Sunday, May 5, 2013

Commands & Colors: Napoleonics Review

Commands & Colors: Napoleonics was released in 2010 by GMT Games and was designed by Richard Borg.  It was the 4th game in the Commands & Colors series I've played, if you count Battles of Westeros.  I snatched it up in 2012 because I was worried about it going out of print like so many of the Commands & Colors: Ancients releases have.  I wasn't intending to play it immediately, nor did I have much interest in the Napoleonic era.  I just craved more GMT based Commands & Colors.

But still, I stickered the blocks, I read the rules, and then I was dying to play it.  Then I started reading up on some Napoleonic history.  Before I knew it I had completely shelved Ancients (for the time being), so I could play through all the scenarios in this game.  It is remarkable to me how relatively minor rule changes, over top a strong set of core mechanics, can completely alter the character of a game.  Napoleonics plays almost identically to Ancients, but with enough chrome tweaked to reflect an entirely different epoch.

Rule Summary

Players start by selecting a scenario.  They then choose sides, and begin to set up the scenario as depicted.  Terrain and units will be place on the board, units consisting of 3 or more blocks.  Leaders will be placed on the board, either alone or attached to units.  Players will also get a square track, to keep note of which infantry units have formed a square against cavalry attack.  After this players will draw their starting hand of command cards, and they are ready to play.

On a player's turn, they will play a command card, and then order the units they are entitled to command by that card.  Ordering a unit consist of announcing which units you are ordering.  You may then move with some or all of them.  Then you choose to attack with some or all of them.  Most infantry units can move a single space and attack, whereas most cavalry units move 2 or 3 spaces and may attack.  Artillery units usually may move or attack.

To attack units roll dice to determine hits.  Units typically roll dice equal to the number of blocks in the unit.  Units also have diminished attacks when they move and fire.  The dice have 2 infantry sides, 1 cavalry, 1 artillery, and then 1 flag and 1 crossed swords.  Ranged attacks only hit if the symbol matches the target unit.  The crossed swords will only count in melee.  Flags cause the targeted unit to run away.

Napoleonics has numerous special rules to reflect the period.  Most infantry may advance onto a vacated hex after an attack.  Cavalry may advance, move an additional hex, and get a bonus attack!  Artillery may combine their fire with a friendly unit engaged in melee with a enemy.  And lastly, infantry may form a square against attacking cavalry.  Forming a square reduces all attacks to a single die, and always gives the infantry the first roll.  However the defending player must give up a card from his hand for as long as that unit remains in a square.

Terrain typically imposes attack penalties, giving the defending unit an advantage.  Terrain frequently stops movement as well.  Many times specific terrain features can be held for points in certain scenarios.  Also, leaders, the support of adjacent units, and frequently elite status, will allow units to ignore flag results when attacked.

Going back to points, players earn a point every time they completely eliminate a unit.  They play to a set number of points as defined in the scenario.  Once a player has acquired enough points for victory, play immediately stops and they are the winner.

Timelapse of play

How accessible is the game to new players?

Napoleonics has roughly the same learning curve as Ancients.  Which is to say, it has very simple core mechanics, but with a great deal of nuance.  Probably the most nuance yet.  It's probably the Commands & Colors title that strays closest to being a more rules heavy capital W, "Wargame".  Learning the game, I had to read the manual again after each session, while it was fresh in my mind.  This way I was able to catch a lot of small rules that I had previously missed.  Like the fact that terrain penalties will reduce attack dice rolled against infantry in square to zero.  Or the fact that when a river stops movement, it also stops advances, and cavalry breakthroughs.

Despite doing that however, 20 players later, I still discover new rules that I just never encountered before.  Small things that are easy to gloss over, which only actually occur once and then likely never again.  Like the fact that leaders attached to units in a square aren't allowed to leave until after the unit comes out of the square.  Or that units in a square cannot receive support from neighboring units.  Or that cavalry attacking squares, and infantry in squares never under any circumstances ever receive bonus attack dice.

Actually, most every rule nuance I miss has to do with infantry in a square.  It's an incredibly fiddly mechanic riddled with exceptions, layered on top of exceptions, layered on top of even more exceptions.  But I suppose the good news is, I've never felt that the gameplay suffered when we didn't play infantry squares 100% correctly.

Despite the complexity, the rules are great.  As is typical of GMT, the rules are well organized, and generally well written.  You will be able to quickly find any rule you are trying to locate, thanks to obvious section headers and bullet point lists.  They also have plenty of large examples to illustrate their points.

What is this nonsense?
The reference material however is abysmal.  You get one 4 page reference sheet with 1 page blank, the inner 2 pages with an overblown count of the command cards, and the last page devoted to terrain.  The inner pages are especially wasted, since they contain pictures of every command card, yet with text too small to easily read.  Other Commands & Colors reference material has just had a quick list of the command cards.  A two page spread is simply clutter and overkill.

