Tactical Wargaming: Advanced Squad Leader and Combat Commander

Tactical wargaming

Continuing my weekly wargaming sessions with Doug, we’ve fallen down the deep mysterious well that is Advanced Squad Leader (ASL). I won’t say that I was hesitant at all, despite my past attempts to play and learn the game (2003, 2006). My experiences playing the original Squad Leader in the late 70s with my friend Mike were in my top three early gaming highlights (APBA Baseball and D&D being the other two).

What helps is that Doug is a fantastic teacher, likely eliminating my main objection to the game which is that the rules are too dense. Technically Doug and I haven’t played full ASL yet, only the starter kits which means we aren’t playing with the full rules. Yet I have a lingering suspicion that the starter kit is the problem in the first place: there are some omissions of terminology and the rules do not have an index. Summary judgment: I think MMP did a poor job executing on the starter kits.

I had the pleasure of playing what are arguably the two most highly regarded tactical WWII wargames in the same week last week. In addition to ASL with Doug I also played Combat Commander: Europe with Matt. Perhaps you’ll enjoy some brief comparative remarks on the two.

ASL with Doug

Doug and I played the scenario Priority Target, featuring Commonwealth forces plus Greeks defending a battery of AAA from the Germans. I played the Germans and took the attack posture. Doug had a tough day ahead, with no easy way to hide the batteries and a dearth of quality troops to defend.

Doug and I have a solid mastery of infantry rules and tactics from the Starter Kit, and we are both able to play quickly which is one of the reasons we are both falling in love with the game. The flow is so nice, and you feel like you are able to plan ahead and devise a strategy. Hold that thought for later…

Tactical wargaming

I had a fairly easy go of it, but it was fun. After taking his first two guns, I was able to turn them on his own troops as I closed in with my other forces. Doug and I have both been listening to the 2 Half-Squads podcast and one point of advice is that if you are the attacker, you must attack. Or rather, disperse your forces, only prep fire when required, and press with movement and advancing fire. The main risk for me was Doug keeping rate of fire with his last remaining gun, and he struck out on some poor rolls at the end.

Tactical wargaming

That same week, Matt and I started a Combat Commander: Europe campaign using the new personal leader rules from C3I. This hearkened back to my old Squad Leader days when Mike and I used to play the campaign rules, which was almost like a role playing game combined with a wargame.

We opted to start with scenario 106, Lost Battalion, thinking this would be a good launching point for an America vs. Germany sequence starting in October 1944.

Tactical wargaming

Now I adore Combat Commander. When I purged about 30 wargames from my collection last year, this was one of the games I decided to keep. Not just keep, but I doubled down with a nice Plano box for storage and organized all of my scenarios (I have every one published) in a three ring binder with sheet protectors.

Still, the utter chaos in this game provided such a stark contrast with my ASL experience the same week that I started to have doubts. I had a plan for how to stop Matt’s battalion from escaping, but the cards and chaos (we had 3 or 4 time triggers within the first 15 minutes) prevented any material strategy from presenting.

I should take a deep breath.

Combat Commander is what it is. The chaos is what makes the fun, and to be fair Matt and I did have fun. It is like the beer and pretzels version of ASL, and it is a great intro game to teach others for the very same reason why it pales next to ASL: constrained choices. By holding a fixed set of cards, you do not have the option of doing anything and everything. This scarcity of options makes it easier to go with the flow and play very tactically, turn by turn.

Looking forward to more ASL this week with Doug. We expect to be playing full “big boy” ASL by November.

My Final Salishan Gaming Event

Ken and Jim strolling Salishan beach at Sunset

I haven’t written about my Salishan gaming retreats in a while (since 2011 I think) but having just held my final one I think I should wrap things up with a post. This is mostly photos with a bit of commentary. You can see the full set of photos over on Flickr.

For this swan song event before we sell the house I was able to extend the event to a full week plus invite my friend Jim from Indiana. We designated the front part of the week (Sunday through Thursday evening) as being a wargaming / heavy gaming portion, and the remainder (Thursday through Sunday afternoon) being the vintage gaming portion. No games published after 1 Jan 2005 thank you very much.

