30 August 2013

Chain of Command rules review

Much of what I wrote in my "first impression" post will reappear in this review, but I hope to provide a more structured and coherent review and add additional detail about several things that were left out of my previous post.

Chain of Command is the latest game to be released from "Too Fat Lardies", and I admit that this is my very first exposure to their rules. I had heard about "Sharp Practice" and "I Ain't Been Shot Mum!", my friend Thomas even has the later one in his collection, but I never got around to play any of their rules.I have on the other hand been a big fan of Richard Clarke's articles in the Wargames Soldiers & Strategy magazine for some time now, and pretty much always agree with what he writes.

So as the buzz about Chain of Command was getting louder and more frequent towards the release of the rules I started emailing with Richard - through the help of fellow TMP forum member Thomas Nissvik - and asked my standard question - "Can I play it in a Early War setting?".

I'm very glad I got in touch with Richard because the discussions we had over email gave me a valuable insight into how seriously Too Fat Lardies take their rules and historical accuracy when it comes to representing nations and units in the game. Of all the WW2 games that I have come into contact with up to this point had always handled national traits a bit like fantasy or sci-fi games handle special rules for various races. Often something is blown out of proportion, or a caricature version of reality is given to differentiate between forces and armies because the games are unable to provide you with enough detail or present the detail in such a way as to make basic guys with rifles differ from one another depending on what nation they served in.

This is what I think makes Chain of Command different from other rules. There are national rules and traits but they are really toned down and are all grounded in infantry manuals and actual training of the troops. And the main difference between say the Early War Germans and the Early War Polish platoon won't be a load of special rules, but rather the way their platoons look and what they contain in terms of men and weapons.

So let's start the review with a basic overlook of Chain of Command. It's a platoon level game, which means you have a platoon commander and a couple of squads that would make up the platoon structure - normally 3 rifle squads. Added to this you have platoon assets, such as AT teams and maybe a light mortar team. The platoon then has access to various support assets, such as fortifications, vehicles, tanks or heavy weapons.

What I like about the way forces are handled in the game is that you have real platoons that are fixed, as opposed to allow players to cherry pick their own squad sizes and squad equipment to make up something less than historically accurate and a lot more gamey. Variation comes from the platoon support, which is handled in a very clever way, basically a list divided into points. Before the scenario begins the attacking player rolls 2D6 and add his platoon support bonus (or penalty) number to the result. The total of that roll shows how much support he can field in this battle, and proceeds to pick units from the list, a foxhole position may cost 1 point, a HMG team may be 4 points, a powerful tank 8 points and so on. How you spend your support points is all up to you. You can spend 12 points on "list 1" items only, which would give you 12 assets, or buy a single "list 12" vehicle. The choice is yours. The defender generally has half the support of the attacking player, but has the advantage of being the defender which often means forcing the enemy to come to you.

A big part of Chain of Command, and indeed many scenarios revolve around this, is the force morale. The starting force morale is randomly generated, and can be between 8-11 points. The force morale is reduced bit by bit when troops are destroyed, or broken. You lose more points for dead commanders, squads and support options than you do for small teams - and once your morale drops to 4 points your force starts to suffer and your command ability is reduced. The closer to 0 morale you get the harder the time your platoon will have. Reaching 0 morale has your force rout or surrender, and the game ends.

Command and control in this game, as well as the turn sequence, is pretty clever and really different. It's neither a pure IGOUGO nor is it a pure alternative activation sequence and the turns aren't static but very flexible in their length and content.

To understand all this I have to describe the "command dice". Each platoon has a specified number of command (D6) dice which are rolled at the start of each phase (not turn). The results of each die represent different things. 1's can activate small teams, 2's can activate whole sections, 3's can activate Junior commanders and 4's can activate Senior commanders. Both command types have a number of initiative points which they can use differently in order to activate units within their command range.

