Monday, May 25, 2009

Combat Commander: Stalingrad - The Campaign Metagame

Mike and I played a couple of games from the Combat Commander: Stalingrad campaign scenario at WBC West, and over the course of the week I began to get a clearer idea of how important the "random" scenario generation portion of that scenario is. By the time we played our final game, I'd gotten an extremely good sense of what you do and, more importantly, *why* you do it, but I didn't do a very good job of explaining it to Mike. For the benefit of the CC community, here is how the process works and why it's so freakin' important to each game you play in the campaign.

First of all, the campaign uses a heavily modified version of the DIY scenario generator, with most of the changes intended to limit your choices to those the historical commanders had. Clearly, there will be no Americans in this scenario, just Russians and Germans. Despite the fact that there is a lot of randomization going on (objectives, map orientation, etc), you have several key decisions to make that will have immense repercussions if you don't choose wisely.

The first important thing that happens is a combination of choosing map orientation and drawing objectives. While these are random, at the same time they are also the factors that will drive almost every other decision you'll make. For example, you draw an objective that grants four points to whoever controls Obj4. The map orientation roll puts Obj4 on your side of the board. Chances are good you'll want to be the defender, as your opponent will have to come take the objective from you if they want those points. Since there are two (or more) public objectives and one secret one each (or less), you may end up with a more complex situation, but in general by seeing the map, seeing where you may or may not set up, and seeing what will give you points, you can start to make some choices in what posture you want to take in the game. 

The first big choice you make is which of the campaign platoons you will use. You always get your command platoon, which may vary based on the experience level you're at as the result of previous games in the campaign, and you'll get a steadily dwindling number of reinforcement units. Depending on where you are in the campaign, and how well you've done with Divisional Reserves rolls, you may not have much choice, but we'll assume you do for this exercise.

At this point you'll want to do a little thinking in terms of what your opponent will want to do as well. If you know he'll want to attack, then you'll want to generally choose units less effective in assaults and instead choose units that are better suited for defense with a strong understanding of the terrain they'll be holding. If there are a lot of wide open spaces, you'll probably want to have units with decent range, but if you can get away with the scrubs this might be the time to do it. You probably don't want to use SMG Russians on defense, as these units have very short range and their primary use is to advance under smoke to fight up close. The same goes for Assault teams on both sides. 

You'll also want to pay careful attention to the Point Values of any campaign platoons you choose, as well as the VP cost of those reinforcements (one VP per unit or weapon). Since you choose your reinforcements before knowing the map orientation or objectives, you are generally best off choosing "high value" units such as Pioneers with good weapons as these are almost always useful to some degree. If you have the luxury of choosing leaders as the Russians, this is almost always a good choice because they have a larger number of units and leaders always help. Otherwise, go for the heavy weapons such as HMGs because they are always useful regardless of your posture. 

So why worry about your Point Values? Because that's what determines your posture. The process works like this: You choose your campaign platoons separately and secretly, then reveal them, moving the VP marker to your opponent's side for your choices. Now here's where it gets critical: Whoever chose the smaller Point Value of combined campaign platoons and reinforcements is in the driver's seat in deciding what each side's posture will be. In other words, this is where you want to be if you want to be defending. This is part of the reason you'll choose the minimum values of units you need to get the job done, not only in terms of quantity of campaign platoons, but also what types of platoons. In general, the better platoons are more useful for attacking anyway, so if you grab only a six point Rifle platoon, the only way the Germans can prevent you from choosing posture is to not choose any platoons at all, instead relying only on reinforcements and their command platoon. 

One important note: be sure that when you "spend" your Points for your campaign platoons and reinforcements that you are "giving" VP to your opponent. In other words, you move the VP marker to their side as you pay for your units. If you haven't tried DIY scenarios before (and you should), this is one of the more counter-intuitive elements and the easiest to screw up. It's also important to remember that no one has gotten the benefit of any objective-based VP at this time, but it's a good idea to keep it in the back of your head for now.

Now that you've both chosen campaign platoons and reinforcements, the final steps in determining posture take place. Whoever spent the least on units for this game will have the VP marker on their side of the track, and *must* roll on the support table and choose a unit. This is the most critical choice so far if you want to be defender, because your choice will more or less determine posture. Each choice on the support table will adjust the VP toward your opponent's side of the track, so if you choose that HMG and weapon team, you may find that your opponent has more of a say than you originally wanted him to. 

