Commands & Colors: Ancients

Reviewer Reviewed On Publisher Designer Published In Rating
March 9, 2006 GMT Games Richard Borg 2006 10
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There are many games that I have seen people talking about long before they are released, but none so much as Commands and Colors: Ancients (GMT Games, 2006 - Richard Borg). Richard Borg's light wargaming system that he introduced in BattleCry and then advanced in Memoir '44 was finally being produced by a war game company. This caused a level of excitement, as people were wondering if Mr. Borg would add a bit of complexity to the system to satisfy those who thought Memoir was too "light". For me personally, I loved Memoir - it being in my top ten games - and was certainly eager to play another game using the same system. Then, over a year ago, I heard that GMT was going to be using cardboard standups in the game, and that simply doused my interest in the game, as I really liked the high production values of Days of Wonder (producers of Memoir '44.)

Then, in 2005, it was announced that GMT would be producing C&C:A on wooden blocks with stickers on both sides. I was suddenly interested again; because even though blocks aren't as neat as plastic miniatures for me, they sure looked interesting in the pictures of the pre-production versions I saw. Finally, I received my copy of the game and gave it a whirl. And then played it again, and again, and again. I'm sitting here, typing this review, and thinking about playing it again! Rarely has such a game fascinated me as much as C&C:A. Mr. Borg and the GMT team have taken an excellent system and applied it to the ancient Rome vs. Carthage war with great success. If you are a war gamer or someone who is simply thinking of dabbling in the genre, I can think of no other game (except Memoir) that would be better for you to play.

Some comments on the game…

1.) Components: As I said, I initially wasn't sold on the blocks, but they worked extremely well. They may not be as nice looking as miniatures, but they're light years better than cardboard counters and are a pleasure to move around and use. I play with them standing up, but it's also quite possible to lay them down - it all depends on what perspective you'd like. I was going to complain about the two plus hours it takes to put all the stickers on the blocks, but then my wife reminded me that we painted blocks, cut corners off of counters, and then glued counters to thousands of blocks in Warangel. So what can I say? I was also going to complain about the dice, because they seemed too light to roll well. In fact, I put the stickers on blank dice that I had in my dice collection, and used them instead. Then, I had the chance to play the game with the original dice, and you know what - I didn't care? So don't let the complaints about the lightness of the dice scare you - in fact you can pop them open and fill them with sand or something heavy to weigh them down. The board and tiles aren't too terribly high in quality but certainly look good when on the table with all the blocks (hundreds of 'em!) One thing that I really appreciated about the game was the artwork. Mr. MacGowan did an excellent job at illustrating the very sturdy, strong box, but the counter artwork is simply great! It looks like you have a little army on the table, and the symbols on the blocks help determine at a glance what kind of unit it is. It's a very impressive package, really, and one of the best I've ever seen GMT produce. You're definitely getting your money's worth component-wise!

2.) Rules: Rather than give you a full rundown of the rules, suffice it to say that one player plays the Romans and the other the Carthaginians. A scenario is chosen from the book, and players set up their forces as shown. Players each have a hand of cards, and play a card on their turn, which allows them to move and attack with certain of their units. Units can attack via a ranged attack or close combat, and roll a certain amount of dice. The symbols on the dice rolled can either miss, kill troops in the unit, or cause the attacked units to retreat. When a unit is entirely destroyed, the other team gets one victory point. The first player to reach a certain amount of victory points is the winner. That's an oversimplification of the rules, but the rules are really fairly easy; and while they are more complicated, several of them (such as the specific rules for elephants) can be learned in later scenarios. I've taught the game to both people who've played Memoir before and to those who haven't. While the folks who have played Borg games before understood the game almost by default, the game was still simple enough to teach to newcomers. Even though I consider Commands and Colors: Ancients fairly complicated, the rules are very easy to understand and extremely intuitive. Some questions may be raised, but Mr. Borg and the GMT folk are incredible about answering questions online - particularly at Consimworld. A FAQ is already available online, but I personally haven't looked at it yet because I haven't run into any rules questions that weren't solvable by common sense. The rulebook is in full color and is extremely well written; one of the best layouts for a rulebook I've ever seen.

