By Paul Comben
Publisher : DVG Games http://www.dvg.com/
Let us imagine for a moment a book on the battle of Waterloo – a subject wherein, of course, we are somewhat spoilt for choice. This book, with a big portrait of the victor of Waterloo on the cover, is called something along the lines of “Wellington’s Campaign in Belgium” or maybe “Wellington and The Hundred Days”; but when you open this same book, and then scour its contents from page one to page four hundred, there is not a single mention of Wellington at all. His forces move; objectives are gained or lost; but neither actively nor passively is The Iron Duke ever referred to. Odd; in fact, rather disappointing; not quite what one would have expected.
And I begin this way just to stress one particular point – there is precious little Chester Nimitz in Fleet Commander Nimitz; he is there in the title, and his portrait adorns the box lid and rules cover, but he is not coursing through the contents. Yes, it is his theatre of command, and it is his forces and his enemy’s forces on the counter sheets, but the man himself, in character, style, the level of his command decision-making, his relationships with key subordinates and with the government at home, is more of less entirely absent – just like Wellington is in our book. I am not saying this to stick the knife into the game from the start, but simply to offer a statement about my perceptions and values in the area of game design. I have certainly voiced a plea for a more accented and colourful command presence in previous articles, and I find that FC Nimitz makes a lot of those points for me by being entirely bereft of the very things I would like to see.
So, this article is not going to say very much about the mechanisms of movement and combat in this game; there are already videos online doing that very well – and to help out, I have added a concise overview of the series in a separate piece (The Field Commander Series Summary- A BoardgamingLife Review ). What I would like to do here is evaluate the game in terms of where its design parameters led – which if the BGG rating is to be relied upon, means that those design decisions have resulted in something of a disappointment; a game that is not quite all it could have been; and given Dan Verssen’s deserved reputation for design excellence, one might have to say that this title has turned out a bit subpar.
Well, let us look at the other three games in the series. For a start, there is nothing new in FC Nimitz having no main actor to perform on the stage; FC Rommel, the first game, had no Rommel in its gameplay. His operational areas were there, as were the forces he commanded; but Rommel might as well been gadding around the Black Forest for all the function he had in the design. Putting him in would not have been that hard, given that greater commanders turned up ready to go in the next two games, FC Alexander and FC Napoleon – each a considerable move on from that original design. Alexander’s presence was simply expressed in systems portraying his growth as a field general and his necessary legend as a supposed demigod. Napoleon was also present in his own game, perhaps not ubiquitously so, but his hat could be worth a margin of advantage on those abstracted battlefields, and his counter was always likely to be wherever the main thrust was to be driven on.
And it is FC Napoleon that I really want to draw into this study, given that it is still remains many people’s favourite out of the entire series, and that is the one game of similar size to Nimitz. Two reasons why it has that favourite status are worth reflecting on in relation to the ups and downs of the latest series release. And if anyone reading this is unfamiliar with the series fundamentals, and thus thinks it unfair to compare armies of cavalry and cannon to fleets of carriers and battleships, please note that the essentials for movement and combat within the series are built upon the same precepts from title to title – friendly forces move and refit/reinforce by payment of resources/supplies; enemy forces move (or hold in place) by random order determination based on geographical objectives and player force location; combat is accented by battle plans for both sides; and there is a general feeling in all the games that you really are up against the campaign clock.
But then FC Napoleon does something more (and in fairness, so does the smaller FC Alexander) – it provides a range of special rules, very straightforward and easy to implement, tailored to many of the campaign scenarios, and printed right there on the particular campaign playing surface. Potential disasters of the hot desert kind await the player in Egypt; rebellions brew in Spain; and everything will assuredly fall to pieces the moment you cross the border into Russia. And what is that other special aspect of the Napoleon design I alluded to? That is found in its battle system, which is clearly in the line began by the combat elements within FC Rommel, but is now evolved to the point where the battles of FC Napoleon are a minor work of gaming genius. I really do not think it an exaggeration to say that the battles here represent something pretty close to a game in its own right. Where Rommel’s units simply pulled out their plans and rolled the dice, forces in FC Napoleon have their own map to fight on, formations to choose, maneuvers to attempt, and a sense of battlefield timing for the player to hone.
Based on the design triumphs of Napoleon, when I first heard of the Nimitz game being in the pipeline, I readily assumed that it would probably come with a number of campaign maps (Coral Sea, Midway, Leyte, Aleutians, Okinawa etc.), and that these maps would each have specific rules to create essential aspects of the story and build up the challenge. But FC Nimitz has not got several campaign maps; it has just the one map covering the entirety of the theatre area, and this is a first for the series. So where have the special rules, accents and nuances gone? The plain answer is that there are not any, or precious few; and as a result, the sea and the scene around the waters off Japan offer no distinction compared to the locations nearer Hawaii. They are all pretty much the same – through massive archipelagos to broad expenses of watery emptiness.