Sunday night Whisk(e)y tasting

I always try to sprinkle in some special activities and we included some whiskey tasting on Sunday and Wednesday evening.

Ken and Jim contemplate start of Allied approach to Supreme Commander

I spent Sunday playing The Supreme Commander with Jim and Ken. We borked up a key rule related to follow-on combat with armor that significantly hindered my efforts as the Germans. We also played with a less constrained diplomacy rule that sounded fun at the time but ended up with way too much wackiness. I’m taking another go at this with Ken and Doug tomorrow and can’t wait.

Doug teaching Manifest Destiny

We didn’t play just wargames in the front part — heavy multiplayer strategy games were also in the mix. I finally got to play Manifest Destiny and loved it.

Toasting an Old Fashioned over Combat Commander: Europe

I was frequently called upon to make a batch of Old Fashioned cocktails.

Jim teaching KC Twilight Struggle

It was great seeing KC join for the full week and get more experience with wargames.

I'm running the eastern front vs Germans in Unconditional Surrender

Doug, Alex and I also played the evil twin to The Supreme Commander, Unconditional Surrender! World War 2 in Europe. My gut says I like Unconditional Surrender more than Supreme Commander, largely because I think the rules are more streamlined and well considered. Fewer special cases and all that.

Chris and Doug play No Retreat: North Africa

A big highlight for me was an all-day session of No Retreat: The North African Front. This game is deceptive what with its very low counter density and small maps. Make no mistake there’s some complexity to this game but it really started making sense to us as we finished the scenario.

Chris playing Game of Thrones CCG with Matt

I had some old Game of Thrones Collectible Card Game boosters and draft packs sitting around at home so I ran a lightly structured sealed booster event through the week. For some it was a new gaming experience and turned them on to the current Living Card Game which is a good thing. I’m always looking for more playing partners.

Doug performing his Star Wars Shakespeare reading pre X-Wing battle

Doug blew us all away with his Star Wars Shakespeare reading and performance art as a prelude to a massive Star Wars X-Wing battle. He stole the show, maybe the entire week, with that performance.

Rebel alliance engaging to protect

Unfortunately we let the rebel alliance down and did a terrible job protecting the rebel transport.

David wins Virgin Queen!

We played Virgin Queen but the freaking protestants won in just two turns! I was the English and unable to do much to stop them. We are doing a rematch in a few weeks.

Jim, David, and Chris dive into Maria

David continued his winning streak and won an early victory in Maria, an outstanding three player wargame that is the successor to Friedrich.

Classic Martin Wallace: Volldampf

On Thursday we shifted to vintage games, and my copy of the Martin Wallace classic Volldampf was a big hit. Great choice if you want a Steam-like game with simpler choices.

Puerto Rico with Alex, Katie, Jim, and Greg

Puerto Rico was played several times.

Tigris and Euphrates with Jeff, Rita, Ken, and KC

I miss games like this from Knizia.

After beach run with Chris, Jim, Doug, and Greg

I ran with someone every morning but one, and the week ended with this highlight. I convinced Jim, Doug, and Greg to run on the beach with me at high tide and it was a nice struggle.

Matt, Doug, and Chris hiking Siletz Bay and the lagoons on Salishan spit

I also talked Matt and Doug into doing my 2-3 mile low tide loop by Siletz Bay and the lagoons.

Magic draft tournament

On Saturday night we ended up with a Magic: the Gathering draft tournament, this time featuring the Conspiracy expansion which is designed explicitly for drafts.

The metagame rules and extensions

As a final note, I shared my “metagame” rules which is an overlay event whereby folks collect “Brooks Bucks” throughout the weekend, with the added bonus of being able to write in new rules if you win a game. We used the total bucks earned as a way to rank order prize table selection on Sunday.

Thanks to my many friends who joined me over the years going back to 2005. Places come and go but friendships are lasting.

