Commands & Colours: Ancients Review

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On rare occasion, I’m inspired to write another review of a game that I’ve already reviewed elsewhere. Such is the case today when I’m going to be taking a fresh look at Commands & Colors: Ancientslargely because my original review was scarily obsessive about looking at its relative merits as a consim rather than by looking at whether it was actually any fun or not. And I’m going to start by pointing out that GMT really need to hire another copy-editor since their existing one has shamelessly left the “u” out of Colours, not only in the first printing but in every edition thereafter! How shoddy is that?

But as regards the game itself, that mis-spelled title indicates that it’s part of Richard Borg’s Commands & Colours series. You’re probably familiar with the basic concept here: they’re light 2-player wargames, played on a hex map that’s divided into left, right and center sectors. You have a hand of cards which can be played one per turn to issue orders to your units, typically of the sort “activate x number of units in sector y of the battlefieldt” and so on. The games also typically use custom dice to determine combat, with hits being scored when you roll symbols matching the enemy you’re attacking, allowing odds to be tilted away from heavier units toward squishier ones. They usually have a significant set-up time since you need to pick a scenario from the supplied booklet, get the correct terrain hexes and significant numbers of troops and put them all into the correct hexes on the board, and can play to conclusion in under an hour.

The Ancients iteration of this series follows all these basic concepts, but has a variety of features to differentiate it from its brethren. By far the most important is the concept of leaders, pieces that have no combat potential but which can hang around joined to, or just behind, military units and improve their combat potential. But this is only a small part of the story because a lot of the command cards in the deck rely on activating units that are attached to leaders, meaning that their disposition on the field of battle can have huge strategic repercussions if you want to be able to order your troops to best effect. Another notable feature of the card deck is a proliferation of “line order” cards that allow you to activate a number of units that are adjacent to one another. Between them, these two types of cards manage to both offer a passable simulation of the linear nature of ancient warfare and make the game strategically more demanding than most other C&C titles. A common complaint with the basic system is that if you have cards in your hand relating to sectors where you don’t want - or can’t have - impact you’re pretty much stuffed. With the linear and leader cards you can have a lot more control over where and what you issue orders to, providing you keep a close eye on your battle line and the placement of leaders.

The second innovation in Ancients is the “battle back” concept which has since been implemented in other iterations. This is very simple: normally units in Commands & Colours games only fight when they are ordered to do so. But in Commands & Colours: Ancients, units that are engaged in hand-to-hand fighting and survive get to return attacks. It’s a simple difference but necessary since all the combat in Commands & Colours: Ancients is of the close in and brutal variety unlike its predecessors Battle Lineand Memoir ‘44which are both from the gunpowder age in which it’s imaginable that a frenzied assault might well cause the enemy to batten down the hatches instead of respond in kind. It also changes the strategy of the game hugely, since destroying enemy units on first attack - and attempting to avoid it happening to your own pieces - is now a major consideration.

The other major difference in Commands & Colours: Ancientsis the variety of unit types. Other games in the series make do with a relatively small number of different unit types but here there’s a much wider array. It’s true that much of this comes from the “heavy, medium, light” differentiation but even allowing for this, compare the variety of infantry, archers, slingers, warriors, chariots, leaders, cavalry, elephants and others (many of which come in those three different flavours) with the base division of infantry, armour, artillery in Memoir ‘44. The dice work by matching symbols for light, medium and heavy instead of unit types, with other faces indicating a crossed swords (hits against all but heavy), crossed flags for a push-back one hex and a leader symbol which scores a hit if the unit has an attached leader, further underlining their importance. Of course three faces for three different unit types means you no longer get the hit ratio differentiation that’s found in other Commands & Colours games - instead, the Ancients game makes up for this by having the bigger units throw more dice and the weaker throw less: instead of the three dice attack found in Memoir ‘44, many units in Ancients roll four or five dice, and occasionally more in certain circumstances, while light units usually roll a paltry two dice. This cuts both ways - more dice overall, and remember the battle-back system allows a hell of a lot of dice to get thrown in a standard combat round, means that the randomness curve is somewhat smoothed out, but the smaller number of dice for weaker units, and the huge advantage you get if you’re lucky enough to wipe out an enemy block on first attack, can throw up some surprising - and occasionally annoying - statistical anomalies.

