BCT Command: Kandahar – Boardgame Review
Passed Inspection: Tackles an intriguing topic with a combination of great gameplay and unique mechanics. Easy to learn, thanks to a well-written manual. Quality components.
Failed Basic: Players will need several games under their belts to comprehend how all the parts come together for a winning formula, meaning this is not a good game for a rainy Sunday afternoon pick-up-and-play session.
Designing a wargame on a contemporary (and in this case, ongoing) conflict can be quite a challenge. The designer cannot draw from years of post-conflict analysis. Orders of battle may not be fully known, either through a lack of information on opposition forces or simply because of the need for battlefield secrecy. And in a conflict in which no one has been declared victor how does one decide on winning and losing the game?
BCT stands for Brigade Combat Team. Designed by Joseph Miranda, BCT Command: Kandahar (hereafter referred to as BCT) is a two-player, operational-level wargame on the current conflict in Afghanistan. One player controls the Coalition forces and their Afghan government allied units, while the second player takes on the role of the Taliban/insurgents wanting to topple the government and drive the Coalition out of their lands. The entire conflict is not covered; BCT focuses on the Kandahar region. Four scenarios are included, and once players are familiar with the game system a typical session will only last an afternoon.
Learning the game isn’t hard, thanks to the decent manual. Besides plainly explaining the game and its concepts, a glossary running in the sidebars of the manual makes finding information on specific mechanics a snap. A short player guide is also included that features a four-turn detailed example of play. It also helps that BCT uses cards extensively in gameplay, and by their very nature the cards provide players with a framework.
Components are top notch. The hard-backed map uses a European fold, allowing the board to lay flat without the dreaded counter-catching valley found in some boards. The cards are illustrated with photographs from the Defense Department and provide a pleasing uniformity to their design. The quality of the cards is also high, and will hold up to repeated plays without damage. If there is a downside to the components it’s in some of the designs for the counters. The generic units using NATO icons are perfectly fine, but some of the assets (IEDs, heavy weapons, et cetera) could look a little better.
As cliché as it may be, BCT is a game that is easy to learn but hard to master. Very hard. This is not a game that you can pull out and crank up cold. Winning is not as easy as taking Moscow or Hill 202. BCT is a game that does an excellent job of representing the confusion of modern warfare, as nation states take on loose groups of opposition forces. BCT feels right with its gameplay. The downside is that players need time to master the mechanics.
While at its heart BCT is definitely a wargame, with military units fighting for control over the nineteen districts that make up the Kandahar province in Afghanistan, even veteran wargamers will find themselves in unfamiliar territory with how the game plays. BCT may use an overarching IGOUGO structure, but within each turn individual phases are wholly dependent on how cards are played. Combat is simple, with a miniatures-like system of rolling for successes, rather than the typical odds-based CRT. Then there is the brilliant, yet simple, mechanics of opposing objectives.
Unlike a lot of historical wargames that feature a binary objective system (Germans win if they move past hex 1010, Allied player wins if he prevents this), in BCT each side has three objectives, represented by cards, in a game. Individual objectives are chosen each turn, allowing players to alter their strategies dependent on the overall situation turn by turn. Objectives bring victory points, although points can be scored in other ways. Dominating in victory points ultimately determines the victor. The use of objective cards also means that every scenario can be replayed multiple times with varying victory conditions.
Each side has their own deck of objectives, and while many may mirror each other, its how they come into the game that changes how each side plays. For example, the Coalition player could play “War On Drugs” as their objective, scoring victory points for controlling rural districts, while the Insurgent player throws down “Jihad!”, scoring points for each Coalition unit eliminated. So, in the above example the Coalition player will be concentrating on eliminating Insurgent units in rural areas while also winning the hearts and minds of those districts, but the Insurgent player simply has to go out and kill whatever he can.
How players go about their objectives is a pretty neat system. Each side has a Command-Control (C2) level, which dictates who gets to be the first player in a turn (although that person can decide to go second), and how many Joint Ops cards he can have. Joint Ops cards are the heart of the BCT system, and roughly represent command capabilities at the staff level ranging from J-1 (Administration) to J-3 (Operations) to J-9 (CIMIC: Civilian/Military cooperation).
