Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Wargame review — Combat Commander Battle Pack #2: Stalingrad

Combat Commander Comes to Stalingrad

(Originally published on September 12, 2009)

Designer: Chad Jensen
Player count: 2
Publisher: GMT Games

After Combat Commander: Mediterranean and the Paratrooper battle pack, Stalingrad is the third add-on to the basic Combat Commander system.
So, additional maps and supplementary scenarios. More of the same?
Hardly.

CC fans will get their fix, that’s for sure. There are new maps (eight of them) and new scenarios (11 in total) in this battle pack. Maps loaded with huge factory buildings, vertigo-inducing cliffs separated by a rickety bridge at the bottom, and elevations in combinations that boggle the mind; scenarios crammed with untenable situations, crazy missions, and objectives that are too good to be true—you know the drill.
But that’s just skimming the top.

Inside the innocent-looking cardboard folder lies a new network of rules to simulate the particulars of the Stalingrad confrontation. New rules then, but also new counters (!!) and a system for linking scenarios together, effectively creating the first official Combat Commander campaign.

NEW UNITS

You read that right.
Germany gets four new leaders and 10 dreaded Sturm squads (6-4-4, all boxed!).
Mother Russia receives a new weapon (the ampulomet), five leaders (one of them—whom we’ve lovingly called “Limpy”—with a paltry movement rating of 2) and two garrison squads that are pretty good in a fight but can’t move to save their lives.
Even the Italians get three additions to their brass. 

NEW RULES

Factory rules (together with the appropriate maps) introduce vast buildings inside of which fighting can take place with a line of sight to interior targets, at the price of a 3 Hindrance. You can almost hear the echo of shots fired within.

Rubble is a new terrain whose basic move cost and cover value—2 in both cases—get a +1 for each adjacent rubble hex. In addition to rubble that begins the game on the map (per scenario instructions), certain combat situations can create even more rubble, suppressing all units caught under falling debris. Stay out of harm’s way.

Speaking of harm, snipers are of the wicked type in Stalingrad. The Urban Sniper marker is a two-sided token that comes into play whenever a Sniper trigger roll doesn’t hit anything. The player who missed his roll takes the Urban Sniper marker with its +2 face showing. Another missed Sniper roll? Flip that marker to its +4 side. The marker can be surrendered in exchange for the appropriate bonus before any Attack or Melee roll.
A missed Sniper roll by the opponent will flip the marker back to its +2 side or, if it’s already showing +2, return the marker to the counter mix. So make sure you use that counter when you’ve got it.

Many scenarios are peppered with sewer entrances between which Russian units can Advance. Very useful for a sneak attack—except that doubles on a Sewer roll allow the German player to decide where those sewer-crawling units pop up…

Melees are back (were they ever gone?) with a vengeance. In Stalingrad, a melee hex is marked with a Melee marker and the melee is only resolved at the beginning of the German player’s turn. This lets assaulted Russians get out of the melee hex before bayonets start thrusting this way and that. Alternatively, adjacent Russian comrades could join the party and Advance into the soon-to-be bloody hex. Fun times.

Stacking is more flexible—the limit is gone. Each soldier figure over seven in a single hex lowers the local cover by 1. Yes, negative cover bites.  But sometimes that’s what you’ve got to do.

And hey, there’s a new weapon in town! Known as the “molotov projector,” the ampulomet is a 6-6 ordnance weapon that might just set fire to its target hex. If it doesn’t incinerate its user first, that is.
  
THE CAMPAIGN

A heavily modified version of the random scenario generator is used to drive the campaign system in Stalingrad, which takes the form of a tug-of-war unfolding over five possible campaign positions, G2-G1-0-R1-R2, each with an associated map.
The fighting breaks out at 0 and then essentially moves one campaign position toward the German lines or the Russian ones, depending on the side that prevails.
Each faction starts the campaign with a command platoon, and can complement their forces with campaign platoons drawn from a limited pool that’s supposed to last the whole campaign. (Yeah, right.) Reinforcements are also available, in the form of half the units that survived the previous battle. And veterans carry over!

If the Russians win at the German lines (G2) or vice versa, it’s a decisive victory and the campaign is over. If neither side has achieved this by the end of the fifth battle, a Sudden Death roll (using the number of battles fought thus far as the target number) is made. When the roll succeeds—which could take a while!—the side that proved victorious during the last battle of the campaign is declared the winner.

PRODUCTION

As is the case with the entire Combat Commander series, production is top notch. The two-sided paper maps are gorgeous, the counters are large and sturdy, and the rulebook is clear enough to make you go blind and not complain about it.

This said, there are two little things I wish had been done differently with the counters.
First of all—and I assume this is a cost-cutting measure—GMT decided to go with a single, one-size-fits-all counter sheet. The big one.
I can understand that from a business point of view. But the die-hard player in me doesn’t like the fact that the new weapon, the ampulomet, shows up on a unit-sized counter. It doesn’t really change anything in the heat of the battle, but that guy sure looks strange while outfitting himself in the barracks.
Where size does hurt a bit is with the Rubble and Sewer Entrance markers, which are BIG. They take up much more real estate than your standard fortification markers, and that’s a bother.

The second little glitch comes with the look of the Rubble and Sewer Entrance markers. Both use the same palette of colors—which is to say, a few dark dabs on a white background. They look really cool but become hard to distinguish from across the table. And when rubble and sewer entrances are intertwined as in scenario 40: Into the Breach, telling them apart at a glance is, well, not easy. I’m considering taking those little round red stickers you can steal from your office’s supplies and applying one to each of my sewer entrances.

FUN FACTOR

I’m a long-time player of the series who’d tackled every single scenario (including the promo ones) on both sides of the political fence before Stalingrad came out. My expectations were not high: they were orbiting the planet.

So let me say this: the Stalingrad battle pack is a LOT of fun. The new rules are a blast, the new units are great (I love to hate Limpy) and the scenarios are pretty much all I could ask for in a battle pack. Some of the new maps have quickly become favorites of mine (including map 35, with its beautiful English garden in the middle—which gets torn to shreds the minute anyone sets a toe near the damn thing, as anyone worth his weight in lead would expect).

I admit I wish the new melee rules created a bit more “game space;” I suppose I was sort of hoping for a mini-game within the game, where you actually slug it out instead of resorting to a dice roll. But this is a very minor rant lost in a sea of wargaming pleasure.

I haven’t had a chance to try out the campaign rules yet, but that day is not far off. I suspect the real fun of the campaign will be to play all of those battles in sequence, which is not exactly compatible with my current lifestyle—this explains why I like CC so much and how come I play it so often. A campaign can be over after three engagements, but can last much longer if the fighting gets really tight. Still, I anticipate game angst the likes of which we never get enough.

So should you get the Stalingrad battle pack?
Let me put it this way: I’m measuring the time it takes me to write this review in units of Stalingrad gaming I’m not getting done.

Convinced yet?

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