Monday, January 23, 2006

Command & Colors: Ancients - First Impressions

I P500 most GMT titles (other than monster games or games with exceptionally high complexity), and this was one I was really leery of preordering. I own both Battle Cry and Memoir '44, both very closely related to this title. The earlier games cover the American Civil War and ETO WWII respectively, and I don't know that either period is well represented in either game.

I liked BC to a point, although I wondered why they even bothered with Cavalry. The problem was that you really had no reason to put your units in harm's way. M44 addressed this problem with the addition of objectives, but you still had the problem of basically throwing your units into the meatgrinder and hoping they would survive. While this can be a faithful simulation of some situations in WWII (Omaha Beach is an excellent example), it doesn't make for a particularly interesting or competitive game. I actually found M44 to be even more luck dependent than BC, and it has gotten into my "sell" pile despite really nice production values. I have never played the original game, nor am I aware of what the differences between it and its descendent titles are.

GMT, being a wargame company, isn't quite so good with euro-style production values. I think that part of the problem is simply that they don't have the contacts or volume to make plastics cost-effective, and that's OK. What they ended up doing with C&C:A is using wooden blocks with stickers on each side. This is a cost effective idea compared to plastics, but on the other hand you really don't need to have four blocks to make up a unit if you can realign the block to represent depleted strength, so it could have been even more cost effective to use somewhere between 1/3 and 1/4 of the block count.

Another somewhat bizarre idea was to use small blocks for foot units, medium squares for mounted, large for elephants, and rectangular for chariots and leaders. I understand that by making mounted units a different size, they become easily differentiated on the board, and the same goes for the other large blocks. What is a mess is trying to figure out the differences between the various light units (archers, slingers, light infantry, auxilia) on the board. The symbols are all quite small and I am still having trouble differentiating between auxilia and light infantry after a couple of practice games. Making things even more complicated is the use of different art for the Carthagian and Roman units, so that means there are actually eight different stickers just for the light units! Medium and heavy foot have at most four types, and these are easily identified, the main problem is the lights. I do think that the huge elephant counters do a great job of representing just how enormous these beasties looked on the battlefield, so that was money well spent. Note that unlike Columbia Games' titles, the blocks don't hide what units are, the stickers are on both sides.

The rest of the components are pretty much right on. The rules are pretty well written, and introduce several new concepts (see below). The player aid cards have a tremendous amount of info on them, but I suspect they could have put a terrain key on the side that explains what dice symbols are effective against what units. M44 does a great job of this by including the terrain info on extra cards. I also would have liked to have the various situations for leader loss checks as well, this doesn't take up a lot of space.

The cards are very nice, with minimal artwork (the M44 cards do nothing for me), and some require so much text that artwork is a secondary concern at any rate. I am a bit confused by exactly what the helmet on some of the cards actually allows me to do (is it only to allow detaching a leader from a unit? That seems kind of lame, but I haven't worked too much with it yet). So far, the cards seem pretty clear and I haven't had to look up what they do in the reference section of the manual yet.

The new rules differ in a few ways:

1) Battle Back. Now you have to worry about whether or not you give your opponent a free shot when you attack up close. If they aren't forced to retreat or wiped out, a unit in close combat may be able to battle back. This makes going after the very strong heavy or medium foot units a risky proposition.

2) Retreats. First, units retreat by "moves" not by spaces. For light cavalry with their move of 4 spaces, a single retreat flag may result in being sent right off of the board, and two retreat flags almost certainly will do it. I suspect these units will mostly shoot from a distance. Second, you can ignore at least one flag result with some units based on type or whether or not they have two or more supporting units near them. This makes keeping a coherent line extremely important.

3) Leaders and Cards. Some cards allow you to activate a leader in a particular area of the board along with a string of adjacent units. Again, cohesion is a big deal now.

4) Evasion. Light units and most cavalry/chariots can now choose to retreat a couple of hexes in exchange for ignoring sword, flag, and leader results. Very historical, and an excellent choice for light cavalry to avoid being run off of the board entirely.

5) Ranged combat. Pretty much exclusively only available to light units (there is a Roman "war machine" unit). In most cases, movement reduces the effectiveness of ranged combat. A few units can attack from three hexes away, but otherwise this game requires closing with the enemy.

6) Elephants. Tons of rules for these, my favorite is that if an elephant is required to retreat it has a decent shot at damaging pretty much everyone nearby. Cavalry and chariots aren't too fond of them, the horses get a tad nervous. One hit, though, is enough to take out these big boys, so you want to pick your battles with them. There are other special units (warriors, essentially medium foot with attitude; war machines, and chariots, all with special rules).

In play, these new rules make me feel like you are rewarded for effective tactics, unlike M44 where I felt like the card draw and the rolls were the primary factors and tactics were not as important to win. A cohesive line, effective use of your light units and cavalry, special units, evasion, use of leaders, all of these things play a big role in whether or not you can win. I was very nervous about trying out this title, as my last attempt to give M44 one last shot resulted in me deciding to sell it, so I'm quite happy to have a good first impression despite wishing that GMT had gone with a different unit paradigm than the earlier titles of multiple pieces per unit.

I've played the first two stock scenarios (P500 orders got four bonus scenarios), both featuring the Syracusans against the Carthaginians prior to the Punic Wars with Rome. The first game, essentially a learning scenario with no elephants or terrain, is a walkover for the Syracusans, which is a shame. A learning scenario should be a bit more balanced, although it is useful if you are familiar with the game and playing a newbie (hint: let the newbie win by giving them the Syracusans).

The second scenario, Crimossos River, is a bit tough for the Carthaginians, as they have half of their army on the other side of a river that they must ford, and that takes time and cards. This game was a thriller (at least as much as you can have playing solitaire). The Syracusans have a lot of heavy foot, and they were doing much damage to the Carthaginians. When they did lose battles, the units managed to hang on by their fingernails. At one point, the Carthaginian medium foot had gotten across the river and were causing a lot of damage to the Syracusan heavy foot, and the game was on the line with Carthage only needing one more VP to win. Seeing that there was little to lose, Syracuse attacked from both flanks: on the left with a heavily damaged cavalry unit, on the right with two ranged attacks. Both managed to destroy the units they were fighting, giving Syracuse the two VP it needed for the victory. I love that sort of come-from-behind win (even if I lose as a result), and I was quite happy to see it happen in this game. Of course, this was a single playing, but it does bode well for whether I'll like the game on a regular basis as opposed to me considering selling it.

The one thing I still hate is that it seems to take almost as much time to set up as it does to play, and I've separated out the various units into baggies. A big help would be a list of needed units with each scenario, not just the diagram on the map which is nice, but I always forget something. Of course, playing an actual opponent would help out here, as you'd have two people setting up, but it's still a bit onerous. This is a problem in general with all of these games, and the blocks do make it a bit easier to handle the individual pieces.

So, there you have it. This looks like a great light wargame with a strong euro feel, aided by the best rules I've seen (both in terms of organization and special rules) in this series. If you don't mind blocks instead of plastics, and you wish that BC or M44 was a better game, this may be the ticket for you.


Anonymous said...

We have played through most of the scenarios in C&C Ancients, and the game is really great fun. I am looking forward to collecting and playing all the expansions.

Anonymous said...

If you are interested in a good website, full of Commands and Colors ANCIENTS resource, maps, scenarios and other materials you should visit