Despite my enthusiasm for Combat Commander, I've had trouble getting a game up since I got back from Mexico, and indeed I was even thwarted by icy road conditions on the game I was supposed to have just before I left. Even at Chris' Superbowl party, I was unable to get a game up (despite two games just getting started when I got there). So it was with great gladness and joy that I went over to my friend Connor's house to get in a game at long last.
Poor Connor - he's not a "gamer" in the same sense as I am a "gamer". While he's had extensive experience with RPGs (D&D and Traveller, primarily), and I've introduced him to various CDGs over time (Hannibal, Wilderness War), he isn't the kind of guy who will learn 20 different sets of rules at his fingertips. As such, I keep introducing him to the new "it" game with the idea that we'll play it a lot and he won't have to learn a new game next time. Before Combat Commander came out, I thought that he'd really enjoy World of Warcraft because of the character development rules, but I have to admit that as a two-player game it's just a bit lacking.
Connor, you may rest easy old friend - from now on it's gonna be CC, and I think he's now a convert. We played a shortened game using the first scenario a few weeks ago, and while he seemed to like it well enough, Connor is the kind of guy who really needs a couple of plays under his belt to get a good feel for the game. Wednesday, we got in another play, this time using scenario 7, which pits a handful of second-echalon German squads against wildly varying Russian partisans (from very effective SMG squads to barely effective Militia squads and Green teams) which are nevertheless fairly well armed with LMGs, satchel charges, and even a captured German mortar.
This is an excellent learning or solitaire game for a variety of reasons. First of all, there are only two types of terrain on the board - forest and a railroad line. Second, the Russian partisans start the game spread out all over the board, placed according to random card draws. Since the Russian deck only has hexes that end in even numbers, the dispersal is impressive. Third, the Russians only get a single Order each turn. You cannot believe how limiting this is for the Russians, and makes for a great handicap for the teaching player.
The stated objectives are double points for eliminated units, making this a priority (in addition, there are no points for exiting the map other than "bad" points), and also for controlling all five objectives at sudden death. The objectives are spread out all over the map, with both ends of the straight rail line, a hex in the middle of the rail line that goes right through the forest, and the two path intersections in opposite corners of the board. As such, for the Germans to take all five objectives would be very difficult, but for the partisans (who start everywhere) there is an excellent chance. The Germans, in contrast, start the game in any part of the board they choose, but they must form a cohesive group with no empty hexes between units. Also, both sides start with two weak leaders. Since the Russian leaders don't start the game in a hex with squads or teams, you can see how getting the Russians going with one order a turn can be a challenge.
Connor placed his units on the middle of the board, right on the railroad track. At first, I thought this was a huge mistake, but as I looked at the overall situation, I realized that the Russians had very few options as to how they could shoot at them. The lone exception was the captured mortar, which became an early focus of Connor's fire and an eventual melee that I lost after several exchanges of the Initiative card. Even though I took a precious German squad with me (which had an LMG, no less), the loss of that mortar was big given I had very few decent long-range weapons (all squads had a range of 2!). He also killed off one of my two leaders that was in a lone woods hex right next to his set up. I did bring up a Militia squad with a satchel charge, but he advanced into the space on the next turn with two squads and a leader, and with a five point differential and no initiative I never stood a chance. Even though he ended up losing the equivalent of a Team in the process from overstacking, these two advances put me in a deep hole for the rest of the game. Even when I managed to bring in a medium mortar Russian team with my Hidden Units action card (which the Russians are given at game start), it didn't last long either, only getting one good shot in before it too was destroyed.
I did come back to some extent. Since the Russians don't actually control any of the objective hexes, and my secret objective was 2 points for each, I figured that six points at game end might just win it for me, and started using my precious move cards to take each space, most of which were quite a ways from any German units other than the one in the middle of the board. I also brought up a Militia unit with a satchel charge to first kill another German squad near that objective (5), and then moved into the space, as he had moved up one of his leader/squad/LMG groups into a foxhole with the intent of going for one of the objectives on the end of that board. I even had the Demolitions action ready to remove the wire I'd placed there earlier. By now, Connor had a seven point lead, and I had three of the five objectives, with only two move orders needed to take the others, and we were very close to reaching the Sudden Death marker on the time track (at 5, which meant I could expect a couple of time rounds before the game would really end).
Connor was meanwhile moving another leader/squad/LMG group towards the team/LMG I had at one of the two paths crossings, clearly intending to advance and take it from me. I had a move card ready to bring a militia squad into play, which would have meant a fairly tough fight for the space, but Connor managed to pull a Timer! event, and then rolled a 4 for the Sudden Death points. Since he had the Initiative card at that point, it was up to him. By my count, he would be one point up depending upon what his secret objective was, so it was possible that the game could go either way. He decided that the game was over, and I learned that his objective was 1 point for the space he was one hex away from moving into. Since I controlled it, we were tied, but since he had the initiative, he ended up with the win in a squeaker.
Like I said, this one would make a great solitaire scenario. The random setup for the Russians combined with their single order per turn makes it easy to "play" them since there is so little they can do. For those who want more tension, you can always roll to see if the Russians hold a fortification or opfire card, and if you can live with a little more info than you'd normally have, you can always assume that the Russians control all five objectives at game start, with that and killing Germans as their primary goal (and recovery, of course).
And that is really the big headache of only having one order. No longer can you move a unit into harm's way knowing that you have a recovery card waiting to at least give them a shot at rallying. With units spread all over the board, it is unliikely that you'll be able to activate more than one unit, perhaps two, with a given order. There are a lot of Russians (twelve to the German's six), but you will probably not move all of them in the course of the game - that would take twelve individual move cards, and you are likely to move at least one or more of them more than once, and that assumes you have ready access to move cards. Me, I think I had 12 moves the whole game, and most were forced by the tactical situation.
This isn't to say that the scenario isn't a good one anyway, both sides are working at a disadvantage (the board is mostly forest, but the Russians only pay one MP per hex). Even though the Russians rarely can fire at a long distance to any effect, the forest blocks most firing lanes. The Germans will need to understand that some parts of the board are more useful than others for long range attacks, but if the game comes down to controlling forest pathway intersections, the Russians will have a big advantage.
In all, an excellent game and an excellent scenario. Play this game!