Up Front

A card wargame by Courtney Allen, published by Avalon Hill
These comments copyright 2000 by Steffan O'Sullivan
This page last updated June 29, 2000

Up Front is an amazing game. First published in 1983, in many ways it was years ahead of its time. Unfortunately, it was never updated as games it influenced were streamlined and smoothed. It's due to be republished by Multi-Man Publishing, who promise to do that exact thing. We'll see. I'm more than a little worried about their talk of turning it into a collectible card game (CCG), but if they can improve the game while making the collectible aspect totally optional, I'm willing to give them a chance.

At any rate, Up Front is no longer in print, but can still be found at many game stores and on the web. It's well worth hunting up, as are its expansions, Desert War and Banzai.

No Dice, No Board, No Cardboard Chit Units ...

When Up Front first came out, it was pretty revolutionary. A wargame with no board, no dice, and no chits to represent units? What were they thinking?!? They were thinking innovatively, that's for sure - and brilliantly. Up Front is a wargame, certainly: each unit in the game is either an individual soldier, armored vehicle, or infantry gun. The scale of the game is Squad-level: 10 to 15 men per side, possibly with a vehicle or large gun. The setting is WWII: the basic game includes German, US, and Russian soldiers with their equipment. The supplements add Japanese, British, French, and Italian forces.

The Cards

The game comes with two different sets of cards: Action cards and Personality cards. There actually are a fairly large number of chits in the game, but they don't represent units. Instead they are used to show range, condition, and status of various units. The Personality cards are the units.

The Action deck has many types of cards: Movement, Terrain (including Hills, Marshes, Woods, Buildings, etc.), Fire, Rally, Concealment, Smoke, Hero, Radio, Snipers, etc. They are also used as action resolution tools - more on that later.

The Personality cards include the forces listed above. A Personality card will give the soldier's name and rank, what weapon he's carrying, what his firepower with that weapon is at varying ranges, what his morale, panic, and to-kill values are, and how many points he'd be worth in a Build-Your-Own scenario. Vehicle and infantry gun cards have all the necessary data to run such equipment.

Programmed Instruction

Twelve scenarios are included with the game, and you can find more on the web or in old issues of Avalon Hill's now defunct game magazine, The General. The rules are in the programmed instruction format. That is, you learn a certain number of rules, then play a scenario involving just those rules. When you've got them down, read a few more rules, and play a scenario utilizing those, etc. Once you've got the game down, you can then play the Build-Your-Own and Campaign games.

The scenarios provided are, for the most part, entertaining and well balanced. Some of them specify an aggressor; others give different starting forces depending on if you've chosen offense or defense. They range from a simple meeting of patrols to city action, to night fighting, to elite forces on the attack, to an armored advance, etc. In the basic game, one player chooses the German forces, and his opponent plays either American or Russian forces. With the expansions, the Axis player could also play Japanese or Italian, and the Allied player British or French. (It's also possible to play Vichy French or Allied Italian, of course ...) Each force has its own peculiarities.

The Basics

Pick a scenario, which details your starting forces and gives special rules and goal. Split your squad into two to four groups, give them some starting terrain, if you're dealt any, and you're ready to play.

The hardest concept in the game to grasp is the way it handles range. This is counterintuitive and frankly awkward. Opponents start at Relative Range 0 to each other - and that's pretty far away. As they move closer, Relative Range increases. Yes, you read that right: as you move closer to the enemy the range number goes up. It's backwards, but it works once you just accept it. Relative Range 5 is the closest you can get to someone, by the way. If you advance any further, you start to recede from them - you've basically passed them.

So you start at Relative Range 0 - give each Group a "0" range chit. As they advance, by playing Movement cards, you increase their range chit, usually one per Movement card played. To determine Relative Range to a force directly opposite yours, or directly adjacent, add their range chits. So if my leftmost group is at range 2, and your rightmost group (directly opposite my leftmost group) is at range 2 also, we're at Relative Range 4 to each other. The Personality cards show firepower at each range - the closer you are, the more firepower your unit is worth.

You don't actually move your Personality cards - position is abstracted. Your groups are labeled with a chit, A, B, C, D. If Group A is on my left-hand side, your Group A must be on your right-hand side - a group is always directly opposite the enemy group with the same letter.

