April 21, 2021

Combat Commander: Pacific – A Very Realistic Wargame from GMT Games

RockyMountainNavy, 4 April 2021

In recent years, I kept seeing folks singing praises of designer Chad Jensen’s Combat Commander series from GMT Games. Through a fortunate trade, I came into possession of a like-new (heck, everything-new except punched counters) copy of Combat Commander: Pacific (First Edition, Second Printing, 2020). On a recent day I was able to get CC:P to the table for a taste of what it offers.

Realism. In a war GAME. Let me explain….

A Grognard Considers Combat Commander: Pacific

With a screen name of RockyMountainNavy, you might expect that I would be all about naval wargames. Therefore, you might be surprised to learn my first wargame ever was about World War II armored combat in Jim Day’s original Yaquinto Publishing edition of Panzer (1979). Through the years I played many squad-based infantry and armor combat games. I own Squad Leader (Avalon Hill, 1977) and the base game of Panzer Grenadier (Avalanche Press, 1998) and I even dabbled in miniature rules with Frank Chadwick’s Command Decision (GDW, 1986) and The Clash of Armor (Clash of Arms, 1993). These days for my tactical World War II infantry battles I prefer the Academy Games Conflict of Heroes series, especially Awakening the Bear 2nd Edition (2012). However, if one wants to game out tactical-level infantry fights in the Pacific theater of World War II the pickings are seemingly sparse. For myself, the titles I have in my collection that stand out to me are Beachhead: A Game of Island Invasions in the South Pacific (Yaquinto Publishing, 1980) and Conflict of Heroes: Guadalcanal – The Pacific, 1942 (Academy Games, 2016). I welcome Combat Commander: Pacific to my collection both to add to the diversity of titles but also to see a different take on infantry combat.

click images to enlarge

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Hex and counter…with cards and no dice

 

A War Game

My most immediate impression when first playing Combat Commander: Pacific is that this title is very much a war GAME. What I mean here is that the use of many non-classic wargame mechanics in CC:P creates a very gamified version of combat. The card-driven, diceless game design using Fate Cards with Orders, Actions, and Events, and Die Rolls all on cards nicely recreates command and control challenges for players. I always appreciated in the Commands & Colors series of wargames that not having the right cards in your hand sometimes (often?) means you can’t execute the plan you want and instead have to try to “do the best you can.” The same can be said of CC:P where Fate Cards live up to their name, and not always in the best way. 

The cards in Combat Commander: Pacific also create a distance from war; a player thinks less of zones of control or combat odds and more about holding the right hand and the flip of a card. At the end of the day, the outcome of the battle is not very different from what Advanced Squad Leader might deliver, but the gaming journey to that end is a vastly different experience between the two – loosely expressed as the difference between something nearer to a simulation and something more “game.”

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Fate Cards

 

As I was browsing the forums on BoardGameGeek I came across an interesting discussion that highlights these differences in how the Combat Commander series takes well known military actions and executes them with game mechanics, sometimes in ways that are not immediately obvious. Specifically, the discussion was about the usefulness of the Reconnoiter Order (O30). In common language, to reconnoiter is, “To make a preliminary examination of (an area or a group, for example), usually by moving around and observing, in order to gather information, especially for military purposes” (The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 5th Edition). A common wargame application of reconnoiter it to allow a unit to spot a potential target that is then “detected” and eligible to attack. In Combat Commander: Pacific, the Reconnoiter Order allows the active player to select an unsuppressed leader with a line of sight to an enemy unit to look at the top card of their own Fate Deck. The player then has a choice to put the card back, put it into the discard pile, or put it into their hand. It was pointed out that this is a great way to “peek” (reconnoiter?) at your deck if you are thinking about doing something in the game. Will you get the Move Order you need to advance? Will the next card have an Action that makes an attack worth it? What will your Die Roll be? Thematically, the game mechanism of searching your deck has a similar impact as sending a scout ahead on the battlefield. Some (me?) might argue the CC:P way of peeking at cards is actually more evocative of the reconnoiter action than simply revealing a counter on the map as it better supports planning and not just situational awareness.

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Reconnoiter Card (US)

 

The New Sands of Iwo Jima

I’ve already hinted that Combat Commander: Pacific is a different wargame. Not only is it different mechanically, but like I mentioned it is a much more chaotic view of war. It also may be one of the most realistic depictions of infantry combat in the Pacific theater of World War II available.

“Whoa,” you say. “Are you, Mr. I-Have-A-Wargame Definition really telling me that this war GAME, designed with so many Eurogame-ish mechanisms, is realistic? Impossible!”

In the Development and Play Notes, co-developer Kai Jensen writes about how Combat Commander: Pacific is very different from the earlier CC: Europe and CC: Mediterranean:

“In the European Theater of Operations, there was a commonality between soldiers of the opposing forces. The were predominantly European or, in the case of the American soldiers, of European descent with similar languages. Soldiers from one army, when stripped of their uniforms, looked remarkably similar to soldiers of another army. In most cases, even the terrain they were fighting over was akin to the terrain of their homelands.

