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Three Moves Ahead Episode 129 – The Combat Missions

August 11th, 2011 by Rob Zacny · 15 Comments · Podcast, Three Moves Ahead


Irrational Games’ Ken Levine join Rob and Troy for a discussion of the Combat Mission series, realism, WEGO turns versus continuous time, and what we’d bring back to the future.

Tim Stone on “Ignorance Is Bliss”

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15 Comments so far ↓

  • mutait

    Thanks for another interesting discussion. Sorry to hear that you’re lukewarm about CMBN so far. I’ll just say that I hope you persevere and dig in just a little longer before putting it aside. I think it’s a game that rewards that extra effort. I do agree that the main problems with the second CM engine likely have to do with Battlefront’s decision to try and please two groups with very different expectations: old guard rivet counters and new casual fans. But I think CMBN does a better job of satisfying both audiences than I would have thought possible without giving in to excessive feature creep to appease the first group or making major design concessions to court the second. In WEGO mode (I agree real time still isn’t great) I think CMBN retains all the best qualities of the original while adding another level of immersion and maybe even greater tension (I don’t remember sweating out artillery barrages and house assaults the way I do this time around.) And CMBN feels much better paced and better tuned to me than CMSF — BF seems to have actually learned from their recent mistakes. Maybe I’m just doing here what Rob worries he does with AGEOD games, forgetting all the time and effort it took me to master the system, but I am a little surprised at how impenetrable you all found it. Yes, the camera still jerks and the command system still can feel counterintuitive at times (i.e. setting short fire arcs to hold fire). But I think it’s a fairly straightforward game once you get used to its idiosyncrasies.
    Sorry if I’m sounding like a fanboi here, but I just hope you give it another shot.
    P.S. Rob, I think there’s a way to recreate the old right click move menu system using the space bar, if that helps at all.

  • Nathan Hoobler

    I was really stoked to hear Ken call out Starship Troopers. I’ve long thought the exact same thing about how underrated it is for being adventurous with asymmetry, and in creating a really great sense of place using game mechanics. Not to mention, it has some awesomely silver-age artwork that I would insist be unchanged in the hypothetical re-make (http://www.boardgamegeek.com/images/thing/670/starship-troopers). I inherited the game from my uncle I was 14 and he was cleaning out his closet. I proceeded to dive into the rules and manage to play the scenarios a few times. It was pretty clunky (and a huge step for someone who’s biggest strategy experience to that point was Risk) but really satisfying.

    Along with Starship Troopers, however, I also inherited a second game which I think would have to be my pick for a re-make: Avalon Hill’s Dune. From what I can tell it has a pretty strong cult following, but to this day I’ve never really quite seen a game that fills the same niche. Essentially, it is a complex game of Diplomacy among six factions that consists of bidding and auction mechanics, territory control, a combat resolution system based as much about bluffing as army strength, and (most importantly) a set of unique faction powers that ensures everyones strategy is a little different. Where SST was maybe the prototype for asymmetry, I look at Dune as the prototype “Game of Exception”. The Atreides, for example, seem obviously overpowered to the new player as they get to essentially look at their opponents battle plan (forces, cards) before they commit their own to battle — making them seemingly unbeatable in a fair fight. The key, then, is to learn how to fight dirty. The Harkonnan have a massive network of traitors among all the other factions, and should you use one of those traitors in combat, they can opts to have you automatically lose your army. The Emperor, on the other hand, has massive monetary resources and elite troops that he can use to focus his power on specific regions of combat, while the Fremen have their own degree of foresight tied to the storms that ravage the unprotected plains. The game creates a system where players are all able to bend the rules in one particular fashion, causing the game to become this six-way fencing match of leveraging your traits while avoiding being exploited. It suits the source material stunningly well.

    I think games like Alpha Centauri (with its fundamentally unique factions) and Solium Infernum can both trace a fair portion of their roots to this game.

  • Davemonkey

    Great episode guys and I have a couple of games to throw into Ken’s list.

