Legacy Review: Upfront! The Squad Leader Card Game11 Mar 2019 1
Legacy Review: Upfront! The Squad Leader Card Game
Released 01 Jan 1983
Avalon Hill’s Upfront! is easily my favorite wargame of all time, and one of my favorite games in general. Is it perfect? No, but it’s pretty damn close to perfection. Spend more than five minutes perusing any wargame forum and you’ll notice as a group, we wargamers get caught up on the purported “realism” in our games a whole bunch. Because that's what it’s about isn't it? To some degree anyway, it’s why we're here after all.
We’re not sitting down at the gaming table to push meeples around a cornfield and build our “engine” or whatever it is euro gamers do when they get together. No, a wargame, more than anything else is a playable simulacrum of something, usually wars (duh) and battles long past.
Sure there are abstract wargames, but said abstraction is an abstraction of something that lends itself to the simulation at hand. And yes, there are science fiction wargames which certainly aren't past happenings being plausibly represented, but there is still that defining feature of simulation at hand. Even in such fanciful settings as Avalon Hill’s Starship Troopers or GMT’s more recent Space Empires 4x, there is a kind of fidelity under the hood. With that in mind, if simulation and depiction are essential to wargaming, then for my money Upfront! is the quintessential wargame.
For the uninitiated, Upfront! hit shelves in 1983 billed as The Squad Leader Card Game and this pedigree runs through the whole production, from the nomenclature of mechanics, to the “programmed instructions” booklet and iconic Rodger MacGowan art adorning the box. Upfront!, true to its claim as the Squad Leader card game, sees players vie against one another in a variety of small unit skirmishes ranging from a meeting of patrols, to block clearing, and even anti-partisan operations, all utilizing the same 162 card deck. The deck being the driving force of the game, contains both orders able to be issued to your cardstock warriors, as well as many of the unlucky occurrences that can be visited on your plan of attack. The amount of concepts housed in the single deck of cards is ludicrous, ranging from sniper attacks, smoke grenades, close combat, taking prisoners, national characteristics, heroic units, and even calling in “off map” support. Upfront! also comes with a suite of armored fighting vehicles for the American, German, and Soviet armies, although I sadly have yet to give those a spin.
Prior to the scenario you have your objective, and you breakup your squad into teams as you see fit. Then via the cards, you issue orders to your teams as you try to complete the objective. The constraints and friction brought about by the cardplay is plausible thematically and creates a compelling narrative with every game. Additionally, the quality of your troops and their nationality effects both the rate at which you can bring and discard cards from your hand, as well as the size of the hand itself. In game terms this translates into pretty effective representations of the game’s featured armies. For example, the Americans with their hand size of 6 and possibility of discarding up to 2 cards a turn, can generally bide their time and build a plan (read: hand) of attack, while also enjoying the benefits of having access to more smoke than their Axis and Soviet counter-parts.
Also, is the much ballyhooed “relative range” system, which has drawn the ire of many a gamer trying to come to grips with the game. Once it has been groked however, it is a pretty intuitive way of playing a mapless wargame. Relative range is between 1 and 5, with 1 being around 500 meters away and 5 being “the whites of their eyes” territory. Say my team “A” is at range 2, and across from them, my enemy’s team “A” is at range 1. Adding their ranges nets us range 3, in game terms roughly 300 meters, which is where shots start getting potent. This system allows for all sorts of small unit concepts to manifest in game, with flanking, cross fires, and even infiltration being contingent upon the range of combatants to one another.
Upfront!’s greatest achievement however, and the thing all the rules and mechanics work towards, is it’s laser focus on a particular headspace, namely that of the squad leader. A game of Upfront! plays like the text on the back of the old Squad Leader boxes. With your squad pinned down by machine gun fire and unable to move, you spy about a hundred meters up a section of wall (after a few turns stuck in place and unable to move on account of the MG42 at relative range 2, you finally draw a wall card). You split off your submachine gunners and a rifleman from the squad, and lay suppression while they make a break for the cover up ahead (using a move card, you split up your squad, and another fire card to pop off shots at the enemy machine gun crew).
They arrive at the wall and proceed to do the same, keeping up the fire to allow for a rapid bounding advance when suddenly your assistant squad leader is killed instantly by a sniper's bullet, causing the men with him panic (You play another fire order on the new group, and a movement card on the other group behind them. While in transit, your opponent discards the dreaded “sniper” card on them, and lady RNG visits upon the unlucky NCO resulting in a temporary reduction in hand size). All of this describes about three turns worth of action, and not once does the game ever make you leave the perspective of being there among your units. “Seeing” the terrain, or likewise stumbling into precarious terrain you didn’t “see”, and navigating some of the best fog of war mechanics in board wargaming often inspire gameplay anecdotes that sound more like Arma or Ghost Recon than a card game.
Yeah sure, there's some caveats. For one, like other games of the era it can be a bit “mathy”, and the relative range concept can be a mind bender at first, particularly when less than frequent situations crop up. Having a group move “around” an enemy unit, or moving backwards into negative relative range can be a little weird until you get used to it. Additionally, for a lot of Upfront!’s gameplay concepts to register, it helps to have an understanding of why things in the game were designed the way they are. A read through of Courtney Allen’s designer notes at the back of the rulebook goes a long way towards making some seemingly “gamey” mechanics into intelligible representations of World War Two combat at this scale. Up until recently, scarcity was another issue for those looking to get into the game, fortunately this isn't a problem anymore. For a longest time, the titles availability was limited to paying out the wazoo on eBay, but luckily Wargamers Vault acquired Upfront! and it’s expansions, making scarcity and exorbitant prices a moot point.
Upfront! holds up tremendously well for a 36 year old game. It is still after all this time a unique design, and doesn't have much by way of a competitor trying to do what it does. The closest thing would probably be GMT’s popular Combat Commander series, which apes Upfront!’s card based take on command and control, but also incorporates mapboards and pieces à la a traditional hex-and-counter wargame. However, with a map comes a loss of that sense of “being there” that Upfront! delivers in spades, and as a consequence sometimes the cardplay works against what is depicted on the mapboard. And although not out yet, Lock ‘N Load Publishing’s Point Blank looks like it could finally deliver a worthy successor to Upfront!’s mantle. The scale is slightly larger (your units are squads as opposed to individuals soldiers), but it ticks all the right boxes in what you would want from a game treading similar ground as Avalon Hill’s classic. In a The Players Aid interview with the designer, Sean Druelinger, Druelinger directly said that Point Blank is inspired by Upfront!, which bodes well for those left wanting more by Combat Commander’s rendition of the Upfront! formula.
I could go on and on extolling the virtues of my favorite wargame, but word counts are a thing and I’d like to think I made my point. If World War II tactical combat is your jam, you owe it to yourself to try out this game. It came out almost a decade before the Berlin Wall fell, and there is still nothing like it in the wargame-verse as of this writing. For those that do take the plunge, the cult of Upfront! has churned out all types of players aides and condensed rules to expedite the learning curve, all of which are available on BoardGameGeek. Even the non-wargamers in my life, who I’ve cajoled into playing Upfront! all came away impressed at how much simulation is distilled down into that single deck of cards.