A Junior vehicle commander with 2 initiative points can spend one point to activate the driver, and one point to activate the gunner - or spend two points on the gunner to improve his aim. Many infantry based special rules also require the Junior or Senior commander to spend their initiative points in order to use them, for instance the Polish light mortar team can benefit from +1 to range in, while the German MG34/42 can get an additional D6 to its firepower if assisted by a commander.

Once again, the special rules are grounded in infantry tactics and command instructions from army manuals and not a fantasy product for the sake of creating greater difference between forces.

You simply take all results of 1-4 that you rolled in your command pool, and apply the results to activate as many units and officers in your platoon before the phase is handed over to the opponent. This is repeated and players constantly take turns in doing this until the turn ultimately ends.

Now, if you roll 5 on your command dice, you get +1 point to your "Chain of Command". When your Chain of Command reaches 6 points you get access to a couple of special benefits. Such as interrupting an enemy activation, but more powerful is the ability to end the turn. When you end the turn all ongoing effects, such as smoke, overwatch and tactical stances are removed and the turn begins with a clean slate. It can be very powerful to end the turn just before you are mounting an attack, and remove all enemy smoke obscuring the enemy positions.

If you roll 6's on your command die they are generally wasted. If you roll a single 6, it just means that the enemy will have the next phase (as he would have anyway). If you roll two 6's you will get two consecutive phases. If you roll three 6's the turn ends and you will have the first phase of the next turn.

So both the turn sequence and the unit activation has a very different flow and you could really argue that what is called "Phase" is really what we would normally called a turn. And what is called a "Turn" in the game, is more of a reset button. However, what this altered turn sequence does for the game, is to provide a less predictable combat situation, you can have one turn last 10 phases, while the next turn only last 4. This turn sequence also makes smoke deployed by grenade or light mortars stick around for a longer time than you would usually experience in a game like this, and thus have a much bigger impact on the tactical situation.  Furthermore, the turn can also force enemy units that are suffering from being broken at the end of a turn, to rout, unless you are able to rally them up to adequate performance levels before it happens.

Another unique feature of Chain of Command is the "Patrol phase" where players push a number of blinds around on the table until they come within a specified range of the enemy blinds and are "locked". This creates a much more fluid deployment zone, and the blinds are then used as both jump-off points for unit deployment and objective markers. This becomes a bit of a mini game before you deploy anything on the table, but represents very nicely how patrols would observe and grab valuable terrain as they are locked into combat with the enemy and then have reinforcements arrive to the scene.

One of my favorite aspects of the game is suppressing effect of being fired upon, the pinned down status and troop morale. All of these are a lot more serious and have a greater and more long lasting impact than other games I have played in this genre. Often when your troops get pinned down in other games, you simply roll a command check and if you pass your troops are magically back to performing at a 100% without delay.

Forget that when you play Chain of Command, coming under fire will stress your troops out and they will get increasingly sluggish before they finally break. Every time a unit is fired upon, the results you can get on each hit are "no effect", "shock" and "killed". Morale aspects focus on "shock" results. For each point of shock your unit has, they receive -1" penalty to their movement. For every two points of shock you have a single soldier cannot fire. If your shock reaches or exceeds the number of soldiers in your unit, then they are pinned down. If the shock is double that of the number of soldiers left - they are broken.

Accumulating shock is a really bad thing, and you must get on it as soon as possible before it gets out of hand. Rallying shock requires activating a Junior or Senior commander, he can then remove as many points of shock as he has initiative points (2 for Junior, 3 for Senior commander). As you can imagine, it will take several officers or phases to rally a unit with a lot of shock - especially if the unfortunate unit gets caught in the open or in a vicious crossfire!

The basic combat mechanics all revolve around regular D6's. You hit based upon the range + the training of the enemy, and you kill or inflict "Shock" depending on what kind of cover the enemy is located in. It's a very simple system, but the way it is applied makes sense.

Combat between AT weapons and vehicles is a bit different, and imo more exciting. At first glance it can be overwhelming but it is really simple when you break it down.

