Last weekend I retried the Crossfire WW2 skirmish game. I liked it better than the first time, but my experience is mixed. Crossfire is easy, like real firefights. But also difficult, like real firefights. Maybe that’s the reason it’s so bloody difficult.
Many traditional skirmish wargames have a IGOUGO system or a card activation system. The simple 1hr wargames (excellent fastplay newbie system btw) is IGOUGO. IABSM is card activation. Bolt Action is inbetween, grab a dice and decide which unit you want to activate.
Crossfire is different. It’s a turnstealing game. And although the game is twentyfour years old, the mechanisms are still innovative.
I quote Wally Simon’s (1997) WI review:
In effect, Conliffe has successfully combined two system concepts which fell by the wayside years and years ago (…)
 once or twice a game, each side could pick up a unit and march it across the field as far as desired. You’d move the unit, say, 12 inches, and if it passed through an opposing unit’s zone of fire, infantry or artillery, your opponent would fire at your unit, it would take casualties, and move on (…)
 “variable bound” mechanisms. Units would advance, change formation, change face, retreat, etc., until a “change of situation” occurred. Jeffrey’s “change of situation” was defined as an event which might cause a commander to reassess the situation before him and, perhaps, to issue new orders to take into account new developments
Conliffe has very neatly amalgamated the above two gaming procedures to produce his own “endless bound” game of small unit action in WW II.
What does that mean?
1: the active player can pick up any squad (a 2/3 soldier unit) and move this unit in any chosen direction until the opposing player stops him because the unit is in a line of fire. Or the unit can shoot.
2: If the moving unit is targeted and hit, the movement stops and the turn is ‘stolen’ by the opponent. If the unit shoots and fails, the active player also loses his turn. If, however, the opponent misses, or an opposing unit is hit, the active player can continue his actions and shoot again, or move again, according to his plans.
So the active player has the initiative and keeps it and can act and act again while under fire until the situation is changed. The passive player can pass and wait for the best time or moment to steal the initiative and get the upper hand.
Gameplay is simple and fast. Squads have 2 or 3 dice and hit with a 5 or 6. Movement is easy: move units one by one until the opponent tries to interrupt you. The game is a sophisticated wargame hide and seek. The active player moves his units towards the enemy trying to capture an advantageous position, preferably flanking the opponent to catch them in a crossfire. The passive player tries to block that and steal the initiative. I liked that. It’s very dynamic and challenging.
Three disappointing games
However the 3 trial games have been disappointing, somewhat.
My first test game was vs a fellow club player who introduced me to the game and told me the rules were “very simple, let’s play”. His German units were entrenched on a hill. I moved my Allies all forward in the open thinking they were out of range, like the standard games I knew, and soon found them all dead in the fields or pinned or routed and I didn’t really understand why every single move was constantly interrupted. I felt frustrated. I’d like to have a chance to win – more than that, I like winning and hate losing.
I played test game 2 and 3 against a different opponent, an experienced fellow player who like me was intrigued by the concepts. I abundantly filled a table with terrain to facilitate the hide and seek aspects of the game. However he also became frustrated. I defended 2 buildings with my Volksgrenadier horde. He tried to capture a building with his elite paratroopers. He had no chance and failed both times.
I’m not really sure what the problem was with these 3 games. The scenario(s)? In all three games the attacker had to capture an entrenched position. The dice balance? My defending horde had 30% more dice than the elite attacker. Or the terrain? In game 2 & 3, I captured a position with a long fire lane that were killing fields for the paratroopers. Just like in real life, running towards a machine gun can be deadly.
Or is it maybe the ‘realism’? In many other dice wargames that are more ‘gamish’ than Crossfire the elite soldiers are cartoon heroes with extra saving throws etc, while ranges are ridiculously short. But ridiculously cartoonish games can be enormous fun.
Wally Simon wrote in 1997:
In the first games I set up, I ignored the above warning [to block line of sight], and discovered that the author meant what he said . . . I had way too many clear fire lanes, and squads (if you’ll pardon my use of a metaphor) were dropping like flies. Too many casualties, too soon, produced a non-game. In effect, we really weren’t playing CF properly and had no one but ourselves to blame.
I think I like the simple and innovative mechanics, but maybe it’s not a newbie fastplay game after all, just like chess, because the game is hard to master – again, just like chess.
So the jury is still out. I must prevent too many non-games, otherwise I’ll switch back to Bolt Action or Chain of Command.