Unlike many card-driven wargames, in BCT the players get to choose the specific Joint Ops cards from their decks that will be played, with the only restriction being their C2 level and how many cards of an individual type are in the deck. A J-1 card allows reinforcements to come on board, a J-3 allows a unit to move and attack, and a J-7 card can promote weak units into stronger units. Units are not one and done, so multiple J-3 cards can allow a single unit to move and attack over and over again in a single turn.
Players will find they never have enough of a hand to do everything. Cards used to reinforce and prepare for an oncoming battle are cards that are taking away from being able to move and fight with units in the current turn. Remember, the cards chosen need to assist the player in achieving objectives that may not always coincide with the situation on the ground. Got a lot of hurt units that you’re afraid will be vulnerable to enemy action this turn? You’ll need to use a J-1 card. But your current objective is to establish friendly SWET/Net (Sewage, Water, Electricity, and Trash Removal, along with networking … basically, the winning of hearts and minds) markers, which means playing J-9 cards. And if you have to move units first to a district to use the J-9 card means using a J-3 or J-4 card beforehand.
And this is why BCT takes time to learn. It takes a few games to figure out what cards you will need in a turn, and even then, you cannot expect to enact grand, sweeping gestures. Players need to take in both the immediate situation and plan for the long haul, and while you, as commander, may be in charge of the overall operational tempo, don’t forget that your opponent will be disrupting this tempo with his own ideas of achieving victory.
Of course, with both sides aiming for their own objectives and victory points conflict on the ground is inevitable. This is a wargame, after all. As mentioned previously combat in BCT takes on a system more like those found in tabletop miniature games than a typical wargame. Rather than combat strength points, units are rated for how many d6s they use in combat. Assets can also be assigned to units (not all provide combat benefits), providing a side with additional dice.
Battles are a single-round affair, and interestingly, not handled simultaneously. The first player in a battle (which does not have to be the first player in the turn) attacks by rolling his total number of combat d6s. Fives count as one success, while sixes count as two; everything else is a miss. The second player than applies those successes to his units, with certain units reducing successes. Typically, though, one success will suppress a unit (which negates all its values) and another success against it will destroy it. Obviously, going first in battle can really sway the outcome.
Now here’s a cool twist to combat. Say you roll more successes than there are enemy units. In most games those successes are simply ignored—not so in BCT. Depending on the type of district you’re fighting in those extra successes become collateral damage and earn your opponent victory points.
Players can limit the number of dice they use in battle, as they don’t have to use their full combat factors. In practical terms the collateral mechanic forces the Coalition player to restrict his superiority in firepower in urban areas. To bring the shock and awe he should goad the Insurgent player into battles in the wilderness. The Insurgent player of course will want to do the opposite; bring the fight into the cities and neuter the Coalition.
What an elegant mechanic for showcasing one of the problems of modern warfare! Easily understood and without taking more than a couple lines to explain in the manual, the collateral damage mechanic makes clear how a first rate military force isn’t always a strength multiplier. Lots of tanks might be great for defending the Fulda Gap, but in confined areas with lots of civilians, all those dice flying around may not be so helpful.
Wargamers are proud that their games do more than entertain, they educate. BCT Command: Kandahar does a wonderful job of being both a fantastic conflict sim, with its interesting mechanics and high replayability, and an educational tool. Want to understand why after thirteen years we’re still fighting guys in caves? Play BCT Command: Kandahar. Victory is a slippery eel; just when you think you have a good hold the next turn has it slipping from your grasp. Long-term planning is not good enough, as you’ll find yourself reacting turn after turn. At times, especially when first learning the ropes, it can be a frustrating beast, but once things click this is a very rewarding wargame.
There are few wargames on today’s modern conflicts. BCT Command: Kandahar bravely tackles a tough subject to tackle, and does so with elegance and a superb approach to gaming mechanics. Wargamers wanting to delve into Afghanistan will want to play, but also gamers looking for a different kind of wargame. Not every wargame has to involve ZOCs and mech moves. Finally, BCT Command: Kandahar is a great teaching tool.
However you look at it—cool wargame with nifty ideas or classroom helper—BCT Command: Kandahar is a game that belongs on your shelf.
Armchair General Rating: 95%
Solitaire Rating (1 is low, 5 is high): 3 of 5
About the Author
Scott R. Krol has been writing professionally about games for almost twenty years now, on both sides of the critic/publisher fence, but has loved them for even longer. He resides in the historic Southern city of Roswell, Georgia, which was surprisingly not burned to the ground by Sherman on his way to Atlanta.