Francis K. Lalumiere
It’s early in the 19th century, and that short French guy thinks he owns the whole of Europe. Let’s call on our British and Portuguese friends to teach that arrogant, blue-clad “Emperor” a lesson…
C&C Napoleonics is the fifth incarnation of Richard Borg’s Commands & Colors system, which got its start when Battle Cry—on the American Civil War—was first published by Avalon Hill back in 2000.
(And as such, Napoleonics marks the tenth anniversary of the system. Hurray!)
Days of Wonder published the WWII version Memoir ’44 in 2004, followed in 2006 by two more games: the medieval-fantasy BattleLore (published by Days of Wonder and eventually passed on to Fantasy Flight Games) and Commands & Colors Ancients (published by GMT Games), featuring the myriad battles of antiquity.
This time around, the British, the Portuguese and the French are thrown pell-mell onto the battlefield, circa 1808.
(True, Fantasy Flight Games also published, in 2010, a “BattleLore game” called Battles of Westeros, roughly based on the C&C system. While most people consider Westeros a member of the family, I think it features rules changes too significant for the game to truly belong with the rest of the series; otherwise, Worthington Games’ Hold the Line and Napoleon’s War might as well be called C&C games.
Now newcomers to the Commands & Colors fun might wonder: are all those titles the same game? Well, yes… and no. They are all based on the same fundamental rules, but each incarnation offers its own unique twists and turns, in addition to exploring completely different themes.
So let’s take a look at those fundamentals, exploring further into the idiosyncrasies of Napoleonics itself—without sidestepping the unavoidable comparison to its older brother, Ancients, with relevant comments between brackets.
The board is composed of blank hexagons arranged into a rectangular grid. In turn, that grid is divided into three sections, giving each player a center, a right flank and a left flank. Onto that grid are placed hexagonal cardboard tiles sporting different terrain types, which makes it possible to recreate the many scenarios provided with the game. Units—represented here by wooden blocks adorned with illustrated stickers—are deployed onto that battlefield in a variety of types and numbers.
And the game begins.
Each player holds a hand of cards, most of which—called Section Cards—allow a certain number of units to act within a particular section. (For instance, an Attack Right Flank card allows you to order three units on your right flank.) An ordered unit can move and/or fire, depending on the capabilities of each particular unit.
The rest of the cards are Tactic Cards and grant the player wielding them special actions. Leadership, for instance, orders all of the active player’s leaders, no matter where they are on the board.
Combat is resolved with special six-sided dice sporting icons instead of numbers. Essentially, whenever a unit attacks, it rolls however many dice are called for by that unit’s type and applies any hits to its target. So you’re firing on an infantry unit? Try to roll infantry symbols. Same goes with cavalry and artillery. The crossed-swords symbol? It’s a hit on anything—provided you were attacking at close range and not firing from afar.
Each hit removes one block from the targeted unit, which will eventually lead to that unit’s destruction. When a unit gets wiped out, the opponent earns a victory banner. Whoever reaches a specific number of victory banners first—as specified by the special instructions of each scenario—wins the game.
And all of that in less than 60 minutes. Not bad at all.
But that’s it for the basics: Napoleonics pushes a cartful of fresh concepts to the front line. The main ones are examined below.
Leaders play an important role on the battlefield, just as they did in Ancients. [Although that role is now limited to ordering and support; leaders don’t provide an attack bonus the way they did in Ancients.] Keep them away from the front line, but not so far back that they won’t have a chance to influence the troops. Just make sure you keep them safe!
In all previous incarnations of the system, the number of remaining blocks in a unit was not factored into the strength of said unit’s attack. But now it is. The basic attack strength of a unit is equal to the number of its blocks. [This makes the “last ditch effort” a much more difficult decision to make, as you’re sacrificing a busted unit—most of the time giving away a victory banner to your opponent—for at best a terribly weak attack.]
Units that are attacked in melee but neither eliminated, nor forced to retreat, can battle back. So consider your attacks carefully, for if you don’t destroy the enemy, he might very well do it to you. [Ancients players are familiar with that concept. But here, with attacked units battling back at reduced strength, snappy comebacks are less reliable than they used to be.]
Each Napoleonics die features not one, but two infantry symbols. This makes infantry a prime target in any scenario. [And represents a definite step up from the level of aggressiveness Ancients veterans are used to.]
Cavalry faced with a melee (from an adjacent hex) attack from an infantry unit can Retire and Reform, pulling back two hexes and suffering hits only on Cavalry results and not crossed swords. [This is very similar to the Evade move in Ancients, except that here, only the Cavalry is afforded that luxury. All other units stand fast!]
Infantry can form square when attacked by cavalry, which means the cavalry only rolls one die for its attack—if it doesn’t bounce off the square first, that is. An infantry in square removes one card at random from its owner’s hand and puts it aside, to be retrieved only when the infantry is ordered to come out of square.
Not only can artillery standing on a hill now fire over a friendly, adjacent unit, but it can join infantry or cavalry in a combined arms attack, adding up the dice each unit would roll in separate attacks.
And one more little detail if I may: cavalry cannot use ranged combat. At all. For those equine warriors, it’s melee or bust!
There are more wrinkles to the game, of course, but painting with a wide brush, this is it.
Everything looks really good, as is customary with most GMT games.
I especially enjoy the cards, printed on good stock, and with a gorgeous layout and a most delicious—yet simple—back. I always thought that the Ancients cards, while serviceable, were a bit bland, washed-out. This is not the case here.
The board is mounted from the get-go, which wasn’t the case back in the early days of Ancients. (“You kids have it easy nowadays!”) So, naturally, veterans of the system will want to know: does the board have a reverse side printed with a bleeding hexagonal pattern so that two boards, when put side by side, will create a unified battlefield and eventually allow for an Epic version of Napoleonics? Sadly, no.
But the story doesn’t end here... When prodded, GMT Producer Tony Curtis alluded to two upcoming Epic maps, which would be double-sided. How’s that? No amount of bribery and/or blackmail could make the man spill more of the beans, however.
The oft maligned dice I found to be perfectly fine. Sure, they’re blank indented dice waiting for you to apply a sticker to each face. But you’re already stickering a million blocks—what’s the problem with taking care of a few dice while you’re at it?
However, I would like the dice stickers to be a little bit smaller so that they would fit perfectly inside each indentation. And I really don’t like passing dice around all the time in the heat of battle; I’m convinced I’m not the only one who would have been happy to cough up a few dollars more for a second set of dice.
But GMT is listening, and players can buy additional dice and stickers directly from them. And there’s one more option for the sophisticated gamer: Valley Games has been granted permission to produce wooden dice for Napoleonics the way they did for Ancients.
I love how the GMT folks have decided to print a scenario book apart from the rulebook this time around. It makes both documents much easier to handle, and will not only enable players to look up a rule without losing sight of the current scenario instructions, but also make it possible for GMT to update the rulebook while leaving the scenarios alone (and vice-versa).
The blocks are standard GMT wooden blocks, but the stickers are different from their Ancients counterparts. Whereas units used to sport a colored symbol to indicate what categories they belonged to, each sticker now has a colored band at the bottom. Red stands for artillery, yellow for cavalry, and blue for infantry. Furthermore, each band holds the unit’s exact type, such as Grenadier, Guard Heavy, Horse, and so on.
So no more confusion, and no more looking up what the green circle with a white outline stands for.
The tiles are a bit on the thin side—especially next to the massive mounted board!—
but do a very nice job at bringing to life the terrain of each particular battle. The tile cardboard is the same thickness as the one found in Ancients.
The box is one of the heavy duty ones GMT has always uses to ship out their Ancients stuff. Sturdy enough to hold all the heavy components and take a beating. Plus the cover is stunning—enough to hold your gaze from the shelf and make you want to play the blasted thing.
RULES OF ENGAGEMENT
I found the rules to be clear and well organized. Better organized, in fact, than in Ancients, where I regularly had problems finding what I was looking for.
Napoleonics is not a complicated game, but with a rulebook clocking in at 23 pages, it’s still a bigger bite than casual gamers can chew. Coming to it cold (or even from Memoir ’44), the learning curve is a bit steep, in large part because of the impressive number of different units.
For Ancients aficionados, even, the learning curve is not completely ironed out, since many of the system’s main mechanics are retooled significantly. Yet, many others are left untouched, which is why I was expecting a page (or just a sidebar) featuring just the changes. Fans of Ancients would have been told to read only this and that section—in a manner similar to what was done in GMT’s Combat Commander sequel, Pacific—thus speeding up the conversion process. The rules do begin with a column of Napoleonics highlights that point to a few of the main features of the new game, but expect an entire read-through of the rules to make sure you don’t forget any detail.
Once you’re done, however, you will hardly ever need to go back to the rules, for the player aid cards are as detailed as one could hope for. Those were formatted differently from their Ancients counterparts, so old hands will feel at first that they need to have their glasses adjusted. (Fear not, the feeling will quickly pass.) GMT provides two copies of each player aid, so that both opponents can peruse each nation’s little battlefield idiosyncrasies to their hearts’ content.
And there’s now a player aid card (again in two copies) for the various terrain types! Gone the need to constantly ransack the rulebook for the special effects of a forest tile on movement. And good riddance, I say.
For newcomers to the system, this is a relatively simple tactical wargame that can be learned with no real hurdles and played out in an hour. For seasoned players, this package is much more than an expansion for Ancients. It’s more refined, more subtle… and also more brutal. What’s not to like?
I especially enjoy that identical units across two nations turn out not to be identical at all. They each have their own strengths and weaknesses, and it often makes for interesting tactical decisions of a sort that rarely arose in a game of Ancients.
Terrain effects are more intricate and require more subtlety to squeeze every last drop of advantage out of them. Interestingly, whereas terrain in Ancients usually imposed limits on the number of dice that could be rolled in battle, here terrain harks back to Memoir ’44 by subtracting dice from an attack.
Just as in Ancients, attacked units that survive the skirmish can fight back. But here, the retort will be carried out with a reduced number of blocks, and thus an equally dwindling number of attack dice. Which makes combined arms attacks so devastating, in that they are more likely to wipe out the opposing unit before it gets any chance to battle back.