Then the unit reference material is equally awful.  Each player receives a pair of 4 page unit references.  The fronts and the backs are identical.  The insides have a 2 page spread of either the French or the British & Allied units.  But it gets worse!  How far a unit moves is only listed on the inside of the reference material.  How many dice they get to roll in the most readable and condensed format is only listed on the back side of the reference material.  This causes you to constantly shuffle reference material around to do even the most simple actions of moving and shooting!  It's a pain.

What could have been done better?

So it turns out, if you purchase one of the expansion packs, either the Spanish or the Russians, it comes with much better reference material.  They managed to fit all the unit's values on a single double sided, single page reference sheet.  It's fantastic.  The bad news is that it's in the expansions.  Now you can also get the PDFs off GMT's website here and I would strongly encourage you to use that reference instead.  Because the reference material that comes with the game actually hurts the playability of it.

That's more like it!

How does the new player versus old player match up go?

The Napoleonic era was an especially brutal one as it turns out.  More than any other Commands & Colors setting, I find this one the hardest to mount an effective assault.  The game is simply unforgiving.  New players in most other Commands & Colors series could recklessly throw troops against a strong position.  They wouldn't win doing that, but they would at least earn a few points on the way.  In Napoleonics, if a player were the try that, it wouldn't be uncommon for them to not only lose, but fail to earn a single point.  So it tends to be extremely hostile to new players.

In fact, just in general, Napoleonics seems to have a very steep tactical learning curve.  I was feeling quite comfortable with Ancients about 4 or 5 games in.  Memoir 44 was downright transparent.  But almost 20 games into Napoleonics, and I still find myself wondering how to effectively utilize certain units.  What is the proper response to certain recurring situations?  I seem to routinely find myself unsure of the proper tactical move in this game, even after a great many plays.  Not just confused about the best of two options, but completely baffled.

What could have been done better?

One of my favorite things that GMT has done with other games is include a brief strategy primer.  Or sometimes a play example that goes over the first few turns of a game and uses it as an opportunity to go over strategy and tactics.  Twilight Struggle and Washington's War both have them, and they are fantastic.  I'm not sure the Commands & Colors series needed them before, but I do think Napoleonics could use one now. The tactical space is sufficiently nuanced that a play example or a quick list of strategy tips would be fantastic.

I think it's the first Commands & Colors where I didn't immediately have a good time just pushing blocks around and rolling dice.  Your attacks can be rendered so completely ineffective by poor tactics.  More so than any other Commands & Colors I think.  And the player on defense doesn't need to do quite as much to make that happen either.  At least during the early, learning stages of the game.

What are the feelings the game evokes and why?

Maybe if I pin them down with my cavalry my
light infantry and artillery can punch a hole!
Ancients feels like a dance with your opponent.  Memoir 44 sometimes feels like navigating a maze, trying to find the cheese.  But Napoleonics reminds me of trying to find the stud in a wall.  You have all this wall in front of you, and you keep sounding it attempting to find the right spot for the hammer.  That is Napoleonics.

You will see this impenetrable wall of musket fire and defensive terrain in front of you.  And your job is to poke and prod that line until you can find the weak point.  The spot you can pour your troops through without them getting massacred halfway there.  It takes time.  It takes patience.  You can't get flustered, and you can't get reckless.  You need to wait, and hold, and bombard with artillery as much as you can until an opportunity presents itself.

Because Napoleonics gets bloody fast.  In general the scenarios are fought to higher flag counts than other Commands & Colors settings.  And the casualties pile up faster, and units are rendered useless quite quickly.  Because units roll dice proportional to their blocks.  After one or two hits, the effectiveness of that unit is severely diminished, and it's best to evacuate them.

Didn't work!  Run away!
The nationalities also have a much more distinct feel to them.  The British have more elite units, with powerful ranged bonuses.  But their forces are typically saddled with inferior Allied squads.  Contrasted against the British, the French have very standardized units, better cavalry, and superior numbers usually.

One other thing that I really appreciate is how balanced the scenarios are, once you know how to play well.  Many of the games we played came down to just a single flag or two, or just needing one more turn.  Only a single mission was a one sided slaughter, and that is because it challenges you to employ an unorthodox strategy, and I believe I failed to perceive that.

What could have been done to make the game more enjoyable?

The one thing that would have greatly improved my enjoyment of Commands & Colors: Napoleonics is if it had a better narrative.  The scenarios just aren't strung together too well.  It's often confusing what events happened between battles that caused these enormous shifts.  The pursuer will become the pursued.  The British will be in the middle of pressing a decisive advantage, then suddenly be retreating.  It feels like you are missing a lot of the story.  Story which for me got filled in by reading books like The History of Napoleon Buonaparte by J. G. Lockhart, as well as The Life of Horatio Lord Nelson by Robert Southey.  They aren't the most objective narratives of the Napoleonic wars, but they are free, and they patch up the holes left by the Napoleonics scenario guide.

