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Posted on Aug 26, 2014 in Boardgames, Front Page Features

Combat Commander Expansions – Boardgame Review

Combat Commander Expansions – Boardgame Review

By Robert Delwood

combat-commander-logoCombat Commander expansions: Sea Lion, New Guinea, and Resistance! Boardgame review. Publisher: GMT Games. Series Designer: John A. Foley. Price: varies; listed in article.

Passed Inspection: Innovative card-driven tactical combat system. High replay value. Wide selection of scenarios, special rules, and situations.

Failed Basic: May seem too random for some players. Too many variables or unknown factors. Not enough control of player’s units.

Solitaire suitability (1 is low, 5 is high): 1 (almost none due to the cards and secret victory-point locations’ values)


GMT has three recent releases for their popular Combat Commander series: Sea Lion, New Guinea, and Resistance!

The Combat Commander series: the Basics
If you already play Combat Commander, you can skip this section and go straight to the skinny on the new expansions.

For those unfamiliar with Combat Commander, it is GMT’s WWII, two-player, squad-level tactical game system. Hexes represent 100 feet, each turn is “several” minutes, and units range from squads of about ten men to weapon crews and single men such as leaders and heroes. However, the similarity to other squad-level games ends there. It is proving to be a versatile system. Four core modules expand the system with new rules books, units, nationalities, and associated scenarios. Battle packs, such as the three reviewed here, present “themed collection of scenarios,” allowing an in-depth look at specific battles such as Stalingrad, paratroop assaults, or France 1940.

The system is notable for several reasons. First, it is a card-driven game. That is, all actions, combat resolutions, and random events use cards. Second, almost each scenario has its own map—no geomorphic boards—and the 17” x 22” double sided maps have large hexes so dense stacking doesn’t create problems, even for those of us with clumsy fingers. Third, the system is a refreshing approach to this scale.

cards enlarged2-tbnl

Cards from the Resistance! module. Click to enlarge.

Most notable, however, is the fact that this a card-driven game. Each nationality has a separate deck and each varies slightly for nationality differences. Each player has his own draw deck of 72 cards. Players have a hand, ranging from four to six cards, which may be more or less depending on the situation and special rules. Clearly, more cards allow players more options. For each round, a player uses cards to activate a unit or group of units for movement, fire combat, close combat, or for events that affect all units of one side, such as rally your broken units, or routing the enemy ones. When one player is done activating units, play passes to the other side. Cards may also be played defensively for opportunity fire. Since the hand is replenished at the start of the turn, players have to use the cards resourcefully during the turn. Combat is resolved using familiar attack, range, and morale factors. However, instead of a combat results table, fire combat is resolved by adding a “die roll” to the attacker’s firepower and comparing it against the defender’s morale plus the defender’s own “die roll” (No actual dice are used in the game; players draw a card from the draw deck, not from their hands; at the card’s bottom right is a number represented by an illustration of two dice. The total shown on those “dice” is the “die roll.”) If the defender got the higher total the defender breaks; if the result is a tie, a moving target breaks but a stationary one is merely suppressed.

Each scenario has some built-in uncertainties. For example, a game turn is not simply one round of players’ actions; rather, it continues until either a Time marker shows up during a die roll, or when a player has to shuffle his deck. In addition, a game may not end after the completion of a set number of turns. For that, Sudden Death is used. This is a dice roll that has to be less than the Sudden Death number for the game to end. A high number, like 13 means the game ends automatically; a low one like 3 means the game has an average of four turns left. The Sudden Death number increases after each roll. The last uncertainty is through the possible use of Objective chits. While scenarios list known victory conditions (like unit exit, causalities, or geographic control), each map board also has five marked locations, each with an Objective chit. When captured initially, these chits reveal additional points. Some chits may be listed as”shared,” meaning the effects are available to either player: if the chit is “public” its effect is available to only one player but both sides know what its information is; if “private” its information and effects are known only to the owning player.

The system puts together these components quite well, and is both playable and flexible, as can be seen by the extensive number of additional modules and battle packs (and the short length of time in which they may go out of stock; see below—Editor). Nationalities are represented, complete with strengths, weaknesses, and sometimes special rules; the Japanese and Resistance fighters are unlike any other units. Scenarios tend to be balanced, despite the possible uncertainties, but that is due more to the skill and attention of the scenario designers than the system itself. There is even the concept of the campaign or macro game, by interactively linking a series of scenarios. There is scenario generator, but those seem uninspired and formulaic, as you might expect.

Two common criticisms of the game are that the fixed deck does not allow scenario specialization. For example, in the Stalingrad pack, you might want more Move actions in order to cross the open expanses. Conversely, a defender might like more Fire or Rout cards, not having a need to move as much. The other comment is that the uncertainties prevent strategy, because the game may last longer than expected or locations abandoned for not having any victory points secretly turn out to be valuable. These are valid comments, although it may take several scenarios to come to those cases. Scenario #1 is probably the most played one, as it’s introductory and provides the most straightforward and simplest. Otherwise, the games play well and are different enough that it is unlikely to be compared to other squad-level games.

