Vietnam Wargaming Rules Review of Free Fire Zone

Barrie Lovell, Firebase Games 1996 (2nd Edition)

Free Fire Zone RulebookOn the whole this, along with Charlie Company, is the best set of rules which I have come across for playing small unit (Platoon/Company) skirmishing actions. It is also the set which, until recently (when I obtained the new edition Charlie Company rules) I used almost exclusively in my own wargaming, so I can recommend them to anybody wishing to game this period at this scale. My copy of these rules was purchased directly from Barrie Lovell when he was the owner of Firebase Games. Firebase Games and the rights to Free Fire Zone was subsequently sold to Brookhurst Hobbies (see below).

Like all rules sets though there are strengths and weaknesses which you have to balance against each other depending on your perception of the period and your particular style of play.

The emphasis is placed on Command & Control of your forces rather than on the technology which they wield so that maintaining momentum and battlefield initiative are primary concerns. The assumption is that if you can maintain the initiative then you can outmaneuver and eventually either destroy or elude your opponent.

Movement is not fixed but relies on the throw of a number of average dice and the 'going' (either Good or Bad) of the terrain : infantry in good going can move 2 x Average Dice roll e.g. 4" to 10" whilst in bad going the rate of movement can slow considerably (2" to 5"). This is in keeping with accounts that I have read where on the whole infantry tended to advance very cautiously when it was known that the enemy were in the vicinity or if in actual contact.

One extremely good rule is the use of Fire Counters to represent the amount of suppressive fire being laid on a unit. Fire Effect markers (FEM's) directly affect a units ability to act. Despite all your command panache it is sometimes impossible to get a unit moving especially if it is on the limits of your control range. The effect of FEM's can be offset by the proximity of Command figures and the establishing of radio communications so it is therefore imperative that during the game you keep command and control of your units compact and efficient.

Using Direct fire the target has to be located although you may 'recon by fire' at suspected enemy locations. Each weapon in the firing unit has a fire factor and these are added together and then modified for various circumstances and situations. The resulting total is then cross referenced against the firing troop type (Elite, Regular, Conscript and Militia) to obtain a 'To Hit' number. You have to roll less than or equal to this number on 1d100 (percentage dice) to obtain hit(s). Depending on your score you may obtain none, one or multiple hits on the target.

My only argument with this system is that you can have an entire Platoon firing at a located target with very favorable modifiers and yet a single bad dice roll results in absolutely no effect! It is also difficult to represent actions smaller than platoon sized as it becomes very difficult for small numbers of firing soldiers to hit anything e.g. a fireteam of five M-16's has a base chance to hit of 25% (before any modification), one poor roll even against a human wave attack moving in the open only 15 meters from your position means no hits!

However, the game is about Command and Control and even when your fire produces no casualties it still may result in 'Fire Effect' markers being placed on the enemy unit which causes them no end of problems.

The single area in which the game rules are for me a let down, is in the abstract method of dealing with artillery and air support (see Barrie Lovell's answer, below). The rules covering the acquisition and arrival of supporting fire are very good but the means of assessing it's effects are, in my opinion, woefully inadequate. For instance, whether you are firing a 3-tube section of 60mm Mortars or a full Battery of 155mm Howitzers, the actual Area of Effect remains the same; a rectangle measuring 150 meters by 100 meters. The same area of effect applies to air ordnance, irrespective of it being a single 250lb iron bomb or a 1000lb napalm canister. However, just as in Direct Fire where you can 'suppress' the enemy with Fire Effect markers, you can achieve the same result with supporting fire. In fact the use of supporting fire to suppress and in effect 'fix' the enemy in place whilst you outmaneuver them is the best way to use it. There is a 'victory point penalty' for using support fire, designed to rein in the over zealous user and prevent the game from bogging down.

Everything within the area of effect is diced for with a small number of modifiers. As the rules stand it is impossible to inflict casualties on troops which are dug-in with overhead protection in dense vegetation. From my reading I find this unacceptable. Yes it is difficult to budge enemy in such circumstances but certainly not impossible - direct hits by 1000lb delayed fuse bombs destroyed in situ most field fortifications and their occupants! The abstraction of supporting fire in this way, which was after all a central feature of allied operations, is a major flaw in the rules.

The close combat rules are detailed and result in nail-biting situations. If you get into close combat then be prepared for casualties as the fighting is usually very bloody but effective!

