Hex-and-counter wargaming has always fascinated me, yet sobering thoughts of wading through chart after chart and a morass of rules intricacies and minutia, as well as some personal baggage, had always put me off of ever taking the plunge into any of the more complex looking wargames out there until recently. This type of wargaming, especially those set in WWII, has always held a fascination for me, because these are the types of games that my dad would certainly gravitate to if he were still alive, and, in fact, he had many wargames that I never got to play with him. He died in 2005, and it's taken 11 years, but I've noticed that memories of him are starting to provide a sense of joy rather than heartache, so I recently decided to take the plunge into some games that not only interest me, but that I know he would have found interesting. It would be silly to think that I'm actually making any kind of connection with him through gaming, but it does provide a certain sense of comfort to know that, if he were alive, he would most certainly approve.
Enter Combat Commander: Europe, originally published in 2006. While doing research in to which hex-and-counter game would be a good place to start, I kept seeing a few games mentioned, with Combat Commander instantly jumping to the top of my shortlist because it is published by GMT Games, who also publish two of my absolute favorite games so far this year. I purchased a copy of Combat Commander: Europe without any intention of reviewing it. After all, the game is 10 years old, and there is an absolute plethora of information out there about it already. After playing it though, I've felt compelled to review this wonderful gem of a game.
Combat Commander: Europe's first surprise for me was in its rules. I expected a rules-heavy manual that outlined things such as line of site, unit movement and firing procedures in minute detail. While there certainly are a lot of rules in the game, it has a wonderful balance between minutia and playability. The rules are surprisingly easy to grasp, because they not only make sense in a historical context, but they also make sense in the context of the game. The rules are just simulation-like enough to feel deep and satisfying, yet streamlined and game-y enough to keep things from getting bogged down, especially with its you-go-I-go rapid fire turn order. Combat Commander: Europe looks more daunting to learn and play than it is, and while it is a step up in complexity from most tactical skirmish board games, it isn't the near-impossible-looking leap that some other wargames appear to be.
One of Combat Commander's greatest strengths is that it is card driven. Each nation has a deck of cards that is comprised of the various orders and actions available to that army. While the decision to make the game card driven could have turned the game into a luck-fest, the balance of the cards and the card distribution in each deck actually succeed in adding to the sense of tension and drama, while avoiding the feeling that luck is the most important aspect of the game. The game uses dice rolls as well as cards, but those too are handled via the cards. The distribution of die-roll results is fixed and even too, so even if lady luck turns her back on you early, the dice will eventually fall in your favor, and clever players can actually pay attention to, and take advantage of, or at least gamble on, when a good die-roll is due to make an appearance. The opposite is also true, so players who have had great rolls through the first half of their deck are going to need to figure out how to deal with the decreased chance of a high roll in the latter half. All told though, because of the even distribution of rolls, the game is a lot less swingy than it could otherwise be if players actually rolled dice each turn.
The cards also lend the game a more chaotic, cinematic feel. Clever tactics are still going to see you through to victory 95% of the time, but that little bit of luck allowed in a card-and-dice based system means that memorable, odds-defying moments of heroism are possible in Combat Commander. Even when it's the tactics that won (or lost) you the battle, those fun little flashes of excitement add so much theme and life to the game. The cards don't just open the door for a moment of fun here and there though. The mix of Orders in each army's deck not only makes the armies feel different to play, but they are so well-balanced, and the rules work so well in the system built around them, that just about every decision is interesting, even when that decision is simply to discard cards on your turn in hopes of drawing something better for the situation at hand.
The cards also have Event text that can be triggered by certain die-rolls. These Events exist to further add to the thematic aspect of the game. The wrong Event and the wrong time can spell disaster, while the right Event might even turn a losing battle into a victory. The Events don't happen often enough to be relied upon, and often times have little to no effect on the overall outcome of the battle, but every now and then an Event, such as a perfectly placed Sniper shot, or a Hero of the people joining the fight, can turn the tide. The Events never feel cheap or overpowered, especially since both sides are bound to trigger multiple Events throughout the course of a game. If nothing else, they can simply be ignored by players who want a more sombre experience that mitigates as much randomness as possible, although they contribute a huge of flavor to the game, making each battle feel as if it is part of a larger war raging around past the confines of each map edge.
