Bounding Fire Productions (2016)
Country of Origin:
60-page magazine, 8 x 8" x 22" unmounted geoboards (O, P, Q, R, 5a, 5b, 6a, 6b), 1280 die-cut counters, 24 pages of rules, 45 scenarios
Poland in Flames (PiF) is the first new product from Bounding Fire Productions in five years, a significant gap in time for an active third party publisher of ASL products. Part of the reason for the delay is the fact that BFP tends to focus on very large products, instead of producing smaller products on a more regular basis. And PiF certainly fits that monster bill, with 8 geoboards, over a thousand counters, and 45 scenarios, among other items. The price–$139–also fits that bill.
This is going to be a long, long write-up, so for the impatient, here is a quick and unexpounded-upon bottom line: the product contains a lot of scenarios that are likely to offer a good amount of play value. Fans of BFP have no reason not to snap it up in a heartbeat, while others ought to at least consider it. However, there are idiosyncrasies and weaknesses in the product as well, the most important weakness being a distinct homogeneity and lack of variety in the scenario mix, and another weakness the fact that many of the counters are not necessary (being duplicates) or, in some cases, even desirable. The homogeneity discussion can also be read separately as a mini-article discussing several different design approaches to ASL.
For the more patient, let’s explore Poland in Flames together. The theme of this product is the invasion of Poland by Nazi Germany in September 1939, so there are scenarios in the module than there were days in the campaign. First, credit must be given where credit is due. Many publishers would never have done a major module on so esoteric a topic as Poland 1939, far from Stalingrad and Arnhem and Normandy and Kursk. So in that sense, PiF really adds something to the canon of ASL, providing a detailed treatment of an oft-overlooked campaign (only one other ASL product, Fanatic Enterprise’s Polish Campaign Pack, focuses on the September ’39 campaign).
On the other hand, one cannot help but observe that, though the September campaign ended with the conquest of Poland by Nazi Germany, this was hardly the end of the Polish armed struggle in World War II. Polish units went on to fight in virtually every theater of the European war, including Norway 1940, France 1940, North Africa 1942, Italy 1944-45, France and Germany 1944-45, and Soviet Union/Poland/Germany 1944-45. Moreover, in 1943-1944, Polish partisan units engaged in significant partisan warfare, culminating in the massive and tragic two month-long 1944 Warsaw Uprising. Indeed, Poles fought from the first day of the war to the last day of the war. A module that explored their unique and ill-starred journey through World War II would have been fascinating indeed–but that is not what Poland in Flames does. Rather, PiF concentrates on a single, narrow slice of the Polish experience in World War II.
The components of PiF are many and variegated, but let’s start with the counters. PiF comes with no fewer than 4 1/2 countersheets of cardboard goodness. People looking for an excuse to buy more Raacos or Planos need look no further. In quality and look the counters are very similar to those of previous BFP products, so there are no surprises there–and no complaints in terms of quality.
The bulk of the counters–almost three full sheets’ worth–provide the 1939 Polish Army. Let’s be clear: PiF does not simply provide new counters that add to the ASL Polish OB. Oh, no. Rather, PiF pretends that The Last Hurrah and Doomed Battalions virtually do not exist at all and provides the Polish OB all over again. So are there 4-5-8 squads? Check. TKS tankettes? You bet. Polish DCs and FTs? Scads of them. Polish 6+1 leaders? Enough to paddle a canoe. Give or take, about two whole countersheets ‘ worth of counters is Bounding Fire Productions selling you the Polish Order of Battle, which you already owned, all over again. In other words, when you buy PiF, you are paying for counters you already have.
However, there is a difference. The BFP Polish counters are two-toned. They consist of a Allied-Minor-Green frame surrounding a British Khaki core. Is this so that Polish units can use British weapons and vehicles? Nope. Is it because the Poles fought some other Minor Ally, so that two-toned counters are needed (as they are for Hungarians-Romanians and Nationalist Chinese-Communist Chinese)? No, not at all. They are two-toned simply because BFP decided they should be two-toned. BFP states it this way: “The entire Polish order of battle is included in a two-toned combination…The two tone counters are provided to present the Poles as their own nationality rather than just lumped in with the generic Allied Minors.” It is as if BFP has no idea that two-toned counters are not attractive and the only reasons such counters exist in ASL are purely practical reasons.