Now, on to the new expansions.

z-new-guineaNew Guinea. Designers: John Butterfield, Bryan Collars, John Foley, Mark Herman, Kai Jensen, Andy Maly , Volko Ruhnke. Price: $25

This, the fourth Battle Pack expansion, adds the southwest Pacific Ocean island of New Guinea and includes jungle and swamp combat. This requires the Pacific module, which is independent of the other two (Europe and Mediterranean modules) and introduces additional Japanese, British/Commonwealth, US Marines units, and three card decks, one for each. The New Guinea campaign, the single longest in the war, and perhaps the most overlooked, is covered in a series of scenarios from the initial landing in January 1942 through late July 1944. They include an interesting range of situations: frontal assaults, beach landings, desperate banzai charges, and the last one is an encirclement of an American cavalry troop.

The pack includes three map sheets (for six maps) and 14 scenarios; this is one of the few times that maps are reused. It’s also the most straightforward battle pack, in that the special rules are at a minimum (if you don’t consider the entire Pacific module to be special rules), but it still adds interesting features such as hidden units and hidden barbed wire, and tanks make an appearance, albeit more as artillery. The lack of special rules or new counters does not detract from this pack. The scenarios are balanced, well crafted, and each one presents a different situation so that it doesn’t feel like replay of European scenarios with Japanese units.

(The New Guinea supplement sold out quickly, and GMT is also out of stock on Combat Commander Pacific. Check the GMT website for P500 reprint updates.—Editor)

z-sea-lionSea Lion. Designers: Bryan Collars, Chad Jensen, Andrew Laws. Price: $25

The sixth battle pack expansion, this is a hypothetical case of an initially successful German invasion of England (Operation Sea Lion). There is a beach fight (actually, a battle for a pier). Other battles are inland and range from urban fights (including one at Trafalgar Square) to rural ones against (and then later by) the Home Guard. There are also several scenarios with the Americans and Free French. Despite being hypothetical, the scenario quality is GMT’s consistently high level, balanced and interesting. More so than other games, the designers take advantage of introducing new ideas. Rather than modifying the rule book or including a pack-specific set of rules, they introduce these as scenario rules. The special scenario rules provide new flavors including paratroop assaults, prison breaks (British fascists are fighting regular troops), and targeted sniper attacks. This means the scenarios aren’t just rehashes of other ones.

The descriptions are fun to read, and provide a reasonable background and emphasis on the fight. As with most Battle Packs, no new counters are included. This is not a standalone game and requires both Combat Commander Europe and the Mediterranean modules. The latter provides additional units including British and Italian. Yes, apparently Italians would have invaded England, too.

Because of the sheer number and extent of special rules, new players may not want to start with this battle pack. Some players don’t like hypothetical games. But if you like Combat Commander, don’t let those stop you. There’s depth here and the scenarios engage.

z-resistanceResistance! Designer: Chad Jensen. Price: $55.00

This is the fourth module of the Combat Commander series. Even though it is a themed collection of scenarios, there is such an extensive set of new rules and changes that it needed to be a separate module. It presents irregular combat in WWII Europe, mostly as resistance fighters (partisans) but also includes irregular troops and ranges from France to Russia to the Balkans. The two obvious changes are the units themselves and their play. Gone are the organized squads of the regular, trained troops. They are replaced with crews (two men), sections (three), troop (four), bands (five), and gangs (six). Partisan play is very different, too. Activation with a leader is by line of sight rather than physical distance, and units tend to reduce in size instead of being eliminated. Larger units (such as gangs) have more firepower, but smaller ones are easier to move and move more quickly, and new units seems to show up everywhere. There is a new partisan event deck of 36, not 72, cards.

Together, this means the Resistance mindset is new. Play is faster (going through the smaller deck and not having any Time events that would advance the turn), units attack from different directions, and they hit and run, not being able to fight outright with regular troops.

Some players may not like this module, given the nature of irregular combat. With that understanding, the scenarios are fun and represent different situations from other battle packs and modules, as you would expect, and there are still special scenario rules giving more flavors.

About the Author
Robert Delwood has been playing war games since the PanzerBlitz days. He writes for several game magazines including ASL Journal, Fire and Movement, and Armchair General. As a programmer, he has contributed to Microsoft Windows, NASA and the International Space Station, and has an ASL player’s aid software package called SALSA.

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1 Comment

  1. “Failed Basic: May seem too random for some players. Too many variables or unknown factors. Not enough control of player’s units.”

    Indeed. I played CC:Europe once. A ‘diceless’ combat sysetm that uses cards instead is no less random: it is just a semantic exercise. Although my posture was defence I was “broken”(?!) far too often by an extraordinary number of snipers. By the luck of the cards I had bugger all ability to even move my units. And, lastly but not least, I learnt that mortars cannot fire over intervening terrain.
    I do value and appreciate the uncertainty principle in simulating warfare: fog-of-war and sudden death endings, etc. It is not easy to simulate the ‘uncountable’ factors in gaming (courage, initiative) but the system of command and control is defunct at the most unbelieveably basic level.
    A generous label for this interestingly conceived but questionably developed and play-tested game would be a ‘hysterical’ not historical simulation.