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I hope you enjoy the blog. Although I do post gaming battle reports, because of my gaming ADD I have a tendency to look at a lot of rules and therefore I do a number of reviews. Hopefully I can save you some money by not buying crummy rules, or you can point out to me why something I thought wasn't good should actually get a second look. I welcome and appreciate comments.
This article is a review of the game Tactical Assault: Combat Cards by Tactical Assault Games. So, what are Tactical Assault: Combat Cards (TACC)? From their website:
The Tactical Assault: Combat Cards™ are a fun and innovative way to fight combined arms battles on the tabletop battlefield. The Combat Cards are designed to bring all of the detailed elements of land warfare – including the fog of war – to the tabletop in a narrative card-driven format that is easy to play yet full of challenges. To be successful you must be creative in your strategies, flexible in your tactics and attentive to the ever changing battlefield.If you are familiar with the excellent, old game from Avalon Hill called Up Front, then you have a pretty good idea of what TACC is. Essentially it is a card game where the cards not only determine what you can do (command and control), but if you are successful at it (random chance element is built in.
The key to the Combat Cards is the way in which they simulate every commander’s struggle with maximizing the use of their available assets in the face of the multitude of hazards, delays and other challenges on the battlefield. The Combat Cards integrate all of this in a fast and easy to use system that challenges players to balance the need for careful planning with a willingness to take risks and seize upon sudden opportunities.
The Combat Cards can be utilized for just about any modern historical period, starting with the 20th century, as well as any science fiction setting. They can be used with any scale of miniatures, any sized battlefield and for any size of battle – ranging from the smallest skirmish action all the way up to massive operational level maneuvers.
Before I get started I need to say that I am reluctant to reveal too much information about the game. Essentially, the details on the cards are what you are paying for. I will try and limit my explanations to what you can actually get yourself from their website, but make the explanations a little more concrete.
PDF document on the anatomy of a combar card from their website. The sample card is shown on the right. You can also download the complete rules as a PDF for free.
Each card has four sections: Action, Situation, Combat Results, and Random Drift. Each player starts with a hand of six cards and uses them to play Actions and Situations either in their turn or in their opponents. So, the game has a hand management element to it as you decide which card to use for an Action and which to use for a Situation.
When a combat situation needs to be resolved, a card is drawn from the deck (not from the hand) and the Combat Results section is used. Similarly, when something needs to drift, such as artillery attacks, a card is randomly drawn from the player's deck to determine which direction the drift occurs and how far.
The turn sequence is pretty simple:
- Player A is Active Player. Player B is Inactive Player.
- Active Player plays a card for its Action and Situation, one at a time.
- Inactive Player plays a card to interrupt or cancel Active Player's card, or passes.
- Repeat 2 and 3 until Active Player passes.
- Alternately, Active Player can discard as many cards from his hand.
- Active Player refills the hand to six cards.
- Active Player plays a card only for its Situation, one at a time.
- Inactive Player plays a card to interrupt or cancel Active Player's card, or passes.
- Repeat 7 and 8 until Active Player passes.
- Player B is Active Player, Player A is Inactive Player.
- Repeat steps 2 through 9.
- Turn ends.
Each player can only play one Action on a unit, per turn. You cannot do anything without a card being played, and during your turn, Actions are the primary means of doing things. Movement, firing, assaulting, digging in, concealment, recovering from combat results, these are all Actions on the cards. Again, a unit cannot do anything without the play of a card, so managing your card hand is important. Also, with a hand of six cards to cover your half of the turn and your opponents, you are not going to be acting with every unit every turn.
A Situation often, but not always, is a reaction played in the opponent's turn, such as the Opportunity Fire indicated in the sample card, but it can also be off-board artillery, air strikes, reconnaissance, and other "events". Some situations are modifiers to a subsequent Action played on the unit the Situation is applied to, so you can get powerful "combination" attacks. As stated previously, however, you must let your opponent have a chance to play an interrupt or cancellation after each card you play, so you cannot necessarily pull of flawless combinations without recourse from your opponent.
