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Decade Feature – 2000: Combat Mission: Beyond Overlord

November 15th, 2009 by Bruce G · 10 Comments · Battlefront, Feature:Decade, Wargames

What this is about.

When I was in grade school, I had a set of painted toy soldiers. While my friends had the anonymous green plastic bazooka guys that you could buy at that time, I had dozens of colorful Polish toy soldiers obtained on multiple family trips back to Poland, and each time we went I expanded my collection. They were the first choice whenever we conducted our sixth-grade field maneuvers, and while I no longer remember the rules we invented to regulate the campaigns we fought for control of my parents’ backyard, I still remember how the soldiers looked, all lined up for battle, dug in for cover in the azalea patch, frozen in various poses struck to capture our adolescent imaginations. After all, that was the whole point.

When I heard about Combat Mission for the first time, I half imagined that some veteran of my lawn wars was responsible for reviving my childhood memories. But really, didn’t every wargamer who grew up with early personal computers imagine eventually recreating these kinds of full-sized computer Stalingrads, complete with incredibly detailed StuG IIIs and Pioneers? At a time when the best computer wargames were still trying to figure out how to visually recreate a cardboard square with an X drawn on it, everyone had visions of panzergrenadiers supported by tank platoons, fighting over photo-realistic terrain, simulating battles I had spent years reading about in my long-since-lost spare time.

If you play Combat Mission now with a certain eye, it looks almost silly, like a ping-pong table with ridiculously cartoonish infantrymen: Drinky Crow with machine guns. To the end of the series, infantry never looked right. But oh boy, the tanks looked fabulous. At least from where I was standing. And the whole series always worked best when it was tank-vs-tank. I hated the infantry-vs-infantry scenarios. Didn’t you? Admit it: you wanted some cat-and-mouse Pz IV-vs-Sherman. When Combat Mission: Barbarossa to Berlin came out, it was all about Tiger-vs-T34. Don’t tell me it wasn’t. I still remember the PBEM game where my Tiger I picked off three of my friend’s T-34’s from a hull-down ridge position. All on the same turn. That was, I am not joking, eight years ago. I can still picture that replay.


The turn-based, simultaneous resolution system was a revelation for one reason: unlimited replay with free camera. With that, you could go looking for every story in a game. How come that enemy breakthrough didn’t pan out? Turns out your little 37mm AT gun in the brush stopped the lead tank, then the rest of his armor bunched up behind … and then your own tanks arrived. It was your AT gun’s third shot. The first two missed. An artillery fire mission took him out right afterward. But that one shot changed everything. And you watched in twenty times from every angle possible, because that was the best story of the game.

I remember the negotiation I had with Computer Gaming World just before the game came out. Even in those days, page count was tight, and as the “wargame review guy” I felt a bit sheepish saying this was going to be so big, it needed a two-page review. Who gave hardcore wargames two-page reviews? My editor at the time, Ken Brown, was one of the best I’ve ever had, and not because he immediately told me I could have the space if I felt the game was that important. We ended up doing two pages of strategy tips as well, thanks to Ken, and Jeff Green. My inaugural genre column for the magazine, “Inside Wargaming,” was entitled: “Combat Mission Kills Wargaming: Pow. Dead. No Foolin’.” I just couldn’t imagine anyone wanting to play a hex game afterward. I mean, hexes and NATO symbols? For serious?

But looking at the games released after Combat Mission: Beyond Overlord, it seems like nobody wanted to take the idea any further. The number of copy-cat resource-gathering real-time strategy games released within five years of Dune II was indeed amazing, but here we are nine years after CMBO and the only game I can think of that even came close to trying the same thing was Panzer Command. And that game got the whole premise wrong. Guys, it’s about the individual dudes. Giving orders to a platoon doesn’t work for me. I might as well drag-select. I’m dying to know what happens to *that guy.* Fine, I can’t level up his Dexterity. But halfway through the game, I’m treating him kind of like a character in an RPG. An RPG with 88mm guns.

I wrote once that the awful, awful computer game criminally titled Squad Leader could have gotten decent reviews had it just had reasonable line-of-sight rules and believable animations. The latter is essential if you want to help people build stories in their heads. The toy soldiers in my parents’ backyard had assault rifles, machine guns, anti-tank weapons, and radios, but the whole point was that they were unique and individual. If you give players a hook, they will hang themselves on it every time.

Bill Trotter wrote a great review of the game for PC Gamer, which incorporated this storytelling aspect into the review itself, by including a sidebar which purported to give a snapshot of Tiger ace Michael Wittman being simulated by CMBO, with screenshots and a little narrative. I was so jealous. How perfect is that? The whole game is about telling stories, and he did a little one in his review. He thought of it and I didn’t, which is why he is Bill Trotter. But I think we both got what made the game special. Just like thousands of wargamers did.