3.) Diversity: There are thirteen different types of units, which add a diverse range of soldiers not yet seen in this system. Only a few types are used in each scenario, however, so players aren't overwhelmed; but it's critical to know how the units work together. Heavy infantry are powerhouses, but slow. Light cavalry can make swooping attacks then dance away. I was amazed at how well the units worked together, and how I really felt like the game was an accurate simulation of ancient warfare. None of the units seemed overpowered; there are disadvantages to all of them, even the elephants, and it was fun trying to figure out the best role of each type. Two help sheets are included that quickly detail all the special rules and abilities of troop types. Unlike many war games, there aren't pages of exceptions - most of the units are pretty straightforward, with the elephants being the most complicated (and not much!)

4.) Elephants: Of course elephants are the most attractive units (to me, anyway), and there are several special rules pertaining to them. Elephants roll the same amount of dice that their opponent rolls, making them devastating to heavy infantry, which roll five dice when attacking. They cause extra consternation to horses, making them effective versus cavalry, and can attack after a "momentum advance" - a rule that allows a unit to move into a spot in which they forced an enemy to retreat (or destroyed the enemy). However, not everything about elephants is sunshine; when retreating, they can trample friendly units who get in their way. Elephants can also rampage, attacking every square around them, friendly or not. They're fun units to use, but even more fun to kill.

5.) Leaders: There is no denying that leaders are the most important figures on the battlefield. They offer huge advantages that a clever general will makes use of. They increase the percentages of hits in close combat by 16% for their unit and the units adjacent to them, making close formations with a leader involved killing machines. They bolster morale of the unit they are with and allow an extra close combat attack after a momentum advance. There are also several command cards that utilize leaders, so players must make sure to have them with key units and in key positions. At the same time, every time a unit takes a hit, there is a 1/36 chance the leader dies, which would give a victory point to the other team. Leaders by themselves can also be targeted. I've seen many battles won because key leaders were caught out in the open and killed, and the extra victory points for killing them can be critical. I will maintain, after several games, that the player who best utilizes their leaders will win the game.

6.) Other units: The game focuses quite a bit on using cavalry effectively. Cavalry that is forced to retreat can find themselves in precarious positions, so a player must take care not to let them get pinned down by infantry units. At the same time, they can be quite effective at swooping in and making short ranged attacks, or catching an enemy (with a leader sometimes) off guard. There are a few units in the game, such as war machines that are also included, that have no current rules but are there in preparation for expansions.

7.) Combat: Ranged combat is fairly weak, as befitting the time period. But a player should never underestimate it, because so many of the light units with ranged attack that are peppering the enemy with shots can cause havoc and break holes in the line, forcing the enemy backwards. Close combat is the heart of the game, and units that survive an attack (not retreating or being destroyed) get a chance to swing back. Each die has six symbols on it, a green circle (for light units), a blue triangle (for medium units), a red square (for heavy units), crossed swords, a leader helmet, and a flag. When a unit attacks another unit in close combat, they roll a certain amount of dice (for example, a medium infantry unit rolls four dice on the attack). When attacking another unit, each die that matches the unit being attacked causes a hit. In addition, a unit that has an attached leader or an adjacent leader causes a hit when rolling a helmet. Many units also cause hits when rolling crossed swords (although some units, like the elephants, can ignore these). One unit is removed for each hit. Each flag rolled causes the attacked unit to retreat backwards one full movement, although some variables can cause a player to ignore some flags. So, for example, a medium infantry unit with an attached leader attacking a light archer unit in close combat hits on a green circle, crossed swords, and a leader helmet.

8.) Cohesion: One thing that just thrills me about the game is how it promotes army formations. Since each unit can ignore a flag when adjacent to two other units, it's very dangerous for a unit to be caught out in the open. Leaders also give bonuses to adjacent units. Even better, there are many command cards that allow leaders and adjacent units to move, and some that let an entire line move! This encourages two things - for players to keep their lines intact and for opponents to try to break holes in the enemy lines. This has a fascinating feel, as lines will swing across the battlefield and cavalry try to swing around and catch units that break off from the main group.