So there you have it. You are paying extra for counters you already had–except that the counters you already own are nicer looking because they are not two-toned. And you’ll have to store them, too, unless you ditch the duplicates and just use the new counters. As Desperation Morale has repeatedly criticized Critical Hit for making players pay for unneeded counters, it is only fair to ding BFP for the same thing–with extra dinging for two-toning them.
BFP does provide some new 1/2″ Polish counters–but this is not necessarily a positive, either. A bunch of the new Polish counters are new leader counters: 10-1 leaders, 10-0 leaders, 9-0 leaders, and 7-1 leaders. Is this because there was something unique about the 1939 Polish army that requires a whole mess of non-standard leader counters? Nope. In fact, not only do the Poles get these counters, but the Germans, Waffen SS, and Soviets get them, too. The BFP design notes provide not one iota of justification for any of these counters. They just wanted some more types of leaders, so they made them and threw them in and now you have to use them. It is the OB-equivalent of a grudge rule.
BFP also provides seven new types of Polish machinegun. In addition to the standard Allied Minor Army LMG, MMG, HMG, there are now a whole host of new specific-model MGs. So, previously, the Poles used a 1PP 2-6 B11 LMG. Now they also have a 2PP 2-5 B11 LMG and a 1PP 2-5 B11 LMG. Previously, the Poles used a 4PP 4-10 MMG. Now they also have a 5pp 4-10 B11 MMG, a 4pp 4-11 B11 MMG, and a 4pp 4-10 B11 MMG. And so on. Seriously, there is no need for four Polish MMGs, each of which is only marginally different from the others. It is not as if the designers of ASL were not aware that the Polish Army actually had more than one model of MMG in its possession. They were. However, in the spirit of playability and common sense, they used abstraction to create a set of values that could plausibly represent them all. There is a spirit of micro-factoring in PiF which may be too extreme. Adding one new type of MMG to represent older, lesser models of LMG/MMG/HMG is okay–it adds a bit of flavor while not burdening players with too much finding and fiddling. Now players will have to painstakingly identify which specific model(s) of MG they need for a particular scenario. BFP didn’t just do this for the Poles–they also did it for the Germans, who now get 4 additional types of LMG, 2 more types of MMG, and 2 more types of HMG.
BFP also provides a sheet and a half of 5/8″ vehicles and guns for the Poles. Again, many of these are simply duplicates of ASL counters that already exist. Indeed, there are only around a dozen new Polish vehicles added, and two new guns. All of the remaining counters already exist in ASL, though BFP has renamed or modified some of them (the latter typically by adding cannister to represent shrapnel). So players initially excited at all the new counters may calm down when they realize that, for example, around 60 of them are trucks they already had copies of.
There are also specific Polish plane counters, rather than generic air support counters, another thing that BFP likes to do.
As mentioned, BFP provides a number of German counters as well. In addition to the new leader types and new MG types, there’s about a whole countersheet’s worth of German infantry counters, mostly SS. These counters are “early war” SS counters and consist of 4-4-7/2-3-7 squads and half squads, as well as a new squad type of 4-3-7/2-2-7. Why add a whole new squad type? No explanation given. All of these counters come twice: once as normal ASL counters and then again as “black SS” counters. There are also 8-3-8 and 5-4-8 “assault engineer” squads in the vein of the ones introduced in Valor of the Guards (the Poles get some, too).
There are also some 5/8″ German counters, including a handful of esoteric vehicles such as bridgelayers that will rarely be used, as well as some model-specific aircraft counters.
In addition to the Germans, Axis minor allies get some of those new old funky machineguns, because that’s what we need, more Axis minor counters.