Inevitably you don’t get all these extra unit types and strategy for free. There’s a significant rules weight associated with the different cards and units, to the point where a normally very simple basic system runs to a jaw-dropping 24 pages of text-dense rules and this in a game that doesn’t have a significant amount of terrain. There’s some good player aids but I still find this game way more confusing than it should be. Even after ten plays I was still looking things up, and frankly that just feels wrong for a game that wraps up in an hour. This is basically my biggest beef when it comes to Commands & Colours: Ancients. The whole Commands & Colours system somehow seems idealised for fast, lightweight play that’s suitable for teaching to non-hobbyists. But the Ancients iteration is simply not particularly accessible and it altogether feels like too much work in terms of rules overhead and planning - not to mention the many hours of putting hundreds of stickers on hundreds of blocks that you’ll need to go through before you can play the game - for what is, ultimately, still a fairly random, quick game. 

But you can’t overlook the fact that for all that overhead, Commands & Colours: Ancients manages to address the two key criticisms of the series. Firstly it offers a really quite impressive level of theme and realism off a comparatively (to something like, say, SPQR) easy set of rules. Tightly integrated into the game play are concepts such as the difficulty of battlefield communication in ancient times and the importance of battle line maintenance and flank coverage. Secondly it ups the strategy level considerably, even if the result sometimes sits oddly with the rapid, sometimes chaotic nature of the play. These are big wins for the title, and the fact that you have to pay some cost in rules weight to get them is unfortunate, but perhaps inevitable. This is the C&C title that a heavyweight gamer or the grognard can own without embarrassment. It walks a fine line between demanding strategy and thrilling edge-of-the-seat chaos which is occasionally infuriating when it falls down one side or the other, but more often the game manages to keep that tricky, difficult balance and offer a rewarding and intriguing game.

One thing I feel compelled to mention is the range of expansions offered by the game. I’ve only scratched the surface of a couple of these, it’s true, but I do find it difficult to see the appeal. Each does expand the range of 20+ scenarios on offer in the base game, but they do so largely by replicating the unit types available in the base game and attaching them to a different nation. There are differences and the occasional new feature, as well as an “epic” expansion for larger, multi-player battles but for the most part it’s kind of re-arranging what’s on offer in the base game and trying to present it as something new. This is a world away from the expansions for other Commands & Colours games which have made a habit of introducing tons of new stuff at once: unit types, rules for different nationalities, new cards, new terrain, new variants and so on. Luckily there’s plenty of interesting replay value in the base game, so this isn’t a terribly big issue, but it does feel like something of a missed opportunity.

I mention the expansions for a particular reason. Personally, I often find it hard to justify owning more than one game based on the same basic system. You may feel differently, but if you want to own one Commands & Colours game (and you should, given that it’s a fun system that has taken the hobby by storm) you’ve got a scarily wide choice. I have not played the latest edition, Napoleonic, so I can’t comment on that, but I have played all the others. And really, the choice comes down to how you’re planning to approach and play the game. If you’re looking for a stand-alone game that you’re going to be playing mainly against other game hobbyists, then Commands & Colours: Ancientsis certainly the best choice. But if you want to play against friends and families, or if you’re looking for a game system to expand on, I’d go for Memoir ‘44. With its best expansions added in, and taking the time to play out a campaign, Memoir ‘44does, I think, become a better game than Ancients, but you’d better be prepared to sink in quite an investment in terms of time and money to get to that point. As a single box, Commands & Colours: Ancientsis certainly rather more the gamers’ game.

Managing the demands of gamers for both heavyweight mechanical strategy and randomness and excitement in the same game is a very tricky path because the two are obviously fundamentally incompatible. Many designs have tried to weld the two together (Euro dice games being the obvious candidates) and most have failed. Of the handful that get it right, Commands & Colours: Ancients is certainly one of the best examples. Yes, it’s annoying and frustrating when your carefully planned full-frontal attack is completely destroyed because of some unexpected battle-back results but ultimately that constant possibility is both what spoils the game and what drives a huge part of its appeal.

Matt ThrowerFollow Matt Thrower Follow Matt Thrower Message Matt Thrower

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Matt has been writing about tabletop games professional since 2012, blogging since 2006 and playing them since he could talk.


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