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Commands & Colors: Ancients Expansions 2 & 3 Review

cca23Britain is pockmarked with standing stones. On a recent holiday we passed them in a dozen different sites. High on windy hillsides or perched above rocky bays, the waves seething over jagged rocks beneath. I love to touch them, to touch my history. They feel like the bones of the country, smooth yet pitted.

Traces of their makers cover the landscape like a swirling tattoo. Hill forts, barrows, buried hoards of gold. Yet they do not speak to me. Their brash Roman conquerors do. Julius Caeser wrote books. His legionaries wrote letters, pleading for thick socks and underthings against the bitter British climate. I had long hoped I might find the voices of the Britons in some forgotten thing. A squashed coin perhaps, or a rusted sword hilt.

I have found them now, in a most unexpected place. In a box, fashioned from green wood and decorated with gaudy stickers.

They are not always Britons. Sometimes they masquerade as Gauls or ancient Germans. It matters little. All these peoples shared a culture, all contributed to my culture and all them were silenced. Their voices drowned out by the shouting of their conqueror, Rome.

At first, Commands & Colors: Ancients seemed a strange place to find them. With its emphasis on lines, leaders and structure, it felt a poor fit for this rabble of proud barbarians. They should be rushing the enemy, half naked and ululating, not trying to scrabble together adjacent units for a line command. I couldn’t see how the system would accommodate them without a lot of extra rules.

The answer is simple. Barbarian armies rely on light units, chariots and warriors. Against them, their Roman empire foes are from the legionary era, with its backbone of heavy infantry. Embellished with the new Marian Legions rule which gives them missile fire to represent their pilums, they are a terrifying force.

The result is a perfect ballet of asymmetry. The Roman army can function like a well oiled machine – providing its commander has a bit of luck and a lot of skill with command cards. The barbarians can’t hope to face them in formal battle lines. Instead they must rely on their maneuverability, flexibility and the momentum advance of the warrior units.

Not that it does all that much good. It’s difficult in many of the scenarios for the barbarians to win. Trying offers a tiny taste of the terror they must have felt. Rough men with rough weapons charging down the most effective military machine of the ancient world. A human tide breaking on a wall of iron.

You might ask why they bothered. The vast contrast between the stickers and capabilities of the two armies offers a clue. These cultures were profoundly different. The barbarians fought to protect those differences. Because they wanted to worship at stone circles under the open sky, not austere temples of marble.

It’s not all about the barbarians. Julius Caesar makes an appearance, alongside his formidable tenth legion. There are special rules to make them appropriately fearsome. There is Spartacus, too, and other slave revolts. They’re allowed to roll burning logs onto the enemy in a unique area-effect attack. When it’s resolved, the slaves themselves lose a block which has to be one of the most appallingly expressive rules I’ve ever seen. It reeks of desperation; and woodsmoke.

The Romans get their own scenario booklet, detailing the brutal civil wars the marked the end of the republic. These are similar to the existing scenarios of Greece and the Punic Wars in terms of the forces offered. There are some new terrain tiles to throw in.

And even though they happened far away, they have their own immediacy. These were not far-flung conflicts in Africa or private violence between city states. These battles were pivotal in western history. Had they gone otherwise, it could have been Mark Antony or Pompey wading ashore at Dover, or no-one at all.

There are over forty new scenarios here. Thanks to subtle use of terrain and novel elements, they offer huge diversity. In place of the blank battlefields of the original there are marshes and coasts, villages and ramparts. Rather than faceless light, medium, heavy toops there are the stoic Legionaries of popular imagination. Waiting in silence as painted devils descend on them from the fog.

I have played wargames where British soldiers fought on British soil from the Wars of the Roses to Operation Sealion. But none felt as personal or evocative as this. With a minimum of rules, these expansion scenarios give voice to a long dead people. They allow us to touch their vanished world like we touch their standing stones. There’s little more one can ask for a conflict simulation.

Commands & Colours: Napoleonics Review

Commands & Colors: Napoleonics - the latest iteration of this famous series from GMT games

You may recall that at the start of last weeks’ Commands & Colors: Ancients review I stated that there were a number of games based on the system, and that wargame publisher GMT had sent me a big box of stuff related to it? Well, next in the spotlight is the recent Commands & Colors: Napoleonics game, which transplants the action to the fields of early 19th century Europe and the famed conflict between England and France. This is a particularly interesting one to talk about because rumour has it that designer Richard Borg originally designed the Commands & Colors system from Napoleonic warfare. If that’s true then it’s taken a surprisingly long time for the actual game on the subject to appear.

