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Subject: A diamond in the rough rss

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Martin Sharman
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I was intrigued by this game of strategy, planning, bluff and intelligence as soon as I heard about it.

I loved the idea of a different kind of war-game - not hex-and-counters where the fog of war is never more than partially simulated, not a block game, not a card game - but a game whose focus is on planning operations that are based on defective knowledge, and whose preparation takes place behind an imperfect veil of secrecy. The setting, the European theatre of the Second World War, seemed perfect for this concept.



This review is very much "first impressions". I’ve only played 1 incomplete game, playing the Allies against a good strategic thinker who predictably beats me at most of the games we play. The game was incomplete because at the start of 1944, the last year of the game, I conceded. While I could see a possible route to victory, I was almost certainly going to lose. It was 2 in the morning and we had been at it for more than 4 hours - on top of 90 minutes at the start of the evening when I explained the rules and we discussed them. By this point, only 4 hours before my morning alarm would go off, I had lost the will to continue.

But I'd still like to set the game up and play him again. Why?

The concept is excellent and the game is well-thought-out. The constant dilemma of how to distribute always-inadequate resources, with imperfect knowledge of what your opponent is planning, lies at its heart. The long build-up to an operation is simultaneously frustrating, tense, exciting and satisfying. The game's atmosphere feels somehow true, in that it makes an excellent fist of simulating the problems of operational command.

In a weird way, this game brings with it an eerie, slightly sardonic echo of Risk. Battles in Risk pit armies of different sizes against one another and subject the outcome to the roll of dice. The Fog of War pits armies of different sizes against one another in an even more cynical way, since (almost) all that matters is whose army is biggest, and by how much. Conquering territory is what matters in Risk, and the more you have the more you earn. In The Fog of War, conquering territory is also important, and also earns you dividends, but the game is more subtle than that, and the additional subtlety provides much of the tension and appeal of the game.

In our game, the Axis planned and launched an early chain of operations against north Africa, rolling up the Allies in one devastating sequence of moves. This was an uncanny recreation of the historical battles of 1941 - but with neither the siege of Tobruk nor the second battle of El Alamein to prevent a triumphant Axis making a clean sweep of the north African desert.

That series of operations, set against historical reality, brought out one missing component in The Fog of War - overstretched supply lines. Supply is a key element in the game, but it’s a binary device - either you’re in or out of supply. It might be interesting to see a future development of the rules that constrains the ability of the phantom Rommel to ferry across the Western Mediterranean, invade Morocco, and charge all the way to the Levant in a single brief season, and all without any consideration of leaving supply far behind.

The game introduces another interesting innovation - the possibility of gathering intelligence on the opponent’s intentions. In practice, despite using the mechanic several times, I never gathered any useful intelligence at all. My opponent used it twice, but because the mechanic prevents you from knowing what they discover, I don’t know if it was useful. The cost of Intel seems high, and the rewards are likely to be meagre and misleading. Just like in war. This is a nice touch, well implemented.

The operations wheel is a stroke of genius. The rondel that Mac Geerts introduced and exploited in a series of excellent games is turned on its head here. It governs not the choice of moves you may make, but instead simulates the initiation of a operation and its steady build-up to the moment that you launch it against an opponent - who you hope will be wrong-footed. It’s a brilliant device that I expect to see picked up by other designers. As implemented in The Fog of War, it also allows the player to build up forces immediately before they launch an operation. This helps greatly to intensify the sense that the opponent’s intelligence about the operation was faulty. It also simulates the impossibility of reacting quickly to a sudden hidden redeployment of enemy troops.

The most serious criticism I have for the mechanics of the game concerns the separation of the attacking and defending forces. In a war, armed forces are armed forces. A German buildup on the Polish border may signal the intent to attack Poland. If Poland were to preemptively attack Germany, the massing German army would not sit on its hands. In The Fog of War, however, defensive forces are organised on the circumference of the map and offensive ones assembled on the operations wheel. In this example, if there were no German forces in the defensive spaces, an attack from Poland into Berlin would be unopposed despite an overwhelming offensive German force sitting on the rondel and aimed at Poland. I feel that the game should allow a player to transfer forces assembled on the operations wheel to support a defence. Such a rule would also serve to increase the sense of risk and the imperfection of intelligence.

Play experience

I enjoyed it well enough, and the time passed quickly, but I never felt much excitement. I was twice surprised by my opponent, but despite the outcome - both times devastating - I never felt that I really cared much. Perhaps this was because I viewed the game as a trial learning game, in which my investment was in understanding how the game works, rather than a full-on trial of wits. I don’t know if that’s really the reason, but my experience of the game was strangely joyless. Perhaps it was simply that the game went on much too long.

Duration

It took us 260 minutes - into the small hours of the morning - to get through 4 years of war. That’s far too long for what the game is. Much of the time was spent with our noses in the rulebook hunting down this or that detail or discussing the meaning of this or that ambiguous sentence. I would hope we could complete future games in half that time. That would bring it to just above the upper end of the 90-120 min range cited on the box.

The rulebook

My experience of the game was marred by the rulebook. It is certainly not the worst I have encountered, but it isn't the best, either. On first reading I decided that it was insufficient for my purposes, and I rewrote it to produce my own abridged and reorganised version (https://boardgamegeek.com/filepage/153655/reorganised-and-sh...). To contextualise this, I've rewritten other rulebooks too, but only for games I thought were worth the effort - starting with Squad Leader 40 years ago, and including Twilight Struggle.

Components:

The 4-panel board feels like a travel version of a full-sized board. Cramped and miserly, the spaces available in many of the provinces are quickly choked by a clutter of counters which hide important information on the map. Cards in the defence spaces around the perimeter are shoulder-to shoulder, making it hard to move them without disturbing neighbouring cards. The cards slip and rotate on the board and on the player mats, so that it is easy to disturb the board state accidentally. I may possibly make a more generous full-sized 6-panel custom board for myself. That would give me the opportunity to rework the art, particularly of the map, which has a strange, gaudy, athematic and anachronistic feel to it. Hitler and his generals did not pore over maps that looked like something out of a fantasy game involving goblins. I would also redesign the tracks on the right of the board to take up less space and fit better into the thematic world.

The cards are small (6.8 x 4.4cm). At first they felt fiddly in my rather elderly hands, but by 0200 hours I'd become used to them. The decks come interspersed with 32 blank cards that presumably originate in unprinted areas of the cardstock. They give the impression of waste or carelessness. Such a shame - first impressions count.

The game comes with 3 small ziplock bags, which is not enough to hold the several different kinds of tokens.

The player pad is flimsy, but the operations wheel is both sturdy and functional.

From these remarks it is obvious that I think the game would be more alluring if the components - particularly the board - were improved. Still, while they did not attract me to the game, they work.

Overall impression

This diamond of a game is perhaps still slightly in the rough, but - dropping that dubious metaphor - it is certainly an important innovation in wargames.

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Carl-Johan Strömwall
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Thanks for the revised rules, but not sure you got the Intel tax right.

According to a post by the designer opponent need to pay 3 Intel to oppose the 2 Intel placed before any action.

Best,
C-J
 
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