Flash Review of Combat Mission Black Sea

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Developed and Published by Battlefront Inc.

Reviewed by Boggit 14 February 2015

Black Sea is the latest addition to the Combat Mission series. It focuses on a speculative continuation and escalation of the present Ukraine crisis to a new flashpoint in the central Ukraine Dneipr river/Donetsk area set during the summer of 2017. NATO has now been drawn into the fight and with the release of this game we see US troops joining the fight between the Ukrainians and Russians. Conceived well before the current crisis in the Ukraine, this is another of Steve Grammont’s eerily prophetic modern Combat Mission games – the last one was Combat Mission: Shock Force set in Syria in 2008!

Ukrainian scouts cautiously advance. A barrage meanwhile slows any advances on their left flank.

Ukrainian scouts cautiously advance. A barrage meanwhile slows any advances on their left flank.

As a flash review/first impressions feature, this article is based on my gameplay of a couple of the scenarios, and around half a dozen quick battles. It’s not exhaustive by any means, but I hope that I’ve covered things sufficiently to give some useful insights into what the game is all about. If I’ve missed something – it happens – well now you’ll know why. 😉

Essentially Combat Mission: Black Sea is a 3-d tactical game set at the individual squad/tank/gun level. It is very much geared towards real world tactics, and a failure to apply the same usually is a brutal result for a player’s ‘pixeltruppen’. The mechanics of the game are pretty straightforward, but as I hinted earlier it takes time to become proficient at it. For existing fans of Combat Mission there are no fundamental game engine surprises, which reduces the learning curve – Black Sea uses the same V3.0 game engine used in Combat Mission Fortress Italy, Battle for Normandy and Red Thunder. I’d have liked to have seen a few tweaks added to the game engine like stopping infantry running into a barrage by hitting the deck/crawling away, or the seemingly predictable automatic unspotted turn 1 barrages that happen in Quick Battles, but that was not to be, and it isn’t a game-breaker. However, there are a number of new features, lots of little features and a mass of modern equipment added to the system which distinguishes Black Sea from the earlier WW2 games – if anything the battlefield has become a far more interesting – and deadly – place to be.

Wrong place. Wrong time. Pure bad luck hits my scouts.

Wrong place. Wrong time. Pure bad luck hits my scouts.

As I clear one objective, I realise it wasn’t cleared after all.

As I clear one objective, I realise it wasn’t cleared after all.

Aside from the new equipment that makes Black Sea different from the WW2 experience, eight major new additions to the game engine bring the game to the present day by reflecting some of the tactical considerations of today’s battlefield. The new features cover:

  • Amphibious vehicles for the Russians and Ukrainians. It doesn’t mean water crossings are now without their problems as vehicles are very vulnerable while actually crossing water, and can soon find themselves unsupported by dismounted infantry. However, this ability gives greater tactical flexibility near water obstacles, as bridges and fords are no longer the choke points they used to be.
Diehard Russian infantry refuse to concede the last objective.

Diehard Russian infantry refuse to concede the last objective.

  • Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) for the US Army and the Russians. This is a real breakthrough in the Combat Mission recon experience. In Combat Mission carrying out recon is vital to avoiding ambushes, as well as giving you the information you need to carry out your mission. UAV’s make this job considerably easier. Playing as the Ukrainians you have to be very careful, or hope that you have US advisors to call on to give you parity in this area, as your ‘hidden’ troops suddenly find themselves targeted by artillery strikes – as I found to my cost. There are a variety of different drone types to play around with from pure recon to strike drones like the US Grey Eagle.
  • Surface-to-Air Missiles (SAMs). Active anti-air capability was introduced to the V3.0 game engine with Combat Mission: Red Thunder and this feature further expands anti-air capability. Apart from making life more difficult for air strike missions, UAV’s can also get shot down before they make life unpleasant for a player.
  • Electronic warfare. This is a global environmental feature that – certainly in Quick Battles – you can set as none, light, medium, or strong for each side. This acts to progressively degrade/disable communications/satellite links. The net effect seems to reduce sighting and communications, making a game seem more akin to one fought in WW2 – only with modern weapons.
  • Precision artillery munitions reflect advances in laser guided munitions and GPS technology. It is now possible to fire precise one round strikes, with a good chance of a hit. Some weapon systems are very precise, others less so – like mortar rounds – but they’re still pretty good. The difference in accuracy between an artillery strike in a WW2 Combat Mission game and Black Sea is considerable. Taken into account the use of laser designators, or UAV support, the increased accuracy means that artillery fire is much more deadly. UAV’s are such an asset in this role, making them a potential game changer so it makes sense to have countermeasures. That is one reason why the new surface to air missile feature is so important to this game.
A Bradley platoon provides overwatch for my advancing troops.

