David Stoffey
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As no text review of Fields of Despair has been done since its publication, I thought I’d give it a go. I have two games under my belt (one turns 1-3 scenario and one campaign), so I’m by no means a veteran, but I think I have enough to go off.

When Fields of Despair came out, I knew I had to buy it. EastFront (and the whole EuroFront system) is one of my favorite games. I love the fog of war aspect blocks bring to the table. I love looking over the expanse of the map. I really enjoy tactile nature of the blocks. And I like rolling more than one or two dice. There’s much more I love about block games, but I’ll spare you my unrelated thoughts.

Fields of Despair is a two-player game simulating the Western Front during World War I. As a block game, it shares many qualities as its block game predecessors, such as Rommel in the Desert or EastFront, but has many unique aspects as well. Where it stands out from the pack, and what really piqued my interest, is the fact that blocks can range from 1 to 20 strength points. Previous block games limit the strength of blocks to four max, given that a square has four sides. In Fields of Despair, blocks can be replace by blocks of higher value. More on this later.


Components
Fields of Despair comes with a beautiful mounted board, many blocks, enough player aids for both players, as well as solo-components.



Thanks to Mr. Keckley for the image.

Per GMT, this game is a beauty to behold and the components are top-notch. I’ve had no concerns about components. I've one small complaint, mentioned in the "Things I don't like" section.


Gameplay
Fields of Despair can be broken down into four phases: economic, action, strategic reorganization, and scoring.


Thanks again to Mr. Keckley for the image.

Economic

The economic phase is where both the Central and Allied powers receive reinforcements, have a brief strategic warfare segment, and spend their economic points. The game determines how many economic points each side receives. There is no change here. Every game has the same value of production. A strategic warfare segment gives both players the opportunity to impact their opponent’s income.

The first strategic warfare of sorts, is the eastern front. On the eastern front, the Germans commit resources to fight the Russians. There is a bag full of small Russian or German tokens. Each turn you draw three tokens and the more Russians pulled, the greater negative impact on German reinforcements later in the game. If you pull German tokens out of the bag, nothing happens, but you did save some of your men, so that’s a plus! Ultimately, the German is trying to avoid pulling three Russian tokens at once. If you do that, the Russian’s win a “major victory” and if they get three major victories over the course of the game, the Germans lose automatically. The Germans can add tokens to the eastern front bag to make it more German friendly, but that costs economic points.

The other form of strategic warfare is the naval war. Much like the eastern front bag, there are German and Allied tokens. Each turn three tokens are drawn and the Allied tokens drawn will diminish German production and German tokens will inhibit Allied production. Additionally, before the tokens are drawn, the German player can declare “unrestricted submarine warfare” or “prize negotiations.” If they pick the latter, they will only impact Allied production. If they pick the former they will impact production as well as the amount of British reinforcements that arrive that turn. However, if the Germans pick unrestricted submarine warfare, they must roll a die and if it is a six, the Americans enter the game one turn earlier. This can happen multiple times, bringing the Americans in quite early, so unrestricted submarine warfare has its risks!

After the strategic warfare, both players can spend their remaining economic points on artillery, air, supply, technology, logistics, fortress reconstruction, changing infantry to cavalry, and adding more tokens to the eastern front or naval bags. Technology, artillery, air, supply, and logistics are tracked in secret behind a screen so your opponent cannot see exactly what you have. Along with spending economic points, both players receive the set amount of reinforcements that arrive that turn. Like economic points, there is a set number every turn, however they can be impacted slightly by strategic warfare.
Also, when both players spend economic points, they can bid for initiative. This is where they can spend any amount of economic points to go first that turn. Players reveal their initiative bid simultaneously. Whoever bid higher gets imitative and goes first. If players bid the same, whoever went first last turn, holds the initiative.

Here's a quick picture of the charts and secrecy screen:

Thanks to SBGrad for the image.

