Command & Colors: Ancients and Battlelore

(image by neoshmengi @ BGG)
War games take on all shapes and sizes. Ask anyone what they think of when you ask about a war board game and you’ll get answers that range from Risk and Axis and Allies to Advanced Squad Leader. Generally I think people imagine these styles of games taking up lots of table space, having lots of pieces and lasting for hours on end.

This may be true for many war games, but Richard Borg’s Command and Colors system is an attempt to make war games faster and easier to play. In all of the Command and Colors games (Battle Cry, Memoir ’44, Command and Colors: Ancients and Battlelore) the game board is divided into three flanks (left, center, right) and units are grouped by relative strength. To help narrow a player’s options they have a hand of action cards that specify which flanks or types of units may be activated by playing that card. A Command and Colors game is as simple as playing a card, activating the specified units and rolling dice for combat!

I really appreciate the simplicity of this combat system. It is easy to learn and the action cards really help focus your decision making. Rather than having all of your units at your disposal every turn you are restricted by the cards in your hand. Sometimes it can be frustrating when you want to order a unit but don’t have the appropriate card but I find a lot of joy in the challenge of working with the orders you have available. In a way it simulates the uncertainties on the battlefield and forces you to make good tactical decisions.

(image by kilroy_locke @ BGG)

What I find most impressive, though, is the amount of room for variety across all of these games. I haven’t played Battle Cry or Memoir ’44 yet but as I understand they are the most simple games in the series, highly accessible and quick to play. Command and Colors: Ancients and Battlelore are on the slightly more complex end of the scale, but again that complexity is relative. Even at their most complex they are vastly easier than the really in-depth war games out there!

Prior to Battlelore’s release I had played Command & Colors: Ancients (C&C:A from now on) a few times and really enjoyed the combination of luck, tactics and ease-of-play. It also really hit the feel of Roman-era combat. When Battlelore was announced I was wildly excited as it looked to be a fantasy version of C&C:A. I’m a sucker for orcs, goblins, elves, dwarves and all the standard fantasy fare. How could I possibly pass that up?

Unfortunately, after a few plays I really found Battlelore to be the lesser game of the two. Here’s a quick rundown of where I think Battlelore stumbles and C&C:A succeeds:

Leaders – C&C:A’s leaders really have a huge impact on flow and tactical play. Leaders give bonuses to units they are near and making proper use of them can really turn the tide. They are powerful when with units but very weak on their own so you have to know when to push forward with them and when to pull back to avoid giving easy points to your opponent. Later they did add leaders to Battlelore with an expansion; it’s possible that may have brought some more interesting play to the game, but my guess is that it will still feel lackluster because of…

(image by garyjames @ BGG)
Order Cards – The main difference between the two games are the order cards themselves. Yes, the core mechanics are the same and there are many similar cards between the two. What differentiates C&C:A is how the order cards interact with the leaders. There are some cards that let you order a leader and squads adjacent to him and others that let you order and entire contiguous line with a leader in it. Lines are a very powerful formation in C&C:A and it feels appropriate for the period, is extremely satisfying and challenges you to make tough tactical decisions on when to break from the line and push out. The strongest formation in Battlelore is a triangle (three units all adjacent to each other) so you end up with small pockets of units moving around the map. I find the order cards in C&C:A result in a more tactically satisfying battle.

Battling Back and Evading – Both games have the concept of battling back: when your unit is attacked you may immediately counterattack. Units in C&C:A may always battle back in melee combat, meaning even the weakest units could potentially get some hits back (assuming they survive). It makes every unit on the board a threat. Battlelore also has the concept of battling back but only if it is a heavy (red) unit or if the unit is adjacent to two other units. This further reinforces the triangle formation that I’m not a fan of.

(image by GameCloset @ BGG)

C&C:A also allows the defender to declare an evade before dice are rolled. Evading makes it harder to hit that unit but also forces them to retreat no matter the outcome. It gives you more control over your fate, often helps your weaker units live longer and gives you more tactical choices. Sometimes evading helps put an injured unit out of harms way, other times it helps you reposition them for an upcoming order. With no equivalent in Battlelore, units pretty much bash heads until one dies.

