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Subject: Why I've given up on Combat Commander after 17 plays rss

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Boots
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Back in my teenage years I had a habit of buying monster games and never playing them. It had never dawned on me that the storage for World in Flames' 6000+ counters was a prerequisite to actually playing the game, so it languished on a shelf next to Victory and Columbia Games' Eurofront. After getting hooked on WWII video games (enough to write an honours thesis on them), eventually I got into Flames of War, which I played for a few years. By this time I was over grand strategic, and pretty hooked on tactical games. Eventually Flames stopped interesting me, and I started to look at tactical hex-based games.

The first one that caught my eye was ASL. I'd been aware of it for at least 10 years by this point, but had always been turned off by the size of the rulebook. I picked up the starter kits and played through them, and before long was moving up to the full rules. Then I hit a bit of a plateau where rapidly-increasing rules overhead and play length overtook fun, and it was then I bought Combat Commander: Europe. I tell you all of this so you understand where I'm coming from, and why my opinions on CC:E are what they are.

CC:E was not my first choice for a couple of reasons. The main one was that there were no tanks - I felt I would miss them. ASL also appeared more comprehensive, and the starter kit was cheaper. In practise, I didn't miss the tanks, and there were a few things Combat Commander did so well that I thought for a while it would eclipse ASL for me. This is the story of how it didn't quite manage it. My journey through CC:E started off really well, so too my review will start with the good parts.

The good
CC:E has a lot going for it, and it was its innovative features that grabbed me and didn't let go for the first ten games. The single most impressive addition it makes to the genre, and one I wish every wargame could somehow have retrofitted, is its random scenario generator. It creates balanced and fun scenarios quickly from scratch, and every step of the way you can decide to simply choose a component of the scenario rather than allow fate to do so, without unbalancing the game. It lets you choose and customise your forces, and decide through those choices whether you will attack or defend. The game is effectively infinitely replayable.

The RSG works because of the second major innovation in the game - the extremely easy to use and easy to read scenario information sheet. The RSG interacts with the main piece of this, which is the tug-of-war style victory point track. Whenever you get a VP, your opponent loses one, and vice versa. The defender is always the person starting with the VP track on their side, and the number of VPs acts as a cushion for inferior forces - and it works.

The scenario tracking sheet also contains another really innovative device - the time track. Time in CC:E is very fluid - it advances in fits and starts. Sometimes you will get a lot done between time triggers, other times you will get almost nothing done. The game also doesn't end at a set time - it just has an increasing chance to end after a certain number of time triggers. This mechanism creates an incredible level of suspense, though it also generates some gamey tactics (which I don't necessarily have a problem with) - you often find yourself taking lots of shot that will do nothing just to hopefully trigger a time advance (which occurs on the play of certain cards, or when a deck runs out of cards). Regardless, it's really clever. Reinforcements are also tied to the time track, and come on when the time counter hits them.

I also like the command range of individual leaders - it's neat being able to command a lot of troops with one guy, and it saves on order cards (which is an important facet of the game). But the glow of these two startling innovations and the slightly different take on command when compared to ASL faded pretty quickly...

The bad
After a while, a number of things just started to get to me. The major one was the card-driven nature of the game. I understand that it's meant to model chaos, but that's just the problem - nothing you do really changes the way the chaos model works. As
Sean McCormick
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is fond of saying, the chaos model is flat. What he means is that the board situation has no bearing on the cards you draw. You are as likely to draw a fire card when you have an SMG team in a building next to an enemy team, as you are at the start of the game when you need move cards. You can only get into the very deadly Close Combat with an advance card, but being ready to use one doesn't add to your chance of generating one. For all the hard tactical choices you need to make with your hand, it just feels completely disconnected from the board game in front of you.

