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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.

If You Want Peace, Prepare to Wargame

Wargames viewed from different angles

One of the things I love about NoHighScores is the fact that it’s a game site on which staff and users remember that the word “games” has a much, much wider reach than your nearest computing device. But since starting to scuff my shoes here on a regular basis, there’s at least one major genre that seems to be missing from the coverage, and that’s historical wargames.

That’s not entirely surprising. Although wargames are one of the most easily-defined sub-genres of the board game world they have pretty much zero penetration into the wider hobby consciousness. The cartoon at the top says it all in terms of misconceptions about this sector of the hobby. And the hobbyists don’t help themselves either. Wargamers put an emphasis on simulation in their designs and that often means games that are two-player only, immensely complex and long-playing with huge downtime. The infamous Campaign For North Africa is the ultimate example of this trend, with a three volume rulebook, 1800 counters and a 1500 hour play-time. Given the focus on re-fighting historical battles a desire for simulation is perhaps understandable. What’s less so is the apparently conservative mindset of a lot of wargamers who started out on the hobby in the 70’s and seem to want to see endless minor variations on world-war 2 eastern front “panzer pusher” games and who insist on using impenetrable military and historical jargon that’ll put off experienced board gamers from other spheres who might feel qualified to tackle the rules sets these things demand. For evidence you need look no further than the primary internet gathering place for wargamers, Consimworld, which uses an interface so arcane that even people who braved the bulletin boards and newsgroups of the very early web find it hard to navigate.

And yet none of this really need be the case. The manner in which this hobby segment actively turns off new recruits is long recognised and lamented by the more forward-thinking designers and commentators in the sector and there has been an active, and growing movement over the past ten years to learn some design lessons from other sectors of the hobby and push out some clever and innovative designs that extract maximum simulation value from minimum rules and play time alongside the traditional eastern front fare. Indeed, given the relatively stagnant state of European-style game design right now, and the manner in which American-style design is dominated by a very small number of big publishers, I’d say that modern wargames are currently at the cutting edge of game design. If you don’t dip your toe into this market from time to time, you’ll be missing out on some seriously interesting games.

So if you’re going to take the plunge into this sticky and potentially impervious morass, what’s a good place to start? Well the first thing to say is that a big part of the pleasure in playing wargames is in picking titles that represent some history that interests you, and that should be your first winnowing point. If you want to re-live the sort of personal stories of modern warfare that make up the bulk of TV and films about war then you’ll want to pick a small-scale (tactical) level game about a 20th century conflict. If you’re in to cable TV documentaries about ancient generals then take a look a mid-scale (operational) games set in the ancient world. If books about economic and social history during warfare sound more your thing then you’ll probably want a top scale (strategic) game, perhaps from the Napoleonic or American Civil War era. Partly thanks to the manner in which one designer can invent a mechanical basis for a wargame, and others can adapt it to battles that interest them from roughly the same period the palette of potential wargames is huge.

Given this advice and the enormous diversity of games on offer, it’d be hypocritical of me to say I can offer you a basket of catch-all introductory wargames to suit all-comers. Rather I’m just going to focus on a small handful that are both suitable for new players and belong in that small basket of highly innovative designs that I mentioned earlier in the article. You should be able to teach and play most of these games to completion in a 2-4 hour session, and all but one allow for multiple players in addition to the more traditional two.

My first pick is the Conflict of Heroes series from Academy games, and its first on the list not only because it’s brilliant but because it was tailor made as an entry point into the hobby. It’s a tactical level game played on a traditional hex map with traditional counters representing a squad, a tank or a weapon team but there’s nothing traditional about the component quality. Instead of the paper maps and flimsy two-tone counters you’ll find in most wargames, all these games have mounted boards and big, thick, ready-punched counters lavished in glorious 3D artwork. The rules may look daunting at first but they’re introduced piecemeal for easy digestion and you can jump in and play several of the scenarios after just the first few pages. It’s also worth remembering that tactical games are usually fairly complex due to the level of detail they need to represent and Conflict of Heroes does an excellent job of jettisoning all the extraneous rubbish and focusing down on a system that is exciting, challenging and which strikes an enviably brilliant balance between randomness and depth. Again, unlike usually plodding pace of tactical games, which stands in stark contrast to the adrenaline-fueled action they purport to depict, these games are very fast playing with minimal down time. Currently there are two editions of this game, set in different times on the Eastern Front, but more are planned across several fronts of World War 2, and possibly extending to other modern warfare theatres as well.

