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Subject: Still Fun But Showing Its Age rss

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Allan Goodall
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Long time lurker, first time reviewer. I introduced a friend to FirePower. Since this was the first time I'd played it in about 15 years, I thought I'd review it.


Overview

FirePower is a game of man-to-man combat in the post war period, from the late 1940s to the "present day", with "present day" defined as the mid 80s, when the game was released. Each counter represents a single person. Each hex represents 5 yards. Each turn is 30 seconds. Players typically run a squad of soldiers, or maybe a couple of squads. BGG comments to the contrary, this isn't Squad Leader in the modern era, it's a skirmish game.

The game features several concepts that were not original to FirePower (FirePower is descended from an older game, Close Assault, set in World War II) but which were nonetheless relatively new to Avalon Hill games and their fans at the time, including a chit pull activation system and the use of a ten-sided die.


Components

The box is the classic "bookcase" style, as seen in games like Squad Leader.

There are 216 counters, ranging from two 1 1/2" x 5/8" vehicles, to the main 5/8" x 5/8" soldier counters, to 1/2" x 1/2" markers. The rule book comes in two parts: a 4 page basic rules folder, and a 48 page "battle manual". There are 7 reference cards, most of which are double sided and two are double-sized. The game comes with four full colour mounted mapboards, and a ten-sided die.

The counters are single colour (either tan, green, or light green) with black and/or white lettering. The soldier counters are bereft of data. They are just an outline drawing of a generic soldier holding a generic weapon of the counter's particular class, and an ID number that indicates the weapon class. The IDs for riflemen (including soldiers carrying assault rifles) are along the lines of RFL1, RFL2, RFL3, etc.

The art on the individual soldier counters are perhaps the ugliest ever produced by Avalon Hill. The poses are stilted and unrealistic. The riflemen in particular look like they are firing straight up. The art on recent wargames is head and shoulders above those in FirePower. In fact, the art in games contemporary to FirePower was much better, too. The irony is that the counters don't have any data on them, other than the ID, so the ugly art doesn't even have a bunch of stats to draw attention away from it.

The markers are clean and serviceable; nothing to write home about but nothing to complain about, either.

The mapboards are as gaudy as the counters are Spartan, but I like them. They are in brighter tones than the Squad Leader boards that came out around the same time. They work well with the plain counters. The worst looking map is map four, the city map. The floors of the buildings on this map are in 5 different colours, giving a patchwork appearance. Mapboards 1, 2 and 3 are "geomorphic" (they fit together in multiple ways). Mapboard 4, the city map, does not fit with the others, which is an odd decision. I've always wondered if they planned to do an expansion with other urban boards.

Oh, and in case you are wondering, the game scale is so different that you can't really use SL boards in place of the FirePower boards unless you're willing to do some hand-waving. The trees in the FirePower boards are individual trees, and the buildings show individual doorways and windows. You could, however, use the boards from Avalon Hill's Gunslinger game. There are a number of roleplaying and miniatures game boards that could be used in place of those included in the game for do-it-yourself scenarios.

The reference cards are black and grey lettering on thin cardstock of various colours. They're not up to the quality of current games, but they were the standard back in the day. The colour helps identify the charts. Unfortunately, one of the more important charts is black lettering on a medium blue cardstock, meaning it has the least contrast and is the hardest to read.

Finally, there is the 10 sided die. Remember, this game came out in 1984. The die is the softer plastic kind, like those that came with the original D&D boxed sets. Mine is a solid dark blue. The numbers are hard to discern as they aren't coloured in any way. You were supposed to fill in the numbers with crayon. Since you can roll as much as 6 times per automatic weapon burst, I simply pull six Chessex or Crystal Caste dice from my collection and use them instead.


Rule Books

AH had experimented with several different rule book styles in this period. Earlier games piled on the rules in a single rule book, with optional and experimental rules added at the end (as found in Panzer Leader, and Arab-Israeli War). Squad Leader, Up Front, and Gunslinger all used a "phased" approach: read one section, play a scenario, read another section, play a new scenario. They make it easier to learn the game, but harder to look up rules.

FirePower was one of the first to use a new system consisting of a Basic Rules folder and a more advanced, and complete, rule book (Flight Leader, which came out two years later, used the same approach). The four-page Basic Game Rules folder covers the basic mechanics and offers a single even-sided meeting engagement scenario. The full rules are found in the Battle Manual, broken into the Advanced Game Rules, squad stats for a whole bunch of different nationalities, the Optional Rules and the scenarios.

