A Normandy Scenario using Chain of Command

I must thank Ewan for the following detailed commentary and analysis of a Chain of Command scenario  played at the club. At the time it took place, Ewan was a relative newcomer to the game and the insights he provides will, I am sure, encourage many other gamers to try out this set of rules. The briefings used by the players can be seen here.

On Sunday 17th September 2023 at St Ambrose, Neil W set us an umpired scenario set in Normandy 1944, using a deluxe set-up of 28mm scale buildings and beautiful miniatures representing a reinforced German platoon vs similar British forces. Myself and Dan were assigned the German role in defence, charged with holding the churchyard and whittling down the British force.  Brian and Dave B were the British, aided in their task with considerable armoured support: a Sherman medium tank and Stuart light tank. The terrain was rural, but three large stone buildings including the church held decisive lines of fire across the table.  The dominance of the positions was limited however by a number of hedge-lined fields, walls, the tree-lined road - all providing good cover - but also the angle of window apertures.  The two houses had great fields of fire from their windows, but not on all sides!  Dan cautioned against putting kit in the high church tower as it would be such an easy target.  Wise words considering the HE firepower that turned up later!

Dan and I chose to make life awkward for the British by choosing minefields to hinder their advance, placing one near the bend in the road and another on the field protecting approaches to our right flank.  These wouldn't stop a tank attack but would cause a vehicle to manoeuvre around them through more difficult terrain and expose  side armour to our weaponry.  On the subject of weaponry, we didn't have much to stop that armour we had heard about in the scenario brief, so we just managed to squeeze in a Marder SP ATG.  Dan was very generous and let me push it round the table for the day. In terms of 'army list' element the Chain of Command force rating/support listing way of choosing your forces is extremely refreshing.  I like this, however if you experience the downside of it being randomised and find yourself fighting an uphill struggle from the start, I can see how it's going to be disheartening at times.  But TooFatlardies are trying to provide as much authenticity as possible - perhaps you can be like a real battle leader and turn the tide against the odds.

Neil instituted an exciting division of command on each side.  Each individual player was in charge of three Command Dice, with the ability to gift or exchange dice with their partner after the rolls were made.  Each side therefore had a total six dice to control the slightly larger forces present for the team game.  These were again divided, with Sections, Support and Senior Leaders assigned to players for their exclusive control.  The team atmosphere was brilliant, with earnest discussions about strategy during our set-up and tense decisions about how to use the Command Dice between us throughout the battle.  I needed a lot of help with interpreting these regular scatterings of fortune runes, however going back to the rulebook afterward and adding my new experience it's actually very simple. 

With the aim of the designers being to try and make you deal with simulated difficulties of command, the Command Dice really work as a fun system that forces you to make hard decisions under pressure.  Is it just another abstraction with randomised elements, no closer to real command than anything else?  I'm not sure.  What is special however is that it forces you to make difficult trade-offs about what you want to do, you are NOT just pushing one miniature after the other, hoping for the best out of meat-grinder game mechanics.

The Patrol Phase seems an essential idea when we have a game that wants to look deeply into infantry fighting.  As before this does have outward appearances of shamanic ritual, using crossed sticks and much muttering.  The method actually gives a quick, useful and dynamic way to set-up.  Finally laying out your Jump Off Points, for later-on miniatures deployment, does give a good impression of the phased filtering-in of troops as a real small engagement might escalate.  Again I really don't know how realistic this would be, but it's interesting and certainly not boring.  It is so unlike that typical lining up of matching armies, to face-off in plain-sight, which is actually very jarring for a wargamer when they want authenticity in twentieth century industrialized warfare.

The Patrol Phase allowed Dan and I to reach our defensive line quite far forward.  I deployed Jump Off Points on the left flank, aiming to control the large house there with stone-walled compound.  Dan pushed his line forward on the right to take control of the field in the middle / RHS, but with plenty of options to fall back on a second and third line nearer the church if things went badly (no shortage of hedges and walls).

