Vietnam Wargaming Rules Review of Crossfire

Rules and Organisations for Company-Level WW-II Gaming
A Review by Barrie Lovell

NOTE: although these rules are ostensibly for WWII gaming, they are included here since they are perfectly well suited to Vietnam gaming and can be used as such by incorporating the excellent Incoming! rules supplement written by Barrie - Mike R

"War is the province of chance. In no other sphere of human activity must such a margin be left for this intruder. It increases the uncertainty of every circumstance and deranges the course of events.... " Karl von Clausewitz (1780-1831) Prussian military leader, author


Crossfire Rules Book CoverHaving designed and written my own wargames rules for more years than I care to remember (including Free Fire Zone), and having published several sets commercially with some success, I thought I was pretty au fait with game design. Although I often run across good game mechanisms or ideas, most wargames rule sets tend to be very conventional, following carefully laid out sequences. These are, of course, an attempt to bring a gameable sense of order to what is essentially a chaotic activity war. The main problem with most rules sets is that they are predictable and can be exploited by the "rules lawyers". In extreme cases, a good "rule lawyer" can beat an opponent who has a greater understanding of the historical period in question. Personally I feel that this is a major flaw in game design, but one which is destined to remain with us until there is a major shift in the way wargamers think about what they are trying to game.

It is not all doom and gloom however. Occasionally I find a game design which is so good it makes me think "I wish I'd thought of that!", unfortunately though, these rule sets are usually few and far between. However, Crossfire, by the talented Arty Conliffe, stands head and shoulders above the rest in both originality and design. In his introduction Arty Conliffe states that a friend once challenged him to design a historical miniatures game which did not use either rulers, tape measures or a fixed game turn. Crossfire is the result.

"Everything is very simple in war, but the simplest thing is difficult. These difficulties accumulate and produce a friction which no man can imagine exactly who has not seen war.... " Karl von Clausewitz (1780-1831) Prussian military leader, author

The most revolutionary aspects of the Crossfire system are that it does not use fixed time or ground scales, and that there is no game turn sequence. The player is therefore forced to rely on experience, knowledge of tactics, and his ability to read a battle and react to circumstances in effect to behave more like a real commander than is usual in a wargame.

The system is simplicity itself. One player (usually the attacking player) starts with the initiative. He retains the initiative and may continue to move, fire, rally troops etc as long as he is not prevented from doing so by enemy activity or bad luck (Clausewitz's friction!). During the player's initiative the enemy player will be attempting to wrest the initiative from him by interfering with his activity (usually by firing). Once the player with the initiative loses it (as a result of enemy activity or bad luck) then the initiative passes to his opponent and the roles are reversed.

Crossfire is all about seizing and retaining the initiative it is technically possible, although extremely unlikely, that a player may start the game with the initiative and retain it until he wins. The player must work hard at keeping the initiative. To paraphrase good old Clausewitz "Everything in Crossfire is simple, but retaining the initiative is difficult". The player with the initiative may carry out a limited number of activities move, direct fire, indirect fire, retreat move, rally and as long as these are successful he keeps the initiative. The player is therefore required to concentrate only on those activities that will either keep the initiative or actively help towards victory. Time wasting activity is either not allowed or is penalized by losing the initiative. The effect of Clausewitzian "friction" is simulated by dice throws a bad dice score causes an activity to fail and the player loses the initiative. A very simple concept but very effective.

While the player with the initiative is carrying out his activities the enemy player is attempting to seize the initiative. This is usually done by reactive firing at observed activities. A successful reactive fire will suppress or destroy the target and will trigger a change of initiative. For the defender this means that he must deploy his troops with very careful planning to ensure that he can dominate the battlefield with fire in order to prevent enemy movement. The title of the rules is a clue Crossfire. The best way to stop an enemy is to ensure that the defensive fire plan consists of interlocking fields of fire. Thus any enemy movement can be brought under fire and stopped in its tracks.

There is no fixed order in which the player with the initiative must carry out his activity he makes the decisions what to do and when, in effect co-ordinating his own actions rather than having them imposed upon him by a fixed sequence.

