Combat Commander: Europe
CC volume 1
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Combat Commander is a card-driven board game series covering tactical infantry combat in the European and North African Theaters of World War II. One player takes the role of the Axis (Germany in this first game; Italy & the Axis Minors in later installments) while another player commands the Allies (Russia & America here; Britain, France & the Allied Minors in future expansions).
This first game of Combat Commander includes units, cards, and historical scenarios depicting the American, German, and Russian forces. The second game in the series will provide cards, counters, and historical scenarios for British, French, and Italian forces.
Each game includes 6-12 historical scenarios as well as a "roll your own" scenario system that provides an almost unending variety of map configurations, force structures, and combat situations. Replayability value for Combat Commander is very high.
A game of Combat Commander has no strict sequence of play. Each turn is divided into a variable number of Player Turns, each of which may consist of either: the active player expending one or more Fate cards from their hand for their Actions; or passing, which allows the discarding of one or more Fate cards. Players redraw up to their maximum hand size at the end of each of their own Player Turns. Additionally, Reactions may be played by either player at any time, so long as the prerequisite listed is met.
FATE CARDS: Players will take turns playing one or more "Fate" cards from their hands in order to activate their units on the mapboard for various military functions. Each nationality has its own 72-card Fate deck highlighting its historical strengths and weaknesses (lots of Smoke for the US; marksmanship bonuses for Britain; commissar events for the Soviets; broken Italian units will surrender more often; etc.). Each Fate card contains one Action and one Reaction: only one of which may be declared when the card is played. The bottom portion of each Fate card contains an Event, a random hex symbol, and a 2d6 die roll -- these can never be played from the hand, only revealed from the top of the draw pile when a game situation instructs a player to do so.
ACTIONS include: Fire, Move, Advance, Rally, Rout, Artillery Request and Artillery Denied. Each nationality also has a varying number of Command Confusion Actions which act as duds while in hand -- these cards are useless except for any possible Reaction on the card. Actions, when played, generally activate a single unit to perform that Action, unless a Leader is activated: in which case it can further activate any or all non-leaders within its Command Radius to perform the same Action. There are 15 different REACTIONS. For example:
There are 36 different EVENTS -- both good and bad -- that will occur at random intervals to add much chaos and uncertainty to each player's perfect plan. Event examples:
Units and weapons are rated for their Firepower and Range, while units also have a Movement allowance and a Morale number. Most importantly, Leaders have a Command number as well. Command has two functions in Combat Commander. First, it allows a leader that has been activated to perform an Action the ability to further activate any friendly non-leaders up to X hexes away, where X is its Command number (or "Command Radius"). Second, a leader's Command number is added directly to every stat on every non-leader currently occupying the same hex. So, for example, a 5-FP, 5-Rg, 5-Mv Squad with 7-Morale in the same hex as a Leader with a Command of 2 would have stats of 7-7-7 and 9 for all purposes as long as that condition existed.
Average playing time is about 90 minutes per scenario. A scenario is played on one of several mapsheets, each with a 10x15 hexgrid depicting various terrain at a scale of 100 feet per hex. In addition to playing one of the many pre-generated scenarios included with the game, players can roll up random situations, as well. Playtesters described both types of scenarios as "fast, furious, and addictive".
I am fairly nervous to write a review of Combat Commander: Europe (GMT Games, 2006 – Chad Jensen, most because wargaming is not really a genre that I am particularly expert at - as I have been told in other reviews. Yet I am a big fan of light wargames and seem to push my own personal barrier a little bit farther each year. Last year I gave high praises to Commands and Colors: Ancients, and then started reading about how Combat Commander was only a slight step up from it. Oddly enough, I was able to receive and play Tide of Iron at the same time – a game from Fantasy Flight that basically covered the same genre – tactical battles in Europe during World War II. (see my review of that game for my comparison of the two)
As I said, I’m not a heavy wargamer, but I certainly can give a viewpoint of the game from an ordinary person's perspective. I suppose that many gamers would look askance at me when I say that the rules were about the toughest I’m willing to deal with, yet I still wasn’t overwhelmed. The system caused me to refer to the rulebook scores of times, yet the player aids and helps became my best friends, and the whole system plays out rather beautifully. The cards were fascinating with their multiple uses; and while the game was a tough one for me, I could feel the simulation aspect as we played. I don’t think it will become a regular to my table, but I will play it occasionally when in the mood for a deeper, fulfilling experience.
