What Can We Learn From Combat Mission: Black Sea?

(Editor’s note: The following is a guest column by friend of the podcast, Savage, the man behind the War Takes twitter.)

Any casual student of military wargaming will know that the use of commercial wargames – whether off-the-shelf or specially modified – by militaries across the globe is nothing new. The United States and its allies use a variety of computer games with varying focuses and levels of detail for the purposes of training, professional military education, or even experimentation. Even then, not many games make the cut to be utilized by the military, and those that do usually end up being modified in some shape or form to meet the military’s specific requirements.

However, if there was ever a game that seemed to be ready for the military’s purposes right out of the box, with little or no tweaking required, it would be Combat Mission: Black Sea by Battlefront.com. The most modern entry – in terms of setting – in the Combat Mission series, CMBS revolves around an escalation in the ongoing Russian-Ukrainian conflict that leads to full-scale open war and the intervention of the United States – a scenario that is timely given the recent escalation in tensions between Russia and Ukraine that lead to a war scare.

I’ve played my fair share of wargames over the years – though I’m still a dilletante compared to many experts I know, and I certainly can’t say I’m any good at all of them. CMBS is one of those games that feels like it was made for the military first and then released to the public, not the other way around. I admittedly have never served a day in uniform, my role in national security being purely as a civilian. But CMBS certainly feels hard enough to be the real thing based on how badly I botched my first mission after completing the game’s basic training mode.

But the difficulty isn’t what makes CMBS realistic. Realistic isn’t even the right term to use. No computer wargame is ever going to be able to 100% realistically simulate the conditions of combat – nothing can match that. But what CMBS does do is simulate the conditions of combat in a way that feels believable to the player. It gets across the key elements of modern combined-arms warfare at the low-tactical level that is still very useful for training leaders or even for experimenting to contribute towards developing new approaches, methods, and capabilities.

What makes CMBS believable? I could write you a book rather than an article on that topic alone, but I can offer you a list of some highlights. For one, it demonstrates how fragile humans can be in high-intensity combat. So many video games – even some of the more serious wargames – tend to allow your soldiers to soak up a fair amount of punishment before their effectiveness suffers – let alone they die. In CMBS, it doesn’t take a lot for your soldiers to get stressed and lose cohesion or retreat. Aside from mental limits, your soldiers are just flesh and therefore are “squishier” than in many games. If you try to charge an infantry squad across open ground to attach a prepared defensive position, chances are they’ll not make it very far before they’re cut to ribbons – especially if the enemy has heavy weapons or vehicles their disposal.

That’s another factor that demonstrates CMBS usefulness is the way it treats heavier duty weapons. It treats them as the key to infantry combat that they are. Most of the time, it won’t be an infantryman’s personal weapon that will be dealing the most damage to the enemy; it’ll be heavy weapons like machine guns, automatic grenade launchers, missile launchers, and vehicle-based weapons like autocannons and tank canons. While many games certainly represent this as well, they still often tend to tone back the sheer destructive power of the heavy weapons in the name of balance and fairness. CMBS does no such thing, letting them reach their full destructive potential in how they can reduce things – both living and inanimate – to ruins in short order.

This is not to say that infantry is useless in CMBS, however. Far from it. And this is another way in which CMBS shows its utility as a military tool, in that it shows how important it is to use infantry in conjunction with heavy vehicles and weapons – despite being “squishy.” I found this out the hard way in the middle of a mission when I got too cocky after destroying a Russian tank platoon and pushed my own tank platoon out a little too far. What I got for my daring maneuver was the loss of one of my tanks to a guided anti-tank missile launched from a nearby house – something I would have been able to spot and either destroy or suppress if I had thought to move up one of my infantry squads through the houses parallel to my tanks as they advanced. Heavy weapons may be effective, but they are not invincible nor are they all seeing. CMBS drives home the importance of true combined arms warfare, making use of infantry, armor, and off-map artillery and air support to destroy your enemy. Favor one too much and neglect all the others and you’ll likely not have much success or you’ll buy it at great cost to your own forces.

