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Augustus Review

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You might pick up a game clearly emblazoned with the legend “Rise of Augustus” expecting a wargame about the final wars of the Roman Republic. But you’ll have been cruelly fooled: the game is actually just called Augustus and is a light family Eurogame that casts you as assistants to the first emperor, controlling provinces and senators through the distribution of resources. Quite how the “Rise of” got tacked on to the English edition is beyond me.

You might also expect a game that comes in a box the size of the original Arkham Horror to be packed with a similar amount of heady cardboard goodness. And in a sense, there is, in the form of a truly colossal box insert to stop the few components rattling around. That’s a little unfair since the game is hardly expensive, but it’s annoying to have something taking up so much shelf space unnecessarily, just to store two sheets of tokens, a deck of cards, a few wooden meeples and a score pad. And it has to be said that the stylised art is wonderful.

Put all these things together and you get a game based heavily on cheap-ass gambler’s favourite bingo. Indeed if you read critical comment on the game elsewhere you’ll see it attracts a surprising amount of venom for daring to be so mainstream. This is also unfair. Not only because the fact it’s mainstream means the game is directly simple and accessible, but also because the designer has gone to considerable pains to spice up the old classic with a generous dash of modern gaming.

For starters you’re trying to match symbols drawn out of a bag rather than numbers. That might sound like a thin veneer of theme, and it is, but it also means the odds are weighted more in favour of some symbols than others. Instantly, there is light strategy: you get a choice of objectives in the form of senator and province cards, each with a different mix of symbols needed for completion, so players need to spread their bets according to the likelihood of the draw. But there’s another catch. Rather than simply marking off every matched symbol as it comes up, you only get seven legion pieces for the job and so must focus on certain objectives over others in order to complete a card and free some legions.

Further opportunities for strategy exist in scoring. Objectives are worth hugely variable amounts of points, with easier cards worth less meaning clever players can adapt their style to focus on quicker or slower objectives depending on who else is playing. But many don’t have a fixed value but are instead calculated on other factors. How many of a certain symbol there are on the cards you’ve won, for instance, or the number of provinces of a certain colour that you complete. In addition there are some bonus tiles for the first player to reach certain goals, like collecting three Senator cards or the first to six overall.

Okay, so it’s hardly demanding. But that’s part of the charm of the game. It’s incredibly accessible, desperately easy to pick up and play being based on a culturally familiar game furnished with appealing art and a few extra rules and taking less than thirty minutes to complete. That makes it a superb family game. Everyone in mine liked it a great deal, even people normally resistant to games. In fact, playing Augustus made me realise that many of the other titles people had seemed to enjoy like Carcassonne and Kingdom Builder had largely been merely tolerated. My seven-year old daughter loved it so much that she asks for it constantly and is refusing to play anything else.

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In some respects, that’s a surprise. There are elements to Augusts that don’t fit well with the stereotypical family game. It can, for example, occasionally get quite nasty. Many of the objective cards, in addition to scoring points, also have a special power. Most of these are fairly innocent, such as giving a player some free legion placements, or an extra objective draw, but a few are directly interactive, forcing other players to remove legions or even completed objectives. Hardly a recipe for group harmony.

In addition there are bonus tiles for the player with the most objectives that produce gold and wheat. I say “most” but in fact as soon as someone draws level on production count, they can take the tile away from the player who currently has it. It’s an odd mechanic, this. Not only is it potentially upsetting for a young or casual player, but it can terribly imbalancing. There aren’t many objectives with gold or wheat on them, so often the first player lucky enough to grab one gets the bonus points, and it can be decisive in determining a winner. And when the game is over, there’s an annoying period of score toting rather than an immediate winner, which is rarely a crowd pleaser for non-gamers.

And yet the evidence is clearly that Augustus works as family fare. Not only from my own household, but from the testaments of other players and the fact it got nominated for this year’s Spiel des Jahres. So, given the huge appeal, why isn’t it sat at the top of every gamer’s family-friendly collection?

The answer, sadly, is because it doesn’t work all that well as a gamer’s game. Essentially it’s far too lightweight, but neither thematic nor exciting enough to compensate. And it has a number of features that can actually make it actively annoying if played with people inclined to take games too seriously. Players who want to win will do well to keep a close eye on what other people are collecting to try and deny them the opportunity to collect bonus cards. In reality that means frequent pauses while everyone looks over everyone else’s objectives. And the really competitive will be motivated to do things like try and track everyone’s scores as the game goes along, which slows it down to a snail’s pace of excruciating tedium.

But if you can keep things clipping along at a fair pace, though, it can be fun. And as a gamers, there’s immense pleasure to be had from owning a title that can draw family members together so effectively and let you watch them enjoying themselves so thoroughly with your favourite hobby. But really, deep down, I think I’d rather they went back to Kingdom Builder and Carcassonne instead.

 

Total War: Rome 2 on the Horizon?

I rarely post game rumors. However, this one makes too much sense and appears to be backed up with some evidence. Most importantly, it’s about a game I want to play.

With the success of Shogun 2, a Rome sequel seemed inevitable, right? The rumor comes from NeoGAF, where upon a user posted a pic from an upcoming issue of PC Powerplay. (The pic above is from the original.) In fact, the current buzz is that the game will be officially announced July 6-7 at the Rezzed Expo in Brighton. All signs point to this being legit so I’m optimistic.

An updated Rome given the same treatment as Shogun 2 seems like the safe, smart choice for The Creative Assembly and gives the developer a huge canvas upon which to draw.

I’ll close with some of my favorite quotes from Ancient Rome:

“At night there is no such thing as an ugly woman.”

“Anger cannot be dishonest.”

“In wine there is truth.”

