Friday, February 22, 2013

Commands & Colors: Ancients, Part 1

Commands & Colors: Ancients came out in 2006 from GMT Games, and was designed by Richard Borg as part of his ever growing Commands & Colors series.  It is one of my favorite games.  I suppose I shouldn't qualify that.  It is my favorite game.  No exceptions.  I've logged over 50 plays, and I can perceive of no point in time where I will have gotten board with it.  But that does not spare it from my critical eye.

Rule Summary

The game begins with a board separated into hexes.  Before each game you will set up one of many historical scenarios included in the rules.  Once set up, the hexes will contain units, leaders, as well as terrain.  Players are dealt a hand of cards they use to order their units and leaders.  Each player will then proceed to play one card per turn, alternating.  Play proceeds until one player has eliminated a number of enemy units or leaders as defined in the scenario.

The board is divided into 3 sections, and the cards will either command units in certain sections, or allow you to command troops in a more flexible manner.  Often utilizing leaders, adjacency,  troop type, or class.  Ordered units may move, and then may attack, but are compelled to do neither.  Units will roll dice to determine hits, and units that survive will often have a chance to return the attack.

How accessible is the game to new players?

On the face of it, this is not a difficult game.  You play a card, and you command the troops that the card allows you to command.  You look up how far the units can move on a chart.  Then you roll dice, also available on the unit chart.

The chart is a problem.  It does frequently overwhelm new players.  Because there are so many different types of units, and so many different columns on the chart.  It comes off as a very intimidating spreadsheet.  The fact there there is a very simple pattern in how the troops abilities progress is not immediately obvious.  And the number of special units you might see once that clutter up the chart increase the intimidation factor greatly.

Other games in the Commands & Colors system have handled this differently.  Memoir 44 and Battles of Westeros (which is sort of not really a Commands & Colors game) both used cards to summarize a unit's abilities.  However, they also have far fewer unit types in the case of Memoir 44, or the units have been genericized as in the case of Battles of Westeros.

Terrain lacks any sort of reference material at all.  However there is usually not very much of it in the scenarios, and usually only one or two types.  Still, it is a thing which can be a turn off.

All in all, the game also has a lot of exceptions to the rules which can be a turn off to most new comers.  However, they are things that make sense when you think about it, or when the rational is explained.  For example, camels and elephants cause cavalry to retreat extra far.  The historical reason for this is that the smells of these animals frequently frightened horses.  The plus side is that all the rules in this game are rooted in a very practical scenario you can imagine.  The downside is that there are a lot of them.

All in all, I'd have to say the game is decidedly unfriendly to new players.  The wealth of obscure reference material, the long lists of rule exceptions that aren't referenced, and other issues severely hamper a new players ability to assess the battlefield situation with any accuracy.

What could be done to fix this?

Many of the issues in reference material come from everything being stated on a case by case basis, as opposed to generalized rules being laid down.

For instance, every single unit, except for siege weapons, has the ability to advance.  So you'd think in the reference material advancing would be a given, and it would only mention the units which cannot advance.  This is not the case sadly.  The same is the case in the reference material for which units can receive support.  It explicitly states which units can, which is nearly all of them, instead of merely stating the 1 or 2 units which cannot.  Worse, it does it by added a footnote reference to every single unit, and then you have to read the itty bitty font of the footnote.

Other issues are the duplication of troops for historical accuracy.  Slingers and Bowmen are identical in all game terms.  This could have been reduced.

There is a basic ranking of units.  Light Infantry, Auxilia, Medium and Heavy.  At the bottom of the list is the weakest unit which rolls 2 dice, and at the top the strongest which rolls 5.  This is a rule which could have been easily memorized.  However the reference material breaks up that simple progression with several special units.  It lists Lights first, then the two types of ranged, Auxilia, then Warriors inserted between Medium and Heavy.  The progression of Cavalry fairs about as well.

Now an astute playing will pick up on these patterns as they learn the game.  Still, it is frustrating to see that process dragged out longer than it need be by shoddy reference material.

How does the new player old player match up go?

As I've said, I've played over 50 games of this.  I recently began playing with someone new, teaching them the game, and slowly making my way through the scenarios.  I've yet to lose.  I always pick the historical underdog, and yet I always win by a landslide.  My tactical experience in the game, combined with my better knowledge of all the various exceptions to the rules creates a rather impenetrable barrier to victory.  The game includes random elements, in form of a card draw and dice rolls.  However I haven't found this to be an adequate equalizing factor between a veteran player and a completely new player.  The illusion of a chance existed in the first few games, but rapidly vanished and gave way to hopelessness and frustration.  What was worse is that the game provides very passive feedback about what you've done wrong.  The learning curve between a brand spanking new player and a player confident in their actions could easily be up to a dozen games.

There are upsides and downsides to this problem.  On the one hand, it proves that the game clearly rewards experience.  This is vital for a long term interest in the game.  However it is extremely punishing for new players to enter into an experienced environment.  It takes significant coaching, advice, and pulling of punches for a new player to feel even vaguely active.  However, once you are over the hump, the experience is extremely rich and rewarding, not unlike Chess or Go.  Although I do not think it is quite as much of a lifestyle game as either of those.

What could be done to fix this?

The new player vs old player problem I don't really view as an issue that needs fixing.  However, speeding up the learning curve is important.  Sadly, in this instance I'm at a loss.