The other thing I was let down by was an enormous lack of Napoleon.  He doesn't show up until the very last scenario, Waterloo.  I may have been naive, but in a game called Commands & Colors: Napoleonics, I expected more Napoleon.  Although it's a testament to the quality of the game that this odd absence of the titular Emperor didn't actively detract from my enjoyment.  It just could have been better.

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

I feel like Napoleonics might be the most strategic Commands & Colors title.  It seems to me that positioning has much more absolute value than in the other titles.  A couple things cause this.  First, the usual terrain advantages that are often afforded a defender.  But second, and the more significant factor, is that moving and firing is prohibitively expensive.  Most units roll only 2 dice if they move and fire at full strength.  Add in terrain modifiers, and a unit can be lucky to move and fire against a target with a single die!  Meanwhile, they open themselves up to a punishing return volley, at full standing strength no less. Or perhaps a brutal melee if the target comes out of cover on their next turn.  Now the units you were hoping to take that hill with are at half strength, if they survived at all!  No longer can you just throw units at a fortified position until you wear it down.

In the scenario the British have to make their way across a river,
through a forest, and up a hill!
To illustrate just how powerful terrain can be, in one game I managed to take a hill with a Portuguese unit.  It took 2 hits taking the hill however, and was an easy target.  I was then presented with an opportunity  through the Rally card, to either heal two infantry units 1 block, and command them both to attack.  I could also heal my Portuguese unit to full strength, and keep it on the hill.  Much to my opponents surprise, I chose the Portuguese on the hill.  That single unit held back a considerable number of French troops.  Just the threat of him on that hill, and the potential cost in French units, held the entire French flank at bay.  Don't forget that because I'll be returning to this example later.

The other thing that jumps out about Napoleonics is that combined arms tactics are no longer just a good idea, but required.  You absolutely need to use your Cavalry to tie up Infantry in a square, so that other units may close in.  You must employ your artillery to weaken the attack point, and possibly employ combined arms fire on the final push.  Neglecting these facets of the game will far more often than not result in failure.

So continuing my example, once I had my Portuguese on the hill, I charged in with Cavalry to pin down the French infantry.  With the French pinned down, I took my time advancing the rest of my infantry past the hill, into volley range of the French.  Just as my Cavalry were finally thrown off the French, my infantry fell on them and ended the battle.

I love this card
The command deck has a lot of the usual Commands & Colors cards.  A good balance of flank and center cards, and plenty of tactics.  First Strike reappears with 2 cards against the usual 1, and many of the staple tactics cards have been renamed appropriately.  One thing worth pointing out about the tactics cards is that they are more similar to Memoir 44 than Ancients.  All the adjacency requirements have been dropped.  This strongly deemphasizes formations.  No longer will you be trying to keep your units in a complete lines.  You will cling to cover more often, and operate in smaller groups.  One thing the tactics cards do differently however, is give strong bonuses to elite units and units with leaders.  This places an odd emphasis on leading a charge with leaders and crack troops.

I also want to call attention to one card in specific, Le Grande Maneuver.  I didn't understand how to use this card, until I read about Napoleon's amazing feints.  He would make it appear that his army was marching one way.  One the enemy was lured out, he would then strike at their exposed flank.  This card perfectly captures that, if you use it correctly.  There is no better feeling than luring an enemy in, then shifting your entire front away from them, and into their soft underbelly.  And they know there is nothing they can do to recover from it in time.

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

Most of the weight of the dilemmas in this game come from the fear of a botched assault.  So players will constantly be angling to get the best possible odds, with the least risk to themselves.  The fantastic thing about Commands & Colors in general, but especially Napoleonics, is the constantly shifting tactical field.  Even the smallest troop movements have large implications.  A players most immediate concern will be weighing the potential hits they can dish out against the hits they anticipate taking in return.

But going more broad, players will constantly be trying to find the right battleground.  One player will want the battle to take place with their opponent having to march across a river and up a hill towards them.  The other player wants to try to catch them in open ground with cavalry.  And they will constantly wrestle around this issue, attempting to force their opponent to meet them on their chosen ground.  Usually by presenting a growing threat that is better to face now than later.

The tactics cards present some of the most fascinating dilemmas.  They all allow you to defy standard expectations in some way.  Move extra far, launch a more powerful volley, heal your troops, command units in multiple sections.  Many times your final push will involve one or more of these special cards chained together in what you hope will be an unstoppable offensive.  But just as often, you will have held onto that Mounted Charge too long.  Next thing you know, all your cavalry have been killed or maimed, and it's useless.

Why are the dilemmas so good?