    The first is The Peloponnesian War by Victory Games, a solitaire game. http://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/1678/peloponnesian-war. It has been a long time since I have played it but I do remember it simulating the asynchronous nature of that war wonderfully with the Athenians having the naval & financial muscle and the Spartans all of the land power. What was most interesting about it was that if you reached a certain point on the victory point track as one side you would automatically switch sides and start playing as the other. Additionally the way you lost was essentially by winning so completely that you weakened Sparta or Athens to the point that they were vulnerable to Theban, Persian or ultimately Macedonian hegemony. It was an interesting mechanic and I played the heck out of it as a young fella.

    The other would be another Victory Games game called Mosby’s Raiders. http://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/1669/mosbys-raiders. Another solitaire game (I didn’t have a lot of wargaming mates as a kid), and another asynchronous game. You play as John Singleton Mosby and his band of Confederate yahoos tearing up railroad tracks, burning depots and avoiding Union pickets. It would probably make an awesome iPad game. There was a happy blend of reactive mechanics by the game system and chance from event cards and die rolls to make it interesting.

    Oh and if Troy could get on to that version of Republic of Rome that would be awesome. Thanks. If he needs a user experience guy I’ll be involved.

  • speedy

    Good podcast, I’ve never heard of the Starship Troopers game before., sounds interesting.

    Personally I’m liking the new Combat Mission just enough to keep playing,but with it’s dodgy game engine and badly dated controls it feels a little too much like work than a game sometimes.

    Right, I’m off to find Starship Troopers on Boardgamegeek.

  • Frash

    A quick add to the AH classic boardgame that should be a PC game: Freedom in the Galaxy. Only two sides but a PC version could be everything that lucasarts’ Rebellion wasn’t, and it has some nice asymmetrical strategy going on.

  • Brian


    Breakaway Games made a version of the Peloponnesian War in about 1999. I don’t think it was widely distributed, though.

    On reason I like WEGO games is the element of risk. You have to give your best orders and then accept the consequences of your decisions without being able to easily change them.

  • Hell-Mikey

    Mr. Levine observed that the combat system in Combat Mission moved away from ablating hit points to a penetration model that lead to greater disparity in weapon effectiveness. It also opened up the catastrophic model of the lucky Kentucky farmboy’s upsetting your careful panzer drive. I agree with the panel that this drives excitement and drama to the game’s benefit.

    In a modern boardgame context, this would be disparaged as a “high luck” system where the whole game could turn on the roll of the dice. Skill is diminished in favor of dumb luck, especially considering, as Mr. Goodfellow notes, that the unit count is so low, and each unit so precious.

    Why are we so eager to embrace chance in this CM, but not in boardgames? The time commitments need not be drastically different, and luck is a factor when played against the computer or a human opponent (who will *not* let you reload from save just to kill that Kentucky farmboy).


    I also never heard it but its sound interesting to me. maybe one of this day i will try to play and look what is the mechanics and the rules of that game. anyway nice post you got here thanks.

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  • skshrews

    In regards to computer versions of board games, Avalon Hills “Circus Maximus” and “Gladiator”.

    Simply based on the subject matter alone, these games , if done properly, would be a blast on PC. Choosing your chariot team and ramming other drivers, or picking your weapons in the Colosseum and cutting down your opponent would make for a compelling game. If I had the programming skills, I would produce them myself.

  • Scott

    Circus Maximus would be great, or maybe The Gamer’s less serious version “Circus Minimus”.

    Something like Totaler Krieg would be good too. There’s no dearth of strategic WWII games, but I like the level and focus of that one.

    For computer games, I’d love to see “Crush Crumble and Chomp” redone. I used to play the heck out of that on my Atari 800 back in the 80s. (It’s a giant-monster game where you trashed as much of a city as possible before the police and army get powerful enough to kill you. You could play some popular movie monsters or design your own.)

  • Tony K

    Really enjoyed the podcast. Loved the original Combat Mission and like you guys, find it harder to get into the new version. Also, I was impressed with Ken Levine’s knowledge of wargames and WWII. I’m heartened to hear the head of major studio actually plays these kind of games! Similar to Ken, I grew up on Avalon Hill wargames. He mentioned the Starship Troopers game which I have, and his description is dead on. It’s an asymmetric chit-based version of Starcraft!