Movement - Movement is very simple. Every type of unit may move an unlimited distance, but only in a straight line and from one terrain item (or cover) to another. The unlimited movement rate is not a problem as units tend to move in short bursts from cover to cover, as do most real soldiers on the modern battlefield. Players who do not make the best use of cover (including folds and dips in the ground) will suffer accordingly troops in the open are very vulnerable to machine gun and supporting fire. Movement is also very fast. The moving player nominates a unit to move and indicates the destination and the path it will take. He then moves the unit towards its destination. If the moving unit is observed at any point during its move by an unsuppressed enemy unit it may be fired upon, hence the need to make best use of cover. Of course, cunning players will allow a couple of enemy units through a killing zone to lull the enemy into a false sense of security and to wait for a better target!

Firing - As with movement firing is also simple. There are two types of fire Direct and Indirect. All the action on the table top is assumed to be within the range of all weapons involved. When one considers that we are representing close infantry action where the enemy is a matter of yards away rather than hundreds of metres then this concept actually works quite well (it is fudged a bit with some anti-tank weapons and support fire but it does not detract from the game).

Direct fire is aimed fire at targets that can be seen by the firing unit. Reactive direct fire is permitted to the player without the initiative in response to enemy activity that can be seen by the firing unit. Simple!

Indirect Fire includes any heavy or support weapon fire that cannot directly observe the target and includes off-table weapons.

Each type of firing unit has a set number of D6 firing dice (eg rifle squad has 3 dice, HMG has 4 dice). Each time a unit fires it throws the relevant number of dice. Any which score 5 or 6 count as hits. One hit pins the target, two hits suppresses it and three hits destroys it. The number of dice thrown is reduced by one if the target is in cover. The system is fast, fire is either effective or it is not, and requires almost no reference to the rule book no lengthy charts or tables to wade through. Any firing which fails to at least suppress the target loses the initiative.

"There is nothing more exhilarating than to be shot at without result... " Winston Churchill

The game effectively revolves around the old British Army concept of winning the firefight. Once you have established fire superiority and the enemy has been pretty much pinned, suppressed or destroyed, you can then start to move around without too much trouble. It is usually at this point that the decisive breakthrough is made which will win the game.

Close Combat - Close combat is also simple but very deadly. The initiative player nominates an attacking unit and a target. He then moves up to attack it. The non-initiative player may try and hold the attackers off with fire but if this does not succeed then it all comes down to close combat. This is short and sharp and the loser is destroyed no ifs or buts! Good players will ensure that the target unit has been shot up and suppressed before assaulting it.

View of the Bridge from the US start line

US Armored Cavalry moves into Phu Vau US Infantry assault the bunkers with support from ACAVs
Pictures from the authors collection of a recent Vietnam game - 'The Bridge at Phu Vau'

Terrain - Terrain plays a very important part in the game, providing shelter and protection for units. The game does require a lot of terrain however, the more realistic the better. It is a set of rules that really does benefit from some of the excellent model terrain that is currently available. Each type of terrain also has an effect of the game with respect to how units can move or operate.

Unpredictable - Crossfire is unpredictable. Another famous Prussian General, von Moltke I think, once said "No plan ever survives contact with the enemy." This is very true in Crossfire, although a sound plan will go a considerable way to minimizing the effect of enemy activity. The game is inherently chaotic, with the initiative and activity switching back and forth and at different points around the table top with sometimes bewildering speed it is up to the player to impose some sense of order on the game and to impose his will on the enemy. Unlike most rule sets Crossfire does not allow you to see a counter attack coming and redeploy to meet it. In Crossfire usually the first you know about it is when your flanking unit collapses and enemy troops appear behind you! Equally however, the enemy cannot react to your own counter attacks.

Crossfire is also inherently unfair just like the real thing! Real war is unfair; soldiers will make the utmost effort to get the drop on the opposition. In order to succeed in Crossfire you must do the same. This is usually achieved by concentrating either manpower or firepower at the critical point and overwhelming the opposition. Once you have the advantage you must keep the pressure up and do not allow the enemy to rally.