Magic – Magic makes perfect sense in Battlelore’s fantasy setting but unfortunately I feel like it severely imbalances what is an otherwise fairly balanced game. There are only a handful of types of order cards so while you don’t know what your opponent has in their hand you can generally have an idea of what they might be able to do on any given turn. In Battlelore there is a separate deck of magic spells that you draw from and these have all sorts of wild effects. You are limited in how often you may use them as they have a cost to cast but the effects are all over the place. I find they add a level of chaos, unpredictability and imbalance to a system that otherwise works perfectly well. True, you don’t have to play with magic and given the choice I never would. Unfortunately it is a pretty big part of the game and most of the scenarios call for it. The concept is really cool but I find the execution to be lacking.

(image by Merg @ BGG)
I love Battlelore’s fantasy theme and think the game functions well enough without magic but C&C:A simply has more of the tactical goodness I want. While I focused on Battlelore’s shortcomings there is plenty to like, especially if you enjoy the fantasy theme, nice chrome and the high level of chaos magic brings to the system. Having played both, though, I find Command & Colors: Ancients to be the more satisfying experience.

Tide of Iron

(image by zombiegod @ BGG)
Fantasy Flight knows how to push my buttons. They are well known for their massive, epic games with tons of plastic and cardboard. I take one look at a new release and any semblance of willpower I have crumbles to the ground. When I first saw the images of Tide of Iron, I knew I had to have it. Tactical squad-based World War II combat with awesome plastic army men? Sign me up!

Tide of Iron is Fantasy Flight’s answer to Memoir ’44 by Days of Wonder and Squad Leader by Multiman Publishing. The former is a very simple card-driven combat game based on the Commands & Colors system used in Commands & Colors: Ancients and Battlelore, while the latter is an incredibly detailed tactical battle simulation. Tide of Iron finds the middle ground, offering far more complexity and a system closer to Advanced Squad Leader but toning down the scope and providing tons of chrome.

There are really three parts to Tide of Iron:

Components

Tide of Iron is gorgeous, no doubt about it. The game comes with extremely thick modular hex boards to build maps, hex overlays for different terrain and chits to represent entrenchments, pillboxes, razorwire and more. I really love the terrain components as everything is very clear and heavy duty.

(image by ram47 @ BGG)

While the terrain looks fantastic, the real stars of the show are the plastic army men. The base game comes with American and German units with different molds for infantry, elite infantry, commanders, machine gun nests, mortars and a bunch of different vehicles and tanks. These immediately take me back to my youth playing with the classic green army men and lend a seriously awesome “toy factor” to Tide of Iron. Each unit has a peg on the bottom which snaps into a round base with four peg slots. The base represents a single squad which you may customize however you’d like. Infantry take up a single peg while heavy weapons like the machine gun take up two. You could have one squad of three infantry and a commander while another has a machine gun nest accompanied by a normal and elite infantry. The round bases also have a clip on back where you can stick in a specialization chit to turn them into special units like medics or engineers.

The concept behind the squad creation is one of the really cool features in Tide of Iron. Each scenario gives players a set number of units but you can split them into squads however you’d like. Unfortunately the figures also lead to one of my main complaints with the game. While I understand what Fantasy Flight was going for with the pegged army men plugging into the squad bases, the problem is that they don’t fit in that well. Most have extra flashing on them and aren’t uniformly shaped so they either fit poorly or don’t fit at all. I actually took time to trim the extra flashing off of each peg and even then some still don’t make a very good fit. Ones that fit too loose are a pain because they fall out too easily when you handle the squad but others fit too tight and are tricky to get out, possibly breaking off the pegs.

Ultimately the figures end up as more fiddly than cool. I love the customizable squad concept but the bases are not as easy to use as I would like. It isn’t a deal breaker but you will no doubt feel some frustration with the squad bases at some point. I’m actually considering trying to modify my bases and units to use magnets somehow; we’ll see if I ever get inspired enough to make it happen.

Gameplay

Fantasy Flight sometimes struggles with rule books but I feel they did a great job with Tide of Iron. The book is filled with lots of great examples and offers a really handy index. Sure, you may still have a few questions here and there but overall I think the Tide of Iron rulebook may be their best.

