Solo Impressions: Killing Nazis and Puzzle Solving in V-Commandos
I have never been interested in depictions of war in books, movies, video games, or board games. It's not a problem with the ethics, or politics, or even the reality of war. Instead, I don't like the content created in this genre. Don't get me wrong, I have nothing against what this genre is trying to do or portray. If you enjoy World War II books, video games or board games, I wholeheartedly encourage you. In fact, I own and enjoy Memoir '44, though, more for the mechanics than anything else. My problem is with the realism surrounding the war genre. It's historical and based on real-life.
I have always preferred the make-believe and the absurd found in the fantasy or science fiction theme. I wake up, go to work, eat my meals, and read the daily news in my real, non-fiction life. Meanwhile, the books, video games, and board games I enjoy in my free time are used as an escape. I imagine what life I led before I was stranded on a derelict space ship, hiding from an alien. It's easy to find that escape in the fantasy and science fiction genres, where any lie can be believed with enough planning from the author.
Unlike fantasy or science fiction, the war genre has to follow a strict code, adhering to the realities of our world. I can picture myself selling spice on a distant planet because no one has ever done it or knows what it would look like. Meanwhile, I can't imagine myself in the trenches or killing Nazis, because it's already happened. There will never be another WWII.
I can enjoy a game based on a real-world theme, if the mechanics and gameplay are enjoyable enough, though. Watergate is my favourite two-player game, but not because I want to know what it was like to be Nixon. Instead, the back and forth tug-of-war between the players feels intense. This War of Mine was my first experience with a game that asks questions of the player, forcing choices that result in consequences. But I can't picture myself in that run-down house because I live in a country where a war on our soil feels impossible. Memoir '44 has a unique mechanic of using cards to determine player movement in three different sections of the board. I haven't played another game quite like Memoir '44, so it remains in my collection, and I enjoy it whenever I play it. I do not, however, imagine myself a WWII general when I play it.
A game's mechanics may be good enough for me to enjoy the game and keep it in my collection. Still, the games that make it to my table the most are the ones steeped in a fantasy or science fiction theme. I can imagine myself quietly making my way to the engine room, hoping an alien didn't hear me stumble. The camaraderie between myself and my companion Tinkerer is real as we barely make it out of the dungeon. I hate that another adventurer got to the treasure first, and is sprinting past me towards the exit, as I'm still struggling to move one foot in front of the other.
So, it was a surprise when V-Commandos was recommended to me by the solo community, and I was actually interested in it. I had heard of it before, but, as I had little interest in killing Nazis in my free time, my interest never piqued beyond "that looks cool" and quickly moving on. I became more interested in it, however, when I found out about the Kickstarter game, Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood of Venice. It seemed to be using a refined version of V-Commandos' central mechanics that publisher Triton Noir smartly carried over. I have fond memories of playing the Assassin's Creed video games, and believing I could eagle dive from a tower or find a supernatural power held within an apple. Hoping to find a reason to throw money at Triton Noir when the Assassin's Creed game comes to retail, I requested a review copy of V-Commandos.
V-Commandos is a fully co-operative game, where you control allied commando fighters during World War 2. Your goal is to complete an operation, which is broken into one, two or three individual missions. Your objective changes from mission to mission. Sometimes you're escorting an enemy for further questioning, or freeing an imprisoned POW, or moving heavy weaponry to target a specific location. In another mission, you will be tasked to blow up two dry docks. Later on, you'll need to retrieve three documents from an enemy camp. But underscoring all of these unique missions is a need to kill many Nazis. Preferably in silence.
And silence is the key point to this game, being used in every mission. It was also the mechanic that drew me in when I saw it mentioned in the upcoming Assassin's Creed game.
You start each mission hidden from the enemies that populate each map. As you move around and complete objectives, you are forced to solve a logic puzzle. If you're smart enough, you remain hidden throughout the mission. What order do you need to move the commandos? They can go in any order, but one commando's unique ability may be better used after another one's turn. Will it be beneficial to reveal a commando's location to barricade a door, set a bomb, or kill a Nazi? After all, you can always turn off the alarm and return to hiding. Should you wait for one turn, doing nothing? You likely know the enemy's movement, and the objective may be easier to access after a few guards have moved elsewhere on patrol. These are all questions you will ask yourself and answer while playing this game.
Outside of chess, I have never found myself thinking so far ahead during a game. You know the enemy movement before each round starts. You know how many enemies will come onto the map each turn. You know your equipment and abilities. And you know your mission. With enough planning, you can guarantee victory. But like war, it rarely goes as planned. Instead of flipping a card to reveal where the enemy will patrol at the end of the round, you may pull a hidden movement card. You may need a silent kill to empty a tile of guards, but you might miss your shot due to a horrible dice roll. Instead of pulling an equipment token after killing a Nazi, you might find a token indicating you were seen by the other guards.
