‘Saving Private Ryan’ was released a staggering 20 years ago this year and I clearly remember watching the film for the very first time. I remember walking out of the cinema slowly with a gob that was no doubt fully agape and a face painted with an expression of shock-and-awe.
I distinctly remember pausing outside the lobby before turning around and going straight back in to watch it again. I’d never done that before and nor have I since with any other film.
Similar to the ‘Band of Brothers’ mini-series released a few years later by HBO, these titles were the antithesis of the stereotypical 1960’s and ‘70’s clichéd war movies with actors who clutched at chests with invisible wounds and pirouetted with theatrical aplomb.
Perhaps for the first time, in 1998 members of the public received the most face-slappingly realistic, visceral, shocking and genuinely educational Hollywood insight into how incredibly brave men fighting a global conflict would’ve fallen in the then fight for our now decaying freedoms we sometimes experience within society.
A squad-level card-driven tactical war game focusing on small arms combat and devoid of vehicle encounters, Combat Commander: Mediterranean from GMT and designer Chad Jenson, is the first big box expansion in the award-winning Combat Commander series with the base game, ‘Combat Commander: Europe’, currently in its third printing and which you’ll need in order to play.
Combat Commander: Mediterranean - The Game
Combat Commander: Mediterranean provides more of the same in terms of gameplay which, for this gamer at least, is evocative of the aforementioned Hollywood titles such is the level of authenticity and feeling of grit which gamers will find inside the box.
In Mediterranean, visually homogenous with that of its predecessor, you take command of either the baddies, represented here by an Italian ‘Fate Deck’ (insert “boo” >here<) with accompanying small chits in the form of infantry, NCO’s and weapons, or the goodies (my disappointment when Tim Brooke-Taylor failed to emerge from the box!) in the form of both British and Commonwealth (“… who do you think you are kidding Mr, Mussolini…”) and French Fate Decks – again, with their respective chits and the like. But you’ll also be using armies and Fate Decks from the base game throughout this expansion, too.
And it’s the aforementioned “Fate Decks” that continue to not only drive the game mechanically in the form of Actions or Orders that can be issued from your hand of cards (hand sizes differ depending on the ‘posture’ of each side in a given scenario; attacking, defending, or recon) but also dynamically as random battlefield events can occur when the cards are played.
These events continue to unfold as they did within the base game, including such circumstance as hero’s appearing on the battlefield to bolster morale, weapons breaking after being fired, units suddenly being eliminated or subdued – perhaps from implied sniper fire or the heavy psychological burden of being in combat – to fire’s suddenly breaking out from an errant artillery shells, all of which drive a thematically rich narrative to accompany the background of each scenario, or ‘Situation Report’ as they’re conveyed in one of the games two rule books.
As with the base game, cleverly, it’s the Fate Deck cards that also do away with any physical dice being needed in the game as, whenever a die roll is needed, a card from the deck is simply drawn and the dice symbols printed on the cards themselves are used, with the aforementioned events often being triggered in consequence.
As with many war games, Combat Commander: Mediterranean finds battlefields continuing to be represented by hex-based maps printed on paper rather than being mounted on card but again here with a relatively large scale of one hex being around 30 metres squared, resulting in each encounter being across an area of only a few hundred metres. Given the use of paper maps, it’s worth noting that I’d certainly recommend gamers go to the additional cost of buying separate clear Perspex sheets to accommodate the game, something to consider if not done so already with the base game.
The art style of the maps is identical to Combat Commander: Europe and took a while to originally get used to - it’s fair to say I hated the graphic design when I first played the game; entirely minimalistic and primary without a nod to geomorphicism nor photorealism as seen in some other tactical war games. However, with large, clear alpha-numeric designation to each hex, clear centre dots for drawing line of sight and landscape features such as light and heavy cover, roads, buildings and hills being incredibly easy to discern, well, I’m now entirely sold on the approach which has well and truly proven itself on the table. Brilliant.
The rule book, version 1.1 as it still stands, is both accessible and printed in full colour, and the designer has taken effort to be both precise and succinct with his rule set in order to reduce ambiguity during gameplay – and from which some other publishers could take note – and which allows the rule book to be read in relative quick measure.
