Earlier this year, my friend and colleague Ro, a.k.a. RoBroMinis introduced me to Flames of War, a 1:100-scale table-top WWII miniatures game. I plan to do a lot of writing about historical research, 3D modeling, and 3D printing in the context of the game, but this post is about a slightly different topic: building your force.

Introduction

I continuously see people asking questions on the Flames of War sub-Reddit along the lines of, “Is this list any good?” or, “What should I consider when building my force?” so I wanted to document the process of building my own force and share it with others. I’ll cover each iteration and play test of my force, discussing what worked and what didn’t. That means this is primarily a case study, but I tried to include some general reflections at the end about what I learned from the process.

I’ve been preparing my Americans for a late-war (V4) D-Day tournament. A caveat of the tournament is that force lists need to be finalized and declared a week in advance, so tweaking your list during the tournament isn’t an option. The tournament is set to take place on November 17, 2019, so starting in late August my gaming buddies and I played exclusively 85-point D-Day lists to practice and work out what we would bring.

Before we get started, this is a very long post, and I know some readers may just want to read the reflections. You can find them here:

  1. What is a "Good" Unit?
  2. What is a "Good" Force?
  3. Learning Your Playing Style

Part 1: Evolving from Mid-War

Version A

The first iteration of my list centered around half-tracks and heavy weapons. I had recently purchased a V3 29th Infantry Division Assault Company (UBX09) box set for 50%-off at my local game shop. However, rather than lock myself into using a Assault Boat Sections, I decided to set aside the Bangalore torpedos and flame throwers and build the kit into generic infantry instead.

I had seen half-tracks and Stuarts perform relatively well (and at low-cost) during our mid-war games, so I started there, added a typical amount of tanks, and was eager to try out the M12 155mm “Door-Knockers” with their AUTO firepower rating.

  • Sherman Tank Company (31 pts.)
    • M4 Sherman Tank Company HQ (7 pts.)
      • 2 × M4 Shermans (75mm)
    • M4 Sherman (76mm) Tank Platoon (18 pts.)
      • 4 × M4 Shermans (76mm)
    • M5 Stuart Tank Platoon (6 pts.)
      • 3 × M5 Stuarts (37mm)
  • Veteran Armored Rifle Company (36 pts.)
    • Veteran Armored Rifle Company HQ (3 pts.)
      • 2 × Thompson SMG teams
      • 1 × Jeep (.50-cal MG)
    • 2 × Veteran Armored Rifle Platoon (2 × 15 pts.)
      • 4 × M1 Garand rifle teams
      • 4 × M1 Bazooka teams
      • 2 × M1919 LMG teams
      • 1 × 60mm mortar teams
      • 2 × M3 Half-tracks (.50-cal MG)
      • 2 × M3 Half-tracks (.30-cal MG)
    • Veteran Armored 57mm Anti-Tank Platoon (3 pts.)
      • 2 × 57mm towed anti-tank guns
  • Support (18 pts.)
    • M12 155mm Artillery Battery (12 pts.)
      • 4 × M12 Self-Propelled Artillery (155mm)
    • 3” Towed Tank Destroyer Platoon (6 pts.)
      • 2 × 3” towed anti-tank guns

Results for Version A

During that week’s game, I made two observations:

  1. The 57mm anti-tank guns were not quite strong enough and did not have the range to effectively take out tanks. If a panzer was within the guns’ 28” range, the gun teams were in trouble.
  2. The 155mm artillery sound great on paper (although to be honest, on paper I was intending to abuse them as tank destroyers), but in practice they are highly impractical (even in an artillery role). They suffer from the unfortunate combination of a moving rate-of-fire of 0, and no top armor. This meant they were constantly in danger of being destroyed by mortars and had to keep moving, meaning, of course, that they couldn’t fire.

Version B

The following week I ditched the M12s and 57mm anti-tank guns and replaced them with an additional platoon of armored infantry.