“I strive to be brief, and I become obscure.”

“Hey, are those elephants?”

Commands & Colours: Ancients Review

Commands and Colors: Ancients allows you to re-fight the punic wars between Rome and Carthage

If you google Commands and Colors, you’ll get a startling array of results all of which are connected to a simple game system for modelling warfare that’s become so wildly popular with board gamers that it’s spawned a mass of iterations across historical and even fantastical settings. However, ask most experienced gamers what the best of these titles is and they’ll tell you it’s Commands & Colors: Ancients from GMT games, which deals for the most part with the Punic Wars between Rome and Carthage. That publisher recently sent me a big box of various Commands & Colors material for review and, given that an iOS implementation is due from Playdek some time this year, Ancients seemed a good place to start.

All the Commands & Colors games operate on the same basic mechanical principles. 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. One of the reasons that Ancients is so feted amongst all the games that use this system is because the era is so peculiarly well suited to this model. In more recent warfare, order relays have been improved by things such as flag signalling and more recently radio, increasing exponentially the ability of a commander to command effectively. Back in the ancient days though, there was nothing but runners to communicate orders down the line and things could and did become exceptionally confused.

All Commands & Colours games also add more complex card effects into the deck and Ancients makes full use of these to maximise its model of ancient warfare for minimal overhead. A lot of cards allow you to give orders to units depending on their adjacency either to other units, or to leader units so you’re encouraged to fall in with ancient battle doctrine and try and keep your units in a line, with leaders at vital points of control. Again, usefully for the board game player, it also gives you a lot of tactical and strategic headaches to deal with in terms of trying to keep a cohesive front in the face of a system that naturally tries to split things between three areas of the board, the sorts of headaches that real-life ancient commanders would have had to deal with in trying to keep the flanks of their forces coordinated with the center. The simple and easy manner in which the mechanics put you in the right frame of mind for warfare of the era without you even realising it is just a joy to behold, especially when compared with the wealth of historical simulation games that hit the players with a ton more rules to considerably less effect.

Your forces in Commands & Colors: Ancients will often start in linear formation, but they usually don't stay that way for long!
Sadly, while you do get an awful lot of strategic and simulation value from a relatively meagre 18 pages of rules, the game still suffers a bit from detail overload. There are a lot of different unit types in Ancients – 14 to be precise – all of which require very slightly different rules and have very slightly different stats. That’s a lot to take on board. The need for good leader positioning and line cohesion give you a lot to chew over in terms of decision making. And yet the essence of the Commands & Colours system is very much controlled chaos: combat is dice based and maneuver is card based and no matter how much effort to put into learning those rules and planning those moves, your entire game can still be completely screwed over by one unlucky turn. Ancients plays in about an hour, and set-up time, which is typically significant in its peers, is relatively quick thanks to minimal battlefield terrain, so this is largely forgivable. But I still find myself hanging back from a completely wholehearted recommendation on this game because of these issues: it’s simply that the Commands & Colours system feels like it’s better suited to lighter rules and faster, more immediately exciting play than Ancients can deliver, whatever it gives you in terms of simulation value and depth in return.

Which isn’t to say that the game isn’t exciting, more that it’s a slow burning thing that gradually builds towards a crescendo. You’ll start off struggling to keep your line in place whilst moving toward the enemy, and additionally co-ordinating missile attacks from light troops and flanking maneuvers from your more mobile cavalry and chariots. You’ll curse the dice, and you’ll curse the cards more. Then, at some point, one player decides he’s got the momentum and the cards to pull off the big charge, the light infantry will melt away, and a big part of the lines will clash for a grand melee and suddenly the tension is at fever pitch because in Commands & Colors: Ancients, enemy units you don’t kill or rout get to strike back at full strength and that means that in the space of minutes, it’s possible to go from being in the ascendancy to being ignominiously torn apart by the very enemy you’d thought to conquer. Thrilling? Absolutely. Frustrating? Sometimes, and doubly so when you’ve put in the effort to learn the rules and work through the strategies. That’s pretty much the highs and the lows of the entire game experience in one neat package.

There are a lot of blocks in Commands & Colors: Ancients - there are over twice as many stickers to apply to them
I don’t normally pass much comment on components nowadays: if a game is good it’s worth playing even if it looks awful, but there are two things you need to know about what’s in the Commands & Colours: Ancients box. Firstly, wargame publishers are not known for quality components and while GMT are know as a frequent exception to this rule, they’ve outdone themselves here. The board is mounted, the cards thick and well finished and the artwork both functional and striking. Secondly, units in the game consist of wooden blocks to which you apply stickers denoting the unit type. There are several hundred blocks. There are double the amount of stickers. Getting this game ready for play therefore requires a very considerable amount of time and effort. You can do a lot of it while you’re half-watching the TV or, better yet, just having a good chat but if the idea of carefully applying many hundreds of stickers to small bits of wood has you running for cover, avoid this game like the plague.

Even though I have minor reservations about the game play in Commands & Colors: Ancients and can’t therefore join the unadulterated love-in that it enjoys in some gaming circles, I have no dispute with the popular opinion that as a single, stand alone game, it’s the best of the entire Commands & Colors series. When you add in expansions things become more complicated but it’s still right up at the top as a contender. The effortless manner in which it draws players unwittingly into its simulation elements and the uneasy yet strangely addictive balance between luck and strategy that it achieves make sure of that. If you’ve never played a Commands & Colors game but have room in your life for a short military simulation for two, you owe it to yourself to try one, and the one you should try first is very probably this one. Hopefully, Playdek will work their magic and that opportunity will also come within reach of anyone who might otherwise balk at paying the asking price for a physical copy, or stickering all those blocks.