Action

Each player, beginning with the player with initiative takes an action turn. After each player has gone once, they reset artillery and air assets, and both take one more turn in initiative order.
Each action turn has four phases. The first is aerial reconnaissance and dogfighting. Players can freely place abstracted air points in enemy hexes on their turn. Opponents can respond by placing some of their air points in the same location their opponent placed. Once revealed, the air points shoot at each other, and if the phasing player has any points remaining they can look at one enemy block per point. This is how players can get some intel before engaging in an assault.

The second phase is moving. Every infantry block can move two hexes; cavalry can move three.

The third phase is combat. Each hex that has both player’s blocks can fight per the phasing player’s discretion. If it is a new combat, it must be fought that turn. Before any hexes are fought, both players may place abstract artillery points in any hexes with combat. Artillery lets you roll dice before your opponent equal to commit artillery points. If, after the fighting, the phasing player completely destroyed their opponent, they may “breakout.” Each infantry block can move one space; cavalry can move two. New combats may be fought if a hex is newly engaged due to breakout. Existing combats cannot be fought in breakout, only reinforced.

Once a player has finished any breakout movements and combat, their opponent receives an action turn.


Thanks to oi_you_nutter for the image.

After both players have finished their action turns, both players reset all their artillery and air assets and do another set of turns.

Strategic Reorganization

In the strategic reorganization phase, both players can move any amount of strength points to any hex both in supply and currently occupied by their units. You cannot completely leave a hex empty, and you must obey the stacking limit of three blocks (each block can have up to 20 strength points, however).

Scoring

There are various points on the board for both player that score points at the end of every turn if you control those hexes. Additionally, starting in turn four you count all the German controlled hexes in France. This is the baseline number. If in future turns the Germans control more hexes than the baseline number, they get that many victory points. If the Germans control less hexes than the baseline number, the Allies get that many victory points.


Things I Really like

Terrain and Trench warfare: In turns 1-3, there is a “mobile war.” Most hexes are clear and units can move quickly and do a lot of damage. From turn four onward, the trench warfare has begun. This means the defender gets an extra amount of dice based on the size of the attacking force and they get to roll and apply damage first. In the mobile war damage is applied simultaneously. There is no cost to build trenches. It is just assumed every hex with units has a trench.

Blocks going to 20: This was an elegant way to make the game have a greater degree of bluffing and uncertainty in your opponent’s strength. I like this concept and hope its applied to other block wargames in the future.

Secrecy of tech and logistics: Tracking your air, artillery, logistic, and supply assets as well as tech in secret is a good way of keeping a greater degree of uncertainty from your opponent. I like this and think it was well done.


Things I don’t like

Supply is too easy: Supply is tracked in secret from your opponent. The number of hexes you have blocks in must be equal to our less than your supply level. If you’re over, that many hexes must be marked out of supply. I like this idea, but the out of supply penalty is too soft. Your blocks can only move towards your edge of the board and fight at half-strength. Given that everything can move, it’s not too hard to get blocks back in supply and there’s no lasting penalty. For World War I, I expect supply to be a much bigger deal. I’d even like a railroad network or something, but I realize the designer didn’t want to make an “EastFront of WWI.”

Strategic reorganization, especially in the first 3 turns: The ability to move any strength points basically everywhere is a bit concerning, particularly in the first three turns of the game that simulate roughly a month. I understand the purpose of the rule, to make bluffing more effective. I also understand the designer specifically mentioned in the rules that he understands people’s concerns and that it doesn’t have a game-breaking impact on play. He’s right, it doesn’t. But that doesn’t mean it makes historically sense in my mind. This is WWI after all. Military forces weren’t that mobile, especially on the frontline. Maybe it’s just me.

Location of Luxembourg: I understand the problem with putting the world on a hexagonal board. But this just doesn’t jive with me.

I wish the blocks were bigger: For almost $100, you think we’d get blocks similar in size to that in Columbia Games. Instead we got blocks like Europe Engulfed. This in my mind was a missed opportunity.


Conclusion

Fields of Despair is a great game. I give it a solid 8.5. The rules are tight and surprisingly light. I really enjoy the way the game progresses from the mobile war to trench warfare. I really like the abstracted nature of many assets. It declutters the board and streamlines a lot. And if I haven’t mentioned it enough, I really like that blocks can go up to 20. I find it innovative and extremely fun. Although it has a couple problems in my mind, I think Kurt has created quite a great game here. I’ll play it a lot in the future, and I’ll enjoy it immensely.

