I’m definitely an eurogamer — fond of fairly simple games that manage to create complex gameplay from a small ruleset. Yet sometimes I want more. This has been particularly true for war games: Memoir ’44 is fun, but ultimately not enough. In the other hand, Advanced Squad Leader and the likes of it are perhaps a bit too much (I’m too scared to try).
However, when I bumped into Combat Commander, I realized I had found what I was looking for. The system is complex enough to be interesting, yet simple enough to play without extensive study. After five games, I’ve got it and can play without problems. I can take a newbie, teach him or her and play a good game.
Combat Commander is a small-scale tactical war game. Players re-enact small infantry battles of the World War 2. The maps are small, just 10 x 15 hexes or 300 x 450 meters. Players command squads and teams, about 50-150 men all together. The fighting is chaotic and intense, as the game tries to recreate the chaos of small-scale fighting.
The key is in the cards. Players command their troops through cards, which can be used either as an orders or actions that modify the orders. Leaders play a crucial role: each order activates only one unit, but if that unit is a leader, he can then activate other units within his command radius. Without leaders, any reasonable action is difficult.
Fighting is simple. Firing is actually quite ineffective: a single squad isn’t going to do much, especially if the enemy has cover or support from a leader. To break the opposition you need large firegroups (formed by leaders) or heavy ordnance.
No matter what you do, you can’t kill someone by shooting: first hit breaks the unit. If a broken unit breaks, it is eliminated. So, you have to shoot twice — and better make it fast, before the enemy can rally their units. Melee is more deadly, as the loser will lose all the units involved. Getting to melee without getting shot at is the hard part…
Every now and then a die roll — no dice are used, the die roll results come from the cards — triggers an event. A card is drawn: each card has an event that will affect the game somehow. These vary from almost insignificant to quite major — with good luck you can produce useful reinforcements or break critical enemy units. The events add a lot of chaos and luck to the game; you need to be able to tolerate that.
Tons of variability
The game contains three nations: Americans, Germans and Russians. Each nation has their own deck; the composition of the decks varies a bit. Americans get few extra Fire actions, for example. The counter mix for the different nations varies a lot, too, so most scenarios will feature different situations and strategies for different sides.
There are 12 scenarios, one for each map in the set, and a random scenario generator. The scenario generator works well and allows lots of flexibility. The replay value of the game is immense, especially as the scenarios themselves have lots of replay value; you can do things in many ways and the objectives are sometimes more or less random. If that’s not enough, there’s an expansion in the pipeline.
I like Combat Commander a lot. Some will find the chaos excessive, the cards overly restrictive or the rules too complex or simplified in wrong places — I don’t. I accept the design principles and enjoy the game. My only problem with the game is its length: right now I’ll have to reserve three hours for a game and that’s a bit much in my current life situation.
If you’re looking for a war game that’s easy to learn and teach, but with lots of tasty detail, Combat Commander is an excellent choice. The rules are a lot tougher to learn than in euro games, but with some effort and perhaps few solo scenarios they are fairly easy to learn if you can play the more complex euro games.