Tide of Iron really shines when it comes to mechanics. Scenarios detail the objective, setup, victory conditions and number of turns played. Players are given specific units they assign to squads and set up on the board. A single game turn is played over several rounds of back-and-forth unit activation as listed in the objective. For example, each side may activate three units at a time (until all units have been activated for both sides) or it might be lop-sided with the Germans activating three and the Americans two It is a great system as it helps lend to the real-time feel of the game and gives players very interesting decisions to make. After all units have been activated the turn ends, you check for control of victory conditions, do some cleanup and continue.

(image by Konwacht @ BGG)
You have several different options when activating a unit. Generally you either move, fire, go into “op fire” (delay your attack until an enemy moves into line of sight) or play a strategy card. After activating a unit you place a fatigue marker next to them to indicate they may not be activated again this turn. Op fire is a big part of the game as you need to decide which units need to be used offensively and which can be used defensively in reaction to enemy movement. You also have two options when it comes time to shoot: normal and suppressive fire. A hit on normal fire simply kills off an enemy figure (removing them from the squad base) while a hit on suppressive fire pins that squad, essentially making them inactive for the rest of the turn. When you make an attack without moving (called concentrated fire) you may also combine fire with other unfatigued units within line-of-sight of the target, allowing you to make a single stronger attack rather than multiple weaker attacks.

I really feel like the combat system nails the feel I want from a tactical squad-level game. Killing off units permanently weakens a squad but sometimes you need to pin down a unit (especially machine gun nests) so you can push forward. Combining fire can be extremely powerful but it fatigues every unit that participates so you need to weigh the odds and determine how important that additional firepower really is versus another separate attack. There are rules for cover (adding to a unit’s defense) and special units that give bonuses (commanders add plus one defense against suppressive fire, for example) which all add complexity of the decision-making process. Running through open ground towards a machine gun nest will almost always result in your squad getting mowed down but laying down suppressive fire on that nest first might open up a window for you to advance and get a better position. Those decisions and the moments that play out really make Tide of Iron fantastic.

Scenarios

As a historical game, Tide of Iron comes with a bunch of scenarios recreating battles during World War II. No matter how great the game system is, poor scenarios in a scenario-based game can really ruin it. I won’t go so far as to say that the scenarios ruin Tide of Iron but I feel like they don’t always make the fun immediately apparent. Many scenarios put one player as the attacker and the other as the defender. This usually results in the attacker having interesting tactical decisions to make while the defender holes up and adjusts as necessary. In many war games the idea is that you switch sides and play a scenario twice. Given a single scenario can easily take two to three hours to play out, that’s not always an option in Tide of Iron. Unfortunately this means that one player may be stuck in the less interesting role.

(image by joebelanger @ BGG)

I’ve seen many comment that the scenarios are not “balanced” but I think they miss the point of these scenarios. They are based on real battles, few of which I doubt had equal odds for both sides going in. As a simulation I think Tide of Iron succeeds and the scenarios succeed in giving players a feel for the situation they are attempting to recreate. Unfortunately that does not always equate to equal fun for both players. I think it is very possible to create scenarios that are very well-balanced but they will likely be less historical. How much you enjoy the scenarios will likely depend on how much you really care about a truly balanced outcome.

One aspect I think the scenarios do a great job with is abstracting out elements that fall outside the squad-level focus of the game. There are a bunch of different card decks and special cards that come with the game. Each scenario details which decks each side gets. For example, the Americans might get the Air Support Deck to help represent bombing runs the player can perform while the Germans get the Reinforcement Deck to help represent additional support that appears over the course of the scenario. Rather than represent these on the board they come into play through cards the player draws and puts into play. The cards really add a lot of depth to the game while adding almost no additional complexity.

When All is Said and Done

Tide of Iron sort of straddles the line between war game and designer game. The rules and underlying system are fantastic and really capture the feel I want in a tactical war game. There’s enough complexity to give you really interesting decisions to make but not so much that everything can’t be summed up on more than a couple of pages of cheat sheets. The components are gorgeous but not quite as functional as they should be. Scenarios really set the stage for a historical simulation although they don’t always result in an equal match between sides.