At the end of the day, I think if both players knew how to play the game, you could bust out the entire war in six hours. Maybe a little more. This isn’t a game that’ll be left up for weeks (which given the amount of OCS I play lately, my wife will surely thank me for buying a game that doesn’t take 132578925 hours).

If you haven’t yet, go buy Fields of Despair. Or play with a friend’s copy. Either way, you’ll be glad you did.
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Jim F
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Where the heck did this interest in WW1 come from?
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I agree with a lot of your points here both good and bad. However I have only played scenario II (three turns) so not sure if my view about strategic organisation (for example) will change.

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Sean McCormick
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I agree as well. Strategic reorganization was something I worried about during the pre-pub discussions of the game, and I still worry about it. On the one hand, it works to make recon and artillery important, while on the other hand, it feels wildly gamey considering the time scale portrayed. I'm someone who was never bothered by the design-for-effect aspect of Path of Glory's supply rules, but they also took up much less time.

I think I like the system quite a bit, but I'm frankly not sure yet.
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Mario Lampe
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Thank you for the review! Tomorow I play FoD for the first time. We`ll start with Scenario I. From reading the rules, I was wondering about the re-Organisation rules, also. It has something of teleportation to me.
We will see. I´m very curious, how long it takes until the sequence of play is in our mind and we don`t have to look at the player aids all the time.
I think, there is a lot to remember. But I´m absolutly looking forward to it!

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Mycroft Stout
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"Location of Luxembourg: I understand the problem with putting the world on a hexagonal board. But this just doesn’t jive with me."


I like the game, but yeah this bothers me a lot. Maybe more than it should. Thinking of photocopying that part of the board, cutting out the hexes to switch them around, and using some rubber cement.
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Edward Pundyk
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I did some playtesting on this game during its last year before publication. We found the Strategic Reorganization to be a bit unsettling at first, but ultimately, one isn't going to be moving huge masses of troops from one end of the front to the other with any sort of frequency. Ultimately, it produces the fog of war effect, whether you move 1 strength point or 100.
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Kurt Keckley
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Thank you for taking the time to do the review. I'm happy you are enjoying the game!
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Jim F
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Where the heck did this interest in WW1 come from?
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fightinlegalist1 wrote:
I did some playtesting on this game during its last year before publication. We found the Srategic Reorganization to be a bit unsettling at first, but ultimately, one isn't going to be moving huge masses of troops from one end of the front to the other with any sort of frequency. Ultimately, it produces the fog of war effect, whether you move 1 strength point or 100.


My concern was that it turned Western Front WW1 principally into a game of bluff and deception. Not sure that's what it was mainly about.

But there is a lot to like about this game so I am persisting with it. Second game tonight
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Edward Pundyk
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Ashiefan wrote:
fightinlegalist1 wrote:
I did some playtesting on this game during its last year before publication. We found the Strategic Reorganization to be a bit unsettling at first, but ultimately, one isn't going to be moving huge masses of troops from one end of the front to the other with any sort of frequency. Ultimately, it produces the fog of war effect, whether you move 1 strength point or 100.




But there is a lot to like about this game...


I fully concur.
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Jonathan "Spartan Spawn, Sworn, Raised for Warring!"
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Thank you for the review, this is high on my want list, I am kinda sorta hoping someone will have it one sale here with International Table Top Day or CSI's 15th anny, but may just pull the trigger anyway.

Wanted to comment re: Forces shifting on the front. I just finished Ernst Junger's excellent Storm of Steel and he mentions moving around quite frequently even late in the war. Now to be fair, he rarely goes into detail with the amount of time in between battles etc. but I cannot imagine it was months of moving about given the time frame of the battles he participated in.

This said, I am a relative newcomer to WWI history and am just now beginning to immerse myself in it, so I do not have the comfortable discussion command of it as I would say I do of Ancients or WWII.
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