The two-phase FirePower manual later evolved into the basic and advanced manuals found in games like the Great Campaigns of the American Civil War series by AH and now Multi-Man Publishing. The basic/advanced split is now common in wargames, with the basic rules providing a simpler but satisfying game by itself. In contrast, the FirePower Basic Game Rules introduces you to the basic mechanics but doesn't offer much beyond the bare-bones turn sequence and combat results process. There's not much to the basic scenario, with little replay value. It's good for wargame novices, but most veteran gamers can (and will probably want to) jump right into the Advanced Rules even for their first game.

You can see how the modern basic/advanced rule books developed out of this earlier, and less successful, approach in FirePower. The idea was a good one; they simply didn't hit the right balance of complexity between the basic and advanced rule books.

The game really shows its age in the layout of the rule books. The basic game folder is packed with text due to space constraints. It has to give you the basics of the game in four pages, after all. The much larger Battle Manual is equally dense, with a few small diagrams and no white space. It is just paragraph after paragraph of numbered rule sections. The text isn't badly written – we're not talking SPI here, fortunately – but if your experience with wargame rules is Combat Commander, you'll find reading FirePower a dry slog.

Comments about FirePower here on BGG describe the Advanced Rules as "complicated". It's not so much "complicated" as perhaps too complete. The Advanced Rules are presented as a total package. Not all of the rules are needed in every scenario (or, indeed, most scenarios). Take page 3, for example. Rule 8.2.4 covers Loopholes (small holes in walls for sighting and shooting). If you don't have a scenario with buildings or bunkers, you don't need to know this rule, yet there it is on the third page of the main rule book. Section 11 is another good example. It lists the actions your soldiers can conduct over two pages. Half the rules are for loading crewed weapons, entering buildings, climbing trees, swimming, acquiring weapons, etc. You either don't need them in most of the scenarios, or you just need to know the rule exists in the rare case you want to take that action.

Ironically, this is a game that could probably have been better received with the stepped rules system found in Squad Leader. I recommend that the best way to learn the Advanced Rules is to pick a scenario first, then read the rules that apply to it. If you choose the ambush scenario, you can easily skip the rules for crew, buildings, night sights, tunnels, swimming, etc.

During play, the rule book is a pain to find information. There is no index (common in this era, inexcusable today). The densely packed text makes it hard to find a specific rule, compounded by the preponderance of unneeded rules. The rules aren't particularly well organized, either. Suppression, for instance, is in the Basic Rules folder but its actual effects are spread across several sections. If you read each section you will know what Suppression does, but you can't just look up "Suppression" in a single section.

The Optional Rules include (but are not limited to) the vehicle rules, jumping, throwing grenades back at the thrower, written orders, communication between soldiers by radios and phones, morale (over and above suppression and stunning), wounds, prisoners, umpired games, and rudimentary campaign rules. Included are a set of proto-roleplaying rules.

As in the rest of the Battle Manual, the organization leaves a lot to be desired. The "written orders" option and the "umpired games" option come early in the Optional Rules. These are rules that I honestly can't see a lot of players using. I can see players deciding to overlook the Optional Rules entirely. That's unfortunate because the rules for wounds and morale – much more useful rules – come later in the section.

The squad listings are incredibly compact. To do that, the squads are reduced to a list of acronyms accompanied by a multiplier. At first glance they look like an algebra quiz. Here is an example of a British Parachute Squad from the Falklands War:

1st Infantry Squad (+): 4/3; 1C, 1S, 2A; 1 X GLR2, 1 X LMG3, 1 X MRT12, 4 X RFL18; 4 X SMG10; 2 X NST.

Here's the extra equipment for two such squads:

19 X BDA, 1 X BNC, 23 X HGN3 and/or HGN5, 2 X RDO, 4 X RGN2, 5 X GLR2AMO, 2 X MPL4AMO, 8 X MRT12AMO.

After you get used to them, you can see that they offer a lot of functionality with a minimal of space, but I can't help but think that gamers would have been better served if the listings had been clearer, even if that meant they were twice as long.

The unit listings are exceptionally badly organized. There are 5 pages of squads batched together in groups. The listings start with Group 4 (???) and go to Group 14, with the groups sorted by a range of points needed to "purchase" the squad (in DYI scenarios). Within each group the squads are sorted alphabetically by nation, with the U.S. under "A" for "America" and the U.K. under "B" for Britain.