The focus on combined arms warfare between peer or near-peer powers is another reason why CMBS is believable as a military tool. In an era where conventional wars between great powers are once again a possibility the United States and its allies find themselves having to prepare for, CMBS’ scenario revolving around a conventional war with Russia to help defend Ukraine is apt. The United States military now has an entire generation of officers who have spent their entire careers fighting counterinsurgency and counter-terrorism missions in Afghanistan, Iraq and other locales. Now these same leaders have to learn to fight a completely different war to the one they’ve been fighting, with the military as a whole having to regear back to what its original focus was before 9/11 and the War on Terrorism. With its main setting being a war against a well-trained, well-equipped, near-peer adversary, CMBS definitely has a potential use in helping to teach both new leaders and veteran ones to appreciate the difficulties and consequences of fighting against another modern army as opposed to a lightly armed and equipped irregular force.

Combat Mission Shock Force 2, sister game to Black Sea, sees American forces fight irregular units in a hypothetical war in Syria.

Now, is CMBS perfect? Absolutely not. I know I keep asking myself why I can’t run it on its highest graphical settings without it chugging despite the fact that I have a 1080 GTX graphics card and 16 gigs of RAM, but that’s a different gripe. No wargame is perfect, whether it be CMBS, or one of the other games utilized by the U.S. military and allied forces – such as Virtual Battle Space or Command: Professional Edition (the government and military-only versions of ArmA and Command: Modern Operations respectively). This is just as well though, as wargames can’t solve all the military’s problems anyway – something that any wargaming expert will be quick to tell you and anyone who can listen. What wargames are meant to do more than anything else get their participants thinking about problems that they face in modern combat and how to deal with them, rather than give them clear and actionable paths to success.

If that is the goal, then CMBS clearly could be useful in that regard. It’s no surprise to me that the United Kingdom’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL) began using one of the Combat Mission games – along with several other popular commercial wargames – for research and experimentation. CMBS certainly has the right elements to make it a useful tool in a larger toolbox of games and software to approach pressing questions about the nature of warfighting going into the future. Whether is experimenting, or training or even retraining leaders on the nature of high-intensity combat, CMBS definitely is robust enough to be considered an aid for dealing with the thorny questions of conflict in the modern day and near future.

For more of Savage’s thoughts, be sure to follow him on his main twitter here.

Combat Mission Fight Club: How Digital Wargaming is Going Pro

Fight Club! Those two words generally evoke images of men fighting in basements, edgy tautologies about society, and the reminder to not talk about Fight Club. However, to us in the Wargaming world, there is a different Fight Club, this one uses games as a training tool, specifically for British Army small-to-mid unit tactics.

Joe and I were fortunate to be invited to a virtual Fight Club briefing a few weeks ago, where the Fight Club team pitched the concept of using games (specifically Combat Mission: Shock Force 2) to other British Army professionals. There were a couple other gaming journalists present, as well as some Slitherine devs, but overall the presentation was geared more towards military folks, not us gaming types. Regardless, it was a rewarding experience in that we got a peek into how CMSF2 could be used as a training tool for a modern, professional army.

Combat Mission: Black Sea, the sister game to Shock Force 2.

PART ONE: WHY COMBAT MISSION SHOCK FORCE 2?

Combat Mission, for the uninitiated, is a realistic turn-based or real-time wargame, where players command units from squad (or in Brit-speak, “section”)-sized elements to a medium-sized regiment. Every soldier on the field is modeled in terms of their gear, line of sight, and morale, and bullet paths are modeled as well, making the game a great choice for modeling real conflicts, or as we see here, training for real conflicts.

Fight Club primarily uses a special, “Professional” edition of Combat Mission, this has miscellaneous extra bits and bobs to it that make it more fitting to the needs of a professional service. And fitting it is! While a unit will need to cover the costs of hardware to run the game (Combat Mission runs on potatoes plugged into a wall, so expensive hardware isn’t necessary), Fight Club offers units that sign up for the program a few free licenses for the game. This makes running a training of CMSF2 much more cost efficient than live exercises, which could involve, among other things, Real Ammo™, Real Guns™, Real Food™, etc. These costs can add up, and units do have a budget.