Play proceeded from the Patrol Phase with the German forces quickly claiming their defensive positions while the British cautiously set up a fire base in the central house.  Vicious fire was exchanged between this British strongpoint and Dan's forward section who pressed ahead to gain better cover against a stone wall opposite the house.  My own Germans in the LHS house were in good position on the first floor to provide enfilading fire against any pressure upon Dan's front/right and right, however I had very little ability to contribute to the central firefight, as my building had no windows facing in that direction!

My attention was soon taken away from this however when a Sherman tank turned up to put HE into my building and a Section of Tommies had the nerve to line up against the garden wall of my newly adopted luxury dwelling.  The second Section under my command thought better of their positions and fell back to the opposite wall and a full-on firefight ensued across the garden, the left flank now very lively as well.

With my recent experience of Chain of Command, I had wondered if the battles were being decided by shooting matches and endless volume dice rolling that was really just standard fayre in wargaming.  However, when paying close attention to the rules, you find that any 'meat-grinder' game mechanics are significantly mitigated by your limited ability to hold and return fire while receiving shock and casualties.  Also, you can't put maximum firepower down at all times, you have to make command choices.  Winning the fire fight with volume of fire should still probably be your aim in a lot of situations, in the same way as this is a real-life tactic, however achieving it takes some considerable finesse.

Dan and I made a joint decision to bring in the Marder AT to try and fox the Sherman threatening our left flank.  We did indeed force the Sherman to back-off and re-consider, and the minefield certainly delayed them, blocking the road as an easy route of advance.  In the end the Stuart tank turned up on our right flank and after a bit of a drawn out cat and mouse game the Marder was inevitably put out of action.  Accumulated Chain of Command Points gave us the option to spring the Marder into some advantageous attacks to try and solve our tank problem or pour extra quantities of small arms into our firefights to overwhelm the enemy.  This interrupt mechanic really puts a lot of uncertainty into the battle and instils an authentic caution in the behaviour of a force due to that uncertainty.  I like this, as a game which is full of what you expect from turn to turn is a bit of a drag.  We know from reading about combat that uncertainty is a fundamental, so for those searching for realism, this randomness from the dice must be a good thing?

My troops holding the LHS building eventually proved their worth by helping to destroy a British infantry attack developing on Dan's front/right through the field of tall yellow crops.  We were able to concentrate fire from two sections to pin and force back the British, keeping them from penetrating anywhere near the church, or building up a concentration against Dan's forward troops.  That said, Brian and Dave poured lethal volleys from their strongpoint building in the centre, containing a rifle Section, Vickers MMG Team and a Senior Leader.  We never managed to neutralise this and constant HE fire from the two tanks was going to cause more and more problems.  Unfortunately for the British their morale had a lower starting point and seemed to be descending more rapidly than ours - all the while gaining no serious footholds beyond their start points.  The Force Morale element is an essential for determining an end point and deciding the victor when otherwise the game could fall into an unrealistic fight to the death.  It's a bit like a ticking clock in the mind of the player, knowing that your forces do not have a bomb-proof determination to succeed at all costs.  You can only force your troops to take so much before an endemic sense of defeat stops all action and this feels correct in my opinion.

Does Chain of Command achieve the objective of giving you the same challenges and experiences as a real commander?  I think you can gain, according to our imagined standard as readers of history, a strong flavour of real tactics and a bit of an idea of those feelings of uncertainty and caution.  Some sense of the human frailty in combat is there.  You are NOT the combat leader, but you control the combat leaders: their vital but limited influence is what I can now see as the core of the game.  You DO NOT directly control your individual soldiers as you do in other wargames, you only control them through your leaders and the vagaries of the Command Dice.  This is different and good and makes Chain of Command feel like an exciting prospect for my future gaming.

As a four player game with umpire, I thought it all moved very fast and easily, Neil's direction being invaluable.  On the German side at least, I think neither of us were standing idle for very long and we were both always involved.  Given more experience and time in the field it should give great chances to develop more advanced tactics and overcome difficult problems using our brains, and this is even more fun in team games....and thus the game ended as the light began to fade, the Germans satisfied at having bought time against the inevitable Allied advance, the valiant but cautious British loathe to waste their blood continuing to attack with such unfavourable odds.