A Bradley platoon provides overwatch for my advancing troops.

  • Active protection systems (APS). Described as a new feature, we actually first saw this in the Drozd Active Defense system for T55’s and T62’s in Combat Mission: Afghanistan. However, this feature is new to the V3.0 game engine and has been brought up to date with the latest systems like the Trophy protective system used by the Bradley and M1 Abrams. The purpose remains the same though – to detect and intercept Incoming missiles/rocket grenades before they hit a vehicle. Unlike Combat Mission: Afghanistan other armoured vehicles – mainly infantry fighting vehicles, like the Bradley (depending on the variant), are protected by APS – not just the tanks. It’s not overly common with the lighter vehicles, save for the United States, which means a player still needs to use lighter vehicles with caution.
  • Airburst Munitions.  Thanks to modern targeting equipment airburst shells are available to many weapon systems. Airburst shells are mainly limited to heavy weapons on tanks and infantry support vehicles, but they also appear for US infantry squads equipped with the M25 CDTE “Punisher” giving US infantry a clear advantage when it comes to clearing enemies out of cover. They are convenient for allowing an airburst overhead of enemy troops or for dropping an explosive surprise just behind cover like a wall or hedge.
Eye in the sky. We launch a UAV to cover our waypoint to our first objective.

Eye in the sky. We launch a UAV to cover our waypoint to our first objective.

  • Night vision systems.  First seen in Combat Mission: Shock Force – night vision equipment is another first for the v3.0 game engine. It’s not just useful at night, but it is also used automatically in a variety of low visibility situations. The battlefield in Black Sea has become a harder place to hide in compared to a game like Combat Mission: Battle for Normandy.
Don’t mess with my Bradley’s, Ivan!

Don’t mess with my Bradley’s, Ivan!

Not to be outdone by Bradleys, US infantry toast an APC and its dismounted passengers.

Not to be outdone by Bradleys, US infantry toast an APC and its dismounted passengers.

Combat Mission: Black Sea is a base game for future planned expansions. The initial instalment of Black Sea, provides all the mainstream forces and equipment for the US, Russian, and Ukrainian militaries, but not everything. As with other games in the Combat Mission series Battlefront have released expansions to extending the range of equipment, formations, different combat areas, and combatant nations. I’m speculating, but I’d hazard an educated guess that we’ll see something like other NATO nations, perhaps Russian Separatist Militia, Airborne and Spetsnaz, and Ukrainian

Bradleys are expensive, but worth it. They kill up close, and do it at range – very well.

Bradleys are expensive, but worth it. They kill up close, and do it at range – very well.

Airborne and Special Forces represented, together with an increased variety of formations, weapons, vehicles, scenarios, and campaigns.

Recon by fire. I’m pretty sure that something in that group of trees @12 o’clock fired on me earlier.

Recon by fire. I’m pretty sure that something in that group of trees @12 o’clock fired on me earlier.

From an organisational perspective the units in Black Sea are designed around brigade combat teams, whether they be armoured, motor rifle, mechanized, or Stryker. While it is possible to play a large scenario with an entire brigade, most games are made up of elements of such a brigade – this is what you actually get:

  • 19 US formations ranging in scope from a Combined Arms Battalion Task Force, an Armoured Cavalry Squadron to a MANPADS (Man Portable Air Defence System) Platoon. There is even a LRS (Long Range Surveillance) Platoon for those who like missions with a special ops flavour.
  • 21 Russian formations from the Tank Brigade’s Tank Battalion (with 31 tanks), the Motor Rifle Brigade’s Tank Battalion (with 41 tanks) – yes, Battlefront have maintained their usual eye for detail – to Battalion Tactical Group’s using 3 main vehicle variants – the BMP, BTR and MTLB. At the smaller end of the scale are things like the sniper platoon, or Air Controller Section.
  • 20 Ukrainian formations in many ways mirroring the Russian military – their Tank Battalions, for example, have the same organisation. However, they do feature a Mountain Infantry Battalion, and on the basis that ‘bigger is better’ – a Sniper Company (although in reality doctrine dictates – as with most sniper formations – that this will not act as a unit, but will have its teams parcelled out to rifle platoons).
  • 23 Vehicles are represented for the United States Including 8 variants for the Stryker infantry support vehicle, 4 Humvee variants, 6 Bradley variants (all with either active protection system (APS), or explosive reactive armour (ERA)), and the M1A2 SEPv2 Abrams both in the APS and ERA configurations.
I should have moved position. An FGS-17 makes life unpleasant… and short.

I should have moved position. An FGS-17 makes life unpleasant… and short.

