Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Wargame review — Combat Commander: Pacific

Combat Commander is Back, 

and This Time It's Speaking Japanese!

(Originally published on February 26, 2009)

Designers: John Foley, Chad Jensen
Player count: 2
Publisher: GMT Games

Part of GMT’s Combat Commander series, Combat Commander: Pacific is a card-driven, scenario-based infantry tactical wargame for two players.
(Great pickup line, isn’t it?)

So you’ve got scenarios covering 12 of the most interesting engagements that took place in the Pacific during WWII. You’ve got maps (double-sided) with big hexagons that depict a variety of terrains. You’ve also got units (5/8”) ranging from lone leaders to squads of men, all armed to the teeth with a handful of stats. And you’ve also got cards, assembled together to form each nation’s Fate Deck—a cardboard heart whose regular beating keeps the game alive from start to finish.

Every Fate Card sports a host of information: an order, an action, an avent, a die roll, a random hex and an event. A Fate Card acts as a microcosm of pretty much the entire game—so we’ll explore CC:P's mechanics through this little but extremely useful pasteboard window.

ORDERS

Each Fate Card features one order.
Orders are the main game function that you can, well, order your units to perform. They range from Move and Fire to Infiltrate and Revive.
Each scenario indicates how many orders either side can play within a turn. The player can stop before that upper limit, though, either by choice of because of lack of playable cards, thus creating a flexible turn structure: you never know exactly when a player’s turn will be over.
Ordering units around is as easy as playing a card for its order and choosing the unit that receives it. If the selected unit is a leader, then it acts as a relay that can transmit the order to all units within his command range (typically one or two hexes).

Move, one of the main orders, has the ordered unit(s) travel across the map according to their movement rating and the type of terrain they encounter.

Fire, another common order, involves at least one unit firing at an enemy. Begin with the firing unit’s firepower (a value usually somewhere between 1 and 6), take into account any relevant modifiers (such as terrain advantage, or an adjacent unit firing at same target) and add a die roll—that is, flip the next Fate Card from your deck and add the value of the two dice in the lower right corner.
Then look up the target’s morale (probably in the 6 to 10 range), factor in relevant modifiers and add a die roll. If the attack total is higher than the defense total, the target unit is broken, i.e. flipped over to reveal lowered stats. A broken unit that’s broken again is eliminated (earning points for the opponent!).

Revive, one of the most beloved orders, allows a player to rally (un-break) units.

Advance, a most sneaky order, has a unit crawl forward one hex on the map, avoiding the opportunity fire a Move order often draws.

Other orders call in artillery fire, bring an airplane into play (gotta love those strafing and bombing runs), have Japanese units charge the enemy… There are 10 orders in all. Plenty to keep you occupied.
  
ACTIONS

On each Fate Card, right under the order, stands an action.
An action acts on an order the same way an adverb acts on a verb: once the order is out there, an action can come in and spice things up.

Hand Grenades is a popular action that’s played on a Fire order to add 2 to the attack total when targeting an adjacent hex.

Smoke Screen is played on a Move order to lay smoke in an attempt to cross territory in a safe manner (of course).

Hidden Mines places mines in the hex the enemy just moved into. Didn’t see those coming…

Fire is an order and an action: it can be played on the opponent’s Move order as opportunity fire. And how about playing another action—Crossfire—on top of that? (Adds +2 when firing at a moving target.) That’ll teach ‘em to stay put.

And so on down the list of available actions. 21 in total, available in the usual flavors: strawberry, chocolate, and sweet revenge.
  
TRIGGERS

Some of the die rolls illustrated in the bottom right corner of each card have a red rectangle around them. That’s a trigger, and it pauses the game while it gets resolved. A Disperse trigger removes one smoke or illumination device (for those night scenarios) from the map. A Sniper trigger requires players to flip the next card in the deck and look up the random hex letter-number identifier, such as “A7” or “F2”. (Break a unit in or adjacent to that hex.) An Event trigger has players flip another card and execute the event found there (more on that in a moment).
As for the Time trigger, well… we’ll keep that for the end, now won’t we?
  
RANDOM HEXES

Various game functions, such as the Air Support event or the Sniper trigger seen above, require a random hex to be determined. In each case, the active player flips the top card of his Fate Deck and simply takes a look at the letter-number identifier. Easier than that and we’d be reloading your BAR for you.
  
