On My Table – Combat Commander: Europe

By Henri Whitehead

My great-grandfather fought in World War II. He served in General Patton’s Third Army. I know very little about my great-grandfather’s service even though he was a significant part of my life till his death in my early twenties. No one really talked about his experiences during the war. There were hints at stories, but there was never enough information given to ever form a coherent picture of my great-grandfather as a soldier. I don’t know if it was his decision to remain quiet about the war or my great-grandmother’s, but unfortunately, I never really pursued the subject before he passed away.

My great-grandfather fought in World War II, but I foolishly never pictured him as soldier.

The main problem was that my great-grandfather did not fit the description of a soldier. When I was a kid, I loved G.I. Joes, and my great-grandfather could not have been more different than the action heroes portrayed in my cartoons. My great-grandfather was a gentle spirit. In my memories, he sang country songs around a campfire, handed us Christmas presents dressed as Santa, and spent most holidays asleep in his recliner next to his vhs camcorder, which he always had set up on a tripod recording every second of every family gathering. (Quick aside: I’m pretty sure that he possessed thousands of hours of video of just an empty room. Whenever he fell asleep, everyone would leave the living room, but no one ever turned off his camcorder.) When my great-grandfather wasn’t napping, he would teach us card games like Spades, Rook and Bridge. He never cussed, never drank, never raised his voice in front of us.

I say all of this to make the point that imagining my great-grandfather as a soldier would have been an exercise in cognitive dissonance, and I hadn’t really thought about this unresolved footnote of my childhood until I started getting into wargames about two years ago. To say it simply, wargames have opened my eyes to history. They have taken those static images from my high school textbooks and given them life, and now after playing World War II games like Combat Commander: Europe, I can’t look at a picture of my great-grandfather and not wonder about that secret part of his life hidden behind his gentle demeanor.

Before wargames, I never fully comprehended how many moments in history were decided by razor-thin margins. History used to feel mostly predetermined much like a sporting event when all you see is the final box score. You don’t see the chaos, the hardships, or the random luck. You don’t see the consequential decisions and the tipping points. You just see the final score. Until I played wargames like Combat Commander, I never understood the risks that my great-grandfather took serving his country because I only ever witnessed the final result of his service — a man at peace, napping in his recliner.

For me, cardboard chits have never told a more engrossing story.

Combat Commander: Europe doesn’t just simulate a moment in history. It tells a story that feels incredibly true, yet there is also nothing predetermined about the outcome. You get to fully experience the precarious nature of history. Every single decision feels important. Every single card flip matters. When one of your squads succeeds, you feel elation. When one of your squads fails, you feel despair. And never do you feel like you are on solid ground. Combat Commander’s story is wobbly. It’s chaotic. It has a life of its own.

In full transparency, I’m only in the middle of my second game of Combat Commander: Europe. I’ve been playing it remote with a friend. We play through about two or three turns a day, and we’ve been playing this way almost daily for a month. Despite the fact that I haven’t played through every scenario yet, I can say with absolute certainty that this game deserves its status as a classic among wargamers.

It felt like I was creating a significant moment in an world that was now fully formed in my imagination. I was directing my own scene of Band of Brothers.

In the first scenario, it seemed like my opponent had finally overwhelmed my forces. He was the Russians and had superior numbers, and with my numbers dwindling and my options for taking control of objectives running out, I had to orchestrate a heroic charge with my lieutenant to take control of a farmhouse. By that time in the game, It no longer felt like I was moving chits around a plastic map. I had grown attached to my leaders and units. They had bailed me out time and time again. They had survived against odds. They had triumphs. They had tragedies. They had depth and substance beyond their 1/32 inch cardboard. It felt like I was creating a significant moment in an world that was now fully formed in my imagination. I was directing my own scene of Band of Brothers. When the charge succeeded and my men moved into the farmhouse, I was no longer a spectator of the battle, but I was there in that farmhouse with them.

The narrative power of Combat Commander doesn’t just come from the players’ own imaginations, but much like a role-playing-game, solid rules and gameplay mechanics provide the necessary foundation for the players to build their stories. Designer Chad Jensen created an ingenious card-driven system that both never feels restrictive but also never pulls you out of the world with rules ambiguity and debate. For a game released in 2006 and nearing its 5th printing, the absence of any substantial errata and changes between editions is a testament to the incredible design and balance of the game’s core mechanics. It also helps that game boasts an outstanding rulebook that leaves few questions unanswered.

Combat Commander takes the idea of multi-use cards to an extreme but satisfying level.

In Combat Commander, every card in the game is multi-use. You can play cards as orders or actions, telling your soldiers what to do or where to move on the map. When you need to roll a dice, you instead just reveal the top card of your deck and look at the dice printed at the bottom of the card. Every card also has a random event. These events are sometimes good, sometimes bad, and sometimes meaningless. Other times, they are so impactful that they can immediately change the momentum of the game. I know that some players express the opinion that Combat Commander is too random, but for me, the randomness is an essential part of the story. It’s the chaos of war where the best laid plan can unravel at any moment. Yes, it can crush dreams just as quickly as it can win games, but the randomness always feels fair. Because there is a set number of dice rolls in the deck, you are almost always guaranteed that bad luck will eventually give way to good luck. Because a random event might throw the game into chaos at any moment, you are never truly too far behind to catch up. The randomness is a feature not a flaw.

I can’t wait to keep playing this game. After just a few scenarios, it is easy to see that Chad Jensen’s design was ahead of its time, and that Combat Commander: Europe deserves a place on every wargamer’s shelf. With that being said, be warned that Combat Commander: Europe is in the middle of a reprint cycle. You can preorder the next printing at GMT Games, or you can checkout Combat Commander: Pacific, which is still in stock. If you liked the experience I described but are new to wargaming, check out the Undaunted series by Osprey Games. Undaunted: Normandy delivers a similar experience with less rules intake. It’s a great entry for people new to wargaming, and it’s relatively cheap.

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