All of this to say that CMSF2 is pretty affordable, but it’s also extremely modular. The base game comes with plenty of realistic scenarios already and a robust custom scenario creator, but Fight Club provides member units with mods to better match the real participating units’ OOB, complete with mods to slap correct unit insignia on troops and vehicles for, as the organizers put it, “unit pride.” The map variety is also good in base CMSF2, but Fight Club has a special tool that lets them scan in actual maps they have for use in-game. Neat! Don’t suppose us gamers can ask for a Google Earth mapping tool, can we?

American troops prepare to assault a village in Shock Force 2.

PART TWO: HOW TO LEARN WARFIGHTING FROM VIDEO GAMES

Those mods of maps and units act as a training supplement along with the other forms of training exercises for the British Army, live exercises (with or without live-fire), as well as classroom sessions. According to Fight Club, one effective use of the Combat Mission license is to take a map of a training area, place it in the game, and run games with BLUFOR and REDFOR in Combat Mission prior to the live exercise, to highlight potential outcomes and scenarios that could arise in real training/combat.

As Combat Mission has various scales of mission sizes, Fight Club recommends junior leaders taking charge of near-equivalent sized elements to their real commands to get a feel for how they’d react to the situation in combat. Ideally, these leaders would filter order through game “Controllers”, who would be a staff member that’s familiar with the systems of the game and knows how to get units from A to B on the map. The game can be projected onto a screen for multiple troops to view and make suggestions on as the game runs.

There are a couple schools of thought in Fight Club on whether the game should be run in turn-based mode, where both controllers give commands and units execute orders in 60 second intervals, to give participants time to think and discuss possible tactics to take, or in real-time, to simulate the decision-making stress of combat. Both have their merits, and what makes the most sense for a training varies from unit-to-unit and training-to-training.

And though Combat Mission is a game and can act as somewhat of an icebreaker/ “fun” activity, it is treated as a full, serious part of the training cycle. Gamedays are precluded with briefings of the scenarios the units will be playing, complete with recce of the maps, like an actual, real life mission would require. After the conclusion of the match, there are also substantial debriefings that go through what went well, and what didn’t go well in the mission (they also noted that pointing out a player’s missteps by identifying them specifically is a bad idea, which is something any of us co-op gamers know too well). This allows the unit to learn from their digital experience in the same manner they might through training.

An IFV lays down cover fire in Shock Force 2.

COMBAT MISSION: THE FIGHTING MAN’S THINKING GAME

Fight Club impressed us with how they’ve integrated Combat Mission into their training routine, and the organizers were all very gung ho about how it had helped their units’ readiness; this definitely isn’t just a scam to let a bunch of folks play games on the clock. The team talked about future implementations of the game and future mods, with a nod toward a “Russia and Ukraine focus,” the talk occurring at the time of the Russian mobilizations a few weeks ago, the team on the ball for countering future potential opponents.

Joe and I both left remarking about how interesting it is to see something we play for fun used in an applicable manner, especially a digital game, which are so frequently dismissed as the realm of utter nerds… which, to be fair, we are. But, it’s clear that digital wargaming is taking its place next to tabletop wargaming as a valuable teaching tool not just for armchair generals, but for professional militaries as well. Consider us to be watching Fight Club with keen interest in the future, to see what other games- er, training materials, they have up their sleeves.

-Jack Trumbull

Home of Wargames Live NEW GAMES!

Slitherine just finished with their Home of Wargames Live Event and there was quite a bit of new stuff to take in. From interviews to game previews, the talk was very professional and very interesting. The future of digital wargames looks bright. Here are our favourite announcements!

