C & C Game Factory
October 5, 2007
Whether Iím engaging in battle with British tanks, Carthaginian elephants, or dwarves and goblins, unfortunately I canít count myself among the innumerable fans of Richard Borgís Commands & Colors series of board games (i.e., Battle Cry, Memoir í44, Commands & Colors: Ancients, BattleLore). However, before I launch into articulating my reasons for going against the grain when it comes to this highly touted quadrilogy of games, let me start by emphasizing that I donít believe that any of these are bad games, but rather that theyíre merely okay and I fail to see whatís so great about them. I should also admit that Iím certainly no expert on this series of games, and since three of them are ranked in the Top 50 on BoardGameGeek, Iím happy to admit that I may just be missing something. Then again, Iíve played the games in this series 5 times (Memoir twice, Ancients twice, and BattleLore once), so I feel like Iíve given it a fair shake, and have nothing to show for it except a perplexed bewilderment at its incredible popularity.
First things first, my biggest complaint with the entire Commands & Colors series is not even related to the gameplay or mechanics, but rather with the setup time. Iíd have much less to gripe about if I were able to walk into the room with someone having already setup the board and pieces for me, but as thatís unlikely to happen anytime soon, Iím forced to sit through 30 minutes of arranging terrain and units to mirror a scenario from the instruction booklet before playing each time. Iím sure you could cut this time in half with a lot of practice, but so far Iíve found that the setup time is approximately equal to the playing time. Itís ironic that one of the strengths of this series of games (i.e., they play very quickly and pack a lot of game into a short time) actually serves to accentuate the biggest weakness with the series (i.e., they take just as long to setup as they do to play). While you could theoretically play twice in a row, either different scenarios or switching sides with your opponent on the same scenario (a la Lord of the Rings: Confrontation), donít expect to accomplish this in an hour, since youíve got to factor in the additional hour of setup time for two scenarios. Itís really a painstaking process of ensuring that each forest and hill is lined up perfectly with the image provided in the instructions, not to mention making sure that each unit is in the right place and that youíve used the right type and strength units. Donít be fooled by the claims of many that this series has outstanding replayability due to all the scenarios provided because even though that may be the case, youíre paying for it each and every time you sit down to play as you toil away to prepare the board for battle. If youíre too tired to actually play after taking all that time to arrange the pieces then maybe youíll need to invest in a second table to keep the board ready for when you later find the time and energy to play.
My second problem with the entire Commands & Colors series is an obvious one and also one that many people wonít mind nearly as much as me, but for me (and the other Caylus or Through the Desert lovers out there) the sheer amount of dice rolling in these games is astounding. Like any eurogamer, I can handle a good deal of luck. I donít mind the random tile draw in Samurai and Ra or the randomness of the cards in China or Kreta, but Iíve got to draw the line somewhere, and rolling handfuls of dice turn after turn is most definitely on the wrong side of that line. I play eurogames so that my decisions are meaningful and my strategy has an impact on the outcome, and while those two criteria may still be satisfied to some extent by this quadrilogy, it certainly doesnít feel that way at times when your opponent rolls five hits on five dice and you roll zero repeatedly. I know that many praise dice for the tension, excitement, and suspense they can inject into a game, but notwithstanding that dubious advantage, Iíd rather my games use alternative mechanics to inject control and strategic decision-making into my games. If youíre not the kind of gamer who has sworn off Risk for life then you may not mind the luck aspect of these games, but if you consider eurogames your haven from the copious dice-rolling of traditional American games then you may want to steer clear of Borgís supposed masterpieces.
Iím going to keep on criticizing this quadrilogy, but remember my disclaimer from the beginning, theyíre not awful by any means, just not amazing!