No Retreat! The North African Front – Operation Compass

No Retreat: The North African Front, start of campaign

One of the significant highlights of my post-employment life (there’s a difference between “post-employment” and “retired”!) is the weekly gaming that I’m doing with Doug. Every Thursday he and I are spending about eight hours together, mostly wargaming but also mixing in some lighter stuff like Marvel Dice Masters and Romance of the Nine Empires. I’m lucky to have a friend like Doug and Julie can attest to how much I look forward to Thursday each week.

Last week we took a run at No Retreat! The North African Front, again in preparation for my upcoming week-long wargaming blowout which starts tomorrow. We played Operation Compass which is both the first scenario and the start of the campaign game. Warning: this scenario is great for learning but Doug and I agree it doesn’t hold water as a playable competitive game. I mean how much fun can it be to play the Italians running away with likely no hope of having any pieces left at the end?

Above you can see the scenario setup at the start of the scenario and campaign. The very low counter density makes it easy to get rolling.

No Retreat: The North African Front, - running off the Italians

Let me give a brief rundown of how this game plays. On the surface it looks like any other hex-and-counter wargame, but it has some notable differences that aren’t obvious until you start playing the game. Some examples:

  • The sequence of play and turn model is very unique (to me anyway). The easiest way to think about it is that each turn is a sequence of 1 or more sub-turns that represent an offensive on a particular contested map area. Rather than try to represent the entire North African front on a single map, the designer includes a set of mounted maps that represent different regions. So as you play through scenarios or the campaign, the flow is through a series of macro turns that happen on separate maps.
  • The side that is running the offensive (and has the initiative) on a particular turn has the option after each sub-turn to continue or end the offensive. There’s an economy wrapped around this: supply. So to continue these sub-turns, the initiative player needs to pay supply points for continuation. This brings urgency to the table as the supply is finite.

Above you can see me (as the UK) preparing to run the Italians off the first map. I paid for a continuation near the end for the sole purpose of killing off his final unit to prevent it from coming back in on the next map.

No Retreat: The North African Front, setting up Map 3

Another unique mechanism in this game is the counterblow. It is a way for the non-phasing player to force the phasing player to conduct an attack if the opportunity is there. Additionally, mechanized units of the non-phasing player that are not in an enemy zone-of-control that are under a counterblow marker can move up to two hexes. For the Brits in this scenario it means that you can prevent the Italians from just running away by creating some choke-points and looking for counterblow opportunities.

Above you can see Doug trying his best to setup a front for the Italians on Map 3. He attempted to create a some trouble for me on the inland road, but I was easily able to break through on the coast and chase him down.

No Retreat: The North African Front, playing card for extra move

There’s some planning involved to pull this off. First, to even have counterblow markers you need to purchase them (they are on the flip side of the target markers that are used for attacking by the phasing player) on your own turn. These use the same supply points that you use for continuation, so planning and budgeting are important.

We also played with the extended use event cards which opened up additional opportunities. Above you can see where I played a card to allow an extra move, creating an opportunity to pretty much destroy his active forces on the map.

The deployment process when you move to a new map can be a bit confusing. The defending player sets up first and generally has the run of the board but needs to be realistic about what he can defend or run the risk of quick outflanking and losing his own supply lines. Once the defender sets up, the other player can setup as far in from his own map board as he wants, as if he has already moved through any towns along the roads as he passes in. This is what allows these initial units in their setup locations to have supply.

On the first turn on map 3 I took Sidi Omar then killed his last unit with a counterblow between Tobruk and Gazala.

No Retreat: The North African Front, why even bother with Map 2...

We started the process of setting up Map 2, then looked at the situation and said “why bother”. The Italians only had a single unit at this point and the scenario was essentially over.

Still, we got the basic mechanics down and we may just start our campaign game this week with Operation Sunflower when Rommel shows up.

Supreme Commander, Take 2

The Supreme Commander with Ken

This is a follow-up to my Supreme Commander post from last week.

Ken and I played through about 6 turns of the campaign game for The Supreme Commander last weekend, and the game is really growing on me. This on the heels of playing some Unconditional Surrender! World War 2 in Europe and thinking that there’s no way Supreme Commander can measure up. I think these are both very high quality games.

