Mad dogs and hexagons

My chum Will Townshend, he of The Plastic Soldier Company, lives just a few miles away in Henfield, West Sussex, and in recent months it’s been a boon for my own hobby to have such an enthusiastic gamer nearby who also shares an interest in many of my favourite periods. Truth be told, he’s had such a tough time getting his first set of plastic miniatures to the finishing line that an occasional game has helped him to stay sane. He’s had so many manufacturing teething troubles that the poor man will need a new set of choppers before long… Ah well, no great success comes without a combination of ambition and pain!

Anyway, most recently, as you will have noticed from my activity on Twitter, we have been experimenting with, and very much enjoying, Commands & Colors Ancients. Following various pieces written by Bob Barnetson, whose sentiments have been echoed by Mike Siggins amongst others, I plunged in recently and invested in the first boxed set for the game. What a revelation! Whilst it’s true that card-driven systems may not be to everyone’s tastes, C&C provides an extremely challenging and highly satisfying game. So far, we’ve played about six or seven times, and I’m hooked!

In case you’ve never played, let me give a brief resume.

The boxed set provides you with a set of comprehensive rules; expansion sets are available that extend the coverage of the first set, which basically focuses on Roman and other Italic armies versus, amongst others, the Carthaginians. You also get a high-quality, double-sided, folding map board, which is tesselated with hexagons. The units consist of wooden blocks of various sizes (grey for Romans, brown for Carthaginians) to which you attach illustrated stickers on both sides denoting the various troop types – light infantry, auxilia, medium cavalry, chariots and so on. Let me tell you now that this chore is not to be undertaken lightly. Personally, I’d recommend enlisting friends/club members/loved ones to help out! Also in the box you get a booklet containing a selection of scenarios based on real battles; a set of Victory Banner blocks, which also have self-adhesive stickers; a set of card overlay hexagons indicating terrain such as rivers, hills, broken ground and so on; a handful of combat dice, onto which you apply yet more stickers denoting the three types of unit (green circle for light, blue triangle for medium and red square for heavy) as well as crossed swords, a banner and a helmet or ‘leader’ symbol; a couple of very nicely produced and extremely useful Quick Reference Cards; and finally, the crucial Command Cards, printed with a range of possible orders that you may give each turn.

If you judge value for money by weight, this game is a bargain! I’ve included a (big!) photo here so you can see what I mean. The little plastic zipper bags for keeping the pieces sorted are my own addition, by the way, as are the playing card protective sleeves which I found at Wargames Heaven.

The contents of the Commands & Colors Ancients introductory box set

The contents of the Commands & Colors Ancients introductory box set

The way the game plays is as follows.

The scenario will specify what forces are at your disposal and where they should be positioned on the board, including your leaders. Any non-standard terrain is also specified and what effects that has on the game. Note that the playing area is divided into three sections: left, centre and right. These are important because many of the Command Cards specify that you may only give orders to your troops in one of those sections. Crucially, the scenario also specifies your “Command”, i.e. how many Command Cards you are permitted to hold at any one time. Finally, the outline will also tell you how many Victory Banners you must achieve in order to win the scenario. In short, you gain a Victory Banner for every enemy unit destroyed or leader killed. The game ends as soon as one side has captured enough banners.

The Command Cards are dealt – normally, each side holds between four and six. This number is a reflection of the command quality of each side, because the more cards in your hand, the greater the range of options available to you. The remaining cards are placed face-down in a pile beside the board. Each turn, you may choose to play one of the cards in your hand and at the end of your turn, that card is placed in a discard pile and a fresh card drawn and added to your hand.

During the course of play, it is possible that some cards may allow you, or your opponent, to play outside the normal sequence. You may also find yourself drawing cards that are utterly useless to you – for example, a card allowing you to order all your heavy troops, or perhaps cavalry, when you have none in your army! Such are the frustrations of war. But in general, the skill is in husbanding the most useful cards in your hand until you can play them in successive moves to deliver a series of powerful blows.

The units are arrayed on the board as blocks. The hexagons, of course, eliminate any fudging of move and firing distances, and of unit facing, which is largely irrelevant anyway in this game. Foot units consist of four blocks; artillery two; cavalry and camelry three; elephants two; regular chariots two; and barbarian chariots three. A Leader is always just a single, large block. Units never sub-divide: the individual blocks are not sub-units per se, capable of independent action, they are more an indication of that unit’s ability to take punishment. Special rules cover Leaders when they are either attached to a unit or operating alone.