Napoleon's TriumphNext up we have a game that I once stated was the best-looking game in the world, ever, thanks to the manner in which it mimics the map layout of a battle that you might see in the tent of an eighteenth century general, Napoleon’s Triumph from Simmons Games. This title also gets another top accolade from me, as I reckon it, and it’s younger sibling Bonaparte at Marengo are possibly the most innovative games I’ve ever seen. They share a basic concept of having units printed on wooden blocks that you can then turn away from the enemy to create a fog-of-war effect with a large number of other, more venerable wargames but other than that I have difficulty spotting where designer Bowen Simmons could possibly have got the rest of his ideas from. Indeed it’s such an unusual system that I’m going to cop out and not even attempt to describe how it works: suffice to say that it’s a completely non-random and truly fiendish combination of chess and poker that leverages the hidden information of what units are where to create a fantastically deep game that’s nevertheless filled with nerve-wracking bluffs and evasions. It also manages to elegantly model the slow breakdown in command and control that was such a feature of pre-radio warfare. But that level of invention also works against the game: it’s not complex by any means but it remains tough to learn due to a lack of familiar concepts to latch on to. However, to miss out on a game of such startling brilliance over that small hurdle would be a tragedy. If you don’t fancy the Napoleonic theme the designer has a new American Civil War game based on the same system, Guns of Gettysburg, out later this year.

I wasn’t able to completely ignore two player titles for this little list but Washington’s War is the only 2-player game I felt Washington's Warcompelled to add. It belongs to a popular sub-genre called card-driven games (CDG’s) which also contains my favourite game of all time, Twilight Struggle (which is arguably not a wargame and so didn’t make the list on its own right). Indeed Washington’s War is a redevelopment of the very first CDG that kicked off the whole shebang, We The People, long out of print and now a collectors item. Both are probably best understood as political control games with a warfare element in which players vie to spread their influence across the map, using generals to force their way through choke points where the population doesn’t agree with them. That’s partly what makes it suitable for new players. Another thing is the incredible 90 minute play time which is virtually unheard of for any kind of meaningful wargame. And in those ninety minutes you have the pleasure of endless strategic puzzles as the game state slips around wildly before you, and you worry about whether or not now is the right time to launch that offensive, or play that powerful event, or whether you wait and see if it’ll be your opponent trying to dictate the play in any given round. The game is much less prone to scripting and pre-tried patterns of play than most other CDGs and also benefits from being massively asymmetrical, with the ponderous but tremendously powerful professional British armies trying to pin down and destroy the weak but nimble American patriots. That asymmetry requires some rules weight, and the rule book isn’t the best, but if you spend the time with this one not only will you have gained the knowledge of how to play one of the best wargames ever made, but it’ll put you in good stead for most of the other titles in this genre, many of which are outstanding. If you want a bit more on this one, I reviewed it over at the Fortress last year.

Last but not least is a pair of relatively obscure games covering especially obscure bits of already obscure wars, Friedrich and Maria. I feel compelled to talk about them both not only because they’re closely related mechanically and from the same designer but because Fredrich, the only one I’ve played, is now out of print and hard to find so I offer Maria which I admittedly know a whole lot less about, as a possible replacement. One of the interesting things about both these games is that unlike a lot of wargames that accommodate multiple players almost as an afterthought, in these two it’s the crux around which the game is built. In Friedrich this takes the form of a 3-4 player game in which one player takes Austria and the others are placed in the interesting position of needing to collaborate to defeat him whilst struggling for an individual win, setting up some deliciously treacherous dynamics. Maria on the other hand is three player only but comes with a highly acclaimed diplomatic system to govern diplomacy. The other particularly interesting thing about these games is their combat system which revolves around ordinary decks of playing cards, with local terrain determining what suite needs to be used for the battle resulting in a fascinating interplay between on-board maneuver and hand management.

This is already a long article, likely to be of interest to a limited number of readers so I’ll avoid a lengthy conclusion. Suffice to say that the board gamers amongst you owe it to yourselves to try at least one of these games. And if none of the suggestions appeal in terms of subject matter, well, do feel free to ask for more.