when it first came out but could find no one to play it. Was forgotten in the garage until reading your review. I must dig it out and find an opponent. Thanks for the wake up call.
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Daniel Schulz
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DiploGuy wrote:
drop a hill on an enemy so your gully fire time can attack... interesting. I've never thought of that.

Nice review.

This kind of gamey tactic is why most of my wargame buds don't like this game. I like it, but its no where near a great wargame - just a good one.
 
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Rich James
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I don't see it as gamey at all. Your squad moves forward, sees some higher ground and takes it, even if you, the platoon commander didn't want them to do that. They stumble upon a MG previously hidden, not unlike a reverse slope position. They knew one was in the area, but didn't know exactly where. This is fog of war. What's gamey is having a bird's eye view of the battlefield with perfect knowledge of the terrain and positions of all combatants and having perfect control over all of your forces.

I think the way it models fog of war makes it a great wargame. Sorry your buds don't like it.
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Martin Gallo
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horrido wrote:
DiploGuy wrote:
drop a hill on an enemy so your gully fire time can attack... interesting. I've never thought of that.

Nice review.

This kind of gamey tactic is why most of my wargame buds don't like this game. I like it, but its no where near a great wargame - just a good one.
I am still waiting for a wargame that does not have gamey moves.
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Caleb D
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Ryan Witmer wrote:

The Kickstarter debacle is well documented elsewhere, so I won't get into it here except to say that I had resigned myself to the notion that I would never locate a copy of this game.
I am so glad to hear of your enjoyment...I agree with your statement exactly. What cheeses me off is that this 'debacle' you refer to has screwed decent people who love fun and the cheer of gaming to manipulate lovely people for their own selfish motives.There exists a failure of morality (which continues to pervade the USA)...God knows, some of you folk are the salt of the earth.

A great and generous friend gave me me a first edition copy which I see now available on BGG marketplace for the ridiculous sum of $330 Australian dollars. I owe him big time.

I have lost all faith in BGG as a haven for international gamers' views as I have seen too many attacks by geeks, (professing wisdom, actually portraying themselves as fools) on good, honest persons of courage. These are the sort that would NEVER be asked back for a game at my place.

BTW, BGG continues to advertise Up Front 4th Edition (with link) despite all advice on their own site otherwise. These Up Front forums of a LLC grind gamers like grain with a pestle made of profit; the stupidity and outrageous insolence and effrontery will not remove their folly from decent gamers...the golden age of board gamer citizens, to the trash...

Keep enjoying the fun and never go to RR5 without a satchel if they are behind a wall!
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David Turpin
United Kingdom
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Great review. This game has passed me by during my 30+ years of boardgaming for some reason. Maybe because I heard that the rules were comlicated and a bit of a mess. I recently purchased a copy and I can say that the rules are fine and the game itself is absolutely brilliant.
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