Until recently, Peter Andrew Jones was the editor of the hugely popular Wargames Directory website. In his spare time (if such a thing can be imagined) he sat down and penned a set of WWII rules called Blitzkrieg Commander. These were received with much critical acclaim by a community that is already spoilt for choice with similar offerings. Indeed such was the response to his work that soon after he decided to hang up his webmaster's hat and concentrate solely on writing! His new release, Cold War Commander (CWC), kicks off where its predecessor left off. Described as Fast Play rules for combined-arms operations, it covers the period from 1946 right up to the present day. As a dedicated WWII fan the thought of delving into the modern era is almost like flirting with science fiction! However, such is Pete's reputation that I was determined to take a closer look.
I'm very glad that I did.
The CWC rule book is presented in A4 format with semi-gloss covers packed with a hefty 140 pages. Even at this early stage it worth making a note about the presentation. With the exception of the mass produced titles from companies such as Games Workshop, this is perhaps one of the best presented rule books I have ever seen. It's not flash, it's not packed with innumerable illustrations - but it's neat, well laid-out and easy to follow. The smattering of photographs used to demonstrate various activity set the scene perfectly. All are in full colour and crystal clear. In short, CWC looks like the work of a publishing pro - not a desktop publishing pro - which is worth a big star in my book.
Pete states that the game can be played with almost any scale of miniatures. In my judgement the style of play is best suited to figures between 6mm and 15mm. Anything bigger or smaller may prove impractical. The photos in the book feature a selection of 10mm minis. This is a particularly versatile scale - not least because it allows you to employ N-gauge model railway scenery which is readily accessible from your local model shop!
The first 50 pages of the book are given over to the actual game mechanics. The rules are described as "fast-play" which often means high tempo - low detail. The knack is getting the balance right. For my money Pete has done just that.
Each turn is split into the usual phases: in this case the Scheduled, Initiative, Command and End phases. The sequence opens with the Scheduled phase which is when all artillery and air support attacks are resolved. No surprises here. It's during the following two phases that things begin to get decidedly more interesting.
Each army has a set military doctrine which determines (amongst other things) its initiative distance. This factor comes into play during the Initiative phase of the round when units are able to engage enemies that fall within this distance. In practice this usually amounts to taking a single pot-shot at the nearest enemy but it adds an interesting traffic-hump to an otherwise fairly predictable turn of events.
The shrapnel really starts flying during the Command phase. Here each unit can be directed to move, shoot and make assaults. Orders are relayed through special H.Q. units - the success or otherwise of which is determined by the roll of a dice. Players can relay more than one order through the H.Q. but each successive command incurs a penalty to the dice roll. Once a roll is failed the H.Q. can no-longer be used to relay orders. This mechanism is similar to the method employed in GW's Warmaster and one that works very well.
The final phase, the aptly titled End phase, is where players take stock of the events that unfolded during the turn. This includes checking the victory conditions and the removal of such things as smoke and suppression markers, etc.
Up until now you may have thought that the Cold War Commander rules are pretty unremarkable. To be honest, at first glance, I thought the same. To the untrained eye the actual game play is very similar to Epic 40k or Warmaster. It's only once you start reading the book in detail that you realise that the game contains several little nuggets of pure ingenuity which add a unique sparkle to the proceedings.
Perhaps the most obvious illustration of this is the way in which hits are allocated. As you might expect, each unit has a nominal hit point value. A British Challenger II tank, for example, starts the game with 6 hits. If, during the course of an attack, the tank were to suffer 4 points of damage you'd expect it to start the next turn with only 2 hits remaining. In CWC things are quite different. During the End phase all outstanding hits are removed and every unit goes into the following turn with a clean slate. This may sound a bit mad at first but it's a delightfully subtle rule. Each hit scored against the tank isn't treated as a bullet hole but as a representation of the weight of arms being brought against it. The tank can be suppressed and forced to withdraw but unless it succumbs to a truly cataclysmic attack it starts the next round, effectively, unscathed. In game terms this not only ensures that more heavily armoured units survive longer on the battlefield, it also means players do not need to keep damage records.
I'm also particularly impressed with the way Pete manages to convey a sense of the modern battlefield through some very simple but well thought-out mechanisms. Helicopters, for example, aren't just used to deliver firepower - they also deliver troops for airborne assaults. Other helicopters can be used for spotting operations. Modern warfare also has to deal with such weaponry as guided missiles and all manner of user-unfriendly munitions (thermobaric bombs, anyone?) and yet Pete manages to knit such all such material into the fabric of the game with relative ease.
What I find most interesting is that Pete's grasp of modern technology is often delivered far more effectively and with much greater imagination that the kind of material you might expect to find in a set of sci-fi rules. That's partly because equipment such as weapon stabilisers and thermal imaging devices are taken as red in most sci-fi game worlds - whereas in CWC each can be a contributory factor in determining the outcome of an attack.
Apart from the core rules the CWC rulebook is packed with Army lists and unit data. Almost every conflict you can think of is covered to some degree - from the First Indochina War to the recent conflagration in the Gulf. There's also a range of preset scenarios to choose from including everything from break-out situations to amphibious assaults.
This is a very clean and enjoyable set of rules. Whilst it could be argued that they lack a certain amount of detail I never once felt there was anything actually "missing" from the game play. Players who revel in micro-management and the complexities of weapon ballistics may be disappointed - but it's their loss. This is a game about strategy not rivet counting and in that regard it scores far higher than many other, supposedly, hard-core offerings.
Perhaps the best accolade I can pay Cold War Commander is the fact that I now have a genuine interest in the period it covers. Indeed, as you read this review, I'm off in search of some modern miniatures to add to my collection!