To hit an armored target you must first roll 2D6, and you apply a multitude of modifiers - such as whether you have moved, the enemy has moved,  whether it is a small target, if you are shocked, if you have already hit the enemy once before etc. The goal is to reach 5+ to hit someone in the open, 7+ if they are obscured and 9+ if they are heavily obscured.

Once a hit is registered the armor stats of the defender and armor piercing stats of the attacker come into play. The better you are the higher the number. And what you do is that both the attacker and defender roll their dice, and compare the results. The defender negates any successful attack die on 5+. The attacker inflicts damage on 5+ when firing at the front, 4+ from the side and 3+ from the rear. So positioning is crucial for both sides and it is always easier to destroy someone from the flank and rear where the armor would be thinner.  Once both players have rolled they see whether the results show a difference of 0 which is pretty much a glancing hit. If the attacker scores one, two or three + excessive result the effects range from broken equipment, wounded crewmen to being knocked out and even catastrophic explosion of the target. Tanks and transport vehicles have their own charts for the effect of being hit by AT weapons.

It's really a great design, and brings back memories from another skirmish game I used to play where vehicles could be damaged and some crew could be killed but they kept fighting at reduced efficiency. In Chain of Command it can be crippling to have the vehicle commander wounded or killed, as that severely reduces the possible actions and tactical options of your vehicle. Your vehicles can also run over infantry positions as well as ram other vehicles and tanks (which is dangerous to both the ramming and the rammed vehicle).

It is also worth mentioning the difference between armor piercing and high explosive ammunition in this game. The former can only damage vehicles, while the latter is used against soft targets, open topped vehicles and such. There are no blast templates in the game for on table weapons, instead you get a specific number of damage dice that are distributed among the soldiers of the unit you hit - such damage is mainly done by light mortars and guns firing in horizontal mode.

There are templates, for off table assets, such as medium mortar barrages. These use a default of 6x6" square templates and hit everything underneath them. Off table smoke barrages, or burning terrain, also use the 6x6" large template, sometimes even multiple templates depending on the wind and strength of the smoke. On the table assets however only roll damage dice. On table and off table mortars and artillery assets also have a chance to scatter, and you are free to target points on the table with smoke rather than target units - which makes smoke screens a good option for moving from one piece of terrain to the next safely. Mortars can also run out of ammo if you roll a double 1.

There is also a lot of detail in the rules covering interesting situations, such as driving off enemy vehicles with infantry by firing at the command cupola and viewing slits, backblast weapons, flamethrowers, sniper rifles, engineers clearing minefields and blowing up tank obstacles and so on.

What I think is the least exciting part, and I find that about all pretty much all WW2 wargames, is the close combat. In Chain of Command close combat happens when two units are within 4" of each other (no need to have base contact with the soldiers). Both forces then assemble a pool of dice that take in a bunch of variables, such as movement rate before coming into contact, amount of suffered "Shock", the command initiative and amount of men in your unit. All 5+ results are kills, and 6's also inflict shock. When the both players have rolled you simply check to see who has won (or if it was a draw). Depending on how much you have won the combat with, the results on the opponent vary from forcing the enemy to fall back a number of inches and lose ground, to making the enemy flee in panic. Combat is short and bloody, but at the end you don't automatically wipe out an enemy,  the remnants of the defeated unit are still on the table.

Are there any weaknesses in Chain of Command?

Tournament oriented players, and those who love to build their forces from scratch will probably find the army lists too limiting in their historical accuracy. I’ve already been asked whether I think the game would work in a tournament setting and my answer is – it would ruin the experience. It would probably work, but it would really force something onto this game which was not meant to be included. Tournaments would also be difficult to “balance” and limit in time per game as there is no artificial time limit for any scenario or game.

I think new players can be slightly overwhelmed by the amount of rules presented in the 70 pages that actually contain rules (rest are late war army lists for US/UK/Germany/Soviet and scenarios).It is in general hard to just jump into the text and expect to understand the rules ,especially when reading them for the first time. You must read them from top to bottom, and carefully. Sometimes key aspects are embedded within the text without any particular highlight.