When all is said and done, I love Tide of Iron. It is not without its flaws but I think the good far outweighs the bad. Like many of Fantasy Flight’s other games the experience of playing is what matters, not the outcome. This isn’t a game for everyone, though; I highly recommending playing before buying if you can. Tide of Iron does have elements that will easily turn someone away, but if it hooks you it is all over. I only get to break out Tide of Iron a handful of times each year but for me it is worth it every time. I just hope Fantasy Flight takes away some valuable lessons in component usability.

Two Player Games

The first “holy grail” of board gaming seems to be a good, deep civilization style game that can be played in an evening. Second holy grail? Quality two player games, especially those that will appeal to significant others usually of the female persuasion. These are just five that I enjoy; there are many more great two player games of all sorts. If you’d like more information, these GeekLists at BoardGameGeek are good starting points:

Favorite Two-Player Games
Good two-player games
Multi-player games that are better with two

Lost Cities
(image courtesy Urtur @ BGG)

This is almost always the first game that comes to most gamers minds when you say two player. Lost Cities, by the Good Doctor Reiner Knizia, has players attempting to have the most successful archaeological digs by the end of the game. There are five expeditions (each a different color) and cards of each color numbered one through ten and three handshake cards. On your turn you must first play a card then draw a card. Playing a card means either putting it on an expedition in front of you or discarding it in the middle; drawing a card means drawing from the draw pile or taking the top discarded card from any expedition.

Cards must be played from low to high although you may skip numbers and handshakes must be played before any number cards. So your sequence on the blue expedition could be handshake, 1, 2, 4, 6, 7. In this case you’ll never have a way to play the blue 3 or blue 5 as you’ve skipped past them. At the end of the game you add up the face value of your cards, subtract 20 and multiply by the number of handshakes plus one. Most points wins.

I think Lost Cities is a fantastic two player game. It’s simple, the art is bright and colorful and you’ll be making lots of tough decisions throughout. As you must always play a card before drawing you’ll often end up having to make a sub-optimal play, either skipping a number in sequence or discarding a card your opponent could use. While many consider this the ultimate couples games, I’ve had mixed results in the past. Still, I think it’s worth taking a chance with the game. My only complaint is that it gets a bit mathy when scoring at the end.

Knights of Charlemagne
(photo courtesy Jasonofindy @ BGG)

Another Knizia special, Knights of Charlemagne is sort of a simplified Lost Cities (or more closely a simplified Battle Line). On the table are ten tokens players are fighting over: five numbered 1 to 5 and five in one of five colors. Players are dealt cards that have both a color and a number on it. On your turn you draw a card from the draw pile and play a card in your area on either the matching number or matching color on the board. Play until all cards are used up; at the end the player with the most number of physical cards on a given token earns it. Total up the points on your tokens at the end to see who wins.

There are a couple great things about Knights of Charlemagne. First, it’s incredibly simple, even more so than Lost Cities. Second, it plays 2-4 and I think works well with any number of players so it’s a good option if you have friends over. It doesn’t have quite the depth of other games but it’s fast, easy to teach and still requires a bit of thought. Your first few rounds of play aren’t very important but towards the end you’ll find yourself counting cards and trying to play them where they count.

Dynasties
(photo courtesy Nodens77 @ BGG)

Here’s a surprise: an area control game that is specifically designed for two players and works!

Players duke it out for control over provinces in an attempt to reunite ancient China. Each player has a hand of cards representing army strength and a bunch of wooden cubes for their armies. In secret players put a card down on each area, reveal and resolve. Generally the higher card wins and gets to adjust the number of armies in that territory by the difference of the two cards played. If black played a 3 and white played a 5 in Tibet, for example, white would get to adjust the number of armies in Tibet by 2 in their favor. If there was a single black army there already it would be removed and white would add one army, or if while already had an army there they’d simply add two more. The game takes place over nine rounds and you score the territories every three rounds, earning points for the areas you control.

What really makes the game work is that the players have the same basic set of cards. Some cards are returned to your hand after they are played, others are discarded and some of the more powerful ones can only be played once per territory. This system means that while there is some luck in your card draw you and your opponent are pretty evenly matched so it’s more about how well you play and how well you can out-think and bluff your opponent.