The game feels very familiar because, like Saga, it uses measurements like Very Short, Short, Medium, Long, and Very Long. Everything is rated in these measurements, whether it is movement, the distance you can shoot, or the distance of a card effect. The longest measurement, VL, is the length of the shortest board edge, with each measurement below that ½ of the previous value. Thus on a 6' by 4' board, Very Long = 48", Long = 24", Medium = 12", Short = 6", and Very Short = 3". To get a sense of scale, most movement is Short, while Armor shoots Very Long. (Better break out the LOS-blocking terrain!)
Movement is very simple, measuring from center point-to-center point, able to move through friendlies with no problem, and halving movement only while your center point is over terrain that hinders you.
Firing is also simple, again measuring from center point-to-center point. If you are within range and the line of sight is not blocked (both friendly and enemy units block line of sight) you compare the Firepower rating of the firer to the Protection rating of the target. (By the way, all of this information is available to you, for free, in the downloadable rules, so I don't have a problem quoting examples feeling like I am giving away the store.) If Firepower is stronger you get one shift "up", whereas if Protection is stronger you get one shift "down". Cover and being obscured creates shifts ("up" is good for the firer). There are only six modifiers in the basic game and they are listed on page 7 of the rules: Firepower superior; Protection superior; Extreme Range; firing from outside of the front arc of the target (i.e. a flank or rear shot); being obscured or in cover; and being at a lower elevation than the target. These shifts change the combat results, which are indicated by the drawn card from the firer's deck. (By the way, each player has their own combat deck, although they are identical.) The combat results, from lowest to highest, are: No Effect; Fall Back; Shaken; Out of Action; and Eliminated. So one shift "up" from No Effect results in a Fall Back result, while two shifts "down" from Eliminated results in a Shaken result.
Let's us an example. An Anti-Armor unit attacks an Armored unit. The Unit Type & Characteristics Table (page 5 of the rules) indicates that the Anti-Armor unit can fire Long (24" on a 6' x 4' table) with a Firepower rating of Heavy. The Armored unit's Protection rating is Heavy, so Firepower and Protection are equal, resulting in no shifts. No other modifiers apply, so when the card is drawn for a Combat Result, whatever the value is will be the result taken. Very simple.
Close combat requires a special action; you cannot simply move into contact. Once there both sides get to attack and defend. Infantry is rated as Very Heavy in close combat so it is its' primary means of taking out the enemy, as its Firepower rating is only Light.
Unit Types and Characteristics
TACC has a very similar feel to Hordes of the Things (HOTT). Units are typed as either: Aerial; Aerial Defense; Anti-Armor; Armored; Artillery; Behemoth; Bunker; Civilian; Command; Creature; Engineer; Fire Support; Heavy Weapon; Infantry; Infiltrator; Mechanized; Obstacle; Recon; or Swarm. In fact, some of these types have the same names as HOTT; the remainder are just modernized version of the other HOTT types.
There are no "periods" in TACC, just like HOTT. Everything is considered to be relative to one another. For example, armor may keep getting stronger as you move from WW II through Modern to Science Fiction, but it is the game designer's contention that armor's defensive value (Protection rating) stays relatively the same when compared to infantry's ranged power (Firepower rating) and its assault power (Close Combat rating). Put another way, although Armor's Protection rating keeps going higher over time, so does Infantry's Firepower and Close Combat ratings; in the end the relative values stay the same. I think I like that, as a starting point.
Terrain is defined in several ways. Is it linear or a template (area)? Is it covering, obstructing, hindering, impassable, or elevated? If elevated, how high is it? All of these characteristics combine to help you determine how the terrain impacts movement, line of sight, and combat effects. By combining these characteristics you can model any terrain feature.
There are no rules for laying out terrain, or an indication about how dense the terrain should be. There are no guidelines for determining what terrain characteristics to use for any given terrain type. I saw an interesting exchange on one blog article's comment section on how two different players modelled a building. So there is no "one way".