There's another aspect of the game that the cards' bizarre chaos model generates - unlike ASL, CC:E has no memory. Sometimes you can make wire pop up in a hex that your opponent moved into this turn - I have no problem with that, as it adds a layer of meaningful decisions - when to use it, which hex to use it in, whether to hang onto it or discard it, etc. But when wire, or a fire, randomly hits a hex far away from the main action, completely at random, it feels... stupid. In ASL, if I bombard soemthing, it has a chance to catch fire or collapse. There's a causal relationship between my actions and the board's state. In CC:E, there' just weird stuff happening all over the place. Fanboys of the game will claim that this is "realistic". I don't give two hoots about "realism". My complaint here is that my actions have a more limited effect on the game state than I would like.

The board game itself also feel stunted. Because you have a god's-eye view of the tactical situation, I constantly find I chafe at my inability to impel my troops to an appropriate action. The board game, observed on its own, moves in fits and starts, and grinds to a halt at the most interesting moment - when you're right next to each other.

The way morale and command bonuses work is also less than satisfactory. Cover and command bonuses add directly to morale. Leaders' can affect each other with their command bonuses, and they command bonuses stack. Firegroups, on the other hand, only get +1 firepower per extra unit firing. The result is killstacks that cannot be killed, because they get cover bonuses as well as command bonuses. The only way to knock them off is another killstack. Considering how hard it is to kill anything with ranged fire, in my experience the game grinds to a halt while you wait for an advance card.

And that's my central complaint about the game. The card/deck management aspect of the game is fairly well developed, and the board game aspect is... well, OK. But they don't mesh well at all. At any time, you're really only playing one of the two of them, and you're usually playing a fairly irritating hand management game. It's not the swift fire-and-manuever game I was looking for. The thing is, it's the map that makes the game fall apart. If you couldn't see the whole tactical situation, the behaviour of your troops might make sense. It's the fact that they're right next to each other and refusing to do anything that makes me scratch my head in frustration. And that's the crux of this game. I wish the designer had made two separate games out of the material from CC:E, because this one doesn't feel integrated at all.

Conclusions
I told you all that guff at the beginning so you can see where I'm coming from. Obviously I don't shy away from complexity, even if at times I certainly have. I bought World in Flames and I chose ASL over other WWII tactical offerings despite its complexity. I'm also interested enough in WWII to play a fair few wargames, but it's not the "realism" factor that gets me - I played Flames of War in preference to the grand strategic games I'd owned for years. What I'm looking for is a game with a fair bit of depth, internal consistency and a lot of meaningful decisions.

CC:E has all of these things - but only ever one at a time. Becausew it ebbs and flows so much, it's clunky and frustrating to play. And it fails on one aspect above all - it is not an internally consistent gaming experience. It's all over the shop, because of its wonky chaos model. Since playing CC:E, I've had the opportunity to play Up Front, and between Up Front and ASL, I can see CC:E's lineage. The problem is that I'd rather play Up Front or ASL every time. The former is a better card game that models the chaos of CC:E without the dissonance created by the relationship between your hand and your counters on the board. The latter is a much deeper board gaming experience.

I acknowledge that most tactical wargamers can't stand ASL, and that most of CC:E's fans migrated up the complexity chain towards CC:E, and stopped when they reached their own personal sweet spot between complexity and fun. As a result, this review is probably useless to anyone who doesn't want the complexity of ASL. I guess if you think about it as being less complex than ASL but more rewarding than Memoir '44, it's a good choice for people who want more depth but don't want to sink into the addictive quagmire of ASL. That's a legitimate position to be in! CC:E might be for you., and all power to you.

To sum up, Chad Jensen has certainly added some really great innovations - the Random Scenario Generator and the really clever VP track and time track make this really worth playing at least once, just to watch them work. I hear his Fighting Formations game rules do some similar things with impulse and initiative tracks, so I might give them a go one of these days. But in the end, if I wanted the chaos of the battlefield (and PTSD), I'd join the army. If I wanted a fun tactical gaming experience, I'd choose something else.

A few edits for clarification and to fix typos...
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Mark Buetow
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You tried it. You gave it a decent run and you didn't like it. While I disagree with your conclusions, ultimately that's a matter of our tastes differing. I won't try to persuade you to like something that you don't but I do appreciate your outlining your experience and reasons for not preferring CC in the end. That's a good review that can say why you don't like and what you don't like about it without making it a universal accusation against the game.


