Saturday, September 7, 2013

Initial Impressions of 'Chain of Command: Rules for WWII Combat at Platoon Level' (used for Spanish Civil War)

Last night I hosted an introductory game of 'Chain of Command', the new, toast-of-the-town, WWII skirmish rules from Too Fat Lardies. As I hadn't had the SCW collection out for awhile I thought I'd let them stretch their legs and take in the Segovian air. This won't be a detailed review of the rules, as there are many fine examples already available, but more outlining our initial impressions of the system and an invitation to others to comment with their experiences.

Sylvain's Carlist Requetes in their distinctive red tams, giving fire from behind a stone wall.
The scenario I cooked up was a meeting engagement on the outskirts of Madrid during the early autumn of 1936. Artillery spotters, both Republican and Nationalist, want control of a ruined stone farmhouse situated on a small hill being that it provides a good vantage point of the surrounding area, and so two opposing platoons have been tasked to secure this valuable piece of real estate.

Members of the International Brigade moving through a field under covering fire of their LMG team.
I kept things relatively simple by limiting the scenario to a pure infantry engagement. Both sides had three sections, including a couple LMG support teams and two teams of light mortars (so around 30-odd figures for each side). Peter and Sylvain commanded the Nationalists while Stacy and myself raised our fists, pledging 'No Pasaran!' for the Republican cause.

Guardia Civil with a light mortar and Moroccan LMG in the background. The disc faced with the Spanish Nationalist colours is a 'jump-off' marker where their forces can be introduced into the game.
(Note: Throughout this post you will see a dog's breakfast of photos of the game. These shots are from the morning after as I usually hate breaking up play with paparazzi nonsense and frankly I'm complete crap with night photography). 

Some Anarchists moving through a small crop of corn. A Republican 'jump-off' marker in the background.

It took a short bit of time to bring the guys up to speed with the basic rules concepts. As they had all played 'Through the Mud and The Blood', which has many similar mechanics to 'Chain of Command', we were pretty confident we'd have no problem bodging our way through the evening.

We quite enjoyed the Patrol Phase, which is virtually a game within a game itself. In this very clever pre-game segment both sides maneuver patrol markers (usually four to a side) to establish the rough battlelines for the engagement. Once one of your patrol markers comes within 12" of an opposing patrol marker they are both 'locked down' and can no longer move. It can be quite cagey as both sides try to edge up to advantageous terrain, all the while desperately avoiding getting 'locked down' in a poor position. We were quite amused at our final result which basically pivoted our positions 90 degrees and had us fighting down the length of the board instead of the width where we had initially started.

Republicans in a tight spot, under fire from rifles, mortars and a LMG. 
Once the Patrol Phase was completed the 'main event' rattled along at a fairly rapid pace. I think all of us liked the command dice mechanic for activations/rewards/special events. It's somewhat similar to 'Bolt Action' but I find it has much more depth and tension. We were also struck by the variable length of the turns. The first couple of turns wound down quite quickly, but the rest of the game was consumed in the final two turns which probably lasted for 12 or so phases in of themselves. This can provide a bit of nail-biting fun as the longer a turn lasts there is more chance of things happening, both good and bad. Sometimes you want the turn to linger so you can patch-up a flank or press an advantage, while other times you wish for it to end so it seals the fate of a breaking enemy unit, lifts an artillery barrage, allows a wounded leader to regain consciousness, etc. 

The bloodied Moroccans take the objective and hang on.
While the beginning of the game saw some good fortune for the Republicans, in the end Sylvain and Peter took possession of the hilltop ruin with their Moroccan Regulares who used it as a base of fire to dominate, and ultimately pick apart, the Republican line. In the end they managed reinforce their position with a flanking section of Guardia Civi and so Stacy and I conceded, the Republicans melted back into the countryside and we all shook hands over a good evening's entrainment.

Guardia Civil advancing cautiously on the Republican right flank.
A poor Republican LMG team suffering under withering Carlists rifle fire.

Our impressions? A very good and innovative set of rules. The very nature of a 'first play' means that you end up blundering through some mechanics not knowing the full implications until later. We found this particularly the case with the Patrol Phase as it has a significant effect on how the game plays out (as Stacy and I discovered). The rules, while simple, are quite nuanced and reward good tactical thinking, but introduce a healthy dose of 'friction' through the command dice mechanic. If you already play a platoon-level set of rules like 'Bolt Action' I strongly suggest you try 'Chain of Command' as an alternate change-of-pace. 

'Chain of Command' worked very well in our Spanish Civil War setting. Frankly, this should come as no real surprise as the war in Spain concluded only months before Germany entered Poland, so the weapons, vehicles and tactical organizations are very similar. I think CoC could easily be modified to reflect the wide variety of troop qualities, vehicles and weapon types that operated in the Spanish Civil War. For example, I'm thinking of grafting in the rules for ammunition 'stoppages' from 'Through the Mud and the Blood' to reflect the execrable ammunition quality suffered by the Republicans during the conflict.

Perhaps my only concern with the rules is that they give the impression that both sides need to be similar is size (i.e. platoon vs platoon) in order for the system to work to its strengths. I'm curious to how well the rules will adapt to asymmetrical scenarios such as a small elite unit contending with a much larger force. I'm sure they've been tested in this manner but I'm keen to see how they fair. In light of this I have another CoC scenario in mind which I will post on soon.

Again, highly recommended.