Army Lists, Battlefield Setup, and Deployment
Like HOTT, you build a standard army of 36 points. (The free rules show you the cost of each unit, so you can get an idea.) Unless you are using an expansion (see below) there are no modifiers to these costs. There are no lists. You can buy any number of each unit type you want for your army. It is up to you to translate your scenario or concept into unit types and force compositions.
As indicated above, there are no rules for laying out a battlefield's terrain. Do what feels good. Also, see the comments on Scale below.
Deployment is interesting. The author does not intend you to line up your forces on your baseline and go at it with an opponent who lined up his forces on his baseline. Deployment is by players alternating placement of a single unit on the board – anywhere on the board, as long as it is not closer than Medium distance from an enemy unit. This makes deployment of units even more critical than in Flames of War, I think.
Some units are not placed on the board, artillery and aerial units, for example, while other units are placed on the board, but not during initial deployment. Infiltrators are an example of that; they are deployed by the play of a card (sort of like Lurkers in HOTT) and can be placed almost anywhere on the board.
First off, there are a number of expansions already out there for TACC. As there was a New Year's sale, I went ahead and bought them all (of course).
Legendary Battles are scenarios with maps, special rules, and orders of battle. They help you get an idea on how to play other periods like WW II, Vietnam, modern Zombie Apocalypse and Science Fiction bug hunts, for example. They are very light, but buying one that sounds interesting is probably not a bad idea.
Personality Cards allow you to assign personality traits to commanders, specific units, or an entire side. I found the cards interesting and of average value, but I thought they could have provided more for the price. The rules (which are a free PDF download) are not really well thought out and rather generic. They certainly won't give you a hint of what to expect from your purchase, nor unfortunately will the sample card.
Experience cards allow you to assign experience levels – like Veteran, Trained, and Conscript of Flames of War – to units or sides. The rules are poorly thought out and the point values completely absurd. This should have been a free download, but it looks like the author has caught expansion fever. This one product was the first expansion I looked at and I thought that if all the others were this bad, I had gotten ripped off. Fortunately, this is the bad apple of the bunch.
Technology cards allow you to tweak units by slightly modifying them up or down from the generic versions. Examples – again, without giving away the author's IP freely 1 – are making a unit a little slower than normal, lighter or heavier in Protection than normal, and heavier in Firepower than normal. There are two of these expansion packs, and they could have easily been combined into a single expansion, so that lowers the value of them. That said, getting at least one will help you get the juices flowing on how you can tweak the unit characteristics to model real-world units (for example, a King Tiger tank being a Behemoth, but a Maus being a slow Behemoth).
One final comment about expansions: Tactical Assault is actually two different games. The game reviewed here is Combat Cards, but the other is Fantasy Cards which is the fantasy version of the game. There are expansions for the fantasy game that are presumably not compatible with the modern combat game.
A Few Problems
As is common with a game that likely does not have a large player base or heavy playtesting (an assumption I make with this game based upon the number of Google hits I found on this game, which has been out on the market since 2009), there are a few contradictions in the rules (in the rule book and on the cards), but they are generally minor. The examples found to date through playtesting are:
- The rules indicate that you can play cards in step 2 and discard as many cards as you want, but the quick reference sheet and one reference on the internet indicates that it is or. (I have reflected the or in this review and used it in my test game.)
- The wording for Reconnaissance is such that you cannot reveal Concealed units, which is clearly the intent of the Situation description.
- It is not really clear how counter-battery fire is resolved. (Is it shifted up one or a straight combat results pull?) It looks like counter-battery fire is really effective. The limiter is getting the card and not using it for anything else. Given that you are likely to cycle through the deck at least once in the course of a game you will draw it eventually.
- It is not really clear which modifiers apply for attacks against off-board elements (can they be dug in?) or by off-board elements (can they be elevated?).
- When a Confused, Shaken, or Out of Action unit is attacked in Close Combat, it appears that the unit can fight back, despite you thinking that it might not be able to.
- An Open Fire card only allows you to fire at a target within line of sight. But the definition of line of sight includes being within your 180º front arc, so to fire at someone outside of your front arc you would need two actions – one to move and one to shoot – thus it would take two turns. By then the target could easily move out of line of sight again. The Open Fire card should allow a free, in-place pivot before firing.
