Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Slaying Private Ryan: "Combat Commander: Europe"

For the longest time this was the core membership of our local gaming group:

Me
Dean
Andrew
Chad
Mike

Whenever my pick for game nite came around I always went with something that could accommodate all five of us. This is due to a latent psychosis beaten into my head by my mother which dictates that if you invite people to your party, then you'd better make sure that no-one is off sitting alone by themselves. Otherwise you'll be perceived as a BAD HOST. 

Honestly, it's a wonder I can even tie my own shoes without help.

Many times I've wanted to table just one of the awesome two-player games in my collection but I always ended up folding faster than Superman on laundry day in lieu of something that all five of us could play. I guess I was afraid that if I picked a two-player game and three people showed up then the odd man out would be relegated to spectator status.

And this kinda sucks since my gaming career practically started with two-player lite wargames, an addiction that persists to this day. Complexity, playing time, a dearth of willing opponents: none of this seems to matter to me. When Combat Commander: Europe emerged as the new wargaming hawtness a few years back I quickly snapped it up. After reading the rules and deciding that it was pretty straightforward, the game then sat on my shelf and collected dust for years due to my aforementioned BAD HOST phobia.

But then something miraculous happened. We added five new members to the group:

Jeremy
Matt
Kris 
John
and (occasionally) Mark

After effectively doubling our numbers we suddenly had a lot more options. I didn't feel as douche-y for proposing a two player game since enough people would often be left over to spin off into one or more separate games.

Even better, certain people in the group are predisposed to certain two-player games in my collection. For example, Chad loves Hammer of the Scots, Andrew digs Space Hulk, Dean's been bugging me to play Tide of Iron since it was first published and Kris is a big fan of World War II era-wargames, notably Combat Commander: Europe. Even better: Kris is pretty fluent in the game's rules and was willing to teach it to me.

So, waaaaay back on September 24'th I made a point of picking CC:E as my official selection.


So, why is it rated the best World War II era game of all time and the 94'th best game period on Board Game Geek? Well, a lot of good intel can be gleaned from the Introduction preamble in the game's surprisingly readable rulebook.

"Combat Commander is a series of card-driven board games covering tactical infantry combat in World War II. In this first volume, one player assumes the role of the Axis (Germany) while another player commands the Allies (America or Russia). These two players will take turns playing one
or more Fate cards from their hands in order to activate their units on the mapboard for various military functions.
 

"Players attempt to achieve victory by moving their combat Units across the game map to attack their opponent’s units and occupy as many Objectives as possible. The degree to which a player succeeds or fails is measured by a scenario’s specific objective chits, the destruction of enemy units, and the exiting of friendly units off the opponent’s board edge. 

"Each measure of game Time is divided into a variable number of player Turns. In each Turn, the sequence of play is fluid – with Orders being given by the active player and Actions being taken by both players – depending upon the cards in their hands. Events, both good and bad, will occur at
random intervals to add a bit of chaos an uncertainty to each player’s perfect plan.
"

We decided to play Scenario Four: "Closed For Renovation". Here's the setup:

SITUATION REPORT: HUMAINE, BELGIUM, DECEMBER 27'TH, 1944

"After days for fierce combat and heavy bombardment, the town of Humaine was surrounded by forces of the US 2nd Armored Division. Most of the German defenders surrendered after some heavy fighting.

"Remnants of the 9'th Panzer Division occupying a chateau on the north end of town refused to give up, however, and it fell to CCR to root out these stubborn troops." 

Before Kris arrived I noticed that one of Mike's kids had left the top half of his Darth Vader helmet lying on the floor. Naturally I picked it up and set it on my head at a jaunty angle. Naturally, when Kris arrived and saw this it pretty much ended all debate as to what faction I'd be playing.

Hey, this isn't any less ridiculous then determining who goes first in Pandemic.

FACTIONS: ME - Axis, KRIS - Allies

POSTURE: ALLIES - Attack,  AXIS - Defend,  INITIATIVE CARD - Axis

SET UP: ALLIES - last; 1 hex deep, AXIS - first; 9 hexes deep

VP MARKER: "20" space (Axis side)

TIME TRACK: TIME - "1" space, SUDDEN DEATH - "7" space

OBJECTIVE CHITS: OPEN - Q and R, no secret objective

OBJECTIVE CONTROL: ALLIES - none, AXIS - all

So, what this all translates to is that, as the Germans, I had to hold on to hex I17 for seven cycles through the Fate Deck. No problemo.

Knowing how important coverage is, I turned every possible approach to the chateau into a kill zone. In the stables to the far east I crewed a Light MG with an Elite Rifle unit.  In a small utility shack behind the mansion I kept a Weapon crew in reserve. Then, to make Kris's job as hard as possible, I strung five hexes worth of barb wire along the north east approach to the mansion.