  • Sherman Tank Company (31 pts.)
    • M4 Sherman Tank Company HQ (7 pts.)
      • 2 × M4 Shermans (75mm)
    • M4 Sherman (76mm) Tank Platoon (18 pts.)
      • 4 × M4 Shermans (76mm)
    • M5 Stuart Tank Platoon (6 pts.)
      • 3 × M5 Stuarts (37mm)
  • Veteran Armored Rifle Company (48 pts.)
    • Veteran Armored Rifle Company HQ (3 pts.)
      • 2 × Thompson SMG teams
      • 1 × Jeep (.50-cal MG)
    • 3 × Veteran Armored Rifle Platoon (3 × 15 pts.)
      • 4 × M1 Garand rifle teams
      • 4 × M1 Bazooka teams
      • 2 × M1919 LMG teams
      • 1 × 60mm mortar teams
      • 2 × M3 Half-tracks (.50-cal MG)
      • 2 × M3 Half-tracks (.30-cal MG)
  • Support (6 pts.)
    • 3” Towed Tank Destroyer Platoon (6 pts.)
      • 2 × 3” towed anti-tank guns

Results for Version B

This list proved that two issues which often cripple expensive tank formations—unit and formation last stands—are easily avoided by using larger formations of infantry units. This sounds somewhat obvious but having a small, easily-broken formation cost you the game is an easy mistake to make as a novice.

Although I was pleased with the armored rifle company’s ability to weather the storm, the same couldn’t be said for the M5 Stuarts. While “Stuart spam” was a relatively successful tactic in mid-war, the M5s were out of their league against late-war German armor. They might as well have been made of cardboard and armed with water guns. At 2 points each they are definitely cheap, but with such a short life-expectancy they were a liability to the rest of the formation. When the shells started flying, I was very quickly working with a 2-unit tank formation, one of which was the relatively vulnerable 2-team HQ unit. The 76mms performed well but were in constant danger of fleeing due to the “formation last stand” rule.

Version C

German armor was chewing through my force with ease so I attempted to counter it with more armor and anti-tank guns. I eliminated the M5 Stuarts and replaced them with M4 Shermans (75mm). Unfortunately the increased price meant I had to lose an armored rifle platoon, but with the left over points, I was able to increase the 76mm Sherman platoon from four teams to five, and double the number of anti-tank guns.

  • Sherman Tank Company (40 pts.)
    • M4 Sherman Tank Company HQ (7 pts.)
      • 2 × M4 Shermans (75mm)
    • M4 Sherman (76mm) Tank Platoon (23 pts.)
      • 5 × M4 Shermans (76mm)
    • M4 Sherman Tank Platoon (6 pts.)
      • 3 × M4 Shermans (75mm)
  • Veteran Armored Rifle Company (33 pts.)
    • Veteran Armored Rifle Company HQ (3 pts.)
      • 2 × Thompson SMG teams
      • 1 × Jeep (.50-cal MG)
    • 2 × Veteran Armored Rifle Platoon (2 × 15 pts.)
      • 4 × M1 Garand rifle teams
      • 4 × M1 Bazooka teams
      • 2 × M1919 LMG teams
      • 1 × 60mm mortar teams
      • 2 × M3 Half-tracks (.50-cal MG)
      • 2 × M3 Half-tracks (.30-cal MG)
  • Support (12 pts.)
    • 3” Towed Tank Destroyer Platoon (12 pts.)
      • 4 × 3” towed anti-tank guns

Results for Version C

I was successful in my goal of countering German armor: the five 76mm Shermans were a force to be reckoned with and the four 3” anti-tank guns fulfilled the role I originally tried to fill with the 155mm artillery. They didn’t have AUTO firepower, but they had decent-enough odds at destroying a tank to act as strong deterrents.

That being said, I did become acutely aware of a long-standing issue with my armored rifle company. The extra fire-power the half-tracks brought to the table was appreciated but I was finding the use of transport vehicles cumbersome at best. Over the last several games, I almost never needed to shuttle my units back and forth across the table, and on the rare occasion where it was critical, they regularly had to cross terrain. The half-tracks have a terrain dash of 10”, meaning there was virtually no use to loading my gun teams into them: they could just walk along side the struggling vehicles with their own 8” tactical moves.