So, let’s begin. General A (let’s call him Henry the Great), chooses a card from his hand, uses it to order his units and Leaders; Moves; Battles (the name given to all shooting and meleeing); and then finally discards that card and draws a new one. The process is then repeated by his opponent (let’s call him Will the Unwilling). The opponent also participates in Close Combat, during which any units attacked may Battle Back, but not during Ranged Combat.

Typical Command Cards might be “Order two units Right”, which means that he could give orders to two of his units in the right hand section of the battlefield; or “Leadership any Section +3”, which would mean he could select any troops within 3 hexes of one of his leaders anywhere on the battlefield, as long as they are within the same section as he is. Obviously, depending on his deployment, the latter card could prove a great deal more useful than the former. Other Commands include “Darken the Sky” (any ranged weapon units can fire twice, instead of just once); “Move-Fire-Move” (light foot or mounted units can move, fire and then move again); and “Line Command” (a line of adjacent foot units, potentially stretching right across the battlefield, may all advance one hex). A useful ‘out of sequence’ card is “First Strike”, which enables any of your defending units to battle first before the attacking opponent works out their Close Combat, enabling you to potentially eliminate his unit, rather like a successful countercharge.

One of the best-named cards is “I Am Spartacus!” This card allows you to roll the Battle Dice, one for each card in your hand. For each unit type symbol rolled (that’s the green dot, blue triangle or red square), one unit of that type can be ordered anywhere on the battlefield. A Leader symbol (the helmet) can be used to order either a Leader or ANY type of unit. Furthermore, any unit which battles may do so with one additional die this turn. And finally, this card then orders that the card deck and discards must all be re-shuffled together again!

There are many other cards, but this should suffice to give you a flavour of the possibilities offered by this system.

Most ‘Light’ types of infantry can move two hexes per turn, Medium and Heavy just one. Light cavalry move four, Mediums and Barbarian chariots three, and Heavies, along with other chariots and heffalumps, two. An exception are barbarian ‘Warrior’ infantry who normally move just one hex, but can canter along at two as long as this move brings them crashing into an enemy unit in a classic tribal charge. Moves can be made in any direction, but are obviously affected by adverse terrain. Interpenetration is allowed only rarely and will be specified on particular Command Cards.

The Battling system is very elegant. The various troop types are permitted to roll specific numbers of the Battle Dice according to whether they are shooting or meleeing, and also according to whether they have moved or not. Barbarian units also melee more powerfully when they are at full strength than after taking losses, a reflection of them perhaps losing heart. A chart is consulted, on which the target unit type is listed, and the die symbols which must be rolled in order to secure a hit, and thus remove one of the enemy blocks. If a ‘banner’ symbol is rolled, this usually forces the enemy unit to retreat, though this can be offset by the target unit having an attached Leader, or being well supported and so on.

For example, assuming the general’s Command Card permits it as one of his orders, let’s say we have a unit of Roman Auxilia (a form of Light infantry) wishing to throw their javelins at a unit of Ancient British Warriors (a variant of Medium infantry) at their maximum range of two hexes. The Auxilia haven’t moved, so they may roll two dice – it would have been only one if they had moved. Let’s say they roll a green dot and a banner, so in this case, no casualties are removed, but the target unit would normally be forced to retire one full move to the rear. Had one of the dice shown a blue triangle, the warband would have lost one of its blocks. However, one of the characteristics of full strength Warrior units is that they ignore any one Retreat result inflicted on them during a turn, so they are unaffected. Bad luck to the Romans!

Now, during the opponent’s turn, the Warrior unit bellows its war cry and charges the Auxilia. It may move the two hexes when it charges, remember, so it makes contact and proceeds to Battle in hand-to-hand. A full-strength Warrior unit rolls no fewer than four dice; the Auxilia, when Battling Back, only three. The Warrior unit’s roll comes up green dot, crossed swords, red square and a helmet. The green dot and crossed swords both equate to one hit each, so two blocks are removed from the Auxiliary unit, reducing it by half. The red square counts for nothing here, but of course would have against Heavy troops. The helmet symbol does nothing for the Warrior unit here, but had a Leader been either attached or in an adjacent hex, a further casualty would have been caused.

Now the Auxilia Battle Back, still with their three dice – their losses have no effect on their fighting ability, just their capacity to take further punishment – and they roll two banners and a blue triangle. Success! The Warriors lose a block, and now that they are no longer at full strength, the Warrior unit must apply both retreats indicated by the banner symbols, forcing them to retreat two hexes (bearing in mind that their normal move, as opposed to a charge, is only one hex).