Having said that, I'll pick one nit...

Boots01 wrote:

Leaders can affect each other with their command bonuses, and they stack.


That's incorrect. Leaders don't affect each other either by their leader bonuses. Those bonuses DO stack for other units in a hex with more than one leader but that is generally poor play to have multiple leaders in the same hex.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts!
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Boots
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Thanks for the comments! I try to only review games I'm ambivalent about, rather than add to the glowing chorus on games I like. Hence why I haven't reviewed any of my top ten for gameplay (though I did review the rulebook for ASL itself).

You're completely right about leaders not affecting each other, but the stacking bonuses is what I'm talking about. I can see an argument that it restricts your ability to control your troops and makes some juicy targets, but it also limits the number of order cards you need to produce effective results on the board, and create effective firegroups. I'm ready to be shown to be wrong though - 17 plays is enough to make critical judgements but not enough to fully explore a game of this depth. It is even possible that play against more experienced opponents would change my mind about some of my criticisms, though probably not about the game as a whole.
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David Lanphear
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Quote:
Leaders can affect each other with their command bonuses, and they stack.


Leaders never affect another leader.

But if you meant that all leaders in a hex affect all squads, teams and non-ordnance weapons in the hex with them, then yes that is true.

Killer stack can only be killed by another killer stack, (not sure what you mean by a killer stack, but I'll add) or a determined hero armed with a flamethrower and someone who has at least a move card to get there and a couple fire cards to go with it. Fire negates all cover. Of course it would certainly help that hero to close with this killer stack, if you had been able to draw out their fire by a prior movement order so the killer stack couldn't fire on this advancing matchstick.

One thing I took from your review is that you noted that you seem to get into positions and then felt frustrated that you couldn't draw the right card to take advantage of the position. I'd try the approach of having the right cards to be able to get into position (move/recover or advance) and having the cards to fire (fire order with hand grenade, markmanship etc. actions) or melee (another advance and some ambush actions) in hand before committing yourself to an assualt.

It's when after all this careful planning, movement and attack and my attack roll is 1 1 that I am frustrated At that time then heck yes I am praying for the right cards to draw, but most likely so is my opponent and it becomes a race to see who will be able to discard and draw most successfully. That isn't frustrating to me, that is more akin to peeing in my pants with excitement without the actual peeing. Your mileage may vary.

I also agree with Mark in that your review while giving CC a thumbsdown was thought out and presented well. In the end it comes down to "Are you having fun?" After all that's why we do this isn't it? As for me I'm having a blast playing a game against people who enjoy as much as I do. Not sure why, but that's probably the reason I haven't written a review yet.



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Scott Muldoon (silentdibs)
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I just want to pull out and reinforce these salient points from your review, since they mesh nearly perfectly with my own experiences. Like you, I had a torrid affair with CC, one that for me ended in a [re]turn to ASL.

It's not that CC doesn't have some amazing qualities, as the OP points out. It's that they are not enough to overcome the negative play experiences that aspects of the system consistently generate.

Boots01 wrote:
The single most impressive addition it makes to the genre, and one I wish every wargame could somehow have retrofitted, is its random scenario generator.
...
Time in CC:E is very fluid - it advances in fits and starts. Sometimes you will get a lot done between time triggers, other times you will get almost nothing done. The game also doesn't end at a set time - it just has an increasing chance to ending.
...
But the glow of these two startling innovations and the slightly different take on command when compared to ASL faded pretty quickly...
...
As [seanmac] is fond of saying, the chaos model is flat.
...
In ASL, if I bombard soemthing, it has a chance to catch fire or collapse. There's a causal relationship between my actions and the board's state. In CC:E, there' just weird stuff happening all over the place.