One thing I have not mentioned is basing schemes, figure scales, or even the scale that the action represents. That is because there is no scale specified. People have used these rules to play skirmish games with one figure equalling one man while others have used a stand to represent a platoon, and others still multiple stands for the unit, representing who knows what. Like HOTT, these rules are very abstract – maybe I should say ambiguous – about what they represent. Only further gaming will reveal what they are good at representing and what they are not.
Tactical Assault:Command Cards Ratings
Using my new method for reviewing rules, here are the ten aspects of the rules I rate.
Drama - do the rules create tension during play?
I did not feel a lot of tension with TACC. It is definitely a thinking game, but because you tend to chain and order card play, I tend to be a bit more sedate. Besides, having a great combination does not mean it won't be blown as each card can be interrupted; it seems fairly easy to spoil a combination.
One of the things that seems more "realistic" is that you end up pumping round after round into a unit in order to get that Eliminated combat result. The Out of Action is not permanent; you never know when a unit will suddenly come back into action. Of course that "realism" gets a bit tedious.
The largest detraction, in terms of drama, is that the combat is so simple and comes down to a single card pull; it is not very exciting. It has its advantages, however.
TACC rates 3 out of 5 in Drama.
Uncertainty - are there enough elements that introduce uncertainty in the game?
TACC has enough random elements in the game. Although there are no dice, the cards play that role adequately, just as they do with the classic Up Front. The problem is that it takes too many cards to get things done. Whereas with 'typical' activation systems, like Command and Colors, when you activate you get to move and shoot or choose whether you want to move or shoot. With TACC you need different cards to move or shoot for any given unit type. This creates a little too much uncertainty.
There were a couple of times where a player could look at a shot and say, "I cannot eliminate that target", so would not take the shot (for example, with an Armored unit engaging a Behemoth frontally). I remember a game called The Complete Brigadier which did not use chance elements for firing or melee and people complained that there were situations where they could calculate in their head the results, and felt that determinism detracted from the game. I am unsure about whether it bothers me or not. Sometimes trying for that 1% shot slows the game down so much that whatever realism it was supposed to represent itself becomes a distraction from the game. I think this is why so many game designers abstract away skirmishing from big battle horse and musket games.
TACC rates 3 out of 5 in Uncertainty.
Engaging - do the rules allow the player to make meaningful decisions that lead to consequences?
TACC's game design is centered around managing a single, scarce resource: the combat cards. You only play so many cards per turn and they can only be used for one thing, so unit activities take a while to complete. Further, a unit can generally only be ordered to do one thing (move or shoot) per turn, so the game appears to move in slow motion. Although turns go fast, when a player's turn is chopped up into so many discrete pieces, players tend to lose patience and just do anything in order to do something.
That said, the combo play is the name of the game and planning for a really good move is what the player is shooting for. When you pull it off, it sucks the player back into the narrative of the action.
TACC rates 4 out of 5 in Engaging.
Unobtrusiveness - do the rules get in the way?
If you can say anything about the rules of TACC, it would be unobtrusive. Once you learn the dozen or so "golden rules", which are easily memorized, the rules are pretty much written on the cards played.
TACC rates 5 out of 5 in Unobtrusiveness.
Heads Up - are the rules playable without frequent reference to a quick reference sheet?
Unless you are using a lot of unit types or the expansions, TACC requires little reference to sheets. There are few combat modifiers, so they are easily memorized. In many cases, where a target is already Shaken and Out of Action, and an Elimination result is required to effectively get a result, a player can quickly determine that the result is not possible so they do not waste the card firing. To me, that is a pretty Heads Up set of rules.
TACC rates 4 out of 5 in Heads Up.
Appropriately Flavored - do the rules 'feel' like they represent the period or genre being played?