One of the skills of generalship, of course, is to try to manoeuvre your units so that more than one unit attacks a single defending unit. Each of the attacking units may Battle, but the defenders must choose to fight back against only one of those attacks. It is also advisable, of course, to use ranged troops to ‘soften up’ an enemy unit before charging home – orders may be carried out in any sequence the active player wishes.

I hope that this brief introduction shows you that C&C is a game which belies its simple mechanisms and permits great subtlety of tactics. Whilst it is true that the card-driven system creates a game that may bear no resemblance to the average miniatures game, where typically a player may move and fight with as many or as few of his units as he wishes, the rules are very easy to grasp and the game rollicks along at a cracking pace for most of the time, interspersed with the kind of tactical forward-thinking that one might require in a game of chess or – and this is important – a tricky game of Poker or Bridge. It is this combination of board game, dice game and card game which really ticks so many boxes. In the few games I have had so far, opponents have included pure boardgamers and general gamers, as well as miniatures wargamers. Everyone has had a good time and declared that they rate C&C highly.

And then there’s Will.

Will doesn’t do things by halves, and though he must surely have one of the most butterfly minds I have encountered (he outdoes me, and that’s saying something!), he has absolutely fallen in love with C&C Ancients.

Now, as it happens, Will has been an ancients gamer for some time, and has amassed an impressive array of 15mm DBA armies, ranging right from Ancient Egypt through to Late Romans. They have seen action on a couple of occasions here in The Loftwaffe, firstly when introducing me to DBA for the very first time a few weeks ago, and then soon after in a playtesting session of my rules. How fortunate, then, to discover that Will can easily field units that duplicate in ‘elements’ precisely what C&C requires in ‘blocks’. The simple addition of a coloured sticky dot to their bases indicates the light, medium or heavy status of each unit, and a hand-drawn blob adds what would have been the white outline in C&C indicating Auxilia or Warrior infantry.

The missing link? Hexes, of course.

Or, at least, it was until Will attended Partizan and discovered the joys of Kallistra’s Hexon terrain system.

I was summoned, therefore, by a gleeful Will to his house last week on a scorchingly hot afternoon, where I was presented with the not unimpressive sight of a Julian Roman army facing Boudicca’s onrushing hordes at Watling Street during the Revolt of 61AD from Expansion Set 4 but, like pretty much everything to do with Commands & Colors Ancients, available free on their website. It was weather for mad dogs and Englishmen alone to attempt a wargame, but with these pretty hexagons at our disposal, who could resist? [Apologies, by the way, for the quality of the photos that follow: they were taken on my iPhone, a gadget which I adore in so many respects but which is cursed with a diabolical camera, ‘interpolating’ Apps notwithstanding. If it weren’t for all the other killer Apps and Mac-friendliness, I would have stuck with my old Nokia which had a superb lens.]

 

Commands & Colors Ancients picture 1

Commands & Colors Ancients Watling Street on Will's Hexon terrain

In the first picture, you can see the Romans I commanded on the right, with Will’s Britons on the left. It was a gloriously sunny day, flooding Will’s kitchen – and my lens! – with sunlight. You can see that the Hexon boards, with each hex 10cm across, are extremely attractive and make transferring a hex-based game to miniatures an absolute doddle. I need to point out that Will didn’t have the historically correct horde of wagons and civilians to deploy in the rear, so we substituted impassable terrain features.

Will certainly had a massive advantage in numbers, but, as we shall see, he was hampered by having just the one Leader, Boudicca herself, whereas I had three, led by Suetonius. It should also be noted that as a result, I had six cards in my hand at all times, to Will’s four.

Early moves revolved around probing attacks on the flanks, as Will tried to establish flank cover for any advance he might make in the centre. These were met with resistance from my own Auxilia on the wings, with the support of some medium cavalry. On my left flank, Will managed to impose a Retreat on one of my cavalry units which fortunately stopped short of the baseline. On my right, however, after some to-ing and fro-ing, I managed to secure the woods with some Auxilia, backed up by a unit of Medium cavalry and some Light Bow infantry. The next picture shows the tense situation here. The main Roman centre is untroubled as yet, but that mass of British warbands and chariots in the centre had me chewing my lip!

 

Early in the game, with probing attacks on the flanks

Early in the game, with probing attacks on the flanks stymied

The next picture is a close-up of that central mass of Britons; one of my units of Medium cavalry, just in shot bottom right, was perilously weak and was shortly to be demolished completely.