Just to get to this point Kris's troops would have to dodge through withering cross-fire from no less than three long-range guns. Guarding the objective hex was an Elite Rifle Unit operating a Light MG. In the front east wing of the house was a Elite Rifle chit armed with a Heavy MG. Then, dead center in the lobby of the mansion was my precious IG 18 gun helmed by a dedicated Weapons crew. I wouldn't have a huge fire arc with this thing but at least it wouldn't be as vulnerable to snipers.

The main building was re-enforced by my two officers, Lt. Schrader and Lt. Lauerbach as well as a back-up Elite Rifle team and some Weapon specialists. I love how Kris just sat there, whistling innocently as assigned all of my valuable Elite Rifle squads to the long-range MG's and cannons instead of the dedicated Weapons teams. Man, I was such a dumb-ass!

Finally I set up was my last Elite Rifle team in the farmhouse to the West.

Kris didn't have a lot of choice RE: his set up but by the time he was done, he had a pretty formidable force headed my way. From East to West along the far end of the map there was:
  1. An Elite squad toting a Medium MG.
  2. Sgt. Buehler commanding another Elite unit.
  3. An Elite Unit with two Satchel Charges.
  4. One Line squad in each of the next three hexes.
  5. Lt. Wray with another Elite group.
  6. A Line platoon.
  7. An Elite Unit armed with a nasty-looking .50 cal MG.
  8. A final Elite Unit by itself. 
Kris also had a Radio which he could use to call in an Artillery Strike. Yippee!


As the game kicked off, Kris charged towards the chateau, ducking and weaving around a hail of bullets and doing his best to stay under cover. We exchanged some long-distance fire but at that extreme range, it was about as meaningful as a grade school pissing contest.


After reaching the relative safety of a copse of trees in hex C5, the Elite Unit lugging the .50 Cal sniped my Elite Rifle unit standing guard in the West wing of the house. Kris caught another break when a random Event gave the Elite unit sneaking up along the eastern tree-line "Veteran" status and a +1 bump in every stat. Damn! During all of this I did what I could to suppress his advance with my long-range beat-sticks but I didn't have much success.

 
Kris managed to get three Line Units and Lt. Wray into cover just a grenade's-throw away from the mansion. He continued to press his luck, dashing one of his Elite units across the CORRIDOR OF DEATH to jump into cover. My Heavy MG was on the case, however, stopping them in their tracks and inflicting a pretty nasty state of Suppression.


Even though my initial luck was it's usual rotten self, the killzone that I'd instinctively set up was proving to be tremendously effective. My IG 18 emplacement Broke Kris's .50 Cal Elite unit encroaching in the West. I decided to reward this gunnery crew with some sandbags which provided additional Cover as they conducted their deadly handiwork. Temporarily stymied by the daunting task of a direct frontal assault, Kris kept his Sgt. Beuhler-led Veteran Elite team creeping up along the stone fence to the East.


Still unable to repair his damaged .50 Cal, Kris made a daring and desperate move. Under the cover of Smoke, he boldly stormed the North West wing of the estate.


Just as the .50 Cal team repaired their weapon, the suicidally-heroic Line unit got close enough to heave an entire satchel full of Charges at my IG 18, damaging this all-important piece of ordinance. The Elite Unit guarding the western farmhouse rushed back to the chateau and managed to Suppress the interlopers in the resulting fire-fight.


With time running out Kris was forced to make some kamikaze-like moves. His newly-repaired .50 Cal opened up but didn't find a target. In contrast, my distant Heavy MG struck true, forcing Kris's Elite team to hit the dirt. The troops that he'd been amassing just behind the eastern tree line suddenly made a dash towards the objective hex. This included two re-enforcement Engineer units, one led by the plucky Lt. Wray and another sporting a freakin' Flamethrower! In an attempt to disrupt my defense during this frontal assault, Kris tried to lob an artillery shell into the south-east wing of the estate!


Fortunately he over-shot the target and it landed in the t-intersection of the dirt road right behind the house!


The impact on all the adjacent hexes was negligible, allowing me to turn my attentions back towards annihilating Kris's charge. Things immediately went my way when the Flamethrower-armed Engineer Unit got snagged up in my perfectly-placed Wire, making their attack ineffectual.

Under the expert leadership of Lt. Lauerbach, my Elite Rifle squad used their Light MG to great effect, Breaking that unit. Kris, curse his hide, responded with a "Light Wounds" Fate Card which allowed him to replace them with a matching unit at the cost of one Victory point.

Moments later my Elite Heavy MG unit ensconced in the eastern stables put Lt. Wray in the dirt and cut the Elite squad he was leading into ribbons. Meanwhile my Weapons team in the foyer of the mansion finally got the IG 18 repaired and used it to keep Kris's hunkered-down Line unit at bay. But just like a stubborn batch of green-clad kakerlakes they just refused to die.


