There are a few battles and operations on the eastern front of World War II that are guaranteed to get some kind of reaction. The first, of course, is Stalingrad. The second is the opening of Operation Barbarossa. The “battle of Kursk” or really back-to-back operations Citadel (German offensive) and Kutusov (Russian couner-offensive) is the third in this trilogy of eastern front heavy hitters. Consequently, it’s no surprise that when Platoon Commander made the jump to World War II that it might land on Kursk. We are going to review Platoon Commander Deluxe: Kursk today on WargameHQ!
The Platoon Commander series is one that’s been to Korea, the far future, and is headed back to the near past. It is a malleable tactical land combat game that incorporates a lot of what you expect from such a title and only offers a few new twists.
This is intended to stand alongside games like Band of Brothers as a low-complexity broad-strokes quick-playing WW2 tactical game. It is well conceived, like Band of Brothers, and will certainly scratch that itch if someone has it.
Fire & Movement
Tactical wargames are made up of fire and movement at the granular level of a battle. In this case, we’re looking at fire and movement of the eponymous platoons and individual tank groups.
Units are provided with a basic movement point allowance that is consumed over the course of hex-to-hex movement by the terrain crossed. There are no surprises on the rolling hills and small cities of the eastern front. This is meat and potatoes terrains for wargamers including open, hills, cities, towns, rivers and forests.
The scale of the game ensures that the design doesn’t get literally or figuratively bogged in the minutiae of river crossings, currents, or other terrain related details. Instead, the game opts for the lightest possible rules overhead in all instances.
Line of Sight
A good example of where the game exerts this simplicity is in the way Line of Sight (LOS) is handled. Units draw a line from roughly center of the firing hext to the target hex. Things that make sense to block LOS like hills, trees, or cities do so. In cases where a hex-spine is used, so long as both sides of the LOS string don’t touch blocking terrain it is clear.
The end result is a visual check handles most LOS questions and a quick pull of a retractable badge holder is more than enough to settle any disputes. There’s no ASL-esque terrain depiction blocking on a bulging little hedge.
Like nearly everything Mark H. Walker has put his name on over the years this design is fond of rolling dice. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this method. I actually liked its implementation here only because it means gameplay is quick.
The attacker selects their lead attacking unit (using either Armor Piercing or High Explosive combat values depending on the target), subtracts the target’s armor value, and then applies any positive column shifts. Negative column shifts are applied last for terrain or other considerations like armor rating and a single d10 is rolled. This determines the number of potential hits which are then rolled individually.
In most cases, an attacker will score between 3 – 5 potential hits and a corresponding number of dice are rolled. This is compared against the unit’s morale. Rolling low is preferable in all cases in this game.
The game features cards that further streamline complicated systems that overburden other tactical WW2 systems. Cards represent opportunities for initiative swings, artillery bombardment, air strikes, and even inter-player event cancellation cards.
They add some dynamic elements to the game, but it’s pretty clear they add systems like bombardment and airpower without the overhead. Instead, the cards kind of feel tacked onto the design even though they’re a core element of gameplay that will be used each turn. I realize how dumb that sounds!
How can they be both CORE and TACKED-ON?
Essentially, the cards offer a design convenience. What’s not clear, however, is whether their presence is meaningful from a tactical level. After all, what you draw is random and a good string of cards is more powerful than solid tactical play. Consequently, the choices players make are always on the verge of being upset by random forces well outside their control.
I think cards increase the carnage of the game and this game most certainly has that hectic feel of movement and combat happening all the time. You’re challenged to make decisions quickly and react to movement and counter-movement tactics within the course of a single turn.
Focus & Aid Mechanics
The one unique feature here is the ability of players to place Aid (allows 1 or 2 re-rolls of morale when checking hits) and Focus (allows 1 or 2 re-rolls of combat or initiative).
This is a nice way to represent leadership capacity on the battlefield. It SHOULD provide players a bit of a thinker as to where to place these tokens and how to use them. Instead, the game’s simplicity often means that the choices are blatantly obvious to even casual players.