 

The Briton centre.

Boudicca's centre. All 15mm miniatures in Will Townshend's collection

The next shot shows the opposite flank, with the British auxilia firmly ensconced in the wood, supported by Light Cavalry. Opposite them, Medium Legionaries and Light Bows, who have been reduced by half, though they are well supported by infantry to the right and cavalry behind.

 

The Roman left flank, British in the woods

The Roman left flank, British in the woods

One of the nice rules in C&C is the “Momentum Advance”, whereby a unit which is victorious in melee can then occupy the hex just vacated by the enemy and, in the case of cavalry, then move a further hex. If this brings them into contact with a fresh enemy unit, a further melee can occur – and if that is successful, they can make a further Momentum Advance, though they cannot undertake further Close Combat.

Well, what happened next was a stunning blow to Will’s morale. I had a couple of units of Medium Cavalry on my left and when the right Command Card came along, I swept them forward. One unit was accompanied by a Leader (seen behind the unit at the bottom left of the photo below), and they crushed all before them, which included none other than Queen Boudicca herself. The photo here shows the moment just after Will has removed two stands from the chariot unit she was attached to and her command model, amongst much wailing and gnashing of teeth!

 

The hole where Boudicca should be

The hole where Boudicca should be! Her mutilated body's in those bushes.

The procedure for risk to Leaders is very simple: if a Leader is with a unit that is defeated or eliminated, the opponent picks up two of the dice and has to roll two helmet symbols, akin to rolling a double 6. Imagine the look on Will’s face when the dice stopped bouncing!

My cavalry unit were then able to carry out a Momentum advance, kill the remaining stand in Boudicca’s chariot unit that can be seen in the photo, then turn to threaten a warband next to them that Will had sent to reinforce his right flank.

One of the problems of losing your general if you only have one is, of course, that some of the Command Cards make reference to things like “Leadership Any Section”, or “Inspired Center Leadership” and so on. Without a general, these are utterly useless.

I don’t want you to get the impression I was having it all my own way, however, so let’s fly over to the opposite flank…

Here, Will had managed to husband an “Order Four Units Left” card, and sent forward a couple of Warrior units and two units of chariots that wreaked mayhem on my right flank, seizing the woods, crashing into and devastating my cavalry and finally sending one victorious chariot unit careening into one of my two units of heavy infantry, which had a general attached. The unit survived by a whisker, with just one base remaining with the general.

But what Will couldn’t know was that I held a card that I was actually thinking I would have little use for, but which suddenly played a vital role as he said, “Your turn, old boy!”

It was as if the very air itself held its breath and time slowed as the card floated down to the tabletop.

“Rally?” asked Will. “What’s that?”

Ah, famous last words. I savoured the recitation of what was inscribed on the Command Card.

“Rally: roll dice equal to Command. For each unit type or leader symbol rolled, one unit of the appropriate type in or adjacent to a leader’s hex is rallied (replace a block in the under strength unit). Rallied units are ordered and may move and battle. Elephant and chariot units may not be rallied. If you do not have any leaders, issue an order to 1 unit of your choice. NOTE: Units may not gain more blocks than they had to begin with, but units may regain more than one block if they have lost more than one. Leader symbols can be used to rally any type of eligible unit. A unit already at full strength with or adjacent to a leader can never be rallied, regardless of the die roll. therefore only units which actually ‘regain’ a block are considered ordered when rallied. All leaders on the battlefield may be used to rally under strength units.

I looked up and the blood drained from Will’s face as I picked up one, two, three, four, five, six dice. I shook them. I rolled.

One red square. One helmet symbol. The rest a motley mixture. Not great, but enough, and two stands were replaced in the Heavy Infantry unit that Will had so nearly eradicated. And now, they fought. Here’s the photo taken just before the Close Combat.

 

Rallied heavy legionaries about to chastise the British chariots.

Rallied heavy legionaries (right) about to chastise the British chariots.

Heavy Infantry. Five dice, counting the leader symbol too because of the general’s presence, against the British chariots that count as Light.

The dice clattered, rolled, and stopped. Green, green, green, leader, leader.

“Oh my God,” said Will. “A full house!”

The seventh British Victory Banner was passed across.

Will’s turn. Now, we know how dice luck can fluctuate, but you just had to feel sorry for Will as he unleashed two Warbands against the Medium Cavalry unit that had killed Boudicca. Almost everything just bounced off, managing only to remove one stand.