Many of the cards contained herein are repeats of concepts present in every incarnation of the C&C system, such as First Strike or Counterattack—indeed basic cards that are necessary for the game’s engine to be able to run at all. But some cards are completely new! Cards like Leadership, that orders every leader on the board (with any attached unit), La Grande Manoeuvre, which lets you move up to four units up to four hexes (but not battle), or—one of my favorites—Short Supply: one unit (yours or your opponent’s) goes back to any baseline hex in its section. Nasty—or a real life saver, depending on which side you’re sitting.
Even “old” cards deserve a new appraisal in the Napoleonics context. First Strike, for instance, is not as obvious to use now, what with the battle dice linked to the number of blocks in the unit. If your tendency, like me, was to play First Strike to grant a dying unit one last heroic bash against an oncoming juggernaut… well, we pretty much have to kick that old habit now.
The game comes with 15 scenarios, and my first reaction was tainted with disappointment. Only FIFTEEN? Not even 20? But the truth is that we’ve all been spoiled by the many Ancients expansions that routinely lured us in with more than 20 scenarios in a single box. Turns out the base game of Ancients featured just 10 scenarios.
That makes Napoleonics at least 1.5 times better. Right?
C&C Napoleonics is arguably the most complex game in the series. But it is also the most refined member of the family, giving you substantially more to think about as your units engage the opponent. It’s a thrilling ride that, while offering more options than its predecessors, still manages to completely run its course in an hour or so.
The game scratches several itches that were almost scratched before, but not quite. It has become without a doubt my favorite game in the series.
For instance, in Ancients, I never liked how beat up units, often down to a single block, would regularly be sent on suicide missions, welcoming annihilation in exchange for one last shot at a particular opposing unit (often with an attached leader), rather than trying to save its own skin—and deny a victory banner to the opponent. But now? A unit down to its last block usually attacks with just one die. This results in a much higher rate in troop rotation, bringing fresh units to the front and carrying the wounded to the back. I didn’t see that often enough in Ancients. No more!
GMT is already preparing a first expansion—bringing Spaniards into the fray—for a projected August 2011 release date. Yep, that’s a scant six months away.
Ice-choked tower, Mondavia, Nanglangka.
Now very much looking forward to my copy arriving.
How does this game / series play solo?
Nice review. Reading this and a review someone did of C&C Ancients is causing a bit of curiousity in this usually skeptical gamer.
How does this game / series play solo?
A number of people have come up with solo rules for games in the series. The only problem is that you lose some tension if you know what cards are held by the other "player"--can he react to your attack or not?
One alternative to the C&C Napoleonics game is Napoleon's War: The 100 Days. In this game, you throw a die to generate action points for movement and combat. This is more straightforward for solo play.
Excellent review. I love M44, and I assume I'd love Battlelore if I could find an affordable copy (lol).
I've never bought CC:A since I don't really want to spend a weekend stickering things.
However, this one has tickled my fancy. Your review confirms it. I may have to ask for this for my birthday.
However, 23 pages sounds like a helluva rulebook for a command and colors game. How different could it really be from M44?
"Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me."
Thank you for a very polished review! I much enjoyed it to the point that I wished it was longer. I am someone who is interested in the Napoleonic era and have recently decided to try my hand at a Napoleonic board game. After researching on the Geek for a good entry level Napoleonic, I decided on Worthington's 100 Days. I ordered it online only three days ago.
I'm nervously biting my lower lip right now.
Great review. I'm going to check out your other contributions to the Geek community.
Oh, boy....haven't even received my 100 Days copy and I'm wondering if I chose the wrong Napoleonic. (..happy place, must find my happy place...)
You can always add this to the collection. The two games play extremely differently, so you will not feel any sort of redundancy.
Fantastic review. A very good read that well defines why you like this game, what is good about it and how it differs from others in the series. I can't wait for my pre-order to arrive!
Question about the dice reduction: does this make the luck of the cards more decisive? One of the things I like in terms of gameplay about the Ancients system is that if you keep your units in formation and position leaders carefully, you have a very good chance of a battleback. That means that if you get bad draws of the cards, the units you can't use offensively are still not sitting ducks.
Any comments on how this plays out in Napoleonics?
This is the best review of a game I have ever read. Thank you!
Of course, in my case you are preaching to the choir. But I think that you give an excellent presentation of the game to a newcomer.
To those worried about the 23 page rulebook, you will only read it once and it is presented very well. After that the cheat sheets, GMT or BGG, are all you need.
Shelter Island Heights
Good review. Not sure how Worthington's games (Hold the Line and Napoleon's War) could be considered from the same lineage, but, perhaps, for the fact that HtL uses tiles on a blank hex grid to make a scenario-specific map. Otherwise, there simply is nothing in common: no cards, no map sections, no special dice. I very much like HtL; much less NW, but hesitate to go with C&C:N, primarily because of the variable scale (yeah to flexibility, nay to over-magnifying the role of certain specialist troops when fighting large engagements) and strange relative fire and movement range.