We live fairly close to my in-laws and as such we spend a lot of holidays at their house. Don’t get me wrong, I love them and all but sometimes being there on every holiday isn’t my idea! So, one thing that I do look forward to when we go over is playing old Avalon Hill wargames. One of my favorites that my father in law owns and will always agree to play is Up Front.
What is Up Front About?
Up Front is a card game of man-to-man infantry combat set in WWII Europe loosely based on the Squad Leader game system (more on that below). Up Front is though a simpler design and imitation of Squad Leader principles squeezed into a card game format. I know what you are thinking, that you don’t need a card game as they are usually very simple. The game though is not simple and involves many rules and exceptions to those rules as well as a very novel use of those cards for that time period (the 1980’s). In many ways, Up Front seems to be a bit more realistic than its predecessor in that the game system itself, mainly the drawing mechanic and randomness of certain cards that may be needed at that specific moment by the players for tactical advantage, simulates very well the fog of war, as well as the raw fear and inherent confusion of the battlefield. The game system further models real combat with the difficulties of leadership and it’s ability to command.
One of the really intriguing parts of the design is that there is no playing board! What? How can you possibly play a war game without a proper board? Well, the answer is that the board has been skillfully replaced by terrain cards which become the hexes that we are so used to in a proper war game. Well, of course there are unit chits, right? I mean you can’t possibly model combat without chits to show position, cover, range, etc., can you? Once again, Up Front takes a novel approach by having the players perform maneuvering of their forces via Action Cards such as Move, Fire, Conceal and Smoke, that take the forces through a progression of constantly changing terrain. How do these forces know where the enemy is then without a board? The actual location of squads or teams is a little abstracted as they are simply broken down into groups, denoted by a letter on a counter, and are lined up across from the other player’s squads. You can only fire at a squad directly in front of you or just to the right or left, taking into account their relative range, meaning if you are at range 2 and your target is at range 1 you consult the range 3 (2+1) column on your unit card for your total firepower. The scale of the game is measured in terms of relative ranges between those opposing squads, denoted with counters that show range 1-5, with most combat occurring within a scale distance of 500 meters during the course of player turns.
The base set provides German, Russian, and American forces while later expansions add the British, Japanese, French, and Italians. Each country has its own forces of varying ability, including appropriate weapons from the historical armory. In fact, in nearly every scenario, an American squad will always have at least 1 Browning Automatic Rifle while the Germans always use the infamous MG-42 Light Machine Gun. Each country also has unique rules regarding hand size and discard rules, and usually a couple other oddities. Each country has a very different feel to its play and they are further modified by rules for elite and second line troops, not to mention irregular partisans. This is one of the great things about the game and its design is that there is a lot of variations and variability in the game and no two games of Up Front will ever be the same.
In each game you will have a squad of men with at least 2-3 leaders (Sergeants and Corporals mostly) and possibly a vehicle, a specialized weapon such as a Flamethrower or Satchel Charge and a large gun or two. Each of these men is represented by a card, and these cards must be split into groups. Actions are typically issued to entire groups, although there are also a number of individual actions. Each scenario generally has a specific objective that one or both sides is trying to achieve, usually advancing a fixed distance and finding cover. Games may also be won by inflicting enough losses on your opponent, which causes their squad to break. If the game hasn’t been won before a certain number of play throughs of the deck set by the parameters of the scenario, you either fall back on a point count or in attacker/defender type scenarios the attacker/defender usually wins outright if he took/held the objective.
The game action is driven by the cards, which are used by players to issue orders to the various squads the players have created. The two most important actions are Move and Fire as they allow the players to reach their objectives through causing damage and eliminating enemy units and moving into position to assault and take objectives. Move Cards are required for a group to move to a new terrain, and movement can be forward, but also includes retreat or lateral movement in order to combine damaged and less effective squads into a better fighting unit. Once having played a Move Card and while moving, in a future turn the players can play a Terrain Card on that group, which places the group into cover that provides a defensive value and sometimes a positive ability such as an attack bonus if on a Hill.
While moving, men are more vulnerable to enemy fire and are easier to hit due to a +1 bonus as well as possible additional negatives from terrain placement by your opponent. Some terrain types (usually Stream, Marsh, and the horribly wicked Minefield) are “bad” and playing these on your opponent is a critical aspect of the game. There are also surprise cards such as Wire that stop the enemy’s movement and make them vulnerable to fire or like Smoke which make your moving troops harder to hit by the enemy but also make it harder for you to fire as well. I always say that wire is a Germans best friend!
Terrain also changes once vehicles show up in the scenarios. Why? Because the terrain that is advantageous for infantry is not so good for vehicles. The addition of vehicles really changes the feel of the game play and you typically have a lot more choices about how to defeat your enemy and ways to capture your objectives! Although the rules for the vehicles are a little overly complex in my opinion and are not necessarily needed to enjoy the game and play it well.
