I love tactical squad level combat. I will say that I am partial to World War II tactical games but am always open and willing to play other time periods. There is just something about the strategy, the tension and fear inherent in the game that really draws me in. What is going to happen when I run my squad out from their comfortable and relatively safe building to cross a field, offering little to no cover, in order to get into position to eliminate the enemy? I don’t know but whatever it is it will be fun!
So what is considered a tactical wargame? Tactical wargames model military conflict at a tactical level. In other words, it focuses on individual units, which can range from vehicles and squads all the way up to platoons or companies. These units are assigned rating factors based on what types of individual weaponry the units carry, reflected in firepower, range and usually movement. Tactical games are usually designed so that a rudimentary knowledge of military tactics will facilitate good gameplay.
I have played many versions of tactical goodness and it is most definitely my favorite brand of wargame. The reason it is my favorite genre is that the rules are generally simple and straight forward, the action is always hot and heavy, the games are generally scenario based and play fast and it is always fun as literally anything can happen. In this post, I want to take a look at the best games that include tactical combat. There are a lot of pretenders out there but there are only a few that I feel are simply the best….better than all the rest!
3. 65′: Squad-Level Combat in the Jungles of Vietnam from Flying Pig Games
65′ is a squad-level, tactical wargame that takes players to the early battles of the Vietnam War, from Ia Drang to Operation Starlight, and most everything between. The game uses large 1″ counters that represent squads, Leaders, Heroes, Snipers, M-48 and Pt-76 tanks, and more.
Players move and fight their units over three geomorphic game boards as you try to get the best of your opponent in one of eight historical scenarios. The game is card-driven and uses a system from Flying Pig’s Night of Man that makes the game play fun and exciting, as well as a little bit uncertain, as you never quite know what cards you will draw or what cards your enemy has lurking in their hand just waiting for the right moment to use. Can I run my sappers up to attack or does the enemy have a fire card he’s been holding for the last three rounds?
I also really liked the special abilities or “Powers” that different types of units and Leaders have. These powers can be set off by playing the right type of card (see below pictured card with the word POWER shown) and really pay off when you can get them played. This element really added some variety to the game play and had me really thinking about how I needed to effectively build my squads. The rules are pretty light for a squad level tactical game, especially a Vietnam game with all of the potential complexities from that War, which makes the game really quite accessible and I’d recommend it for those looking to enter the tactical side of the hobby. Great fun, with beautiful counters and simple gameplay, is the reason this game made my list. It also has a very good set of solo rules so you don’t even need to find a friend to play.
2. Combat Infantry from Columbia Games
Combat Infantry is a World War II block tactical wargame that takes the genre in a new and interesting direction. The game was funded on Kickstarter earlier this summer and has yet to reach the market but we were lucky enough to play it at Gen Con 50. So, you might be asking why is a game you have only played once on this list?
Well, the simple answer is that IT IS THAT GOOD! The game builds upon familiar tactical elements and gameplay but throws in the new variable of units being wooden blocks as opposed to the normal cardboard counters. This means that the units are actually hidden as you only reveal those units when they fire so you will never actually know what forces are arrayed against you as they approach, until it is too late. The game still focuses on the tactical scale and each block represents an individual unit and the rules are really familiar. The reason this game made the list is that the “Fog of War” element that the use of blocks introduces just takes the game to the next notch of tension. In a traditional tactical game, I can see what units are coming at me and I can plan on how to best attack them, but not in this game. This hidden unit aspect just adds some really cool elements to an already proven system.
As an example of what I am talking about, in our play at Gen Con, playing as the Americans, I had approached a bridge with a squad consisting of two Riflemen and a Leader. I was approaching a German group that was defending the other side of the bridge but I couldn’t tell what the units were. There were only two blocks in the hex so I wasn’t that worried. So, upon reaching my objective, I attacked and it was the worst case scenario, a few tank units that my Rifleman were nearly unable to damage. I had to roll 1’s on a 10 side die to hit and luckily for me, over a 2 round period, actually rolled several ones which destroyed the units and allowed me to take the bridge. Great fun! This game is supposedly going to hit the market later this year and I would recommend that you get a copy as it is very well made, with fantastic art and components, and plays very well. We even really enjoyed the movement aspect even though it was really congested and caused lots of bottlenecks on those one lane French roads.
1. Combat Commander from GMT Games
I definitely saved the best for last! Combat Commander is a card-driven strategy game (I love CDG’s if you didn’t know!) covering tactical infantry combat in the European and Pacific Theater of World War II made for 2 players, although there are several ways to play solo if you search on Board Game Geek. One player takes the role of the Axis (Germany, Italy or Japan) while another player is one of the major Allies, including the United States of America, Britain, France or Russia.
