Field Command Review - Chess with Cannons
Updated: Jul 7
Field Command is a board game from 1991, making this review a whopping 31 years late. I bought the game on a whim at a used game auction because no one had met the minimum $15 bid and it seemed worthwhile risk for a game with loads of minis and 3D terrain. It looks like a heavy wargame from the size of the box, 19th century-style painting of a Napoleonic battle on the cover, and the utilitarian representation of the battlefield on the board, but it's really more of an abstract strategy. This is better thought of as a much more mentally demanding Stratego than as a true wargame.
Like Stratego, you begin by secretly deploying all of your units behind a screen and your sole objective is to capture a defenseless opposing piece (the general, in this case) before your opponent captures yours. Instead of keeping your unit classes being hidden, though, it's their movement that is obscured. Each player writes 12 moves to be executed per day and then both sets of moves are run simultaneously. Each unit can only move once per day, which limits the amount of projection you have to do in your head, but 24 moves is still a lot to keep track of and there will almost certainly be plenty of times when you waste an order on an illegal move or accidentally trigger a combat you weren't planning for.
Unit interactions are relatively simple. Terrain height doesn't matter at all except for determining artillery killzones, and any opposing units inside those die at the end of the turn unless they are guerillas. Infantry and cavalry come in three classes (1<2<3<1) and are strong in forest and fields respectively, although our game has a misprint that reverses their favored terrain. Guerillas lose to whichever class is strong on a terrain and beat whichever one is weak, and everything beats both artillery and generals if they ever share a space. The various unit and terrain advantages combined with artillery protection creates a lot of interesting situations where only certain units are capable of breaking through the enemy lines in certain places, so you'll need to figure out how to position yourself to exploit the weaknesses without exposing your own units in the process.
All of this is pretty cool and works well. It's fun to see your plan collide with your opponent's even when you realize partway through that you've forgotten about an artillery and have sent an important unit to its death. The box estimates a three hour playtime, but we took closer to two hours, and you could reduce it even further with familiarity and fast players. Even so, this is definitely a game that benefits from having players who are willing to concede once they've reached a board state with no plausible way to win. It's easy to drag the game out with your general in the corner and some powerful defensive positions protecting him, but waiting twenty turns for artillery to cross the board and break the stalemate would not be fun for anyone.
This is a much more mentally demanding game than you'd think from looking at it, and we both came away from it properly exhausted. That's fine as long as you're okay with it going in, but it's unfortunate that the rulebook isn't really up to snuff given how strategically demanding the game can be. The rulebook (sheet, really) seems to suggest that one player's moves should be fully executed before the next player's, which is thematically nonsense and would confer a huge advantage to player one. It also isn't clear if a move through an opponent's piece is meant to be considered illegal or if the combat is allowed to happen "on the way" to the legal destination. Add in the aforementioned misprint on terrain strength and you've got a game that's going to require a fair amount of player interpretation. That's fine as long as you can agree on something, but it would be difficult to accept in a newer game.
All told, I like it. It's one you have to be in the mood for and you'll need an opponent who is neither prone to AP nor too much of a stickler for following the rules exactly. Given that and a few hours to play, though, I think you'll have a good time.