Thursday, 3 August 2017

REVIEW: Commands and Colors: Ancients - by Richard Borg (GMT Games)

Commands and Colors: Ancients by Richard Borg
That Commands & Colors: Ancients is a great game, is a fact (nearly) universally acknowledged; but it ought to interest us why great games are great games. Naturally, the way we usually first respond to games we enjoy is along the following lines: “that mechanic was really fun”, “I enjoyed this decision”, and so forth. For C&C:A, the impressionistic statement that sums up what makes the game great is an unusual one, insomuch as it sounds negative: “why on earth is my hand of cards this bad?!”. However, what that statements represents is this: C&C:A may be the best, most satisfying simulator of command and control issues in warfare on the market.

First, a summary of the game: in C&C:A, each player controls an army of the ancient world – Romans, Carthaginians, Greeks, and so forth. Their army consists of various units, each of which consists of a number of wooden blocks (4 for infantry, 3 for cavalry, 2 for elephants and chariots, 1 for leaders). These are deployed on a hex-based map, which may be entirely open ground or may have some terrain hexes in place, as per the historical battle being fought. Each player has a hand of cards – more cards if their generals are better – and each turn they will each play one, before drawing a new card. These cards broadly fall into two types: one type activates units in each of the three sectors of the battlefield (Left, Centre, Right); the other activates units based on their formation and weaponry (Light, Heavy, Mounted, etc). Activating a unit allows you to move and attack at range or in close combat; each unit's capabilities in movement and combat are defined in one of the play aids. Light troops are fast, capable of ranged combat, and able to avoid the worst of enemy melee attacks, whilst being pretty bad up close themselves; Heavy troops are slow, can't fire at range, but are lethal in close combat. Essentially the game consists of stringing together moves and attacks from the cards in your hand, so as to destroy the number of enemy units and occupy victory hexes required by the scenario for victory.

You can learn it in just a few minutes with the right teacher, though the rulebook doesn't always make it seem that simple. The niggles there include: terrain effects could be made clearer (as they are with the TEC in the Napoleonics version of the game), and unit special rules could be collated better. Generally, one's induction into the game could be done better in the first few pages of the rulebook. But this is nonetheless all pretty trivial stuff. The components – mounted mapboard, command cards, wooden blocks, stickers – are all of a very high quality. Some players complain about having to affix stickers to the blocks (hundreds of blocks in the core set, 2 stickers each) – frankly I quite enjoy it. Your anal retention mileage may vary on that, of course.

Command and Control
So what about my claim above that the command and control mechanics in this game are amongst the best? Well, for the sense of frustration I described, imagine this: your hardest hitting units are spread on your right and centre. You manage to get moving in the centre, but you're just not getting cards for the right section. You're having to use other cards (Move Heavy Troops, for instance, or a card allowing you to activate a Leader and nearby units) to get anything going there. Your centre units take out some of the enemy, but are shattered in turn. The enemy is just in reach of your right flank units, and it may all come down to what you draw at the end of your turn. If it activates those troops – victory! But if not – disaster.

Is this relying too much on luck? Well, over the course of a game, you should get at least some useful cards, and at any rate, your job at the start of Turn One is to see what strategy you can come up with what's in your starting hand. My experience of over 50 games of C&C:A is that what feels like bad luck in your hand – or on the dice – turns out to be far more nuanced, far more balanced. You always get some good cards and you always get some good dice, but we tend to assign disproportionate weight to those moments we *think* are key, and forget everything else. If nothing else, what goes around comes around. Sure, it seemed like your opponent had all the good cards one game, but watch their face fall in your rematch.

But why am I saying this is so good? Well, the cards themselves and the hand-management sub-game are very successful at creating the effect of “friction”, Clausewitz's concept of the confusion and efficiency degradation inherent on the battlefield. I say they produce the effect, because this is avowedly “design for effect” - the experience you have is a good simulation, but the way you accomplish that is not. You may be surprised to hear this, but real world generals don't manage their armies using cards of hands. Napoleon didn't lose at Waterloo because he couldn't get a card for Grouchy's wing. However, all wargame mechanics have a degree of “design for effect” involved, even at the basic level that gamemaps are tiny-scale 2D representations of real physical space. Abstraction always leads away from “design for cause” to “design for effect”. The fact that – as I'll explain – the cards in C&C:A do the latter so well is worth remarking and studying.

On a battlefield, two key things affecting command and control are the amount of information available to the command and the efficiency of the command and control structures. In C&C:A, the players know exactly where every unit is, they know what the victory conditions are, they know any special rules – but they don't know what units can move at any time. They don't know what choices are available to their opponent (as they can't see their hand of cards), and they don't know what future choices are available to them (as they can't see the ordering of the deck). They can try to guess what their opponent is doing based on what cards they've played, they can try to piece together a strategy of their own from what's in their hand and what they can hope to get from the deck, and those two pieces of speculation are a large part of the skill of the game. This isn't just a fun game element – it does (I'd argue) successfully challenge the player with the real lack of information generals suffer from, and force them to make the sort of speculative decisions necessary on a changing battlefield.