EVENTS

In CC:P, thanks to the plethora of Events scattered throughout each Fate Deck, pretty much anything can happen. Whenever an Event trigger pops out, flip the next card and let the good times roll. Some events are good, some not so good, but they almost all change the game in one way or another. Fire might catch in a random hex (flip a card!) or, if already burning, move around and spread devastation in its wake. Units get shell-shocked. Weapons jam or blow up. Mines, wire and smoke pop up in unexpected locations. Reinforcements show up. Better yet—a hero arrives on the scene!

Events are a huge part of what makes the game fun. They create unpredictable situations that both players have to deal with. It’s all about adaptation and flexibility. Your way to the scenario’s main objective has just been cut out by a ferocious blaze. What do you do?
  
GAME END

A CC:P scenario comes to a conclusion in one of three ways. If a player no longer has any units on the map, or if his casualties reach a predetermined total, his opponent wins. But the most interesting end-game mechanism is the time track.
Whenever a Time trigger shows up on a card, or a player’s Fate Deck is exhausted, the relevant deck is reshuffled and the time marker it moved one space forward on its track. When the marker reaches the spot that—according to the current scenario—indicates the game is over, whoever has the most victory points at that moment wins the game. (Players accumulate VPs through securing map objectives, eliminating enemy units and a variety of events.)
So there’s no “game’s over after 12 turns” here. Although players have a good idea of when the game should reach its conclusion, they’re never sure as to when it will end. Makes for a very tense race to the finish.
  
WHITE NOISE

The game’s production is excellent. Unit counters are big and clear, cards are beautiful and sturdy, and while you probably wouldn’t frame one of the maps to hang on your office wall, the artwork is precise and pleasant to look at. I love the oversized hexes that rarely require units to be stacked. (This is also helped by the many scenarios with a low counter density.)

One thing I don’t like is the mostly white background used for everything Japanese. This makes the ordnance weapons—identified with a white bar across the counter—more difficult to recognize than they need to be.
This is also the case with the game’s various tracks, where the white counters tend to get lost on their white tracks. (By comparison, Combat Commander: Europe had tan and khaki tracks that made the markers pop out at a glance.)

But true to its heritage, CC:P has one of the best rulebooks in the business. Despite the many twisted situations that can arise in the heat of a game, the rulebook always seems to have the answer—and has it in a location that’s a breeze to find. Not all rulebooks achieve this, and not many wargame rulebooks even come close.
  
FUN FACTOR

It was true with CC:E, and it’s also true with CC:P—I’ve never had so much visceral fun playing a wargame.

For better or worse, many wargames feel like chess: a heavy, cerebral exercise where everything is calculated turns in advance. In CC:P, you have to go with the flow. Plans are necessary, naturally, but they often require a complete overhaul at a moment’s notice, thanks in large part to the slew of events that will pop up during a typical game. And I just love this roller-coaster ride down the trench lines.

Because of this, truly desperate situations don’t often crop up here. Things may look dire, but there’s always hope—you simply never give up. Unexpected reinforcements may storm in at the last minute, or a well timed Air Support even may just open the corridor you needed to get your men to safety.

CC:P also a short experience—for a wargame—clocking in at an average of two hours per scenario. This makes it very convenient to play on a week night; heck, you can even squeeze in two scenarios if you really feel like letting the lead fly.

Another one of my favorite aspects comes in the form of the random scenario generator included in the game’s playbook. The RSG offers a fast and fun way to randomly create an almost unlimited series of balanced scenarios using only the materials provided in the box.

PAGING CC VETERANS

While CC:P clearly descends from CC:E, there are enough new wrinkles to be found in the newcomer for old hands not to consider Pacific a simple add-on to the basic system. The main engine is certainly the same and you don't feel like you're playing a completely different game; rather, it's like having a conversation with your best friend's brother. You feel right at home, even though you two have never quite met before. (And this guy turns out not to be an annoying creep at all!)

Some of the differences not touched upon so far include the following:
- If an attack roll is more than double the defense roll, the target it eliminated outright.
- The new Japanese sniper multiplies the two dice of his roll instead of adding them together--rather nasty in combination with the previous new rule.
- The Jam trigger is gone!
- The new Asset Denied order allows players to break enemy weapons, radios, and aircraft.
- The Concealment action is a thing of the past. No matter: I'm still scanning my hand for them whenever I get hit with something big. (That tear you see in the corner of my eye is genuine.)
- The Japanese can hold units in reserve and have them pop up on the map later on.
- A new order, Reconnoiter, allows a player to look at the top card of his Fate Deck, and then leave it there, discard it, or take it into hand.


The rulebook lists 46 rules differences between Pacific and Europe. Some of them are minor, others significant. Which makes it all the more difficult for me to decide which of the two games to play.

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