Friday, April 25, 2008

Monthly Review @ RD/KA!: Combat Commander: Mediterranean and Battle Pack #1: Paratroopers

Combat Commander: Mediterranean
Highly anticipated, and delivered by GMT's P500 system with the minimum of fuss and a bare year's wait, Combat Commander: Mediterranean is not so much an expansion of CC:E as the completion of the system, which was released in 2 parts because GMT didn't want to stake their capital on a game that would've cost well over $100 otherwise. Packed in one of GMT's deep boxes, CC:M contains:
  • British, French (Allied Minor) and Italian (Axis Minor) Fate decks, including 3 cheat cards and an Initiative card.
  • British, French and Italian OB sheets.
  • 352 large counters.
  • 140 small counters.
  • 2 booklets.
  • 6 double-sided mapsheets, maps #13-24.
Lacking only the track display and the player aid cards to be a fully playable game, CC:M is therefore a box filled to match that of Combat Commander: Europe, which to this reviewer represents quality, value and bumper fun.

The three fate decks are what you'd expect: good graphic design, not best playing card quality, but durable enough to survive the play they'll surely see. The real value of these decks will be in how they'll fill out the range of cardplay methods to master, bringing Jensen's full design into relief. The additional initiative card is handy, giving one for each Axis faction. Keep them with the Axis decks and you won't have to rummage about looking for an initiative card when you're setting up.

The 3 OB sheets include allied nationalites, so you'll find the expected ANZAC's and Finns, and minors such as Belgians, Bulgarians and Poles. The range of Allied and Axis minors looks to be pretty comprehensive- 12 different nationalities out of 18 in all. This limits the range of available French and Italian OB's naturally enough, but these nations lacked the elite and special forces formations which fill out other nations' OB's. So that makes sense I guess.

The 352 large and 140 small (regulation wargame 5/8" and 1/2") counters provide the three new factions' OB's as per the original. Which means that the faction counters are in attractive and appropriate base colours, contrasting nicely without clashing horribly for the purposes of easy identification during play. The unit and weapon stats are clearly displayed, and typography is intelligently used to highlight important information.

Filling out the 3 OB's left space on the counter sheets. Some of this is logically given over to objective control and OB stats markers, the latter a full new set now showing posture too. The rest of the room provides extra smoke markers-handy, and large objective chits- surprisingly welcome improved readability!

Six double-sided mapsheets provide 12 new maps, the same standard of well designed and printed paper maps set in CC:E. The arrival of the British, French and the Italians brings us to the Western Desert, so 2 maps- #23 & #24- are completely open ground. These'll be fun. There is 1 urban map- #17, a real doozy of densely-packed large buildings skirted by built-up hills with none of the open areas of maps #6 & #10, the urban maps in CC:E. There is likewise a new wooded map- #20, which features a road, low hills, and a lot of water. Another notable is #18, the river map, featuring a 2-hex wide river crossing corner-to-corner, bisected in the centre by a road at a major bridge. The remaining 7 maps provide a crossroads rural settlement- #15, and various farmsteads in farming or hill countries. 'A postive wealth of new material' is the phrase that springs to mind.

The first booklet is the CC:M Playbook containing scenarios #13-24, updated RSG, and full counter and card manifests for all the factions, DYO points values and designers' notes.

All the new nationalities are properly introduced in the 12 new scenarios, the British featuring in 5, the French/Allied Minor in 4, and the Italian/Axis Minor in 5. The original Germans, Russians and US feature in 7, 2 and 1, respectively. Standing out for this reviewer are #14 'At the Crossroads', in which your Poles can try rushing the Germans to overwhelm them with speed and numbers as you take on the 1-discard attacking hand for the first time; and #17 'Little Stalingrad', #18 'Bridge Hunt', and #23 'No-Man's Land', on those maps, naturally enough.

The RSG needed a tweak due to the increasing number of maps, but it was also changed after discussion with fans, so that rolling for support is now slightly different. Artillery is no longer available as a routine support option, but you may take as many support items as you wish, to the extent that your opponent might end up with VP to spend on support rolls of their own, and might even end up forcing you to be the attacker. Artillery support is now an attacker-only option, with the added bonus that you decide this Asset Request once you've seen the defender's setup. All of this is a significant improvement, since it introduces more decisions which can influence the shape of the scenario. It is this feature of the RSG which makes it so much fun IMO, so these changes are only to the good.

The manifests are handy, offering a convenient overview of the different factions. Alongside the DYO points values, they should prove a boon to CC scenario designers. Chad and John's designers' notes are excellent. Short and to the point, they introduce the key features of the three new factions and the updated RSG.

The other booklet is v1.1 of the rules, updated from the FAQ meticulously maintained by designer Chad Jensen and series developer John Foley. As an expansion dependent upon ownership of the series original game CC:M didn't strictly need the updated core rules at all, so it's a nice touch on the part of GMT to include this.