Ken and I wanted to get a good enough grasp so that we can dive in and play all day this coming Sunday at Salishan. I played the Axis powers while Ken took on the Allies. We ignored the Soviets for this play given the unlikelihood of them getting involved in 1939 / 1940.

The Supreme Commander - start of campaign

I setup my initial offensive on Poland almost identically to my solo play-through. The keys are to have infantry armies involved in every combat (there is a tech tree in SC and I chose to upgrade the German infantry, thus giving them a +1 factor when an infantry army is involved but not just a corps). A corps is essentially one step of a three-step army and is this relationship is one of the key mechanisms of the game as I called out in my prior post. It is simple to build up and break down armies and in some cases it will be critical to do so (transport, upgrading to new armies).

The Supreme Commander - #$%@ Warsaw!

Things were going so well for me on the combat front until I hit Warsaw, and consecutive rolls over three turns of 1 or 2 prevented me from eliminating the last Polish unit. This is a big deal for a few reasons:

  • I was losing steps myself with each combat, costing me valuable MSPs (Military Spending Points) in the process
  • It took me off schedule from other imperatives, such as invading the low countries or Scandinavia

Ken and I discussed this a lot and came to the conclusion that there’s no way to mitigate this. I was on the highest column on the CRT, was maximizing die roll modifiers, etc. Short story: if you invade Poland you might finish the job on turn 1, you might finish on turn 4.

While we are talking about crappy die rolls, I was trying to influence Italy through the diplomacy process and paid to improve my chances for four consecutive turns. I only needed to roll a 7 or less to succeed, and failed four straight times. What are the odds? 0.3 * 0.3 * 0.3 * 0.3 = 0.81% chance. Yes, less than 1 in 100. S#$t happens.

The Supreme Commander - the foolish Swedish invasion

I then turned my eyes north to Scandinavia, taking Denmark quickly but with eye towards Norway and Sweden. All that money I spent rebuilding steps in the stagnation in Poland combined with failed diplomatic efforts meant the Nazis had not managed to expand their navy (subs or surface). This meant that the UK had total domination in the North Sea. So while I would have much rather just gone after Norway, I had to pick Sweden (which had a much stronger standing army) instead so that I could just swim over the Baltic Sea.

Strategically this was a terrible move. With only a single surface fleet to carry my amphibious assault, I was forced to rely on just one corps landing along with an airborne drop. I had less than a 50/50 chance of succeeding, failed, and the entire operation was a bust. I did this as my last action just so Ken and I could see both an amphibious assault and an airborne drop and work through the rules. At least that’s my excuse.

Ken spent his time as the UK building his fleet and a few corps, relocating some to the Mediterranean as well as a token force in France. He also hopped over to Copenhagen to try to help the Danes. With the French he quickly built an HQ to solve some supply concerns around the Maginot line and deployed some troops along the Italian border. I should also note that he spent all of his diplomatic efforts trying for the 1 in 10 changes of swaying the Italians towards the Allies. It is a long shot for them, but any roll will succeed with a 1 so it is a reasonable chance for the Allies to take as long as they don’t have other diplomatic agendas.

A few things we still need to address as we start our game on Sunday:

  • When a nation becomes an Active Minor Nation Ally, they add to the economy (MSP) of the controlling allied nation
  • We will need to read up on Soviet annexation rules and other political opportunities and rules for them
  • We didn’t really get into strategic bombing either, but that doesn’t play a big role early in the game

Learning to be The Supreme Commander

I’m hosting a week-long war and board gaming blowout event at our beach house in just over a week. We are selling the house and this is our swan song event. I hosted my first Salishan gaming weekend about 10 years ago so this is a landmark conclusion to what has been an awesome run of gaming weekends with an amazing group of folks.

The front half of the week is dedicated to big ol’ wargames. Organizing and scheduling this is a bit intense as we can’t be as adaptive and seat-of-the-pants as we typically are when playing lighter games. Many of us are playing new games that have extensive rules, which means a lot of up-front preparation. Yes, I’ve been studying and “practicing” for a game weekend.

On the docket for me for the week will be:

I haven’t played six of these games so for the past few weeks I’ve been preparing myself with either solo walk-through play, or short scenario plays with Doug.