If you missed that review last week but are reading this one, here’s a brief recap of the basic rules system that underpins all the Commands & Colors systems. The board is divided into three areas, left, right and center, and each player has a hand of cards most of which will allow the movement and attack of a certain number of units across one or more of those areas. So, one card might say three units in the center for example, another might be one unit in each area and so on. One card is played each turn. This is a very simple and intuitive way to model the chaos of command and control in real-life battle situations where your subordinates might well be unaware of or unable to comply with your orders for reasons beyond your control. Usefully it also offers some interesting tactical and strategic decisions, both on board and in terms of hand management, for the board game player. This model still makes pretty good sense in the pre-radio era of Napoleonic warfare. Each unit is made up of a variable number of blocks which are removed as the unit accumulates damage in the dice-based combat system until all the blocks are gone and the unit is destroyed.

A lot of the rules framework seems to have been borrowed from GMTs earlier and extremely popular implementation of the system for Ancient warfare. There are still a lot of unit types most of which have small, annoying but critically important deviations from the basic rules structure such as the number of dice they roll or the number of blocks in a unit. This has lead to some curious artefacts, such as the fact that Leader blocks carry with them a substantial amount of extra rules weight in spite of the fact that, although useful, they’re nowhere near as critical as they are in Ancients. But if you’re familiar with that particular game, you shouldn’t need to expend a whole lot of effort to pick up the rules for this one.

As in other Commands & Colors games from GMT, there are a lot of blocks to sticker
So what’s changed? There are two key differences that distinguish Commands & Colors: Napoleonics from its peers in the system. The first is a set of rules specifically designed to mimic Napoleonic tactics, specifically the ability to cavalry to run away from infantry attacks, for infantry to form square against cavalry charges and for artillery to combined their attack dice with infantry or cavalry assaults in a combined arms attack. The other is that in this game, and this game alone, the number of dice a unit rolls in combat is related to how many blocks there are still in the unit. This is a very curious change because the fact that units fought at full strength regardless of damage until destroyed was a major source of criticism for all the early Commands & Colors games. The given reason was that large-scale military units often do function reasonably effectively until attrition in morale or numbers makes them suddenly collapse is not entirely unreasonable, but I could see no good reason why the same logic should not apply to Napoleonic warfare. Why was this chosen to be different?

My initial, cynical, assumption was that this had been done simply to differentiate a new product from its predecessors in what’s becoming a fairly bloated product range. I am pleased to say that actually playing the game proved me to be wholly wrong. The combination of attritional damage and the Napoleonics-ear specific rules together is what gives the game its authentic, realistic age of rifles flavour. Infantry advancing across open ground will likely be severely depleted before they can return fire, and the job of you as the commander is to utilise other unit types, terrain and lucky command cards to ameliorate this effect as much as possible. Without the dice-per-block rule, it’d be trivially easy to advance and then assault at full strength. The new rules do not only give the system a properly Napoleonic feel, but make the required strategies and tactics for success subtle and well differentiated from other Commands & Colors games. Gamers well versed in previous iterations of the series should still find plenty of challenge here.
Commands & Colors: Napoleonics features some new rules, such as the ability of infantry to form square against cavalry attacks
I am, however, left wondering why exactly they’d want to bother looking. Whilst certainly a good and interesting game, Commands & Colors: Napoleonics suffers from a very unfortunate problem of simply not being quite up to scratch when compared with other Commands & Colors games, even from a variety of different angles. It isn’t quite as deep and satisfyingly realistic as the Ancients game, but it has the same issues with the substantial weight of rules feeling a little too much for the chaotic system that underpins it to bear properly. It isn’t as quick playing, lightweight and exciting and Memoir ‘44 but it has the same considerable set-up time because (unlike Ancients) terrain plays a vital role, and all the scenarios have plenty of hexes to add to the board. It’s neither one thing nor the other, and I can’t see all that many circumstances where I would pick this over one of those two games.

This is unfortunate. There’s a quality game in this package, one that I enjoyed, and one that designer and developers clearly worked hard on to give it the necessary Napoleonic flavour, and for the most part succeeded: it’s just that in the process they also created a game that fell into the valley between two peaks. I’m certain now of something I have only suspected before, which is that the world now has enough Commands & Colors games and their associated expansions. It’ll be interesting to see if other gamers hit the same burnout with the upcoming Samurai battles iteration. In the meantime, if you’re a particular aficionado of the system, or of Napoleonic warfare, this is well worth your time and money to check out. For the everyone else, the existing games in the lineup should prove sufficient.