For example, let's say that prior to the support roll, you have the VP marker on the 2 space on your side of the board. One of three things can happen based on the value of the unit(s) you choose from the support table:
  1. You choose a unit that costs one VP. The VP marker moves to the 1 space on your side of the track, and you are now going to be the defender regardless of future choices made. That means you control most of the board and your opponent will probably have the burden of attacking you to generate points for themselves. Your opponent won't get a support roll.
  2. You choose a unit that costs two VP. The VP marker moves to the 0 space on the track, and both of you will be in the Recon posture. The board is evenly split with a no-man's land in the middle. This can be an excellent choice if all of the objectives are on your side, but remember that the obj5 points can be 2.5x in value to any of the others and your opponent almost certainly has one secret objective. You won't get to play defensive actions, but your opponent will have fewer cards in hand. Your opponent won't get a support roll.
  3. You choose a unit that costs three or more VP. The VP marker moves to your opponent's side of the board, and now *they* will determine posture based on their own support roll. If you want to defend, this is not the position you want to be in.
Remember, your posture not only determines hand size and what action cards you can play, but also how much of the board you control. The difference between defense and recon is not only the first two, but also which objectives you can set up in and immediately control. As the defender, you get all but the two rows on your opponent's side (when the map is short and fat) or three (if long and skinny). That means Obj5 starts on your side, probably all but one in total. If there's a Sudden Death objective on the table for taking all five objectives, you start with a big advantage there, as your opponent must preserve his position to hold that objective as he advances. The situation is reversed if you are the attacker. Recon means you both hold equal territory with the big prize (maybe) in the middle. If you understand this and know what it is you need to gain the tactical advantage, your game will go much more smoothly right up until you start drawing cards. ;-)

There are two other things to keep in mind: fortifications and artillery assets. 

Fortifications can be confusing in this game because there are two ways to buy them. The first applies to only the defender, and these fortifications cost VP. Personally, I think that you should treat these carefully but not stingily as the defender. If your opponent has a large number of platoons compared to you, these make for a great equalizer and you probably have the VP to spare. Remember that you *still* haven't gotten VP for objectives that you'll probably be able to take when you set up, and posture has been established at this point. Make this choice based on disparity of forces and you'll do well. Remember also that the trenches and bunkers create a movement channel out of LOS which can be very handy in the right situation. 

The second way to buy fortifications is important for two reasons: you have only 11 points to spend through the entire campaign, and you can buy them *as the attacker*. That means foxholes to start in. If you estimate six games for the entire campaign, that means you can spend two points per game on foxholes, especially if you're the Russians and have all of those units to set up, usually in non-advantageous terrain. Foxholes can preserve your forces early when you're the attacker, so don't be afraid to spend the points on them if the situation warrants. 

Finally, it's important to note that in defender/attacker scenarios, the defender sets up their fortifications *after* the attacker finishes their setup. That means you have some flexibility to see what secret objectives the attacker is focusing on, although there's nothing preventing them from feinting, especially as the Russians. 

The last subject I'll broach in this essay is the attacker's asset draw just before they set up their units. For units of lesser quality (meaning pretty much the entire Russian Red Army), you aren't going to have access to a lot of smoke via action cards, usually because your units don't have boxed movement. That means if there's a lot of open space between you and your objectives, you'll almost certainly be playing the old "run a guy out and see if he dies" game to advance. You'll want to roll for an artillery asset if you are the attacker, especially if you're Russian, simply because it will in all likelihood give you the opportunity to lay smoke to allow you to advance. You may not get it, but then again you might and you're gonna need it. Add in that Command Confusion Orders for the Russians act as Artillery Requests in Stalingrad scenarios, and it's really a no brainer for them. The Germans will need to make a bit more of a decision in this regard, as their troops generally can do what they need them to do, but then again having a use for Arty Request cards makes you more efficient and improves your chances of being able to lay smoke when you want to. 

I'll also note that it's a very good idea as the Russians to keep an Arty Request card handy in your hand until you've made sufficient progress as the attacker, as the last thing you want is to get two Arty Denied cards played on you and lose your smoke capability in the first handful of turns. You'll have a lot of chances between the Command Confusion cards and the Arty Request cards, so buy a little insurance to keep that smoke coming. Nothing like a sudden Breeze event to show you just how much you have hanging out of your pants as you advance!

Hopefully, this essay will give you a better idea of the importance and consequences of the choices you make when setting up the campaign scenario in CC: Stalingrad, and thus improve your enjoyment of the game. I was very sorry that Mike had such a negative experience, especially as I had tried to explain the ramifications of scenario generation, and hopefully this more cogent explanation will prevent someone else from experiencing the same fate. 

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