  • 38 Vehicles are provided for Russia Including the helicopter and UAV killing 2K22M-Tunguska, 3 BMP2 variants, 6 BMP-3 variants some with APS/ERA kits, 4 BRDM variants, 5 BTR variants, and 3 T90A variants. You get a lot of variety.
  • 18 Vehicles are available for the Ukraine. Their vehicle roster is very similar to the Russian, not least because the Ukraine inherited some weapon factories from the Soviet era. As at July 2014, the Ukrainians had not generally upgraded their 1990’s Soviet technology army, but sInce July 2014 they have been actively upgrading it. Consequently they do sport some variations, which don’t feature for the Russians like the T-64BV tank, the T- 64 upgrade aka the BM Bulat, and the T-84 upgrade BM Oplot tank. They also get the well-armed BTR-4E armoured personnel carrier. The BTR-4E is worthy of a mention being a uniquely Ukrainian design, which started production in 2008 to supply the Ukrainian, and also the Iraqi armies. I was surprised not to see the Ukrainian Tunguska-2K22M1 included (in fact the Russians also use it), as it looks virtually identical to the 2K22M-Tunguska – although it does has an improved fire control system.
  • 14 US small arms ranging from the standard M4A1 (5 variants) to the cover clearing M25 CDTE.
  • 6 Russian small arm types ranging from the standard infantry AK-74M to the classic SVD sniper rifle.
  • 7 Ukrainian small arms feature. These are similar to the Russian roster save with the Inclusion of some older equipment like the RPK-74, and the AK-74.
  • 10 US heavy weapons ranging from the hard hitting FGM-148 Javelin to the Mk.19 grenade launcher
  • 12 Russian Heavy Weapons from the thermobaric bunker busting RPO-M Shmel, the lethal AT-14 Kornet anti-tank missile to the Igla-S SA-24 SAM (the NATO designated SA-24 GrInch).
  • 16 Heavy weapons are available for the Ukrainians. Again the list is similar to the Russians, although there are differences like the light, but hard hitting Corsar and Skif ATGMs.
  • 3 US artillery support assets include the self-propelled M109A7 Paladin, the light weight M119A3 howitzer. I was surprised that there was no MRLS rocket artillery, although perhaps that is something for a future expansion.
  • 10 Russian artillery assets range from the old MT-12 Rapira 100mm anti-tank gun capable of artillery fire to the huge 2S7M Mialka 203mm self-propelled howitzer. Again I was surprised not to see any MRLS rocket artillery like the Smerch or Uragan. As something fairly commonplace I’d hope to see them in a future expansion.
  • 6 Ukrainian artillery assets are available. All have their Russian equivalents like the 2S1 Gvozdika or the 2A65 Msta-B. The Ukrainians just have fewer weapon types. My comment made earlier about the absence of rocket artillery similarly applies.
  • 4 US air support assets Including 2 AH64 Apache variants, while the F-15E Strike Eagle and
    F-16CJ Fighting Falcon represent the fixed wing strike force.
  • 6 Russian air support assets in the form of three attack helicopters like the Ka-52 Alligator, and three fixed wing assets Including the Su-25SM Frogfoot, and the Su-34 Fullback.
  • 4 Air support assets are there for the Ukrainians. 2 Hind variants provide attack helicopter support, whilst the Su-24M Fencer-D and Su-25 Frogfoot provide fixed wing support.
  • 3 US UAV’s are represented by the strike capable MQ-1C Grey Eagle, the small hand launched RQ-11B Raven, and the larger RQ-7B Shadow
  • 3 Russian UAV’s being the Orlan-10, Yakovlev Pchela-1T, and the micro ZALA 421-08 somewhat similar to the US Raven
My Russians engage the Ukrainians at range. Battle ranges are so different to the WW2 experience.

My Russians engage the Ukrainians at range. Battle ranges are so different to the WW2 experience.

  • 4 Campaigns are included

Crossing the Dnieper for a Russian Battalion Tactical Group with a supporting Tank battalion attacking in the Dnepropetrovsk area. A variety of missions follow ranging from a river assault to urban combat in Dnepropetrovsk itself. (5 missions)

Task Force 3-69 for a US mixed armour/heavy infantry battalion with supporting US cavalry, airborne and Ukrainian motor rifle elements tasked to block, then counterattack a Russian advance south of Kiev. (5 Missions)

The Shield of Kiev for a Ukrainian Battalion Tactical Group from a Mechanised Brigade with armoured support. This campaign postulates a 1 day limited counterattack to the north of Kiev to buy time for arriving NATO forces to successfully redeploy. (4 missions)

A Training Campaign to initiate new players into the game (and for Combat Mission veterans to get some practiceJ).

