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Subject: ‘Combat’ by Merit: A Surprisingly Ambitious Gateway Wargame – for 1968 rss

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Martin Smith
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Who’s that guy?

Some game manufacturers seek credibility for a game by associating it with a military figure of some sort, but these are often unknown or second-string officers. Not so 'Combat', by Merit. It’s rules pamphlet boasts an introduction by Lt General Sir Brian Horrocks, Sir Brian’s signature also appears on the box, and the game is described as ‘edited’ by him (devised by G Rostant).

And who was General Brian Horrocks? – well, he served in both World War 1 and the Russian Civil War, and in World War 2 he commanded the 9th Armoured Division and the 8th Army’s XIII Corps in North Africa, and XXX Corps in Europe (including in Operation Market Garden). So, when Sir Brian says, in his introduction to ‘Combat’, ‘ This is the closest resemblance to the problems which beset a Commander in war that I have ever come across’ and ‘… may I, who knows only too well from bitter experience the difficulties of command in war, wish you … Good luck ‘, one is loathe to dismiss this out of hand.

The Game

‘Combat’ was produced by Merit in 1968, and is quite an intriguing attempt at incorporating some simple wargaming concepts in a game that might still attract non-wargamers, and particularly highlighting the importance of matching your tactics to the terrain.

The game board has a grid of squares for keeping track of position, movement and distance, and comes in two halves that are placed together at the beginning of the game. There are a bunch of quite nifty (for the time) little plastic miniatures representing the red and blue armies, comprising tanks, self-propelled guns and ground-attack aircraft. A complete game should have 40 of these pieces per player – 8 planes, 16 tanks and 16 guns – but these are not all necessarily used in every game. [The rules recommend that beginners not play initially with more than 16 pieces each.]

And there are clear plastic overlays for the different terrain features (hills, forests, roads, airfields) and mines (not the kind you extract minerals from - the ones that blow you up if you drive over them). The terrain overlays allow the players to customise the terrain for each game, and have a sticky backing to keep them from slipping around the board (which it does with a reasonable degree of success).

One commentator has suggested that each player places the terrain on their side of the board without the other player seeing, but the rules actually provide for the board halves to be put together first and then the terrain features ‘are arranged on it to the agreement of the players’. This makes sense, as a key objective of the game is for the players to choose the composition of their armies having regard to the terrain of the areas they will have to attack and defend. It is the initial deployment of their forces that is subsequently done in secret with the board pieces separated.

Game-play mechanics

Consistent with good wargaming practice, movement is not dictated by dice.
In fact, with a few notable variations, the movement and firing rules in ‘Combat’ are not dissimilar to the very early classic war games from Avalon Hill et al – tanks move 3 squares, or 5 on roads, guns move 2 squares, or 3 on roads, tanks can fire 2 squares ,or 3 from a hill, guns can fire 4 squares, or 5 from a hill, and hills and forests reduce the movement allowance and provide a degree of cover when fired upon.

CRTs (Combat Results Tables) can sometimes look scary to novice wargamers, and so this game does not have them. Instead, a firing is designated Hit or Miss by drawing the top card from a deck of very spartan-looking ‘Salvo Cards’. There are 42 cards, 21 Hit and 21 Miss – so each time you fire you have a 50% chance of hitting your target (unless you are a card-counter …). But that’s not it yet – then the player owning the targeted piece gets to roll a D6 die to see whether it is destroyed or undamaged. On a throw of 1-4 the piece is destroyed, on a 5 or 6 the piece is safe. [Intriguingly, on the very first firing in the game (only), the target is saved on a 4, 5 or 6 - maybe to reduce the advantage of first fire …? ]. A targeted unit on a hill or in a forest will be safe if the player rolls a 4, 5 or 6.

Consequently, the chance of firing at an enemy unit and destroying it is only 1 in 3, or 1 in 4 for a hill or forest. So firing can frequently not be a success.

Air power

The tac-air rules for planes are somewhat odd. Planes start on each player’s airstrip, and may attack any square on the gameboard. In an Airstrike, the attacking player draws a Salvo Card to determine hit or miss, and (if a Hit) the other player rolls the D6 to try to save on a 4, 5 and 6. So, airstrikes have a 1 in 4 chance of success – BUT they carry their own peculiar risks! An attacking plane is also automatically regarded as hit, and the player owning it must roll the D6 to save its bacon – again on a 4, 5 or 6. So airstrikes have a 1 in 4 chance of success, but also a 50% chance that you will lose your plane! Exactly what real-world aspect this is supposed to emulate is unclear – at least to me, anyway. (I didn’t think there were Stinger missiles in 1968.)

And, frankly, why have a card mechanism and a dice mechanism, when the die could easily do both?

Another strange aspect is that you gain reinforcements (3 units at a time) each time one of your units reaches the enemy’s base line – sort of like a chess/checkers type rule.

Anyway, the victor is the first player to achieve a 3 to 1 majority of pieces on the board.

Overall

So, ‘Combat’ is a rather odd, but very well-meaning, collection of concepts from a variety of games – wargames and other types. Some aspects are quite ‘sophisticated’, such as movement not by rolling dice and varying with the ground surface, the terrain effects on firing (both range and damage), hidden force setup, and the ability to vary the terrain features in each game.

And the Rules do seriously try to teach the players about the importance of terrain in battle, in terms of both selecting your units and tactics – there are even 3 detailed examples outlined in the rules illustrating these points. Plus you get little plastic tank, gun and plane minis, and who doesn’t think they look cooler than AHGC cardboard chits?

But some of the other rules are either weird or a bit lame. In the latter category I would include the use of both the cards and die in firing, gaining reinforcements by crossing the board, and the chronic vulnerability of the aircraft.