TACC has a lot of similarities to HOTT and De Bellis Antiquitatis (DBA). Both of these rules define capabilities generically. DBA further adopts the concept that, as these generic troop types progress through the Biblical, Classical, Dark Ages, and Medieval periods, their offensive power stays relatively the same against the defensive power. In other words, a Blade representing Philistine swordsmen with shields (a Blade unit type) pitted against an Assyrian heavy chariot (a Knight unit type) has the same relative offensive and defensive power as a dismounted Knight (a Blade unit type) has against a mounted Knight (a Knight unit type) during the War of the Roses. So, you can use the same rules and combat results to game Philistines versus Assyrians as you can for the War of the Roses.
The problem, of course, is that each period feels a little generic, and you cannot logically cross period lines. TACC feels the same. The army lists for TACC would not have different unit types over time, just different combinations. Rebels forces might not be allowed Aerials, for example, because they do not possess aircraft.
TACC rates 3 out of 5 in Appropriately Flavored. It feels modern for sure. It is just that once you get into the modern period, there is little to differentiate one game from the next. The Tech expansions certainly help in that regard, however.
Scalable - can the rules be scaled up or down – in terms of figures or units used or in the number of players – from the 'standard game'?
When I looked at TACC I started by looking for reviews of the rules. I was surprised that many people were using single figures/models to represent a unit in the game. Given that there is absolutely no scale information in the rules, that makes sense. Distances are functions of board size, not the scale of the game (skirmish, squad, platoon, company, battalion, Division, Corps, Army, etc.) that you are playing.
The game certainly implies that a unit's footprint on the table not be considerable, at least to my mind. There are no rules to discuss some of the problems associated with multi-base units or units with large footprints. Given this, and that the game's concept is one of relative power, it is easy to image the game at lower levels of scale. I played my test games with a unit represented by a single vehicle model, stand of one gun and crew, or stand of infantry figures and representing a platoon of troops. I could just have easily called it a squad and it would have worked as well. Using single infantry figures to represent the units also works well, from others' battle reports.
I think it starts to fall apart as you scale up what the unit represents. When you do that, the firing ranges start to seem ludicrous. Then again, I have never found a set of modern rules where a stand equals a company or higher and the firing ranges weren't way out of scale.
In terms of scaling the game by raising or lowering unit counts, it is simply a matter of adjusting the number of cards the player is allowed in their hand. It is not linear, however, just as it isn't with Memoir '44. Just because you double the number of units you should not necessarily double the hand.
TAC rates 4 out of 5 for Scalable. It has some leeway – single figure skirmishes to platoon-as-unit – but it stops about there. As for the number of figures used, that is irrelevant; what becomes important is the footprint of the unit in relation to movement and firing distances. Finally, scaling the number of units is possible, but needs a lot of testing. I don't think it will scale by more than three times the standard size without something breaking (like the time required to complete a game).
Lacks Fiddly Geometry - do the rules require fiddly measurements or angles?
TACC uses simple rules for center-to-center measurements and 180º firing arcs, so it is pretty much "fiddly-free". There is no reason you cannot play these rules on a square or hex grid.
TACC rates 4 out of 5 in Lacks Fiddly Geometry. (Only grid-based games get a 5 from me!)
Tournament Tight™ Rules - are the rules clear and comprehensive, or do the leave the player to 'fill in the blanks'?
Lack of battlefield setup rules and a few questions regarding off-board units cut it from a 5 to a 4. Point costs seem untested, especially of the expansion elements, so it cuts the rating from a 4 to a 3. You can see some of the issues I ran into in my test game, above.
TACC rates 3 out of 5 in Tournament Tight Rules.
Solo Suitability - do the rules have elements conducive to solo play?
TACC relies on using cards to represent reacting in your opponents' turn. Knowing when you can get away with a move without drawing a reaction is a fair portion of the game. If you are willing to forego that element of surprise, then you can game the rules solo.
TACC rates 3 out of 5 in Solo Suitability. It is not impossible, but because it has hidden elements that affect game play, you lose some of that richness when playing solo.
1 I am sorry, I could not help myself. I had to get that phrase into print somehow.
I played a test game using my Flames of War based WW II figures on a 6' x 4' board. Because the short side of the battlefield is 48", the Very Short measurement is 3", while the Very Long is 48".