The Soviets get a quarter-countersheet of 1/2″ counters: funky leaders and 4-5-8 assault engineers, but also a new squad type, the 4-3-7 “second line” squad. This is a radical addition that BFP explains thusly: “Simply put, there was definitely a gap between the 4-4-7 First Line and 4-2-6 Conscript to be filled. From a design perspective it made sense for us to go with a 4-3-7/2-2-7 with a broken side morale of 6 and 5 respectively.” This is a decision that deserves some harsh scrutiny, because while there absolutely is a “gap” between 4-4-7 1st line and 4-2-6 conscript squads in the Soviet OB, this happens to be a designed and intentional gap, intended to reflect the poor quality and brittle nature of many standard Soviet infantry units. The designers of ASL deliberately excluded a Soviet second line squad–and for very good reasons, at that. It is one of those key design decisions that makes a big difference between the Soviets and the Germans. BFP, however, arbitrarily throws that design decision right out the window, apparently just so that there could be more ASL counters and more squad types. Not only was there no need for this squad type in ASL, but the game was intentionally designed so that this squad type would not be present. Things like this make Desperation Morale reach for the ibuprofen.
The Soviets get a bit over a half-countersheet of 5/8″ counters. Aside from a few planes and guns, the new counters are virtually all minute variations of BT and T-26 tanks, likely to appeal primarily to those ASLers who want every sprocket of every WWII vehicle to be independently accounted for.
Lastly, PiF comes with a small number of informational markers. These include leader and crew prisoners counters, which are theoretically useful and handy, and 35 different turn markers. Yes, you read that right. So if you ever wanted a turn marker with Thailand on one side and Nationalist China on the other, well, you’ve got it.
Overall, it must be said that the counters in PiF are disappointing. Though there are lots of counters, many of them duplicate counters ASLers already have, while others are really finicky variations of existing counters. And some of the new counters, such as the new leader types and the new squad types–especially the Soviet second line squad–are just plain bad ideas.
Do you need to pause for a moment? Use the restroom or refill your coffee? We’ll wait until you get back.
Okay, now that you are refreshed, let’s go on to the geoboards–and don’t worry, we are nicer on the geoboards than we were on the counters. There are 8 new geoboards in PiF, though it might be equally accurate to say that there are 6 new geoboards. Don’t worry, we’ll get to that. The geoboards are done with the same quality of artwork and production as in BFP’s previous few products, which is to say that they are quite nice, with crisp and colorful artwork. Some spot-checking suggests that they line up well against official geoboards, which Desperation Morale fans will know is something Critical Hit has great problems getting right.
The first geoboard, BFP O, is essentially a stream board, featuring a stream that bisects the entire board lengthwise, with two printed bridges and a ford. Each end of the stream expands out to four-hex “river” width, so that theoretically these boards can be connected to river boards such as 7 or 8, though it seems very unlikely that a designer would do so (and, indeed, none of the four scenarios in PiF that use this geoboard do so). Essentially, it is a handy stream board for scenarios set in rural, open terrain.
BFP P is also pretty open and rural. Instead of a stream, however, it has a long l-shaped gully running across much of its length, as well as a thick patch of woods that spreads out along one lone edge and also spreads sideways across the center of the board. A few low hills and scattered buildings round out the board.
Board BFP Q is what might be called “yet another village board,”, featuring a village that takes up the center 3/4 of the board, consisting mostly of one hex wooden buildings, along with a few multi-hex “multi-material” buildings, which consist of stone on one level and wood on another (a concept that dates back to the early 2000s and first playtest versions of the still-not-out Manila HASL).
BFP R is a rural board with patch woods and orchards, and one medium-sized field. At one end, a handful of wood buildings form a crossroads hamlet.
The boards are all attractive and fully serviceable, with nothing wrong about any of them, but none of them really add much that is novel to the ASL geoboard collection. Things get a bit more interesting with the remaining four geoboards, which are actually two sets of two paired boards–they are not fully geomorphic but designed to be paired with each other.