The players will take turns playing one or more “Fate” cards (each side has a deck of 72 available cards) from their hands in order to activate units on the map to perform military functions such as fire, move, request artillery support, recover, dig-in, etc. Each of these actions can be countered at the appropriate time with the playing of a card from your opponent’s hand that acts as an instant or interrupt, changing the conditions of the battlefield and affecting the results of the originally played card.
Players attempt to achieve victory by moving their units across the game map to attack their opponent’s combat units and occupy as many objectives as possible before the final time check is triggered or a “Surrender” condition is met which is typically a preset number of unit losses allowed. The degree to which a player succeeds or fails is measured by specific “Objective” chits (some that are known and some that are hidden), the destruction of enemy units (scores are given for the size of the defeated troops), and the exiting of friendly units off the opponent’s board edge.
I love Combat Commander! There are two main reasons that this game is number 1 on this list, and in my opinion, the best tactical level game ever created. One is that it is a card-driven strategy game. The cards are what you rely on to take actions, and if you do not wisely manage those cards, you may not have the card you need, such as a fire or advance in your hand when you need it! Some would complain that this is randomness and doesn’t belong in a strategy game but I disagree. I have never been in the service nor had to participate in a battle, but I can only imagine that there is chaos. This chaos changes all of the best laid battle plans and there are certain factors that contribute to that chaos, such as running out of ammo, your guns jamming, being pinned down by a sniper or having your units morale drop leaving them hugging the ground and keeping their heads down, that make battle difficult. The cards represent this part of the chaos and is a genius addition to the game. I also enjoy the way the designer chose to address rolling using the dice printed at the bottom of each order card. This is a very solid way of handling this necessary random determination of combat.
The other favorite part for me is the narrative that is told as the battles unfold! As I have played Combat Commander, I imagine that I can feel what the squads felt in combat. I have felt as if I was Sergeant Kaminsky trying to inspire his men to move up on a well defended building to engage the enemy and knock them out of that fortification. I have experienced the disappointment of Sergeant Ganz as his troops were forced to retreat to try to repel the Russians who were threatening the German troops in the buildings. I have felt the disgust in my unit’s performance when a very powerful infantry gun or heavy artillery continues to miss its targets. The narrative is the best part and allows my mind to participate in the battle, even though I am not there. It is a similar feeling to a well written book that forces you to take the role of characters and experience their feelings as you read the pages. If a game can do all that, it is definitely good!
I hope you enjoyed my look at the Best 3 Games with…Tactical Combat! With these Best 3 posts, it can be very difficult to choose just three games. I haven’t played every tactical game out there so please keep that in mind. These are simply games that I have really liked. Honorable mentions could also go to Nations at War: White Star Rising from Lock ‘n Load Publishing and Old School Tactical from Flying Pig Games. I also have played and have enjoyed several tactical miniatures games such as Conan from Monolith Editions, Time of Legends: Joan of Arc from Mythic Games and Dark Souls from Steamforged Games (maybe I should do another Best 3 post focusing on Tactical Miniatures?!?). Let me know what games you think are better at integrating Tactical Combat than the three that I chose.
You kidding right?
Now why would you ask that? These are the games that I like. You may have a different opinion but this one is mine. What games do you prefer?
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ASL not in your top 3! Why?
I just feel the complexity of ASL hurts it. When I play a tactical game, I am playing it to be fast and furious, not to get bogged down in deep rules that cover every conceivable difference in units and have a rules explanation that can stretch a quarter mile. Just my preference. Doesn’t mean I don’t think it is a good game just not one of my favorites.
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“Combat Commander is a card-driven strategy game…covering tactical infantry combat in the European Theater of World War II.”…
“One player takes the role of the Axis (Germany, Italy or Japan)….”
In which campaign of the European Theater did Japanese troops participate?
It is so secret, no one knows. I made that edit in the article. Thanks for pointing it out.
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There is an expansion of Combat Commander featuring the Pacific theater w/ Japan, so that sentence is not incorrect.
Band of Brothers: Screaming Eagles, or Ghost Panzer. Best tactical system ever.
Conflict of Heroes Awakening the Bear 2nd edition deserves mention too.
I haven’t played either of those. They are on the list and I have heard lots of good things.
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For me there’s only ONE best WWII tactical wargame : ASL.
I tried a lot of other games in this genre (but not all of course) but I’ve always been disappointed.
You know what it is : when you get used to the best….
That’s what is great about our hobby. To each his own. Thanks for sharing.
Very nice list, Grant, and it makes me want to check out “‘65” and “Combat Infantry”’!
I own the “Combat Commander” series, about which more at the end of my list.
