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Deep Thoughts on Field of Glory 2

Are the roots of FoG2 found in tabletop minis? ~

Jim Owczarski, 11 November 2017

There’s not an awful lot of point in doing a straight review of a game like “Field of Glory 2” (hereafter FoG2) in a venue like this one.  After all, we are a fairly aware lot and share information about the games we get, like, and dislike quickly.  By now, you have all likely heard the game is the best of its kind in this generation (it is) and that it surpasses its only real competition — Interactive Magic’s much-admired “Great Battles” series.  Were this the whole story I’d recommend slapping an “Order of the Hex” on the thing and moving on.

I think, though, many reviewers have missed the importance of FoG2’s roots in tabletop miniatures gaming, roots that have made this such a remarkably strong offering.  Therefore, I would like, in place of a proper review, to point out five things that FoG2 took from the world of little lead men that make it so very special.

ONE:  Richard Bodley Scott.

No, this is not a cheat.  One of the grey eminences of miniatures gaming, RBS (interviewed by a highly-regarded periodical here) has had his hands in the rules of the genre since well before Wargame Research Group published “De Bellis Antiquitatis” in 1990.  That revolutionary game opened up the hobby to many who had never considered it before.  Suddenly you could field an army with fewer than 200 figures and fight out a battle that felt more or less right.  Its emphasis on skirmishers (I had never even heard the word psiloi before and I study this sort of thing), the centrality of keeping battle lines intact, the simple d6 system for both determining activations and inserting a bit of command friction, and even the possibility of setting up lovelier terrain since one need not paint so many figures, captivated an entire generation of gamers.  I get a bit wistful thinking of the long Summer of 1993 when a whole lot of my Warhammer 40k friends were busy painting up Sea Peoples and Hittite armies.

Honestly, this was revolutionary once.

It ought also to be mentioned that RBS is given a lot of the credit for the simple campaign system that came in the back of the little DBA pamphlet.  Only a few pages long, the system is elegant, comprehensible, and campaigns based on it are still played at conventions nearly 30 years later.

When RBS urged Wargame Design Group to let the rest of his toy soldiers play and helped create “De Bellis Multitudinis” — essentially DBA for those who want bigger battles — matters only improved.  The quality of army research evident in each of the books that supports DBM makes it possible to tour some of the weirdest corners of medieval history just by turning their pages.

To me, even the “Field of Glory” tabletop system that came from it as well as “Pike and Shot”, is somehow less than the revolution born of DBx.  I would be curious to know what Mr. Bodley Scott would say if asked if he could imagine FoG in any iteration had the DBx system not come before.  And for this reason, I was surprised and disappointed that the usually on-point lads at “Three Moves Ahead” entirely missed his contribution to FoG2 in a recent episode.  I hope this has done at least a little bit to tip matters in the other direction.

 

TWO:  I want to look at the pretty thing — but not in close-up!

Secret truth of miniature wargaming:  all of us who have hunched over a painting table by the glow of our “True Daylight” lamp and tried to paint eyeballs on our hastati, and really, who hasn’t, will tell you that much of the loveliness of our metal men is lost when seen from only a few feet away.  Oh, our terrain is great, their serried ranks look splendid, and one can almost hear the tramp of feet, but our need for detail is necessarily delimited by the fact that we’re playing a game, not putting on a model show.

See, not SO close.

FoG2 knows this.  It keeps the camera just high enough, just far away enough, and at just the right angle to conceal the relative simplicity of its models.  Personally, I’d like to tip the angle just a bit farther, but that’s a quibble.  Of course these figures will never reach the detailed splendor of “Rome Total War 2”, but who in their right mind is playing the game at that kind of range?  And while I’m here, the elegant border around the whole of the battle space, visible if one zooms out far enough, is another reminder that this is a game, with scale figures representing actual men, played on a stylized board.  This is evocation over a chimerical pursuit of realism and it works well.

 

THREE:  It shows me the field of Mars.