Version D

Despite the above realization, I was leery of relying too heavily on my tank platoons by using them against enemy armor and infantry simultaneously. So for the time being I kept the armored rifle company on the list, but in acknowledging that they work better moving slowly, decided to trade one 76mm Sherman in for three 81mm mortar half-tracks, and a command card, “French Resistance Raid,” which would allow me to force an opponent to re-roll for reserves.

  • Sherman Tank Company (35 pts.)
    • M4 Sherman Tank Company HQ (7 pts.)
      • 2 × M4 Shermans (75mm)
    • M4 Sherman (76mm) Tank Platoon (18 pts.)
      • 4 × M4 Shermans (76mm)
    • M4 Sherman Tank Platoon (6 pts.)
      • 3 × M4 Shermans (75mm)
  • Veteran Armored Rifle Company (36 pts.)
    • Veteran Armored Rifle Company HQ (3 pts.)
      • 2 × Thompson SMG teams
      • 1 × Jeep (.50-cal MG)
    • 2 × Veteran Armored Rifle Platoon (2 × 15 pts.)
      • 4 × M1 Garand rifle teams
      • 4 × M1 Bazooka teams
      • 2 × M1919 LMG teams
      • 1 × 60mm mortar teams
      • 2 × M3 Half-tracks (.50-cal MG)
      • 2 × M3 Half-tracks (.30-cal MG)
    • Veteran Armored M4 81mm Mortar Platoon (3 pts.)
      • 3 × M4 81mm Mortar Motor Carriage
  • Support (12 pts.)
    • 3” Towed Tank Destroyer Platoon (12 pts.)
      • 4 × 3” towed AT guns
  • Command Cards (2 pts.)
    • French Resistance Raid (2 pts.)

Results for Version D

Infuriatingly, the armored rifle company continued to suffer mobility issues, especially when arriving as a scattered late reserve and needing to high-tail it to an objective at the other end of the table. Despite navigating around stands of trees, some terrain pieces, such as train tracks, still had to be crossed and I quickly calculated it would take three more turns for my armored rifle platoon to be where they needed to be. I lost the game, and I decided the half-track approach was not working for me. In addition, my hit-on-3+ Shermans were still easy prey for German armor if not in cover or long-range.

Part 2: Deploy the Rangers!

Up until this point every force had been based on the Sherman and half-track formations, but with Version D of the list I realized it was time to rethink it from the ground up and adjust my play style.

Version E

I was relatively happy with my Shermans and the “French Resistance Raid” still seemed handy. Apart from that, though, the entire list would be scrapped. There was a new command card I wanted to try, though: “Naval Gunfire.” It sounded promising:

Naval Gunfire

Each Shooting Step, choose a Formation HQ Team or an Observer to request a Naval Gunfire bombardment. On a roll of 5+ (or 4+ if the team is from an Assault Company (LU137), Veteran Assault Company (LU143), or Ranger Company (LU134)), they may Spot for a four-gun Naval Gunfire Bombardment using their own Skill rating and the following weapon stats:

RANGE ROF ANTI-TANK FIRE-POWER
UNLIMITED ARTILLERY 4 AUTO

Remove the Ranged In marker for this bombardment at the end of the Shooting Step.

That should be, I estimated, good enough to keep the panzers dodging.

In combination with this, I decided to go for the rangers, since the entire formation was relatively cheap and with Rally and Assault ratings of 2+, they were sure to suit my aggressive playing style. I could already hear Captain Miller yelling, “Come on! Move! Clear those murder-holes!”

I also decided to beef up my Shermans by making them veterans since I had the points to spare. This would mean they were as hard to hit (minimum 4+) as most German tanks.

