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Monday, July 03, 2006

Commands and Colours: Ancients- the Richard Borg engine rumbles on! #1

I mentioned recently that I had got hold of a copy of GMT's latest version of the Richard Borg Command and Colours system- Commands and Colours: Ancients. I've had the game for a few weeks now, which has given me time to play a few games, and to search out some online references. Here are: John A. Foley's site, which gives an interesting overview of the development of GMT's production, among other things; Tom Vasel's review; and the C&C:A page at BoardGameGeek.

Regular readers will know of my enthusiasm for and many recent games of Borg's Memoir'44. That alone would've guaranteed my interest in C&C:A, even though I must confess that the ancient period isn't one for which I have a passion as I do for WW2. All the same, picking up a copy of C&C:A on sight proved to be a real no-brainer in the end! So, what do I think?

What's in the box
Well first, to be more precise- what's on the box? And no, I'm not talking about the graphic design which is all fine and dandy, but which had no effect whatsoever on my decision to buy this game. No, I'm talking about a little test I did of a statement I've read more than once on the net: people praising the sturdy qualities of the game box have suggested that it is sufficient to bear an adult's weight. And it is.

That little wheeze aside, it has to be said that this is an impressive package of gratifying heft when you pick it up off the shelf. Sure, you can no more judge a game by its weight than you can a book by its cover. All the same, C&C:A's combination of raw poundage and Richard Borg's design credit make this particular heavy box one the opening of which you have every reason to believe will live up to expectations.

What you find when you open the box is a battle map, double-sided terrain hexes, a deck of Command cards and a rulebook exactly as you'd expect if you'd already bought Memoir'44. There are also 2 player reference sheets and 7 plastic dice. Finally there are some 345 wooden blocks in 4 different sizes and 3 different colours complete with 5 sheets of sticky labels for all the different units in the game.

Production standards
First things first. One feature of M44 that gives it a special appeal is the superlative production values Days of Wonder brought to the game. From the tactile appeal of the models, to the vividness of the map and terrain tiles, M44 enjoys a lush visual appeal that gladdens the heart of this old-time miniatures gamer and Squad Leader player.

These were production standards that GMT were never going to be able to bring to C&C:A, an issue that has generated much discussion across the net. C&C:A's map is unmounted and terrain tiles are of thinner card stock than their equivalents in M44, and they are printed in a more limited and muted colour palette. The game also uses wooden blocks for the units instead of models, and you have to apply sticky labels to the blocks in addition. There are also plastic dice requiring the application of labels.

By and large these work just fine. In fact I am in the camp that believes that the more muted colours work better for the swords and sandals of the ancient setting than the lush palette M44 uses for the plains of Europe.

Likewise, the wooden blocks have proved much better than I had feared when I first heard about them. Sure, having to spend 5 or more hours applying nearly 700 sticky labels to each side of more than 300 wooden blocks was a bit of a pain in the ass, but it wasn't really all that bad compared to the amount of time I've devoted down the years to painting miniatures, or to preparing an rpg session. And the blocks have turned out to be more suitable for the game than models in any case: battle lines are a crucial feature of C&C:A and the blocks seem to me to work much better for these purposes than models would've. They turn out to be more evocative of the massed ranks of units in the period; are easier to move; and are much less likely to get snagged than the models of M44. So the blocks turn out to be less fiddly to use once you've got past getting them ready.

So GMT have taken the limitations imposed upon them by their business model and turned them largely to their advantage, which is nice. Well, except for those dice. The C&C:A dice are plastic, with indentations on each face into which you have to stick labels featuring the various symbols. The labels are just a wee bit too big for the indentations, which has led to excessive wear after a mere 5 games or so. And this has been all over the dice labels too, not just on the higher surfaces where wear might be expected. I have also found that the dice don't really roll very well once they land after being thrown, they just kind of plonk down. There will be new dice in the imminent first expansion set, so we'll see I guess.

New rules
With a gaming system as abstract as Borg's Commands and Colours there is always the risk that variants might turn out to be cut-and-paste versions of the same game which all end up feeling very much the same. So the rules changes relative to M44 are fundamental to the success of C&C:A in conveying an authentic feel for the ancient period.

The key rules changes in C&C:A relative to M44 are:
  • the battle dice: in C&C:A these feature 1 hit each for light, medium and heavy troop types, and 1 each of leader, swords, and flag results
  • the Command deck: this has been significantly rejigged, with variations in familiar cards and entirely new cards
  • unit types: there are 12 unit types in C&C:A
  • terrain: the battlefield is much more open and terrain isn't as useful as cover in C&C:A as it is in M44
  • leaders: these are a standard feature of C&C:A, and they are crucial in the game
  • support: units are less likely to retreat when they have friendly units beside them
  • ranged attacks: not all units can make ranged attacks, and these are also weaker than they are in M44
  • retreats: retreats are more headlong in C&C:A than in M44, though they are often less likely to happen
  • evasion: some units may evade before close combat in the hope of suffering fewer hits
  • battling back: units may often strike back at their attackers in close combat.
  • elephants: an utterly characteristic feature of the period with rules so entertaining that they deserve to be looked at under their own category!
I'll be back another time with a more detailed look at these rules changes. ;)
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