Phantom Fury

The Second Battle of Fallujah

Iraq, November 9 2004

Game board

Overview of part of the board

This is a solitaire wargame from Nuts Publishing about the fighting by the 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines in the district of Jolan, Fallujah. The designer is Laurent Closier. The player has to clear the board of enemy forces – Insurgents – against a strict deadline, and with limited resources.

The system is quite straightforward, and after a little bit of familiarization, flows smoothly. The board is split into Zones (areas) which are groups of buildings. Each Zone graphically record the available Locations (spaces). For example, a typical Zone has a Location (Courtyard, with a door, showing one entry), a 1 Location (ground floor for non Americans), a 2 Location (first floor), a 2′ Location (first floor), and an R Location (roof).  There are a couple of special Zones, namely the Mosque, and one large open ground Zone. There are also Street Sections criss-crossing the board, places where the Marines are especially likely to encounter sniper fire.

Here come the baddies

Zones are activated by drawing from a pool of chits. This determines if the Zone is normal or fortified. In a nice touch, the player can vary the number of fortified chits to increase or decrease the challenge. After determining the type of activation, the player draws two Suspect chits from another pool. These chits have different preferred Locations, so may go into a 1, 2 or R Location in the activated Zone. The Suspects stay that way till assaulted or fired upon, in which case the player determines – by die roll – whether they are false alarms (whew!), Guerillas (who fight, but want to live), Martyrs (who fight, but want to die) Improvised Explosive Devices (nasty) or a trigger (ahem) for a Sniper attack.

Here come the Marines!

Here come the Marines!

Marines and friends

Marine forces (squads of 6-13 men) come in strengths of 4, 5 or 6. As the player draws his starting force randomly, it can result in the best troops not being available at the start; a tricky situation. However, the player also has some heavy support in the shape of four CAAT (Combined Anti Armor Team) units which deliver extra firepower for a limited number of shots, and schlep around the single use, deadly, explosives. There are three IIF (Iraqi Intervention Force) units available as reinforcements, necessary as they are the only friendly units allowed to enter the Mosque.

The player also has an M1A1 Abrams tank for support. (There’s a second tank available as a historical variant, but at the price of reducing the time available.) The player has regular Marine reinforcements too, with Company reinforcements available for free, but Battalion reinforcements available at a cost in Victory Points.

Lastly, the player has limited Dragon Eye, Air Cobra, and Hornet support. Each support is dependent on a die roll, and on failure the enemy forces may take advantage to improve their position. The Dragon Eye (4 available) allows the player to activate Zones, thus identifying what lies ahead. The Super Cobra (2 available) eliminates enemy units. The Hornet (1 available) eliminates enemy units in a Zone and turn it into ruins.

The game system allows the player to try out the tactics used. For example, the Marines can take Zones top down, or bottom up. Each has advantages and disadvantages.

Mapping success

One point to emphasize: the map graphics tell you key information, like the retreat priority. No need to look at the rules. The map performs several jobs like this – line of sight, and movement, for example – in an exemplary fashion. It is one of the best maps I have ever seen in terms of helping the player play the game. It’s also nice to look at.

Draw and roll

The potential for random events keeps a bit of spice and variety in the game, which is otherwise very repetitive. There’s a lot of die rolling, and a lot of chit drawing, probably inevitable in a solitaire game that does not use cards. (I would like to see an enhanced package, perhaps with more than one battle, where the game engine of dice and chits was replaced with cards. I suspect that would be faster, easier and more fun.) However, while it is hard work, there’s a sense of satisfaction in getting things right. For example, as the player you have to decide what routes to take, whether to deploy security teams and cut off retreat routes but reduce firepower, whether to risk crossing the street or waiting for support to clear the Zone ahead, and so on. And all the time, the clock ticks on.

Marines in action

Marines in action

As hinted at above, there are Victory Points to measure performances. But, essentially, these matter for little unless the complete board is cleared.

The graphic representation is first class. The counters – incorporating Pinned and Fired status are clear, clever and effective. The map cannot be praised too highly. (One quibble: I would have preferred the space for the Activated Zone markers not to obscure the Zone number.) There were some counter errors, but the replacement counters came with the game. Well done, Nuts! The rules are very tightly written (little repetition) with excellent examples. The style will not please everyone, but they appear to be comprehensive and answered every question I had. I cannot remember the last time this happened, so a special vote of thanks to the rules writer.

I enjoyed the challenge this game presented, and the time invested was worthwhile. I liked trying to figure out ways to improve my units’ speed in clearing the board, but was frequently frustrated. That’s probably a fair reflection of reality, though as a solitaire game, if it goes badly in the early stages, at least you can start again without upsetting your opponent.

Closing

Two things to finish on. First, I heard about this game thanks to an excellent review by David Hughes (former gaming opponent) in Battles magazine. Long may that magazine continue to swim against the tide of dying dead tree press ventures. Second, the game is based almost entirely on an article in the Marine Corps Gazette. The source (and other source material) is quoted. But do not expect a Sergeant Rock type game where the Marines are all powerful and the enemy impotent. Put it this way, while it may be a measure of my tactical competence, after half a dozen attempts I have still to beat the system.