With my IG 18 back up and running I pounded Kris's .50 Cal unit ensconced in the woods to the northwest into submission. This gave Lt. Schrader an opportunity to co-ordinate two Weapon Units and an Elite Rifle squad in a concentrated attack on Kris's pinned-down Line Unit. My tenacity finally paid off and the beleaguered platoon finally gave up the ghost.

Growing increasingly desperate, Kris shoved the Line Unit in tree cover directly in front of the mansion out towards the Wire in hex I6. Almost immediately my Elite Rifleman-crewed Heavy MG turned them into confetti but not before they cut through the Wire there. As daring as this was I knew that it was just a distraction for the main assault coming in the east.

Guided by Sgt. Buehler, the Elite Unit manning the Medium MG gave cover fire to the wounded Flamethrower-armed Engineer which was now crawling out of the Wire and headed due south. Upon arrival there they quickly dug a Foxhole for some cover. Finally, Kris used a Fate Deck card to split the wounded Elite unit skulking around the grounds to the south east into two separate 2/1/1 Elite Units.

Sensing that the east wing of the house was about to be turned into a giant hibachi, my troops responded by bricking up the wall there, effectively constructing a makeshift Pillbox.

 
This development couldn't have come at a better time. Kris let loose with the Flamethrower again but it failed to penetrate my asbestos wall. Ultimately, it wasn't the flame-spouting wand of death that ended up wounding my plucky Elite Rifle unit dug in there but the Elite Medium American MG team two hexes away.

Bloodied but unbowed, my boys stood their ground and prepared for the final assault. But even as Kris used a Fate Deck card to reconstitute one of his wounded Elite units back up to full health, we both knew that he was running out of time. Sure enough, when Kris performed his very first mandated "Sudden Death" die roll it came up in my favor.


WINNER: ME! 

***

REVIEW

PROS
  • For a grognard weaned on the crude components of Avalon Hill or SPI games, Combat Commander: Europe looks gorgeous. The heavy stock chits completely outdo the silhouettes of yore and feature detailed miniature artwork to depict all of the leaders, units, weapons and equipment. Yes, it would have been great if the boards were mounted but I'm sure GMT just wanted to keep their production costs down and avoid shipping out boxes that weighed heavier than your average Sherman tank. Besides, by using foldable card-stock they could include a bunch o' different boards and give players a lot more options. Just invest in a few small, thin sheets of plexiglass and you'll be off to the races.
  • For a game that's trying to simulate so many battlefield realities the rules are incredibly intuitive and understandable. All game designers should take a page from the Combat Commander: Europe rulebook. The language is clear, the illustrations are helpful, the index is user-friendly and the myriad of examples really drill home all of the important concepts. And if that wasn't awesome enough, designer Chad Jensen includes a very detailed "Example of Play" at the back of the Playbook which really helps to tie everything together.
  • Back in the day, olde-skool wargames tried to simulate all of the variables of combat with a host of rules governing every single variable. But this game uses the brilliantly-designed Fate Deck to auto-pilot such potentially-complicated concepts as initiative, weapon jams / breakdowns, snipers, medics, air support, shell shock, random fires, heroes, smoke, morale, field promotions, sappers, reconnaissance, re-deployments, interrogation, command confusion, infiltration and reinforcements. Yes, a lot of this is abstracted, but when you put all of the abstractions together it feels pretty durned real.
  • This scenario of Combat Commander: Europe I played against Kris represents the most tense, thematic, immerse gaming experience I've had in recent memory. It's downright thrilling to see your troops dive into Foxholes, string Wire around a defensive perimeter, huck Grenades, construct a Pillbox, lay down Suppressing Fire, trigger an Ambush or engage in desperate Melees. Just look at the clear narrative I managed to spin out of these photographs that I took three months ago; it plays out like an episode of Band of Brothers! Even if the game hadn't ended when it did, I still had an ace up my sleeve. If Kris charged the Objective Hex next turn I was going to surprise him with a "Booby Trap" Fate Deck Card which would have laced the area with deadly Mines! I mean, c'mon, how dramatic is that?
CONS
  • I'm sure some people will bitch and moan about the absence of tanks and other vehicles, but that would have added another huge rules overlay onto the game. Frankly I'm perfectly content with the way things are and I wouldn't change a darned thing.            
***

To me,  Combat Commander: Europe is the tactical World War II game of my dreams. Man, I wish I had access to something that was half as good as this as a kid. Armed with twenty to thirty years worth of board game evolution, Chad Jensen has streamlined the clunky designs and boring legal-document rule sets that hampered my budding interest in wargames and made everything so user-friendly.  

Without a doubt, this is one of the best games I've played in the past five years and, as such, it deserves a perfect score of six pips outta six!

 



***

Wanna give your opponent a healthy dose of shell-shock? Then click on the image below to learn more about Combat Commander: Europe and keep this blog strong in the fight! 


 
 

2 comments:

  1. Excellent AAR/review, now I must seriously consider buying the game!

    ReplyDelete