There are times where one player will have a few turns in a row where they can't draw the cards that they most need at that moment, but I haven't seen it happen where the card draw was the sole determining factor in the outcome of a game. Generally, if you are in a situation that requires you to draw that one specific Order, it is a situation that you put yourself in. More often, Combat Commander presents players with interesting options, and leaves it up to them to make the right choices. Games of Combat Commander usually last a few hours, but the moment to moment choices and the speed of player turns makes the time absolutely fly by while playing, and the excitement often ratchets up as each scenario draws near its end.
The units and weapons themselves contain all of the pertinent information needed for each, and it quickly becomes second nature to tell at a glance exactly how far a unit can move, their range, Morale (which acts as their defense) and their firepower, and the way that units are activated plays back into the excellence of the card system. Units are normally activated one at a time, one card per unit, but Leaders, having a Command value, can give that issued order to any other units within their command radius. It is incredibly inefficient, although it can become necessary, to activate a single unit at a time, so making smart use of the Leaders available to you is key to success. Leaders are vital, and making the most out of them without exposing them to too much danger is challenging and exciting. They have to be close enough to your units to give them Orders, but that often means putting them at or near the front lines of combat, so players have to find a balance between the risk-reward of putting their Leaders in position to maximize Orders, while keeping them safe enough to stay alive.
Each of Combat Commander's scenarios is timed, but time is abstracted in the game. Certain conditions will trigger the Time phase of the game, but it's almost impossible to plan out exactly how much will happen during each time-interval. Generally, the player with the most VP when time runs out will win, although the game can also end if one side loses too many troops and is forced to surrender. Because there is rarely a way to know exactly when time will run out, and the game leaves just enough hope for a battered and bloodied player to come back from the brink of defeat, I've yet to play a game of Combat Commander that felt like a foregone conclusion to the point that one side conceded victory. Often, games of Combat Commander end up being hard fought to the end, which makes fighting to the bitter end both exciting and fun.
The rapid pace of play, tactical, thematic gameplay, and awesome balance between simulation and playability have landed Combat Commander: Europe in my personal "favorites" list. This is certainly a hex-and-counter game, but the rules are intuitive, and the moment to moment stories that the game provides are memorable and fun. The rules are a bit more complex than the typical tactical board game, but do not hesitate to jump in to this wonderful system if you have any interest in WWII tactical wargames, even if you have no prior experience with wargaming.
A not on content: Combat Commander: Europe has 12 maps, each with its own scenario associated with it. The game also features a scenario generator, so the game has enormous replayability. The scenarios task the players with setting up their troops each time and are fun enough to replay using different setup and tactics, or switching sides of the conflict that a player could easily play dozens of games before even needing to touch the scenario generator.
A note on “chrome”: Combat Commander: Europe has decent components, and the rulebook and playbook are both well-written and easy to use and reference. The maps are all paper, but they lay flat on the table, and the art, while not really more than serviceable, is clear and various terrain types are distinct and easy to tell from one another. The cards are thick, matching the quality of other GMT Games products. The cardboard used for the tokens is on the thin side, although I haven't noticed any issues with warping or bending. Combat Commander: Europe also includes one high quality counter tray in the box, although more than one tray is really needed to hold the game's 600+ counters.
The bottom line:
Combat Commander: Europe offers a deep, rewarding, and engaging experience. From a boardgame perspective, it has a lot of rules, while from a wargame perspective it is streamlined and straightforward. Regardless of how you look at it, the Combat Commander system is tight and incredibly fun, and even the more complex procedures make sense in context. The card driven nature of the game really gives a sense of battlefield chaos, yet is balanced enough to put more importance on player choice and smart tactical play than on luck. Thinking and acting tactically are both extremely important, and it becomes glaringly obvious when you've made a tactical mistake, especially when your opponent capitalizes on it. The luck factor has just enough influence on the game to make some gambles pay off though, and it's those moments that really stand out in your memory, populating each play of Combat Commander: Europe with little flashes of triumph and tragedy, lending that extra bit of thematic flare that keeps it exciting and tense from one moment to the next.
Get this game if:
You are interested in tactical infantry combat in World War II.
You want a game that gets the balance between tactics, skill and luck just right.
You've always been interested in hex-and-counter wargaming but didn't know where to start.
Avoid this game if:
You dislike directly competitive games.
You prefer casual games with simple rules.
You are looking for a game to play with more than 2 players at a time.
The copy of Combat Commander: Europe used for this review was purchased by the reviewer.