Blast from the Past: Avalon Hill's Firepower

By Joe Fonseca 08 Jul 2019 0

I recently received Firepower as a gift out of the blue. My wonderful friends, who happened to find it in a bargain bin and who knew I played wargames, had no real concept about the legacy of that beat-up box or what was hidden away inside of it. Neither did I when I first got my hands on it: What I found surprised me, and what started as a curiosity has become a game that I can’t wait to put on the table again and again.

Firepower is an Avalon Hill skirmish game that tries to emulate small scale man to man fighting from the 1940s until the present day. The present day being 1984 in this context, as that’s when the game first released. Each chit represents a single man, weapon, or vehicle while turns represent only 30 seconds of real time.

After opening the lid, I was awed by the sheer number of charts that came flopping out. Initially an indecipherable mash of letters and numbers, I later learned that the pile of brightly coloured card in front of me actually hid the means to fight out almost any type of small scale combat scenario from the recent past, with enough mechanisms in place to extend the games timeline in either direction with a bit of tweaking.

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The game is split, in that now painfully inefficient ‘80s rulebook way, into a basic game and an advanced game. While playing an actual scenario of the advanced game, there’s an almost choose your own adventure level of page flipping to figure out essential mechanics. The basic game is frankly not worth playing if you’ve ever touched a wargame before, and may put prospective players off of the wonderful advanced game, though I soloed it to get my feet wet. The basic scenario has two equal squads and  separate game charts giving you a sense of how weapons, grenades, and a then innovative chit pulling activation system work, without unlocking any of the potential that Firepower offers.

The real game is in the advanced and optional rules. More of a toolbox than a toybox, Firepower offers players such a level of granularity that it seems almost ridiculous that nothing has really attempted to dethrone it in all these years. There are mechanics in play for tossing grenades back, tunnels, wounding soldiers, crewed weapons, and one I personally adore, regulating automatic fire by whether or not the shooter can brace the weapon against something like a foxhole or window. On top of that is the sheer number of squads and weapon systems included. If you’d like to fight urban actions during the Iran-Iraq war, or an ambush between revolutionary forces in the Angolan jungle, or patrols meeting in Vietnam, you can, with all the associated weapons accounted for in the squad descriptions and on the charts.

In playing out a scenario that we set during the struggle for independence in Portugal’s colonial empire, I was surprised to see that the designers had accounted for Portugal’s mishmash of small arms, setting up the squad with a German MG42. These little touches of accuracy help situate Firepower, but also highlight some interesting aspects behind its design.

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The first section of the advanced rules set out the background for the game and some of its design decisions. Firepower operates on the theories put forth by S.L.A. Marshall in his work Men Against Fire. Marshall, who did a great deal of interviewing of combat soldiers during the Second World War and the Korean War, posited that a significant portion of combat soldiers would be unable to fire their weapons in combat, in part because of a deep-seated emotional restraint against violence. Citing figures as high as 25%, Marshall advocated for training to combat this perceived threat to US military efficiency. Controversial at the time, Marshall’s figures especially have continued to receive fire from scholars and members of the military when very little of Marshall’s data could be found and other studies failed to corroborate his conclusions.

Firepower focuses on this (probably overexaggerated) emotional freeze as well as notions of ‘natural fighters’ to support its chit pull activation system and small number of squad activations in general. An irregular squad for instance, might receive three chits to be pulled in a turn, with each pull translating to two hex activations. A more competent and well-trained squad might receive 4 chits and 3 activations each. Not being able to move your entire squad in a given turn may seem odd, but the timescale and the presuppositions that the designers were working with make it more acceptable. As a game it forces increasingly difficult decisions on the player. I tend to mark that as a good thing. An example of a recent game saw me having to choose between moving exposed men in an ambush to safety and beginning a flanking maneuver on the ambushers. It generates interesting gameplay.

For all the praise I’ve given Firepower, it is definitely not for everyone, and definitely shows its age. I firmly categorize Firepower as a simulation, rather than a game, though that doesn’t mean it’s not fun. On the contrary between myself and a regular wargaming opponent, Firepower has become something we’ve returned to again and again. Once all of the advanced rules are internalized, and some prep work is done in writing out separately which weapons are used in the scenario, much of the busywork is avoided. But it does require putting in that extra effort, and players will have to be content with games that might fizzle as it becomes prudent to preserve forces or avoid engagement, especially if you’re playing a campaign variant. An aside here, Firepower comes with vehicles, but we’ve yet to give them a try. We’ve been content with fighting out the infantry scenarios.

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The art is another thing worth mentioning. It is decidedly ‘80s. I find the map art to be charming in a garish way, but the chits are not worth writing home about. The informational ones convey themselves easily enough, but the fighters have frankly unpleasant art with odd facings. I’ve toyed with the idea of making replacements.

While the game has only a few included scenarios, there are dozens more, stretching from Nicaragua to Prohibition gangsters hidden away in The General, a magazine that Avalon Hill produced back in the day but is now in various places on the internet. My copy of Firepower came with a wonderful stack of cut out scenarios from the previous owner, but there is nothing stopping you from finding them online.

Firepower is fascinating. As a product of its time, it is a wonderful exploration of simulation wargaming touching on often difficult conflicts, complete with all of the clunkiness of rules, art, and rulebook formatting that one would expect. Yet it’s become a regular on the lists for our wargaming nights and probably will be for a fair while longer. At least until we get through a few more The General scenarios.

Firepower is out of print, as far as we can tell, but you can find second-hand or old copies for sale across EBay, Amazon and BGG.

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