The first pair is BFP DW-5a and DW-5b (the unnecessary DW stands for “double wide”). Together they form a very interesting terrain configuration: a small village nestled in between two large hills, one of which has two roads running through two saddles in the hills. One of the hills in particular is of a shape that could not be represented by a standard 8″ x 22″ geoboard. Overall, it is a nice addition to the ASL board canon and one of the best components of PiF.
The second board pairing is BFP DW-6a and DW-6b. This pairing represents a somewhat diagonal village of wood buildings. It is not particularly unique or unusual, but the two-board pairing gives the village a width–and thus a dimension–that typical geoboard villages do not have. So it’s nice.
Overall, the geoboards in PiF are pretty decent. They are better than the geoboards of BFP’s last product, Crucible of Steel. And the DW-5a/5b double-wide board is quite nice.
How often are these boards used in PiF? Pretty often. More than half of the PiF scenarios–27 all told–use at least one of the new geoboards included in PiF.
Those are not, however, the only BFP geoboards used in PiF. Indeed, BFP throws in boards from pretty much all of its non-Normandy products. This includes BFP L, BFP N, BFP DW-3a, BFP DW-3b, BFP DW-4a, and BFP DW-4b from Crucible of Steel; BFP J and BFP K from High Ground 2; BFP DW-1a and BFP DW-1b from Blood and Jungle; and BFP B from Into the Rubble. Indeed, only 11 of the 45 scenarios use official ASL geoboards only.
This is a mixed blessing and illustrates a perennial conundrum about third party boards. On the one hand, boards not supported by their publishers, or by other publishers, are more or less wasted, because they may be used by scenarios in one product, but not beyond that. On the other hand, the more third party boards a particular product uses, the more other third party products the player must own in order to play all the included scenarios. And some of those third party products can be expensive or hard to find, or both. An ASLer who is not a dedicated purchaser of BFP products will find that it won’t be very easy to play many of the scenarios of PiF.
This philosophy also throws a wrench into one of the main organization styles that ASL players choose. Stripped down to simplicity, when it comes to third party components such as boards and counters, ASL players can be divided into two camps. The first camp consists of those ASLers who integrate all third party boards, overlays, counters and rules into their standard ASL kit. The second camp consists of segregationists, who keep their third party components as individual products. If a player of the first camp wants to play the scenario TOT45 (Dogs of War), he simply reaches into his German counter tray(s) and pulls out the requisite German Rare Vehicle that originally came with Time on Target #3. If a player of the second camp wants to play TOT45, why, he grabs Time on Target #3 and takes it with him so that he can pull the scenario card and counters when required. It is the second camp of ASLers that BFP kind of messes with in its component strategy. An ASLer thinking “Hey, I might want to play a PiF scenario at ASLOK next month” can’t simply throw PiF in the car with his other ASL gear, then whip it out for a scenario in Cleveland. Rather, he has to think to himself, “Okay, this means I also need to find and grab Crucible of Steel, High Ground 2, Blood and Jungle, and Into the Rubble.” It becomes a real chore and requires advanced planning.
In addition to the various BFP boards, PiF uses official geoboards 3, 5, 6, 10, 13, 17, 18, 21, 32, 34, 36, 38, 40, 42, 44, 45, 46, 52, 57, 59, 62, 63, 64, 65, 1a, 2a, 3a, 5a, 6a, and 7a/b.
Poland in Flames comes with 24 pages of rules, typically Chapter B and Chapter H style rules. The rules are in full color on hole-punched pages. BFP rules pages are the one area where their products suffer in terms of physical quality. While there is nothing wrong with the color or print quality, the paper used is glossy and very thin–so thin that it immediately starts curling once the product is opened and thin enough that it is vulnerable to folds, creases, rips and tears. ASLers who want to protect their products ought to make color copies or scans of the BFP rules printed on a thicker, higher quality paper than the paper used by BFP.