Warhammer 40k Battlesector

I’ve personally had a lot of fun with both previews of 40k Battlesector, but the trailer showed some stuff off that I haven’t had a chance to interact with yet. The army building and upgrading gives it a bit of a tabletop vibe, but the gameplay is still very computer wargame feeling, which isn’t a bad thing. Dealing with proper Line of Sight, optimal weapon ranges, and the relentlessly attacking AI is definitely fun, but feels more like a PC wargame than the tabletop. There is a cool photo mode to get some great screenshots to show off. It’s been a lot of fun to play the previews, and our full preview will be coming soon!

Combat Mission Cold War

Bil Hardenberger from Battlefront emphasized the sandbox nature of Cold War, with several years and therefore different styles of warfare to implement in scenarios. They’ve also included a wide variety of equipment for the different factions and terrain types. Also, cluster munitions for the first time (oh my!) I can’t wait to get my hands on it!

Distant Worlds 2

The supposed Stellaris Killer! No release date yet, but apparently it’s coming along. It was great to see the game in action for the first time. The graphics are looking great and it’s nice to see the full zoom from galaxy to home world and back. The ship design screen looks expansive. Like I could get lost building ships for hours. Same for the research and technology tree. There is just so much there. Clone troopers? Yes please. The preview dealt with some pirate problems, and it sounds like the diplomacy and military systems are pretty involved. When the devs talked through an invasion of an independent world, I thought it might really do what I want a game like this to do. I really hope Distant Worlds 2 lives up, because I’m hankering for a new deep space game. Also, giant space spiders!

Starship Troopers Live Gameplay

We finally get to know more! Mostly Single Player focused RTS game controlling the Terran Army and attempting to not get your guys ruined by tons of bugs. This is a game based on the movie license, but looks like its trying to keep the film’s tongue in cheek anti-militarism and over the top violence. Check out my first preview/rant about the different versions of Starship Troopers. There is some emphasis on pushing outwards to capture radio towers, which give you resources .It’s looking like a fun defensive focused RTS, but it’s also clear that the game is far from finished at this point.

Valor & Victory

This is my favourite tabletop squad level game, and I absolutely cannot wait to get my hands on a proper digital version. It’s a great system and it looks like there is a lot of scenarios and the possibility to make new scenarios after launch. From the talk given by Lance Craner, V&V is almost ready with just some AI tweaks and writing to handle.

WEGO World War II: Stalingrad

A Wego hex based wargame covering the battles around Stalingrad. This looks really interesting to me. Orders are given by both sides and then executed at the same time. I can’t wait to see how this works out with multiplayer. If it does what I think it should, I can see this really taking off as a new way of playing hex wargames.

Campaign Series Vietnam

Oh I’ve been waiting for this for so long. It looks like the wait has been worth it. The Campaign Series has a lot of depth to it, and it looks like they aren’t skipping on the amount of content that is going to be present in this one. The inclusion of the French-Indochina war period is especially welcome.

-Rapid Fire New Games!-

Master of Magic

Master of Magic is a reboot of a classic 4x fantasy game helmed by the developers of Thea the Awakening, Muha Games. Master of Magic has its own well developed fantasy world to draw from. Players take on the roll of a wizard battling to become the best wizard of them all. The development team has some experience doing this kind of game, so I’m glad it’s in their hands. There is city management, army composition, and most importantly, massive world altering spells. There are five schools of magic, and depending on how many books a wizard has in a school, more or less spells are available. There should be some fun spell manipulation. It’s currently in early alpha, but looks like a promising reboot of an old classic!

Scramble: Battle of Britain

Scramble is a WEGO dogfighting wargame that pits squadrons of WWII aircraft against each other in an innovative system. Players issue orders, then play out in real time, and at the very end they get to see the entire dogfight play back in its entirety. That sounds like a great feature to me, and the 3D art and design is beautiful. Players get a set amount of time per aircraft to individually deal with its flight path, its pitch, roll, and all that while planning for future combat. With a multiplayer feature allowing for split control of different squadrons, I’m looking forward to this as a great multiplayer game. There are also campaigns, and squadron management, aircraft customization, and a lot of other upcoming features like gamepad support. But the focus is on match play with other humans. Really one to keep an eye on.