    I do have one classic wargame I would love to see remade for PC or iPad and that’s Panzer Leader/Panzer Blitz.

    Another suggestion I have for you guys to try if you are looking for a wargame that is (1) easy to pickup and play in < 1 hour, (2) quick scenarios, (3) clean interface with simple commands, (4) turn-based, (5) PBEM multiplayer. This game is Battlefield Academy published by Slitherine the guys that published Panzer Corps. If Panzer Corps is the lite version of War in the East, then this game is maybe the lite version of ASL or Combat Mission. It's on a similar scale with company sized engagements. The game appears a bit cartoony from the art/music style, but there is as much detail to the units as in Panzer Corps. Definitely give it a shot if you want an intro wargame.

    Here is a link.

  • rsm

    @Nathan Hobbler

    Dune is getting a remake by FFG with a Star Wars theme, iirc. Just announced around GenCon.

    Re: episode
    Otherwise, I have yet to finish the episode, there was more gushing here than in the Hegemony episode and it became a bit tiresome. At least the Hegemony gushing was very focused and brief before it switched to more interesting things, and of course it caused me to shell out my 30 pieces of silver and close to 50hrs of my time (and counting).

  • MikeO

    Loved Ken as a guest. Sounds like he grew up playing the same games I did, and had a lot of the same interests.

    I want to thank you so much for doing this topic — I am pretty sure I was one of the first preorders of the original CM, and I regard the original series as the best tactical combat games ever made (board or computer). They are also the best multiplayer games I’ve ever played. I can vividly remember many of my pbem games even now.

    That said, I forgot this revision was even out, so I immediately tried the demo and bought the game. I agree with some of Rob’s criticisms in the short time I have played so far (mainly the UI is frankly not nearly as good as the UI in the original games), but I’d advise anyone who liked the old games, or never tried them but who has an interest, to try CM:BFN. It is an amazing game (I play in WEGO, I have less than zero interest in playing CM in real time). The biggest adjustment to me is that it’s much harder to see what’s going on — part of the genius in the old design was how apparent it made everything, from what your units were doing, to what state they were in (routing, pinned, etc). The new version requires a lot more attention. I am someone who virulently hated Shock Force, too.

    As far as Ken’s question at the end of the podcast, his suggestion of Starship Troopers is a fine one. I played the boardgame a lot, always solitaire, probably nearly as much as I played any of my old boardgames. Just a wonderful design, and extremely true to the book. If I can’t echo that game, my pick would be Magic Realm. A lot of Magic Realm’s brilliant design elements have been ‘borrowed’ for other games over the years, so I suppose it wouldn’t seem as original nowadays, but I think a computerized version would be something I’d love to play. A huge part of the work in playing the game was the setup (it used a rather large amount of card decks and chits for random events, and all that stuff had to be set up prior to play), and also in enforcing the voluminous rulebook. A computer version would make for a much less trying experience. And the boardgame was actually pretty fun single player, too.

    Great show, guys.

  • LJFHutch

    I suppose I’m quite different, for the whole time I’ve been playing pc games I’ve been slowly moving up the realism scale, though I didn’t reach the original three Combat Missions. I came in at Shock Force and really enjoyed it, the Afghanistan game and now Normandy (and play all three).

    I find the accuracy of the units is certainly important though, even though I probably wouldn’t know the difference if the panther had 10 less mm rear turret armour (my knowledge of WW2 weapons and armour is fairly good but I go more by feel than actually knowing the numbers) the knowledge that it is correct makes the whole game much more enjoyable. When the realism and accuracy is taken to the level that CMBN is suddenly everything that happens is so much more impressive, you then know that what’s happening in the game could happen in real life.

    For me there have been some real improvements from the original CM’s to Shock Force through Normandy. I only play real-time since you can feel the flow of the battle, to me turn based felt too much like a chore and the battles disjointed.

    I will agree with many on the camera controls however, they are incredibly jerky and unresponsive and I only ever use the mouse to control it. Much faster acceleration, the ability to use more than one direction key at a time and some momentum would be very appreciated.

    I really enjoy these pod-casts, keep it up!

  • zipdrive

    One of the best episodes. Sounded like you guys had fun recording it!