This, I think, might be more acceptable if the way the opposing forces are represented were not so detailed. But the very fact that you do have such detailed and copious renderings of all the fleet elements, infantry and marine forces, air groups and so forth, more or less invites the player to think that you are going to get more out of movement and combat than you actually do – you have a battle map, and the plans are there (actually, less about real planning in most cases than looking to get luck on your side), but there is no real timing, finessing, or ability to be clever in combat the way you can with the Napoleon game. And as geography does not offer anything to the game narrative beyond minimal effect, so it is also with issues of the progression of time. The Japanese forces move and fight via the priorities set down on one particular table, and that table is neither finessed by the advance of time nor by the overall war situation. Whether it is 1942 or 1945, the Japanese will be doing much the same thing much the same way…only in 1945, with rather less to do it with. A Kamikaze battle plan awaits its moment in the mix, but there is no certainty it will appear when one would expect it to, or at all; and, when you put this all together, naval and ground fighting for some jungle island off Australia is going to be exactly the same sort of experience as fighting for territory within sight of the Japanese homeland.
Try as I might, I have found it difficult to shake the feeling that the game has been done at the wrong scale. This is, I must stress, purely my own opinion, but I believe the scale of representation for the forces and the theatre itself has created an irreconcilable tension between broad-brush approaches to some things, and fussy amounts of detail in others. Just from the perspective of the practicalities of game play, it says a lot that substitute force counters and holding boxes have appeared on BGG, as the campaign OOB’s are going to put plenty of detailed cardboard material and manpower on the map – too much, I think. This feeling also comes through to me in the fact that constantly sorting, mixing, and randomizing forces is going to lead to a lot of fuss over getting any amount of power going in any particular direction.
I find myself surprised that I could think this, but I have ended up daring to believe that this design does not do anything markedly better than Victory in the Pacific did close to forty years ago. VitP may not have had various supply mechanisms or air units in teetering abundance, but it got much the same result with a lot less bother – and probably closer to Nimitz’s level of seeing and commanding things. And then there was that beautiful bit of simplicity in the vintage title, which determined battles as a day or night action (day predominated by rule design) which meant, as per the historical reality, the battleships and the cruisers only really got into the fray on rare occasions. To be fair to Dan, his design does have a way of prioritizing targets that tends to have the same effect – battles at sea more about carriers and aircraft than big guns – but like much of the rest of the game, this is presented as part of a process that you are driven along by rather than being an entertaining (or frustrating) twist of fate.
Returning again to FC Napoleon, one of its additional attributes is the way in which your gambles or daring ruses, take your pick, can either spectacularly pay off or hideously unravel. To my mind, the way in which things go wrong for armies on the board of conflict is a rather important part of both game design and the ensuing gaming experience. In FC Napoleon, one way things can certainly go wrong is in having your battle plan of genius fail to take its cue and translate into action. Cavalry sent “sur les derrieres” is one way of seeking to knock your opponent for six – only once your precious mounted elite is detached, there is no absolute guarantee that they will turn up in the right place and at the right time…or at all for that matter. And if they do not appear, will you still prevail…or will you have no one else to blame but yourself (or some gallivanting subordinate) for relinquishing thousands of cuirassiers to what now seems a foolhardy maneuver?
With FC Nimitz I do not really get a sense of this kind of intentional, purposed risk. There is the “First Light” battle plan, which may enable one of your carriers (or theirs) to get the jump on the enemy, but unless I have missed something, there is not any real sense of risk involved – you either have a first attack, or you attack as per the normal sequence. What I am leading to here is what I might call “The Midway Effect.” Wargames are meant to be about exploring well-grounded historical possibilities rather than slavishly following actual events; nevertheless, if a game system cannot reproduce historical occurrences, or does so in some unsatisfactory way, then we must question what it is we are actually experiencing.
At Midway, historically, the Japanese brought what could be reasonably construed as decisive force to the operation – more aircraft carriers, escort vessels, battleships, troops, aircraft…everything. That it then all went horribly wrong for them was partly due to bold American planning, combined with the Japanese command double guessing itself and being caught with its planes down. And let us be honest about it, given the immense pressure of carrier command, just the same could have happened to the Americans in a different reality. In FC Napoleon, a Midway-type situation is about having the right battle plan or insight counter in your hand, and then shying away from actually using it; or detached forces going AWOL; or focusing too much on your big unit with the big plan, and not really seeing or really acknowledging the nasty piece of hurt that is coming your way. But in FC Nimitz, where you are meant to be in a theatre and a type of war that was so much about scouting, searching, hiding, waiting, finding, and not losing your nerve, a “Midway” will largely be about rolling good dice against very bad dice, or simply blind picking the right/wrong chit for the Japanese – and little else. And note, whilst the Japanese have a “No Contact” battle plan to conceal their naval forces if drawn, the player has no such plan provision; and whilst it is easy to see why within the given mechanisms of the game, (the player would never leave it in the pool!) the fact that there is no player alternative to generate a thoroughly reasonable (if fortuitous) situation appears remarkably out of synch.