Want to play with an American rifle squad in 1970? You'd have to jump to Group 7 (a squad in 1966 or 1975 is in Group 8). These groups don't mention the amount of extra equipment available (the extra equipment listing above is taken from a scenario, not the national listings). A little later on there are listings of available weapons and vehicles by nationality. Why they didn't just do all the squad listings by nationality is beyond me. I'm more likely to want to choose a set of nationalities and then purchase the squads than to start with a point total and choose the nationalities from there.

There are only 6 scenarios, but each scenario has a number of sides and eras to choose from. Scenario 5, as an example, is "Assaults". You can play "Base Camp Assault" (Vietnam), "Goose Green" (Falklands), or "Holy War" (Iran-Iraq War). For the "Base Camp Assault" variant you can choose either an American Green Beret squad or two South Vietnamese Ranger squads as defenders, and either two North Vietnamese regular squads or three Viet Cong squads as attackers, for a total of four combinations in that one era alone. You can also take the base scenarios and insert any other nationality from the earlier nationality listings. I wish there were more scenarios, but the ones that are there go a long way.

Scenario Two deserves special mention. It is a solitaire scenario. The player runs one side and a set of rules for target priorities "runs" the other side, with decisions between targets of equal priority being decided by a dice roll. I enjoyed it the couple of times I tried it, though in both cases I ended up circumventing the dice roll and taking charge of the "system's" side by way of logical decision making.

The game is actually pretty easy to play solitaire without utilizing the solitaire scenario. The chit pulls add an element of uncertainty, so even if you "know" what your "opponent" is going to do, you often have to improvise due to the order the chits come up.


Mechanics

Central to the game is the chit pull initiative system. Each squad gets a certain number of chits. When the chit is pulled, a pre-defined number of hexes are activated in what is called an Impulse. All the soldiers in a single hex can be activated per Impulse, with the limitation that a soldier can only be activated once per chit pull. In the basic game, both sides get 3 chits and 2 impulses per chit. In the advanced game, the number of chits differs by unit, representing a squad's training and initiative. (In the example above, the "4/3" represents 4 chits, 3 impulses per chit pull.)

When activated, a soldier receives 4 movement points (5 for leaders). Actions expend movement points. Firing costs 2, entering a hex costs 1, turning in a hex costs 1, going from prone to a crouch costs 1, going from prone to standing costs 2, etc. Leaders have one extra point but can only enter up to 4 hexes. Leaders have an additional ability: they can move from hex to hex and activate each soldier they encounter, but the activated soldiers only get the number of movement points equal to the leader's remaining points.

For all its supposed complexity, combat resolution is pretty simple. Direct fire weapons (pistols, assault rifles, etc.) have a number to hit a target. Roll that number or less on a 10-sided die, and the target is hit and eliminated (dead, wounded and no longer functional, etc.). A number of situational modifiers add or subtract from the dice roll. These include modifiers due to cover, the firing soldier's posture (standing, prone, etc.), the target's posture, etc.

Automatic weapons roll multiple dice. Automatic weapons with selective fire offer a choice of dice and target number, like a choice between rolling 3 dice with a target number of 5 or rolling 2 dice for a target of 6. If a target is hit in a hex by automatic weapons the other soldiers in that hex are Suppressed (and if modifiers make hitting a soldier in the hex impossible, a 10 on the die roll Suppresses everyone in the hex anyway).

Explosives (such as grenades) are a little more complicated. You roll to hit a hex. If successful, you roll dice against every soldier in the target hex and nearby hexes (with modifiers based on the explosive's blast pattern). Soldiers that were missed in the impact hex become Stunned. Soldiers that were missed in nearby blast hexes become Suppressed.

Suppressed soldiers only get 3 movement points, and there is a +1 modifier (positive modifiers are bad) when a Suppressed soldier fires. Stunned units are dropped prone and can't do anything until their Stun status is removed. Stun is changed to Suppressed for the current player's soldiers at the end of an Impulse. Suppressed is removed for one player's soldiers at the start of his opponent's Impulse.

Victory conditions are based on the scenario. The "Ambush" scenario, for instance, is based on victory points awarded for surviving soldiers. A soldier survives by escape off the board. The attacker has to escape off the long board edges (the shortest route off the board) while the defender has to escape off the short board edges.

The scenarios don't last many turns (three or so is common). Once you know how to play the game, most of the scenarios can be played in a couple of hours, or even less time. You can dedicate an evening and play a couple of times.


