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Commands & Colors Expansions Review

Commands and Colors Spartan & Spanish army expansions for the Ancients & Napoleonics base games
And so we arrive and the third and final entry in the series covering GMTs Commands & Colors games, looking at expansions. Ostensibly this is a review of the Spanish army expansion for Commands & Colors: Napoleonics game and the Spartan expansion for the Commands & Colors: Ancients game but in order to frame these properly, I’m going to have to delve more deeply into the system as a whole.

I have always said that Commands & Colors: Ancients is the best of this overly-large and diverse series, but only as a stand-alone game. If you’re willing to commit money and time to buying several expansions then ultimately, Memoir ‘44 by Days of Wonders pips it at the post in terms of game play, if not simulation value. The reason for this is simple: the Memoir ‘44 game has some important flaws, especially in terms of scenario design. Each of its three army expansions then does two important things. Firstly, they offer superior scenarios to those in the base game. Second, and more importantly, each has a simple new rule, applying to all the troops in the new army, that significantly differentiates they way they play from the basic Germans and US troops in the base game meaning you get more of the same fun from the base game alongside some interesting new stuff to revive your flagging enthusiasm. The best example of this is the Commissar rule from the Soviet expansion which requires the Russian player to select his command card a turn in advance, simultaneously making playing the army a very different experience, upping the tension and excitement in the game and encouraging the player to think and plan ahead more clearly. That’s a pretty amazing transformation for one simple rule.

The Commands & Colors: Ancients expansions, of which Spartans is, quite incredibly, the sixth and allegedly the last, have not followed this pattern. Instead each box has included the blocks and stickers for one or two new armies, one or both of which will have the odd new unit type for which there may be news rules or sometimes just slightly different statistics. There will be a whole bunch of new scenarios, one or two of which will give you some interesting special rules. If you’re heavily into history, then there’s plenty of value here. You’ll like that each army has new historically accurate artwork and is made up of an authentically proportioned unit mix, even if most or all of those unit types are identical to those of the base game. You’ll appreciate the fact that the new scenario books allow you to re-fight new and exciting battles from ancient history, even if quality-wise they’re no better than those in the base game. You’ll get a kick out of the overall novelty of the experience, even if strategically it’s no deeper than the base game, and no more exciting.

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If you’re not so bothered about the history, then most of the new stuff will pass you by because in terms of actual game-play, most of the expansions simply don’t add enough new things to make them different enough from the base game to be worth your time and money. There are twenty scenarios in the base game, all of which are asymmetric and most of which are worth playing several times from each side, and for the majority of gamers that’s more than enough play time to exhaust interest in the system. There’s simply no need to go adding expansions to an already very good game.

Commands & Colors: Ancients Spartan blocks at the battle of Thermopylae

So what about Spartans? Well, for starters to play it you also need the first expansion, Greece & the Eastern Kingdoms, to make use of it. This is currently out of print, although a re-issue is in the works. Beyond what’s in that expansion, Spartans really doesn’t offer a lot of significantly new material. The single new unit is the Hoplite which is a standard medium infantry unit that can also be ordered by cards that affect mounted units, making them slightly more flexible than normal medium infantry. That’s pretty much it and I have to say I find that disappointing, possibly indicative of expansion fatigue. Alongside the Spartan army blocks, it has some other Greek blocks, such as the famous Silver Shields, which can be used in place of stand-in blocks in scenarios from the first expansion. Where things start to improve is in the scenarios: there are several very famous battles represented in this expansion, including two covering the battle of Thermopylae, which pretty much everyone must have heard of after the film 300. And they don’t disappoint: the Thermopylae scenarios themselves are the best of them. But, as I already said, there are a lot of very good scenarios in the base game. So this one really is for Commands & Colors fans with a particular bent for Greek history, and them alone. There’s simply not enough new and interesting here for more casual players to bother.

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The Spanish Army expansion on the other hand, the very first of several planned expansions for the Napoleonics outing of the Commands & Colors system, is a closer match for the Memoir ‘44 model. Spanish blocks, in a horrible shade of dirty yellow, follow the same basic pattern as the French and British units from the base game but there are two important differences. Firstly Spanish infantry units suffer serious penalties for moving and firing, which represents their lower grade training and equipment compared to other European counterparts. Second the Spanish player has access to guerrilla warfare tokens which can be spent to cancel enemy command cards, effectively making him lose a turn. A whole turn, and yes, that’s just as powerful as it sounds. These two differences do what’s required and mean commanding the Spanish army requires significantly different approaches from base game troops. The nerf to moving and firing means you can’t confidently advance over open ground and trust to averages to limit the attritional damage you take, forcing you to find new ways to get to grips with the enemy. And this dovetails nicely, of course, with those guerilla rules, because they give you one possible way of doing just that. But mixed in are issues of timing, because tokens are limited and you’d better make sure you use them only when you need them.