And to me, this is the kicker:

Quote:
I've had the opportunity to play Up Front, and between Up Front and ASL, I can see CC:E's lineage. The problem is that I'd rather play Up Front or ASL every time.

Amen, brother.
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StocktonDave wrote:
One thing I took from your review is that you noted that you seem to get into positions and then felt frustrated that you couldn't draw the right card to take advantage of the position. I'd try the approach of having the right cards to be able to get into position (move/recover or advance) and having the cards to fire (fire order with hand grenade, markmanship etc. actions) or melee (another advance and some ambush actions) in hand before committing yourself to an assualt.

It's when after all this careful planning, movement and attack and my attack roll is 1 1 that I am frustrated :) At that time then heck yes I am praying for the right cards to draw, but most likely so is my opponent and it becomes a race to see who will be able to discard and draw most successfully. That isn't frustrating to me, that is more akin to peeing in my pants with excitement without the actual peeing. Your mileage may vary. :)


That's certainly part of the hand management aspect of the game. I play a lot of card games in which hand management is essential - I don't log plays of the Game of Thrones LCG, but I've built five or six successful decks. I love Sentinels of the Multiverse and Race for the Galaxy is the only game I've got close to 100 logged plays and one of only two I rate a ten.

Yet CC:E constantly annoys me. You need too many cards for a successful attack, and you ALSO need cards for other things - actions, opportunity fire, etc. etc. etc. It's all very well to build the perfect hand before committing, but then you only get one shot, and you're still next to the enemy and back to the (heh) drawing board if you roll that snake eyes.

I take the criticism, and acknowledge that my hand management in CC:E is sub-par. For me as an impatient gamer, CC:E's hand management mechanisms aren't up to the challenge. You can't cycle fast enough nor draw fast enough to make the game play as fluidly as I would like.
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Don Smith
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Combat Commander hits the sweet spot for me insofar as creating an exciting tactical WWII game with an emphasis on "decision-making under uncertainty".

It is a game, to me, not necessarily a "simulation", yet it captures, better than any other game I have played, the "feel", "stress" and "tension" of tactical WWII infantry combat.

I rate it a 10 for these reasons but can see that others might see the uncertainty aspects generated by the cards as simply "random".

I, for one, could never imagine playing ASL again - it had its time.

Sorry you didn't like this brilliant design.

PS Been wargaming since the 70's
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Thanks for the well thought-out review.
I like CC:E and P and am even one of those wierdos that play it solo. shake

I like that it gives me a different experience to ASL (which I'm slowly getting in to), and your right Up Front is just a great game.

For the moment though CC:E will continue to have a spot in my collection, but who knows what the future will hold.
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David Lanphear
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Don Smith wrote:
Combat Commander hits the sweet spot for me insofar as creating an exciting tactical WWII game with an emphasis on "decision-making under uncertainty".

That hits the mark pretty close to why I like it.
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I do think there is a danger in the notion that you can't do what you want if you don't have the cards. The key in CC is to do to great effect what the cards allow you to do. In other words, the game isn't about planning something and then waiting for the cards to show up. It's about drawing cards and asking what you can do with your men with those particular cards. Those are not entirely exclusive (we DO save up Ambushes, after all!) but it's much more of the latter than the former. But if you assume it's the former, it does become a frustrating game.

Perhaps some anecdotal proof of this is how often a new player discards compared to a seasoned player.

Again, legit thoughts and they have sparked a good discussion.
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Boots01 wrote:
I acknowledge that most tactical wargamers can't stand ASL...

They can't? Seems to me like it gets more love than any other tactical system out there.
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Boots01 wrote:
You're completely right about leaders not affecting each other, but the stacking bonuses is what I'm talking about. I can see an argument that it restricts your ability to control your troops and makes some juicy targets, but it also limits the number of order cards you need to produce effective results on the board, and create effective firegroups. I'm ready to be shown to be wrong though - 17 plays is enough to make critical judgements but not enough to fully explore a game of this depth. It is even possible that play against more experienced opponents would change my mind about some of my criticisms, though probably not about the game as a whole.