Movement and Terrain cards are played in front of a group to show where they are and if they're moving or not. To change Terrain, you have to play a Movement card - simple and logical. And also dangerous, as moving makes you easier to be hit ... Any card can be placed face down next to one of your groups to show they're on "Open Ground" terrain, by the way - a nice pioneering use of the back of the cards.

In order to fire at an enemy group, you need a Fire card. Fire cards have both a firepower number - the minimum firepower a group needs to have in order to use the card - and a fire strength number - the value of the actual attack against the enemy group.

If your men are suppressed, you need to Rally them. Those are the three types of actions you take most frequently: movement (which includes both playing a Movement card and playing a Terrain card to show where you've moved to), firing, and rallying.

Random Numbers

The Action cards serve many purposes. Each card is very "busy" - there are numbers and letters all over the face of the card, making the game a little hard to get used to at first.

Every Action card has a random number in the upper right corner. This is what you use instead of dice. This number ranges from -6 to +6 in a bell curve distribution centered at 0. Negative numbers are shown in red ink; positive numbers are in black ink. Any time you have to use a random number to resolve an action, draw the top card from the draw pile, use that number, then discard the Action card. Since most scenarios last a given number of times you shuffle the deck, taking actions which use the draw pile will shorten the game. This can work in your favor or against you, depending on your situation in the current scenario.

Every Action card also has a double row of numbers across the bottom. The uppermost of these rows is simply numbered from 1 to 10 - they represent position within a group. The number underneath usually represents which soldier in a given group is affected by something, but sometimes represent other things, such as Rout versus Killed in Action, or an armored vehicle Bogging, or closing to Close Combat, etc.

Fire Example

At this point, you probably want a concrete example, if you're still with me at all. Okay, say you have a group in a Woods terrain, and they're not moving. My group opposite them is at Relative Range 3, so I see how much firepower I can muster. Let's say I have 10 firepower. If I have a Fire card with 10 or less firepower requirement, I can play it as that group's action for the turn. Let's say it's a Fire 4 card - this means it has a fire strength of 4. However, this is modified by your Woods card of -2: you're protected somewhat by your terrain. So the final adjusted fire strength is 2.

You have four men in this group, so I point to the first one, and draw the top card of the draw deck. I look at the random number, and add it to the fire strength of 2. (A red number is a negative number, remember.) Let's say it's a black 1: the final fire strength versus your first man is therefore 3. We check this number against his Morale and To-Kill numbers to see if he's affected. He's not - his Morale is 4 and To-Kill is 8. This means had I gotten a fire strength result of 4 to 7 he would be pinned - flip the card over and he can't take any action until he's Rallied. Had I gotten an 8 or higher result, he'd have been killed outright.

I then draw a card for each of the other three men your group, one at a time, adding the random number drawn to the basic fire strength of 2 I currently have against the group. Pinning is a much more common result than killing outright, of course, and "No result" is also fairly common. If a man is already pinned, however, he has a "Panic" number instead of a Morale number. If I can get higher than his Panic number, he's either routed or dead, and I get 1 or 2 victory points for that.

Why Wouldn't You Like This Game?

This has been a wordy review, and I haven't even covered one tenth of the game. This is the first potential flaw: there's a lot of game there. A lot more than most gamers want to learn, to be honest. This isn't as bad as it might seem, though: due to the programmed instruction format, you don't ever have to use most of the rules if you don't want to. You can be perfectly happy playing the first scenario over and over until you've got it down so pat you suddenly feel like learning more rules. There's no hurry.

However, the major flaw of Up Front lies in those very same rules: they're incredibly hard to learn by reading. The game is actually not that complex, for a wargame, if you can get someone to teach you. But the rules as written are not exactly user-friendly - in fact, in many places they're downright user-hostile. The language is "legalese" - tough to get the basic meaning of. Lots of cases, with petty exceptions, seem to make it a tough game to actually remember the rules for, but it's not that bad. Once you understand the rules, they make a lot of sense. Getting to that point isn't easy if you don't have someone to teach you, though.

And although I'm saying the game isn't really that complex ... there really are a lot of exceptions to rules. There are some rules you will not be able to remember, and will always have to look up. The use of a Hero card on a light-machine gun, for example: different nationalities have different restrictions on its use, and because it's something that doesn't happen every game, you'll never remember them all. Or the modifiers for Close Combat against a tank. Or, for the first dozen games or so, even something so common as how to move off a stream. After a while that last one becomes second nature, because it happens every game - but it takes some getting used to.

