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.