Six of the pages are taken up by what BFP calls “BFP Terrain Rules (TR).” Essentially, these are the new terrain types and rules introduced over the years by BFP on its own geoboards, organized by product. Thus the rules start off with Into the Rubble terrain types such as storage tanks and Debris, then follow these with Beyond the Beachhead 2 terrain rules, Blood and Jungle terrain rules, High Ground 2 terrain types, and Crucible of Steel terrain rules. Because these rules are organized by module rather than terrain type, one can see how they get ever more unwieldy as more modules are added to the mix. Though called terrain rules, these pages also occasionally have rules for unit types, such as German assault engineers from Crucible of Steel, which adds to the disorganization.
The Poland in Flames rules are added to the end of this compilation, including terrain rules such as Multi-Material Buildings as well as non-terrain rules such as assault engineers and funky new leader types. Note that these rules are added, not integrated, so Hexside Building terrain rules appear on page 3, because of Beyond the Beachhead, on page 5, because of Crucible of Steel, and a third time on page 7, because of Poland in Flames.
What BFP needs to do is to create a BFP Chapter B, with just terrain rules, properly organized and with no duplicates, as well as a BFP Chapter A, for its nationality rules, again properly organized. And when each new BFP product comes out, the new rules from that product need to be property integrated into BFP Chapters A and B, either at the time of that new product’s release, or at the very least with the next release after that. Otherwise, as BFP releases more and more products over time, the existing rules compilations will become increasingly user unfriendly.
Essentially the Chapter A and Chapter B additions of PiF have been discussed in the above sections on counters and geoboards, as have some of the Chapter H-style additions, so those rules need not be repeated here. There are 12 pages of vehicular notes and 4 more pages for aircraft.
One component that BFP has consistently included in its “monster” product releases is an untitled magazine designed mostly to support the product. This is a component that Desperation Morale has tended to be critical of in the past and will largely be again.
The magazine is lengthy–at 60 pages–and printed in full color, so it adds considerably to the cost of the product. However, despite its length, it contains only five articles. The first article is a relatively short set of designers’ notes that focuses exclusively on the boards and counters, with no insight into the rest of the design, such as scenario design, playtesting, and development. It doesn’t really add very much that does not also appear in the rules pages.
The second article is titled “Pyromania: Fire in ASL,” and is a 15 (!) page rules article on fire/blazes/kindling and such stuff in ASL. It’s just a slog to get through and many will fail; it is not just that it is long, but it is densely written, with one paragraph in an extended example of play, for instance, taking 36 lines. Moreover, one must question how much practical, as opposed to theoretical, understanding the author has of the fire rules. For example, in a section on the tactics of kindling, he makes no mention of the trade-offs in time and SMC/MMC usage that a player (typically a defender) must make in order to use kindling. Indeed, at one point, he writes “kindling in L3, N2, N3, and L9 would slow the attacker’s movement,” as if the defender in the average ASL scenario is going to have the spare units and time to try to kindle so many hexes.
The article is useful in one respect: it contains a one-page chart that lists terrain in alphabetical order in one column, and each terrain type’s kindling number and spreading fire number in two more columns. It would be more useful still with the kindling & spreading DRMs and the EC modifiers on it (there’s room), so that players could use that one chart for all their fiery needs. Enterprising ASLers may want to scan this page and make their own such chart.
The author also complains about scenario designers who automatically put “Kindling is NA” in their scenario SSRs, even when that is not needed for game balance purposes, simply because the designers do not like Kindling (this is an example of a grudge rule). Ironically, BFP is one of the worst offenders in this regard: fully 42 of the 45 scenarios in PiF prohibit kindling.
The next article is an even longer (20 pages!) rules articles on guns. It is interesting that, though one of the frequent criticisms of MMP’s stewardship of the ASL Annual and early issues of the ASL Journal was that they relied too much on rules (as opposed to gameplay) articles, BFP is more than doubling down on rules articles. It’s worth noting that this rules article on guns is almost as long as Chapter C itself is (though admittedly Chapter C has smaller print). But it is just not clear that one really needs nearly two pages, for instance, to explain conditional rate of fire, a rule that in the ASLRB takes up one short paragraph and one short example and is really pretty understandable.
