Friday, July 14, 2006

Commands and Colours: Ancients- the Richard Borg engine rumbles on! #3

I've already looked at the components and production of C&C:A, and at the key rules changes relative to Memoir'44. So how to I think the latest addition to the Commands and Colours stable measures up to M44?

Very well indeed. My survey of the rules changes has already examined how these reflect the specific features of the ancient period and enforce appropriate tactics. Here I will try to pull all of those points together to give a sense of C&C:A's period flavour and overall gameplay. But first...
The gripe
I do have one complaint though. This is the rulebook. I was very impressed by the M44 rulebook. Sure its glossy full-colour pages were pretty to look at. More importantly, it was very well written. Richard Borg explained the workings of the game in a way that was admirably comprehensive while at the same time being a smooth read.

The C&C:A rulebook by contrast is a noticably more torturous read. Borg attempts to apply one of the strengths of his M44 rules writing- namely consistent use of terminology to establish cases and precedents without heavy cross-referencing or extensive notation of exceptions. Unfortunately he just doesn't pull this off nearly so well, giving us a rulebook some of whose jargon and structure feels distinctly forced to this reader. I am left with the impression of a rulebook that makes the game harder to understand than it need be.

The contents of the FAQ already available confirms to my satisfaction that this is not just my personal experience. I have to say that I believe this is where GMT's economic model let them down on this project. The rulebook smacks of having been through too few iterations. I can only assume that GMT just couldn't afford more, one way or another. And so we get a rulebook which- as I am not alone in believing (scroll down and check out Kevin Duke's 2nd post)- smacks just a bit too much of the 'we all know what it means' syndrome that can arise when a ruleset doesn't get enough blind testing.

This might seem a bit of a peevish gripe, especially in these internet days when FAQ- and often the designers themselves- are so easily available that any mistakes or misunderstandings can quickly be clarified. All the same I can't help feel that a game as essentially simple as C&C:A is undermined by a rulebook that fails to make some of its key rules as crystal clear to read and grasp as they are undoubtedly easy to play.

The glories
One very striking rule change in C&C:A is to retreats, with units retreating their full movement allowance per flag- instead of 1 hex/flag as in M44. The way that this rule makes units that move faster flee faster is an immediate insight into a key feature of the ancient battlefield: it was much smaller than its WW2 counterpart. Even if the forces deployed in a C&C:A scenario were numerically equivalent to those in an M44 scenario, the nature of warfare in the 2 epochs was so different that the ancient army would still occupy a much smaller space, for reasons I need not rehearse here.

The support and the leader rules also give a sense of this much more confined battlefield. The scale of M44 is such that units in adjacent hexes aren't necessarily in sufficiently close proximity for any morale benefit to result. Adjacent units in C&C:A on the other hand are almost shoulder to shoulder, so the support rules make perfect sense. Likewise the ability of leaders to provide the leader hit bonus in close combat to adjacent units shows how much smaller the ancient battlefield is.

No expert on the period as I have already confessed, I'm still pretty sure that-sieges excepted- ancient battles as represented in C&C:A were always fought out in the course of a single day. By contrast it's not difficult to imagine some M44 scenarios representing several days of action. This compression in time in C&C:A is layered nicely on top of the confined space through the impact of the unit types and the adjustments to close combat, particularly with battling back.

In M44, tactics typically revolve around the use of terrain- to provide cover for your units laying down preparatory fire on the enemy, and to screen the advance of your assault force who will be closing-in to gain your objectives. The effect of terrain is therefore a tendency to extend the battle in space and time as players maneouvre to find a decisive local advantage before launching a major assault.

The absence of terrain on the typical C&C:A battlefield obviously precludes this style of play. Add in the effects of the support rule, and the various command cards whose effects are based on ordering units which are adjacent to each other- 13 of the 60 cards; and the preparatory phase of a game of C&C:A typically involves manoeuvres to pull your battleline into order before launching it at the chosen section of the enemy's line. This marshalling of your battleline will often be accompanied by cavalry skirmishing on your flanks, or by bringing up missile troops to lay down harassing fire.

Awkward enough already due to the practicalities of organising 2 different kinds of maneouvre- skirmishing and line formation/advance- under the vagaries of cardplay, this process is rendered even more fiddly by the slow movement rate of what will typically be your key assault troops- those heavy or medium infantry moving at that painfully slow slog of 1 hex/turn. And as if this wasn't taxing enough, you'll probably be under harassing fire from the enemy's skirmishers, or even from a more solid line of missile-armed troops.