Advantages of Crossfire

Crossfire has a lot of advantages for gamers, particularly those whose gaming time is limited.

  • Crossfire is very easy to learn (but difficult to master!)
  • Crossfire is very fast to play there is no constant need to measure ranges or movement, or to refer to charts or books. Players can therefore spend time on their plans and tactics.
  • No tape measures no arguments over how far units can move or fire
  • Multiple basing of figures allows for rapid movement. Most units comprise several model figures on a single base. It is possible to produce rather nice little dioramas that really improve the look of the game.
  • Visually Crossfire games are very attractive lots of models and scenery and little in the way of clutter except for a few D6's. The terrain looks realistic and also plays a part in the game.
  • Crossfire is one of the FEW rule sets I have ever found where an understanding of tactics and history is more important than a knowledge of the rules.
  • Crossfire produces an obvious winner no more arguing over who won or lost. Equally importantly, the point at which the game was decided is usually pretty obvious.
  • Crossfire is excellent for street fighting games. This is usually a week point in many other rule sets.


  • Crossfire also has a few disadvantages, but in my opinion these are minor points that do not really detract from the overall game.
  • Weapon ranges are non-existent and all weapons have the same range. Since all of the fighting is deemed to be taking place well within the capabilities of the weapons concerned this does not cause any problems with play if this is really a major problem for you then go play some other "realistic" system.
  • Difficult to translate real terrain to Wargames maps. The lack of a ground scale makes it difficult to translate real ground to the tabletop. This is not really a problem however. A friend of mine has successfully run a Crossfire campaign using a series of maps in a WW2 regimental history as a basis for the tabletop terrain.
  • Crossfire is designed primarily for infantry action armour rules are basic but do benefit from a couple of modifications. Tanks and AFVs can play an important role in the game but do not dominate it. Infantry anti-tank weapons all play an important role and even powerful vehicles such as Tigers and JSII's are at risk from the Piat or Panzerfaust. The list of vehicles is sufficiently detailed to allow a wide variety of vehicles.

In addition to the actual playing rules Crossfire includes orders of battle for German, British, Soviet, Italian, US, French and Japanese units, plus a comprehensive selection of AFV data. There is also a section on designing scenarios and a points system.

The "Hit the Dirt" Crossfire supplement has a selection of WW2 scenarios and a bunch of new rules that improve (if possible) on the original game. These include rules for night combat, and a rather good system for randomly controlling the passage of time during a game. This allows the use of time limits and deadlines, and produces games that last for hours of game time rather than minutes (more realism!).

The Crossfire system has taken off quite well in the UK. My own club, Shrewsbury Wargames Society, now uses Crossfire almost exclusively for WW2 games, and we have used the rules for a number of demonstration and participation games. The basic system is also branching out into other periods. Crossfire variants for the Spanish Civil War and the Vietnam War are available on the internet. I have also written a Vietnam supplement, called Incoming! which Mike Ruffle has kindly agreed to publish on this web site.

Well, that is Crossfire in a nutshell. Although radically different from any other rule set the concepts are sound and easy to understand. My own first few games with Crossfire were a shambles until I learned how to combine movement and fire and to really study the lie of the land on the table top. I also found the absence of a tape measure a bit disconcerting, however the real revelation came when I realized how fast and realistic the games were. It is probably the most entertaining and innovative set of rules I have seen and, speaking as a soldier with 23 years service, it most realistically reproduces the problems encountered in action. It is certainly the closest I have come to representing Clausewitz's ideas of "friction" on a wargames table. Like all good ideas Crossfire is essentially simple, however it produces a game which is far more challenging than most.

If you like games with "30 second" turns, or lots of charts and data, or if you feel the differences between the Panther ausf A and D, or the type of magazine fitted to a PPsh sub machine gun, is important to the level of game realism, or if you like games where the game turn is so predictable you can exploit loopholes then Crossfire is not for you. However, if you want to play games which are fast, unpredictable and exciting and also which reflect real history as described by the men who were there, then give Crossfire a try.

Barrie Lovell

Author of Free Fire Zone

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