Commands & Colors: Napoleonics

We’ve just finished our first playthrough of a complete round of Commands & Colors: Napoleonics, playing through the Roliça (first position) scenario. I think it’s a good time to discuss my early impressions of the game.

Needless to say, some of these are preliminary in nature, and it may turn out in the fullness of time I’ll change my mind. But first impressions matter, and they matter a lot, so I want to jot these notes down while my thoughts are still fresh.

Components

The components, with one major exception, are of superb quality. The board is a solidly-built mounted board with large hexes and three sections - left, center, and right - with a pleasant neutral green background.

[caption id=“attachment_2496” align=“alignright” width=“300” caption=“C&C;:N pieces in play”][/caption]Of course, being a Commands & Colors game, it also comes with approximately 68,200 wooden blocks in varying sizes - royal blue for the French, scarlet red for the British, and brown for the Portuguese (sorry, Portugal.) Likewise, there are 136,400 stickers, which are applied to each side of the wooden blocks. I loves me some stickers! The images on the stickers seemed a little more distinctive to me than most of the artwork in Commands & Colors: Ancients.

One major change in the system is that unit hits are not determined by whether a unit is light, medium, or heavy, but whether they are infantry, cavalry, or artillery. Within each type of unit, there are subtle differences: for example, infantry might be light infantry, or line infantry, or grenadiers, or guards, and so on. This is indicated by a narrow band in the appropriate color (blue for infantry, yellow for cavalry, red for artillery) with the name of the subtype written in black letters.

You’d think labeling the units with names would be helpful, but I think it is problematic. While putting stickers on the blocks, the text was perfectly readable. In play however, both of us found ourselves constantly squinting at blocks, trying to distinguish whether a given unit was a Light or Line infantry. If you’ve played Commands and Colors: Ancients, you may be familiar with how troublesome it can be to distinguish auxilia from light infantry, at least until you memorize the picture. This, I think, is just as bad, and possibly a little worse. Perhaps they just needed to have picked a different typeface, or perhaps I need the “megablocks” version of the game with blocks that are the size of Saltine crackers.

The cards are nicely done, have clear text, and seem of slightly higher quality than those from C&C;: A, though this may be my imagination.

Victory banners are no longer wooden blocks, but are instead cardboard chits which have the British flag on one side and the French flag on the other. This seems like a reasonable change.

The game comes with multiple player aid cards that are notably worse than the equivalent cards from Commands & Colors: Ancients. The Ancients cards tell you practically everything you need to know to play the game. The Napoleonics player aids are missing unit range, which seems like an awfully large omission (most infantry, for example, can fire from a range of 2 hexes, but light infantry can fire from 3) The beauty of the Ancients player aid was precisely that I could give them to someone who hadn’t read the rulebook, and they were 80% of the way there.

The biggest disappointment, for me, is that GMT is still including ridiculously cheap-looking dice in the game, which the player then stickers. In a game where nearly every other component is, from a physical standpoint, first-rate, the dice are an embarassment. It’s a bit like going into a fine French restaurant and being served a glass of champagne, some escargot, and cold spam in a can. They stick out like a sore thumb in an otherwise beautiful package. There are plenty of ways to substitute better dice for the plastic pieces of junk included in the box, but it’s a real shame that anyone should even have to think about this at all.

Each die has 2 infantry symbols, 1 cavalry symbol, 1 artillery symbol, a retreat flag, and a close combat hit (“crossed swords”). So infantry combat will be substantially bloodier than in Ancients.

Playthrough

I played the French, my opponent played the perfidious British. Historically, the French at Roliça were forced to retreat by the future Duke of Wellington. Two turns into this game, it looked like we were heading to the same result. I had managed to eliminate half of the British artillery when they moved them too close to my defensive lines, but beyond that, it was looking fairly grim. Portguese light rifle infantry, hiding in the woods off my left flank, repeatedly peppered my light infantry with shot, crippling them by the second turn.At this point, I decided that it was worth taking some risks to try to get out of the situation.

Using a Cavalry Charge card, I dispatched my two units of light cavalry on my left and right flanks to engage leading units of the Portuguese and British infantry. I fully expected to lose them in a counterattack, but my hope was that if I could hold the right flank in the river crossing, I might be able to make something interesting happen.

My opponents decided this would be a good time to test the system’s new “Infantry square” rules. Forming a square has a few interesting consequences that aren’t immediately obvious from the rules. The square means your infantry will take less potential damage (only 1 die) from cavalry; but it also means that it will only deal 1 die of damage in return. Furthermore, the infantry unit then cannot move until it comes out of square; you lose a random card from your hand for as long as the unit is in the square, and, most importantly, the unit cannot leave the square as long as a cavalry unit is adjacent.

It wasn’t clear from the rules whether the cavalry still received its extra die from the Cavalry Charge card while fighting an infantry in square. We decided to rule in favor of the infantry, and only rolled one die. Both infantry survived the attack, and with lucky rolls did minor damage to both cavalry. Thing were looking rather grim. On the next turn, the British eliminated my light infantry.

At this point, I decided to risk it all on a Bayonet Charge. This card is ridiculously powerful, particularly for the French, allowing 4 infantry units to move 2 hexes and still engage in melee. Thus, 4 units of my line infantry left their secure redoubt on the hills and charged down into the British/Portuguese lines. French units naturally get an extra die in melee combat, effectively neutralizing the cover that the allied units were trying to use. On the next turn, luckily, I drew a second Bayonet Charge. That was enough to finish the battle off: within two turns, I had decimated their infantry and won my fifth flag.

Complex, or Just Complicated?

Most of the discussion online about C&C;:N has focused on the rule change wherein a unit deals less damage as it loses blocks. In my opinion, this is probably the least important new rule. There are a lot of additions to the system here. It’s going to take a few more playthroughs to answer the question “Is this deep and complex, or simply more complicated?” For sure, there are more options at your disposal in Commands & Colors: Napoleonics. Those of you who felt that the line tactics in its Ancients brother were not sophisticated enough will probably enjoy it. In addition to the above- mentioned rule about infantry squares, there are also combined-arms attacks, where artillery can assist a unit that is involved in a melee assault. There are victory point locations (familiar to Memoir ‘44 players) where you can earn a banner for reaching certain locations on the board. There are cavalry breakthroughs and bonus attacks. And there is a lot of terrain in use throughout the game.

So there’s a lot to mull over here. On the whole, I like the game. I think the interactions of all the new rules are likely to add a lot of depth to the system. On the down side, the level of commitment required is higher; the matrix of exceptions and behaviors seems higher than that in the Ancients game, and that might make this less accessible and – time will tell – slower playing. But my first impressions are very positive, and I’m looking forward to the chance to play this again soon.