Open terrain; unwieldy formations; slow troops: in combination the effect of these is that once you've commited to a line of advance, you're unlikely to be able to do much to change it before your units make contact with the enemy. And so C&C:A seems to me to place an even higher priority than does M44 on quickly grasping the potential of your hand, forming a plan, adjusting for that plan, and just getting stuck in. Otherwise your opponent will get to deliver a possibly decisive first charge.

If the C&C:A's depiction of the basic elements of its period seems to drive the action forward in a way that gives a nice feel for the dynamics of ancient warfare relative to those of M44, the revisions to the battle rules mean that the clash of arms towards which the action is so driven is similarly liable to be more decisive.

In the first instance there is simply the sheer number of battle dice you are liable to be throwing in close combat- which will usually be 3 or more for your key assault units (as opposed to a far more likely 2 dice in M44). Medium and heavy units in particular- with their 4 and 5 dice- have the chance of wiping out full-strength foot units in a single good attack, something which simply cannot be done in M44. Good use of skirmishers' missile attacks, proper concentration of force and skillful use of leaders, plus the prospects of battling again if you destroy or push back an enemy unit, only increase the chance that a timely first strike can utterly crush the enemy line before they can respond.

The battling back rules too ensure that close combat, once joined, will typically be more deadly than in M44. I have read complaints that this rule doesn't exist in M44. I believe this to be misguided. Close combat in C&C:A is precisely that: man-to-man combat with hand weapons. Close assault in M44 can be that, but is more likely to be a firefight at the short ranges at which rifles and SMG's can be brought to bear at full effect.

The battling back rules in C&C:A therefore nicely represent the compression in space and time inherent in game's period, making each and every close combat inevitably a risk that you will immediately suffer serious losses. And they will mean that more often than not, close combat, once joined, will be short and bloody.

Of course the evasion rules offer the prospect to pull back in the face of such potentially devestating attacks. This can lead to some of the 'cat-and-mouse' sort of play that is more common in M44. But even if you do successfully evade you face the prospect of exposing your flanks, or of opening holes in your lines thus depriving key units of their support. Either of these outcomes could easily prove more dangerous to your army as a whole than the fate the evading unit(s) sought to avoid.

Overall then C&C:A is a splendid addition to the available range of Commands and Colours games. Its rules are familiar to those who know M44, and are thus easy to grasp despite the extra layers of detail, and yet the game feels completely different in play. This is a very important point it seems to me. The worst thing that could've happened with this game is that it just turned out to be M44 with the serial numbers filed off. Instead we have a game which shows us just how elegant Richard Borg's core system really is.

I mean to say I have read several comments here and there on the net that C&C:A is more realistic than M44. This is usually put down to the greater range of unit types. I would have to agree with this to some extent. As much as I admire M44's depiction of the relative strengths and weaknesses of the different arms of service on the WW2 battlefield, it can hardly be denied that the game would be improved, say, by simple rules differentiating between light, medium and heavy armour. Regular readers will already know my high opinion of the merits of M44 regardless of these issues. (See last year's 4-part 'A rash of enthusiasm...' for M44: #1, #2, #3, #4.) With C&C:A at our disposal it is easy to imagine these details being addressed in M44.

This is not a subject I want to get into any further here, because it seems to me to miss the crucial point of comparison in any case. Borg's Commands and Colours system isn't about the meticulous rendition of minutae beloved by generations of grognards. Rather it is about the authentic evocation of the atmosphere, general dynamic and specific tactical problems of a given period of warfare in a format enabling fast and fluid play and focussed on putting the players right in the generals' seats. In this respect C&C:A enjoys full marks exactly as does its sister game M44.

Final note
Just like M44, C&C:A has been so successful that it is quickly being expanded. Expansion Pack 1: The Greeks & Eastern Kingdoms apparently reached its preorder target under GMT's Project 500 scheme faster than any game ever. It is due out in the next month or two. And Expansion Pack 2: Imperial Rome and The Barbarians is ratcheting-up its pre-orders quickly enough that we can be sure it will be released with all the haste GMT can muster.

Fans of Borg's great design have a lot to look forward to in then. ;)
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