In return, when my move came, that same Medium Cavalry unit smote mightily. Three dice, one blue triangle and two retreats. The Warband before them, being only three stands strong, had to go, but being hemmed in by my own unit, other friends and impassable terrain, it had to lose one additional stand for each retreat hex it could not comply with – and thus dispersed completely.

 

Victorious Roman Medium Cavalry

The victorious Roman Medium Cavalry have crushed all before them

The eighth Victory Banner was mine, and the British turned tail and fled the field. Ave Caesar!

Well, we had a cracking game, and I hope you’ve enjoyed this little write-up. In all, it lasted about 150 minutes. I’d arrived at 6pm, we spent some time setting up the troops and sticking the little coloured dots onto bases, and we finished around 9.30 pm. For what was a fairly sizeable battle, with quite a lot of thinking time involved, and plenty of banter flying to and fro, that’s pretty good going.

It also serves as ample proof of how easy it is to convert the board game into a miniatures game right out of the box. There is, in fact, a ‘hexless’ version of the rules available on the C&C website, but actually the Kallistra terrain looked and worked just great. I can imagine that a set-up using 10mm or even 6mm miniatures would look even more impressive as a mass-battle spectacle, with more being crammed onto each base.

Anyway, without a doubt, we’ll be playing more games like this very soon!

And so, as we draw to a close for this update, I’ll leave you with another photo, showing a small part of my latest project.

You may have heard tell that I’m writing a book about wargaming for Pen & Sword. One aspect of this is that I decided to write a set of rules to be included. I decided to tackle to most complex era first: ancients. And after some oh-so-very-humble and, frankly, rubbish beginnings, something seems to be emerging that might just stand up to scrutiny in due course. I’m on version 0.6, which is the result of a great deal of head scratching and a few playtests, including with the esteemed Philip Sidnell, author of Warhorse: Cavalry in Ancient Warfare and a Society of Ancients member, as well as the esteemed Dan Mersey, Guy Hancock and, of course, Will Townshend. More unsuspecting gamers will shortly feel a tap on their shoulder…

Now, one of the challenges has been that I sold my collection of Ancient Greeks, Persians and others long ago, and so have to rebuild them from scratch in order to illustrate the book and demonstrate my rules in action. Since the book is also aimed at beginners, the answer was obvious to me: plastics, 1/72 scale, right out of the box, available in any toy shop in the land. And with the quality of Zvezda and HäT on offer these days, it’s not even a ‘poor relation’ choice.

So, what you can see here is the latest stage of this project: a mass of Persian and Greek cavalry, washed, glued, PVA primed, undercoated and mounted on milk carton lids (red for Persian, green for Greek), ready for the paintbrush. Several hundred infantry have also reached this stage, though mounted in strips instead, and are merely off-camera, rehearsing their lines.

You are about to witness, dear friends, the most outrageous speed-painting exercise I have ever undertaken.

Goodnight.

 

Persian and Greek plastic cavalry undercoated

Persian and Greek plastic cavalry undercoated

 

3 comments for “Mad dogs and hexagons

  1. June 27, 2010 at 11:15 pm

    Recently started with C&CA myself. Have come to it from the various boardgame podcasts, and have to say it is fun, easy to learn and teach, but with enough about it to keep you thinking all the time. In short I love it, and have converted two others to it.

    Am fighting the urge to go miniatures as have too many projects already. But given Bob Barneston’s recent article I may be able to kill 2 birds with one stone.

  2. June 27, 2010 at 12:57 am

    Henry

    Fantastic to see that you are finally a convert – after banging on about this game for the best part of 3 years on the podcast, you have finally seen the light…hallelujah!

    Agreed, Hexon terrain looks great, and I’ve been thinking about getting a set for use with my 6mm figures for a while – how many boxes doe it need to make up a board, just the one?

    One other thing, I don’t know if you are aware, but Commands & Colours: Napoleonics is due out in November…

    …be afraid…

    Cheers
    Neil

  3. Andrew Brentnall
    June 8, 2010 at 12:03 pm

    Henry,

    Delighted to see that you have finally seen the light, and that last year’s game of Magnesia against Charles Grant sowed the seeds that have now sprouted so magnificently! I can thoroughly recommend the new Epics expansion for those more megalomaniac moments, and the increase in board size and tweaks to the rules (able to use more than one card, in different parts of the board, in one go)counter a number of the objections of the more traditional miniature players.

    Cheers

    Andrew

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