Command & Colors: Ancients – Boardgame Review
Command & Colors: Ancients (GMT) occupies an uneasy position on the gaming spectrum. It is caught between being a casual game with a theme of ancient warfare and a more serious wargame covering ancient battles. Ultimately it cannot decide which it seeks to be. The complexity of some of the mechanics will frustrate players seeking an easily teachable game, while the historian will wonder why the gameplay hasn’t been adjusted to cleave more closely to history (which it often seems could have been done without burdening the base engine). Having said that, the game overcomes these faults to provide an enjoyable experience, and is worth a look if the period interests you.
What the Publisher Has to Say
Commands & Colors: Ancients allows you to re-fight epic battles of the ancient world. Here the focus is on the two rivals for power in the Western Mediterranean – Carthage and Rome. Will you, as Hannibal, triumph over larger Roman armies; or as Scipio Africanus, will you beat Hannibal with newer tactics of your own?
Units in both armies can only move and fight when ordered. The command playing cards supply those orders, providing an element of luck that creates a fog of war and presents players with both challenges and opportunities. You must maximize your opportunities by playing your command cards judiciously. How well you handle the diverse units, their weapons, and the terrain, will determine victory.
Commands & Colors: Ancients contains the battles of Akragas, Crimissos River, Ticinus River, Lake Trasimenus, Cannae, Dertosa, Castulo, Baecula, Ilipa, and Zama.
C&C: Ancients is the latest iteration of Richard Borg’s Command and Colors system (previously seen in Battle Cry (Avalon Hill) and Memoir ’44 (Days of Wonder)). Essentially, it is a fast playing game with a pseudo-historical conflict theme and a diverse number of scenarios based (loosely) on actual engagements between Carthage and Rome. Players are generally trying to defeat the enemy army by destroying a certain number of units to win – some scenarios may offer other objectives as alternate means of obtaining victory points.
A great deal of care went into the physical presentation of C&C: Ancients. Units are represented by wooden blocks of varying size (infantry being the smallest and elephants the largest), with stickers affixed to each side to indicate the type of troops. As a unit takes losses, blocks are removed until none are left and the unit is eliminated. The blocks are hardwood and sprayed gray for Roman units and brown for Carthaginian. Unfortunately, some of the blocks in my copy arrived cracked; a couple even had good sized divots missing from them. Also, GMT, in its zeal to provide the consumer with spare labels, made a mistake or two in denoting which labels to apply and which to retain – players should follow the diagram in the rulebook rather than the label sheets.
The sitckers and the huge bag of blocks. You may spend one session just building the game!
Because of the great number of blocks needed to play even a smaller scenario, a considerable investment of time is needed upfront to get the game ready for play. Of course, once the job’s been done once, it won’t need to be repeated, but buyers should realize that they’ll need a couple hours to sticker everything in the box.
There are also seven dice to be stickered, creating a bit of a problem. The dice faces are too small for the stickers provided – players will either need to trim the stickers, substitute the dice, or print the labels again. Some dice may also have ‘flash’ (excess plastic) on the sides as a result of the molding process, which will need to be trimmed away.
The map is heavy cardstock and can fit inside a poster frame if players want assistance in keeping it flat and steadied. Terrain tiles are provided for the scenarios and feature effective art on thick cardboard – there are enough provided so that players will be able to exercise considerable freedom in designing their own battlefields.
Overall, the components reflect a small print run publisher operating at the limits of its capabilities. C&C: Ancients looks good and the components certainly provide a solid ‘heft’ to the product, but players will need to do a certain amount of handiwork to put the whole thing together, which can be annoying when your aim is to open it up and dive right in!
The Game in Play
Each player possesses a hand of command cards – the size of his hand is dictated by the scenario, with a better overall commander and strategic position normally indicating a larger hand size. Mismatches are therefore possible – at Cannae (for example), Hannibal holds six command cards while Varro gets only four. Since a player also has leader pieces on the battlefield, the command system cleverly allows the game to depict the difference between effective supervision and subordinates – a player could have lots of tactical leaders, but a weak draw of strategy cards.
Command cards are important because they are used to activate and move units. Each turn a player chooses a command card, resolves its effects and then draws a new one – the opponent then repeats the activity, with the game continuing until one player wins.
There are four types of command cards: section cards (activate units in a section (left, right, or center) of the battlefield), troop cards (activate light, medium, or heavy units), leadership cards (allowing activation of units gathered around a leader), and tactic cards (special actions like line commands and mounted charges). In general, the command cards emphasize concentration of force – many of the cards allow a player to move "blocks" of units, provided all units moved are adjacent to each other, giving players a reason to form their troops into well-dressed lines.
What the command system does not do well is to allow a player to form his plan by looking at the positioning of his and the enemy’s forces on the battlefield. Since the choices available are constrained by the card play, it is entirely possible that you could end up with some bizarre implementations of the historical plans of the combatants, such as a battle of Cannae where the Carthaginians are forced to attack in the center and yield on the flanks. This may bother some players, since it is actually less control than the historical commanders possessed.
The units are generally differentiated by class – there are light, medium, and heavy cavalry, and infantry, along with a few special types (light bow infantry, light sling infantry, auxilia infantry, warrior infantry, heavy chariots, and elephants). They are rated for movement, fire capability, close combat capability, evasion capability, and their ability to make momentum advances. Infantry units consist of four elements, cavalry of three, and elephants and chariots two – one element is removed from the unit each time it suffers a hit in combat or is unable to retreat a hex. Once all elements are gone, the unit is considered eliminated and the other player scores a victory point.
Roman and Carthaginian units are lumped together, losing some of the flavor of the different forces. For example, there are no pila (javelins) awarded to the Roman medium infantry – a medium infantry unit is a medium infantry unit, regardless of which power armed or trained it. Some players may welcome the abstraction, while others may wonder why C&C: Ancients did not follow the route of so many miniatures games and make some effort to differentiate the individual troops of the opposing armies.
Movement is done in hexes and is fairly straightforward. Terrain appears in only a few of the scenarios and generally forces a unit to stop moving on entry. There are no formation rules or requirements, though players will generally want to keep coherent lines for the command and morale advantages these offer.
Once a player’s units are done moving, they may attack. Combat in C&C: Ancients comes in two forms – ranged fire (bows, javelins, slings, etc.) and close combat. Players use special dice to resolve their attacks and can inflict hits and retreats on the enemy. Each die is marked with a light, medium, and heavy symbol as well as a set of crossed swords, a flag (inflicting a retreat result), and a leader’s helmet – the effects of these will be explained below.
The base mapboard, and the extra terrain hex "counters" which can be used to build most any ancient battlefield.
Units accompanied by a leader or supported by adjacent friendly units are able to ignore some retreat results, representing their better morale. The ability to ignore retreat results is important because retreating units (a) break formation and (b) take losses for being unable to retreat (either for having been surrounded or for retreating back to the friendly board edge). While infantry generally does not flee far, cavalry units, thanks to the same horses that make them mobile, can end up leaving the board quite quickly on an adverse result.
[continued on next page]
Pages: 1 2