The war in the Pacific had none of these commonalities. The soldiers of the opposing forces were physically distinguishable from one another, their language had no common ground, their valuation of individuality was often radically opposed. Add to these differences the wounded egos of Americans and Great Britain following successful Japanese surprise attacks on Allied forces and the stage was set for fierce fighting.”

(Comment – I’m very glad to learn that Pearl Harbor is nothing more than a wound to the American ego. As somebody who was honored to participate in reenlistment ceremonies aboard the Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor I am offended by that line….but I digress.)

Combat Commander: Pacific doubles down on what author-historian Clayton Laurie called “The Ultimate Dilemma of Psychological Warfare.” Writing in The U.S. Army and World War II: Selected Papers from the Army’s Commemorative Conferences from the Center of Military History (1998), he tells us:

“The ultimate, most nagging and persistent dilemma faced by Allied psychological warfare personnel, however, one that was never overcome and which seemed to avoid all efforts at solution, was the plain fact that Japanese soldiers did not readily surrender and that the Allies did not go out of their way to take prisoners. The tendency of Japanese soldiers to fight to the death was the result of strict social conditioning, thorough, yet specious, indoctrination about what to expect from their enemies, and rigid military discipline.

In basic training Japanese recruits were imbued with the idea that Occidentals, especially Americans, were soft and decadent, but are nonetheless cruel people who simply did not take prisoners. Even if Americans did capture a Japanese, recruits were told, the unfortunate individual was likely to be executed, usually by beheading, after first being subjected to hideous torture. Through POW interrogations the Americans recorded a “number of references to apparently the widespread fears that prisoners of the Allies are burned in oil, crushed while still alive by tanks and bulldozers, or otherwise tortured.” Many were told that westerners routinely practiced cannibalism. Because Japanese soldiers were never instructed about the Geneva Convention regarding the treatment of POWs, these beliefs in the certainly of encountering a horrible death in American captivity endured even beyond V-J Day.

….

Western stereotypes regarding the perfidious nature of the Japanese also proved extremely difficult if not impossible for those practicing combat propaganda to overcome. While Americans stood for all that was moral, upright, and good, the Japanese were allegedly just the opposite. In the ongoing effort to create home-front unity and boost front-line morale, Allied propaganda portrayed the Japanese as a diabolical, subhuman, simian-like race, prone to aggression, a people who were utterly untrustworthy, who lacked moral scruples or redeeming virtues.

Thousands of Allied servicemen, for example, could recall having witnessed or heard of severely wounded or ill Japanese soldiers who under the guise of surrendering had taken advantage of the benign western attitude towards soldiers giving themselves up to close on Allied positions and inflict further casualties. As one Marine Corps officer noted on Guadalcanal in 1942, “when they [the Japanese] have indicated an intention to surrender, the Jap did so only in order to gain the advantage to kill the enemy by surprise.” Thus, he admitted, “the Marines caught on very soon to these treacherous tactics, and now kill all Japs that are capable of causing them further trouble.” 

Clayton Laurie, The U.S. Army and World War II, 389-390, 391

In Combat Commander: Pacific there is no surrender mechanic for the Japanese player. Rule 11.2 is starkly clear, “The Japanese do not surrender in CC:P.” This one simple rule, and several others like O25 Charge Order for Banzai Charges, go far in making Combat Commander: Pacific a highly realistic wargame because it captures the very core racism of the conflict in the Pacific.

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No Surrender

 

“Hey,” you say, “If all you need is a no surrender mechanic to make it real, why not just add that to any other game and call it a day?” The difference in my mind is that the “no surrender” mechanic in Combat Commander: Pacific is at the core of the game design, not an added-on mechanic. This is most clearly seen in the Fate Cards which are used to express the no surrender mechanic through the selection of orders, actions, and events. In other words the no surrender approach in CC:P is what the design of the Japanese Fate Cards are built upon, not a result of it.  

Ode to Banzai Charges

The wargame that I most closely compare Combat Commander: Pacific with is Conflict of Heroes: Guadalcanal, 1942 (Academy Games, 2012). Both games obviously cover infantry fights in the Pacific in World War II though CoH: G42 is focused on Guadalcanal whereas CC:P covers battles with US and Commonwealth Allies throughout the war and across the entire theater from Pacific islands to China and Southeast Asia. Both Combat Commander: Pacific and Conflict of Heroes: Guadalcanal, 1942 also incorporate non-traditional wargame mechanics into their design though I will be there first to acknowledge that CC:P is by far the more “progressive” of the two.

To show the difference in forces, Combat Commander: Pacific uses different Fate Decks for each faction. The Charge Order, when combined with the Banzai Posture available only to the Japanese, is how you get the infamous Banzai Charge in CC:P. In Conflict of Heroes: Guadalcanal, 1942 the Japanese use the Bushido Mechanic which is a unique alteration of the Command Action Point (CAP) rules that leads to Banzai Charges. 

