Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Combat Commander - Starting To Get It

Matt R. came over last night for a game of Combat Commander. We played scenario 25a, which pitted several German units attacking four Line level teams (heavily armed and entrenched, but a thin line at best) during the initial advances at the Battle of the Bulge. This is an interesting scenario, because it has a companion scenario that takes place in the same location later in the same day, starting with the same players. The scenario has extensive historical notes, which I wish every scenario had. Get rid of the pictures and graphics, and just put up extra info!

Matt played the Germans, who while they have a lot of units have their movement hampered, and about a third of the units are conscript squads or green teams that can barely move, and there's a lot of open ground to cover. The conscripts and greens, however, are worthless for VP, and the Germans have to capture three of the five objectives before they can start getting units off of the board. Matt also drew the Obj5 = 10VP objective, and given my starting setup that was going to be a problem for him to get to.

The Deansian Statistical Distortion Field is apparently much stronger than we ever anticipated, as Mike is currently in Pennsylvania, 3000 miles away, and it gave me excellent combat rolls (except for a single snake eyes/jam result that I used my Initiative card to reroll), while Matt seemed to roll low on just about everything that he wanted high numbers on, and by the end of the game he had lost more than half of his units. His luck even went sour at the time check on Time 7, when I first rolled a 4 to end the game, then rolled a six when he gave me back the initiative. 

It seemed there were a few things that went wrong, and a few things that Matt did wrong (I had a very simple strategy - draw Fire cards and the occasional Recover), and after the game I had a bit of an epiphany. Up until now, I've learned a few operation concepts - save up the cards you want for a big push, as this is a game played by inches. Far better to discard fishing for the cards you want to do what you want to do than to just fire randomly hoping for a statistically improbably result. Instead, you build up the cards you need, such as smoke cards to advance on a strong enemy position (the bunker with the 2 leader in it was impervious to enemy fire with almost any result). 

What I have failed to understand about this game, and I believe I can be excused for this, is that each scenario is a puzzle. ASL players have already figured this out, I think. This is not to say that every scenario has a perfect solution, as the vagaries of the decks ensure a level of chaos that echoes the battlefield (a good thing, I think, and a big selling point for me over ASL's perfect knowledge of the odds) - the events alone make every game different. 

Here's the big thing - because the scenarios are puzzles, they need to be played repeatedly to enjoy. Which is totally unintuitive to wargamers, who tend to be parakeets and collectors, grabbing the next cool and shiny game before moving on to something else. That's me, anyway. As such, when given a game with 12 scenarios, my first impulse is to play them all, then anxiously await the next batch. 

This is a big mistake, and I think that I have been shortchanging my enjoyment of this game. Especially the CC:Med scenarios, which have seemed extremely unbalanced in my group's play. At this point, I think that the relative elegance of the ruleset, combined with the large number of scenarios (I have something like 40, which includes the C3i scenarios, with more on the way in October in the Stalingrad pack) lures you into thinking this is a light game, a la Command and Colors, which does have considerably more similarity between scenarios as the battles tend to be fought on largely similar terrain with largely similar forces. Ancients does a good job of adding some real-life elements, but the luck element of what card you draw has heavier consequences in C&C, while in CC you at least have the ability to choose to discard and work toward executing a plan. 

As such, while I've always thought that the initial setup was one of the more important decisions you make in CC, I'm now thinking that not only is that setup critical, but also having a detailed and effective plan for how to advance on an enemy held position (meeting engagements tend to go pear-shaped almost immediately). That means spending a little time with the board, trying to imagine your opponent's initial placement (both offensively and defensively), and knowing exactly what you need to do to achieve your goals. It's a level of operational awareness that the mechanisms of the game belie, and while the game can be enjoyed on a casual level, I'm delighted that there is a much deeper game underneath, one that encourages you to anticipate problems and have plans in advance. 

I'll use music performance as a comparison. For the casual listener, music is a very pleasant and often exhilarating experience. For the student of music, awareness of compositional techniques, performance issues, and music history do nothing but add to the experience, much as learning a little about cooking enhances the dining experience. For the performer, you must understand the place of every note, every phrase, in the bigger picture. You must know where the difficult and problem spots are in the piece, and have a plan to pick up the pieces if things go wrong. You need to spend time playing the instrument if it's not yours, the acoustics of the hall, anticipation of audience reactions, all sorts of things. The better you plan your performance, the better it will go. As an intuitive musician, one who came to many of these performance mechanisms naturally and without effort or active study, I actually suffer a bit in terms of the discipline of preparation, and repeated "serious" performance has given me a much better idea of what I need to be thinking of when preparing for a concert. 

Combat Commander is exactly the same. If you approach it as a casual, shoot-from-the-hip-with-the-bullets-you-have-right-now game, it's a lot of fun. Knowing how to work your deck for optimal progress adds depth while retaining the fun. But understanding the deep game may, I think, provide the most satisfying experience. I've always thought that ASL players considered the game more of a lifestyle because of the vast ruleset, but it now occurs to me that it's because each scenario, and there must be something bordering on thousands out there now, is it's own puzzle. You don't have the same level of chaos to create the need for as much contingency planning in ASL, but it's still there. In other words, it isn't rules retention as much as the discipline of board and force study.

I don't know that CC will become a lifestyle choice for me in the near future, as I'm not sure I can get the quantity of play necessary without resorting to online play. However, it does throw a different light on the game that will dictate scenario choice and preparation time in the future. Instead of trying a new scenario, I may be wanting to repeat scenarios (on an opponent-by-opponent basis - the last thing I need is people who don't want to play me because I've optimized my strategy on a given scenario when they've never played it before), and switch sides on the shorter ones. 

Sure, I feel a little stupid figuring this out so late in the game, but keep in mind that I absorb and retain rules quickly and well, and always have. It's the same with sight-reading music. The result is that things seem so easy, even if I seem to lose frequently, that I make the assumption subconsciously that the tactics and strategy of the game must be equally accessible and obvious. I even know this consciously, but during play it seems to get lost. Where in a game like Age of Renaissance your play is strongly dictated by what cards you draw, in CC your draws are dictated by how you wish to play. Without that lesson firmly in mind, the next step of detailed understanding of the tactical situation can get overlooked. Especially if there are all of these bright shiny scenarios to play! 

So, who's up for a game?

No comments: