Many years ago, when I was a member at boardgamegeek, I wrote a review of the GMT game Commands & Colors: Ancients by Richard Borg. I found the review again recently, and thought I would post it here. This was written in 2007, and as it refers to another user's review of C&C:A on the boardgamegeek site, and to the online play yahoo group, I've linked to those places within the text.
Otherwise, apart from adding a photo, I've not changed the review at all. I hope you enjoy it!
Just when you thought we didn't need another C&C:A review...
Anyone who follows the Commands and Colors forum threads may already know that I am a fan of this game. I have rattled on about this and that, defended it here and there, encouraged people to try it, and added my tuppence to discussions on various aspects of the game, its play, and its variants.
Why then write a review? There are plenty here already, and by people of far more import in the gaming universe than me: so what is the point?
Basically, this game fascinates me.
I have thought fairly deeply about it over a long period of time. I have played close to a hundred matches, toyed with variants, and to my great good fortune participated in tournaments which have given me the opportunity to closely observe the play of many different opponents, some of whom I would class as masters of the game.
So what am I going to say that is different from what has been said before, and how am I going to keep this out of the realms of fan-boyism?
As a first step I’d like to look at some of the game’s flaws, and at one or two of the things that are sometimes - and in my view erroneously - perceived as flaws.
The scoring system is faulty.
As Garysax noted in his review, the scoring system can lead to a “prey on the weak” situation. In order to get the required number of banners it is often tempting to go for the “easiest kills”, which usually means attacking auxilia with heavy or medium infantry, or cutting off retreat routes for cavalry or light infantry and slamming into them with a powerful unit.
This is not a problem as far as the game goes, but it is a problem as far as trying to give a sense of history goes. Historically, the usual tactic was to engage the main body of the enemy infantry in an attempt to inflict as close to a catastrophic defeat on the foe as one could manage.
To compound this, there is no distinction in the victory conditions between destroying a unit of light infantry and destroying a unit of heavy infantry. Both count the same, even though historically the heavy infantry were far more valuable than the light.
How does one get around this? The simplest solution is to not worry about the historical aspects and just treat it as a game. This, however, is not always entirely satisfactory if one wants to be able to maintain the suspension of disbelief.
In practice, I have found that most games are decided by the clash of infantry, but the chance of dissatisfaction is there, and is usually more marked in the larger scenarios. Nevertheless, the preliminary skirmishing does not usually lead to a victory unless one is prepared to get to grips with the main enemy line at some stage. It is also perhaps appropriate to bear in mind that ancient armies did not usually fight to the last man, despite what happened at Thermopylae. Things usually turned to rout and pursuit fairly soon after the issue had been decided.
As an aside, it can be a disadvantage in the endgame if one has gained most of one’s banners from the weaker units. It is sound play to win the battle first and worry about winning the game later.
In summary, the scoring system can be legitimately criticized, but I do not see it as a game-breaker. If you have noticed a trend towards bloodless victories, add an extra banner or two to the victory conditions, play scenarios where this situation does not arise, or - better yet - give your opponent a sound thrashing through the heavies and force a rethink of strategy.
The game is not historical enough.
This one has exercised a few people, and there are a few ways in which the game falls short. Comments include: a player will not learn anything of much significance about the historical battles through C&C; the game does not effectively model command and control; the troop-types are too generic; there are not enough modifiers; battles do not usually play out as they did historically; the game is too light, etc.
All of these criticisms can be backed up by valid points, but they can often be deflected with valid points, also. C&C:A can be thought to suffer in terms of historicity by comparison to heavier games such as the Great Battles of History series. That is partly true, but I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that a complicated system does not necessarily make for better history. It might get you closer to the historical result, but in order to do so certain biases have to be built into the game, and for this period there are some rather large gaps in the historical record, which means that the more detailed one wishes to be the more guesswork one has to employ.
I do not wish to condemn attempts to add appropriate complexity, but would like to say that while such-and-such a tactical system might seem to model the Roman legion brilliantly, we are still mostly walking about with our eyes half shut.
C&C:A is not attempting to function as a working model of ancient combat. It is a game and it makes no pretence to be otherwise. It’s just one of those things we have to take or leave. Some people will not find this to be a problem, others will. Still, in my view there is no need for fans of the system to have to nurse an inferiority complex on this account.
The game is too reliant on luck.
This is a comment which comes about now and again. There is some merit to it as games occasionally are decided by luck, but this is rarer than one might think. Skill is the major factor, and I say that after playing many games against many opponents of different levels of experience and ability.
No move is taken in isolation; everything hinges on what has gone before and what one knows or anticipates will come in the future. The clearly better player will win 80-90% of the time, in my experience. Between nearly equal opponents luck will have more of a say, but the better player will still win more often than not.
My advice would be to study the rules, plan some tactics, and play more games.
Well, with some of the more commonly mentioned flaws addressed, it’s time to move on to why I find the game so fascinating.
This game is very deep. The rules are simple, but so are those of chess. When everything is put together in combination, the possibilities are endless. Different players have distinct styles, and it is a great challenge to find a method to counter those individual styles and the way that those styles naturally develop with time and experience.
As a case in point, one tournament I came up against BGG user Zatopek in a best of three series using Don Clarke’s Scenario X system. Zatopek’s army was highly manoeuverable, composed mainly of light troops and camelry, with some auxilia for bulk. Opposing it I had 2MI, 3MC, 1LI and 6 auxilia. I knew that my MI would never get into contact against his army. He would stand back, pick me off with his shooting and wait for an opportune moment to bring his camelry into play for the decisive blow.
I lost the first game, and spent a long time thinking about how best to counter these tactics. I hit upon an unusual method, which took him by surprise. He was flustered for a time but my auxilia could not land the killing blow. Finally he let fly his camels and took the win.
As a kid I was brought up a chess player. I loved the game but was prone to lapses in concentration at vital moments, and had given up playing seriously. After this series with Zatopek a light switched on in my head: this game also repays study and thought. To that point I had been in the “great fun but it’s not really a serious game” camp. After this I started to see just how great this game could be.
The thing that has turned C&C:A into a grail game for me has been playing in the tournaments organized by the tireless Bill Bennett . The game takes on a new life in a competitive environment. When a game means something it forces a different approach, raises the stakes, and increases the tension. When competitive play is matched with the theme and game value of C&C:A it makes for a compelling formula. I find something missing now when playing a ‘friendly’; I really need that competition to bring out the best in the game and in me as a player.
There have also been a number of innovations brought about through Bill’s yahoo group. As mentioned, Don Clarke has put together the Scenario X game generation system in which players choose armies, select their units from the army list, and have at it. It is brilliant and lends itself well to tournament play. Each army has its own character, and when that is combined with the styles of the various players it makes for some enthralling games. I cannot recommend it enough.
Another innovation organized by Bill is the posting of VASSAL logfiles on the yahoo group. This makes it possible to review games played and increases the knowledge base of the entire community. It is an excellent learning tool.
Mainly, I hope that I have achieved my earlier stated objectives of saying something different and of avoiding the fan-boy trap.
If you are reading this you have probably already made up your mind about C&C:A, and may well have already played it. If you have played it and are ambivalent, I would urge you to give the game some more time and thought before letting its perceived flaws put you off.