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Japanese Charge Fate Card – Note used only in in Banzai Posture

 

Although Combat Commander: Pacific and Conflict of Heroes: Guadalcanal, 1942 (CoH: G42) appear similar in scope and the rules allow similar activities, the core design of CC:P brings out the true differences in the forces to a greater degree than CoH: G42 can. In CoH: G42 the Japanese are very much the same as the Marines or US Army, they just have access to the Bushido Mechanic that the American player doesn’t. In CC:P the different faction decks and the inability of the Japanese player to access certain rules (like surrender) means the faction plays out differently from the beginning. This is a major reason why I view Combat Commander: Pacific as very realistic; the core game design takes into account real differences in the combatants. The different doctrines of the Japanese and Americans comes out naturally in CC:P without the need for an altered game system like CoH: G42.

Fate Without Casting

As realistic as Combat Commander: Pacific might seem, it is not without a few issues for me. CC:P is a diceless game. Well, physically diceless; each Fate Card has a Die Roll on it. When it comes to diceless wargames I am very suspicious in part because I don’t have a sense of the “distribution” of the die rolls. I am comfortable with die rolling in a wargame because I understand how the dice work; I know the odds which factors into many of my decisions. In CC:P, I have no sense of the Die Roll distribution (update – With 72 Fate Cards in each faction deck every possible 2d6 die roll appears twice). I am not convinced that the odds of success/failure don’t change as you work your way through a deck. I mean, I know when I roll 2d6 that the odds of a given result are the same regardless if I roll once or 72 times. But when drawing a Fate Card, are the odds of a given result really the same if I’m starting with a fresh deck as compared to one nearly exhausted? Is this form of randomness driving me to not only try to track what cards have been played for what Orders, but also what Die Rolls have already occurred? Maybe I’m just too worried, but I have yet to find an explanation that calms my thinking.

Basic Training

I also found Combat Commander: Pacific a bit more difficult to learn than I expected. I learn to play games by reading the rules. In today’s world I know this can be a bit of a challenge (old-fashioned?) as so many people apparently just want to watch a video and have the game explained to them. Heck, even the RockyMountainNavy Boys prefer to learn by having Dad teach them at the table; I can tell if they really like a game if they pick up the rule book later to study it for themselves.

The recommended learning approach in Combat Commander: Pacific was very different than I understood and that difference was just disconcerting enough to make it painful. Here is the recommended approach buried in an unlabeled text highlight box on page 5:

“To play your first game, you need only read the Core Rules and Order sections that follow, as well as rule A41 concerning Op Fire. Then set up and follow along with the Examples of Play (in the playbook) in order to get a feel for the base mechanics and basic flow of the game. The latter portions of this booklet – entries for Actions, Events, Terrain, and Fortifications – can be quickly glossed over and then referred to in more detail as the need arises during game play.” (emphasis in original)

This process appears to be the Combat Commander: Pacific version of programmed learning, a tried and true approach to teaching a wargame that I have seen (and used) for neigh 40 years now. 

The first problem I ran into is that one doesn’t “set up” the examples of play in Combat Commander: Pacific. Instead, you just look at them in the playbook. I know I’m being pedantic about the phrase “set up” but it actually made it difficult for me to follow along as I had pre-programmed my mind to expect to be pulling out maps and counters and maybe even certain cards before the walk-thru. The examples of play are helpful, but at least for me they slowed down my learning rather than accelerating it solely because I became disoriented in my learning process.

The second problem I had learning Combat Commander: Pacific was simply the rules numbering. The rule book starts off simply enough with numbered rules 1-19. Suddenly, you jump to O20 then shift to A32, E49, T80, and F100. It took me several long moments to realize that O20 was actually rule 20.0 Orders and A32 actually 32.0 Actions. Again, this seemingly very minor midstream change of format created an outsized negative impact on my learning process. 

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Table of Contents – The number flow should be obvious….
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…but for some reason jumping from 19 to O20 confused me.

At the end of the day I just set up the first historical scenario of Combat Commander: Pacific and muddled my way through it. Even then it was challenging because how to set up a game is in the Playbook while the “how to play” is in the rule book which forced me to often bounce back and forth between the two books the first time. As I drew cards I looked up their Orders and Actions or Events as needed. My first play was such a disaster and I was forced to reset at the end of the first turn and started over again. My second game was much cleaner. It was not until the third game that CC:P mechanically started to “click” meaning I was finally able to try to do what I wanted with units and not simply be pushed around by the cards. Which is a long, roundabout way of saying Combat Commander: Pacific has a steeper learning curve then I expected. The war engine in CC:P is admittedly not that complex, but it is unique and takes time to become familiar with. 

Late to the Game

I know that I am 12 years late to discovering Combat Commander: Pacific so this may be a retro game for some. That said, I now appreciate, and even respect, the longevity of this design and how a decade later the design still feels “fresh.” As I grow into an even older Grognard, I have come to appreciate more “War Engine” designs – games with a solid mechanical core which can be customized for different eras or campaigns. Combat Commander: Pacific is a great entry into the Combat Commander series that is worth attention, if for no other reason to see how a war GAME can realistically depict combat.

 


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