  • Veteran Sherman Tank Company (44 pts.)
    • Veteran M4 Sherman Tank Company HQ (9 pts.)
      • 2 × M4 Shermans (75mm)
    • Veteran M4 Sherman (76mm) Tank Platoon (22 pts.)
      • 4 × M4 Shermans (76mm)
    • Veteran M4 Sherman Tank Platoon (13 pts.)
      • 3 × M4 Shermans (75mm)
  • Ranger Company (27 pts.)
    • Ranger Company HQ (1 pt.)
      • 1 × Thompson SMG team
    • 2 × Ranger Platoon (2 × 10 pts.)
      • 5 × Garand rifle teams
      • 2 x Bazooka teams
      • 1 x 60mm mortar team
    • Ranger Mortar Platoon (6 pts.)
      • 4 × 81mm mortar teams
  • Command Cards (14 pts.)
    • Naval Gunfire (12 pts.)
    • French Resistance Raid (2 pts.)

Results for Version E

On his first turn, Hendrik decided he would assault one of my ranger platoons with some MGs. Despite landing countless hits, the rangers have a 3+ save and easily survived it. They also charged back, counter-assaulting, and with a fearsome assault rating of Deadly 2+, quickly crippled the German platoon.

I was in love.

Later that game my slightly tougher 75mm Shermans sprung an ambush on a pair of Tiger Is which were trying very hard not to expose their rear ends to the several bazookas hiding in the nearby forests. The Shermans knocked out one of the Tigers, which as Hendrik said, “Is not really supposed to happen to Tigers.”

“Naval Gunfire” turned out to not be as useful as I had hoped; spotting for it required one of my ranger platoons to remain stationary and even then it had only a 33% chance of ranging in (4+ (50%) to “get on the table,” and 3+ (66%) to range in). Assuming it did, the enemy had a 66% chance of making their armor save (assuming a top armor of 1), bringing my odds down to 11%. Granted, scoring a hit with an anti-tank gun at long range and through cover is not substantially better, but both of those factors are mitigatable during game-play, and more importantly did not rely on another unit remaining stationary and maintaining line of sight with the target.

Version F

I had been incredibly pleased with the performance of my units in the week prior. I played one more game with that list, but once again failed to achieve a single kill using “Naval Gunfire.” Once again I saw myself attempting to use heavy artillery in an anti-tank role and decided the only modification I would make in this iteration was to replace the “Naval Gunfire” with the four 3” anti-tank guns that had performed well several versions earlier.

  • Veteran Sherman Tank Company (44 pts.)
    • Veteran M4 Sherman Tank Company HQ (9 pts.)
      • 2 × M4 Shermans (75mm)
    • Veteran M4 Sherman (76mm) Tank Platoon (22 pts.)
      • 4 × M4 Shermans (76mm)
    • Veteran M4 Sherman Tank Platoon (13 pts.)
      • 3 × M4 Shermans (75mm)
  • Ranger Company (27 pts.)
    • Ranger Company HQ (1 pt.)
      • 1 × Thompson SMG team
    • 2 × Ranger Platoon (2 × 10 pts.)
      • 5 × Garand rifle teams
      • 2 x Bazooka teams
      • 1 x 60mm mortar team
    • Ranger Mortar Platoon (6 pts.)
      • 4 × 81mm mortar teams
  • Support (12 pts.)
    • 3” Towed Tank Destroyer Platoon (12 pts.)
      • 4 × 3” towed AT guns
  • Command Cards (2 pts.)
    • French Resistance Raid (2 pts.)

Results for Version E

This list performed very admirably. Ro argued that four anti-tank guns may have been overkill, but they were very successful in acting as a strong deterrent. The mission (which rather interestingly called for my deployment on a short table edge and the Germans in the center of the table) became, essentially, a six-turn-long tactical retreat by the Germans. In addition, my opponents’ disappointment upon re-rolling (and losing) their reserves (thanks to “French Resistance Raid”) was almost palpable.