Broken Arrow

Wow this looks good. From a new team headed by a veteran of Eugen of Wargame/Steel Division fame, this looks like an interesting new bit of competition in the real time modern war wargame space. They say they’re trying to find the sweet spot between action and realism, and I really hope they get there. The visuals are amazing at this point. This is a combined arms game with a lot of detail, including unit customization. There are shore landings, air insertion of men and vehicles, and even tactical nukes.

Stargate Time Keepers!

-Joe Fonseca

Combat Mission: Black Sea Review

Oh no, this isn’t good. The enemy can shoot back now! Combat Mission: Black Sea continues to fascinate me with how different the actual execution of the game is from Shock Force 2. This time set in a fictional (kind of…) invasion of Ukraine by Russia in 2017 where NATO intervenes, Black Sea offers an entirely different feeling of tension than its predecessor. Rather than dealing with the technicals and militias of Shock Force 2, Black Sea brings two (and a half) modern forces together in direct competition. It’s a deadly, frightening affair.

The invading Russian forces are more professional, have access to better weapon systems, and have the kind of support that was reserved for NATO in SF2. But upping the stakes by giving the enemy near parity is an excellent design choice, and one that demonstrates the breadth of what Combat Mission can offer. Black Sea is fast becoming my favourite tactical wargame, and has even prompted me, a diehard historicals guy, to start reading about modern tactics and systems.

Death can come from a long way off, proper scouting is king.

To Die Along the Dnieper

Black Sea centers around a fictional invasion of Ukraine by the Russian Federation. This time NATO and the US step in in an attempt to dissuade Russian aggression. When it becomes obvious that they’re not going to back down, NATO steps up and a full scale conventional war breaks out. There are campaigns allowing players to take control of all three major players, the Russians, NATO, and Ukraine, each of which has access to different vehicles and systems enough to prompt different tactical approaches to each scenario. There are also a pile of individual scenarios to sink your teeth into and of course the usual staples of multiplayer and an editor.

Though there is a real-time mode, the true way to play is the turn based WEGO system. Both sides issue orders to their units and the system plays everything out simultaneously in one minute intervals. It might be a bit jarring for players coming from true IGO UGO or real time strategy games, but after a run though a scenario or two to get sorted, it begins to feel very natural and does a good job of simulating command delay.

The visuals are quite nice and the simulation runs well until battles get very, very large.

Since both the Russians and NATO forces are professional modern militaries, there is a lot to think about when engaging in any type of scenario in Black Sea. Urban combat is a nightmare. Spending minutes agonizing about potential ambush spots, figuring out where to blast holes for maneuver, and in my case at least, running at least one scout team into a wall of Russian fire.

Battles in the countryside are equally as terrifying, with long range, accurate, and deadly fire capabilities on both sides meaning that positioning tanks is just as crucial as squishy transports. In both settings, seeing a plan work out and the enemy shattered before you is a euphoria rarely felt in any strategy game, and that is due in part to the visuals.

Urban Combat is a nightmare, but rewardingly tense.

Combat Mission is Almost There!

While not dazzling, Combat Mission has enough fidelity in the visuals to become a really immersive experience. Even though there can be a little hiccup here and there with infantry animation, the fact that the whole game contains so many micro-abstractions means it never feels uncomfortable. Instead, I can sweep my camera over a gigantic map and zoom in to see exactly how my observation team is doing on the left flank before flying over to check on the angles of my Abrams. It’s such an nice system, as soon as you learn it.

The Combat Mission system itself is so tantalizingly close to being accessible. Th tutorial requires reading through a PDF which, while it does a good job of laying out the basics, ignores a lot of the nuance that makes the intricacies of Combat Mission stand out against the crowd. I heartily recommend checking out Usually Hapless’ video tutorials explaining some of the basics as it helped me immensely. A better tutorial and a bit more polish all around would go a long way here, but the core is rock solid.