The other oddity here is that these chits don’t seem to be affected by event cards which might have made for more interesting questions of timing. I think my biggest concern is that these don’t feel like powerful tools. Instead, they feel very reactive with the exception of placing a focus marker on the turn record track try to re-roll initiative for the next turn. I was pretty underwhelmed by their influence on the game and while they tackle a little of what leaders in ASL provide, I had hoped they might strike a balance between something akin to the command points of Conflict of Heroes Series or the super-power of multi-unit activation in the Combat Commander Series.
Is it fun?
I had an okay time with the game. It’s a pretty straightforward affair and I don’t think it brings anything novel or new to the table in the way Combat Commander, Conflict of Heroes, Old School Tactical, or Band of Brothers did. I think this could be a matter of expectation and preference more than this simply being a “bad” or “sub-par” game.
The burden of any game to be fun isn’t just in the person across the table. There’s a load to be carried by the game itself. To that end, I don’t think this game offers players frequent enough difficult choices, interesting tactical situations, or a particularly compelling narrative when playing.
The oversimplification of equipment differences across Unit Specific Modifiers and morale just felt odd. Morale especially felt strange to me since it’s supposed to account for both equipment quality and crew training.
The game is solid. It has moments of fun, but not enough that I would argue it’s better than any of the many other predecessors with the same rules overhead or slightly more like Conflict of Heroes from Academy Games.
Instead, the game just sort of exists. Everything about the execution is pretty solid. The biggest gripe I have with the game is that it doesn’t seem to add anything new to tactical World War 2 games and it’s no so much easier than the jump to a meatier one might not be possible.
Morale & Hits
The Russian basic morale is a 3 in the game and the Germans is a 5. I don’t disagree necessarily with their relative ratings. That said, morale values are used to resolve hits.
The workhorse armor in this game is the T34/75 vs the Panzer IV. These tanks, by most accounts, were roughly equal and certainly equal enough in what Platoon Commander is trying to accomplish to justify the equal ratings. The Panzer IV is given a -1 Unit Specific Modifier (USM) to reflect the equipment’s actual performance on the battlefield.
Again, I’m okay so far.
The problem, however, is that though the Russians are likely to score 1 – 2 more successful potential hits on average than the Germans that’s only going to account for, at best 1 more landed hit. Here’s where my problem comes…
The German morale is 5 and we’re rolling D10s where the zero counts as a zero and not a 10. So, there is a 6 in 10 chance that the Germans brush off the potential hit. This is, if unmodified, 1/3rd better than the Russian morale. The -1 USM that results in 1 – 2 more hits (on average) ONLY helps the Russians if they can score greater than 1/3rd more potential hits than the Germans.
In effect, bad luck is amplified to a greater degree for the Russians than it is for the Germans and it’s not entirely clear why that’s the case in this game.
I don’t think this is a bad decision necessarily. The reasoning didn’t land with me and given the already broad strokes the game uses, why not make the morale equal in more of the scenarios? After all, the Germans were on the offensive in Citadel. The Russians had the Germans on the run in two counter-offensives during what generally constitutes the Kursk salient fighting.
There is a place for this game on your shelf if you are keen to try a World War II tactical wargame and you need something light. So many of the complicated and in the weeds details of other similar games are missing. That’s a huge boon if you’re keen to introduce your love of World War II tactical gaming to a friend.
The components, game, design, and decisions are solid in the context of what they are.
For a tactical World War II gamer who has played and enjoyed Band of Brothers, Old School Tactical, Conflict of Heroes, Combat Commander, Tactical Combat Series, Panzer Grenadier, Combat Infantry, or any of the other litany of this ilk…you’ve played this game and you’ve probably played one with only a little more overhead and a lot more payoff.
Consequently, I just didn’t find the game all that engaging. It has some great out of the box appeal. You can get it to the table quickly, learn and teach it, and for the first 5 or 6 plays…the game holds together well.
After you repeat a scenario or two a few times, or analyze how the sausage is made in the game…it starts to lose its shine.