The next article is a 3-page historical article on the Polish 10th Cavalry Brigade, one of the Polish Army’s few mechanized units. The third page simply re-summarizes the historical situations of the PiF scenarios involving this unit. The final article is another historical article on the general Polish campaign, focusing on the organization of the Polish armed forces. Neither article is sourced and this brings up the most obvious omission from the magazine: a list of books and other sources used by the various designers and to which players could also turn for more background information on the Polish campaign, a campaign with which many ASLers are not likely to be all that familiar. The lack of a reading list is a somewhat odd gap for the magazine.
PiF comes with 45 different scenarios–a heaping helping of ASL play value. When BFP first started releasing its monster products with huge numbers of scenarios, Desperation Morale expressed a definite caution and skepticism regarding the playtesting behind the designs–specifically, how such a large number of scenarios could have been adequately playtested. However, BFP’s products have largely proved themselves over time to be solidly playtested and Desperation Morale has no further concerns on that score. This means that the scenarios in PiF all have a pretty good chance of being relatively even and balanced scenarios with few rules issues or errata. Not all third party publishers can say the same of their products.
The scenarios come on glossy cardstock and are printed in color, which includes actual miniature map representations to help players find and align boards (something Desperation Morale wishes MMP would consider doing). The print for the SSRs is small. The scenario cards all have an SSR that reads “See PiF HBR.” There is no explanation of “HBR;” someone on-line suggested it referred to “historical battle rules.” There are no rules so labeled in PiF, but presumably this is a collective reference to all the various rules pages that come bundled in PiF.
Unfortunately, the black ink on the glossy scenario cards is subject to smearing, so players should treat their scenario cards carefully. Players may want to consider doing what Desperation Morale recommends for all ASL scenario cards, which is to scan the cards into a computer and use printouts rather than the original cards.
The scenarios of PiF were overwhelmingly designed by Chas Smith, the driving force behind BFP. However, four scenarios were designed by Brian Martuzas, three by Steve Swann, and two by Dave Lamb. The scenarios bear the typical hallmarks of Bounding Fire Productions scenarios. This means, first of all, that they are large. Indeed, the vast majority of PiF scenarios (33 of 45) are large in size. Another 9 are medium-sized, and 3 could be considered small. They are also vehicle-heavy. In fact, in 17 of the 45 scenarios, at least one side has at least 8 AFVs. One might be forgiven for thinking the Poles had more AFVs than they actually did; 14 of the scenarios of PiF give the Poles at least 5 AFVs. On the plus side, the AFV-centric nature of the module means that there are many tin-can-plinking actions for the sizable number of ASL players who like early war armor actions. Because it is BFP, there are also a lot of fortifications involved, including 12 scenarios with at least 8 fortification counters (and/or mine allotments of any size). Adding to the “heaviness” of the module is OBA; 25% (11 of 45) of the scenarios have at least one module of OBA. Air Support shows up in 6 scenarios. No scenarios take place at Night.
The focus on large, “heavy” scenarios does limit the play value of PiF, of course, as players must have the requisite time needed to play such sizable actions, and many of the scenarios of PiF are unsuitable for tournament settings or “an afternoon of ASL” casual play.
All 45 of the scenarios involve Poles, of course. In three scenarios, the Poles fight the Slovaks and in eight scenarios, the Soviets serve as opponents. The other 34 scenarios feature Germans (including SS) as foes for the Poles.
The scenarios of PiF collectively suffer from a certain homogeneity, a homogeneity that is one of the more noteworthy weaknesses of the product. There are clear reasons for this phenomenon: it is the result of the combination of the subject matter chosen and format of the product on the one hand, and the design philosophy of Chas Smith on the other.