Verdict

This review seems pretty harsh. In reality, FirePower is one of my favourite wargames, though I will readily admit that some of that is nostalgia. It may not be the greatest wargame I own, but it is still a favourite. Yes, it has some "warts", and yeah, the rule book badly needs a revision. However, I have never failed to have a blast playing it (almost literally, as my favourite scenario is the Ambush, where one side gets a remote detonated mine). I liked it enough that I picked up Close Assault – its World War II sibling – on eBay.

Once you get past the rule book, you have a fairly easy-to-play skirmish wargame.

The three big negatives in the Advanced Rules are the "dead when hit" combat results, the lack of morale rules, and the possibility of a string of bad chit pulls. The first two issues are dealt with in the Optional Rules, though the wound rules in particular feel like they could have undergone a bit more testing.

The chit pulls can give an unbalanced game. Situations arise when one players' chits are pulled first, resulting in their opponent knowing they have two or three straight pulls where they can act unopposed. It doesn't happen often, but when it does it can wreck a scenario. There's a pretty simple house rule that can fix this (allow a player to "hold in reserve" his last chit). It's odd that this issue wasn't discovered in play, or that no one thought to include a fix in the Optional Rules if it was discovered.

The biggest knock against FirePower is its age, not in terms of mechanics but in terms of how far squad combat has evolved since the game was released. FirePower covers combat during a span of 40 years (post World War II to the mid 80s). You could reasonably project the FirePower rules into the Gulf War of the early 90s. That war was over 20 years ago as of this writing.

First World combat troops are better equipped and better trained today than they were 20 years ago. The equipment is better, particularly with regard to personal protection and the accuracy if indirect fire. And today there are frontline weapons that were still science fiction 20 years ago: close support drones and bomb detonation robots. I would dearly love to see an update to the squad stats and the addition of some 21st century weaponry. The game cries for a remake taking the recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq into account.

As it stands right now, FirePower may have some blemishes and it may look its age, but it is a lot of fun. And it's not like there are all that many skirmish games out there that cover the full range of armed conflicts during the Cold War.

As a fitting summary of the game, a short anecdote. In spite of losing the scenario (it was a very close fight), a couple of days later my friend went out and bought his own copy of FirePower on eBay. He only paid about $10.
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Darrell Hanning
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Good, thorough review, with plenty of additional information. Really enjoyed it.

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The text isn't badly written – we're not talking SPI here, fortunately – but if your experience with wargame rules is Combat Commander, you'll find reading FirePower a dry slog.


Ironic, as I always found Mr. Greenwood's rules-writing style to be the weaker of the two, in comparison. (And the AH rules organization even worse.) While SPI's rules have always been branded as "legalese", they at least were concise and easily assimilated, whereas AH rules were, IMO, terse without being concise, and often only digestible after repeated attempts to make heads or tails of them, due to lack of proper context. (Which goes back to the poor organization.)

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Allan Goodall
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DarrellKH wrote:
Good, thorough review, with plenty of additional information. Really enjoyed it.


Thank you!

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Ironic, as I always found Mr. Greenwood's rules-writing style to be the weaker of the two, in comparison. (And the AH rules organization even worse.) While SPI's rules have always been branded as "legalese", they at least were concise and easily assimilated, whereas AH rules were, IMO, terse without being concise, and often only digestible after repeated attempts to make heads or tails of them, due to lack of proper context. (Which goes back to the poor organization.)


AH and, especially, SPI produced so many games that I suspect that experience can vary simply based on the games you were initially exposed to from each company. My first experience with Avalon Hill was Panzer Leader, which was pretty easy to read and understand (I digested it at age 13). I got into a bunch of other games soon after, mostly SPI, and I recall that they were harder to learn and harder to read.

On the other hand, I don't remember ever having a problem finding a rule in an SPI game, while that's still a problem in AH rule books.

I personally believe Avalon Hill made more of an effort in its rule books to teach its games while SPI made more of an effort to make their rule books functional during game play. Both companies would have been better served if they had learned how to write an index.
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Charles Lewis
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I enjoyed Firepower so much when it was new that I translated my fixation with the Vietnam War at the time to the creation of a mini-campaign system that actually got published in The General (Over The Fence)!

I played it off and on in college but haven't touched it since. I've been tempted but am actually leery that I might not like it anymore - it's the kind of game that actually works better on a computer IMO (ala Jagged Alliance).

For now I'm content to have it on my shelf.
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Pete Belli
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Excellent.

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Long time lurker, first time reviewer...


Looking forward to your next effort.
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Thanks for taking the time to write such a detailed review. I agree Firepower has quirks and limitations, and yet I, too, find myself continuing to play it, albeit occasionally.