The card mechanic also helps model the effect of friction on the efficiency of command and control structures. The contents of the deck helps players with units spread evenly across the battlefield, but in adjacent groups led by Leader blocks (via its spread of Section and Leadership cards). The size of your hand is affected by the skill of your commanding general, so the number of choices and amount of information available to you is in proportion to your army's command and control capability. As the battle proceeds, and each player's formations begin to break up due to combat and due to only being able to order so many units each turn, command and control becomes harder to exercise. By the end, both players are desperately trying to mass forces at the point of decision via increasingly inefficient cardplays, each looking to strike the final winning blow.

Plenty of very good games don't offer this much simulation of command and control issues. The two previous games I've reviewed here – Fire and Movement: Battle of the Scheldt and BoAR: Monmouth – and three games I'll be reviewing soon – Rommel's War, ASL Starter Kit #1, and Musket and Saber: Wilson's Creek – all have essentially good core systems, but none seriously model command and control, whether at the squad tactical, grand tactical, or operational scale. Most of those games are the same sort of complexity as C&C:A or heavier. For a simple-ish game to so effectively give players the sort of difficulties and confusion proper to a general on a battlefield is, I think, a real success.

Sniffs and Coughs
The Commands and Colors series receives a lot of condescension. Critical grognards may allow that it's “more or less” a wargame, and that possibly it's an alright gateway game, but real wargamers will grow past it. The core of the criticism is about the game's depth – does it simulate at any deep level the way ancient (or Napoleonic, or WW2, or whatever) worked? I'll stick here to discussing how it deals with ancient warfare.

I've already vigorously lauded its command and control mechanics. The most popular approaches to modelling that in the current wargames market, as far as I can see, rely on either chitpull or on Berg-style leader activation (ala Great Battles of History or of the American Civil War). Chit pull is slightly more complex than C&C:A, and the contents of a chit cup or the order of activations can be manipulated in various ways; Berg-style systems are almost by their nature a lot more complex, though they do bring a lot of depth with them. Chit-pull, then, is almost as simple to integrate into a system, though arguably less intuitive to the non-wargamer, and seems easier to granulate. However, the same can be done with Commands and Colors – specific cards can start in player's hands, for instance. One could argue either way as to dramatic value (which chit comes out next, which cards comes out from the deck), but C&C:A's Igo Ugo play probably helps keep the newer player better invested. So, yes, as to command and control, C&C:A is a great beginner game, but – for the reasons offered above – it keeps giving.

Another critique as to depth is as to whether the way unit types act is deep or realistic. Well, it's not deep in detail, and detail can be fun, but it can also be distracting. I have theorized that C&C:A draws inspiration from the DBx series of miniature rules before, and the key innovation there was designer Phil Barker moving from granular equipment-based unit rules in his previous WRG rulesets towards a “battlefield function/activity” system. In the Ancients iteration of the system, for instance, troops with bows might be either Psiloi or Bow, depending upon whether they functioned as skirmishers or as massed missile fire. Psiloi aren't very dangerous but are hard to kill and good at screening other troops; Bow are dangerous but easier to break up in the field. Same weapons, different effect. The same logic is applied to unit types in C&C:A – Heavy Infantry covers heavily armoured, formed troops armed with with pikes, spears, and swords, for instance. This is more abstraction than in DBx, but the same principle is in play – these are your slow-moving, heavy-hitting troops. And on the field the way the rules work for each unit type does make it feel like it. Light Infantry can skip forward and fire a bit (but not always very effectively), before Evading mele attacks and thereby making it harder to kill them. Heavy Infantry move half the speed of Light but once they're in combat they're deadly. Warriors (a special type of Medium Infantry) can move quickly into combat and whilst full-strength and high morale can do loads of damage, but their willingness to fight degrades once they take damage. This is more than enough unit detail for a game that takes an hour to play.

One also hears critique not about whether the behaviour is detailed but whether it is realistic. I can only really see this having much weight in one instance – in the case of the slightly more complex rules for Elephants. Beyond that, I'd argue unit behaviour is realistic to the depth the system goes. Elephants, on the other hand, can be a frustration – not so much with their unique attack dice situation (they attack with whatever their opponent attacks with, so they are much better against Heavy Infantry than Light, which is a fantastic way of modelling their battlefield strengths and weaknesses), but with the propensity for them to be a decisive factor in their army winning or losing, essentially on two or three rolls of the dice. Let's say you line up your Elephants perfectly and release them into the middle of your opponent's Heavy Infantry – there's a perfectly good chance they'll either shatter two or three enemy units, or that they'll do one block of damage and then be instantly killed in return. Of course, that's not entirely untrue to history, but it's an area where the luck involved does not always feel either a leveller or a challenge to be dealt with, but a punishment for one player or the other. However, again, with the weight of much experience of playing this game behind me, things do even out, both within the individual game and over a series of games. Elephants could be improved, certainly, but given that's the worst I have to say about the unit depiction, I think the game's doing pretty well.

Obviously I think this is a really good game. It's one of four games I've given a 10/10 on BGG. I think it's a great introductory game – I've played it with two of my preteen nephews and nieces, I've played it with my non-gamer dad, and I've introduced several other people to wargames via it. Furthermore, those people enjoy it! But it's a game I still enjoy playing, too. The variety of scenarios, the variety of unit types, the tension and challenge inherent in the core card mechanic, all combine to make this eminently playable for the veteran as well as the beginner.

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