My top 3 games for Tactical Combat are:
3. West End Games’ “Star Wars Miniatures Battles”.
Now, don’t kick me; this is a tight, playable system with contemporary weapon types, many of which are generic enough that I adapted them to WW2 skirmish, and they work beautifully. Weapons systems and even command structures do not interest me as much as command and control and tactical decisions, and using SWMB for WW2 combat indulges me in these interests beautifully. And don’t worry; there’s no “Force” rules in my version… well… maybe a little! 🙂
2. Yaquinto’s “Close Assault”.
Craig Taylor’s answer to “Squad Leader”, sadly mis-marketed as an “album game”. Here, systems are fairly inportant, but how, when and where those systems are utilized are the issues which Craig offered the players with an elegant, playable system which would be adapted to Viet Nam (“Platoon”) and modern-era combat (“Firepower”).
1. Avalon Hill’s “Up Front”.
What can I say about this, my absolute favorite of all tne way too many games I own? When GMT’s “Combat Commander” first came put, a fellow “Up Front” aficionado described it as “the game ‘Up Front’ wanted to be… in fact, I believe the reverse to be true. Much as I enjoy “Combat Commander”, I feel it caters to players who want a larger-scale “Up Front”, players who prefer maps and the near-perfect field intel they provide. “Combat Commander” does a great many things for the tactically-minded player up to the operational level, and that, to me, is where it pales in comparison to “Up Front”.
For, at the tactical scale, things happen which simply cannot be modeled by an operational-level game… but “Up Front” models them flawlessly.
One common criticism of “Up Front” is the “magically-appearing terrain”; a player moves a group with the intention of using the advantageous “Hill” card he is holding, only to have his opponent discard a distinctly DIS-advantageous “Stream” card on his group; howls of frustration and cries of “unrealistic!” generally ensue when this happens to a lifelong board- or miniatures gamer.
I can tell you, from personal experience, that many was the hill I was headed for, map in hand, only to find an unmarked gully or seasonal stream in my way.
The morale of men in an “Up Front” squad is never what one might ideally wish it to be; the infantryman with the highest morale is a mere rifleman, while a mediocre-morale soldier is assigned the squad’s most valuable support weapon. Board- and miniatures gamers claim this unrealistic, but do not consider that the skills that make a man the best choice for operating a light machine gun might not be those which make him suitable for infiltration and close combat, among other things. Men are different, occasionally unreliable, and a good squad leader has to learn how to deal with that.
That kind of chaos and uncertainty in all things, is the very core of “Up Front”, and how the player deals with it is the entire nature of the game. While critics decry the game as being “too random”, that apparent randomness is an illusion; “Up Front’s” consistency _IS_ it’s very randomness. I don’t know why I throve in this game, but I do, and I have always loved how it’s rock-solid, riveted systems are used to deal with the chaos of tactical combat it models so beautifully.
In my experience, most combat veterans prefer “Up Front”. Whatever that says about the systems, it’s as much testimonial as I need.
Again, Grant, I really enjoyed your take on your three favorites, and it’s inspired me to revisit one title and check out the other two. If you are not familiar with any of my choices, I hope I have piqued your interest enough to consider doing the same with them.
Until next time; Happy gaming!
Sorry; “thrive”, not “throve”…
No “edit” option for posts, alas!
Thanks. I absolutely love Up Front and have been playing that for years. My father in law introduced me too it when I was 23 over 20 years ago and we still play it. I wrote a review on it last Christmas. I will look into your other recommendations as they sound great as well. I love Star Wars so let’s see. Thanks for reading.
I still play SL rather than ASL as I find ASL too complex for quick games but have to admit I LOVE Combat Commander, but after c.30 yrs playing SL its the one game I would run back into a burning building for ( would probably die trying to get all supplements & 30+ additional boards out)
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That’s beautiful. I can feel your passion. Thanks for sharing.
I have to admit I don’t have any of your three. What I do have is Conflict of Heroes: Awakening the Bear and Guadalcanal. Also like the mentions of Squad Leader. I have Assault and Firepower but see those as “super tactical” games at a different. It’s what makes our hobby so great!
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I passed on the ‘65 Kickstarter but this game keeps jumping back up in front of me.
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I agree completely with the comments that chastise you for leaving out ASL. Perhaps you change the title of your post to “My favorite 3 games …” because as a “Best” list, you’ve completely failed.
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I disagree completely and have no issue with Grant’s opinion.
I would absolutely disagree with ASL being on a “best” list
Maybe you could change the title to “my 3 fav….”
100% on board with Combat Commander as #1. I’ll have to check out the others!
Wow, this review really pulled in great replies.
