Saturday, December 23, 2006

Combat Commander - First Impressions

I published this first-take review on the 'Geek a few minutes ago after Chuck and I played this game for a first time today.

The verdict - The game rocks. If you've ever wanted to play Squad Leader or Up Front, but felt that the rules, acronyms, or clunky mechanisms got in the way, this is the game you've waited for. If you've ever wished Ambush! worked for two players, this is for you.

Here's my review...

This is a short review of GMT's new tactical WWII game, Combat Commander. My group has been anxiously anticipating this game coming out, and I spent a good chunk of Friday (the day it came) clipping counters, reading the rules, and going through the example of play, all to prepare for playing my friend Chuck on Saturday.

First, the components (as always). In general, very good. Chuck felt the cards were on the flimsy side, and I suppose they could be beefier, but considering that they're going straight into protectors and deck boxes, that shouldn't be an issue. The box is the same size as Command & Colors: Ancients, which is to say bookshelf-sized, but deep enough to hold a Plano box for counter storage. Too many of the bookcase boxes are too thin to hold a deck box, so the extra depth is appreciated.

I really like the counters, but of course there are a couple of nits. The grey and green counters are very similar in color, and in less than stellar lighting that could be a problem. Also, for some reason I keep confusing the leader and team counters, although neither was a problem during play.

Finally, the rules. I've been advocating this particular style of rules (give the basic flow, then break out specifics in the back of the rules, combining the strengths of user's guides with reference manuals). Combined with an excellent index, this is the best rules set I've ever seen, and I've been wargaming for 30 years. Well done, Chad and GMT. These rules will set the standard for years to come.

Next, learning the game. The process referred to in the rules, reading the Components, Core Rules, Orders, and Op Fire action entry, is possibly a bit too much. What I did was read the Components and Core Rules, then set up the example of play and ran through it. As I got to a section that discussed, say, movement, I'd go look up that rules section. It worked well enough that Chuck and I got through our first game (Scenario 1) in less than two hours the next day. Of course, I have enough experience with Squad Leader and Up Front (the obvious ancestors of this game) that most of the concepts were very familiar.

Finally, how did it play? Quite well. We played the first two scenarios, with me as the Germans in both cases. In the first, I foolishly held the initiative, allowing Chuck to move first. My primary weapon squad and leader moved into Op Fire range, of which one broke, and the other was broken by a sniper. It went downhill from there, and I never felt like I ever got a chance to get back in the game - I kept getting tagged by snipers while Chuck went untouched in the first few turns, and recovery cards were nowhere in sight for the Germans. We were considering this a learning game, so it tolerable, and I'd definitely move with the Germans before I even considered hanging on to the initiative.

In the second game, I was defending Bocage country from the American advance. I started out with a pretty strong defense (I put the light MGs up front, holding the heavies back along some obvious advancement lanes), only to have Chuck do quite well with his melee rolls - I lost the three I was involved in, despite having multiple Ambush cards in every case. I ended up losing before the Time marker hit the Sudden Death marker through loss of units, which was killing me - in every melee, I lost a leader and a squad. Clearly I was doing something wrong, but we agreed that luck was not with me in the second half of the scenario.

Still, I had a great time. The game takes the tactical feel of Squad Leader and pairs it with the strong elements of Up Front. UF was a great idea hampered by an unreadable and error-filled rulebook, not to mention amazingly involved attempts to handle the intricacies of manuever through cards. Unlike Squad Leader, terrain and weapons are approachable and consistant. If I could name a game that comes close to having the same feel, it would be the Victory Games' chestnut Ambush!.

We really only had one question not easily addressed by the rules, namely what constitutes the end of a movement activation (for purposes of placing smoke - can a unit place smoke after you've used up all of its MP?) Even then, it was pretty clear that you could, although I think this is an unusual situation.

By comparison, the other game I was really excited about getting this year, Shifting Sands, suffered from the twin CDG maladies of Must Play Events and When Does My Critical Event Show Up, exacerbated by too-large event decks. While the initial prognosis on that game was very good, it became clear that many cards simply had to be played in order to thin your deck down as a missed event would likely cost you the game and there were at least two chances for something like this to happen.

Combat Commander, on the other hand, by it's very nature can be balanced. While bad luck can play a role (and did to some extent in my two games), the games are short enough (our second game was about two hours as well), and the various victory conditions mean that even though you are losing units that you're only one really successful combat away from turning things around. In our second game, even though I was losing units I was also very close to winning on points if time ran out because of an extra 5 points for an objective that I still held, and had I won the last melee it would have been very close indeed.

Perhaps best, you are constantly deciding how to play cards. Do you take a shot at the unit about to advance into your position, or hold the card for it's ambush action? Answer (in this case) - Ambush. Definitely. Melee's are all or nothing, and every additional differential is incredibly important.

So who would like this game? Anyone who's wanted to play ASL but is daunted by the rules commitment and acronym insanity, who's really wanted to like Up Front but the rules and conceptual acrobatics get in the way, who's ever enjoyed Ambush but wished for a live opponent instead of an AI and paragraph system, who'd like to play a wargame that (insomuch as a game can) gives the kind of tension you would imagine you'd have in actual combat. Sans bullets whizzing by your head and you crapping your pants, that is.

Is it perfect? I'd say there are quite a few compromises - a big one is that mortars require a line of sight from the hex firing, and the only thing they bring is to avoid fire attack modifiers for intervening terrain such as hedges. There are no vehicles, although off-board artillery is simulated at a pretty accurate level. If you want a game that will give you complete control over your situation other than a few die rolls, this is not a game for you, and I suspect that a lot of hard-core ASLers won't be impressed. Still, considering that I was into this game in about two hours (to read the salient rules and to run the example), that's quite an accomplishment.

Once again, well done to Chad Jensen, the playtesters, and the developer. Considering this game only started being designed in it's current form a couple of years ago, it is quite well conceived. Brilliant.

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