What I’m Playing Now: Combat Mission Red Thunder

In my ongoing effort to find a hybrid game uniting the best principles of table-top RPGs, wargames, and video games, I’ve been exploring the world of wargames a lot. Specifically, I’ve been following two table-top wargames: Bolt Action and Infinity.

Exploring these games led me back to an old video game genre: the Real-Time Tactical game, or RTT for short. Perhaps the best known representative of this genre is the venerable Close Combat series.

Historically, I’ve preferred turn-based combat over real-time. I like having some time to think over my actions. However, I also like some chaos to influence the choices I can make.

However, the game I’m currently enjoying, Combat Mission: Red Thunder, offers a nice compromise: the “Wego” system that incorporates two of the mechanics that I particular enjoy from Bolt Action and Infinity.

One of the mechanics that I enjoy from Bolt Action is the initiative system. Contrary to the usually “You-go-I-go” initiative found in most games, Bolt Action puts dice in an opaque container: you get as many dice as you have squads. To decide whose turn it is at any given moment, you pick a die from the container. This means that one player can potentially act many times before the other player can have a turn. It’s a good way to simulate the chaotic nature of war, and also, for all intents and purposes, eliminates the notion of “the turn” because there’s no fixed order.

Infinity, on the other hand, introduces the notion of the reactive player. Initiative follows the traditional “You-go-I-go” system, but on off turns, a player enters the reactive phases, where he or she can perform limited actions in response to the acting player’s actions. For example, if Player 1 moves a miniature across the field of fire of one of Player 2’s miniature, then Player 2 can take an action. That’s the simplest form, but there are many other types of reactive orders.

So how does Combat Mission: Red Thunder uses these mechanics? By separating each turn into a player-controlled order phase followed by a computer controlled execution phase. This system is called “Wego” because each player gives orders simultaneously without knowing what other players are ordering, and then the computer execute both sides’ orders simultaneously in 1 minute increments, reacting as best it can to the changing battlefield. It makes for extremely dynamic and tense combat.

Being a squad-level tactics game, Combat Mission doesn’t have a higher level strategic layer. Rather, you’re fighting a small unit battle where tanks, infantry, artillery, and aircraft come into play. However, it does squad-level combat with an attention to detail that I’ve never seen before.

It’s raining heavily and your tank or Jeep is traveling on a dirt road? Pray it doesn’t get mired in mud. Your unit is under heavy suppressive fire? Watch the squad members hold on for dear life to their helmets.

Its physics are also quite advanced. Individual bullets are modeled, hits that penetrate a tank’s armor can have a variety of effects, and infantry squads act in a realistic way. The AI is also very good when it comes to executing your orders and reacting to new situations.

One of the best moments that I witnessed involved my attempt at capturing a strategic hill held by German forces. Early on, I lost most of my tanks to an ambush by fortified anti-tank guns. Because I had failed in nullifying them, the guns effectively made it so that I couldn’t assault from the right side of the map lest I be obliterated.

I sent my infantry through the woods in the center part of the map, and my remaining tank up the left flank. I was fairly successful, and managed to capture the hill with an infantry assault, but I lost my last tank when German reinforcements in the form of two heavy tanks and a half-track arrived. Because my tank was busy suppressing a quick-firing flak gun, it didn’t see the reinforcements arrive. They proceeded to land a few shots in my tank’s side armor, making it explode on the spot.

Despite the fact that I was holding the hill, I was nonetheless in trouble. My infantry was severely hurt because of the assault on the hill, my right flank was interdicted by an anti-tank gun and a heavy machine gun emplacement, and my own anti-tank capacity was reduced to a few squads of anti-tank riflemen.

The enemy tanks decided to move to each side of the hill. I concentrated my anti-tank rifles on my right flank in the hopes of taking out that tank, but to no avail. My squads were mowed down by machine gun fire.

At this point, I had no effective way to take out the enemy armor. Or so I thought. I still have access to two battered engineer squads holding satchel charges.

Slowly, I inched the engineers closer to the edge of the wooded hill and hid them as best I could. Then I waited. Eventually, the tanks stopped circling and I was able to keep them occupied with ineffective rifle fire (though they can’t pierce armor, ordinary rifles can take out optics or even a reckless tank commander). At that moment, I acted.

I send my engineers rushing at the tanks, taking advantage of blind spots. When they got close enough, the squads hurled their satchel charges at the tanks. I heard loud bangs, and puffs of smoke appeared where the enemy tanks were located.

When the smoke cleared, I could still see the tanks, apparently intact. However, the tank crews were rapidly exiting their vehicles and taking cover behind it (the tanks were in the open). It turns out that my satchel charges, though they hadn’t destroyed the tanks, had nonetheless disabled them by blowing up their tracks, rendering them unable to move. Brilliant.

It’s moments like these that make Combat Mission a delight to play.

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About Erik Bigras

Erik Bigras is an independent scholar. He studied as a PhD Candidate in the Department of Science and Technology Studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He graduated with a BA in Anthropology (2009) from the University of Prince Edward Island (Canada) where he focused on the creation of subjectivities through digital media. He's been playing video games since the mid-1980s, but expanded his gaming interest to table-top RPGs in the early 2010s.
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