The forces I used were:
King Tigers (Behemoth) @ 6 x 2
Sdkfz 7/1 Quad 2cm (Aerial Defense) @ 1 x 3
10.5cm Howitzer Battery (Artillery) @ 1 x 3
Kampfgruppe Pfeifer Commander (Command) @ 1 x 2
Panzergrenadiers (Mechanized) @ 4 x 3
Grenadiers (Infantry) @ 2 x 2
= 36 points
As a note I ended up using a sIG 15cm infantry gun as my artillery unit. In the game such a weapon would probably qualify as a Fire Support unit.
P-51 Mustang (Aerial) @ 1 x 2
Bazooka Teams (Infiltrator) @ 3 x 2
105mm Howitzers (Artillery) @ 3 x 2
Company Commander (Command) @ 1 x 2
Shermans (Armor) @ 1 x 5
M-10s (Anti-Armor) @ 3 x 3
Infantry @ 2 x 3
= 36 points
As you can see, I did not have a P-51 model, and my American artillery looks suspiciously like German 10.5cm howitzers.
The rules allow you to deploy anywhere, as long as you are not within Medium of an enemy unit. Players alternate deploying units, so it is sort of a cat-and-mouse phase of the game. You really don't know which direction the enemy is coming from until a few units start getting placed.
I decided for a Peiper's Charge-like scenario where the Germans are trying to blitz through towns on their way to the Meuse River and the American rear echelon troops have to stop them. So the Americans largely setup in cover around the town. The Germans decided to attack from two directions, with the goal of breaking through off of the road on the upper right of the board.
(You can click on pictures to make them larger.)
|Left Fank||Right Flank|
First blood went to the Americans with a massive artillery attack against the flanking forces, killing the German command unit, pinning the infantry, and forcing the King Tiger to retreat. The Americans were 2-0 (with the goal to reach 18 points).
The King Tiger fired at the M-10 tank destroyer, forcing it to retreat off of the board. This showed me the reason not to setup a unit within 6" of a board edge. If you get a Fall Back result (fairly easy) and leave the board, you count as eliminated. The Germans were then 3-2.
The M-10 (an Anti-Tank unit) fired at the Gepanzerte Panzergrenadier platoon (a Mechanized unit) and destroyed it. The Americans were then 6-3.
Playing a test game before giving the final review was reinforced when one of the American Bazooka-armed tank hunter teams (an Infiltrator unit) assaulted an out-of-action German King Tiger (Behemoth unit). My first inclination was that an out-of-action unit cannot 'swing back' in close combat, but I decided to read the rules carefully. Sure enough, there was no such language; my own bias was creeping in.
Eventually the King Tiger got back into action and swung around the 'rear' of the Bazooka team and assaulted it, destroying the unit. Why drive around it? Because you shift up one level for attacking from outside the front arc, of course!
The King Tiger assaults the Tank Hunter team and destroys it, but is also Shaken in the process. The Germans were then 6-6.
I learned that when dropping artillery, you generally want to drop it Very Short away from where you want the to hit at a point where the closes enemy unit is the one you want to hit. Drifting is in relation to the closest enemy (or friendly) unit to the target point. If the drift is Dead On (a less common result), you will still get the unit in the blast (which has a Very Short radius), but you also get hit the target on a Very Short drift towards the closest enemy unit (a fairly common result). Once you learn this tricks it generally takes the fun and uncertainty out of the game.
I could go on, but this is not intended as a full battle report, but just to show some of the concepts in action. (The Americans eventually won, largely because of their artillery.)
It was an enjoyable game, but very long to complete (in the order of three to four hours); more than many gamers would be willing to put in and certainly more than most of the locals I game with. The problem was that to score points you had to eliminate a unit, not just put it out of action. Eliminating units typically occurred by putting them out of action, then advancing on them out of their front arc in order to get a bonus, then hoping for the result that would eliminate them before they found a card to bring them back out of action. With artillery hitting with Very Heavy firepower anywhere on the board, the Americans had the advantage to knocking out units. The King Tigers had to be assaulted with infantry in order to remove them (I only got one).
All in all, a very different game.