So, overall, an interesting game, particularly seen as part of the evolution of board wargaming, and not bad at all as a gateway game for novice players. It is intriguing and even rather endearing, but is it real fun?

Well, to my mind, it’s just OK on that score, as the strange aspects mentioned above tended to get on my nerves. But I think it could be fine to play with kids (or a kid, singular) - who would probably (1) like the minis, (2) find the bona fide wargame mechanics an interesting challenge, and (3) be either oblivious to or quite forgiving of the anomalies I’ve referred to.

And then, with any luck, they might become interested in our hobby …
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Andrew Adey
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I was given this game for Christmas by my parents when I was about 8-9 years old. I still have it. I played against my brother, and solo. Mostly solo which seems to be the way for so many gamers.

I have many fon memories of it. Shame my son and daughter are not really that interested in games.

Good and accurate write-up. Thumbs up! thumbsup
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Martin Smith
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Hi. Thanks for your comment/question. I wasn't intending to suggest that Merit wanted to introduce wargame concepts to game players so it could sell them more wargames, as I think you're right, Merit didn't produce 'harder' wargames. I meant that the game incorporated some low-level wargaming concepts in a format that might still attract non-grognards in the first instance. I might slightly edit my wording in the review to prevent confusion as to my meaning. Thanks.

As regards Merit, Merit games seem to have been a brand name used on games produced by J & L Randall Ltd of 'Potters Bar' England. I haven't been able to find out much about them.

I might add that I have also seen a version of Combat (with the box looking very much the same) made by Morton Productions of Northampton. Not sure if it was earlier or later than the Merit one (but I would suspect earlier).
 
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Captain Nemo
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still have my (battered) copy and took it up to the club a couple of years ago. Rather basic by modern standards but it has merit.

smithnewz wrote:
CRTs (Combat Results Tables) can sometimes look scary to novice wargamers, and so this game does not have them. Instead, a firing is designated Hit or Miss by drawing the top card from a deck of very spartan-looking ‘Salvo Cards’. There are 42 cards, 21 Hit and 21 Miss – so each time you fire you have a 50% chance of hitting your target (unless you are a card-counter …). But that’s not it yet – then the player owning the targeted piece gets to roll a D6 die to see whether it is destroyed or undamaged. On a throw of 1-4 the piece is destroyed, on a 5 or 6 the piece is safe. [Intriguingly, on the very first firing in the game (only), the target is saved on a 4, 5 or 6 - maybe to reduce the advantage of first fire …? ]. A targeted unit on a hill or in a forest will be safe if the player rolls a 4, 5 or 6.

Consequently, the chance of firing at an enemy unit and destroying it is only 1 in 3, or 1 in 4 for a hill or forest. So firing can frequently not be a success.

And, frankly, why have a card mechanism and a dice mechanism, when the die could easily do both?

Another strange aspect is that you gain reinforcements (3 units at a time) each time one of your units reaches the enemy’s base line – sort of like a chess/checkers type rule.

Overall

So, ‘Combat’ is a rather odd, but very well-meaning, collection of concepts from a variety of games – wargames and other types. Some aspects are quite ‘sophisticated’, such as movement not by rolling dice and varying with the ground surface, the terrain effects on firing (both range and damage), hidden force setup, and the ability to vary the terrain features in each game.

And the Rules do seriously try to teach the players about the importance of terrain in battle, in terms of both selecting your units and tactics – there are even 3 detailed examples outlined in the rules illustrating these points. Plus you get little plastic tank, gun and plane minis, and who doesn’t think they look cooler than AHGC cardboard chits?

But some of the other rules are either weird or a bit lame. In the latter category I would include the use of both the cards and die in firing, gaining reinforcements by crossing the board, and the chronic vulnerability of the aircraft.

So, overall, an interesting game, particularly seen as part of the evolution of board wargaming, and not bad at all as a gateway game for novice players. It is intriguing and even rather endearing, but is it real fun?

Well, to my mind, it’s just OK on that score, as the strange aspects mentioned above tended to get on my nerves. But I think it could be fine to play with kids (or a kid, singular) - who would probably (1) like the minis, (2) find the bona fide wargame mechanics an interesting challenge, and (3) be either oblivious to or quite forgiving of the anomalies I’ve referred to.


The first fire saving adjustment was evidently to counter the first fire effect which would otherwise lead to a stand-off as the first to fire otherwise has a significant advantage.

I think the point of card and dice was to provide a combination of fised hits (50%) with variable saving rolls; no game without dice rolls. Not something we would have now as we would rather just hit on a number but it has a certain element of logic. I have to agree the air hit was a bit odd but I suspect that was a game fix to prevent air attacks winning the game outright.

I think your conclusion is about right. I really enjoyed it when I was first a teenager but as I grew older i became aware of the limitations so it is really a bit of an entry level game.
 
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Bill D
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Re: ‘Combat’ by Merit: can anyone scan and email me the rules please? Newbie
Hi guys

In clearing out my late mother's house recently I've found my old set , last played about 45 years ago, which is battered but largely complete except there are no rules . I'd like to play this again (for nostalgia...) and would be grateful if anyone can send me the rules.

Thanks
Bill



 
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Martin Smith
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Quote:
I'd like to play this again (for nostalgia...) and would be grateful if anyone can send me the rules.

Hey Bill, I sent you a GeekMail a week ago seeking your address, but you've never replied ...
 
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John Kula
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coming soon: Mightier Than The Sword - a Chronology of the Development of the Board Wargame
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Information regarding Horrocks suggests that the Merit (J&L Randall)version of the game was published as early as 1960 and that Horrocks basically had his name and picture used, but not much else. I would think that Morton's version came after J&L Randall's.
 
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