Wednesday, December 03, 2008

You heard it here first!

In which- Shock! Horror! Probe!- I criticise Combat Commander

Regular readers will be only too aware of my love of Chad Jensen and GMT's Combat Commander series (at 107 registered plays to date, it's closing fast with SL/ASL as my most played company-level tacsim ever). Some of you might even remember my waxing lyrical (here, or even here) about CC's excellent Random Scenario Generator (RSG). But what I haven't aired yet is my major complaint about the RSG, which is the way that artillery support is called in. (NB. I'm here talking about the rules for adding off-board artillery (OBA) to a scenario, not the rules for using OBA during play.)

Adding my tuppenceworth earlier today to a BGG thread about the CC RSG, I included an aside about this complaint, which in turn gave me a flash of inspiration about what has been bugging me since that August session of 5 CC RSG games with Badger. What then, is this complaint? Naturally enough, to explain that, I'll have to give some background first.

In a nutshell, the CC RSG works like this:
  • One player chooses the map.
  • The other player sets its orientation.
  • Nationalities, the year, and the troop qualities are determined.
  • Each player then chooses a force.
  • The player with the cheaper force is the defender, and goes on to: roll for support, buy fortifications, and set up.
  • The attacking player may roll for artillery support, then sets up.
There are a few extra details, but that's the gist of it.

As I said, my complaint is about how the RSG handles the availability of OBA. This is handled randomly, via a roll on your nationality's Support Table. So far so good. Post-publication discussions of the CC:E RSG revealed an obvious flaw in this: rolls on the Support Table are typically available to just one player- the player who will turn out to be the defender; so that the chances of attackers enjoying OBA support was vanishingly small, even in those situations where calling in artillery support would be an obvious first response, eg. attacking a heavily fortified position. Various solutions were proposed to this problem as the issue was discussed at CSW and the BGG Combat Commander forums.

In the end, the solution adopted in CC:M was twofold:
  • OBA isn't available during the initial support rolls, so that no RSG defender will start with OBA.
  • The attacker has the choice of rolling for OBA before setting up, but must take the OBA rolled if there is one available.
Note the 'must', highlighted to draw attention to what I presume is supposed to be an element of jeopardy inherent in the choice available to the attacker. Jeopardy? What jeopardy? The 'risks' inherent in choosing to roll for OBA in the CC RSG can be summed up as follows:
  • You might not get it when you really want it; no different from not trying for it at all in other words.
  • You might waste points on OBA that doesn't suit your needs, eg. it has no smoke capacity (applies to a total of 7/28 available OBA), or is too weak given the defender's terrain and fortifications.
The real 'jeopardy' in other words is a few points (averging some 3-5 I'd guess at a glance), something which can be made up easily with a couple of kills or exits. This supposed 'jeopardy' therefore acts as a minimal disincentive to making that Support Table roll.

Beyond that, the situation created by the revised CC RSG OBA rules is no less absurd than that which the revision sought to create. That is to say: it makes no more sense that only the attacker can have OBA than it did that only the defender could. Here and there at CSW or the BBG Chad has defended the new rules, to wit:
  • Artillery support was more common in attack than defence, so that the rules make historical sense.
  • The CC Artillery Request orders are typically on the same cards as valuable Defender Only actions, eg. Hidden Wire or Hidden Mines, so that OBA is less useful to the defender.
Of these 2 points, the first is open to question, and in any case rules which deny OBA support to scenario defenders as standard simply do not reproduce a historically reasonable interpretation of this notion.

The 2nd point is hardly germane to the issue of whether or not the scenario defender should have more ready access to OBA than the mere fraction of 1% offered by the Reinforcements event which is currently the only way this #1 killer of WW2 can be made available to even the most heavily fortified defensive position. If you wanted to be unkind you could even argue that this 2nd point demonstrates a weakness in deck design, in that there is no reason why calling down OBA should be particularly punitive- in tactical terms- for scenario defenders. No matter, my point is that Chad's arguments in support of the revision move from making little or no sense to more or less outright nonsense.

It only took Badger and I a few games to become aware of these problems, which first arose as the defender's complaint that OBA was too easily available to the attacker (surprise!). Some serious reflection on the issues brought us to the consensus already outlined above, and we promptly decided that the quickest and easiest fix was to allow the defender to buy OBA with their support rolls too. This has worked fine for the rest of the RSG games we've played, but I was left unsatisfied, because the core rules remained broken.

And so we return to the BGG thread my intervention in which occasioned today's post here. Denying the attacker OBA access was a feature of the CC:E RSG that clearly needed fixing, and the chosen fix was neat and tidy. What didn't need fixing- especially after some 200+ games at Chad's hands before the game went public (backgammon, bridge and Up Front are the only games I've played that much or more, ever)- was the defender's access to OBA. Why then, did Chad introduce changes which make no sense at all, and which are tantamount to throwing a spanner in the works of the RSG?

I can only speculate here, but my thoughts on this are:
  • The online fanbase made too much noise to be ignored (and with good reason, as I think I've made clear).
  • Chad didn't want the RSG to make OBA available to both sides, because he thought that this wouldn't be good for the game; eg. by reducing his carefully crafted game of infantry fire and manoeuvre to a less than satisfying artillery duel.
  • And so, if the attacker was to get OBA, the defender must lose it.
If there was a fear that making OBA too readily available would somehow be to the detriment of the CC RSG I would have to agree, if only because one idea that passed through my mind as Badger and I discussed our options was to do away with buying OBA at start altogether. I knew this simplest of solutions was unworkable because my own instincts rebelled against it.

And so, we have the problem as perceived by the designer; the fix; and the problems perceived in the fix by this particular subset of the (online) fanbase. All of which brings us back to the 'flash of inspiration' which inspired me to set to work on this post in the first place. And what is this 'flash of inspiration'? Simple: if the availability of OBA is to carry with it some measure of jeopardy, ie. if there are to be positive and negative features associated with making the effort to access OBA, then perhaps there should be more at stake than just points. The clearest example of what I'm talking about is to suggest that perhaps attackers who get OBA should lose a time advance, ie. that the Time marker would begin the game at 1 instead of 0. There are other penalties you could suffer in a game of Combat Commander, to wit:
  • Losing initiative or the first turn.
  • Reduced surrender level.
I make no a priori claims about the merits of these suggestions. Instead, all I can do is point out that, if mere points aren't enough to make checking for OBA a decision of some moment, then one of the great merits of the Combat Commander system is that there are several other crucial force parameters which could be varied in order to achieve the sort of effect I believe that Chad was after with his 'must buy' ruling in the CC:M revised RSG.

PS. The discussion at the BGG which prompted this post has moved on between my drafting and publishing this post, as you would expect. I'm not going to rewrite what has gone before in the light of comments by Chad which might refute assumptions and/or conclusions intrinsic to my arguments. This might be more honest; it's certainly simpler! ;)
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