Combat Commander

Transcript of the podcast published on May 24th, 2010.

GMT’s hugely successful tactical WWII combat game “Combat Commander” is an interesting case. It proves that game design and rules design play an important part in the success of a game, perhaps even more so than a theme.
And let’s be honest: WWII tactical combat has been done already. A lot.

But for me Combat Commander really is the best of the bunch. It has already spawned 2 big box expansions, Combat Commander Mediterranean and Combat Commander Pacific, as well as various scenario packs. In scope and possibility for endless expansions it probably comes close to ASL, but CC makes an interesting decision to not go “all the way” like ASL did when it was developed past the original Squad Leader, the original game that many wargamers still miss for its relative simplicity compared to the Juggernaut that is ASL.

Let’s go through all the factors that make Chad Jensen’s wonderful game such a hit, and we will find that it is a hit simply because it succeeds on many levels not only one.

Factor 1: The Rulebook

Let’s start with the most obvious point: CC’s rulebook is simply a thing of beauty. It is perfectly organized, clear and to the point, well written and interspersed with interesting quotes to break the monotony of paragraphed wargame rules. And yes, it isn’t even difficult to understand, and a joy to read. Even though it has been slightly improved in later editions of the game the very first edition already was so good that there was little to complain about. For me it belongs to the best rulebooks GMT has ever published, up there with the equally excellent “Here I Stand” and “Pursuit of Glory” rulebooks. In a market where most rulebooks are obtuse, confusing or riddled with mistakes and inconsistencies it is really a joy to hold such a polished product in your hands.

Factor 2: Elegance of Design

Hardcore Anti-Euro Wargamers have to face a difficult realization with CC:
Without Eurogames there would be no CC, as Chad Jensen has taken many elements in which Euro Game designs shine to heart and applied them to the wargame world. First of all this means: no exceptions and no tables. CC completely lives from the info presented on either the counters or the status sheet where players track various things important for the game. The whole game hinges on opposed rolls: Single counters attack alone or in fire groups, perhaps the most important tactical element in CC. Defending counters also roll, trying to oppose the attack roll. There are no „to-hit”-charts or complicated accumulated modifiers.

When you attack you create a Fire Attack Strength based on your combat values printed on the counters and a 2 dice die roll which is not actually rolled but looked up on a card. This attack roll is only modified through one single factor, and that is hindrance through intervening terrain or terrain features, like smoke. The defender opposes this roll with a roll based on the defending units Morale value to which “cover” through certain terrain like walls or boscage is added.

Even though the difference between hindrance and cover is unusual at first, it really is everything that you need to understand about combat. Everything else is on the counters.

Combat itself is elegant and easy, and as basically everything comes down to a defense roll based on your unit’s morale it is easy to resolve various situations in the game, because they always follow the same, easy-to-understand logic.

Factor 3: The Cards

Not only Euro Games have been an influence on CC, also card-driven games have played a part in the shape of its design. In CC everything is resolved through multifunctional cards, an idea that goes back to old designs like “Empires of the Middle Ages” or “Gunslinger”. Each card can be many things:
an order, a special action, an event, a designated hex and a die roll as well as a time trigger. This makes planning your turns very interesting: you could use a certain card for a special action, but perhaps you need the order later on? Especially the “Fire” cards which let you – well, you guessed it – fire against other units, are much rarer than you wish for, and you also want to have “Fire” cards in your hand to create reaction fire when your opponent moves. “Ambush” cards are extremely powerful in skirmish combat, but also fill up your hand when holding them. CC involves everything that a good card-driven game has: bluffing elements, hand management and also an element that is often underrated in card-driven-games: conscious reduction of choices to avoid analysis paralysis and endless pondering. Even
better: each faction has its own set of cards, so it becomes a really unique experience to play the Russians instead of the Germans for example, as many things that tactically work for one faction don’t work for the other. This is especially remarkable, as most other games only can manage this kind of distinction through complicated info on counters or exception rules.

Factor 4: Story Elements

CC comes close to a role playing game in the management of your forces.
Individual leaders and heroes really have their moments, which is a cue most certainly taken from ASL which attempts similar things. But the heart of the game is the various events, some of them common like Snipers, some of them really rare. One can literally play dozens of games of CC before a certain event happens, and one never knows what will happen next, as there is no set turn-order – each player decides himself when and how to play his cards and can stop playing anytime, replenishing his hand. Sometimes several turns go by with each player simply preparing his hand for the next decisive attack, and just like on a real battlefield sometimes also a lot happens in a short time. For me this is the main improvement on ASL, which always follows the same strict and highly complicated turn order – in CC one never really can be sure of anything. The victory point system allows for wild swings – I have seen games with fantastic comebacks of the losing side for example.
Still it is also not completely random – CC is less about doggedly following a pre-determined know-all strategy (which would also be ridiculous in a Squad Level situation – every real-life soldier knows that), but more about constantly adapting your play to the situation at hand and working with what you got. One can never be sure of anything. And that creates tension!

Factor 5: Scale

The element that CC is mostly criticized for: In contrast to ASL CC makes a conscious decision to concentrate on the grunt, the common soldier, instead of machinery. The scale of CC is roughly half that of ASL, which means that group counters are always half-squads, and that individuals play a bigger role. Hexes are large to allow uncluttered management of weapon and other special counters, but this also means that there are no tanks, as a tank could simply move from one end of the game map to the other in one single movement action at this scale. Everything else is there – detailed weaponry with huge differences of various nations, artillery, smoke grenades, assault fire, but players who absolutely have to have tanks will be at a loss. But this is one of the reasons why CC is so elegant – tanks would simply be to much. Still, there might be an attempt to translate CC’s concepts to a larger scale at some point, and the result might very well be a new “Panzer Leader” game.

Factor 6: Length

Combat Commander is not an endless game – a scenario will probably take you about 2-3 hours, and even though the scenarios can often be wildly different or even linked campaigns, they never outstay their welcome. Game length itself is handled by the “Time Trigger” mechanic – games can be shorter or longer than one expects, but also this creates a welcome change to other games, where both players boringly know that a particular scenario ends on turn 7 and always exactly know, when and where reinforcements appear. CC lacks any scriptedness, and that is a huge advantage, also for replayability.

Factor 7: Scenarios

Like with ASL, there is already a huge range of CC scenarios on the market, each of them using different maps. But even better according to many are the completely random scenarios, where both players create forces and victory conditions on the fly, often these scenarios are the most fun, as nobody knows what they can expect!

Hidden victory point info is a decisive element to the game – both players will always know more about the victory point value of certain areas than their opponent, which creates interesting situations on the map. Any new player to the CC universe will know for sure that the game never ends – even if you have mastered the impossible task of playing all known CC scenarios playing them for a second time would be such a different experience that it would be worthwhile doing so. And the random scenarios literally last forever.

As you can tell I am a big fan of this game, and can only heartily recommend to you playing it. For me it is the number one tactical WWII game, and I have never looked back to other games with that theme that I have played. CC surpasses other games simply because it works on several levels – the casual player will enjoy it as well as the history buff, and even Euro Gamers could find it an experience that they will like, in contrast to many other wargames. This concludes my first little feature for this show – I hope you enjoyed it!

See you next time, when the Noise before defeat is making itself heard.