Good review! While I disagree with your opinion of the game you do a good job of explaining where you are coming from and why you feel the way you do. I have played this game around 60 or so times and every time someone has stacked leaders like this in the beginning, I have stomped them. The only time it is a viable tactic is when you get reinforcements and the leader is the best choice and there is nothing better to do with him than stack him redundantly on a fire stack. And even then, I value my tactical flexibility too much to do this frequently.

On a related note, I did not come from the ASL side of things but I worked my way up from the Memoir side of "wargaming". My experience playing CC:E against players who are more familiar with ASL is that the ASL players don't seem to value creating real options on the battlefield as much as the non-ASL players I have played CC:E with. By this I mean that ASL players don't seem to purposefully create and value flexibility as much as they set specific goals and focus on working towards those goals. They discard more often and seem to spend more time looking for specific things. ASL players also tend to be far better at setting up the board at the beginning and are brutally effective when things go the way they planned. Having never played ASL, I assume that those behaviors are inherent in the way that game is played because I can usually tell pretty quickly the gaming background of my opponent based on how they approach CC:E.
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Thanks for the thoughtful review.
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EventHorizon wrote:
On a related note, I did not come from the ASL side of things but I worked my way up from the Memoir side of "wargaming". My experience playing CC:E against players who are more familiar with ASL is that the ASL players don't seem to value creating real options on the battlefield as much as the non-ASL players I have played CC:E with. By this I mean that ASL players don't seem to purposefully create and value flexibility as much as they set specific goals and focus on working towards those goals. They discard more often and seem to spend more time looking for specific things. ASL players also tend to be far better at setting up the board at the beginning and are brutally effective when things go the way they planned. Having never played ASL, I assume that those behaviors are inherent in the way that game is played because I can usually tell pretty quickly the gaming background of my opponent based on how they approach CC:E.


That's a really interesting observation. Manuevering for fire is a key part of ASL, and if you don't plan ahead you just get destroyed. Your read on the situation would go a long way to explaining why I don't like CC...

It also dovetails neatly with my major problem in Twilight IMperium (of all games) in that I'm not particularly good at building a flexible tableau there either - and that's a key component of that game too.

I'd be interested to see if other ASLers had a similar response to CC.
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Scott Muldoon (silentdibs)
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EventHorizon wrote:
On a related note, I did not come from the ASL side of things but I worked my way up from the Memoir side of "wargaming". My experience playing CC:E against players who are more familiar with ASL is that the ASL players don't seem to value creating real options on the battlefield as much as the non-ASL players I have played CC:E with. By this I mean that ASL players don't seem to purposefully create and value flexibility as much as they set specific goals and focus on working towards those goals. They discard more often and seem to spend more time looking for specific things. ASL players also tend to be far better at setting up the board at the beginning and are brutally effective when things go the way they planned. Having never played ASL, I assume that those behaviors are inherent in the way that game is played because I can usually tell pretty quickly the gaming background of my opponent based on how they approach CC:E.

I think any ASLer worth his salt would disagree. Things go wrong in ASL all the time, and one of the marks of an excellent player is their ability to quickly assess and reassess the situation as it changes, quite rapidly in my experience. I don't doubt that an ASLer's approach to CC their first couple times out would be different than other players' experiences, but flexibility wouldn't be in short supply. CC has many surface similarities to ASL that mask fundamental and vast differences in design approach that can easily trap the unwary -- but critical thinking and strategic planning are not among them.
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sdiberar wrote:
I think any ASLer worth his salt would disagree. Things go wrong in ASL all the time, and one of the marks of an excellent player is their ability to quickly assess and reassess the situation as it changes, quite rapidly in my experience.


Things go wrong in very different ways - the rout rules are more complex, and the different levels of morale damage (pinned, broken, DM'ed) require a very different approach,e specially around the play of leaders.

