Review: Flames of War 4th Edition
I recently had a chance to play Flames of War by Battlefront Miniatures against one of my coworkers. We're in the same "bubble" anyway, so we thought we'd kill some time at work by playing a miniatures game that neither of us had really had a chance to play in a while. My coworker used to be very into Flames of War. In fact, our shop's Flames of War events is where I first became acquainted with him; while I haven't played any of this edition, and probably played two games of the third edition. So you can almost consider me fresh to the game.
First up, I should describe that Flames of War is a World War II (WWII) miniatures game. I'm going to go out on a limb and say that it's the most famous, and most successful, WWII miniatures game on the market. This latest edition had a shaky start, but I think is starting to hit its stride. In Flames of War you typically play a company of soldiers of the four main factions of WWII (America, Britain, Germany, and the Soviet Union), though there are other nations you can play.
I took command of an American rifle company, while he went for a German panzergrenadier company.
You decide with your opponent which era of the war you're going to play (Early: 1939–1941, Mid: 1942–1943, or Late: 1944–1945) and you choose a book that you'll build your army of 15mm (1/100 scale) soldiers from.
We chose late-war, and he took his army from the D-Day: German book, while I went for the D-Day: American book.
Currently, only the mid-, and late-war eras are supported, but if you can track down one of the free rulebooks they gave shops to hand out at the beginning of the edition, and you're able to find an early war book from the third edition, you could play that era as well. They have plans to introduce early war in a few years, but for now they're just getting started on late war.
Like any miniatures game, you have a limit of points you're able to use to build your formation (most armies have just one formation, though you can have multiple if you're playing a big enough game). Every squad, tank, and piece of artillery in the game has a points value associated with it, that roughly judges its power and utility, and as you assemble the models you want to use you keep a tally of these points. When it reaches your limit (but never exceeds), you stop and that's your army.
I believe the standard recommended points limit is 100, but for our first game we opted on fifty points, as that's a good-sized game we can play while helping out customers, and there's not too much going on in the game that our concentration couldn't be occasionally broken without ruining the experience.
The game uses either inches or centimeters as its measurement (values are given in both, and you need to decide beforehand which one both players use. We used centimeters, as most miniatures games don't, and we thought it would be fun), and six-sided dice to resolve conflict. The turn structure is reminiscent of Warhammer 40,000 or Warhammer Age of Sigmar in that its broken down in to movement, shooting, and assault phases wherein a single player will act in each before play passing to the other player, who will act in each phase, etc. Both players decide on a mission to play, which can be one of the generic ones from the rulebook, or a more thematic mission from one of the army books that represent actual historical battles during the war. We opted for the first mission from the rule book: Annihilation, as this would allow us to learn the rules and not worry too much about completing objectives or bringing reserves on the table.
There's not much I don't like about this game, even though I'm not really into historical war-games, which is why this one is so appealing, not because it doesn't try to be historical, but because it doesn't do so at the expense of gameplay, or by rewarding real-world historical knowledge. My only real stumbling point was with rolling and allocating hits. See, I'm used to miniatures games like Warhammer, where hit allocation has always favored speed and simplicity over fiddly aspects like specific teams targeting specific teams. Even in a comparable game (due to its scale), Epic 40,000—which I'm extremely fond of—you count up all the stands, roll to hit with them, then allocate hits on the enemy detachments from closest to furthest away. In Flames of War the default war to resolve shooting attacks is going team to team and rolling to hit enemy teams, keeping in mind that any team in a unit that moved can block line of sight.
Now the book has a bunch of sidebars on how you can speed up these rolls, but they take some getting used to and for our first game we just went through the recommended method of choosing a team (usually a stand of four models that operate together), and shooting at an enemy team in an opposing unit (a group of teams that operates together on the battlefield). I think next time we play we'll aim for the faster methods the sidebars recommend. Overall, this just made the game feel a bit claustrophobic as we endeavored to maneuver our units and teams to maximize the amount of dice rolled, and it took us a while to determine which stand could see which enemy stand. I guess in Flames of War there isn't as much of a "bucket of dice" you see in many Games Workshop games that I'm used to.
Another thing I can't help but comment on (and again, I guess this is something that I'll just have to get used to), is that it felt a bit like infantry, guns, and tanks had a bit of a rock, paper, scissor thing going on. I ran an infantry company, while he ran a panzergrenadier company, which includes a lot of armored half-tracks carrying his troops. This meant that he was able to zip around the battlefield, while my M1 Garand rifles just pinged off their hulls. When he got close enough that he could assault with his units, I was caught off guard. Similarly, my tanks were able to wreak havoc across a lot of his lines, before becoming worn-down by Panzerschrecke and Panzerfäuste.
What I love about Flames of War is its ease of play for someone like myself, who mostly plays fantasy and sci-fi miniatures games. Historical miniatures games have always been intimidating, not only for the sheer amount of models one needs (you ever look up how many people fought in any given Napoleonic War battle before?), but because of knowing which models one needs. Flames of War was the first historical miniatures game where the rules, books, and models were done by the same company, which meant that a gamer like me, who knows nothing about real-world military stuff is able to collect-by-the-numbers an impressive-looking WWII army. And the models really do look impressive. They're simple sculpts (a human being 15mm tall and all), but when arrayed on the table amongst similarly-scaled terrain, it just looks great.
Despite my early hangup about hit allocation, the game also plays very smoothly, and intuitively. It helps that its structured like Warhammer, but even beyond that, probably because it doesn't deal with buckets of dice, it doesn't need the three-roll structure of hit, wound, save that Warhammer has. Instead, it relies on a hit roll, and a save roll. The hit rolls even focus around the target's ability to not get hit, rather than the shooter's skill. The intent being that with modern weaponry, the onus is on not being shot rather than being skilled in the shooting thereof. It keeps the game flickering back and forth between the players, meaning both players are invested in the game, attention-wise.
There are a lot of great WWII miniatures games out there, from what I hear. I've only played this, and Warlord Games' Bolt Action (a 28mm or 1/56 scale WWII miniatures game), but a cursory search on the Internet would give you an overwhelming amount of options. For my money, though, in terms of ease-of-play, ease-to-acquire, and a ton of support both on the Internet and at many game shops, I think Flames of War is definitely at the top of the pile.