I wrote a brief blog post last week about a great online resource for the Commands & Colors series of games.
For me, the Commands & Colors series, designed by Richard Borg, is almost a perfect hybrid of boardgame and wargame. Whilst it’s something of a ‘marmite’ game amongst many wargamers – I think that many people consider the game too lite or abstract (“Not a ‘proper’ wargame”) – it is generally a very popular system amongst boardgamers.
Part of the beauty of these games is that they embrace the ‘battle in a box’ concept, which allows players to experience a wargame without the not-insubstantial outlay of money and time on miniatures and scenery – although these games in themselves usually aren’t inexpensive, especially if you start purchasing all the additional expansions that many have.
Most miniature wargamers automatically embrace collecting and painting miniatures as part of the hobby of wargaming. However, there are a number of people who want to play wargames, but are not interested in miniatures – I think it’s this market where the Commands & Colors series find its largest fanbase.
So what’s it all about?
Battles take place on a board, which is divided into a hex grid of 13 x 9. The board is further divided into three areas: a centre and left and right flanks.
Scenery is placed on the board, in the form of hex overlays, which are placed onto the board.
Each type of scenery has a set of rules controlling how it works in the game.
Each battle is laid out using a scenario. This scenario gives a somewhat stylised view of the battlefield, which is designed to work within in confines of the hex board. The scenario gives details of the terrain layout, and initial unit deployment.
Units are depicted either by using miniatures (in games such as Battlecry or Memoir ’44), or by illustrated wooden blocks (Commands & Colors: Ancients & Napoleonics).
I most of the games, foot units tend to have 4 models/blocks, whilst cavalry and artillery have three. Some special units (such as elephants in Ancients) only have two blocks.
Some games simply divide troops into infantry, cavalry (tanks) and artillery. However, some of the games further divide infantry and cavalry into three different types: Heavy, Medium and Light. Units are further differentiated by how far they can move, and how many dice they can roll in combat.
Each player has a hand of cards, which are used to issue orders to your troops. As you can see, this normally depicts how many units you can issue orders to in a certain part of the battlefield, or you can perhaps order a certain type of unit, such as artillery or cavalry. It’s also worth noting that these order cards are different in the different games, so that the type of combat can be reflected in the orders cards available – for example, Commands & Colors: Ancients include a card called ‘Line Command’ as Ancient armies tend to move in lines.
An unit that is activated can usual move and perform combat. Combat occurs by rolling custom dice. Rather than consulting any form of table, essentially the dice show the result of the combat.
For example, the dice shown are for C&C: Ancients. The coloured faces show a hit on a type of unit (Red = Heavy, Blue = Medium, Green = Light) whilst the cross swords show a melee hit. The flag is a morale check and the helmet is a special action.
The dice differ slightly between games – some of the games depict the type of unit hit: Infantry, Cavalry or Artillery, rather than colours. This style of dice is used in games such as Battlecry, Memoir ’44 and Commands & Colors: Napoleoincs.
Each scenario has a victory condition, which is usually denoted by a number of victory banners/medals which need to be achieved. These banners are gained by either destroying enemy units, or capturing objectives.
That, in a nutshell, is how the game is played. One of the appeals of this system is that games tend to be quite quick – you can usually play a scenario in 60-90 minutes. Many scenarios may not be balanced, so you can easily play a scenario twice in a gaming session, so the winner can be determined by the aggregate score of banners/medals gained, rather than as the result of a single game.
As I said, whilst the rules system has a fair dose of abstraction, the definition of units, the different command cards used in each game and certain changes in the game rules give a large amount of period flavour. The result is a game which, for many, scratches the itch of wargaming in a convenient, fast-play format.
Whilst I’m a big fan of miniature wargaming, sometimes I want a quicker game. Usually, the way you play a quick game when using miniatures is to play a skirmish game with only a few models per side. The Commands & Colors style of game allows you to play massed battles in relatively short time, whilst importantly giving you the feeling that you have played a mass battle game.
The game is almost as much about hand management as it is about strategy and tactics – given that you are limited in what each card can do, sometimes you may want to collect several cards so that you can launch a sustained attack in one area of the battlefield. At other times it may well be simply be a case of trying to react to what your opponent is doing. Most importantly, you always have a number of options in what you can do on each turn, which is part of the strength of the game.
