The Vault

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Vault Dwellers Delight: Combat Zone, Reviewed!

This is it then, the first foray into reviewing other game systems and a chance to give some rants and raves - as well as constructive criticism - for rules I've picked up over the years. Although slanted towards post apocalypse, I'll have to say that I'll list what other things the rules that I review can be used for (like Colonial, Pulp, Sci-fi, Fantasy, Horror, etc) as well as what they were planned for. But before that, best get the disclaimer over with:

Yes. I do intend to 'publish' a commercial tabletop war game, slated early spring, and said game is what I prefer in a skirmish war game. That said, I still like to think of me being able to review games in an objective manner - even though I've made my own, finding good rules that suit you is like comparing apples and oranges; each to their own. 

Right, with that over with, let's get down to brass tacs:

Combat Zone - 28mm Near Future / Generic Sci-Fi Skirmish War Game

Currently produced by: EM-4 Miniatures
Retails for: £15 for the boxed game, £25 for a combat ready set and £7 for just the rules

Opening Credits
If you've ever, like me, had the good fortune of being part of the online tabletop gaming community, then at some point you've probably come across The Miniatures Page. It was here that I first discovered this game, and the company EM-4 Miniatures in particular, and noticed that they had a whole game box for no more than £15; including a good mixture of 28mm figures and a set of rules that I had never heard of before: Combat Zone

Now, in recent times you may have had a lot more exposure to this game than I had some three or four years ago when I first purchased the big box with all of the cops and robbers - especially due to the fantastic Combat Zone Chronicles webzine that they are currently operating - so, keep in mind that I bought this game with no knowledge of what to expect. What I had pieced together was that it was sort of a Necromunda type game, with small gangs duking it out in a near future setting. And well, the feel was sort of right, but also something very different...

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
The first thing you'll notice right away, marking it as remarkably different from, say Necromunda, is that there are really little to no stats for the figures. Instead, all units are represented with just a quality rating and a toughness rating, with quality being a modifier for all the rolls the unit has to make and toughness being the number (either 7, 8 or 9) which you have to roll equal to or higher than to kill the unit. And this is where the game loses my interest already, at least for the long term gaming campaigns. 

I have never, for the life of me, been able to accept games where there's little to nothing to differentiate figures from each other. Sure, Combat Zone has three kinds of units (being Squad, Gang and Heroes) but following that, there's little difference except how you arm them. It's a bit the same as with the various Chain Reaction games, in that - to me – in the long run I just lose interest, if the only thing to differentiate Mad Max from the Gyro Captain is that Mad Max has a +1 and the Gyro Captain doesn't. 

However! I do think that this is more than brilliant for games where you have 10 squads or so under your control and that... Oh wait, that is actually the point with the Combat Zone rules as is. Well, blimey, back to the review and less ranting then.

The rules, as mentioned, differentiates between three units (well, four actually, but one of them is a leader type specific to gangs) which boils down to a game that allows you to play cops and robbers in the nearly-far future. Each unit behaves in its own specific way and each of them has its own limitations as to how the unit is composed. Squads, for instance can be as small as two-man groups, while gangs must be a minimum of three and a gang leader

You then take turns to activate a unit (squad, gang, or hero) and then perform its actions using... action points. And here we go again. To me, having a game about big units slugging it out across the slums of Not-Quite-Los-Angles-But-Very-Close that relies on action points sort of misses the mark by a long shot. Big game skirmishes, akin to No Limits and VOR can get rather frustrating when played with the wrong people who min/max their action points as much as possible. Sure, if we only had 10 men each per side, then it would definitely float my boat, but seeing as we have 10 units, each consisting of between 4-6 individual models, each moving individually, we’ll have the game lose intensity pretty fast. 

I mean, there're even rules for turning the figures using action points. Although, turning the first 90 degrees is free, and turning 180 degrees will cost you a single action point, in my opinion there just seems little reason to include this in the rules. The gem, however, is that depending on quality rating, you get a varying amount of action points, which means that green units won't be as active, fast, hard-hitting as say elite units. 

All measurements are done in centimeters. Now, this - like everything else - is a matter of personal opinion entirely, but to me the centimeter just doesn't have the right feel for a skirmish game. Also, having a point blank range, giving you a much needed +2 to hit, consisting of between 3 – 5 cm just doesn't make much sense to me. 3-5 cm is a very, very, very short distance. Most other games, when within that range, it’s usually considered close combat. When we played the game, we instantly converted to inches; altering all ranges slightly, but keeping the point blank within 3". That worked perfectly.

Shooting is fast and bloody. You are allowed a number of shots during your turn (sigh) which depends entirely on your rate of fire for the weapon. Pick a target, check for line of sight and roll 1d6 per shot, adding your quality rating. Each natural 6, or modified result thereof, gives you a hit. And then we get another moment of flow frustration.

You see, you activate by units, but perform actions by individuals, each doing their thing until all members of a unit have been activated. While not annoying in itself, it can become the reason to develop tics during the game when an opponent moves 5cm, measures range, finds himself short, debates internally whether to spend another action point to move a bit forward, a debate raging at the speed of tectonic plates, comes to a decision, moves and then measures once more, finds he's action points short of firing a burst, argues about the moves he made...