Mistakes were made…

I’m frankly floored that I haven’t tried one of these games sooner. It’s because it took so long for them to come to Steam, honestly, but now that Combat Mission has sunk its fangs into me, I’m going to be making it a regular part of my gaming from here on out. It’s that good. The fact that Black Sea can create such a different feeling than Shock Force 2 is just a testament to how solid the core systems are, and I really can’t wait to check out how it handles combat in the 1980s when Cold War releases.

Combat Mission: Black Sea is an excellent tactical wargame with solid core systems, believable simulations of modern warfare, and enough content to keep players going for dozens of hours. It deserves space on your virtual shelf, even if modern wargaming isn’t your thing. It wasn’t mine until I got stuck in myself.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

-Joe

Combat Mission Then and Now: Checking Out 2000’s Beyond Overlord

Recently, Jack and I both have been playing the latest Combat Mission games in order to review them for the blog. Check out Jack’s review of Shock Force 2, if you haven’t, and keep an eye out for my take on Black Sea Friday! But all this playing of excellent tactical simulation games got me thinking. It may have been 20 odd years, but I have memories of playing a Combat Mission game way back in the day. Digging around I stumbled across Combat Mission: Beyond Overlord, the first of Battlefront’s Combat Mission games and a fond memory of bygone times. It turns out that GOG.com has the first three Combat Mission games for very reasonable prices, so I jumped back in to see how far the series has come.

They look like painted miniature soldiers, but they die like men.

It’s a bit clunky going back, I’ll admit. The UI has certainly seen some growth between classic Combat Mission and the more modern titles. Rather than a nice compact list of possible actions along the bottom UI, things are done with a right-click menu. Still functional, but there’s definitely an upgrade going forward. The basic mechanics of maneuvering and positioning teams is still familiar and after a few minutes of getting used to it I was back to splitting teams, order scouts forward, covering with bases of fire, and all the fun stuff you get up to in a CM game.

I decided to try my hand at the Canadian Armageddon campaign out of a sense of patriotic duty. Getting stuck in with a brigade of the South Saskatchewan Regiment it was time to clear houses and secure a small French town without armour support, of course. Why would I need that?

Just like the modern games, creating a base of fire and scouting are essential tactics.

I’m happy to report that it was just as much fun as the later CM games are. It’s decidedly messier, with map positioning and overall management less intuitive, but it’s still just as entertaining to see orders carried out, see units trying to adapt to changing situations, and cringing when a poor order leads to more casualties than you were willing to accept.

Graphically, it’s obviously much simpler, but the oversized infantry models, the fact that each figure represents a few men, and the distinctly differentiated terrain makes classic CM feel more like a tabletop wargame than the modern games. There is a bit more rigidity to every action and order, but it just reinforces the boardgame feeling.

Another Urban Environment, another delicate maneuver. From France to Ukraine

I was honestly expecting to be underwhelmed. Rose tinted glasses can only go so far and 21 years is a long time in terms of videogame development. The recent Combat Missions have really hit me with just how good they are, so I figured there must be a lot separating them from the classic models. An there is, truth be told, but the classics are still absolutely playable and do a great job of conveying the overall feel of CM, albeit with a simpler tabletop aesthetic, than I was expecting.

It helps that Beyond Overlord, Afrika Korps, and Barbarossa to Berlin are all on GOG for under $10 CAD each. They get cheaper during sales too. As an exercise in feeling old, or if the modern Combat Missions are out of your price range and you’ve already played the free demos, I’d recommend picking up one of the classics to dip your toes. There’s a lot of content and I’m absolutely floored by how well they stand the test of time.

-Joe

Combat Mission Shock Force 2 Review

The Combat Mission series is in an interesting position in terms of gameplay. The turn-based WEGO/ real-time style of the game is approachable to outsiders, yet the game has many grognard-like tendencies that make it hover between the fields of “accessibility” and “nerddom.” This is by no means a bad thing, as what Combat Mission games do, provide small to mid-sized unit tactical battles in (mostly) hypothetical scenarios, they have no peer. Shock Force 2 is no exception, providing another exceptional module of modern combat that any wargamer should check out.

