Sunday, March 9, 2014

Chain of Command: Initial Impressions

I've heard a lot of positive reviews for Chain of Command by Too Fat Lardies. These are rules for WW2 platoon level games, and were released last summer. As such, I'm a late arrival to this game, and therefore won't bother going into heavily detailed reviews of the rules. There are many great reviews done already, and the guys at TFL have released  a series of demo videos that will show you how the game plays.  I just wanted to share my thoughts on a couple of play-through sessions and add to the already large dialog on this game.

One thing I've noticed is that Bolt Action and Chain of Command are constantly compared and contrasted, and people always want to know which game is "better." Besides the WW2 setting and the platoon scale, these two games couldn't be any more different. If I had to weigh in with what the difference is, here's my thought. Bolt Action is the game with a neat (if questionable) points system for tournaments and pick-up games. The rules are simplified and standardized. Chain of Command would never work as a competitive tournament game (no true points and a lot of randomization would be an endless headache for judges) and the rules are filled with details and differences.

Neither game system is better than the other, but distinctly different. You could play both rules, and would use them for different purposes. Chain of Command is going to be a lot better for scenario and narrative themed games than Bolt Action. CoC is also difficult to teach a new player, I would think. Whereas Bolt Action would allow you to play a game with a total stranger who has only a passing experience with war games. Both do a fine job modelling WW2 combat, albeit in different ways.

My verdict is that Chain of Command has some strong parts and some weaker parts. I can't say I'm thrilled with it, nor can I say I've disliked it. It's simply different from what I had expected.

The game is "scale agnostic" and works for anything, which is a huge plus. The ideal scale is 15mm, which is my preferred scale, though all the examples are shown with either 20mm or 28mm models. They recommend a 4'x6' table, but I played on a 4'x4' without too much trouble. Larger is better, of course.

Cover is pretty essential in this game, or your soldiers will die too easily.  It doesn't require an insane amount, but much of the game mechanics rely on cover to be useful.

The game starts with a unique deployment system called the patrol phase. You move patrol markers about until both sides "encounter" each other in no-man's land. From there you drop back to cover to find where you will place jump-off points for your troops. Determining the jump off point is a little awkward, even more so than they show in the books or videos. In both games I ended up with something much like standard deployment zones, only closer than usual.

The jump off points will allow you to place your men within six inches of that point. Of course, vehicles are not allowed to use jump off points, but must come in from your table edge. But where on the table edge?  Well, on a road from your table edge. If you have two roads, what then? Pick one. What if you have no roads? The rules are silent on that point. Maybe you can't bring them on? Maybe they have to dropped in from gliders? Matter transports?

And here we come to probably my largest complaint for the rules. There are so many exceptions like this, and not all of them cover many contingencies. Must a road be present in every game? The rules would lead you to believe so, especially if you have vehicles. It's nothing you can't fix yourself with a little logic. But now you're beginning to see why this is not a good rule for tournaments or pick-up games.

Turns are different in this game, and phases are more important. You can have dozens of phases in a game, but maybe only 2-3 turns. My games did not last more than three turns each, though I had maybe 15-20 phases per game.  Each phase represents a small portion of time and you roll command dice to determine what you can activate or bring on the table. As a result you won't activate every unit every phase. You only get five dice to use (six if you have certain elite troops) and only results of 1-4 allow actions by your troops.

One of the more interesting things about your squads is they are broken into teams, and each team can act on its own. There are generally three parts to a squad: the NCO (a junior leader in game parlance), an LMG team and a rifle team. The numbers of each team differ by nationality. These teams can be further broken down as the player wishes by using the leader to assign soldiers to new teams.  This creates incredible tactical flexibility for a rifle unit. Of course, with that flexibility comes some complexity, but its necessary to make the system work.

In addition to random activation, you have random movement distance as well. You can move 1-3d6 worth of distance in inches, depending on what you want to do. So you can never be sure of where you can go. Again, I like this a lot,but I can see this driving some players crazy. Vehicles move the same way, but get to add distance to the rolls depending on the terrain the vehicle is on.  Infantry get what is called "tactical stance", which is 1d6 of movement that ends with one level better of cover. So if you end in the open, you'd be considered light cover, etc.