I too am a long time fan of SL/ASL since its beginning, and I still enjoy playing it. I totally agree with your comments on the Combat Commander series placing it on your best list. I feel it is well-designed to capture the chaotic mess of a fire fight that Squad Leader often looses while you check up on a rule. I recall a reviewer’s comment when CC first published describing it as the offspring of ASL and Up Front – not a bad description.
However, CC does have some disappointments for me. Other that the rules for a Banzai attack which I feel are really bad, I list these two:
In Battle Pack #5, “Fall of the West” Chad introduced armor – clunky rules but AFVs were on the scene. I hoped that this would lead to improved armor rules and just maybe a North Africa module. I re-wrote the armor rules, pulled AFV counters from my ASL collection, and enjoyed playing through BP 5, but we are still waiting for North Africa.
And that is the second disappointment. Why has Chad and GMT seemingly walked away from this series? There hasn’t been anything since the fantasy pack of Germans in Londontown, and there is nothing on GMT’s production list through 2018. How sad.
They have? Noooooo! I just discovered this and it totally brought me back into wargames.
This will probably get me exiled, but I would add in Heroes of Normandie. Yes, I am aware of their sales pitch that this is “WWII as seen through Hollywood” but that applies to mostly the core box which is more abstract. This is like a tactical miniatures game with cardboard, and once you get into the scenario boxes for battles like St. Mere Eglise and Carentan, it becomes more historical. Really fun scenarios, lots of tension, somewhat quicker playing than many. I also like how it highlights key aspects of the Allied invasion that are often missed in other games. If any are a fan of WH40K, the system has just been adapted to that setting as well.
I love how some people go straight to ASL…to me it’s a self evident truth that ASL is the most “realistic” tactical war game ever made so it should go without having to point it out as some have done here. However, practically speaking, not many people play it.
I guess anyone who dares make a list of top tactical war games has to precede it with the disclaimer that the list includes the greatest tactical war games besides ASL. ASL, when it comes to”realism” in the context of a war game played on a tabletop, cannot be bested (in my opinion). However, a top 3 list of anything always has room for disagreement because the author of the list is different than other people-he/she has played different games and/or has different tastes. I don’t think an argument over the best tactical war games is helpful because there is too much subjectivity when it comes to deciding what makes a tactical war game the “best.”
War gaming on paper simply lacks the objective parameters that would allow a right or wrong answer to be found as it is so easily when discussing other topics. The fact that a “paper time machine” at its core isn’t “real” makes any argument which tries to latch on to “realism” as an objective factor of a game’s goodness almost a moot point. Take ASL for example, I could point out many things attacking its combat system’s “realism” when compared to real-life tactical situations. Does it make it a bad game? No, it is in fact a great game but it is a game-confined by its own physical nature of being paper and cardboard and not real human actors on real ground driving real vehicles shooting real guns.
Board games obviously have their limitations when it comes to “realism.” However, tactical games are useful tools that allow us to examine history through a different powered lens while experiencing somewhat the decisions that our historical forefathers were faced with. I am a firm believer in using tactical simulation games as teaching tools in the military, etc. (although role playing scenarios with human actors remains the best form of stress inoculation training and the most “realistic”).
Grant, you do a great job so keep up the nice work!
I must say that I love Combat Commander and I have played SL and a little ASL. My personal challenge in trying to come up with a list of top tactical war games is that there are so many good ones out there I just wouldn’t be able to pick a top three! Therefore I applaud you for trying!
I come late to this thread.
Regarding ASL – I think it would be good to check out ASL starter kit, much much more approachable than the beast, and sufficient for me. Already around 100 scenarios for the system as well.
Conflict of Heroes also merits playing.
Finally I am personally curious about Lock n Load Heroes because the art is great.
Though my own fave tactical series/system takes place in an earlier era: Battles of the American Revolution, a GMT series with often limited counters on the map hence fast playing, and a simple yet subtle system.
Great list and and UP Front spawned Combat Commander (it was Chad himself who said his design goal was to combine Up Front and ASL). CC inspired 65 which is a really good game about the wrong era (there are no dummies or any type of fog of war in a vietnam game is the big flaw). I do love playing it though! Great War Commander is now finally out, and I hate to say it, but we love it MORE than Combat Commander at this point! Grant you have to try it. The opening scenario feature young Lt. Rommel leading a daring raid into a French village. The designers have taken the best of CC and added more actions and events, and updated the Illustrator maps to Photo-realistic. They are so sweet. AND he runs the scenarios in a linear time progression to show how the war and techniques evolved over time. Oh, did I mention that it does have TANKS.
Enough said, Grant get a copy. It’s from Hexasim, but I got mine through GMT (they sold out very quickly, but will restock soon.)
thanks for all you do
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I’ve had Great War Commander on the list as I absolutely adore CC. I am going to take the plunge and get it. You convinced me!