I will note, however, with the Combat Commander rule book, gamers will find themselves needing to jump right in at the relative deep end if playing after a break of several months in order to mitigate rules amnesia or, perhaps, if this is their first encounter with the series, needing to read the rule book almost cover to cover prior to their first game. This is contrary, say, to the likes of Academy Games’ ‘Conflict of Heroes’ series, which introduces gamers to rule mechanics piecemeal. But, perhaps more on that in another review.
As a slight aside, the designer has also peppered his rule book with quotes which not only creates thematic interlude, but sombre consumption of what is essentially that of a paper and card battlefield simulation of brave men desperate to kill each other using the latest technology before they themselves get killed: “Self and three men left. It can’t be much longer. Good-bye and cheerio.” I found such content incredibly moving and indeed still do so as I write.
Now, onto the chits, or counters, representing the various unit types in the game, which are plentiful, tiny and of relative low quality with squared corners rather than rounded and which I found to be thin and often difficult to pick up during gameplay (I refuse to use tweezers when playing board games!). The art design again reflects the base game and continues to be effective and very functional.
The text on some of the chits continues to be, however, painfully small and needlessly so and which only hinders enjoyment, especially perhaps a consideration for more mature gamers or those with less than perfect 20-20 vision.
In this regard, I’ve gone out and purchased some separate generic plastic fire and smoke counters which I personally feel not only facilitates some of the games administration, but also looks pretty good, too.
Units on the chits continue to be represented by actual printed military figures for ease of reference with four individuals representing a 10-man squad, two individuals representing a five-man team, and lone individuals representing NCO’s and hero’s. Countless other even smaller chits also represent light weapons and smoke and the like.
A bugbear is many of those smaller chits are double-sided, meaning different equipment or such like is printed on both sides. The result being you’ll often find yourself rummaging for the correct counter which is inconvenient and can unfortunately affect the flow of the game.
With Combat Commander: Mediterranean, various paths to victory continue to exist and, contrary to Rommel’s “… go find the enemy and kill it” advice, MDK’ing the enemy isn’t always the tactically correct choice to make. An oblong (why don’t we ever see that word anymore…?) track display from the base game printed on thin card stock tracks casualties, objectives, time and victory points any of which could spell either victory of defeat if not managed well during the course of the combat.
I really enjoy how artillery is modelled in this game, with radio chits (radio’s can “break” in-game) representing various battery and shell sizes and which is often crucial to deployed strategies. Utilising spotting rounds with fire for effect barrages often deviating from their intended coordinates adds not only thematic flavour but a sense of real anticipation to fire missions and the need to carefully order battlefield NCO’s who act as spotters for the off-board and unseen big guns.
I also really appreciate too, in this simulation of fierce WW2 combat, how units are generally harder to break and then kill than in other games. With “broken” sides to unit chits reflecting sometimes stronger morale stats, this models how fewer men represent smaller targets and ultimately being harder to entirely eliminate. It takes a bit of getting used to, but when enemy units eventually fall to sustained fire a genuine sense of accomplishment flows over the gamer and kudos, again, to the design.
The impressive narrative driven by the various Fate Decks further results in the small card stock chits on your table being seen as actual living, breathing, fighting, desperate men for whom you feel a real responsibility; a feeling of genuine connectivness with battles won on skill and tactics and choice in the wanton preservation of your small band of brothers.
Being more of the same, and which is a very good thing, the ‘Combat Commander: Mediterranean’ expansion continues to be a thematically rich, dynamic, dramatic, realistic, event-driven experience which accurately depicts encounters in the often unseen Mediterranean theatre as part of a global world war that followed the war to end all wars. Scenarios are sufficiently different with Fate Decks modelled to represent national character which is more than sufficient to continue to challenge a war gamer’s tactical abilities for endless hours.
The option to create your own random scenarios with units costs being provided also results in strong value for money with replay-ability guaranteed.
In closing, some poor production and design choices represented by some tiny counters, along with some poor component quality, impedes what should be a far higher final score and which detracts slightly from a combat simulation that otherwise oozes refinement, authenticity and which comes with an accessible rule set and gameplay experience that’s right up there with the very best of them.