There are some typos in CC:M: wrong numbers on the broken side of a British weapon or two, and the missing hex-centre dots on map 18. But these are not serious enough to merit marking down the product overall, because they are so easy to address. And GMT plan to release corrected parts at some point in any case.

Combat Commander Battle Pack #1: Paratroopers
The first genuine expansion for CC, Combat Commander Battle Pack #1: Paratroopers begins GMT's planned series of packs themed by troop types, theatres of operation, or other features, and containing new maps, scenarios, counters, cards and anything else the designers can dream up. Sideways expansion through special rules packs instead of ASL's vertical model of massive new nationality boxed sets is a model which appeals to me. I'm interested in seeing where Chad and GMT can take this. So buying BP#1 was a cinch, but I didn't expect to find it in a FLGS, which to good fortune I did just in time for Martin to get a chance to try out his beloved US paras in new scenarios. Shrink-wrapped in a cardboard sleeve, BP#1 contains:
  • 2 double-sided mapsheets, #25-28.
  • 6 double-sided scenario cards featuring 10 scenarios, #25-34.
That's one-third the number of mapsheets, and the same amount of cardboard as in CC:E- a small fraction of the components and for a quarter of the price. It cannot be said that this is the best value for money, so how does what BP#1 adds to CC make this high price worth paying?

The 4 new maps are farmstead variations in farming countries, the most notable of which is #27, featuring a lot of marsh. The maps bring added variety to the already wide range of maps available for the RSG.

With 2 exceptions the scenarios feature US paras in Normandy or the Bulge. Those exceptions are #25 'Fields of Fire', featuring a desperate 2-part holding action against German fallschirmjaeger on the opening day the Bulge, and #30 'Red Skies at Night', featuring a strong platoon of Russian paras well-matched by 2 German rifle platoons. Of the remaining 8, 5 scenarios are set in Normandy, 3 the Bulge. These include landing on St. Mere Eglise in #33 'We Go!', and a glider resupply operation at Bastogne in #29 'Operation Repulse'.

Gamers who are fresh to board wargames coming to either game in the Combat Commander series might experience a sense of disappointment on opening the deceptively deep box. This is no box of toys after the fashion of DoW or FFG. The maps, counters and cards aren't produced to the same high standards as these companies'. They will certainly endure casual play with average care, but you might want to consider card protectors or a spare set if the game becomes a serious habit.

That minor consequence of the economics of scale aside, the quality graphic design makes the all components- maps, counters, cards, reference sheets and rulebooks a pleasure to use. These combine with the logical and well-written rules to help the game run very smoothly, so that with a bit of practice players really can reach the 90 minutes per game average playing time claimed by Chad Jensen, the designer. This makes Combat Commander simple to teach and quick to grasp, making it easy to get on the table even in a short evening's gaming, and so a game of wide potential appeal despite its unassuming appearance.

Of course the big news in CC:M is the new nationalities. Each has its OB and fate deck adding their own tactical challenges.

The British engineers and airborne are as good as any, matching the best of the Germans or the Americans. These offer the British secret weapon, a mighty force of irresistible attraction which you can be sure will be deployed as soon as RSG conditions permit, namely the Commandos. Going all-out for the full 3 troops, the lucky British player will be fielding 6 each of airborne and guards squads, with 6 weapon teams, 6 LMGs, 6 light mortars, and 3 satchel charges, all complete with 6 (count them... 6!) leaders and 6(!) orders. What a force! And costing 50 points as it does you can be sure you'll be attacking, albeit through some more or less serious fortifications.

The rest of the British OB is steady and reliable. With no boxed firepower or range stats the squads and teams get only smoke and no assault or spray fire actions. The British LMG is 3FP just like every other non-German LMG, although it has the longest range of these. And only the French don't have MG's heavier than the 7FP British Vickers. If the British have a trick that is all their own it is the 2" mortar. Although one of the weakest in the game it's also one of the most portable, and the only one with smoke. This is neat.

Most of these stats seem to me to make sense relative to each other, but I have to query 2 British weapon stats, namely 7FP and 10FP for the 3" mortar and the 25pdr respectively. Making the mortar weaker than everyone else's 81mm models is fine, but -2FP for the sake of a difference of some 5-6mm? Making the British 3" mortar the same as everyone else's 60mm? That seems excessive. Unless perhaps the British round's charge was disproportionately light for its calibre? And the 25pdr was an 88mm weapon, a full 13mm greater than the 75mm guns with which it shares 10FP. Maybe there's something I'm missing again, but I wonder if there's scope for tweaks if the real-world data add up- 11FP instead of 10 in the case of the 25pdr.

