Sunday, July 09, 2006

Commands and Colours: Ancients- the Richard Borg engine rumbles on! #2

This time I'm going to look more closely at each of the key rules changes outlined in the previous article.

The battle dice
One hit per unit type in C&C:A means that no unit type is more likely to be hit than any other. This is a significant change from M44, where the breakdown of unit-specific hits are a key feature of how the game models the variation in the vulnerability to fire of different types of unit on the battlefield. The swords are C&C:A's generic hit, just like the grenade in M44. The flag is similarly familiar. The leader hit is a special result which you can only gain if a unit attacking in close combat enjoys the benefits of a leader. Leader hits are also used to determine the chances of a leader being killed.

The new leader result aside, the most striking feature of C&C:A is that no unit type is inherently more vulnerable in close combat against any other unit type, eg. heavy infantry don't immediately hit any harder against light infantry than they do against medium infantry. I have read some complaints about this on the net, and I do think that it is counter-intuituve for players steeped in the comparisons of combat factors traditional in tabletop games and boardgames. I am not at all sure that this is as unrealistic as some have believed at first sight, but the subtleties are beyond me right now.

The Command deck
There are some major changes in the cards, in keeping with the new setting. The major change is that there are only 27 section cards to M44's 40. The range of section cards has also changed, being from 2, 3 or 4 units per section, as opposed to M44's 1, 2, 3 or all. There are still the familiar cards allowing units to be ordered on both flanks or in all sections.

The remainder of the Command deck is broken down into 3 kinds of cards- Troop, Leadership, and Tactic- as opposed to M44's Tactic cards. The Troop cards allow orders to be issued to units of a given troop type- heavy, medium, light or mounted. Leadership cards allow order to be issued to a leader, the unit to which it is attached, and to adjacent units. Tactics cards are the special orders familiar from M44, with a few additions suitable for the ancient setting.

Overall the effect of the redesigned deck is to focus relatively less on where the units are on the battlefield, and relatively more on what kind of units they are, or whether they are formed up into a line or under leadership. Altogether then the new deck is a significant element in generating the flavour of the period and in enforcing a different style of play in response to a specific set of problems. This is an impressive sign of the inherent flexibility of Borg's system.

Oh, and the Tactic card 'I Am Spartacus' qualifies as one of the most entertainingly named cards I have ever seen in a game. I defy anyone to play this card without announcing its name in a certain grandiose tone of voice!

Unit types
These provide a nice cross section of representative types. You have your basic light, medium and heavy infantry and cavalry. In addition you have light slingers and bowmen, auxilia- another class of light infantry, warriors- hard-hitting medium infantry who presumably represent warlike tribesmen, heavy chariots, and elephants (the last 2 are included in the general class of mounted units).

Each unit type has its own distinct capabilities, all of which are neatly summarised on handy reference sheets. All that is except for bowmen and slingers, which are identical in every respect, something which has been commented on here and there on the net. It'd be nice I guess if these units could've been differentiated somehow, but I confess I'm at a bit of a loss as to how this could've been done at the degree of resolution the basic Commands and Colours system allows.

The different unit types' movement rates are neatly differentiated. Medium and heavy foot units slog their way slowly across the battlefield at l hex/turn. Light foot are slightly faster with a move of 2, which enables them easily to keep up with heavy mounted units. Medium and light cavalry move at 3 and 4 hexes/turn respectively. When they move alone, leaders can move a comfortably nippy 3.

Unit types also determine battle dice in close combat (CC). Light units roll a puny 2 dice, which is extra puny if you consider that- the auxilia excepted- light units also can't count sword hits in close combat. Auxilia infantry roll 3 dice. Add in the fact that they can count sword hits and auxilia are fairly respectable 2nd line close combat units with the added bonus of missile fire. Medium and heavy infantry roll 4 and 5 dice respectively. The warrior unit has 4 dice which drop to 3 once it has lost a block. Medium and heavy cavalry roll 3 and 4 dice, while the chariots have 4 dice (3 if battling back). Elephants are covered below.

The dice in C&C:A then are flying thick and fast as compared to M44. Ranged attacks wil be rolling about as many dice as you'll find in the typical M44 attack (see below). Meanwhile most close combats will involve 3 or more dice. Leaving elephants aside for the moment, this can go as high as 7 dice in a single attack if you have heavy infantry attacking with the benefit of the 'Clash of Shields' Tactic card.

I'm no authority on the period, but these 12 units seem to cover all of the obvious bases. They certainly provide one of the main challenges of C&C:A, which is trying to make the most of what initially can be a bewildering variety of troop types. The learning curve here strikes me as being just a bit steeper than it is in M44, but it remains one of complex decisions given by simple elements. Full marks for flavour and gameplay on this score then.

As anyone with even a passing knowledge of military history knows, battlefield terrain wasn't of the same importance in the ancient period as it was in WW2. The requirements of moving large formations of infantry in tightly packed ranks meant that ancient commanders typically sought out clear plains over which to face down their enemies. So most of the scenarios are fought across open maps.

All the same, some battles in the ancient period were decided by the impact of terrain. So there are several scenarios in C&C:A in which terrain plays a prominent part. In general, terrain is not your friend the way it is on the WW2 battlefield. Terrain that stops your movement on entry is likely to be more problematical in a game that puts such a high priority on maintaining battlelines. Similarly, I suspect that the battling back rules will place sufficient priority on striking first in close combat that losing the opportunity to battle after entering terrain could prove a more serious tactical burden than it is in M44. Finally, terrain that provides cover against incoming attacks is typically going to restrict outgoing attacks equally.

