Tuesday, 8 January 2019

Luck or Skill? The command dice in Chain of Command

"Chain of Command is heavily dice driven. Both sides will have similar forces but whether you get to use those sections and when will depend on die rolls. Same with support, what you can have depends on what you roll. Movement again depends on what you roll....... in CoC you have to roll dice to actually get your units to do something, then roll more dice if they move. Great if you like rolling dice."

From time to time I come across comments like these in game forums, the general tone is that Chain of Command is a luck based game with a high degree of randomness. The writer either doesn't like the concept that you can't activate every unit in every phase, or feels the randomness introduces an element of chaos that bears no resemblance to reality.

Personally I don't believe Chain of Command is a game of luck, I think it's a game of skill, where you manage the fortune that comes your way. This post is not intended as a justification for why Chain of Command uses dice to determine the command phase, but more of a tutorial as to how you as a player can best deal with the circumstances that chance will present in the course of a game.

I think we all accept that there is an element of luck in warfare. Any first hand account invariably talks about the randomness of hits from gun fire. How one man is killed while the man standing next to him is unharmed. It's also one reason we use dice to determine so many outcomes. If we readily accept that an armour piercing round will not always penetrate a given thickness of armour and that sometimes odd factors will cause lucky penetrations or deflections, why is it so hard to accept that human activity will also be subject to variation?

"It is natural that the idea of chance, particularly of luck, or happy chance, should have been associated with successful military commanders; the element of the incalculable, which must always be reckoned with in human affairs, demands more consideration than ever in that uncertain business, war." 
Elizabeth Tappan, Julius Caesar's Luck

Some will say that the command dice are the source of command and control in Chain of Command, but I would disagree. I would argue they are only one element of command and control in the game.

There are two ways to look at it. One is that you roll your command dice and this determines what you do in a phase. This to me comes from the 'pure randomness' school of thinking. The other way is that you have a plan and you look at your command dice for how you will execute it. There is more than a subtle difference to these two perspectives. 

The command dice are not telling you what to do, they are describing the circumstance under which you are having to operate. As the quote above reminds us, war is an uncertain business. Circumstances will be such that at times it will not be easy for you to execute your plan. This is where the game will test your decision making as a commander. I, for one, find that very appealing and a perfectly reasonable attempt to simulate some of what WWII tank commander David Render refers to as 'a random and bloody business, where the weird geometry of chance has its play...'

It is easy to make the assumption that the command dice are the be-all and end-all for command and control. However, it's called 'chain of command' for a reason and your leaders play a very influential role in how your units operate. I would suggest you regard the command dice as a mechanism to reflect the uncertainty of the battlefield. In an ideal world you would successfully issue commands to all units at all times and they would be executed exactly as you would wish. Unfortunately combat and life are rarely so obliging.

Keep in mind that you are not playing the role of the platoon commander and every single man in the platoon. You are a step removed from your squads and teams. You issue orders via the chain of command and things unfold accordingly. Unsurprisingly, not everything will go exactly to plan. Although sometimes they may actually go better.

I'd suggest you approach each game without focussing on the command dice as the driver of your phases. Instead you must be the driver of the phases, working to an overall plan. Don't let the dice determine your plan, let your plan determine what you do with the dice.

This is where the second element of the command and control mechanism comes in to play. You must look to your leaders to influence the execution of that plan. They are your option 'multipliers' and this is the key to making the most of the Chain of Command rule system.

Let's take an example. A British rifle section is fired upon by a German squad. The German squad has 14 fire dice from an MG34 team (8D6) and a six man rifle team (6D6), where as the British have 12 fire dice from a Bren gun team (6D6) and six riflemen (6D6).

With greater firepower the odds in this firefight are likely to favour the German squad (I'm assuming for this example that the action is beyond SMG range and so the junior leader's personal weapons will not participate). So, if the British are determined to stand their ground is there any way they can improve their odds? This is where the leaders come to the fore and can assert their influence over the men under their command.

At the most basic level the British section can activate in three ways: 
  • a command roll of 3 (where the junior leader uses a command initiative to activate each team); 
  • a command roll of 2 (where the section itself activates and they all do the same thing)
  • a command roll of two 1s (where each team activates separately)
Now when we consider the role of leaders we can begin to look at other options. If the British can make up a 3 and a 1 from their command dice they could opt to use the 3 to activate the junior leader who draws on both his Command Initiatives (CI) to have the rifle team use the British National Characteristic to fire Five Rounds Rapid (pg89), this will increase the rifle team's fire to 8. The 1 could then be used to activate the Bren team separately and between the two teams they will then equal the firepower of the German squad. This is a case of the section leader acting to make the most of a situation to try and improve the outcome. 

