On the Table: Commands & Colors Ancients
November 19, 2013
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I bought this one on a whim in order to qualify for free shipping. I spent a few hours stickering blocks and then… it sat on the shelf for months. I began to wonder if getting it was a mistake. I mean, I love history… and I’ve always wanted to play more “real” games, but I’ve already got plenty of games that are hard to find players for. I’d set up the board hoping to entice my son with the beautiful blocks, but I’d have to wait… until he just tried it a couple of times. Then he got hooked. Now he won’t hardly play anything else! The reason…? Commands & Colors: Ancients is fun.
A big part of it is the wide range of outcomes for an attack:
You can miss completely and then freaking die when your target “battles back.”
You can wear each other down a couple of blocks (due to a battle back.)
You can damage your target… and cause him to retreat so that he doesn’t get to battle back. (Plus… he is out of position.) Note: leadership and formations can really help prevent retreat results.
You can destroy your opponent, momentum advance… and (depending on the unit) battle again. This domino effect can be truly epic when you start to roll up your opponent’s line.
Because an attack can blow up in your face, you actually need something not unlike bravery in order to pull one off. But there’s also the chance of glory… but it is never without risk. Every piece is different and each unit type has its role to play, but they literally need to be lead in order to be effective.
One thing that helps keep this thing on the table is that the scenarios are unbalanced. You can always give the historical victor to the novice and they won’t feel like they’re getting special treatment. Also, a lot of these battles will come down to who can score that last victory banner first. Even if you lose, you’ll be thinking that triumph was within your grasp. And games are short enough that it is all too easy to ask for a rematch.
I thought that maybe I would dislike the game because of the way that the cards restrict your moves. This turned out to be my favorite part because it really captures the difference between strong and weak commanders. The cards add just enough chaos to the game that it ceases to be a slugfest. The more games I played, the more I began to appreciate how the limits on command and control are actually more realistic than games where you can move any unit you want. It’s easy to pretend that you actually ordered something else, but that your command was either stymied, ignored, or not received. Sure, they’re just cards. But being forced to make the best of a limited set of options is not unlike what I read happening in real life battles.
There is a bit of a learning curve, but the more we play the less we look at the rule book. After eight games or so, we mainly need it to review the evasion rules and the stuff about elephant rampages. But listening to my ten year old son explain the game to his sister, I was amazed at how much of the game he’s really internalized. And he doesn’t really use the reference chart either– he’s memorized the stats on all the units now. I’d thought that Pandemic and Ingenious would never be unseated from the top of his list, but this is the game that pulled it off.