We are still remembering the tragic loss of millions during the Great War which raged through November of 1918 and my sincere hope is that the centennial celebration of Armistice Day will serve as a moment for world leaders to recommit to peace as the first and only option in diplomacy. Great War Commander (hereafter GWC) was released in 2018 by Hexasim and transports the GMT Games Combat Commander series back in time to World War One. How did the series hold up through the changes required to make this jump? Read on and find out.
First, it is important to understand what this game is trying to achieve. It is a tactical squad-based game with infantry, support weapons such as the Hotchkiss MG, off-board artillery, and yes tanks which make their appearance in late war scenarios. The 12 maps that come with the game are non-geomorphic and therefore cannot be combined to diversify the terrain or create epic-sized battles. In fact, each map could have been bigger, but many of the repetitive game tracks are printed along one edge rather than being printed on a separate player aid card as in Combat Commander.
Players take the role of a commander for the French, American, or Imperial German nations. No British? Correct! My suspicion is that they will be included alongside other missing powers like Italy and Russia in a forthcoming expansion. Players command anywhere from 12 to 30 units taking turns playing a random hand of cards that contain actions, events, and dice rolls.
I won’t get into the mechanics here except where necessary, but they work well. One of the issues many players who didn’t like Combat reported was the lack of necessary actions to do anything meaningful during their action phase which lead to a lot of missed opportunities and discarding cards that could have been valuable in conjunction with coveted move or rally cards. GWC handles this by including fewer so-called dead cards. In the half dozen scenarios I played this was an issue maybe once or twice and was fixed during the first discard and draw I took.
Players use these cards in order to attack or defend (and usually a little bit of both) the five objectives that are pre-printed on the map. What keeps this exciting is the random chit pull for the value of the objectives. Some objectives may be worth just 1 point, but other objective chits increase their value to 3 or 5. Some objectives provide additional value to exiting friendly units off the board. Scenarios define specific objectives that are open to both players to use and see while players randomly draw secret objectives as well which can dramatically shift the balance of victory points.
While we are on the subject of victory points, the system uses a base-zero victory point slider meaning that the armies share the same number of victory points when the victory points total is zero. When one army has additional victory points then the marker counts up from zero to account for the difference. I like this method because it provides players with an opportunity to see their relative performance rather than an arbitrary victory point score.
Because the game features an incredible amount of. Randomization, I think it is important to note how turns end. Players draw cards for their hands, the size of which is determined by the scenario and the role that the army is playing. Attackers, for example, get 6 cards while defenders only receive 4. Inside this, there are limits to the number of orders that can be issued per side and how many cards that side can discard at a time. During the meat of the game, players will play cards from their hands and draw cards to both resolve those actions and replenish their hand size. At times there are keywords that trigger random events, snipers, and the turn end.
That means that scenario length can be quite variable, but even replaying scenarios didn’t reveal any shortcomings. It is clear that quality playtesting helped address this when fine-tuning scenarios which rarely were decided by more than 5 points. In fact, the core game mechanics are as strong here as they were in Combat Commander and the adjustments in orders give this game a feel like the stories shared by Rommel in his seminal Infantry Attacks which outlines small unit actions of the First World War.
One of the innovations that Great War Commander brings to the Combat Commander formula is the Strategy Card which provides the players with a one-time bonus. This bonus might take the form of a die roll modifier in the attack or defense, or it might grant your forces a special action. Cards are drawn at random from a small pool of Strategy Cards and are a welcome wildcard addition to the game. There’s nothing more disappointing than seeing someone commit to close combat only to have them play a card that effectively gives them the ambush action for that combat. I love this little tweak to the gameplay and find that it gives forces a national identity that doesn’t need to be memorized or cataloged on a player aid card.
So, how about those tanks?
Simply put, tanks add some additional complexity to the game and showcase the show-stopping power of these new and frequently faulty war machines. Tanks span two hexes and lumber forward with showstopping power and range. Their two guns give them unparalleled dominance in terms of firepower. That said, the tanks must pass a bog check and upon the destruction of the first tank in the platoon, they must be individually activated and lose the ability to platoon activate making them slower. On top of that, tanks are prone to bogging in the shell holes that litter the maps in which they are featured. As a result, tanks can be stopped not by enemy artillery or mortar fire, but instead because they throw a track or get stuck in some other way.
The range of the tank’s weapons and the fact that a fire command allows them to engage with multiple targets makes their deadly force that much more intimidating on the battlefield. In fact, tanks that bog even part of the way across the no-mans-land of trench warfare scenarios can bring devastating power to bear on the enemy. It’s hard to imagine a force more deadly within the game, but there remains one thing even more fearsome: artillery.