This rather takes me back to the issue of scale again, and what players might naturally seek to do with OOB’s festooned with detail. Derek Case (SingleHandedWarfare on YouTube) relays one nice aspect of the game, towit, that the counters really look nice and have a feel of poker chips. I can relate to that, but would prefer a reference to roulette chips, given that I feel the moment I commit to battle, (when the metaphorical wheel is spinning), there is nothing I can do but wait for the result. Of course, if this game were truly at the level of Nimitz’s perception of events, that would probably be acceptable and realistic, but as the game often wants you to be John Wayne in Flying Leathernecks or The Sands of Iwo Jima, or anything and anyone from The Pacific, or sometimes Henry Fonda and Robert Mitchum in Midway, and the big ship of your choice from The Thin Red Line, we are probably entitled to expect more.
As a consequence of the game being shaped this way, the essential, so important combat system is, I feel, rather compromised. Your decisions with all these forces revolve around whether to send a big stack of stuff or a bigger stack of stuff – and then it goes to battle as the rules allocate it, and finally you roll to see what stays, dies, or returns. I would stress that looking for a good combat system does not imply “It’s got to have more complexity.” For me, it has got to chime with the supposed level of command; not clog the game up, but provide interest in the right factors, and not leave players reluctantly groaning that they have got to mix and collate x amount of counters and then roll and roll…and roll that die to get The Duke on the island, someone from The Thin Red Line staring into space, and Henry and Bob breathing a huge sigh of relief just before the credits run.
To state the blindingly obvious, Chester Nimitz was not Hitler – thank god! He was not in some dingy forest or bunker headquarters with fatso Göring and the gang trying to follow the positions of companies and wondering if six tank destroyers could be moved to block six American divisions. I sense that this game has been hurt by trying to do too much, and in every sense, packing too much of the wrong things into the box. If any campaign was really about sweeping maneuver, surprise, hitting first and bewildering the enemy, it was this one. In my opinion, a lot of this has been missed in this design.
There is one other comparison I would make, having, to this point, almost solely employed the superb FC Napoleon as a measure of FC Nimitz in operation. But as I have said in other articles (I think), wargame design is an incredibly demanding, complex and seriously creative effort. Our hobby includes the most sophisticated game designs mankind has ever produced, and as my “day job” is being an artist, I have no hesitation in calling these games an art form – part graphic, part narrative, part technical. If I compare FC Nimitz to a painting, I would call it blocked-in and ready for some serious accenting, and also for consideration as to whether the compositional elements are in the right place. Yet many a work in such a blocked-in state is often mistakenly seen as finished by its audience – and that sometimes includes the artist himself. What people make of what they see is largely up to them.
As for me, I have had to revise many a painting I first thought complete, and I have scraped paint off a composition that was going off in entirely the wrong direction. There is nothing wrong with this, as creative efforts can go astray. Constable’s most famous painting, Landscape Noon (better known as “The Haywain”), originally had a horse positioned bottom centre, but the artist reconsidered and painted right over it. And that is part of the truth of art as it relates to our hobby. So maybe I am right to believe FC Nimitz went off in the wrong direction, has some misplaced elements, or is just blocked-in and needing highlights; or, perhaps I have got it all wrong, and at the end of the day, my taste in game design is not shared by that many people. If so, do speak up. This is largely a subjective business, and disagreement is bound to occur. I would not have the presumption to tell Dan how to design his games, but I do have an opinion on what does and does not work for me, and it certainly would have helped me see better into his design approach for this game if he had provided some designer’s notes or just the occasional short paragraph within the body of the rules.
I hope everything is done to ensure that Tiger Leader (I am really looking forward to that one) does not suffer the same woes.
And finally, that the next Commander game does have a bit more commander in it.
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About the Author
Paul has been involved in the hobby since the early 1970s. Of largely Belgian ancestry on his father’s side, and English (Yorkshire) on his mother’s, after finishing his education he worked in tourism and student services, and also spent some time in the former West Germany. He met his wife Boo in 1990, and they married a couple of years later.
Paul hails from a long line of former servicemen – one grandfather was a sergeant in the BEF of 1914, whilst two of his great grandfathers were killed serving with the Royal Navy. His own father, who was born in Britain, served with the army in Malaya in the early 1950s.