It is interesting to note the designer Richard Borg has always played the game using miniatures, and many people play the game in this way (the above photo is taken from the Society of Ancients Battle Day in 2012)
There is another way of playing the Commands & Colors system, and that is the ‘Epic’ format (known as Overlord in Memoir ’44). In this configuration, two boards are placed side-by-side, with a much larger number of units and respective victory conditions. However, this format is designed to be played as a multi-player game; 4-a-side. Three players play generals, one in charge of each area of the army (left, centre, right). The fourth is the overall commander – this player holds the hand of cards and decides on each turn who gets what card to play. The individual commanders shouldn’t really communicate with each other, so this style of game makes an interesting challenge.
If you haven’t twigged by now, I’m a big fan of this game system. I own most of the games of the series, and whilst some are definitely better than others, I have played and enjoyed almost all of them.
Here is a brief overview of what is available:
The first of the series, Battle Cry was published by Avalon Hill games in 2000.
As you may have guessed from the artwork, this game has a setting of the American Civil War and is, perhaps, the simplest of the game series.
It was republished in 2010 in a new 150th Civil War Anniversary Edition, with all new artwork and a greatly expanded number of scenarios.
Whilst the gameplay is simple (indeed, many add at least one or two tweaks to the rules, primarily to allow cavalry a short ranged attack due to the use of carbines) the thing that makes this game stand out for me is the wonderful artwork which is printed using a somewhat muted colour palette. The icing on the cake is that the game comes complete with a large number of 15mm plastic miniatures. Simply a beautiful looking game.
Released for the 60th Anniversary of the D-Day landings, Memoir ’44 has been published by Days of Wonder. It takes the game system to World War II.
The game is beautifully produced, with a double-sided board: one showing a beach landing, the other a simple green area. Days of Wonder games all have fantastic production values, and this game has superb artwork and accessories. Lots of plastic models complete the set.
As you can imagine, since World War II is a huge conflict, there are a huge number of expansions that have been printed for this game: 25 in total. Terrain packs, theatre expansions with extra models for British, Russians and Japanese, campaign books and even an air-power pack.
Memoir ’44 is a massive system, and hugely popular.
I’m not sure if it’s because I play so many other World War II games, but despite it’s huge popularity this game doesn’t quite hit the mark for me. It might be that there are actually too many expansions, extra units and special rules – something you would probably expect from a WWII game – but I think it’s become a little too complex for it’s own good. It’s a very well produced game, just not my favourite.
Commands & Colors: Ancients
In 2006, GMT Games published Commands & Colors Ancients. This took the game into the Ancient world.
The production values of this game were not quite as good as what we had seen with Memoir’44 – the artwork of the cards and scenery was a different style: more minimalist. This was coupled with the fact that the game came with wooden blocks rather than miniatures. These blocks were designed to have stickers attached to them, with the stickers denoting each unit. The artwork on the stickers looks great, but putting the stickers onto the wooden blocks is quite a task.
The original game is based during the Punic Wars, but there are six expansions. Expansion 1 is for the Greek and Persian Wars, Expansions 2, 3 and 4 covers all the Roman conflicts from the Barbarian Wars, the Civil Wars and the wars of Imperial Rome. The 5th Expansion is for the epic game and the 6th is the Spartan Army, which is designed to be played with Expansion 1. Each box set comes with more wooden blocks, more stickers and more scenery.
Though the production values are a bit different, the changes to the Command Cards gives this game a huge amount of period flavour, meaning that keeping your forces together for mutual support is vital.
I think this is probably the best game in the series, but the difference is marginal.
At the same time that GMT Games produced C&C: Ancients, Days of Wonder produced their second game in the series: Battlelore.
This is a fantasy game, and was probably the biggest change to the C&C system, as it introduced a second hand of cards that could be used to affect the battle, denoting the casting of spells by wizards supporting your army. This second hand requires a second resource to use (Lore in this game) but can give extra advantages during the game.
Like Memoir ’44 before it, Battlelore benefitted from fantastic production values and lots of 15mm plastic figures. This game also had a large number of expansions (16 in total) with lots of extra figures and units available. It turned into a large mass battle system that could be played either as a fantasy game or as an historical game.