But having played a few games against
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, who's the only non-American Grofaz (champion at ASLOK, the biggest ASL tournament in the US), I can certainly attest that at very high levels of play, ASL players are very tactically flexible... in ASL terms.

sdiberar wrote:
I don't doubt that an ASLer's approach to CC their first couple times out would be different than other players' experiences, but flexibility wouldn't be in short supply. CC has many surface similarities to ASL that mask fundamental and vast differences in design approach that can easily trap the unwary -- but critical thinking and strategic planning are not among them.


I think this is the crux of it - the surface similarities belie the very different workings of the two game engines. It's very easy to assume that individual chits behave similarly,e specially as there is much terminology in common between the two games.
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Harald Torvatn
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Boots01 wrote:


I'd be interested to see if other ASLers had a similar response to CC.

I am an ASLer, and I love combat Commander too.

I dont find chaos to be a very prominent factor in playin Combat Commander. Rather I find a game which rewards planning, with a little chaos sprinkled on top of it.
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Michael Debije
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Nice review, I just disagree with you. I guess that's why ASL and CC can both prosper!
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Sphere wrote:
Boots01 wrote:
I acknowledge that most tactical wargamers can't stand ASL...

They can't? Seems to me like it gets more love than any other tactical system out there.


I think ASLers are possibly more vocal in their support for the game than those who like other systems.

Strangely I'm the direct opposite to the OP, having played CC, experimented with ASL and gone back to CC.

If anyone is sufficiently convinced by his arguments to give ASL a go, I have my collection currently for sale at a very reasonable price on BGG marketplace whistle
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Many thanks for your review; it’s well written and contains a number of good insights. I pretty much agree with the arguments you make. However, I enjoy playing all Combat Commander games. To be honest, I didn’t want to like the games this much as I’m more interested in early modern warfare. The nice thing about Combat Commander scenarios is that they aren't just exciting and fun but easy to set up and can be played in two hours or less. That's time well spent. When I have more time in my hands I tend to play something else.
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R Larsen
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Thank you for an excellent review, Boots.
I completely agree. While CC:E looked interesting, what quickly made me hate it, was the constant card shuffling and drawing - it simply felt like work, and not like playing. I will anytime prefer playing ASL.
It is (to me) just more fun, to set out a plan and go for it, than to sit and wait for something random to maybe become possible. Neither game is in any way realistic, ASL is just that more fun.
By the way, I am not saying these games necessarily have to be compared, its just the only tactical WWII games I know.
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RLarsen wrote:
Neither game is in any way realistic


This is a bit harsh. I’m sure both games are realistic in some ways.
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I love the game but respect your opinion. I have eurogamers try to tell me how much I will love their games at times, and it just doesnt fit me, just like CCE doesnt fit for you. 17 games is a good healthy try though
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Thanks everyone for the kind comments; I made a conscious effort to acknowledge opposing viewpoints and make sure I gave credit where credit was due, I'm glad you think it paid off.

ldsdbomber wrote:
I found this review very useful, and I liked the comparison to Up front, my feeling though is that UF is supposed to be a lot more of a pain in the ass to learn the rules, would you say that's fair? On the other hand, it's not the first time I've heard the cardplay in UF is more integral to the game because of the lack of a physical board. And it plays much quicker, from what I hear?


I have found it takes longer to play than CC:E, and while the rules aren't particularly complicated,there are two barriers to learning. The first is relative range - it's a central concept and it's how the game abstracts a board, but it's not particularly intuitive until about halfway through your first game.

The second impediment is the cards - after CC:E, you'll find them... lacking... in graphic design. There are a lot of red and black numbers and odd sets of letters and it will make no sense for the first little while, but as you'll play you'll start to see it slot together.

If for no other reason, it's worth playing as a point of comparison to CC:E.
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Russ Williams
Poland
Wrocław
Dolny Śląsk
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Enjoyable review with interesting food for thought.

I guess I can only say that much of what you say about CC seems true, but it doesn't bother me like it bothers you.

PS: Yes, you should try Fighting Formations. I think you'll find most of what disenchanted you in CC is not present in FF. (If only FF had a random scenario generator!)
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