I ended up losing since we ran out of time and I had lost slightly more units, but I felt confident that this was a fighting force which could successfully battle its way through Normandy at the tournament.

Version G

I did try one final experiment, attempting to add more infantry MG fire, and replacing each of the 60mm mortars with an additional M1 Garand team. The latter was logical; the 60mm were useless when the platoon was on the move, and a liability when the platoon was assaulting. In hindsight, the former was a poor choice. I ended up trading two powerful anti-tank guns and the “French Resistance Raid” for a rifle platoon with two LMGs. I decided I would use Version F in the tournament, with the 60mm mortars swapped for M1 Garands.

Reflections

What is a “Good” Unit?

I think Flames of War is a pretty well-balanced game, however there are definitely some units that seem to regularly perform better than others. Normally this is balanced using their cost, but not always. In some cases relatively cheap units such as the 3” anti-tank guns and rangers more than paid for themselves while other units, such as the 155mm self-propelled guns, were more impressive in appearance than performance.

What’s interesting to note is that real-life historical performance doesn’t necessarily translate into Flames of War performance. While anti-tank guns were known to be a a very real and dangerous threat to tanks, and the rangers’ resolve and fighting spirit is legendary, the 155mm artillery pieces were also well regarded and that didn’t translate into the game-play for me. Likewise, tank destroyers such M10s were fast and sneaky in real life, but at the Flames of War scale and format in which the enemy can see everything on the table, the doctrine which the M10s were designed for doesn’t really apply.

Therefore, Lesson #1 is:

Avoid historical bias for or against units and evaluate them critically in the context of the game.

What is a “Good” Force?

Flames of War includes several rules that make it easy to lose the game on technicalities. One of the largest mistakes I see many people make is attempting to play a little bit of everything. Unless you’re playing a game with 200 points, you’ll end up with small formations with small units. Small units have a tendency to go from highly effective to “Oh God, run! Save yourself!” in the course of a single lucky roll by your opponent. This is especially true with artillery which has advantages and disadvantages tied directly to the number of present teams. The last stand rules also have a cascading effect as well: failing last stands at the unit level can quickly mean invoking the formation last stand rule, and for that one you don’t even get to roll.

Flames of War seems to inherently (maybe unfortunately) favor defensive play, with protracted battles that often are resolved by counting destroyed units when time is up. This should heavily incentivize you to not lose units (or worse, formations) because of last stands. Try to put as much of your budget within a formation as you can. 12 points spent on another two tank teams or an infantry platoon in your main formation tends to be more valuable than 12 points spent on a chaotic mix of anti-aircraft and tank destroyers.

This brings us to Lesson #2:

Be selective and focus on building beefed up, unbreakable formations. If more than ⅓ of your points are being spent on support, it likely means you’re too diversified. It’s easy to think of Support as its own “Misc. Formation” but it’s not; it’s support for your main formations and if they leave the table, so will all your support!

Learning Your Playing Style

The best force is one which matches your playing style. Unfortunately, that’s a hard thing to figure out quickly and the most challenging part of the process I described above was figuring out at which moments I was clinging to something that didn’t work, and at which moments I was abandoning an idea before I had really had a chance to test it.

Ro pointed out to me one day at lunch that in other war-games, players often take weeks or months to test out a single force and get comfortable with its strengths, weaknesses, and idiosyncrasies. I plowed through that process in eight weeks, almost never playing more than one game with a given list. In retrospect, this was probably too compressed of a timetable to really effectively evaluate each list’s performance. I suspect that most things which I deemed “just not working” could work for the right player with the right strategy.

Therefore, finally, Lesson #3 is:

Give yourself enough time to explore a force before deciding it does or does not work. That being said, don’t hang on to something which simply doesn’t work for you. My advice is to play three games with a list. This gives you time to learn from any mistakes you made, and if after three games it’s not working for you, abandon it and try something else.

If you made it this far, thank you very much for reading! I know this was a very long article but I hope that it has given you insight and inspiration into developing a Flames of War force list that works for you.