Which brings me to the next reason you might not like it: it takes a lot of playing to "get" the game. You're still a novice after 25 games. This is actually a strong point to some gamers - it means the game has a lot of depth and will provide years of enjoyment. And it's true. But to casual gamers it's a put-off. They'd like to have the worst of their mistakes over after just a couple of games. Well, that won't happen with Up Front - you'll have to be patient with yourself and your opponents as you all learn the game. There's a lot to learn.

There are a few typos here and there, but you can find errata on the web, so that's not so bad. The worst typo is on one of the Terrain types, a Marsh. But you quickly learn to live with it.

The concept of Relative Range is so blasted counter-intuitive I wish they could have come up with a different mechanism. Eventually, you get used to it, but even after a dozen years of playing this game, it still bothers me somewhat. It may be the same for you.

Occasionally you get a silly result from a combination of rules (like being able to pick up, in absolute safety, a demolition pack from a man blown up in a minefield). But that's pretty rare - most of the time, the game returns very realistic results - much more so, I feel, than most hex-based wargames. But that's for the next section ...

Rationale and Fog of War

The Designer's Notes are really a joy to read. Mr. Allen puts forth reasons for many of his choices in the game, and I must admit makes very solid arguments for them all.

The main benefit of such card-based rules, with no set map, is Fog of War. Mr. Allen read many, many interviews of actual WWII front-line soldiers of many nationalities, and was struck by some common themes that weren't represented in any of the wargames he was aware of. For example, lack of information about the nature of the terrain over a hill or around a corner or even beyond a hedge was very nerve-wracking for soldiers. Even excellent maps just don't have the level of detail a soldier would love to have: is there a ditch past that hedge, which might be hiding an enemy machine gun? Just how many houses are down that next side street? What's beyond that clump of woods? And so on. In a traditional wargame, both players see the whole map of the terrain laid out in advance, and plan their moves accordingly. In real life, you couldn't do that. And you can't in Up Front.

So when you move out of a safe Terrain, you may or may not know what lies ahead. You may have a Building card in your hand, so you think your group is moving to that building they can see. But your opponent might discard a Stream card onto your group - they couldn't see there was a stream in the way!

Another thing Mr. Allen discovered about WWII: morale and firing. In the movies - and most wargames - you have no trouble firing away at the enemy. You point to your unit, say, "They're shooting at that unit," and roll the dice. However, Mr. Allen found that only about 20% of soldiers actually fired their weapons in a squad-level encounter! The Action deck has about 25% Fire cards to represent this. Sometimes you just don't have a Fire card - this is one of those times you can't get your squad to stick their heads up over the wall and actually shoot at the enemy ...

Likewise, getting your troops to move forward into hostile fire wasn't always easy. So those times you don't have a Movement card in your hand reflect a lot of reality ... Of course, in most wargames, you can move all your units each turn, blithely forward into slaughter, if you want. Not in reality; not in Up Front.

Yet the game simulates the standard squad practice of "Bound and Overwatch" much more realistically than any other game I know of. Assuming you can get the cards (i.e., assuming you can get your troops to behave the way they've been trained ...) one group lays down suppressive fire while another advances. Then the roles are reversed. Elegantly done!

A "pinned" result is the most common adverse Fire effect in Up Front. This also models reality. When enemy bullets started flying near the average soldier's head, he tended to hit the dirt, probably with a few choice words. It'd have to be pretty quiet for a while before he'd risk sticking his head up again, no matter what his squad leader is yelling at him. Hence, those times when you just can't get a Rally card to get your troop moving or firing again ...

In addition to the actual equipment on the Personality cards, the Action card hand size and discard capabilities are the main distinctions between the different nationalities, by the way. He gives reasons for all his choices, and they all make sense. Truly a well-designed and thoroughly thought-out game.

Summing Up

If you can get over the incredible legalese in the rules, and if you like wargames of moderate complexity, this is a wonderful game. The Fog of War makes it unlike any other game, and very entertaining. The programmed instruction allows you to take your time getting to the more difficult rules, such as armored vehicles. I haven't yet played with every rule in the game in the dozen years I've had it, and I don't feel constrained by that fact. I like the game a lot, and if I never learn all the rules, it doesn't matter. I've already gotten more than my money's worth out of this game.

Here's a great resource for Up Front if you have any interest in pursuing this game. Enjoy!

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