Couple all these miniatures with a fantastic set of artwork and in-depth gameplay options and Battlelore 1st Edition is my favourite game in this series. However, for some reason I don’t think this quite caught the imagination of gamers in the same way as Memoi ’44 did, and the game was not as well supported. Couple this with the fact that the base game became too expensive to reprint, and it was doomed to fail.
However, all is not lost for a fantasy version of this system. The publishing rights to Battlelore was bought by Fantasy Flight Games.
They first produced a mass-battle game based in the Game of Thrones universe: Battles of Westeros – which took the design of Battlelore but played around with the core mechanics somewhat.
Then, in 2013, Fantasy Flight produced a Second Edition of Battlelore. This new version retains the core rules of the first edition, but changes the fantasy universe, and also moves the scale of the game to use 28mm plastic miniatures, which makes the game look very impressive.
As with Days of Wonder before them, Fantasy Flight Games are well known for the production values of their games, so the models and artwork for this new edition really are top-notch.
Commands & Colors: Napoleonics
Following on from their success with Ancients, GMT Games then produced another in the series of Commands & Colours, this time moving to the Napoleonic Wars. The first game concentrated on the Peninsular War with British against French.
GMT stayed with the idea of using wooden blocks and stickers, as well as similar artwork to that of the Ancients game.
Gameplay was changed to cater for the different tactics needed for this period, with cavalry, infantry and artillery given different rolls to play, but also various bonuses when used tactically correctly. Some major changes also meant that unit effectiveness was also reduced by casualties – something we hadn’t seen before in a C&C game.
This series has seen five expansions: four introducing all the other major protagonists of the war: Russian, Prussians, Austrians and Spanish, whilst the fifth has seen the biggest change to gameplay with the addition of the tactics deck – a similar type of second hand that we first saw used in Battlelore.
A sixth expansion, introducing Epic play, is planned.
This is another fantastic game – it isn’t just a re-theme of Ancients, but requires very different tactics. Possibly the best game in the series?
Launched in 2012, Abaddon takes Command & Colors into the sci-fi genre with infantry and mech combat.
This looks to be a very different game from the others in the series, as (amongst other things) the game uses square areas rather than the hexes we are used to seeing.
I actually don’t own this game, so I can’t tell you too much more about it – for some reason this didn’t really appeal.
Also launched in 2012, Samurai Battles was published by Zvezda and combined Richard Borg’s Commands & Colors system with Zvezda’s own Art of Tactic game, essentially giving you two games in one.
The big bonus of the game are the Zvezda 20mm plastic miniatures which are fantastic. However, the board and the cards/tokens in this game are, in contrast, only of average quality.
This game does use a second hand of cards – known as ‘Dragon Cards’ in this variant, which gives you extra options and tactical nuances.
An expansion was produced for the game, which introduces new units and some new scenarios.
Probably a version of the game which would only appeal to those specifically interested in that period of history, but pretty good all the same.
The Great War
The Great War is the latest addition to the C&C stable, with PSC Games bringing the system to World War I.
This game was a real surprise, as I was a little sceptical as to how the system would work with the conflict. I needn’t have worried, since Richard Borg has tweaked the system again and added several new rules and a slighty larger board (13 x 11 hexes) which make the game very challenging and rewarding to play.
This game also uses the second ‘Tactical’ hand which really adds to the flavour of the game. Couple this with the availability of artillery support every turn and the game has tons of period flavour.
Production values of this game are again fantastic. Top quality artwork from Peter Dennis coupled with great 15mm miniatures and card terrain. This game is very good indeed.
There is one expansion for this game already available, which introduces tanks into the game. A second is due for release in October, which brings the French Army to the conflict.
So there you have it, one system with many variations. Given the sheer number of scenarios available, you could easily only play these games for several years. Most of these games are really good indeed – the system is my favourite wargame/boardgame hybrid and I am hard pressed to chose the best one.
If I was forced to choose, I think the GMT Games are probably the best, as both have fantastic play, despite their lack of figures. My favourite is Battlelore 1st Edition, as this is, for me, the best combination of gameplay, production values and miniatures, but The Great War is not far behind.
If you are looking for a fast-play mass battle game, this system is generally very good – simply choose your period and away you go.