Fire Cards do what their name implies and are the “ammo” for your troops that allow them to deal damage to the enemy. The cards come in several strengths ranging from 1-6, and each requires a certain amount of firepower generated from your units to use. Firepower is determined by the weapons your men are carrying and increases as the range decreases between your forces and your target.
So a large group can more easily muster the strength (must equal or eclipse the circled number to the left of the soldiers) to use the higher valued cards to more easily hit your enemy. Hits on enemy men either pin them or if high enough, typically higher than 6, can kill them outright. Pinned men can’t do anything until they are rallied, which requires a valuable Rally Card. If a pinned man is hit a second time during a subsequent attack, he’s generally eliminated from the game, either as KIA or by panicking off the board. A group containing pinned men is less versatile in several ways. Pinned men can’t do fire attacks, so they don’t contribute to Fire Cards, and certain actions like entrenchment cannot be performed if men are pinned. During the fire attack, weapons can also break causing your firepower to drop. If it drops below the value of the Fire Card used, the attack ends immediately. Perhaps most importantly, a group with pinned men cannot move, so getting those guys back on their feet is goal number one.
What I Liked About Up Front
Card Driven Gameplay – I think I might have discovered the origin of the CDG in Up Front. If it is not the first to use this mechanic it definitely is one of the first FEW to do so. I love CDG as you never know what is going to happen. Different than most other wargames, you lack total understanding of or a clear picture of the ever-changing battlefield, and even true control over the battle. When a game starts, you have no real idea what the terrain will be as it will be drawn randomly throughout the game. You often lose control over your men, or frustratingly cannot get them to do what you want because you can’t draw a Move or a Terrain. For example, one of your squads will not shoot unless you have a Fire Card in your hand that they can use (remember they must have the Firepower necessary to use it). Sometimes you are forced to sit idly by for several turns, discarding cards, hoping for the card you need, while your enemy’s plan advances perfectly. This frustration is very thematic and mimics the realities of war. While it can be utterly frustrating as you are playing, it is a fun part of the game.
Quick Play – a game of Up Front takes about 30 minutes to play. A wargame in 30 minutes is unheard of. I love that you can play a few scenarios in about an hour and really feel satisfied. The game is quick because the cards are drawn and there are lots of options and the sequence of play is pretty simple, play an action or terrain for each of your squads, draw up your hand and move to your opponent’s turn. Rinse and repeat!
No Board – a wargame having no Board is very novel and it works very well. Your squads are easy to keep track of and the range counters tell you exactly how close to the enemy they are. The game plays much quicker because opponents don’t have to study out the counters on the map and identify weaknesses or advantage due to terrain.
Terrain Cards – For me, the opponent delivered terrain is probably my favorite part of the game. When I first started playing, the Stream, Marsh and Wire were the only cards I usually played on my opponent. But as I became more experienced and accustomed to the different cards and their possible use, I started using other terrain types to bother my opponent. I love to use the Gully terrain and run up close to my opponent, all the while he can’t fire on me and I get in perfect position for an infiltration with a Satchel Charge or to use a Panzerschreck on his tanks. A great alternative to creating tactical play over a standard static wargame board where the terrain is determined and cannot change.
Variation – It is impossible to have a game of Up Front between identical forces. The different armies play by different rules, plus your squads have different levels of morale, and are equipped differently making for endless variety as you can play any one of the 6 available countries. The Red Army, as previously stated, only gets 4 cards, while the Americans get a generous 6. But the Russians can discard his whole hand at once whereas the Americans can only discard 2 cards. Plus more of the deck’s cards can be used as Concealment for the Russians (which mitigates the danger of moving without terrain). These two nations play totally differently. The Germans are my favorite to play as they have superior weapons and I love their vehicles.
What I Didn’t Like About Up Front
Randomness of Card Drawing – As is the case with many cards games, the luck of the draw can either really make your day or totally ruin it. I can’t tell you how many times I have discarded in a row in some games, especially with the Germans who can only dump one card. If you can’t draw the right card it is very frustrating and can totally paralyze you. This handicap does cause you to be very cautious and judicious about your card plays though so it does force a lot of thought and planning into your playing.
Fiddly Rules – There seem to be many obscure rules to the game that frankly I don’t find needed. I feel as if they were simply trying to make Up Front complex, which I believe is very diametrically opposed to the true greatness of the game and its simplicity. While I like the vehicles they are almost unplayable as you really need good luck to truly have them be effective.
Summary & Conclusion
More than just a game that I enjoy playing when we visit my in-laws house, Up Front is a masterpiece of simplicity (with the exception of a few of the rules) and is great because it is understandable, can be taught quickly and can most importantly be played in about 30 minutes. I am grateful to Avalon Hill for their creation of this game as it has inspired many improvements upon its system over the past 30+ years. I now play a lot of Combat Commander by GMT Games and I can definitely feel a lot of Up Front in its design.
If you have enjoyed my review and are hoping to get your hands on a copy, I am afraid that they are fairly difficult to find and will most definitely cost you. Hopefully one day, someone will be able to get the failed Kickstarter effort from a few years back going again and we can all get a copy of this great classic wargame.