Comments on the game…
1.) Components: I don’t think I’ll ever be a big fan of chits, and there are a LOT in this game, which are slightly difficult to separate and store. What I finally ended up doing was simply punching out the counters that I was going to use in each scenario and leaving the rest unpunched. The little cardboard counters could get overwhelmed by the map boards, but there are few enough counters in each scenario that it never was a problem.
2.) Maps: I was really pleased with the map boards – thin as they were. The twelve different maps show a great variety of terrain, and each appear to have a completely different feel. They are certainly the best component of the game, and I enjoy how the actual picture is used for terrain line of site, rather than the entire hex.
3.) Scenarios: One of the strongest points to Combat Commander is the scenario booklet, all twenty-three pages of it. There are twelve scenarios included, each a different battle from the course of the European theatre. It’s rather interesting how the numbers of the Russians, the superiority of German firepower, and the tenacity of the Americans all come through each scenario – the designer did a tremendous job putting them together. But what I find absolutely amazing is that the game has a rather nifty random scenario generator. I’m always one for hunting down scenarios online to play with my games, but this helps quite a bit when you just want to play a pick up game – or even one that allows you to customize your forces a bit. When I first went through the scenario book, I was a bit overwhelmed; but after going through one step by step, the rest added only a little each time.
4.) Rules: As I said at the beginning, the rules were initially rather intimidating to me. A few factors worked in my favor – one was that I had seen several of the ideas in other games (most of them by GMT). Another was that the rulebook was very nicely organized, with detailed descriptions of all terrain, cards, and rules. You don’t need to know everything for each scenario – I just learned a little at a time. Finally, the thing that was the most useful was a play-by-play sample game of the first scenario, with sixteen turns detailed enough to help me understand. There are a lot of cards, charts, and pieces on the table, and it can be easy to take one look and be overwhelmed. However, the scenarios take you step by step through the rules; and when done, I realized that it wasn’t nearly as hard as I thought it was. At the same time, on a personal note, this is where I stop – I don’t want to get involved in a game that has more detailed rules. But I’m satisfied with where I am at this point, and think that if you didn’t mind Commands and Colors, you might be willing to make the jump up as I did.
5.) Game Ending and Timing: The game can end in a variety of ways – by the marker on a time track, by one side taking too many objectives, etc. At no time, however, was I bored. As a player can only take a few actions on their turn, it is imperative to stay alert at all times. The one thing I did not enjoy was when I had a hand of cards that simply allowed me to do nothing. That didn’t happen often, mind you, but sometimes it seemed to happen at the worst times for myself. I do realize that this occasionally reflects the ineptitude of certain commanders, and the game has a discard/draw type of play that allows one to recover.
6.) Cards: Lest you think that I disliked the cards, I will reiterate that I am a huge fan of card-driven systems, and this one is very enjoyable. One thing that I highly enjoy is how the decks are used both for randomness. Some may not enjoy the lack of die rolls, but having the cards act as a “deck of dice” is something that makes the game smoother and less luck prone. The cards also have a fascinating random event system in place, which occasionally has odd things happen around the battlefield, to represent real world events. Much of the time, these events have little or no effect on the play of each scenario, but they add a bit of uncertainty to the game and give it flavor. Cards are mostly used for “orders” - which allow players to take basic actions in the game, and “actions” – special abilities for each player that allow them to make special attacks or give them bonuses to different abilities. I’ve seen some players talk about knowing the composition of each of the three decks (German, American, and Russian), and how you can actually determine if an event or scenario is unlikely to occur. I, however, (and I suspect most people are like me) do not have these amazing memorization skills and simply enjoy how the decks of cards are amazingly put together to form a strong game-driving device.