The book also lacks a quick reference sheet at the back, something you need to download and print out yourself. This can make you flip back and forth between chapters quite a bit - especially in the beginning when you learn the basics but also later when you need to check the vehicle damade and close combat charts.

But the rules are overall very well written, very detailed, and the bulk of them are not that difficult to learn. The core mechanics for unit activation, movement, shooting etc is something a seasoned wargamer will pick up within an hour. It may take a while longer to learn how to properly use all options that Officers allow you to do and to implement that in a tactical manner. This is to me the best platoon level game that I have come across for WW2, and it has a lot of things that I have always loved or been missing in other games that are out on the market.  I personally haven't found anything that would make me annoyed in the rules themselves - I think the book is full of well processed and well written ideas that create both a very interesting and fresh game experience as well as provide that level of realism and tactics to satisfy the purpose of playing a platoon level game to begin with.

The game is written with single based 15/20/28mm miniatures in mind, but I found that it worked quite OK with my multi based Flames of War collection. You just need to have dice or markers to keep track of casualties if you use multi based stuff.

Highly recommended set of rules, which should really appeal to anyone who wants a more advanced, realistic, historical and in depth experience compared to the more casual oriented Bolt Action which seems to be the most popular WW2 ruleset at the moment. You can buy Chain of Command directly from the Too Fat Lardies site in both paper and PDF version..All additional army lists are going to be released for free and are downloadable through the Too Fat Lardies blog, but you can also follow the process over at their Yahoo group.


Publisher: http://toofatlardies.co.uk/
Contents: 105 pages full color
Authors: Richard Clarke
Format: 2-players, command dice and hybrid alternate activation
Gaming aides: D6 dice
Price: £22 for paper and £13 for PDF/Tablet version of the rulebook.

15 comments:

  1. Really this is one of the best ruleset reviews, I have read and I have read many. I have read through the book myself skipping the sections on vehicles and close combat. I was trying to get a sense of the rules on my first pass, and your review really filled in the gaps and gives an excellent overview.

    I hoping to get in a game within the next month, but again thatnk you for the great review.

    John

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    1. Thanks for the kind words John, I have a game booked for this Sunday so a AAR will most likely show up on the blog early next week :-)

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  2. Yes, indeed, an excellent review!

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  3. Interesting review of a very good game.

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  4. Great review - these rules do seem to be a very good alternative to Bolt Action

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  5. Very well writen reviee!

    Best regards Michael

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  6. great review......as always it seems!
    I just got to play a game of this the other night, I was very impressed. We usually play either Disposable Heroes or occasionally Bolt Action. Ive always felt DH was a better set of rules....but enjoyed BA for its lighter approach. Chain of Command on its first play seemed much better, thorough, realistic and enjoyable even though it really does offer a ton of options....there's a lot to explore here....from the very start with the blinds deployment! I completely agree with your thoughts on CoC. Again, great review! look forward to an AAR.

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  7. Thanks for the mention and I am very happy that I could contribute to this worthy cause even if it was just by helping you and Rich get in touch. A lovely review and I hope I will see you next year at GothCon for a game!

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  8. A scrupulously fair, excellently written and enjoyable review. Thank you, Anatoli!

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  9. Great review as allways Anatoli.

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  10. Just wanting to get into miniature WW2 war-gaming, I found your review excellent! Being on a budget, "You want to start ANOTHER hobby, how much is this one going to cost?", this really helps me narrow down my options based on the myriad of rules and scales that are out there.

    So, I am 98% there to purchase, but I did have a few questions; So IS it feasible to play early war with the rules? Can I have a PzKpfw II on the board? I like the scale described but it has to be flexible enough to span 1939-1945... Also, after reading how the game supports smoke, does it support aviation too?

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    1. There are downloadable army lists for various periods - includin 1939 over at the Too Fat Lardies forum so yes the game supports all of the war if you want to play different periods :-)

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