All in all the game is unpredictable, but strangely does allow you to make plans that you can actually follow. Just expect them to be adjusted as the battle develops. The team concept allows even a single unit to be able to handle a lot of different situations creatively and models real unit actions. Unlike a lot of rule systems, you can have a unit's LMG team lay down suppressing fire while the rifle team closes for the assault. It's a refreshing change from "everyone does the same thing and fires at the same thing" of most other rules.

Finally, a word on how to win the game: it's not a kill 'em all situation, but a game about rendering the opposition combat ineffective. This is done either by actually destroying units or breaking their will to fight. Everything depends upon your platoon's force morale score. This is something that 
changes from game to game, and many players will dislike this.  You roll for a random force morale at the start of the game. In one of my games, the German side started at force morale of 8 (the lowest) and the US side started at force morale of 11(the highest).  Whoops, huge, randomly determined advantage alert.  I think some people will argue that a game is determined right there, with one die roll. While it's not a "done deal" I do think there's merit to that argument. In my game, the patrol scenario required one side to drop below a force morale of 3. The US killed one junior leader and a German rile squad and achieved the victory condition.  Even as the US was taking casualties, they were far more ready to fight than the Germans. So, again, that's a great narrative but an awful pick-up game experience.

In sum, Chain of Command excels at modeling the chaos and "friction" of the battlefield and allows for real-life tactics of the period. It creates a narrative with random events, force morale, and command dice activation. Where the game gets challenging is in the myriad little rule details that add nothing to the game or make it difficult to play. One example of this is turret rotation. Your tanks have a turret rotation of 120 degrees.  That's not a typo. Hold on while I get my fucking protractor.  That's an utterly stupid restriction, since it's hard to measure and is actually pretty crucial. So I've got to house rule it to 180 degrees, which is a lot easier to understand.  You'll find a lot of crap like that buried in these rules, and ultimately it detracts from an otherwise excellent game.

I will have to give it a few more tries to solidify my impressions and decide where this game fits into my rotation. It's definitely a great solo game, since so much is determined by dice rolling.  However, with friends it could be a fun game to pass an afternoon. I'd never play with a stranger or casual acquaintance, and definitely not in a competitive tournament!


Anonymous said...

You do know that 120 degrees is a third of a circle, as opposed to 180 degrees being half. That seem pretty straightforward and without need for a "fucking protractor".

Jerry said...

I don't find determining a 120 degree rotation to be that straightforward. With 180 degrees you lay a straight-edge across the turret and see the limit of the rotation. With 120 degrees, I either eye-ball it or have something created just for this one purpose.

I think that 120 degrees is arbitrary and playability would be better served by making the value easily measured by something already at hand like a book edge.

So maybe a fucking protractor is not needed. But I'll still need some goddamned special measuring tool for it.

Tim Kulinski said...


Nice review, I have been a bit Luke warm to trying these rules. From the sound of it is feels like Beer and Pretzel skirmish game I played years ago.

Hmm 120degree rotation for tanks with a 360 degree rotation, say what??? I guess they did that to deal with slow turrets, I don't know. That right there is a bit too much for me.

Anyway, good write up man, saves me time from jumping into this one.

Jerry said...

Glad you found the review useful, Tim. Frankly, I didn't peg these rules as something you'd like. Overall, they are not bad and would be fun for a few games. Nothing you'd play regularly.

Just to clarify, turrets CAN rotate 360 degrees, but not more than 120 degrees in a phase (and only 90 degrees for slow turrets).

russell1200 said...

Thank you for the review. They sound interesting. Command and control, or chaos and wishful thinking are items I like in my skirmish games.

Jerry said...

Russell, It's really a unique rule set. It's funny you should post today as I just played another game of CoC on Sunday. It takes a little getting used to, but it makes for an interesting game.