7.) Charts: I enjoy game charts, although many wargames simply have me to where I sit and look blankly at many charts that seriously cause my head to spin, Combat Commander was not nearly as difficult. I won’t lie and say that I wasn’t glued to these things for half the game, but I found most of them fairly easy to follow. A couple of the charts are only used when building a random scenario; although I found them to be interesting, I won’t use them much. Most of the charts are centered on a large “track display”, which fits a victory track, casualty track, time track, and quite a bit of other information on it. This keeps the information central and easy to find. I will admit that I found it a bit fiddly at times, but it wasn’t that difficult to work with.
8.) Objective Chits: This was something that was extremely interesting, and that I haven’t seen in other games. Different objective chits are revealed each scenario that make specific points on the map worth points. This actually causes the same scenario to have a high level of replayability, since players will often fight over different parts of the map each time. There are also secret objectives, something that sounds good; but I’m not sure I like it when one player gets a secret objective while the other draws a general objective – it seems a little unfair to the second player. Still, these objectives alone keep me interested in trying out the next scenario to see how it works.
9.) Attacks: Most of the game doesn’t have too high of a level of complexity, but I will say that the actual attacks are a little more complicated than I would like. I know that actual wargamers would look at me and scoff; but we had to check several things, and there are seven steps when attacking someone else. I’m the type of player who just wants to check a couple of things, and then see if the attack succeeds or not. Even near the end of my first playing, I was still checking how it worked; and I’m still not entirely comfortable with it. Some of it is strange – like multiplying the die rolls for range, but it does seem to work out well. Defensive modifiers are quite good in this game, and you have to shoot at people for a while (or in a group) to have a good chance of harming them. I can live with that, since there are so few folks on the map. This does mean that when one player falls behind in troops, it’s near impossible to recover – you might as well surrender when soundly outnumbered. A few games the winner was painfully obvious far before the end of the game.
10.) Fun Factor: I will admit that I’m not good (re: horrifying beyond belief) at tactical games such as this, but I didn’t mind so much because the battles unfolded in such interesting and dramatic ways. I might have gotten some more enjoyment out of the game if I wasn’t constantly working my way through specific mechanics (weapons in particular often confused me), but I still felt like an actual battle was occurring, as opposed to a typical dice fest. Students of military history will most likely enjoy the game, and it certainly is an enjoyable game once you get everything down to a smooth play.
My overall impressions of Combat Commander: Europe are quite good. I can appreciate the game and the history it portrays. It’s much heavier than most wargames I play (again, noting that I’m not a typical wargamer), but I wasn’t overwhelmed – seeing that I’ve sort of “built up” to a game of this level. It’s fun, has a ton of variety, and seems well balanced and designed. If you are seeking to get into wargames that offer more options and complexity, this seems to be a wonderful entry point – it has me thinking twice about playing more involved wargames. And that’s the point!
“Real men play board games”
I really want to like this game more that I do. Its designers clearly thought hard about what they were doing, and were not afraid to apply innovative mechanisms to a well-worn theme. And their goal of creating a game that captures the feel of the chaos of WWII infantry combat in a simple game is a worthy one, and one I think they have achieved.
In fact, setting aside the question of whether the game overdoes this chaos, I think this game succeeds in taking over the category of highly abstracted, relatively easy-to-play, simplified WWII tactical games from the time-worn Panzer Blitz/Panzer Leader and (terrible) Panzer Grenadier series of games. It is also worth a look for anyone who tried Memoir '44 but found it lacking: CC:E, because of its elegant design, clear and carefully written rules*, and excellent payer aids, is an easy but significant step up from M'44, and one well worth taking. All of these things should make CC:E a commercial success and give it a long life.