The third criticism Iím going to lodge against Memoir, Ancients, and BattleLore may strike you as odd considering the fact that Iím a dedicated ďcube pusherĒ who revels in the ďpasted onĒ themes of Caylus, Notre Dame, and El Grande, among many others. Nonetheless, I actually have the gall to criticize the themes of these games. Despite the fact that I generally donít care at all about theme in my games, I have a problem with the Commands & Colors series because I donít see why youíd bother making games about World War II, ancient warfare, and fantasy warfare if theyíre not going to change significantly. It never actually feels different regardless of what theme is pasted on. You donít get immersed in it or feel like youíre directing elves to attack here or Carthaginians to march there. It doesnít matter whether the units are British tanks or goblins because itís just little pieces of plastic, and all you really care about when playing is how many spaces each unit can move and how strong they are (i.e., how many dice you get to roll when they attack). I obviously feel a bit odd criticizing a series of games based on their failure to integrate their themes, but hereís how Iíll justify it. Ystari didnít try to sell four slightly different versions of Caylus with Renaissance, Far East, and Egyptian themes. The same goes for Alea with Notre Dame. I know this may not be a completely fair analogy because Richard Borg is refining the Commands & Colors series with each game, tweaking the rules, just like Alan Moon has refined the Ticket to Ride series, but the Borg refinements bother me a bit more because they make the games seem more different than they are with completely different themes, whereas the Moon series doesnít make any attempt to cover up the fact that the many Ticket to Ride games are essentially the same with only slight adjustments. Maybe if I were to play Memoir, Ancients, and BattleLore more, I could begin to appreciate the manner in which the slight rules variations reflect the thematic settings of each game, but if this is the case, itís certainly a rather subtle application of theme to mechanics. The tanks, elephants, and goblins certainly donít seem particularly distinguishable to me.
Fourth is fiddliness. The Commands & Colors series is generally billed as streamlined and fast-paced introductory wargames, but Iíve found just the opposite. While the very best eurogames are streamlined with simple and straightforward rules, yet difficult decisions, this quadrilogy is very fiddly. Or as the thesaurus says: nitpicky, fussy, complex, tricky, detailed, difficult, and awkward, if youíre of the school of thought that thinks eight words are better than one. The rules themselves are not especially complex, but there are tons of little things to remember and apply from turn to turn, which force players to constantly refer to the rules or player aids. For example, the modifiers for terrain or the different movement and strength for the units are not something youíll know off the top of your head for at least the first few games, if ever. Youíll easily be able to grasp the general flow of play, but unlike most eurogames where you wonít find any need to refer to the rules or look things up while playing, the Commands & Colors games get bogged down in the details. Theyíre an odd mixture of a simple rules framework yet complex details that creates some serious cognitive dissonance.
The fifth and final problem is another one that may not bother many of you, but is certainly the nail in the coffin for why I doubt Iíll ever be buying one of these games. I just know that if I were to purchase Memoir or BattleLore that Iíd really want to have the miniatures painted, but I lack the patience and the skill to do it myself, so Iíd either be stuck with ugly and difficult to distinguish unpainted minis, or trying to find someone with too much free time to paint them for me. This is the same problem I have with War of the Ring, which Iíd actually otherwise consider buying. The unpainted miniatures obviously wonít be a problem for anyone who is willing and able to paint their own minis, or for anyone who simply doesnít mind the bland out-of-the-box minis, but for anyone in between who would love to have painted minis, but wouldnít love them enough to go through the effort of making them, this series of games (except Ancients with its blocks of course) poses a dilemma without any solution that I can discern, except learning to live with sub-par components. While I could learn to live with unpainted miniatures if the mechanics and gameplay were impressive (seeing as I can look past the inferior components of Dune and Through the Desert among others), I canít justify doing the same for a game with the first four problems I already discussed.
Iíll end where I began. I think the biggest problem I had with all of these games is dealing with the disappointment of them not living up to my high expectations. Each entry in the series came supported by a laundry list of praise, which had built up my hopes too high. As I said and wonít hesitate to repeat again here, theyíre not terrible, theyíre simply not great. If you go in prepared for the setup time being as long as the game, large role of luck with handfuls of dice rolling, poorly integrated themes, fiddly details requiring in-game rules referencing, and difficult to distinguish unpainted miniatures, then you might enjoy these light introductory wargames. Just make sure you know what youíre getting into so as to avoid the disappointment of finding these things out for yourself.