That's all fine, but what if the command roll only included 3s and 4s? It wouldn't be possible to do this. There are alternative solutions and once again much has to do with the role of the leaders.

If a senior leader was in command range, he could activate on the 4 and use a command initiative (CI) to activate the Bren team to fire, while the junior leader could activate on the 3 and use his two CI to have the rifle team fire using Five Rounds Rapid

The presence of the senior leader makes that possible, but given he has three command initiatives he could use the other two for other activations. This might allow him to activate another section in command range to engage the same target. Alternatively, he might be able to activate the platoon's 2" mortar to fire a round of smoke to block the line of sight of the German MG34 at the end of the phase.

My point is that the command dice are not necessarily restricting what you can do and they are not the sole factor in determining what you will be able to do in your phase.

The presence of the senior leader offers even more options. If he was attached (within 4") he could use all 3CI to activate the rifle team to use Five Rounds Rapid thereby increasing their fire to 9D6. The junior leader then uses his two CI to activate the Bren team to use Concentrated Fire (another British national characteristic) and target the small MG34 team, thereby greatly increasing the chance of wiping that team out. 

What do I mean exactly? Concentrated Fire allows the Bren to put all its fire on a single team (rather than spread it across other attached teams), so this fire attack would be composed of six dice rolled for the Bren attack on the MG34 team and nine fire dice from the rifle team spread across both German teams - in other words potentially putting ten or eleven fire dice towards the attack on the MG34 team (note that if the German squad is not in cover the British can decide where the odd hits go, which is why the MG34 team could take between ten and eleven hits depending on their level of cover). 

This combination of actions tilts the odds significantly in favour of the British by simply adding the influence of the senior leader. Any number of combinations of command dice could make the above situation possible. In that sense the command dice have not restricted what you can do, they have in fact opened up a number of creative options for you to use to solve a tactical dilemma.My point is that the command dice are only going to be restrictive if you allow them to be. If the British section is advancing against a key objective and this is part of your plan, then it would make perfect sense to have the senior leader on hand to increase the chances they can do this successfully. With the senior leader present you will now be able to fire the entire section on a roll of 2, 3 or 4 (or any combination of numbers that will add up to make any of those numbers).

Here's another example. A German panzer grenadier squad is in an area of rough ground with a Forward Observer (FO) team and the platoon senior leader (SL). If I have only a 1 or 2 for activation this will allow me to activate the two teams in the squad to all do the same thing and the FO to contact the mortar battery.

If I roll a 3 and a 1, this allows me to activate the squad's junior leader and the FO team.

Alternatively, I could combine the 3 and 1 to make up a 4 to activate the senior leader. This would give me more options, but use exactly the same dice. Why? Because the senior leader has three command initiatives - one is used to activate the squad to fire, one is used to activate the Forward Observer to call the mortar battery and that leaves one CI spare to activate any other unit within the leaders 9" command range. Alternatively it could be used by the senior leader to rally off a point of shock from an attached team or to move himself to another location where he might be needed in a later phase.

Of course a single roll of 4 will allow the senior leader to activate the squad and the FO team, again with a CI to spare and all this with a single command dice.

The important thing to keep in mind with senior leaders is their command range and number of CI. With three CI and a 9" command range, a well placed senior leader will be able to activate up to three units, this with a single command dice of 4. In effect you will activate three units but only use one of your five command dice. That leaves you with more options for the remaining four command dice. If your force consists of a platoon of three squads and three support elements, then that one command dice has activated half of your force, making a very good chance you will be able to activate most, if not all of your units with the remaining dice if that's what you need to do. In this way it's easy to see how a platoon with two senior leaders greatly increases the tactical flexibility and command options for that unit.

By carefully considering where your leader needs to be you have taken some control over the slightly chaotic events on the battlefield. If fate, the command dice, interfere with the execution of your plans, you can take steps to limit the negative influence. Not only that, if we go back to our earlier example, should the German squad return effective fire, the presence of two leaders (SL and JL) gives options to reduce shock (potentially up to 5 points in one phase), or a combination whereby shock is reduced and fire returned.

This is also why it's important to have a plan and give thought to what combination of units you need to carry it out, which brings us to consider supports. While it's very tempting to add as many support units with firepower as possible you also need to reflect on how you are actually going to command all these so that you derive the maximum benefit from your choices. Many supports such as additional squads, guns and tanks are commanded by a junior leader. Every unit of this type will require a command dice of 3 to activate and that's in addition to the three or four squads that make up your core platoon. A big platoon with lots of support can be cumbersome and difficult for a few leaders to command.