First, terrain matters, as it must; it is rarely unrealistic; and, most importantly, I know where it is and where it is not.  Hills begin and end without leaving the player to wonder where.  Rivers and their beds are a big deal, but are very clean.  This is wisdom born of the scars from endless tabletop debates about “hey, I am not disordered, I’m only 49.993% in the built-up-area, not 50!”  Using a square-based system certainly helps, but the cleanness of the terrain system is one of the game’s greatest strengths.

Beside this, other than the “Scourge of War” series, no other game on the PC gives the player such a wonderful sense of the sweep and scope of battles of this era.  This is something all tabletop gamers cherish and in FoG2 it is there in strength.  The one-off battles can feel a bit stylized and, frankly, small, but they are clearly intended to feed the hunger of those looking for more manageable “sit-down-and-play” experiences.  The “epic” battles, however, are just that, and can give my lead-pushing heart the same thrill of setting out 1,000 men without any of the lost time or back-strain.

So lovely.

More than mere size, though, there’s a rhythm to playing a miniatures game in this era and at this scale that FoG2 captures like so much lightening in a bottle.  Two old friends hammering at one another on the field of Zama will typically agree to work from one side of a vast line to another, moving their soldiers into contact, rolling for combat, rolling morale, testing routers, checking for casualties, &c.  It is a joy that is hard to describe if you have never had the experience.  FoG2 gives you all this while never having to look at a chart and, in fact, giving you a little hint as to how that charge is likely to turn out.  Dozens of times now I’ve had one flank hotly engaged and on the brink of collapse while simultaneously hoping that my cavalry, which I’ve managed to work around my opponent’s flank, can get into position in time to deliver a shattering blow.  It is truly great stuff.

 

FOUR:  Those army lists.

Here the hand of RBS is evident.  Wargamers are typically historians first and cherish any game that makes us think “wait, who?” and reach for a reference book or, at least, Wikipedia.  The opportunity to run the phalanx up against a manipular legion is hard-coded into the wargamer DNA and a game that gives us this many choices — with the prospect of many, many more — is special.

Further, FoG2 offers something for both those gamers who want to make their way through the battles of history and those who prefer point systems.  Tabletop gaming comes in both flavors and often enough the two don’t care for each other much.  The former thinks the latter a horde of weedy “min-maxers” and the latter thinks the former, well, dull.  DBA remains one of the most popular competitive miniatures games ever created, although the firestorms of controversy that once surrounded the national championships have abated at least a bit.  FoG2 gamers have discovered, as their tabletop ancestors before, the joy of poking at the options in a DBx army list to get  their forces just right and properly matched to their style of play.

I would also note in passing that the Slitherix tournament system — which uses a chess-clock-like countdown system to speed play along — is a pleasure to use and will be an on-line haunt for me for quite some time.

Rough and a river. Plain as the nose on a hoplite’s face.

 

FIVE: It knows a game is supposed to end.

I love John Tiller Software’s Napoleonic campaign series like a second child.  Actually, I love it like a second child that never talks back and features Marshals Ney, Davout, and Berthier.  They are, however, too much a product of their time when it comes to ending the game.  There’s no morale above the battalion level, some of the larger scenarios run to hundreds of turns, and, probably worst of all, units with sufficient morale can survive in numbers as small as 10.

FoG2 has none of the rubbish 12-second melee combat of the Total War series.  To the contrary, pike fencing can go on for three or four suspenseful turns.  Ultimately, though, the fight ends.  Units’ morale degrades.  Units break and run and the loser risks having disorder spread through adjacent forces.  Entire flanks can dissolve in a splendid outbreak of panic that will make the victim want to punch his men square in the mush.  All of this causes the battle to end.  Armies have a break point set like those in many tabletop games and, when that number is reached, the battle is over.  Done.  Rack ’em up again, Roy, we’ll have another.

Not all tabletop games get this right.  Some — I’m looking at you “Carnage and Glory II” — feel like wading through waist-deep treacle on your way to a highly uncertain and unsatisfying ending.  FoG2, however, takes after the very best of them — DBx comes to mind — in setting a goal, sticking to it, and leaving even the losing player with a sense of “oooh, I’ll get you next time”.

FoG2 is already one of the best PC wargames ever released.  I sincerely hope it stays true to its tabletop roots as its development continues.  I’ll be here with my wallet open.


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