With no special forces and just 1 Elite squad, the French and Allied Minor OB is a match for its British equivalent in all respects except range. French weapons are on a par with the Italians' and the Russians'- ie. largely weaker and/or shorter-ranged than their British and German equivalents, but without the Italian and the Russian OBs' heavier MG's. One unique French feature is the Maginot Garrison formation, which is the only RSG formation to start with IG, the French 75mm- as many as 3 with 3 HMG's in the full company. This is another force I expect to be fielding as soon as RSG conditions permit.

The Italian and Axis Minor OB is the weakest and most fragile of all, with either firepower, range and/or broken morale- and sometimes all 3- lower than almost any equivalent units'. Notable exceptions are the short-ranged Russian squads, which the Italians and Axis Minor are liable to face. The Guastatori are respectable special forces, and the Finnish Sissi are elite troops unique to the Axis Minors. The most significant feature of the Italian OB which will counteract this poor troop quality is sheer numbers. The Italian RSG OB's give them between 1½ to 2 times as many squads as any opponent, and this is typically reflected in the official scenarios. The downside of this is that this also gives the Italians the worst leader/squad ratio of the game.

The Italian/Axis Minors have a range of weapons matched only by the Russians, with 7 assorted MG, mortars, and their mountain gun. The MG's are in the 3rd class with the French and the Russians, while the mortars and the mountain gun are on a par with their various equivalents.

While the OB help define the different national characteristics, the key source of national character in Combat Commander is discard capacity. Already known to CC players- being printed on one the reference sheets- the new discard capacites are: British- 4 cards, French- 1, Italian-2.

The British discard is the 'best of the rest' after the Americans and the Germans. With a 4-card discard the net effect for the British is that they are as good in defence as anyone and better than most, but will be less flexible in more aggressive postures than the Americans or Germans. This is a perfectly reasonable estimation of relative ablities IMO, and is a good example of how CC:M highlights features of the Combat Commander design which were always present, but not so easy to perceive with a half-complete game.

It is the Italian and the French which are the most interesting here. The Italians have just 2 discards, the French a puny 1. This is so bad as to provoke some players to fear that the French especially are virtually unplayable, all the more so for a game where the designer and developer's crucial tactical advice is about discarding as often and as in as great numbers as possible. These fears are unfounded. I've seen the French in play 5 times so far, the Italians the same. The French have won 4 games, including once on the attack against the Germans; the Italians likewise, including once on the attack against the Russians. Clearly then the minor nationalites are eminently playable despite the apparently extreme handicap of their discard capacities.

The main problem I have noticed for the minors so far with these limited capacities is that they find it harder than anyone else to find that card they really must have. This tends to apply most of all to that crucial recover, but it also means that sometimes the minor player simply must plan on having all cards needed already in hand before embarking on a risky manoeuvre, eg. 2 moves and 1 or more recovers if you're planning a rapid dash through enemy LOS.

I noted above that the "real value of these [new] decks will be in how they'll fill out the range of cardplay methods to master, bringing Jensen's full design into relief". I hope readers will be beginning to see what I meant by now. It was easy to look at a CDG where national characterstics are determined by card discard and see a difference between 6-card and 1-card discard capacities as excessive. I'm sure that the design of the decks helped here, but I'm coming to the conclusion that separating hand size from nationality by allocating it according to posture plays a significant role in making the discard-based nationality rules workable.

If the fate decks of the 3 new nationalities in CC:M finally display Chad Jensen's essential CDG mechanic in all its glory, the new maps and scenarios included in both CC:M and BP#1 highlight the other merits of Jensen's design.

It'll come as no surprise to readers to hear that 2 key features of good scenarios are interesting situations and replay value. Having played nearly all of the official scenarios by now (7 unplayed out of 36 available to me) I can vouch for both of these. Every single game has been exciting, and each scenario is one I would happily revisit more than once on either side. Clearly the scenario designers- Chad and others (in BP#1) deserve credit for for their research and development efforts.

Combat Commander: Mediterranean and Battle Pack #1: Paratroopers aren't for every gamer. If you're new to board wargames or only have a casual interest in WW2 tactical gaming you clearly want to try Combat Commander: Europe before investigating any expansions of the system. If on the other hand you're a WW2 grognard, or if you've tried CC:E and want more, then take a look at CC:M. It completes the CC system with useful tweaks to the already valuable RSG. In other words: if you liked CC:E, whether you expected to or not, and expect to play it regularly, then CC:M is definitely for you.

BP#1 is only for the afficionado to a greater degree. As I suggested above, scenario packs like BP#1 are no-brainer expansions for a game like Combat Commander. Containing 'just' new maps with new scenarios BP#1 just scratches the surface of what can be done with this format and CC. The full scope will be seen in the future. In the meantime, BP#1 is definitely a worthwhile purchase for lovers of Combat Commander.

Combat Commander: Mediterranean: 10/10
Battle Pack #1: Paratroopers: 9/10

No comments: