Reviewed by Frank Branham
MISSION COMMAND SERIES: AIR, LAND AND SEA (Hasbro/Milton Bradley, 2 to 4 players for Air, 2 players for Land and Sea, ages 8 and up, about 1 hour playing time; about $20 each)
When I came across the first pictures of Hasbro’s new Mission Command series, I immediately rattled off three game names in my head: Tank Battle, Carrier Strike, and Screaming Eagles. (Ed. Note: Of the three, only Screaming Eagles was released during our publication life. Check out our Flashback: Screaming Eagles for our look at the game back then.) Tank Battle and Carrier Strike were classic Milton Bradley gateway games from my youth, leading me towards my later fascination with Avalon Hill and SPI wargames that made up my teen years. I found out that these games were not just releases, but had been developed into new versions. The following is an overview of both the original games, and their more modern reworkings.
The Mission Command packaging and bits:
Hasbro has begun packaging their games in a new format to emphasize the miniatures. The actual boxes for the Mission Command series is about an inch and a half thick, and just a bit wider than a sheet of legal paper. On top of the boxes is a shell of clear plastic which contains the miniatures for the game. The idea is that you toss the plastic shell, and pack the miniatures inside the box. In practice, this turns out to be a bit tricky. All of the games include air vehicles on stands which must be pulled apart to fit in the narrow confines of the box. The stands themselves must be tucked around the edges of the board, as the bases for the stands are just tall enough to fit into the box without the board. MC:Sea is by far the worst offender, as there are 16 planes on stands to disassemble, and the game also includes two carriers and islands that keep the box from closing all of the way. Adding just an extra half inch to the box depth would have solved all of these issues
The games include huge colorful boards, and many of the miniatures feature a light wash to “dirty” the figures giving them a worn and used look. The planes in Air, and the carrier in Sea also have painted details. All of the games look gorgeous when set up, especially considering the retail price.
Mission Command: Land (or Tank Battle part deux):
Tank Battle was the weakest of the three original games. The object is to destroy your opponent’s 6 tanks. Your opponent gets 6 total moves each turn, but each tank may only move 3 spaces. Before your opponent moves, you have a very Battleship-like grid where you put a handful of artillery pegs. If your opponent moves onto one of these spaces, his tank goes boom. When tanks meet, they compare their hidden numbers (Each tank has a small flag visible only to its owner numbered from 1-6). The largest blows up the smallest. There are a few chrome rules like artillery guns on the board that add extra pegs for shelling, a fuel dump that can reduce a player’s movement if taken out, and a pair of landmines that work like permanent shell locations.
The shell mechanic is by far the most important. Few tanks ever make it through the bombardment to fight other tanks, and very few indeed made it to the rear of the board. The second guessing of where to shell gets old quickly, and most of the fun of the game comes from playing with the little plastic tanks.
1. Tanks now have 1-6 Defense Points. A tank is only destroyed when it takes a hit without Defense Points.
2. There are three types of Shells, Tank, Artillery, and Missile. You end up placing 10 pegs on a turn.
3. Shells and Tank damage is now inflicted by rolling hit dice. (4 sides miss, 2 sides hit.) Shells will no longer take out a tank, and tank versus tank combat is now rolling sets of dice until somebody dies.
4. There is a Helicopter which can scoot around and attack tanks. It cannot actually be attacked by a tank, but a tank can return fire if attacked by a heli.
The game now takes about 45 minutes to play (2-3 times longer than the
original), as you have more pegs to place and quite a few dice to roll. There are a few more tactical choices to make aside from just second guessing where your opponent moves. Two weaker tanks and a shell or two can now take down a stronger tank. The Helicopter is good for finishing off weak tanks, but it is dangerous to allow it to attack an unknown tank, as it can be blown up fairly easily in a long fight.
The point I need to harp on here is how many dice get rolled. All damage requires die rolls, and a tank to tank combat can require 4 or 5 rolls on each side. Combined with the re-plotting before every player turn, it makes the game feel like it is moving very slowly. Mercifully, there aren’t that many turns to the game.
One of our games revealed a bit of a playability issue, which was also present in the original. Tanks cannot move backward. When you are clearly outgunned on tanks, but have better artillery, you have an obvious strategy. Run past the opposing line of tanks. It will take forever for them to reach the end of the board where they can turn around and pursue you. You can then weaken them enough with artillery to take them on directly. The problem is that this maneuver makes the game run on for entirely too long.
Mission Command: Air (or lots of Screaming Eagles):
Screaming Eagles came along too late to be part of my childhood. I picked it on it rather late, and found it to be a nice romp about blowing up jets. Each player gets two planes. First, you choose maneuvers for both of your jets. Then you take turns moving one jet each. Moving takes place on a diamond shaped board which wraps around at the edges. You roll 1-4 dice (labeled 1-3) and move in your chosen direction. Before or after each jet moves, it can fire at any target in its forward arc. Cannons can only hit close targets that are in a straight line. Your precious medium and long range missiles can hit any target in your field of fire. Missiles can be blocked by chaff, which reduces their die rolls. To hit, roll range dice to try and exceed the range to the target. Upon a hit, roll dice to determine the part of the plane hit. When any of the parts of the plane are filled with hit markers, the plane goes boom. (One hit to the cockpit will suffice, but the more easily hit wings require 4 hits.)
It all worked pretty well. You had to worry about trying to stay out of fields of fire, so a lot of second guessing was involved. But when it got to your turn, you had to ponder which plane to move first, and whether or not to use your precious missiles. The game remains tense all the way through, except for occasional games where the last two planes remaining both run out of missiles, and must weave back and forth trying to nail each other with cannon fire alone.
Changes in Mission Command Air:
1. Instead of a hand of cards with all possible moves for each plane, each player gets a hand of random cards for his planes. Not all possible moves will be available.
2. Cards have an order indicated on the card. Low numbered cards go first, and all planes take turns according to card order.
3. There are 8 planes so four can play.
4. There are now more missiles per plane, and all missiles are long range.
5. Chaff is gone.
6. One of the planes is small– it is a little more maneuverable, but has fewer hit locations.
For the most part, the game still plays very closely to the original. The hand limit and unpredictable move order do not really change the game tactics noticeably, and add the incentive to hang onto fast cards in case of serious emergencies. The changes that effect play most heavily are the missiles and chaff. It is just too easy to guarantee a hit with all of the long range missiles in your possession. In most of our games, we’ve even still had missiles left over. Removing the chaff rules of course adds to the ease of taking down targets. My guess is that the reason for these changes in the design was to remove the long games of weaving around trying for a good cannon shot. But I feel they went too far in the opposite direction.
In case you have the new game, and would like to tinker with the missile and Chaff rules:
In Screaming Eagles, each plane receives 2 long range missiles, and 3 medium range missiles. Long range missiles roll 4 dice, and medium range roll 3 dice. Chaff (each plane has 2) only works against missiles, and removes the largest die from the missile’s roll. The person using chaff must do so before the missile dice are rolled.
The worst change here is the 8 plane game. With 4 enemy targets on the fairly small board, there is nearly always a target at close range available for every move. The game only gets interesting when the number of planes is reduced, but the 8 plane game ends when one player’s planes are eliminated. Thus the game usually ends just as it starts to get interesting.
Mission Command: Sea (not at all like Carrier Strike):
Ah Carrier Strike! Every kid in the neighborhood wanted this game which came out about the time of the movie Midway (in Sensurround). It was the most complex of the three games, and had GREAT production values–lots of plastic WW2 planes, and 4 huge carriers.
Object is to blow up the opponent’s carriers. Each carrier takes two hits, either from a fixed distance shot with torpedoes, or a kamikaze attack once you run out of torpedoes. The torpedoes crawled slowly forward at one space per turn over the course of about 5 turns before they could strike their target. Carriers can move rather ineffectively by using up your entire turn to do so. Planes have varying combat abilities for dogfighting. The actual dogfight combat works a bit like Slapshot/Phantoms of the Ice, with the better plane getting more cards.
Parts of the game were cool. Dogfighting was a blast, and useful for engaging torpedo laden planes. Moving your carrier was annoying, as it took your entire turn, and you had to roll a die to determine if you went forward or turned, and it was nearly impossible to dodge a head-on torpedo anyway. The game went on just a bit too long.
Mission Command: Sea retains some of the elements of Carrier Strike, but either revamps or replaces just about every mechanic. The look of the game is changed from WW2 to more modern carriers and jets. Torpedoes are now Harpoon Missiles.
1. You only have one carrier, but still have 8 planes. The Carrier cannot move.
2. There are Destroyers, which cruise around taking out planes and Harpoons. Roll a single die greater than range to a plane or Missile and it blows up.
3. Dogfighting is replaced with a die rolling mechanic. Roll as many dice as the plane’s strength. Highest single die wins.
4. Harpoon Missiles are much faster than torpedoes. The missile moves 2-12 (2D6) spaces over two turns. It can turn and weave as much as needed. Missiles can also take out Destroyers.
5. Islands are included which are impassable terrain.
6. 4 Dice are rolled each turn. This allows you to move 4 planes, AND your destroyers. Compare this to the move one plane OR move a carrier on your turn from the original game. It really makes the game feel like it is moving faster.
The only thing I miss from the original is the elaborate dogfighting. Moving more planes and having only one carrier gives the game a quick 30 minute playing time.
There is one glaring oversight with the game production. Tokens are provided to load onto the plane bases. Some planes secretly carry Harpoon missiles which target ships. Some planes are instead secretly loaded with air to air missiles that provide a +1 bonus towards dogfighting. The backs of the counters are not uniform, making it very easy to discern which plane is carrying which sort of armament.
Still, there are interesting choices to be made. You have to decide whether or not to try and bypass the Destroyers, and how close to get before firing, and which die to assign to which plane. Maintaining your lines of defense for your carrier and attack at the same time requires a bit of thought. With only two carrier hits needed, the game stays pretty tense.
A good set of die rolls will still win the game, but this one does feel like a very light tactical wargame, and fixes all of the problems of the original without adding any new ones.
The oddest part about this is that I am reviewing these games from the point of view of a 36 year old wargamer. Were I 10 years old, I would no doubt greet any of these games with the same enthusiasm I had for the original versions.
Mission Command: Air is based on a good game, and could be made interesting again with a bit of balancing. It might be more worthwhile to chase down a copy of Screaming Eagles instead. Mission Command: Land is still Tank Battle, but longer, and probably only has nostalgia or toy value.
But from that 36 year old wargamer point of view, Mission Command: Sea is quite a good little beer and pretzels game with nice bits. I would strongly suggest that the folks who watch Midway and Tora! Tora! Tora! every time it shows up on TV pick up a copy. – – – – — – Frank Branham
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Fall 2003 GA Report Articles