I still have a copy of a late beta of CMBO, along with the CD mailer it came in, postmarked April 2000 with a return address of Charles Moylan’s house. I ran across it the other day, in fact, while looking for something else. It followed me through two moves, one across the country, and I don’t think that was necessarily on purpose. But something about this whole series seemed like a promise of game which exploited gamers’ imaginations because they understood how they worked. When I first heard about the game, I thought, “That’s so obvious!” And it was, but the game would live or die on the execution, and for the most part — even with the goofy infantry — Combat Mission nailed it. Battlefront gets a ton of credit for that, and they did a nice job for two subsequent releases. Then it was like they totally forgot what the point was with Combat Mission: Shock Force. But that’s another article.

I still have those painted toy soldiers, all packed in boxes in my parents’ attic. But I’m no longer sure there are many people left who understand why I loved them so much.

Now on to 2001.


10 Comments so far ↓

  • Quinten

    This reminds me of why I loved Men of War. Even though Men of War is too difficult, I love the feeling of the individual soldier and his story. In the missions where I only got three or four guys, I wanted my men to survive and to be heroes. It would almost hurt to have to slaughter many of my own soldiers in the soviet missions just to capture one objective. This is my one problem with Close Combat: I never feel like the soldiers are more than just pawns.
    Combat Mission sounds great if this is the case, and I have a copy of Barbarossa to Berlin. I should ask a friend of mine to pick it up and see if we can get a PBEM game going.
    Oh yeah, thanks for the excellent essay Bruce, we all miss your writing.

  • Otis

    I agree, great writing Bruce.

    Combat Mission was good series. I still remember playing hotseat with a buddy of mine in Afrika Corps. I was the British and he was the Germans. He beat me to the village with all the flags but I managed to surround him on 3 sides. The tank battle that ensued was vicious. It came down to a lucky shot from my last tank, a priest of all things, that took out his last panzer. That priest was my hero. My friend gave up after that because we didn’t want to put up with an infantry battle. We still reminisce about all those old Combat Mission games.

    I was depressed when I found out it wouldn’t play on my new computer.

  • Scott R. Krol

    One thing I found interesting was how many folks I knew who normally wouldn’t play wargames were positively addicted to CM. I mean we’re not talking too much of a crossover (no middle aged soccer moms playing it) but folks who enjoyed history or military stuff (lot of sim gamers). Still, it was interesting to see what taking away hexes and CRTs did to non-wargamers.

  • Tim James

    The infantry combat mechanics were a little murky, but I’m a sucker for WW2-era suppress and flank tactics.

    There are enough great scenarios and campaigns out there that you could cycle through them long enough to forget about the ones you started with, and play the game forever. Well, if you keep that XP box around anyway!

  • Michael Dorosh

    Great article. Many people who came up through the CM1 series have been disappointed with the “new” CMX2 engine, as you apparently are – and feel they indeed missed the point. But sequels are always tough. Remember how great M1 Tank Platoon was, or Red Baron, and how – blah – M1TP2 or RB2 seemed in comparison, because they improved the graphics while ditching the gameplay that made the original great? I don’t know why the developers never learn from that. It was doubly disappointing for me; I had had scenarios “published” on the special edition discs of CM:BB and CM:AK and finally “made it” onto the design team for CM:SF, and felt I had finally hit the big league, only to find the magic was gone. Looking forward to your next piece.

  • Andy Farley

    There’s a $5 patch from BFC so you can run the game under Vista now.

    Good times with CM1. Loving CM2 as well.

  • Mr. CM

    Nice review of the good old days and what made CM so special for us wargamers!
    I still have CMBO, CMBB, and CMAK on my harddrive and I still fire them up at least once/week.
    CMSF (cmx2) is a heap of junk. I certainly hope BFC make CMx2 WWII live up to the original CM!

  • Primemover

    Great writing Bruce! It is one of main reasons why I miss CGW. I never played CM, and now I know what I missed after reading that essay. Those backyard mock battles with our plastic soldiers in a sand box is a common history I assume we all share. Thank god we have electronic facsimiles and fancy boardgames that allow us to perpetuate those childhood times.

  • Angry Gamer

    Panzer Commander does the best to rekindle my old thoughts about CM at the moment

  • Theme Parties

    […] In his essay on Decade Retrospective on Combat Mission, Bruce Geryk wrote one of those lines that still make me envy his writing skill: If you give players a hook, they will hang themselves on it every time. […]