Sending Little Wooden Block People Off to Die

I’ve been ill, but I still received my order of the entire Commands & Colors: Ancients series. Dang, it’s a lot. Lots and lots of wooden blocks to put stickers on; I was able to do a bunch while I was too sick to do anything else, like thinking, and am now a champion of putting the stickers on straight 90% of the time.

For those who don’t know, Commands & Colors (C&C) is a series of elegant war games by Richard Borg ((Not to be confused with Richard Berg, who could have made Fandom Wank several times over if it had been around during his… more controversial days.)). Some grognards ((War game geeks. Serious geeks.)) consider this series rather too simplistic, kind of a “gateway war game” to us noobs. But I like the system, because C&C non-epic games end in half an hour, instead of four. (Even C&C “epic” games, which are huge, take a quarter of the time for a similarly sized war game in most other systems.)

C&C has been implemented in multiple periods and even fantasy:

  • Battle Cry is the oldest published one, featuring the Civil War, and actually published by Hasbro ((The big toy players are not, typically, into publishing non-party, non-classic games, so this was an extra special occasion.)). It has little plastic pieces, actually quite nicely molded. Of C&C games, it’s the simplest. ((Though that’s not the same as boring or lacking in strategy. Definitely, definitely, not.)) Unfortunately, expansions were never produced, and it’s out of print.

  • Memoir ’44 (published by Days of Wonder) is the second oldest published one, but still in print. It features World War II, has a zillion expansions, nicely molded plastic pieces, and now many scenarios—as well as a pretty neat campaign system. Of the C&C games, this is the next step up in complexity from Battle Cry, but more polished. As a result, I’d say it’s the best C&C game for the casual player.

  • After the success of Memoir ’44 came the publication of C&C: Ancients (GMT Games), and it’s actually somewhat recent (within the last three years). It has quite a few major expansions, and is the most complex in terms of unit types and rules, yet still simpler than many traditional war game systems. Has wooden blocks with stickers you must apply yourself, but the end effect is actually very neat and easy to deal with, in terms of storage and setting up the starting position. And now it also has a huge number of scenarios.

  • And the newest C&C game is BattleLore (first published by Days of Wonder, then handed over to Fantasy Flight Games). This is the fantasy version of C&C, and has really nice plastic figures. It also has what’s called Lore, which is basically like adding Magic: The Gathering style effects to C&C, and is the most wild and, to me, fun, when played with Lore (although many more staid gamers prefer to play without Lore). Unlike other C&C games, BattleLore allows players to set-up/draft a detailed war council (which affects what kind of Lore you can play), and there are quite a few expansions, but they don’t cover as much ground as Memoir ’44 or Ancients (but it’s got dragons, and that must count for something).

    I like really it, but there’s a lot of potential (more races than just dwarves, goblins, and European men) that may never get realized, because producing the plastic pieces is really, really expensive (especially these days). If all the expansions that Richard Borg is thinking of implementing ever get produced, it may even take over Ancients in terms of number of units. In way, while BattleLore is wild and fun, right now its present feels more restrictive than its siblings (except for Battle Cry, which is dead).

    I don’t mind the smaller number of official scenarios for BattleLore; much of it is about drafting, and so far it’s the only C&C game that’s additionally allowed for special drafting when building armies on the spot.

I fell head over heels in love with Ancients and its expansions when visiting friends the last couple years, so getting the entire Ancients series all was my way of being happy this year as I won’t get to visit them. (Still cheaper than flight seats, too.)

I played a couple games today and yesterday by myself (because I am still sick, and work is such that I end up unable to reach gaming groups consistently, even the tiny one on the island itself), the first two scenarios in the base game: The Battle of Akragas (406 BC) and a skirmish at the Crimissos River (341 BC). They were quite fun, even by myself (and a good way to practice so that next year I will not get my ass completely whupped).

First off, let me say that one of the reasons I love C&C games is that every historical scenario comes with a paragraph or two of its history, and what went wrong or right. And how stupid or smart generals/officers were. Sometimes they were extremely stupid, to the point where I realized that the epic stupidity that Sir Pratchett wrote in Jingo actually did exist. Ye gods.

Crimissos River is rather interesting; because the Carthaganian dude, Hasdrubal ((Whichever one of him fought this battle. There were several dudes of this level named Hasdrubal.)), was a complete dumbass. In history, he never sent scouts while trying to ford his army through a river, so he didn’t know there were a bunch of Syracusan troops about to ambush them on the other side. It was epic dumb on the level of Lord Rust, and the outnumbered, though badass, Sacred Band got slaughtered and it was very sad, especially as the flub wasn’t their fault.

In the game, even though the Carthaganian side had more units, most of them were stuck on the other side of the river, just like in history. Most of them were the good units, too. (One Carthaganian chariot sucks against five units of heavy foot units). And just like last year, I still couldn’t get them across the river in time before one wing or the other of the Syracusan army descended upon dumbass Hasdrubal and the poor Sacred Band. The Sacred Band were a pretty scary special unit, actually, and almost got all of the necessary victory flags ((One killed unit earns you a victory flag; this particular scenario is played to five flags.)) by themselves.

And then they ran into the last of the Syracusan heavy foot and died horribly. Almost everybody else was still stuck on the other side of the damn river, and anybody on the side of the river with the Syracusans got slaughtered. Last year, and tonight, I said, “You goddamned idiot, Hasdrubal, why couldn’t you have sent scouts so my game would be more balanced,” although to be fair the scenario is surprisingly balanced (fewer Syracusan troops that would have been slaughtered… had the units across the river been able to get into battle).

Afterwards, I had the thought I always have when playing historical war games, like C&C and others, which is: these were real people, and they really did get sent off to die. Here’s the historical paragraph and everything. Here are the dumbasses who got real people killed, and the smart guys who, well, still got people killed, but fewer of them, usually. Here are the little wooden blocks or plastic figurines that sometimes represent the historical unit realistically, depending on the scenario.

D-day at Normandy Beach (an epic scenario) in Memoir ’44 is horribly hard to the Allies, too. Bloody as hell, like the real history, and winning as the Allies in that scenario is such a thin margin that I’m surprised we managed it (of course, that may have had something to do with sending many many many people to die instead of merely many). I can never play Memoir ’44 and not feel incredibly sad, even though it’s technically a good way to remember the awful battles so that people remember that they happened, and maybe won’t let them happen again (or… not). It’s too recent, somehow. Ancients I can deal with because these are long-dead people, almost the stuff of legend, even down to the little green foot units that get killed so easily when going up against just about every other unit. BattleLore is easiest to deal with, of course, because the people there are all made up, unless you go with the historical scenarios, like Agincourt, in which case… they weren’t.

Everything is helped out by the fact that, of most war game systems, C&C is the most abstract. If it weren’t for all the historical paragraphs, you might not feel very much when your warrior units charge and come to naught in the river. Darn you, Richard Borg, for Doing the Research.

What amuses me most is how a few of the scenarios in Ancients are surprisingly similar a few of the scenarios in Memoir ’44… which means that people made the same dumbass mistakes in 300BC as in the mid 20th century (although to be somewhat fair, the one in Memoir ’44 had a bridge. Which still didn’t help that much). It’s enough to make one double facepalm. Admittedly, I myself have also got to stop being dumb at tactics, since I still lose in scenarios when I’m Hannibal ferchrissakes, but people like Hasdrubal sure didn’t help.

So, I still haven’t bought Memoir ’44, even though I think I would enjoy its mechanics, its aliveness in terms of expansions and scenarios and campaigns, its greater simplicity, its far better components. But desperately marching little stickered wooden blocks into cavalry is bad enough.