Sunday, February 24, 2013

Commands & Colors: Ancients, Part 2

Long term strategy, short term strategy, both or neither?

In terms of trying to concretely plan ahead, I'd have to say this game rewards thinking ahead about two or three turns.  Three turns is just the most you can really count on.  One turn to prepare.  One turn to launch the attack.  Then one more turn to try to follow up with that attack if they aren't destroyed or driven off in a counter attack.

Longer term planning can be helpful.  Getting all your troops into a mutually supporting formation or good terrain for the assault you know must be coming never hurts.  And it always helps to have a vague awareness of how many troops you want in each section, and trying to maintain cards in your hand to command them.  But that comes down to more of an intuitive feel for the game than anything you can discretely logic out.

In the short term, the positioning of your troops and the order in which you attack can have profound implications.  I'd say the bulk of the strategy is in the short term pairing up of troops to assault one another, the order you choose to execute their attacks.  I've seen even the best laid plans fall apart because someone allowed the enemy to escape before their strongest attacks could be brought to bare.  Which often results in a crushing counter attack.

What could be done to enhance the strategy?

In the short term strategy, I have to say nothing.  I've seen other games experiment with different methods of simulating command and control limitations, to unsatisfying results.  Battles of Westeros did away with sections completely, instead relying entirely upon leaders.  The downside to this was that once a player lost a leader, they game was pretty much entirely sunk.  But then Commands & Colors games that don't include leaders tend to get bogged down in the frustration of not having the correct section card.

The command deck in Ancients, more than any other Commands & Colors genre game is expertly crafted.  You have significant odds of having a card in your hand to allow you to command someone in any section, in some way.  There are cards that allow you to command via section.  Cards that allow you command via class.  Cards that allow you to command via type.  Cards that allow you to command via leaders.  And then there are cards that allow you to command any adjacent group.  The array of command options is extremely diverse and flexible.  Plus, any short comings in your command cards can usually be overcome by clever positioning of units, or hand management.

For the class of games that attempts to restrict your command and control abilities, I find this to be the perfect implementation.  It's the perfect mix of rigidity and flexibility.  And it keeps it simple.  Another game which uses a command deck to simulate command and control limitations is Combat Commander.  And while I may cover that game in more depth, I find its further breaking down of commands takes things a bit too far.  In Commands & Colors, a single card allows you to move, fire and attack with between 2 troops, or an entire line of infantry.  In Combat Commander, you play multiple cards per turn, which will together make up a series of orders, or enhance orders by attaching actions to them.  It's a fascinating system which I enjoy.  But it creates a very slow, bogged down feel.

What area that I think could have used improvement is positioning.  Positioning is only important relative to other units in most scenarios in this game.  This contrast heavily with other war games where positioning can have an absolute value, such as when certain positions provide additional resources, defensiveness, or victory points.  In fact, how terrain shapes the battlefield in general is severely under played in Ancients.  However, as I understand it, this is more a reflection of how the ancient battles were fought, and not a conscious choice on the game designers part.  Ancient generals usually preferred wide open plains where the maneuvers of their armies were more effective, or that had natural barriers covering their flanks.  Still, I feel something could have been done to game up positioning to have a more strategic influence.  I have to go back to Combat Commander, where exiting a unit off the opponents side of the battlefield earns you victory points, plus you get the unit back as reinforcements in the future.

Are the dilemmas the player is presented with of sufficient quality?

As I've hinted at already, this game presents some high quality tactical and strategic problems.  The correct answers take a long time to learn and master.  Analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of the opponents battle line takes a lot of practice.  Learning how to exploit the weakness of your opponent with you own strength, while denying them the same opportunity take even more practice.

What is most satisfying is there are rarely cut and dry right and wrong decisions in this game.  Just consequences and trade offs.  It's not always the best thing to evade every attack just because you can.  It's not always the best thing to ignore retreats just because you are able.  Sometimes you don't want to advance your units to maintain a line of command, or you fear over extended your troops.  Sometimes you do want to advance to cover more ground or get bonus attacks.  Every decision has reasons to go either way, and it depends on how they mesh with your overall strategy that will determine your answer to them.

There are also numerous powerful command cards, and you agonize over finding the right time to use them.  Many times you may find yourself having waited too long, and the best chance you were going to get has passed you by.

What could be done to improve on the quality of dilemma?

Once again, nothing near as I can tell.  Other games in the series have experimented with certain abilities, or lack thereof.  Battles of Westeros did away with default battle back, instead only providing it to units that were supported.  Memoir 44 doesn't have it at all.  Neither game has evasion.  As a result, you rarely, if ever, hesitate before attacking.  There is almost never a downside, aside from raw positioning afterwards.  Nor does the other player even have a decision about how they'd like to handle your attack.  They just have to take it.

Additionally, the command cards in other games usually have obvious best choices.  In Battles of Westeros your hand of command cards gets completely depleted between rounds, although you are allowed to carry over a single card.  And in Memoir 44, I've found the best card to play usually rather obvious.

Some games on this scale add more reaction based abilities.  Reaction move, reaction charge, reaction fire.  But these games also tend to drag out into affairs which consume an entire day, maybe even an entire weekend, just to play a single game.  And while I'm sure there are players who love and enjoy those games, they trend more towards the simulations end of the spectrum, and away from the "Lets have a fun evening playing a game" end.  So from a simulation design perspective, I can see the wealth of reaction abilities to be important, from the game design perspective they severely gum up the works.  Have just one or two reaction abilities seems to be the optimum number.  More than that and your opponent can spend an inordinate amount of time debating with themselves on a unit by unit basis how to receive your attack.

Physical component design and limitations?

I've already covered the short comings of the reference material in depth.  So moving beyond that, the units are generally easy to tell apart, manipulate on the board, set up, and store away.  The game uses blocks with stickers applied to both sides.  Frankly, they are a joy to play with.  Plastic figures might look cooler, but in every other way they are more odious to deal with.

Frankly the only gripe I have with the components and the physical limitations is how hard it is to tell certain units apart.  Specifically light infantry from slingers or bowmen.  Also light cavalry from light bow cavalry.  If you aren't paying close attention, you will consistently mix these units up.  The signifying mark for all of them is a green circle.  You must pay close attention to the pictures, which are only about 15mm x 15mm big, to tell them apart.  Some manner of differentiating icon would have greatly aided in this.  Perhaps a bow in the upper left corner.  The sequel to this, Commands & Colors: Napoleonics has done just that in its second printing.

Long Term Prospects?

This is one of the few games I can see myself playing my entire life.  It is definitely in that class of games I could call lifestyle games.  Games like Go or Chess.  Games which are continually enriching learning experiences.  Every time I play a game of Commands & Colors: Ancients, I come away having learned something new about the system.  And the variety of scenarios to choose from is more than adequate.  The base game comes with 15 scenarios as of the latest printing.  And there are a plethora of expansions which add approximately 20 scenarios each.  As of summer 2013 the first three expansions are supposed to be reprinted.

1 comment:

  1. great review... i own both memoir 44 and battle cry because i prefer figurines and my family likes the simpler game play... but the theme of ancient roman warfare is very enticing