What really makes the dilemmas in this game so tense and so exciting is the powerful standing ranged fire.  Playing this game you will just picture in you mind this constantly shifting kill zone extending out from every infantry unit.  The more infantry, the worse the picture is.  You know marching straight at them is suicide.  So you have to get creative.  Sometimes very creative.  And you opponent has to do the same thing.

Don't enter the blue are unless you have something special up your sleeve!

And Napoleonics has all the emergence I've come to know and love about Commands & Colors.  It doesn't need a rule explicitly giving you a flanking bonus.  It's already the best thing to do because the enemy can't respond with as much return fire.  The flank sections frequently emerge as the first battlegrounds, because of how quickly the center can turn into a deathtrap due to the flanks turning inward to support it.  So it just makes sense to try to strip away the enemy's flanks, and only then surround the center.

Over all it's lighter on rules than other wargames.  While other wargames would use excessive exceptions (also called chrome) to force historical tactics on the players, in Commands & Colors they typically emerge organically.

Why just last week, we played a scenario, Quatre Bras.  Normally we read the scenario introduction before we play, but this time we forgot.  Once we finished the scenario, we were curious how it turned out historically.  Reading over the summary, it got increasingly uncanny how closely our play matched history.  Doing what seemed to be the most pragmatic things open to us, we almost perfectly recreated the historical narrative.  What made it all the more amazing, is that the scenario had no special rules to try to force that on us.

Now that I've said all that, there are some areas I feel they tried too hard.  Some of the rules are rather explicit.  Infantry forming a square, as well as artillery combined arms fire both come off as uncharacteristically heavy handed for a Commands & Colors title.  Forming a square very much feels like the "anti-cavalry" rule.  I'm not used to seeing such explicit "anti" anything rules in Commands & Colors.  But even so, forming a square has some very interesting emergent strategies that come out of tying up infantry, making them vulnerable to combined arms, and depriving your opponent of command cards.

Physical component design and limitations?

The blocks in Napoleonics are larger than the blocks used for Ancients.  I've said it before, but I love the blocks used in these games.  There is something extremely satisfying about how it feels to push them around.  They are clean, simple, and easy to move and manipulate.  Unlike figures which always seem to get stuck on each other, bend, warp, fall over, and other minor nuisances.

No more confusion!

The blocks are labelled better now too!  Every unit will clearly be either infantry, cavalry or artillery based on it's block shape.  But now the units will say if they are line, light, guard, heavy, rifle, or other unit types.  No more confusion!  No more squinting to see if that light infantry is holding a javelin or a sling!  Plus the artwork is very evocative of the era.  And the command cards, as usual, are of the highest quality.

What could have been better?

I've already ragged on the quality of the reference sheets amply.  But one other area which could use improvement is the scenario guide.  One shift from Ancients is that in Napoleonics, units can have wildly different starting strengths.  No longer does every infantry unit have 4 blocks as in Ancients.  The British rifle infantry start off with a meager 3 blocks.  Where as the British light infantry begin with a whopping 5 blocks! The cavalry are similarly varied.

One of the better things I've seen pop up on fan sites, such as, are scenario guides which list how many blocks go into each unit printed right on the map.  It's remarkable how much this speeds up the game, especially when you are first starting.  And sometimes even for veteran players when you see a unit you don't use often, like militia.

Long term prospects?

Some games you just know you can play forever.  Commands & Colors: Ancients was my first lifetime game.  Recently I discovered X-Wing, and was similarly enamored.  I approached Napoleonics somewhat hesitantly.  I wasn't sure what to expect, but I knew there was no way it could be as good as Ancients.  Well I was wrong.  It took me a solid 6 months to play through every scenario, a few multiple times.  Two player wargame time is hard to come by for me.  And the conclusion that I've reach is that Napoleonics is easily every bit the amazing game that Ancients is, if a bit heavier on the chrome.

The depth of strategy, the swiftness of play, and the strong evocation of the era all come through loud and clear in Napoleonics.  There is no greater feeling than having traded blow for blow with an opponent.  Both of you playing perfectly timed tactics.  Both of you rolling amazing well, and terribly poorly.  Then at the very end of the scenario, you are both so close, just hoping you get one more turn, but satisfied with a battle well fought if you don't.

Napoleonics is so good, I've actually already ordered all the expansions, or preordered in some cases.  I have no clue when I'll get to the 60+ other scenarios this series will eventually encompass.  But I know I've got all the time in the world to, and I look forward to it.

1 comment:

  1. good review. i would pretty much agree with everything. the tactics are complex and subtle.

    "What could have been done better?"
    well sorry but the web seems a much better place for things like this now. anything you print would be dated quickly and not very expansive.

    I recently applied this ruleset to a large 120 battalion battle and it works very well. Better than traditional tape measure rules me thinks.