When this author mentioned, a couple of weeks ago, that he had begun the write-up of Poland in Flames, a fellow ASLer wondered “whether it will be like Crucible of Steel, where if you’ve played half the scenarios, you’ll feel like you’ve played them all.” This author cannot vouch for the veracity of that statement, not having played even close to half of the scenarios of that product. He has played at least half of the scenarios of Blood and Jungle and has not found it to be the case there. On the other hand, Blood and Jungle contains scenarios from nearly a hemisphere’s worth of fighting, over eight years, with many nationalities and over every conceivable type of terrain. Crucible of Steel, which represents only one part of one battle over a short period of time, inherently contains less variety. Of the two products, Poland in Flames more resembles Crucible of Steel than it does Blood and Jungle, representing as it does a short campaign over a relatively circumscribed geographical area. When one considers the large amount of scenarios in the product, one could imagine how a certain feeling of sameness could emerge after playing a certain number of them.
However, the homogeneity in Poland in Flames comes more from the merging of the above factors with the design philosophy of Chas Smith. Here it profits to step back for a moment and explain that, though there are a number of design philosophies that can be used with respect to Advanced Squad Leader and, while few scenario designers will exclusively and religiously adhere to only one, designers tend to have their favorite approach.
One approach–let’s call this approach the Minimalist approach–is to believe that a tactical situation should be represented in ASL minimalistically, with the designer choosing suitable terrain, suitable order of battle, and suitable victory conditions, with SSRs that primarily provide clarity and details to the situation, such as “all buildings are wooden,” “mortars may not be set up emplaced,” “vehicles must set up in motion,” “both sides may declare Hand-to-Hand CC,” and so forth. Evan Sherry, the main designer behind Schwerpunkt, is a classic practitioner of this design approach. Variety, for Sherry, is often achieved by having a relatively rare AFV type present in the order of battle.
A contrasting approach–we can call this the Flavorist approach–is to believe that designers also need to consider other situational factors that may have characterized a specific tactical action and to integrate those into the scenarios as SSRs designed to provide flavor. So, for example, the SSR in the classic Pete Shelling scenario J1 (Urban Guerrillas) from ASL Journal Issue One that uses sniper activation DR to generate random partisan units is a typical flavor SSR. Shelling himself is a designer in the Flavorist tradition. Friendly Fire is a third party publisher whose designers are not averse to flavor SSRs, as seen in the Mine Dog SSR from FrF50 (Pavlov’s Dogs) in Friendly Fire Pack 6. MMP also often has Flavorist scenarios.
A third design approach can be called the Artificialist approach. This is a more specialized design approach rather than a general design philosophy, applied to tactical actions that seem rather bland and unremarkable, the classic “Yet Another Company Sized Action” sort of situation. Artificialists, when confronted with such an action that they nevertheless wish to translate into ASL terms, will in effect create their own variety by using SSRs to make the scenario less bland, typically by adding random or choose-able elements to the scenario. So, for example, all or part of one or both sides initial OB or reinforcements may be selectable by players, may be chosen randomly, or might even be purchased in some form. Often Flavorists become Artificialists when they encounter bland situations they wish to make more interesting to an ASL audience.
All approaches can be overdone. With the Flavorist approach, the main risk of overdoing it is when too many flavor SSRs appear in a single scenario. This can make the scenario seem artificial, unwieldy, and/or too complicated. This is also true for the Artificialist approach–and Artificialist scenarios are often harder to playtest. In contrast, overdoing it with the Minimalist approach does not occur within the confines of a single scenario–a single Minimalist scenario will be fine, even refreshing in its straightforwardness–but rather overdoing it consists of including too many Minimalist scenarios in an ASL product. The result is that there may not be enough factors inherent to the scenario OBs, terrain and VCs to sufficiently distinguish them from each other from the player’s perspective.
