Commands and Colors Ancients is a two player hex-based war game in the same family as Memoir 44. What sets it apart from many other hex based war games is it does not have fiddly counters or small hexes.
Units are instead represented by wooden blocks, commonly three or four blocks to a unit and these can become weakened in play as blocks are lost. Player turns are driven by “action cards”, each player has a small hand of these, commonly four or five. The size of the hand generally reflects the quality of the historical commander, so for example, if the player is playing an army commanded by Hannibal he will have a larger hand of cards than a player commanding an army led by Varro.
These cards activate units, which can then move and/or battle. Battle is resolved with dice, normally with the attacker rolls first. The dice have various symbols on them and these determine the outcome.
For what is at heart a war game it is surprisingly accessible to non war gamers. The 24-page rule book is easy to read, well written, and there are some very solid play aids. The mechanics are elegant, the variety of cards adds both an element of fog of war and a need for careful planning. Play is both simple and fast, most games will be completed in well under an hour.
The core game focuses mostly on the Punic Wars, Rome against Carthage. The expansions tend to develop from this point, each adding one or two new rules commonly in line with the advances of the Roman legion, or with different unit types as Rome and other empires come into contact with other cultures.
As I said, the rule book is solid and there are excellent play aids and a booklet of battles. The game is supplied with plain coloured wooden blocks and sheets of stickers which take some time to assemble, but this is a once only task. The dice also come with stickers that need to be applied to the surfaces, these are black and plastic and to my mind the least appealing part of Commands and Colors.
The action cards are good quality, the board is solid, and there are various tiles that can be placed on the board to represent different terrain. But those dice. There is no insert in the box, it would not really make sense to have one, and one of the easiest ways to store the different units is in jiffy bags, though there are various custom inserts and storage options around, and better dice.
Playing Commands and Colors
After setting up the board, which is divided into left flank, centre and right flank, each player in turn plays one command card and applies the result. This can be things like move a number of units on a flank, or a cavalry charge, or move a type of unit, and so on. Any combat is then resolved using the combat dice, normally the attacker rolls first and applies the result, then the defender rolls (if able) and applies the result.
The combat dice are unique, six-sided with symbols rather than numbers, and a simple chart is provided to interpret the outcome. Generally it is simple to and fast resolve. After combat is resolved the player takes a new action card from the draw deck and play passes to the opponent who repeats this process.
Sounds simple, well yes. But there are 60 command cards, and over 30 different cards, and each type of unit has some unique abilities. Some units can use ranged weapons, others can evade, heavier units tend to do more damage, and so on.
There are also some rules around terrain, but none of this is complicated, which is the beauty of Commands and Colors. It recreates battles in a way that is easy to play and uncomplicated, whilst the action cards and combat dice mean that nothing is certain. The real key here is use of action cards, and trying to ensure units can be moved when they are really needed.
Victory is calculated by removing a number of opponent units. Commonly games will swing back and forth as one side then the other nears victory. It can be tense, and it is always challenging.
Expansions and Adaptations
- Commands and Colors: Ancients has numerous expansions. These generally introduce a new rule or troop type, and a selection of new battles. For example, the Greeks and Persians feature as one expansion, and introduces a special rule for Alexander’s Companion cavalry, and a whole booklet of battles between Alexander and the Persians.
- There are many other battles and resources available on the internet many of which are supported by GMT games.
- Commands and Colours is also supported by a Napoleonic edition and further expansions which is more complex but still not difficult, and a Middle Ages edition is being planned.
- Memoir 44 from Days of Wonder and also designed by Richard Borg, is a Second World War implementation using the same mechanics and figures rather than wooden blocks.
- Some players have dispensed with the wooden blocks for Commands and Colors and use figures, and even more realistic terrain. This can look good but is not necessary and does not change the game.
In many ways it is remarkable that what is on the surface a two player hex-based war game has maintained itself for many years in the BoardGameGeek top 100. Clearly it has a large fan base, but ultimately this comes down to the excellent and innovative design by Richard Borg.
The combination of a limited hand of action cards, and innovative dice mechanics, whilst easy to grasp leads to challenging play. Visually it looks dry, but this look is deceptive, beneath the look is an excellently designed game, fast and simple enough to be accessible to non war gamers, yet accurate enough to please war gamers and most importantly, it is great fun to play.