Monday, April 17, 2006

Quick Wargame Quick Takes

Command & Colors: Ancients: I've been dragged kicking and screaming into this whole Command and Colors thing after Battle Cry left me irritated. Since I liked Memoir '44 well enough but it was a second-tier game for me, I didn't have much interest in Command & Colors: Ancients, even though I am a huge fan of the period. I ended up playing it during some downtime at GMT Games Day. 

Let me just say one thing: those dice are hideous.

Continuing along ...

I was actually pretty pleased with the feel of C&C:A. It's a more incremental game than Memoir '44 or Battle Cry, with things happening in slightly smaller chunks (combat is less lethal, in general, and more attritional because attacked units can damage their attackers) and in slower motion (most units capable of serious damage in close combat move only one hex per turn), all of which gives the game more time to develop, which I think is a good thing, more or less. Light troops skirmish and then use the evade rules to fall back before the main clash of arms. Finally we have a game in this series where the whole division of the battlefield into sectors (right flank, left flank, center) actually makes some kind of intuitive sense, and combined with some sensible command cards (order skirmishers, order cavalry) the game doesn't feel like it's leaning quite so heavily on minis and art for its theme. And the many classes of troops involved in ancient battles are nicely reflected with subtle and flavorful differences. All in all, for me this gives by far the best historical flavor of the Command and Colors games.

The cost, of course, is increased playing time and increased rules overhead. The added playing time is significant but not too bad, and it gives some of it back with a faster set-up time, given the lack of much terrain in most scenarios. The rules complexity is a bit more suspect, with a fair number of fiddly-type chrome rules. The question is whether or not all of this is justified in light of the fact that Command and Colors is, at its heart, a game that's more or less a luck-fest with some interesting choices that sometimes seem incidential. I am not quite decided, personally. For the moment, the balance works out in favor of the game because I like the flavor and the period, but I can see somewhere 10 games in, if and when it become clear that there just isn't that much in terms of strategy or tactics to the game, that the added fiddlyness would be unwelcome over the cleaner-playing Memoir '44 (and to be honest, Memoir '44 itself would never be mistaken for a Knizia in terms of design elegance).

The other question is, of course, the quality of the scenarios – an area in which Memoir '44 fell down in a large part. The one I played (Zama) was one of the bigger ones and seemed OK. Looking them over, I admit I am suspicious of the scenario balance. On this, though, only time will tell.

Ted Raicer's The First World War: The commentary on this one had led me to believe that it would probably suck, but that was not the case, and I modestly enjoyed my one play. That said, it wasn't great either, and it's a tough sell in light of the better stuff available.

The First World War is basically a game of bluff. You try to concentrate you armies at areas of enemy weakness and use concealed units and dummies to convince him not to attack in areas you are weak. That's kinda cool, but that's really all there is – once you've made your comittments at the beginning of each game-year, the rest plays out as rather luck-heavy with high-stakes single die rolls and pretty obvious moves, and a game that will go 3 hours if it goes the distance. It's not without a fun factor – pushing around the armies and watching them advance or retreat is kinda neat – but if I want to play a simple game of bluff and deception, I'll play Quebec 1759 or War of 1812 instead, both of which are much more complete packages. Or Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation. If the First World War had great themeing, that might be another matter – but it doesn't.

So it's a game that certainly isn't terrible, but there are a lot of better light wargames to spend a couple hours on. As is often the case, I think it needed another idea. The stuff that's in there is okay, there just isn't enough of it. The game is too one-dimensional. Being rules-light doesn't mean you need to be idea-light also.

I should also mention that I found the map amazingly unattractive. Phalanx is known for their very high production values, and in many cases I'd agree (Revolution was amazing if played in good light, A House Divided and The Prince were both very nice, and most of the rest were at least above average in this category). But The First World War is unattractive in spots and overall is graphically ineffective, at best. Recent Phalanx games seem to have lost their edge in terms of physical attractiveness, without picking up any ground in terms of actual usability (which has always been a sore spot).

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