So let’s bring this back around to Poland in Flames. There is no doubt that the evolution of Chas Smith as a scenario designer has brought him squarely into the minimalist camp. While his first product, the Hell on Wheels Battle Pack, definitely had the occasional flavor SSR, Smith has always had minimalist tendencies and these tendencies seem to have grown stronger over time. PiF is very much a case in point. Of the 45 scenarios in this product, fully 41 of them have no flavor or artificialist rules whatsoever. Of the remaining four scenarios–most designed by Steve Swann, not Chas Smith–three have a very minor flavor or artificialist rule. The fourth, BFP125 (A Wave Breaking with the Tide), contains an Urban Guerrillas-style partisan pop-up rule.
What this means is that the scenarios of Poland in Flames pretty much have to rely on maps, OBs, and victory conditions for any variety–and this just isn’t enough. The product doesn’t have the range of terrain or combatants that Blood and Jungle has, for example. And most of the scenarios have OB setups and reinforcements that are, to put it bluntly, quite bland. The great majority of the scenarios have very simple setup areas for the combatants (such as an on/east of and on/west of situation), and simple reinforcements that typically straightforwardly enter behind the front lines (“enter turn 3 on the north edge”). The exceptions to this pattern are uncommon, though a few do exist, such as BFP-117 (Silent Bayonets), in which Polish units set up in any Woods/Orchard/Brush hexes and Slovak units set up in any non-Woods/Orchard/Brush hexes. This is in sharp contrast to the scenarios of some other publishers, such as Friendly Fire and ESG, whose scenarios tend to have much more thought-out and carefully crafted set-ups and reinforcements, factors that often distinguish many of the dynamics of those scenarios.
This fact really does help create a sense of blandness with the scenarios of PiF. A very typical PiF scenario is BFP-138 (Outgunned). In this scenario, the Soviets set up west of a certain line. They get one group of reinforcements entering on the west edge. The attacking Poles enter their entire force on the east edge. In itself, this is perfectly fine. But the next scenario is very similar in this respect. And so is the scenario after that. And the next scenario after that. Indeed, most of the product is pretty much like this. When one considers that there are no Flavorist of Artificialist SSRs to help distinguish most of these scenarios from each other, it is easy to see how homogeneity sets in.
The homogeneity is made stronger by the victory conditions, which exhibit a steadfast sameness. The victory conditions of virtually all of PiF’s 45 scenarios focus on building control, either building control alone, or building control plus one or more other factors (typically hill or pillbox control). Of the mere handful of exceptions, all but one were designed by designers other than Chas Smith. It would not be too much of an exaggeration to say that players could pick a scenario at random and play it without even looking at the victory conditions, just assuming that they need to take or hold the buildings on the map to win. The victory conditions of the scenarios of PiF exhibit a certain paucity of imagination when compared to publishers such as MMP, Friendly Fire, Dispatches from the Bunker and Schwerpunkt.
Put these all together–the relatively narrow historical situation and theme, the lack of Flavorist and Artificialist SSRs, the unimaginative setups and reinforcements, the repetitive victory conditions–combined with the large number of scenarios (so that these factors are multiplied by volume), and one has a product that simply seems very bland and homogeneous.
Now, it needs to be emphasized once again that, for a single PiF scenario, little of this matters. That scenario is likely to play fine and cause no objections. This is a problem that only becomes a problem as players seek to play more and more of the scenarios from PiF, because they will reach a situation of diminishing returns, as with each additional scenario they play, the more their collective PiF scenario experience is likely to blend together. There is a partial “fix” to this situation for players, which is simply to “ration” one’s play of PiF scenarios and spread them out over time. The situation is at its worst when a player plays a number of PiF scenarios in a row or in a very concentrated space of time, so instead, play a different PiF scenario only every once in a while, so that the homogeneity has less of a chance to make an impact.
The bottom line is that Poland in Flames is a mixed product. While its scenarios are, individually and in isolation, likely to be both balanced and fun to play, collectively they are perhaps less than the sum of their parts because of their homogeneity. And, speaking of parts, Poland in Flames has some weaknesses in that department as well, most notably in the counter mix.
However, Poland in Flames is still a product that a hardcore ASLer ought to seek out and obtain–and fans of early war armor battles ought to be particularly delighted.