Saturday, December 23, 2006

Command and Colors - Ancients Vs Battlelore

I had a chance to play C&C:Ancients (Ancients from here on out) versus Jesse on Thursday, and a game of Battlelore versus Chuck today. This was a great chance for me to compare the two takes on this system.

Most of you know I was not a big fan of Battle Cry or Memoir '44, largely because I felt the games didn't really evoke the period they were trying to. While I think the game system has serious problems with balance (too much reliance on historical battles that are unbalanced), and this continues into Ancients and Battlelore, these two games are definitely the pinnacle of the system.

First, a comparison of the components. You could not have more of a difference between the two games, largely because Ancients is published by a wargame company and Battlelore by a Euro company. Ancients has a heavy stock unmounted board and rather bland pencil-art terrain (although almost all of these battles were fought in plains terrain, so the choice is more than justifiable). Battlelore has a mounted board that is painted, as are the terrain tiles, and terrain is much more varied (including bridges and "special" terrain that ties in with the War Council rules). The units in Ancients are wood blocks with cel-filled graphics on the stickers, while Battlelore uses miniatures that are damned hard to tell apart except for a few differently colored bases and a bunch of banners/flags that differentiate whose side the units belong to.

In a nutshell, Battlelore goes for flash while Ancients goes for functionality, and to be quite honest functionality wins out. There is literally no reason for Days of Wonder to have done anything other than one infantry type, one cavalry type, and one archer type (in addition to the specialized Dwarf and Goblin types). Oh sure, there's a giant spider, but it's pretty much the same as the elephants in Ancients. The cavalry figures also have a tendency to be "flattened" which is easy to fix but annoying. The Ancients blocks are easy to move, easy to store, and (oddly) more colorful. To be fair, there are several differentiations between the various "light" units in Ancients, but it's only slightly annoying as there are few enough units. Otherwise, it's easy to tell mounted units apart easily (they have bigger blocks), and parsing the board is very easy compared to Battlelore. Finally, my Battlelore board is already warping, and I've had it for two days.

Second, the rules. If you have never seen a C&C game before, there is no question that Battlelore will teach you the system in a step-by-step process that is quite well done. However, there are graphics *everywhere* and I feel like I'm looking at advertising copy. Ancients has a decent ruleset, although there were quite a few clarifications made in their first expansion game, especially in their examples, so they have some work to do in this area (although this was also their first C&C publication, while Battlelore is Days' second after Memoir). Where the Battlelore rules completely fall down is when you have to look something up. As a reference source, they are a mess. Even Days' plans to make the various rules for cards searchable via the web, leading me to believe the intend us to have a laptop handy when we play. Ancients, on the other hand, has rules for leaders spread out through several sections, making it a trick to find a specific rule. Do you look in the section titled Leaders? Movement? Combat? You won't know until you look. This round is a lock.

As for the rules themselves, there are a few differences. "Bold" units in Battlelore can battle back and ignore one flag result, while in Ancients you can always battle back if you aren't forced to retreat, and no units are specifically bold (as are dwarves in Battlelore). The entire Lore/War Council ruleset doesn't exist in Ancients, but there are no leader counters in Battlelore, nor are there any cards that take advantage of said leaders. Ancients also comes with more "special" units - Chariots and Elephants in the core game, compared with just Giant Spiders in Battlelore (although there are two other critters out there if you count the Giant as something you can actually pick up somewhere other than eBay). Most units in Ancients can advance after combat if they eliminate or retreat the unit they attack, although both games' cavalry can pursue. Units in Ancients retreat at the same rate in which they move, which makes some of them quite brittle (but historically so - light cavalry got the heck out of Dodge on a pretty regular basis when things got hot and heavy). Only Spiders and Goblins retreat more than a single space per retreat flag. Finally, all light units other than Auxillia in Ancients can evade specific units, making a retreat in exchange for not taking sword hits (and light cavalry not risking a big retreat off-board).

The biggest differences between the two has to come down to Lore vs Evasion in any meaningful way. Both are ways to minimize luck of the draw, and perhaps Lore succeeds in this in a better way, but at a huge cost in complexity. I can see this becoming a huge issue in terms of interacting spells, to some extent as happens in most CCGs. However, evasion feels more historical and appropo for me in Ancients. I'd have to give a very slight edge to Battlelore in this respect, but only by a hair.

