Abraham and I sat down to play a game of Commands and Colors Ancients, the Richard Borg designed wargame – with the emphasis on ‘game’ – produced with loving care by GMT Games. First, we set up the scenario: Akragas (406 BCE). This pits a heavy infantry dominated Syracusan army against a rag-tag mix of mostly Auxilia and light infantry of the Himilco led Carthaginian army. Although I have played the game quite extensively, and this scenario very often, I don’t have strong views on balance. (This is something I will come back to.) I suggested we play the sides matching the way we were sitting at the table, so I took the Syracusans and Abraham took the Carthaginians.
The board, overlaid with hexagons, is divided into left, center and right sectors. It is plain, though there are terrain tiles to be used as overlays for some of the scenarios. The game is card driven; each side starts with a hand of Command Cards and may play one (and act on it) in that side’s turn. Typically a Command Card may activate units in a sector. For example: “Order Two Units Right”. However, there’s a fair variety of the Command Cards going well beyond that simple formula, and they give the game one of its main strengths: the wonderful combination of fog-of-war, surprise and the need to make tough decisions about cards to play, cards to hold and cards to fear.
There’s an element of luck, which in this game works. For example, even when the odds are against you, this is one game you will want to fight on because there’s a real chance of you pulling off a surpise result. Enough of a chance to add an edge to the entertainment.
With the Command Card chosen, that side may move units and then “Battle” (ranged combat and close combat) before refilling its hand. It’s a fun game engine.
The playing pieces are blocks of wood with gorgeous stickered art showing the various units. Four blocks are an infantry unit, three are a cavalry unit, two a chariot unit and one a leader or elephant. (Sometimes, you may feel the command performance is such that it is difficult to tell the difference in the single block category.) In combat the attacking player rolls dice and scores a hit if the symbol shown matches the symbol of the target unit – light, medium or heavy. There are nifty tweaks so that, for example, in close combat a “sword” symbol is a universal hit, and a leader backed unit causes damage if the leader symbol turns up. The system varies the dice rolled for different units and circumstances, and there’s a deceptively simple evade rule which offers a nice tactical wrinkle. Retreats can be troublesome. I’m obviously only going to scratch the surface here, but do want to emphasise that it is a game with a lot more depth than it is sometimes credited. And it is fun. That is certainly worth emphasising.
Elimination of a unit or a leader results in the awarding of a Banner to the opposing side, and the winner is the side to acquire the requisite number.
After explaining the rules, the major investment Abraham had to make was reading the Command Cards. He did a good job.
I started with an advance on the right. This faltered when I ran out of Command Cards for that flank. And, just at the right time, Abraham sent his Auxilia and light troops on a suicide mission. They advanced up the middle. It turned out, however, that the suicide concerned was going to affect my troops. Just as the first of my heavy infantry was about to get stuck in, Abraham played a Command Card that allowed him to intervene and strike first. he wiped out my heavy infantry unit and there was now a bloody great gap in my line. My cavalry probed, and my supporting troops scored a success or two. But, Abraham kept his cool and held on for a 5-3 win, though – frustratingly – I was only one turn away from getting to the winning total myself!
And so back to play balance. Because the game is so fast playing, balance should never be an issue; just play the game twice, once as each side. But even if you cannot be bothered, among less than expert players (and I am no expert) my experience is that the scenarios in this first game are eminently winnable by either side. Incidentally, there are 10 battles in the box, 5 expansion games released to date (including a mega sized Epic supplement for really big battles) and another expansion on the way. It’s not difficult to play, though there are some points of detail to be aware of and a careful reading of the rulebook is recommended.
This is one of the best game series in my collection and given Abraham enjoyed it and others have expressed an interest, I am looking forward to playing it again.