San Juan
(image courtesy Geosmores @ BGG)

Trading goods and putting up buildings in the city of San Juan might not sounds like much of a theme but this is a fantastic card game. Players compete to have the most victory points by the end of the game. Buildings placed in front of them are worth points and some buildings work in conjunction with others. The game is over when someone builds their twelfth building, then you tally up points and see who won.

San Juan has a few things going for it. First, there is a little bit of player interaction with the role selection. There are six roles available for use each turn. These roles determine what actions everyone will be taking but whoever actually picks the role gets a bonus. For example, if I take the builder everyone will have the opportunity to put up a building but I’ll pay one less for it. Also, nobody else will be able to take the builder role this round so only I will get that extra discount. Of course you’ll be able to place buildings that might work in conjunction with the builder role, giving you extra bonuses even when you don’t specifically take that role.

Next is the fantastic card management aspect of the game. Cards serve three proposes: as buildings you can build in front of you, as money to pay for your buildings and as goods that are traded. Players are dealt a hand of building cards and buildings have a cost listed. When you decide to build a building you must pay its costs with cards from your hand. If you have six cards in your hand and play building with a cost of four, you’ll need to play your building in front of you and discard four cards from your hand as payment, leaving you with a single card left. Some buildings generate goods which are represented as face-down cards that can be traded in for new cards.

This simple mechanism really makes the game fun. You have to make interesting decisions as to what cards you want to keep around and which you are willing to part with. As you play more you’ll find certain building combos seem to work better than others so you’ll start to push your luck a little bit and try to go a certain route in hopes of getting the cards you need. At the same time you may need to adjust your strategy if you see your opponent is pulling away from you.

I love this game. It’s more complex than the other games I’ve listed so far but still simple enough that everyone I’ve taught it to has been able to grasp the concept and have fun. San Juan also supports up to four players so it’s another game that has some good flexibility as well. Easily my most highly recommended game on my list.

BattleLore
(image courtesy kilroy_locke @ BGG)

Last on the list is BattleLore. It’s strictly a two player game (technically there are rules for up to four but I’d stick with two) with a sea of plastic miniatures placed on a hex-based board. The look of it could very well scare off many non-gamers so I would recommend easing your significant other into this by getting them to enjoy some of the other games on this list first.

BattleLore is a fantasy war game. Each player controls an army of humans, orcs, dwarves and a variety of monsters. Generally you earn points for defeating enemy units and the games typically end after someone has killed a certain number of units.

BattleLore is based on Richard Borg‘s Command and Colors battle system which has appeared in several games. This is the first game with a fantasy setting which I think will appeal to many more so than a historical war period like the other games that use it. It may look a little daunting at first but the command system is very simple and makes the game far more approachable than it may appear.

Based on a scenario out of the manual, players will set up their armies and move them around on the board. Each player has a hand of action cards that determine what actions they may perform on their turn. The board is divided into three flanks: left, center and right. A card typically specifies a flank a number of units. For example, the card might say “Order three units” and have an arrow on the right flank. This means you may move and attack with any three units you may have in the right flank. You may have a lot of units on the board but these cards limit how many decisions you have at any point in time. I think this system helps ease people into war games as you aren’t overwhelmed with having to plan moves for every single unit on your turn. Just look at your cards and see if you can find a decent move from them.

Combat is a pretty simple dice-based affair. Some units have special abilities but the game’s manual gives lots of great examples and it comes with little summary cards you can have out to help you remember the details. BattleLore is far more involved than anything on this list, and while it may look extremely cool to you I wouldn’t advise making this the first board game with your significant other. Once you start playing you’ll find the game is more simple that it looks and it plays in roughly an hour; you’ll be hard-pressed to find this much depth in that same amount of time.

If the fantasy theme and plastic bits aren’t necessarily going to help your cause, check out the more simplified Memoir ’44 (World War II) or Commands and Colors: Ancients (Romans) which use the same basic command and combat system. I think Commands and Colors is the best in the series but BattleLore is certainly the most fun.

Getting the Games

There you go! Hopefully this list gives you a good starting point. You won’t find these games at any big retail store. See if there are any gaming specialty stores in your area or hop online and check out ThoughtHammer or Fair Play Games; both are online board game shops that I often rely on for my board game purchases.