King of the Battlefield
That’s right, the impact of artillery upon World War I cannot be undersold. From the opening madness inside the Belgium forts at Liege to the devastated landscapes familiar to anyone with a passing interest in the conflict artillery literally reshaped modern warfare. The evolution of air combat was, at first, an attempt to bring more accurate artillery to bear on enemy trenches and positions. Aircraft were scouts before they were fighters after all. Artillery is readily accessible, accurate, and deadly in GWC to the point where I have to wonder why were World War I battlefields littered with shell holes if artillery was this effective? The process of laying down a barrage is quite simple:
- Play the Artillery Request card
- Roll for accuracy
- Place the round in the hex where it lands AND the six surrounding hexes
- Resolve attacks per the artillery caliber on each of the hexes.
This is a quick, streamlined process that facilitates drama and devastation. It is, however, seemingly too accurate and powerful for something that occurs fairly frequently within the player decks. In fact, I ended up creating a slight adjustment to the rules to make it a little less devastating by using leadership as a modifier for the attacks. Leaders in GWC have a 1, 2, or 3 leadership rating. As a result, I recommend altering the accuracy check to be colored die multiplied by white die MINUS the difference between 3 and the leadership rating of the leader commanding the formation making the attack. This, of course, relies on a few things…the first is that Artillery Requests don’t actually activate a unit or formation they just use a unit as the spotter, so I’m creating some overhead by saying that spotter must be in command range AND that you use the leader who would command that unit for the leadership rating.
In the end, this process altered the chances just enough to make the shots a little more unpredictable which helps units from getting into knife-fight range and then calling down artillery in preparation for an Offensive card play that will overrun an injured enemy. There is enough risk-reward built into the game already and using artillery as a “sure thing” just didn’t sit well with me in my playthroughs. I’m torn in that I recognize the importance of artillery and how it shaped World War I tactics, strategy, and the evolution of aerial combat, but by the same token in terms of the scope of the game it didn’t feel quite right. I will always recommend playing the rules as written to get started, but my variant might help address your concerns if you continue to have them as I did.
Finally, I want to address the maps which are gorgeous works of art in every respect. Unfortunately, GWC adopted the fixed on-map objectives from Combat Commander. The nature of trench warfare, however, doesn’t necessarily lend itself to these fixed objectives and though the scenarios presented are interesting for both sides, there’s little room to build your own scenarios that will be as interesting. One of the things that has generally separated long-term success versus short-term success for tactical games is how active the community is in building content to support the game. In the case of Advanced Squad Leader I have five 3″ binders full of scenarios both official and third-party produced. The steady stream of new content takes advantage of geomorphic maps and the ability to truly customize the game to fit the needs of a specific scenario. In GWC’s case, the maps themselves are a fantastic cross-section of World War I terrain, but the fixed objectives means that similar patterns of gameplay and defensive points will naturally remain the same between scenarios. The random selection of objective values and modifiers changes the pattern, but only slightly.
Take to the Skies
I mentioned aircraft and they are in Great War Commander to provide close air support through strafing and bombing runs. There are even little fighter plane tokens to mark your attacks. Ultimately, this felt a little tacked on, but was a fun way to give the game three-dimensions and though the use of air support was never decisive, it was exciting. Planes, depending on the year, can make bombing runs which attacks a single hex, or a strafing run which attacks adjacent hexes. Both attacks have their own combat factors, but the activation of the aircraft never feels like it costs anything. It’s just a bonus to what’s already going on, almost like a random event rather than the calculated arrival of close air support which one might expect at this level. After all, the combat is tactical so the chances that a single plane would suddenly appear at this point and this moment to strafe seems like a matter of convenience here rather than a matter of necessity otherwise it might be more frequent or impactful given the nature of the air war in World War I.
Great War Commander is a ton of fun, but it’s fun that requires you turn off your analytical/historical brain for a moment to revel in the great scenarios and gameplay. The underlying core is exciting and many of the “shortcomings” from Combat Commander have been addressed. The feeling of an empty-hand is all but eliminated and the new elements like artillery, aircraft, and tanks all provide necessary World War I flavor even if they aren’t perfectly implemented. GWC clearly respects its predecessor, but in some ways that may have held it back from truly transforming the Combat Commander system into something spectacular and fresh. New ideas are a great start, and the presentation is top notch, but once the scenarios are played and the game returns to the shelf, it’s hard to imagine pulling it back out until the expansion (if there is one) comes along with new challenges. In the interim, my sincere hope is that the designers rethink both artillery and aircraft to give them a more historic context. Tanks, for all their shortcomings in the games, are incredibly fun and add a new dimension to problem solving on attack and defense. If you’re a World War I buff who needs every World War I game that comes out, then this is your game. If you’re on the fence and love Combat Commander then you might give this one a try before diving in headfirst. It’s a great lightweight World War I skinned game that gets just enough right to keep my interest though.