I love this. It means that you have control over the game, and can get better after understanding the mechanics. But, crucially, the puzzle will never be solved. The random dice rolls and card pulls will always change something, but just enough to require rethinking your plans, and never enough to feel like the game is cheating. Usually, games that rely on set missions don't encourage replays as the story, and the mission's solution has already been told. This is not the same for V-Commandos. You can go back and replay it all, with a very different outcome. It's annoying when you replay a mission in Gloomhaven because it always becomes easier. There are some random variables, but the rules still remain the same, and you use your past play-through to guide you down an easier path. V-Commandos instead mimics an environment that's usually predictable but can change on a whim. A guard may need to use a bathroom and therefore changes his patrol abruptly, revealing an ill-prepared commando. This is one of the only games I've played where replayed missions can get harder without feeling broken or relying too much on random chance.
All of this may sound difficult for a new player to get adjusted to. If you have trouble learning new games or making sense of manuals, this game may seem daunting. I assure you, though, it's not. The manual is written in the order of what's essential. It introduces you to vital rules first, like the stealth mechanism, and leaves the obscure rules to the end. You also play through training missions that reinforce the rules you have learned up to that point. Training mission one has you moving your three commandos, focusing on stealth. You haven't learned about combat or enemy movement yet; therefore, this mission doesn't have any of that. These are introduced in the second training mission, while the third focuses on everything learned thus far while adding equipment. This is a brilliant method for teaching and something more designers should implement in their games. I usually rely on YouTube tutorials because I struggle with manuals that try to teach everything at once. I'm thrilled to say that I learned V-Commandos and played through several Operations without watching a tutorial video.
The manual isn't a perfect gift from God, though. Because of its unique setup, if you've forgotten a rule later on in the game, finding its explanation isn't straightforward. It won't be where you expect it to be. The reference in the back of the manual is comprehensive, making it possible to find a rule without having to skim the entire manual. Still, I think the game would have done well with a similar approach as Fantasy Flight, who provides a full rules manual separate from the learn to play guide. Either way, this was by far one of the most accessible and enjoyable games I've learned.
And easy it is. Not in regards to completing a mission, though. You will find your commandos dying quite frequently. Instead, the gameplay is simple and straightforward. A turn starts by drawing a card that provides a boon to you or the enemy. It also dictates in what direction the enemies will move during their phase. Next, you complete 3 actions per commando on your team. These are moving, shooting, close combat attacks, commando specific abilities, etc. There is nothing complicated here. For the most part, you learn the action, it makes sense immediately, and you perform it from then on without referencing the manual. After this, you move on to the enemy's phase. You place new Nazi units on each entry tile, move them according to the current event card or towards a visible commando (Remember! Stay Stealthy!). Then they shoot if a visible commando is within range. Rinse and repeat, until you accomplish your goal, or you refused to heed my warning about remaining hidden, and all your commandos die.
Simply put, this can be taught to nearly anyone.
I was more interested in this game for its solo gaming potential, and I really enjoyed solving its puzzles alone. I was able to take my time looking at the terrain and running several scenarios through my mind. Eventually, I would settle on a plan I thought would have the best chance of success. Most games have a singular path towards a win condition, leading you by the hand. In comparison, playing V-Commandos is refreshing. Sure, there is only one way to win a mission. But, once that condition is told to you, the game lets go of your hand and gives you the freedom to accomplish it how you'd like. It simulates a video game set in a wide-open setting. You know what you need to do, but it's up to you to decide which direction you go, how fast or slow, and if you should use non-lethal and stealthy gameplay, or go in guns blazing. For your information, it's never "guns blazing."
But, as I said, it's enjoyable in a solo setting, and I doubt it holds up so well in a multiplayer environment. To be fair I haven't played it with another player, but I don't see any way I could enjoy it. V-Commandos has multiple paths to victory, but once you've chosen a path, a character's actions are set for the most part. There is a path and set of actions that will result in a higher likelihood of winning, and deviating from that would inevitably result in your commando's deaths. Even when you're presented with a punishing event card that aims to change things, there are always clearly superior actions. I feel a multiplayer game of V-Commandos would feel like two players controlling one side of a chessboard. The player who knows the game the best would lead, and the other player would fall in line with what makes sense or what the more experienced player demands.
After playing through most of the operations in the core box, I'm still not sold on the theme of the game. I hate it in fact. But that's personal and doesn't speak for the game in general. The gameplay and mechanics, on the other hand, are fantastic. They are recognizable and straightforward enough for anyone to understand and use them to their advantage. Still, they are unique enough to provide a gameplay experience unlike anything else I've come across to date. Do you like solo games and enjoy the rush of puzzle-solving in a limited amount of time? Does subtle scenario changes occurring throughout a board game that forces critical and on the spot reasoning sounds interesting? If you answered yes, you'd love this game. The operations are limited, though. If you dislike playing through already completed scenarios, you will be relying on expansions for future plays. But, an operation playing out, in the same way, is unlikely, and the game should provide plenty of replayability to those looking for it.
It's unfortunate that I came into this hobby too late and missed the Kickstarter campaign for the upcoming Assassin's Creed game by Triton Noir. While I enjoyed the puzzles and mechanics, I didn't imagine myself an Inglorious Bastard, killing Nazis in V-Commandos. But when Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood of Venice releases, I will definitely envision myself jumping from tall towers and assassinating people.