Commands & Colors: Swords, Arrows and Spears

Speaking of the historical wargame series that covers a vast range of battles with the common or similar simple but deep ruleset, Richard Borg’s Commands & Colors is the first title that comes to mind. I’m a huge fan of the series that were published by GMT Games (C&C: Ancients, C&C: Medieval and C&C: Napoleonics) and try to play these games as often as possible, as they provide unmatched balance between ease of rules, time of play and historical credibility and insight.

Some time ago I expressed my admiration on Commands & Colors: Napoleonics and today I’m going to speak about the games that cover “sword, arrow and spear” ages: Ancients and Medieval. The edge between the both games is quite thin in terms of passed years: the latest battle in C&C: Ancients dated as 378 AD (Battle of Adrianople) while the first battle in C&C: Medieval dated as 447 AD (Utus River). I’ll try to show how Richard Borg succeeded in showing the distinctions in the art of war of both ages by fine-tuning the core ruleset. So what tools designer possess to make those fine adjustments to the rules? The answer is simple – the game components: board, dice (which facets changed only in C&C: Napoleonics), deck, blocks, counters.

Let us start from the core idea of Commands & Colors: Ancients. Its design is so elegant, that it often reminds me Great Battles of History game. The most important parameter of ancient unit was cohesion, that allowed unit to stay in one piece after the movement or shock combat. Ancient combat wasn’t very deadly, so every hit in C&C: Ancients (and GBoH) approached the unit elimination as coherent formation – it doesn’t mean that all warrior were wiped out, but it means that the unit is not able to project enough power to affect the battlefield anymore. That’s why losing the blocks (cohesion hits) doesn’t reduce unit’s combat power. Yes, it can be routed soon, but until then it projects his full power against the enemy. Absolutely the same idea is true for the C&C: Medieval. The shock combat is still not so deadly and commanders highly rely on their troops cohesion. But as quality of mounted troops risen significantly, the cohesion of cavalry units was increased (4 blocks instead of 3).

That’s the point that shocks a lot of newbies that played C&C: Napoleonics before the Ancients! Why unit loses the blocks and fights with the same amount of dice? That’s why! Ancients hits affect mostly the cohesion, but Napoleonics hits also represent the losing of manpower.

The second point is the importance of line formation. Ancient and medieval units were highly vulnerable to flank attack, because it wasn’t an easy task to reorient them to different direction after the fighting began and the feature of their tight formation was that the could only project their force to the front. So, the integral line was a kind of guarantee that the unit will face the battle with its front. How flank attack implemented in GBoH? You get bonus DRM to the attack roll, which increases the chance that defender will retreat or lose more cohesion. C&C: Ancients and Medieval works very similar! If the unit doesn’t has flank support, any rolled “flag” will force him to retreat, and if it has not enough space to retreat, it will lose the cohesion. Simple and elegant!

Ancient commander were skillful with controlling the line, and their presence on the battlefield was very important for troops direction and coordination. In the GBoH commanders activate units in their formations up to their command radius and gives the unit they stacked with a bonus DRM for the attack and defense. In C&C: Ancients, commander’s importance stitched up mostly into the Command Deck, as the deck contains many cards that allow to activate the commander and several units adjacent to him. More than that, commander allows to ignore one retreat result for his unit during defense and improves hit chances of his unit during attack (which works actually like DRM in GBoH!). C&C: Ancients deck also contains four powerful “Line Command” cards that allow to activate even a huge amount of units if they are connected in single chain.

As we descend from the ancient flush to the medieval dark age, art of war and generalship also declines, but also grows the role of leaders as command gravity centers. The Command Deck of C&C: Medieval carefully reflects this change: it average command values are lower (1-2-3 order section cards instead of 2-3-4), troop and “Line Command” cards decreased in quantity while additional leadership cards added and their power amplified thanks to Inspiration tokens (that allow to transform Leadership orders to any available tactical order like Mounted Charge or Move-Fire-Move).

Medium and heavy infantry units like legions and phalanx dominate in C&C: Ancients. Light and Medium cavalry are almost helpless if enemy heavy infantry line crossed the center of the battlefield squeezing them out to the edge of the map (from where they would easily leave battlefield). The vice versa situation of mounted troops superiority in C&C: Medieval reflected by decreased medium/heavy infantry combat dice, mount superior stature rule (cavalry ignores first sword from infantry) and partially by armor class superiority rule (higher armor class ignores first sword from lower armor attacker, therefore cataphracts may ignore 2 swords from medium infantry). The board itself also became 2 hexes deeper to provide mounted units with additional space for maneuver, evasion and retreat. And mounted archers became very deadly and annoying enemy, who can evade from attacking units and shot them with full strength.

Commands and Colors system is an outstanding example, how one genius designer may fine-tune the same core rules to reflect the different ages warfare details. All three game series published by GMT Games (Ancients, Medieval and Napoleonics) have familiar flavour, but very different dynamics and after-taste. So if one ask me “What Commands & Colors game would you prefer?”, I certainly answer: “If you are interested in military history and art of war, you should get all of them”.

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1 thought on “Commands & Colors: Swords, Arrows and Spears

  1. Thank you for an interesting piece. I think there are probably a great many wargaming fans who would agree with you about GMT Games. There is certainly a lot of love for the C&C and Memoir ’44 series!

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