This post is a recap of my experience trying to learn The Supreme Commander.

Reading the scenario play-through for The Supreme Commander

Supreme Commander is a theater-wide strategic game about WWII in Europe. It is in the same tradition as one of the first wargames I ever played (back around 1980 or so): Rise and Decline of the Third Reich. It came out about the same time as another European theater game, Unconditional Surrender but the two games are quite different. I’ve been exploring Unconditional Surrender with Doug and my brain hurts just trying to keep the two games straight.

I have a hard time learning games of this scope just reading the rules (the rulebook plus scenarios and example of play is 52 pages) so my strategy is to setup an introductory scenario and play through things a bit to see how the different parts work together.

Major power cards for The Supreme Commander

I setup the full campaign scenario, Europe at War, not because I wanted to play through the whole campaign but because it has pretty low counter density and pretty much only involves the (likely, but not required) German invasion of Poland plus a bit of maneuvering by the UK, France, and Italy.

The rules are fairly well written, but man are there a lot of exceptions and special rules. This is generally the case when dealing with a theater game like this that involves diplomacy, economic systems (Lend Lease, Murmansk Convoy come into play for example). There’s some oddness to how the factions are setup initially as well, with the German player also controlling Italy but with there being a chance that Italy comes in on the Allied side with some lucky diplomacy.

East front for The Supreme Commander

There were many “ah hah” moments while I played through this. For example, I don’t think it is possible to move an entire army counter via naval transport. This means it is a pretty stupid move by the UK to build up the British Expeditionary Force army right there in the UK unless you only plan to use it for defense (that’s not very expeditionary!). It seems like the right approach is to transport the individual corps units to where you want the army to form, then use the build-up action to bring onto the map the full army unit (or even a step-reduced army unit). Reading the forums on this game, it seems like this build-up mechanic is actually the key way you bring on new elite-type units as well as even mediocre corps units can potentially be built up into awesome guard or SS armies.

In the above photo you can see the east front at the start of the game. I kept the setup similar to the example of play in the book with some small variance so I would be forced to see how different choices impacted the play.

West front for The Supreme Commander

I also went ahead and set up the western front, plus the Mediterranean, as there are some build-up and deployment options for the UK, French, and Italians at the start. Should Italy rush to get more troops to North Africa, or start piling up some forces near France for a possible land grab? I really don’t have a clue as I didn’t get that far.

Supreme Commander after Polish invasion

I played through the invasion of Poland twice, learning some key mistakes on force concentration the first time through. The key mistake being not having enough force concentration. In my view, the Germans need to:

  1. Ensure that they keep infantry armies engaged to get their technology bonus. There’s a tech tree in this game, with the Germans having some elected advances to take at the start. I chose infantry and aircraft (they automatically get submarines) because the Germans start with primarily infantry armies and will need to build up tank corps extensively in the coming years. If you advance in tanks too early, they are more expensive to produce.
  2. Keep armor units engaged to take advantage of their extended advance-after-combat abilities (that’s right, this was called Blitzkrieg for a reason!).
  3. Make sure you can get the German HQ within range of Warsaw for the final battle there.
  4. Save the German air power for the key Warsaw battle.

Air and naval power are abstracted pretty well in this game, though I had a hard time understanding how the navies properly operate until I re-read the rules several times. The navies live in ports but can be deployed out to naval holding boxes during strategic naval warfare. I didn’t get into the interception rules yet but they look straightforward.

Ground support with aircraft units was easy to run. If only one side has aircraft, they will add a bonus to that side. If both sides do, there’s a pre-combat air battle to see who sticks around to help out the ground battle.

I was able to explore the diplomatic actions as well. Each side (not each country) can take a single influence action each turn to try to slide a country closer to alliance. These are costly actions, especially when trying to influence someone that is already leaning towards the other side.

In summary I think I’m ready, and I look forward to playing through some more with Ken this coming weekend. Having another person involved helps immeasurably (1 + 1 > 2) as they tend to fill gaps for the other side and help come up with reasonable answers when questions remain.