Monday, October 15, 2012

Combat Commander: Europe

The next random game in my collection is Combat Commander: Europe.  This is an infantry combat game set in World War II, in the European theater of operations.  The units a small scale, with unit counters representing squads, fire teams, or individuals leaders or heroes.  The game is scenario-based, and the boxed game comes with a dozen different scenarios featuring American, German, and Russian forces.  There is also a method to randomly generate new scenarios if you play through all of the scenarios that come with the game.  The game is for two players.

All of this is pretty traditional.  For decades the game Advanced Squad Leader has been the gold standard for WWII combat at this scale.  What does Combat Commander do that Squad Leader does not?  While the games do deal with the same scale of tactical combat, Combat Commander plays complete differently.  First of all, there are no dice to roll.  Instead, everything is handled through the play of cards.  Each army has its own unique deck of 72 cards.  Each card has an Order, an Action, an Event, a specific map hex and two numbers between one and six.  All game activity takes place through play of the cards.  To give orders to your units on your turn, you have to play a card with the Order you want to conduct, maybe "Move," or "Fire," or "Recover."  You then activate a unit (if that unit is a leader, it can active other units within its command range to perform the same action) to perform that action.  Actions are taken outside of the standard Orders phase that interrupt play somehow.  For example, the "Fire" card can be used as an Order or an Action.  If you play it as an Action, then you can interrupt the other player's movement to have one of your units fire at the moving unit's space on the board.  Or you might have an action that adds attack power to a "Fire" order, or that lets you lay down smoke to block the vision of your opponent.

Events are random things that happen during the game, and can result in having one of your units lose morale, gaining new units, having fires start, etc.  Above I had mentioned that each card comes with two numbers on it.  Those numbers are used in place of having dice in the game.  To perform a "Fire" or "Reform" action you draw a card from your deck, add up the numbers, and then you use that number to determine whether your action succeeded or not.  Some actions are opposed, and your opponent will also be drawing a card and looking at the numbers to see if his number was higher than yours.  If so, the action doesn't take place.  I realize that this may sound a bit odd, and it took me a little while to get used to it, but the system really does work very well.

So how long do games last?  The short answer is that the players don't know.  Games don't last a set number of turns.  Instead, each scenario gives you a set number of time slots before you start checking to see if the game ends.  The time track advances in two different situations.  First, if a player plays all the way through their deck, then you advance the turn track one space.  Additionally, if a player is drawing a card for a "die roll," and the word "Time" is in red text next to the numbers, then the time track advances.  So, the players really don't know when the time track will advance.  This impacts strategy, because you just don't know if you should rush forward with an attack before you are fully prepared for it, or if you will have the time to get everything in place just the way you want it.

One wrinkle with having all orders issued through the play of cards is that if you want to do something, but don't have a card that lets you do it, then you can't perform that order.  For example, I have played in many games where I was on the attack and really needed to move my units forward, but I didn't have a "Move" or "Advance" order to do so.  And in the last game that I played the American player was running roughshod over the poor Germans, but they didn't have any "Fire" cards so they couldn't return fire against the American forces.  I have a friend who hates games like this, but this kind of thing doesn't bother me.  If you don't like card-driven games, I recommend steering far away from this one.  However, if you can embrace the randomness of having your actions constrained by your hand of cards, then this really is a great game of infantry combat.

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