  • 21 Scenarios are provided with a lot of variety both in scenario size to terrain type. This Includes small recon patrol’s set in rolling farmland to large assaults across mixed terrain. The terrain is varied with urban, open and heavily forested areas commonly featured. I liked the set scenarios I played as they presented some very interesting tactical problems.

Black Sea comes with a comprehensive editor to make your own maps and scenarios. If you don’t want to do this a handy alternative is to use the Quick Battles generator to quickly make a playable scenario. The Quick Battles generator is very easy to use, and apart from force selection a player can select the type of battlefield from a prebuilt set of maps ranging from open farmland, river crossings to dense urban areas. I can’t say that all the Quick Battle maps are new to Black Sea – I played one that I’d previously fought over in Red Thunder, but it’s a good map, suitably “Russian”, and I’d rather have it added to the selection than not. One thing I noticed is that units are very expensive in points compared to WW2, so don’t expect to afford large formations unless you select a ‘large’ battle, or perhaps use the point adjustment feature for extra build points.

Large maps with varied terrain are quite common. Here is one from the first mission in the US Campaign.

Large maps with varied terrain are quite common. Here is one from the first mission in the US Campaign.

Although the V3.0 game engine is well established in the other Combat Mission games, the new features for Black Sea and the artwork for the troops and vehicles is really great, and clearly a lot of work has gone into it. The attention to detail with the artwork is something that Battlefront shines with, and I suspect that alone took much of the development cycle –one small point illustrating this being identifying stripes on Ukrainian vehicles – an issue for them given that so much of their kit is similar in look and silhouette to Russian vehicles. The one thing I didn’t like were the tiny weapon icons in the user interface – they are small in comparison to other games in the Combat Mission stable, and frankly I thought they were a step back, so they’ll be something I’ll look to mod. It’s still early days for finding mods, and new user created scenarios specific to Black Sea, but this is where you’ll need to look: Battlefront‘s Combat Mission: Black Sea repository

It’s no great secret that I’m a fan of Combat Mission games, but I really do like Black Sea as it has such a unique feel to its gameplay. It updates Combat Mission from the modern Shock Force standard to the v3.0 engine, and throws in a lot of great features that leave you in no doubt that you’re playing a game with cutting edge military technology. The scenarios and campaigns offer a decent range of tactical situations, and unlike Shock Force the sides involved are broadly symmetrical making the game more challenging. Much of this is due to veteran designer Chris Nelson, who previously worked on Fortress Italy and Gustav Line, and has led the development team of Black Sea from start to finish. While I have some minor gripes with the smaller weapon icons, I will mod them out when a mod becomes available, and as for the missing MRLS artillery I hope that will be in the next expansion. All in all I thought Combat Mission: Black Sea a great addition to the Combat Mission series. If there is anything I have to say to Battlefront Inc. it is “when will the next expansion be released?”

Grumpy Grog Says: “Combat Mission Black Sea hits the modern tactical wargaming spot better than a laser designated airburst round!”


Discuss this review below, or in our forums >>


Further reading/viewing:


Ukraine Crisis: What It Means for the West by Andrew Wilson

Ukraine Diaries: Dispatches from Kiev (due April 2015) by Andrey Kurkov

The New Cold War: Putin’s Russia and the Threat to the West by Edward Lucas

And for a different take on the issues…

Flashpoint in Ukraine: How the US Drive for Hegemony Risks World War III by Stephen Lendman (Editor)

For some professional guidance with your tactics – The Ranger Handbook

Internet/YouTube links

http://www.army-technology.com/ – a great source on vehicles in the conflict

This old British Army Training film inspired the Black Sea scenario “An August Morning



Some more old British Army training films – but still pertinent for tactics in Combat Mission: Black Sea – covering Recon, fighting patrols, and section fire and maneuver… there are lots more, but this will give you a flavour…







5 Responses to Flash Review of Combat Mission Black Sea

  1. John says:

    As for MLRS, it has a safety distance of 2 km to friendly troops, so it is quite outside of the scope of Combat Missions scale. It is used to interdict targets further away, not as artillery support in the actual battle zone, where troops are in close contact.

  2. Brant Guillory says:

    Some more MLRS info here: http://bayonetgames.com/wmlrs.htm

  3. JudgeDredd says:

    Good detail in there…a lot of which I did not know.


  4. Edmond Dixon says:

    I’ve played Black Sea for about a month. I’ve found it to be immersive and a joy to play. The training mission are especially well executed. Personally, I think spotting and a slight rebalance in armor response would be nice. The Americans are amazingly fast spotting and firing at everything that pokes its head up. Great game, as usual, well done, Battlefront!

  5. jaro says:

    I recommend this mod to the game – it is amazing


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