All of this means that heading as fast as possible for the nearest wood or hill is not necessarily the smart move in C&C:A that it usually is in M44. This seems quite reasonable to me.

Leaders are a key element differentiating C&C:A from M44. Leaders are single block elements who can move individually if you wish. They are much more likely to operate attached to units though. Leaders allow the use of certain special Command cards. They also confer certain abilities in combat: to adjacent units- the units may count 1 extra result on each dice (the 'leader' hit) as hits in close combat; or to the unit to which they are attached- leader hits as before; also the unit may ignore a flag result (a retreat, just as in M44), and may also battle again if it advances after combat (otherwise restricted to warriors and mounted units).

So leaders make a unit much more likely to hold its place in your battle line as well as making his section of the battle much more hard hitting. It's easy to see therefore that the correct use of leaders is a key element of the game. This potentially game-winning influence is not without its risks though. Whenever a unit with an attached leader loses 1 or more blocks, there is a chance that the leader might be killed. And if he is killed, then that's a victory medal for your opponent as well as a bit of a kick in the teeth to your battle plans.

Another simple little rule expressing period flavour and enforcing appropriate tactics, the support rule means that a unit with 2 friendly units in adjacent hexes can ignore the first retreat. The effect of this rule on play is to make isolated units and those on your flanks much more likely to break and run. This is particularly important in reducing the effects of missile fire to harassing fire and thus leaving the main basis of your assault to your harder hitting close combat units. All to the good it seems to me.

Ranged attacks
As befits a game whose subject is the clash of arms between massed ranks of fighters, ranged attacks in C&C:A are more limited than they are in M44. In a nutshell, only light units may make ranged attacks; they always roll 1 dice if they moved or 2 dice if they didn't; and ranged attacks can never count sword or leader hits. There are a couple of minor tweaks based on unit type- the main one being that dedicated missile units have a longer range than the rest, but otherwise the ranged attack rules are that simple.

The effect of these rules is to relegate missile fire to harassing attacks best used against the flanks of the enemy. Bringing your missile troops into the centre of the battlefield to make more serious attacks on the enemy line is certainly possible, but the vagaries of cardplay make this an unreliable tactic. And, of course, those pesky missile troops will then usually be in the way of your advancing battleline!

Retreats are both potentially more dangerous and less likely in C&C:A than in M44. This is because each unit retreats its full movement allowance per flag instead of the 1 hex/flag of M44. At the same time, the penalty for being unable to retreat remains 1 block per hex that cannot be retreated. The result of this is that highly mobile units like light cavalry can easily be wiped out by a couple of flags forcing them to retreat 8 hexes and bringing them quickly up against their board edge.

At the same time, the rules for leaders and for support mean that most units in a battleline will ignore the first flag, so this tweak to the retreat rules will typically only scupper isolated units, or units on the open flanks, and evasion will often save those units in any case. Otherwise, if units do end up being forced to retreat then your carefully marshalled lines are going to get untidy pretty quickly.

Another key rule differentiating C&C:A from M44, the evasion rules represent the often crucial tactic of the period- namely falling back in front of enemy charges that would otherwise utterly destroy your units. In C&C:A light units may always evade. Heavier mounted units can evade units which are heavier/less mobile than themselves, eg. heavy cavalry can evade foot units, heavy chariots or elephants, but not light or medium cavalry.

The evasion rules are quite simple in play: the attacker announces their attack; the defender declares if the target unit will evade; then the battle dice are rolled, but only hits based on unit type are counted- ie. no swords, flags or leader hits; then the evading unit must move 2 hexes back towards its own map edge. Evading is a key manoeuvre to prevent fast cavalry units from being destroyed by retreat results. Evasion is also useful because it prevents the attacker from advancing after combat and maybe getting another attack on your battleline.

Battling back
Another rule utterly definitive of C&C:A's period flavour, this rule allows units that didn't evade and which weren't forced to retreat to battle back against the unit that has just attacked them. There is no limit to how many times a unit can battle back in one turn, thus making it quite possible for prodigious feats of heroism by a lone unit when the dice decide to go to extremes.

There is little that need be said about this really: it makes perfect sense given the scale of the battles and the nature of the combat represented in C&C:A. Some people have complained about the absence of this rule in M44. I believe such criticisms are mistaken. But the absence of such a rule in C&C:A would've completely vitiated the game's claims to authenticity.

Thanks perhaps largely to the exploits of Hannibal, elephants are as representative a feature of the ancient period in the popular imagination as are the Roman legions. So I don't think it's excessive to suggest that C&C:A is as liable to be judged by its rules for these unpredictable beasts as for the authenticity of its application of Borg's basic system.

I have to say that C&C:A's elephant rules look splendid. They are fragile- with only 2 blocks- but they ignore all sword hits, plus 1 hit and 1 flag against other mounted units, to represent the way they unnerved horses. In the attack they roll as many dice against a unit as that unit itself rolls in battle, with the addition that they take all sword results and roll them again for possible extra damage. (And yes, this does mean that a single elephant unit could- theoretically at least- roll an infinite number of dice in one battle! Of course the practical limit to that is that no unit has more than 4 blocks.) Then they can advance and battle again. The prospects for carnage against say, heavy infantry, are positively mouth-watering!

On top of that, if an elephant unit is forced to retreat, it immediately rampages. An elephant rampage is a free attack against each and every adjacent unit, friendly or enemy. And as if that wasn't enough, if an elephant unit's retreat is blocked, the blocking units suffer a hit for each hex the elephant unit is unable to retreat. Again, rules that promise moments of great entertainment even if they might prove occasionally very painful.

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