Next up is expandability. GMT is already providing extra scenarios in their house magazine, C3i, and they also provide bonus scenarios to customers that pre-order games. I'd really rather see them pubish scenarios online, but to be honest there is nothing stopping players from doing this. In fact, Battlelore is seeing the same thing happen, but all of the scenarios so far are unofficial. Days' also provides (or will provide, as of this writing) an online scenario generator. I have no expectation that GMT will do the same, although it is entirely possible that a third-party may provide one (probably Windows based) if one isn't already out there.

As for official expansions, GMT has already created an Alexander the Great-based expansion with an entire set of new blocks and 22 scenarios. I applaud the new blocks even though they add cost, as the illustrations are of phalanx-era armies instead of the Roman legions, and include Indian and Persian armies as well. As such, GMT will be producing large and expensive expansions at the rate of a couple a year, at least for now (the second one focuses on the Gauls, and will come out in early 2007). In contrast, Days' marketing plans are to produce both larger army kits and single creature blister packs. While at first glance it may feel a bit like spending $4 for a single creature and it's rules seems a bit steep, or $20 for an army, at least you can get them one at a time and the cost compared to the GMT offerings is pretty close when all is considered, although you don't get the extra scenarios (although you do online). Again, a toss-up.

Finally, how do they play? This is hard to compare directly, as I was trying to figure out the lore system only to be drawing Cleric spells (when I didn't have a Cleric, but I did have everyone else) and I ended up casting a whopping two spells in the entire game. Compare this with at least a half-dozen evasions in my game with Jesse, and I have to consider Lore to be considerably more prone to luck in a game that already has far too much luck as it is.

In both games, I had a lot of trouble getting the cards I needed to move and attack with critical units, and of course this is a core knock against the system as a whole. However, in Battlelore I had a five-card hand (compared to four in Ancients), and exactly a single card that would have allowed me to move one of the two heavy units on my right flank. While this was a single game, it was still annoying. I also kept drawing battle and lore cards that would have been great had I been the English at Agincourt with lots of archers, completely useless to me in our game.

I mention this because I give the nod to Ancients, although I'm aware that my take on Battlelore is heavily colored by my frustration in that game, although it was much closer. There are other reasons I like Ancients better, though:

o Easier to parse the board

o Easier to move units on the map

o Easier to set up the game

o Easier to find rules

o Evasion is always "on"

o Lore is more luck

o Don't need to be supported to battle back

o More unit differentiation (especially with light units)

o Historical events informing how the systems works

o Leader units give tactical flexibility, additional firepower

Battlelore, on the other hand, only has a couple of things going for it:

o More colorful rules (the map and cards are, if anything, too busy)

o War Council/ Lore rules create more variation from game to game

o More scenarios will be available over time, although many will be home-brewed

o Expansions can be added in a bit at a time and will almost certainly be more extensive over time

o Can be expanded in almost any way desired, as there is no history that must be followed

The one thing that Battlelore really needs, and would give it the edge for me, is a random conflict generator. Most scenario-based wargames like Combat Commander and ASL make use of these, although most people who enjoy historical games prefer historical situations. I'd actually like to see GMT do this for Ancients, and if they did it would lock up Ancients as the best iteration of this vererable, if perhaps flawed, gaming system. At least the games are fairly short.

I should note that neither game uses victory point spaces, as was done in Memoir in an attempt to give players a reason to fight (this was a bit of a problem with Battle Cry). Battlelore does include some terrain that gives Lore benefits, but otherwise you go at it because that's what you are supposed to do. Of course, neither game has devastating artillery like Battle Cry and Memoir do, so there is more incentive to "bring it", and perhaps the VP spaces aren't needed. Note: there may be VP spaces in Battlelore - I have not read all of the rules, but there are certainly no such rules in Ancients.

Of course, I'm also a wargamer (which both of these games are), and like more wargamers I like some history to base the game on. To be fair, Battlelore can be played as a historical game without the Lore rules, but I can't speak for whether or not the game evokes medieval battles in the same way that Ancients evokes antiquity. At least, not yet. For now, however, I'm much more likely to pull out Ancients if I'm playing another wargamer, Battlelore if I'm not.


Anonymous said...

Bad review, I waste my time reading it. So everything is bad regarding BattleLore and everything is wonderful regarding Ancients? You must be kidding...

Dug said...

If you'd already made up your mind before reading a three year old review, why read it unless you just want someone to justify your own opinion?

Funny how people who disagree with me are almost always anonymous...