They really could have chosen something other than dirty yellow for the Spanish blocks in Commands & Colors: Napoleonics

Scenarios, again, are at the same level of quality as the base game. There are also two new French unit types to add to the mix. It’s unfortunate that relatively few people will know much about the conflict between France and Spain during the Napoleonic wars (I didn’t) as it may limit interest and immersion in what, technically speaking, is a good and well-designed expansion.

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So there you have it: possibly the longest introduction ever to two very short reviews, one negative and one positive. But it’s necessary, I think, because as the Commands & Colors system becomes more bloated with options, gamers need more information to make informed choices about what they do and don’t need. At least that seems a good excuse for my usual excessive verbosity, and I’m sticking to it.

Matt Thrower

Matt is a board gamer who plays video games when he can't find anyone similarly obsessive to play against, which is frequently. The inability to get out and play after the birth of his first child lead him to start writing about games as a substitute for playing them. He founded FortressAT.com and writes there and at NoHighScores.com

8 thoughts to “Commands & Colors Expansions Review”

  1. Now THAT’s a review, mate!

    You just singlehandedly answered some huge questions for me on buying decisions. I’m simply going to stick to the base game, and kick myself for favoring it over M44.

    1. Glad you enjoyed the review, but don’t kick yourself for sticking with c&c:a, and here’s why.

      Firstly my position is a minority one. Most people will tell you c&ca is better than m44 full stop, regardless of expansions. If you’re interested in simulation value it’s a no-brainier because the C&C system mimics ancient warfare very well, and ww2 era very badly. C&ca is also unarguably deeper, I just happen to feel that the fun-factor of m44 balances that out, but ymmv.

      Second, to make m44 better than C&ca you need to add the terrain pack, the eastern from expansion and the campaign book and play campaigns. If you’re interested I’ll write a whole piece explaining why the campaigns are so great. But right there you’ve committed to spending twice what the base C&ca game will cost, and signed up to play 10, 20, maybe more linked scenarios to get the value out of it. Thats a tall order for most people.

  2. I, shamefully, admit to knowing all about the conflict between France and Spain thanks to SHARPE starring Sean Bean. To be honest, that tv series is what sparked my interest in the Napoleonic Wars. That and you get to see Elizabeth Hurley’s boobies.

    I’ve been hesitating over buying C&C Napoleonics, and this review has settled it for me. Thanks Matt.

  3. “The Commands & Colors: Ancients expansions, of which Spartans is, quite incredibly, the sixth and allegedly the last,”

    Actually, the word from Borg and the developer (can’t remember who that is at the moment) has always been that, as long as interest stays strong, there is more to come for CC:A. Sure, CC:N has been getting the attention at the moment, but there is apparently more under development, though there’s no word on exactly what it will be.

    “If you’re not so bothered about the history, then…” there’s no hope for you. 😛

    I will point out there’s some very unique scenarios hidden away in the expansions. A couple I can think of off the top of my head:
    River Stour

    1. I did say “allegedly” the last, as I didn’t quite believe it either. Although I do think the extent of the expansion line up for all of the modern C&C games has become beyond ridiculous.

  4. While the C&C:A series might have experienced some expansionitis, it wasn’t a very severe case. Yes, they could have published some very generic “red versus blue” counters and left it at that. But, if you play the game extensively, you’ll appreciate the Romans looking like Romans, and the Greeks looking like Greeks. After playing other multi-nation ancient and medieval games, such as Ancients, I certainly appreciate the counters/blocks having a distinct national appearance.

    The rules changes, though, were pretty slight. And I don’t feel I got my money’s worth from Spartan, because (1) the changes weren’t that big, and (2) they didn’t need a whole supplement, with blocks, to implement them.

    What they might have done was something more like the ASL approach: Publish scenarios separately from the counters. While ASL expansions always have some scenarios, the bulk of them appear in ASL annuals, action packs, and other media.

    As good as this review was, Matt, I have to make one negative comment: Why no mention of the multi-player C&C:A Epic expansions? Multiple players per side create a very different playing experience — a lot more fun, the few times I’ve tried it. Those expansions are certainly different enough from the base game, and add significant enough value, to avoid the “expansionitis” charge.

    1. I didn’t mention the C&C Epic expansion for two reasons. Most importantly, I didn’t think it was really that relevant. The review was originally supposed to focus on Sparta & Spanish Army, I felt that to explain my opinions I had to bring in M44 and some of the other C&C:A expansions, but the products I’m reviewing are 2 player expansions and so I didn’t feel Epic was part of the discussion.

      The second is that I’ve never played C&C:A Epic. I still could have mentioned it of course, but not from a position of authority.

      And it’s worth noting that the expansionitis around C&C isn’t just about the fact that C&C:A has six. It’s about the fact that the whole system is becoming bloated with poorly differentiated re-implementations of the same core concept across different settings and each one of those is then loaded with expansions. The entire thing just seems to have got out of control.

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