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At first glance they look like an algebra quiz. Here is an example of a British Parachute Squad from the Falklands War: 1st Infantry Squad (+): 4/3; 1C, 1S, 2A; 1 X GLR2, 1 X LMG3, 1 X MRT12, 4 X RFL18; 4 X SMG10; 2 X NST.
It's like the movie, The Matrix. All I see now are M79, FN MAG, 51mm mortar, L1A1 rifle, L2 SMG, night sights.


Quote:
The listings start with Group 4 (???) and go to Group 14
The numbering scheme is for DYO scenarios, particularly the ambush scenario. So a group 4 squad would ambush a squad in group 8. The numbering starts with group 4 (instead of group 1) to allow combinations, maybe a group 4 squad and a group 8 squad versus a single group 12 squad in a meeting engagement scenario.


Quote:
First World combat troops are better equipped and better trained today than they were 20 years ago.
Yes, well, Firepower still allows for firefights today to be simulated within its design framework (and limitations). US forces still use the RFL10 (M16 class) while much of the rest of the world still uses the RFL1 (AK class) and MPL20 (RPG7). Better trained forces would be 4/3 or 5/3 against 3/2 irregular squads.


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I wish there were more scenarios
Jim Werbaneth created a bunch of excellent scenarios for The General.


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It's odd that this issue wasn't discovered in play, or that no one thought to include a fix in the Optional Rules if it was discovered.
I think this was deliberate. The chit-pull system is meant to simulate the chaos and confusion of combat at the lowest level. No player knows that he will draw the next four friendly chits--unless the other player has already pulled all his chits, which means the other player already dealt some damage. Yes, sometimes luck--whether the dice or the chits--go against a player, but in the long-run, the player who has the best balance between offensive and defensive actions wins the scenarios.


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The art on the individual soldier counters are perhaps the ugliest ever produced by Avalon Hill.
Yeah, the counter art from that era, no doubt a limitation of technology (computers and printing) and cost, were by today's standards, quite poor. It wasn't until the early 90s that we got full color counters, with companies like XTR leading the way.

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Christopher O
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An excellent review for a game which was among my most played wargames of that period (1987-1992). I literally wore out one set of activation chits and had to switch to chits from a second set, I played it so often.

The possibility of ridiculous runs of activation draws, in combination with the unreality of a player knowing that an opponent would not be able to react once all of the chits were drawn remain my principle difficulties with this game. Like other commenters on this review, I know by heart what RFL1, RFL10, GLR2, LMG3, BPD, BDA etc. etc. were.

Great and well-thought-through review.
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Jan Colpaert
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This is a very good review and the game cries indeed for an update. There are in fact as good as no comparable skirmish games at all! And since Compass Games doesn't seem no longer to produce and sell Unpublished Prototype I think we will have to wait for a very long time until someone out there makes the effort.

That's why Firepower is so important. It has its minor points (the rather poor basic scenario, the lack of an index, the "mixed up" advanced rules) but it is unique in the whole range of tactical modern (board)wargames out there.

A bit the same situation with Cry Havoc. How many other medieval- or ancient- or black powder age/Napoleonic/Pike and shotte-SKIRMISCH boardgames are there?
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Brent Gaddie
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I just started playing this game with an opponent via Vassal. After reading your review, I found out we have been playing it wrong! We were playing the basic game with just 3 chits instead of 6, the rules were not very clear to this matter.

Very nice review! Looking forward to more!
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Allan Goodall
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Thanks for the comments, everyone! I'll be writing more reviews. I'm thinking of going through my old AH and SPI games and seeing if there are any that don't have a review, or are "under reviewed". I haven't purchased a lot of newer wargames recently. By the time I get one of the newer ones there are already plenty of reviews.

As for more recent games in the same vein, yeah, there aren't a lot of games at that scale at all, let alone those created recently.

Most of the recent ones are miniatures games, which could be converted to board games without a lot of effort.
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alex w
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agoodall wrote:
Thanks for the comments, everyone! I'll be writing more reviews. I'm thinking of going through my old AH and SPI games and seeing if there are any that don't have a review, or are "under reviewed". I haven't purchased a lot of newer wargames recently. By the time I get one of the newer ones there are already plenty of reviews.


I highly encourage that. Thanks. Great review.
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Shawn Kirkpatrick
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Wonderful review. I bought this game back in the 80's but must confess I never played a single game. We were playing so many games at this time I suppose no one wanted to learn yet another one. My brother was into Squad Leader so he did not want to give it a try.
Your review has made me regret not giving it a try. I must have sold it somewhere along the way.
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