Consider this, if you only have a single senior leader, then you will most likely want to keep him off the table until all of your units have deployed, otherwise you run the risk that units will fail to deploy on time (section 4.3 pg15). Trust me, you can be sure that will happen at those moments when you least want them to. If that's the case and most of your units require a 3 to activate you have already limited your command options before the game begins, as every roll of 4 will be wasted for as long as the senior leader is absent. For this reason you may want to give consideration to calling on an Adjutant or a second senior leader as support choices if they are available options. You may even want to consider both. The bigger your platoon and number of supports the more leaders you will need if you are not to find yourself restricted.

It's also worth remembering that people often focus on the negative aspects of the command dice, but don't forget there's an upside here, from time to time you will be blessed with very good fortune. Learn to take the good with the bad and play your luck. While I stress the importance of having a plan you also need to have the flexibility to respond to opportunities as they arise.

I often make the comparison with Backgammon, one of the great two-player tactical games. It's a game of skill totally driven by luck. You can be sure that the players who win regularly are not great because they are lucky with the dice, they are great because they know how best to use the luck that comes their way. So it is with Chain of Command. Like any commander you need to adapt and respond to the changing circumstances around you. 

One way you can be prepared to deal with bad luck is to make use of those opportunities where you can activate units outside of your own phase. By having a plan and thinking ahead you can prepare for events. A simple example is placing a unit on Overwatch (see pg8 and section 4.5.4). This will allow your unit to fire during the opponent's phase if an enemy unit fires or moves within your area of overwatch. It's quite possible you can have a unit fire twice in quick succession this way - once in the enemy phase as you take advantage of being on overwatch and then in your following phase as a normal activation. It also means that if your opponent has a double phase you are not caught unprepared.

Making use of a CoC die to interrupt will also allow you to activate in an enemy phase and without use of a command dice (section 5.12 pg22). Not only will an interrupt allow you to have a unit fire, but it would allow you to move a unit out of harm's way if that better suited your need. Using a CoC die to ambush allows a similar opportunity. For these reasons you should think carefully about how and when you use your CoC die. Keep in mind how useful an interrupt might be for that moment when your opponent has a double phase and you have no units on overwatch. It might allow a critical interrupt when you might otherwise be unable to react.

I haven't attempted to be exhaustive here, but hopefully this will give new players a chance to think about how best to combine the command dice with the chain of command within your platoon to get the most out of a game. If the command dice represent those elements of friction and the unknown, then your role as overall commander despatching leaders to take control at critical points is the opportunity to bring some of that unknown back under your control. That will only work if you have a plan and don't leave yourself at the mercy of the dice.

"The frictions of war – chance, bad weather, mistakes and ill fortune – are the only certainties of combat, along with death, injury and destruction........war is a random and bloody business, where the weird geometry of chance has its play and its frictions and human fallibility and fragility abound. Combat is fast moving, confusing and often bewildering. There is no perfect science, only perfect intent that is unlikely to withstand first contact with the prevailing realities on the ground once battle is joined, and the enemy also gets a vote in the outcome." 
Tank Action: An Armoured Troop Commander's War 1944–45 by David Render, Stuart Tootal


  1. I've come to the conclusion that people that say its is all about the luck of the dice don't know how to use the dice given and I think your post sums it up nicely. One must also remember that a phase is only seconds in reality so if you where to keep track of all your dice rolled in all phases of a turn and compare it to your opponents it should look more or less the same and therefore each player should have been able to do more or less the same but who did and who didn't will be the separating factor. Hope this ramble makes sense?

    1. Exactly, things do even out over the length of a game. The rules reward those making the best decisions with what they have, which is why it's about skill and not luck.

  2. Very well thought out and presented. Nice post! You can tell that you have a lot of CoC under your belt. 😛

    I enjoyed reading.

  3. Fantastic. This is why there could be a podcast on this game. Lots of nuance and rules to go over.

  4. Excellent article! Very thought provoking. I love CoC but you’ve pointed out some possibilities I haven’t yet thought about.

  5. Roll enough dice and you have Yahtzee. Beer N Pretels game. Your highly contrived example serves to prove rather than refute my point. Cheers!

    1. If I was going to make such an inane comment I think I'd remain anonymous too. You won't be missed.

  6. When I read comments like those from "Unknown", it makes me shake my head and wonder why anyone would feel it necessary to make such a comment. Sometimes this hobby, or those in it, mystify me.