9.) Command Cards: One thing that I think is perfect in this game is the command card distribution. First of all, I don't think there is a solitary "weak" card - every card has a good use, and the worst thing that can happen to a player is that they get a handful of cards for the flank of the battlefield that they don't need. Still, a good player works with the cards they have and puts their troops in positions to best maximize the usage of their cards. Each player has a "command" value, which is the amount of cards they hold in their hand. Several of the command cards utilize this command value, which really can make the difference in scenarios, and shows the brilliance of certain generals, such as Hannibal. If my command value is "6," and I can move units equal to my command value, that's much more helpful than if my command value is "4". I really enjoyed the different command cards; my favorites being line commands, which allow an entire line to advance and attack, and the "Move-Fire-Move" cards, which allowed ranged units to move in, fire, then fall back. Fun stuff.

10.) Terrain: The terrain hexes in this game did not play a huge role in the game. Many of the battlefields have zero terrain and center mostly on army maneuvers. The terrain tiles that are included, however, when used are extremely helpful for the defenders. Players who manage to get to and hold hills and forests have a huge advantage against their opponents.

11.) Scenarios: Ten scenarios are included with the game, with more being produced by fans and found online. These included ten scenarios detail the major battles of the Second Punic War between Rome and Carthage. Some of the scenarios are unbalanced, but players can simply switch sides when done and see who does better with the losing army. I loved the historical notes included with the scenarios, they certainly taught me a little about the war and explained a bit of the tactics that the actual generals used. Players can then decide to follow the same plans, or to forge new plans, attempting to change history. With the large amount of unit types, some scenarios take a fair bit of time to setup, but I found that keeping the different unit types in separate plastic bags helps speed up the process. The scenarios are definitely diverse - each one had a completely different feel from the rest. I applaud GMT on their scenarios; if I was forced to play only the ten included with the game, I would be satisfied.

12.) Expansions: Already, the first expansion is under production, adding in over 300 new blocks for the Persian and Greek armies. It's amazing how adaptable the system is, and how it can apply to myriads of ancient armies and battles. I'm looking forward to a Biblical army expansion myself. There is a huge expandability opportunity for this game, which will please those who want to play ancient battles. Greeks, Assyrians, Babylonians, Sioux - the possibilities are tremendous, and it sounds like GMT is going to take advantage of them.

13.) Time: Discounting setup time, which can be variable, most games last less than an hour, and that often includes rules explanation. We found ourselves referring to the nice charts included with the game often - two of them, with the units and all their abilities; but after only a few games, I have most of them memorized already. I love how C&C:A packs so much fun and "game" into an hour.

14.) Strategy: As in any good game, there is a decent amount of luck. No amount of strategy can prevent you from occasionally not getting the cards you need, or having a leader and some elephants destroyed by a few unlucky die rolls. But overall, strategic planning will win you the game; more than any other light war game that I've ever played, C&C:A allows players to dominate based on strategy alone. At the same time, the game is accessible enough that a new player can come in and hold their own without feeling lost and confused.

15.) Memoir '44 and Battlecry: It's inevitable that these games will be compared with C&C:A, since they both use the same basic system of gameplay. I can't really tell you which one I like better, although Battlecry does come in a distant third. C&C:A certainly has the best tactics and strategy, while Memoir has the better components and the World War II framework, which appeals to a lot of people. I think that I would use Memoir '44 to teach newcomers how to play the system, and then if they showed interest, to progress them to the slightly more detailed but more rewarding C&C:A system. Memoir's Overlord scenarios are missing from this game and are something I really enjoyed, but the two-player game is certainly better in C&C:A. However, it's a moot point, since both games are great, and both should be a part of every collection.

16.) Commands and Colors System: I'm no war gamer, yet I love this system; it's easy, accessible, and fun and allows for great strategy. At the same time, it comes very close to accuracy in battles, both in ancient times and the WW2 era. War gamers and others alike can enjoy this game, playing it simply to have fun. I've said it before, and I'll say it again - Richard Borg's system is the best and cleanest wargming system I have ever seen and played, and one of the definitive mechanics of the last decade. I believe that everyone should play one of these games, whether it sounds interesting or not, because they are a lot of fun.

So my conclusion is that Commands and Colors: Ancients is a game worth picking up. I've gone from partial interest in it to the point where it's become one of my favorite games. I constantly think about the scenarios, am actually reading up on the historical backgrounds to learn more about the tactics, and am trying to convince everyone I come across to play the game. GMT has produced a real winner here, and I think Richard Borg will someday be hailed as one of the greatest war game designers ever. Play this game now!

Tom Vasel
"Real men play board games"