Probably the largest problem facing a new player is the lack of ability to read the battlefield.  This is compounded by poor reference material as I've already mentioned.  But in addition, the slew of passive or reactionary abilities, and the importance of how you arrange your own troops is something you only realize when it's too late.

For example, support, evasion and retreat are all heavily linked.  Most of your troops you will want to support so they can hold their ground.  At the same time, if the worst occurs, you want to leave them a clear avenue of retreat or evasion so as to minimize casualties.  It is the rare unit you want to cut off completely from retreat, to force them to hold their ground and battle back.  Most units will not survive this maneuver.

But this is such an emergent quality of the rules.  It's vital, but it can take upwards of a dozen games to fully understand the importance of it.  All a new player will perceive is that their armies are scattered and dashed against the backside of the board every game, and their opponent can't be caught no matter what.

Like the more advanced concepts of Go, it just takes experience, and the only feedback the game provides is failure, and only the vaguest sense of why.  Because also like Go, the mistakes you made happened so long before the failure became evident that it's hard to connect cause and effect in a meaningful way.

Adjacency is pivotal to this game.  Lots of cards and abilities rely on adjacency to work.  However there is nothing in this game which explicitly causes adjacency   Nothing which forces it on the player so that they can realize for themselves, accidentally, how powerful it is.  A card which rallies and forces movement adjacent to a leader could have been a good starting point for the player to realize more of the intricacies of that core mechanic of the game.  Or perhaps retreat rules which force units to run towards the nearest unit as opposed to the back of the board.  But then you run up against the game playing itself too much, and the smart moves being made for you.  But I do believe some manhandling of the player to force adjacency could have helped aid in this realization.

What are the feelings the game evokes and why?

Commands & Colors: Ancients is a purely adversarial game.  And many adversarial games suffer from a sense of hopelessness on your opponents turn.  They can grind you to dust with impunity, and there is little you can do.  Some games mitigate this with some manner of reaction abilities.  Ancients also mitigates it with some passive benefits to certain troop formations.

Many light and mounted units have an evade ability.  This ability allows them to retreat in an orderly fashion from the opponent's attack, reducing the odds of casualties, but giving ground.  And this is important because it allows you to effectively utilize your lighter units.  Without this rule, even attempting to utilize your light units would be suicide.  But most importantly it preserves a sense of control even on your opponents turn.

The other important feature is the numerous circumstances in which you can ignore a forced retreat, allowing you to hold your ground and battle back.  Certain fortified terrain types, leaders, and the support of nearby troops allow units to ignore one or more flags.  And this allows an even greater sense of control.  You can prepare for your opponents incoming offense, hold your ground, and frequently counter attack to great effect.  Your sense of control is preserved from one turn to the next, and attacks are seen as something to be weathered as opposed to feared.  Even in the face of the greatest threat, you have a chance to benefit.

So the hopelessness factor in this game is quite low for a purely adversarial game.  Still, it being a dice and card game, a sense of frustration can still intrude on the game when you are simply prevented from acting in certain sections of the battlefield due to a lack of command cards.  Hopelessness and frustration also kicks in when you suffer a bad streak of luck with the dice.  Especially in the midst of a master crafted offense where the odds of failure were as low as you could possibly game them, and yet still you failed.

Sadly due to its adversarial nature, with almost 100% certainty, if someone is having a good time, someone else is having a bad time.  Much has been done to mitigate this, but there is only so much that can be done.

What could be done to make the game more enjoyable?

Once again I am at a loss.  The nature of adversarial games is that one player can only prosper at the expense of the other.  It's hard to objectively weigh how well you did.  The game does provide you with one point per enemy you vanquish from the field, and this goes a good ways towards showing how well you did in comparison.  If your opponent wins with 6 points, but you still earned 5, that was an incredibly close game.  But if your opponent handily won, and you were only able to score a single point, what does the game provide you with to let you know you are on the right track?

Worse is when your opponent gets an early lead, possibly destroying your best troops before you can utilize them.  Not only are they now in the lead, but your ability to catch up has been severely hamstrung.  I'm unsure about a fix for this.  It's just too much the nature of the game.  And anything you do to mitigate loses, say with possible reinforcements or simultaneous battles, takes away from the active player, or reduces the effectiveness of any tactical brilliance they displayed.  It reduces the strategic factors of the game by introducing more randomness or forced fairness.  It's very difficult to think of a possible solution to this problem that doesn't fundamentally change the nature of the game.

What is in part 2?

The length and scope of this definitely got away from me.  In part 2 I'll cover whether Ancients rewards long term planning, short term planning, or both.  I'll also cover the sorts of dilemmas the player will see, and the quality of those dilemmas.  I'll take a look at the physical components and their design limitations.  And I'll also touch on the long term prospects for the game.  

I encourage you to leave comments and discuss anything that piqued your interest.  This is a bit new to me, so any thoughts would be welcome.  Until next time.

On to part 2


  1. Re new vs old player: have you thought of handicapping yourself. Impose time limits yourself, or give extra turns of 2:1 or 3:2. I've not played C&CA but if there are points use a multiplier ; 1.1 or 1.2 might work. In chess --I play a lot of chess-- I usually give knight, bishop or rook odds to less experienced players. That means I play with one less knight, bishop or rook. You could play with fewer units.

    1. You know, the handicap that most immediately sprung to mind was to play with fewer command cards and increase my opponents command cards. I haven't tried it yet, but it's subtle enough to not feel like you are radically rebalancing the game, or altering the natural flow of the scenario.