First off, big ups to the fine folks at Battlefront games for narrowly avoiding prophesying another conflict with this game. As some of you readers may know, Battlefront developed Combat Mission: Black Sea, a game about Russian aggression toward Ukraine, in the years leading up to the skirmishes and fights over Crimea with Russia. Oopsie daisie! In the case of Shock Force 2, where players take part in either invading Syria as part of a US-led NATO task force, or defending it as the Syrian army, they managed to dodge the bullet by correctly pinning down the country that would see combat, but not the belligerents. Close one, guys!

Anyway, there’s the setting, but for any newcomers to Combat Mission, you might be scratching your head at the “turn-based WEGO/ real-time” reference I made earlier. To explain that, Combat Mission games are playable in two ways: in real-time like most RTS games, giving orders to units as time passes in real life, or in the WEGO style, which means both players will give orders to their troops, press the “End Turn” button, and both sides execute their plans over the course of one real life minute. Many Combat Mission players (including myself) recommend the WEGO style as it gives you time to think and give orders to the sometimes very large number of troops you can have, not to mention that waiting a minute in between giving new orders is an excellent simulation of command delay.

The typical scenario for SF2 will take place over a period of 30 minutes to an hour and 30, meaning you have about 30 to 90 turns per scenario. During that time, you can set up complex waypoints and maneuvers for your units to complete, ranging from simple move orders to in-depth and specific firing arcs, movement styles, deployment of weapons.. It’s a lot to take in, and your turns can take a long time, especially with all of the information you have to parse out. However, given that the maps can be quite large and your units move at real-life speeds, there will also be several turns where you have your units continue their previous routes, so while initial micromanagement can be painful, it’s not terrible from turn to turn.

These aforementioned scenarios are plentiful and have many different goals for each side. Typically, the attacking side will be BLUFOR (the US) against defending REDFOR (Syria) troops, who, to make up for their technological disadvantage, will typically be entrenched. This is not always the case, but these form the bulk of the scenarios, and it’s engaging to fight house-to-house in towns, rooting out enemy units that are hiding the next building over. I’ve found that fighting as the frequently outnumbered and under-equipped Syrian forces offers some of the most thrilling scenarios SF2 can offer, because it’s up to you as a player to position and order your troops wisely to make up for the fact that you will not win a one on one fight.

All this being said, there’s a few gripes I have with Shock Force, similar to my gripes with Black Sea, the previous instalment. There are some… dated parts of the Combat Mission module, including things like the lack of a volume slider, the very limited amount of available resolution sizes (though the good news is the game will probably run on an Austro-Hungarian toaster), and most damningly, the way the tutorial campaign works. You have to open the PDF and use the written tutorial as a guide for the in-game tutorial, which is just incredibly silly these days. Even then, there are so many parts of the game that the tutorial doesn’t cover, such as explaining morale steps or some of the various movement types, that you probably won’t be done learning until you’ve completed several scenarios. And that’s fine, but the addition of some tool-tips to explain exactly what a “panicked” squad will do would be an extremely welcome addition to the game. There’s so many details that most players won’t understand the importance of due to the UI, and I feel this could be helped with just a slight tune-up.

There are a few other places where I wish Combat Mission went just a bit further. There are a handful of excellent, multi-scenario campaigns available out of the box, but i can’t help thinking that allowing for a dynamic campaign creator (akin to what we see in the excellent Field of Glory 2) would beef up the replayability of the game. Also, speaking of replayability, the ability to watch replays of matches would be tremendous. A lot of the community posts AARs of their matches and there’s been interest from my non-wargaming friends to see what the hullabaloo about these games is about, would be great to show them a heroic stand my fighters made in town, or a daring assault from the attacking force’s perspective.

I have to be clear though: Combat Mission Shock Force 2 is a fantastic game. I have small, niggling concerns and complaints but really, the game stands out in its field as one of the best representations of modern combat available. The learning curve can be tricky, especially for a new wargamer, but I heartily recommend Shock Force 2 to any wargamer, newbie and grognard alike.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

-Jack Trumbull