The game also manages to slip in historical richness almost undetected in subtle ways that don't burden players or hinder play. For example, in much the same way that Wings of War captures performance differences among aircraft with different maneuver decks, CC:E provides different distributions of actions in the fate decks associated with each nationality. Some of he complaints about the game originate, if fact, from a failure to understand just how elegantly this is done. Spotting, for example -- and essential of any even half-serious WWII tactical game -- would seem to have been omitted, but limited information about the location and intentions of opposing units is built into the limited availability of cards essential for "obvious" (to omniscient players) actions: units spend a lot of time in this game sitting around or hanging out in the wrong place while waiting for the right card, but that's just what they'd do if they didn't know what their enemy was up to.
I also don't fault it (as many have) for some of the things it is not: CC:E is not an alternative to Lock 'N Load: Band of Heroes or ASL, by any means. These games are true wargames that seek to capture as much of the detail and (armchair) narrative of WWII tactical combat as they can (the former in an elegant and engaging modern game and the latter in an aging kitchen-sink approach).
To understand what CC:E is, one has to find a way to see the many aspects that others have cited as shortcomings, limitations, and frustrations as rational features of the game. Why choose a design that rewards card counting, not just for events, actions and orders, but for the likelihood of any actions (through the use of cards as dice)? What's the sense of providing each player with a known and limited number of actions: what possible aspect of combat could be simulated by my opponent's ability to know for certain that, for example, having played two hidden wires, he's not going to encounter another until my deck recycles? What's the sense in linking conceptually unrelated functions on a single card: what could possibly be simulated by the fact that, having used card A-47 to reduce one of my squads rather than have it break ("light wounds") and card A-44 to enhance my my firepower ("sustained fire"), my opponent now knows that the chances of any of my units being able to advance stealthily ("advance") are halved?
To accept all of these quirks of the game's design, one has to face that CC:E is at heart nothing more than a card game, with a wargame skin. That's particularly hard to do because of the distracting richness of that skin -- but in the end that's all it is.
Even that's nothing to reject out of hand, except that it has been done so very much better already in games like Friedrich (or even Feudo) -- games that don't have the distracting pretense of being something they are not.
Friedrich, for example is clearly and explicitly an almost traditional trick-taking card game, that happens to be tied to a map. But were Friedrich makes this a strength, creating a geometric and geographic puzzle shaped by the simple mathematics of card play in a way that evokes the feeling of the strategic trade-offs that that operations in that era required. In CC:E it is a weakness: the map is nothing more than the space where the constrained and unpredictable effects of the cards are recorded; and the cards themselves, instead of simply being cards, confuse the matter by pretending to represent (or even "simulate") aspects of WWII infantry combat.
CC:E is an ambitions design, but I fear it has tired to be too many things at once, and ultimately fails at all of them.
If I want to play a (too) simple WWII tactical game, I'll play PG (or PB/L for old times sake). If I want to play a highly abstracted Euro "wargame", I'll be playing Friedrich. If I'm looking for a WWII card game with some character and chrome, I'll find History of War. (And of course, if I want to play a serious WWII tactical game, that will be Lock'n'Load.) But I won't be taking CC:E off the shelf.
Perhaps CC:E will attract reluctant Euro players players looking for a "wargame" experience, but I think there's too much chrome and noise here for that to work.
Maybe, just maybe, this is the game that old grognards can get their families to try (certainly if you are using M'44 or PG for that purpose, you should give CC:E a serious look). Arguably the highly constrained card driven dynamics of the game work for this purpose, but the overwhelming chaos and many unique un-wargamelike mechanics make it less well suited as an intro game (so much will need do be unlearned and many features that are either attractive or off-putting are not a part of most wargames). So even here I think CC:E fails and that the old way is he best way: take your favorite real wargame, cut out most of the rules and teach that: you'll have a clear "upgrade path" and a better (and actual) wargame from the start -- and you'll save 80 bucks!
In short: a well-engineered and innovative hybrid of the designs of M'44 and PG -- both of which it handily replaces -- that, despite meticulous attention to detail, and appearances of being much greater, succeeds at being nothing more than a solid replacement for those games.