Whoa, bad flashback there! Ahem, as I was saying, not annoying in itself, but then when you keep a simple mechanic for rolling to hit, and then add a new dice rolling mechanic for rolling damage, then - I noticed during the many play tests with veterans and newbies - people quickly become confused. And each single shot that hits, rolls 2dx (either 2d4, 2d6 or 2d8, +1-2 dice) and checks for any modifiers and then sees whether or not he kills the opponent or not. If he didn't, there's a chance the unit panics instead; which, in the scope of things is a very interesting set of mechanics for this game, and I'll return to it shortly.

Close combat is done by... well, let's just be frank: your squaddie rolls a whole bunch of dice, my ganger rolls a whole bunch of dice; total it all up and the winner is...highest roller! Followed by a wound roll, again with a huge bunch of dice rolled by the initial highest roller, and Bob's yer uncle. It's simple, straightforward and doesn't cater to those who play against min/max'ers as their units will, oddly enough, always be armed with the weapons giving them the biggest dice. But other than that, it's actually perfect for the game itself (although attacking heroes often end out in a struggle of futility...) and just, well, works due to its simplicity. 

Remember that interesting morale mechanic I was talking about? No?! Well, go back and read about it then, because it's linked to the whole shooting system. I'll just wait right here. 

Read it? Good, then we can get back to it. 

You see, whenever an individual is hit (again with the individuals...) with a near-miss that is some points short of killing him, then it still has an effect. So, this is not a game of "going through all that trouble to hit a guy for nothing to happen" but more of an "even if he didn't die, at least he'll be scared as hell!" 
Each reaction marker must then be tested against in the beginning of the turn which, well, makes for an initially weird layout decision in the book. This makes sense when actually playing the game, but is rather confusing at first glance. Each unit then rolls 2d6, has to roll 8+ to be a-ok, and anything less will result in a panic or rout, with routing figures having to move during the compulsory... wait, that was just before? So, the guy takes a whole round to figure out whether he wants to run or.. do I roll the check before...or..? I never figured that one out and simply house ruled my way out of it. 

The area of effects, like grenades and missile launchers rules are clever, brilliant and I may just propose to it. When using any of these indirect missiles, you simply place a template within range and where you want it to land. And then you roll 1d8. 7 - 8, the template stays where you put it, anything else means that it'll deviate in a direction indicated by the template. And you're even allowed to choose which way "1" is turning! An absolutely beautiful piece of design. 

Rounding out the core mechanics, we have the rules for the robots. They fit well within the whole core mechanics except that they are not listed with points. So, if you want to figure out the relative worth of each robot (or the walking, gun-toting, kick-ass killing-machine as I prefer to call them) you're on your own. Unlike any other units, these units are able to take a beating and thus - as the only unit - have - akin to multiple wounds, albeit done in an ingenious way with a simple "Where'd I hit it"-roll followed by "How much does it hurt!"-roll which works just like all the other rolls of the game. 
Thus, what makes the robots (machines) special is that they can mount a lot of heavy fire power, can take more hits and are many times tougher than humans - and I for one welcome these new overlords.

Final Comments and Somewhat Conclusion to It All
Now, I know this review seems jumbled and rambled, but bear with me - I'm still rather new at this. What I will close up saying might come as a bit of a shock, so brace yourself. Braced? Good:

All in all, I like the game!

You saw that coming? Oh well, at least you had fun bracing I guess? At any rate, sure, it has a couple of very odd choices and some downright weird rules, for instance, initiative is determined by rolling an ungodly amount of dice, totaling up and seeing who goes first. Also, some things are still left unexplained (when exactly do you roll for the reactions?) and the lack of vehicle rules is rather dissapointing (although, given the context, I see why they weren't included). 

It is, all in all, a good big battle skirmish games - but it tries, in vain, to put itself in a position where it caters to small skirmishes as well as big battles. It doesn't exactly fall flat, and I've had some good games with it (and probably will in the future again). I think it would be perfect for something like WW2 skirmish games, or for fantasy gaming (which I do believe is already up over on that webzine). 

It is easy to learn, but have some design choices that still make me twitch (action points with weird limitations to weapons, unit activation with individual action, that weird initiative system, double dice for damage) but overall, it is easy, simple and you can do almost anything with it. It's the equivelant of a bag of green stuff and a very bare bone figure you want to convert. Sure, the figure looks okay as is, but you know adding just that little extra something will make it truly spark.

But what really wins me over? The fact that the whole of the ruleset actually fit on a single A4 laminated cheat-sheet. That's beauty for you folks.

Lazy Mans Overview
For those who just couldn't chew through it all:
The Good
- Generic and rather barebone set of rules, allowing for endless customization
- Easy to get your head around, simple to teach (mostly)
- Point system for those who like that sort of thing
- All the rules fit on a single sheet of A4!
The Bad-
- Individual actions with unit activation (either or in my book, not both)
- Caught between being a bigger battle game contra very small scale skirmish
- Action points (not for everyone)
- Odd wordings, and apparent movement restrictions without any real impact
The Ugly-
- Not exactly a fully fledged, complete game system. 
- Too simplistic for prolonged campaign games with very unique characters

Megaton Rating: 7.5 (Out of 10)

Comments, point-of-views, corrections etc are more than welcome. Pictures featured in the review are all from the EM4 homepage. Reader discretion was advised.  

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