    1. Yes, strange I know, not quite sure why I even bothered replying. As for the examples being 'highly contrived' I lifted these pictures from a couple of my AARs, where I could have found hundreds of others to illustrate my point. I suspect he doesn't want to know that as he's already made his mind up.

  7. Excellent work MLB should be included as an appendix in Chain of Command 2nd Edition!

  8. SLA Marshall did all that work on the behaviour of soldiers in combat. Given that his work has been partially debunked, it still makes the valid point that soldiers in combat do freeze, become disoriented, refuse to move from cover and don't always act rationally. I regard the limited activation in CoC as reflecting the reality that our little troopers won't always do what we want, when we want, how we want.

  9. Absolutely and the command dice 'activating' (kicking them up the rear or leading from the front into enemy fire) the men and getting them to fire or move is exactly the situation reported in many first hand accounts across all the major nations

  10. Hey there's nothing wrong with liking games of chance that use cards or dice. Heck the casinos are full of fans! Some people even claim they can "beat the odds" (note some are serving hard time lol). Many good gamers just happen to prefer skill to chance! Yes!

  11. So, in your opinion, do you win Backgammon by being lucky or with skill? The game has survived and thrived for a long time and has seem some very good players, are they just lucky or is it skill?

  12. Very good piece, and well worth a careful read. It largely echoes my own opinion, that the fates are fickle, there are plenty of chance impacts and that probability is just that. Probable. Way back when I was playing a lot of DBA, here were a number of fellow players who ridiculed it as being just a game of chance. My response was to point out that if that was the case, why was it always the same small group of players who won tournaments? You could equally say that poker is entirely a game of chance It clearly isn't, but that's the same arguments that are being made by Anonymous above. Maximising what you can achieve given the circumstances you are working with. That's what win games. I suspect our poster also dislikes games that limit his god-like power to see everything and do everything. It might make for a game, but it's a damn poor rendering of combat.

  13. I don't know how I missed this but well explained Mark
    cheers John

  14. I don't know how I missed this too, an excellent piece and glad that someone else has likened CoC to Backgammon! I've picked up a couple of new tips for using the command dice, many thanks.

  15. Can I put that there is also another way of looking at the command dice. One person I play with summarises CoC as a system that punishes mistakes, not unlike chess. In my experience, the randomness of the command dice then either allow you to take advantage of that mistake (or calculated risk as I like to call them) or not.

    This approach changes the game to one about applying pressure and looking for a crack or an opportunity to get a local advantage in resources (and part of your resources are your command dice) while not providing your opponent with that same opportunity.

    Having said that, the strategy of yelling “give me a double phase” as you roll the dice is also valid.

  16. We changed how we play the double phase 18 mths ago and have never looked back.

    1. Sorry Truscott Trotter, but I still think double phases should be played as per the original rules dictate. The great man himself, Rich Clarke, has explained in various places his rationale for why double phases should always use ALL available Command dice (5 or 6) and that double (or even triple) phases should be treated in the usual way. Whilst it may feel unbalanced it isn't - it reflects the reality that at times the enemy DID grab the initiative and moved/ fired faster than expected - or that teams/ sections DID suddenly freeze in the middle of a field through fear or a sudden drop in morale.

      I know I'll be unpopular for saying this, but I really do feel that the "double phase" rule should be played exactly as written and not amended in any way.

      John (sorry - no blog profile set up yet).

    2. Never read about a section freezing upright in a field under fire :)
      Anyway we are happy not to have our games influenced unduly by multiple turns and it means I now have opponents to play - yes it really does make people not play the game :(

  17. Each unit can only ever fire once in any given sequence of multiple turns.

    Its effect on the game is quite subtle.

    Also it stops the problem of having to explain to new players why their blokes frozen in the middle of a field while being continually shot to peices!

    But it still allows some initiate swings as was the aim of the rule in the first place.

    1. Good idea, We will give it a try. Specially with early war where some armies are poorly commanded and under gunned..

  18. Thanks ..... might give that a go. I can see how it would deal with the really sour taste of multiple double phases which destroys one section unlucky to be caught in the wrong spot which is often seen a deciding the game. Cheers

  19. A great article.
    Clearly written and beautifully illustrated.

  20. Talking of luck - and with Marks Stuka piccie above - we played an Early War game yesterday. I chose Stukas - my opponent rolled 5 or 6 for shock on EVERY team in 2 sections and I shot at both immediately and broke them both!

    As they were near the edge and he again rolled high for rout move they were wiped out and took the JL's with them. So 2 rolls on BTH table for section destroyed and 2 for JL killed/routed - and yup you guessed it he rolled 5's and 6's again 2 moral points off for each and as he had only started with 8.....:(