A great deal of emphasis is placed on the evacuation of casualties by both sides. The victory point system (if used) reflects this. The overall effect on the allied player is very true to life in that allied forces are generally distracted from their primary missions by the necessity of taking care of their KIA's and WIA's. Similarly the VC/NVA invest much of their effort in denying the allies a 'body count'.

The morale rules ('Reaction to Enemy Fire') are effective and again quite true to life. Poorly controlled units which find themselves under fire in poor positions will be difficult to motivate and will quite often 'go to ground' or seek safety away from the enemy.

One of the optional sets of rules, which I always use, is the ammo supply rules. Whilst the amount of ammo which a unit carries is abstracted into 'ammo points' (each point enabling the unit to fire once) a realistic break is put upon the allies expenditure. Most allied units can put down a withering storm of fire, but good commanders will make fire discipline a central concern - you don't know how long the encounter is going to last, the strength or disposition of the enemy and the availability of re-supply. This often leads to some very dramatic and tense battlefield situations.

There are many other rules sections dealing with things like snipers, prisoners, battlefield illumination, visibility, tunnel warfare, bunker busting, vehicular combat etc. all of which contribute to make this a reasonably comprehensive and very user-friendly rules set. As a bonus there is a full set of 'Riverine Warfare' rules which have similar qualities to the main body of rules.

If you like your games to reflect the inherent problems of command associated with controlling troops in a hostile combat environment then these rules are excellent and are highly recommended.

My sincere thanks to Barrie, the author of FFZ, for sending me the following explanation of his rational behind the support fire rules. I think you will agree, like I found myself doing, that Barrie's explanation certainly helps to overcome my initial objections and makes this particular section of the rules more acceptable.

Barrie wrote:

Just a quick point on the fire support. The original rules were designed to reflect the following:

1. Unless the requester was a trained Artillery FO then they would have little or no say in what was provided, other than giving an azimuth (bearing), range and target description. With regard to air strikes the requester had no choice - you accepted what was available (I have read of only one case where the requester was able to specify the required munitions, and in this case it was requested the day before the air strike was required).

2. The danger zones for friendly air and arty support were large, usually in the region of 500-600 meters plus (500 lb bomb fragments are on record as inflicting friendly casualties at this distance - the FAC said over the radio "I told you guys to stay down!"). However, as you know it was a regular occurrence to call it in a LOT closer. The game system was meant to allow a player to call fire in reasonably close but with the risk of inflicting friendly casualties (even I got caught out with this when using 155mm guns in support).

3. The game system was deliberately simplified to allow players to get on with the game rather than trying to operate unrealistic and complex fire requests. Seeing as how the requester did not have much say in how it worked other than calling for fire this did not seem to be a disadvantage in the game. However, wargamers being what they are I fully expected players to modify or add their own rules.

Incidentally, as part of my job in the TA, I have been trained to call in artillery fire. The procedure is simple and fast but requires good map reading, terrain analysis and compass work. The decision as to what to fire onto the target is taken at battery command post level. We simply give a target and make sure that we are not to close (our safe distance is 600 meters - particularly important when the arty decides to use MLRS rockets!).

The really difficult part of the job is adjusting the rounds on to the target. I have practiced this with smoke to indicate the hits (rather than using real artillery which is hideously expensive) and it can be hard enough in open ground. It also requires good practice at estimating distances. The problems of trying to do it in dense bush or jungle while under fire must have been tremendous...

FREE FIRE ZONE Version 2.1

Free Fire Zone Version 2.1 is available from Brookhurst Hobbies and I extend my thanks to Henry at Brookhurst Hobbies for the opportunity to see the new publication first hand.

The rules themselves remain unchanged although the overall presentation of the material is a considerable improvement over the original 2nd edition. The quality of the publication is much better and the addition of new, clearer, images adds to this sense of a professional production.

An interesting Appendix ('Additional Information and Optional Rules') has been added which details some web sites of interest to gamers of this period (especially if they use FFZ rules) as well as a good article on alternative methods of representing the area of effect from artillery. Revised small arms fire factors are also detailed as well as a brief introduction to NVA kit.

Most impressive is the new cover which leaves one in no doubt about the contents of this rules set.

Overall I would say that this is more of a cosmetic, though welcome, revision of the rules set which will add to the increasing appeal of this period of wargaming. Any newcomers to the hobby who are looking for a well presented, clear and attractive set of rules would do well to consider FFZ.

Rumor has it that the actual mechanisms are now being looked at and with a bit of luck more optional rules will emerge. The rules remain very suited to the period although I still feel that FFZ could well be developed further especially in the areas which I have already mentioned.

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