Commands and Colors: Napoleonics
Perfect, except for the missing “u”.
First published: 2010
Length: 90 minutes
When I got into “designer” games back in 2005, it wasn’t long before I worked out my Christmas list for my long-suffering parents to choose from. Being 25 at the time (yes, I’m still fortunate enough to get presents from parents despite being married and adult and stuff), I think they were just pleased that I hadn’t just listed video games, DVDs and CDs AGAIN.
One of the games I listed and indeed received was Richard Borg’s Memoir ’44, a game about World War 2. In the game, players would face off their forces against each other in a number of historical skirmishes (of COURSE I started with the Normandy Landings first) and order their units around with specific cards. Then they roll special dice to see if they managed to shoot any enemies. The rules are straight-forward and easy to learn, there’s both strategy and a slice of luck which seems to work well within the game system.
Best of all, the soldiers were proper little plastic figures, kind of like what you would play with as a child. The chance to play with toy plastic soldiers as an adult with PROPER rules was pretty exciting. Anyway, over the next few years I would play the game semi-regularly and even picked up the Japanese army expansion. The only thing that limited play was the set-up time, meaning that my wife would generally veto it.
Now, fast-forward to 2010 and Richard Borg and GMT games had just brought out something a bit exciting. Borg had already used this same “game engine” for World War 2, American Civil War, Ancient warfare (Romans, Greeks, Persians etc) and fantasy setting. However, now here came the era of warfare that had always grabbed my attention the most – Napoleonic.
The first French cannon hit their marks at Talavera.
Commands and Colo(u)rs: Napoleonics offered the chance to play battles of the Peninsular (Talavera, Salamanca etc) and 100 Days (Quatre Bras, Waterloo) Wars, pitting the all-conquering French against a combined force of my beloved British and Portuguese troops. Add to that a number of tweaks and new features added to the aforementioned incarnations and I had to buy it. So, I traded away Memoir ’44 and got my filthy mitts on C&C: Napoleonics. I’ve not been disappointed.
As with any “war” game, an interest in the era helps with an interest and enjoyment of the game. It’s part of the reason why I’d never felt the need to get his American Civil War game or fantasy (Battlelore) game for example. Still, even disregarding the theme, many still say that Napoleonics is either the best, or second best (behind the similar Ancients) of Borg’s Command and Colo(u)rs series. This is down to the tweaks that come from his experience and knowledge of the series and how the style of Napoleonic warfare lends itself to such a game.
As with Command and Colors: Ancients, Napoleonics spurns the plastic figures and instead goes for blocks, instantly creating a more…adult?…serious? looking game. The many different unit types are illustrated on the blocks and named. French are blue, British red, Portuguese brown, infantry small, cavalry medium sized and artillery bigger. These blocks are then placed into units on the board as set out by whichever scenario you’re playing (images in this review come from Talavera). Players are dealt a certain number of cards depending on the scenario and will need to gain “flags” (by killing units and taking hold of certain spaces on the board) to win the battle.
The central mechanism for play are the cards. These may tell you that you can move two units on your right flank, or three on your left, or that you can fire three artillery units, or that you can order a bayonet charge and your infantry can all roll an extra dice to attack. This can be frustrating if you’re involved in heavy fighting on your right flank and are stuck with cards only allowing you to move on your left flank or order your cavalry (which are already dead). This does work thematically though as it feels as though you are suffering through the communications and logistics problems of ordering tens of thousands of men around a vast field.
Once you’ve moved your units around you can order them to fire or fix their bayonets and charge into an adjacent enemy unit. You then consult the charts for unit abilities ( for example the French Old Guard are terrifyingly tough and brave), firing range (the British riflemen can fire further than standard troops), how many dice are rolled and then if the surrounding terrain affects the number of dice rolled. Then roll the dice, remove enemy units depending on the symbols rolled on the dice and score a flag for any fully destroyed units. Draw a new card and play passes to your opponent.
Close and personal as the French commander plans his next move
The game is physically a lovely thing. GMT boxes for big releases are sturdy and glossy and C&C:N looks attractive on the shelf. The dice are fine and the cards are good to hold and clear to understand. The board is mounted and clear and the terrain tiles (for mountains, forests, rivers etc) seem sturdy. The small flag and “formed square” chits are ok too.
The rulebook is well ordered and has examples and graphics to aid understanding. I have struggled to find clear answers on a few of the vaguer situations that have come up in game but overall it’s been decent. The game comes with a booklet full of battles with the usual back story and specific set-up rules for them. It also has player aids for terrain and for the French and Allied forces. These are glossy card which is good as you’ll be checking them a lot as each unit has slightly different rules for moving, firing and fighting.
The centre of the game are the blocks. When you buy the game you’ll open the box to find hundreds of unstickered, plain blocks and sheet after sheet of stickers. That’s right, you have to sticker all the blocks yourself and it will take a few hours. “Wargamers” are used to putting stickers onto blocks or cutting out vast numbers of cardboard counters and chits, but if you’re approaching the game from a “Eurogame” angle, be warned. However, GMT are a great company and they provide a lot of extra blocks and some extra stickers just in case you make a mistake with your stickering. A great touch and shows that they think of their customers. When you see all the blocks tumble out onto the table, you won’t blame them for not stickering them all themselves. But when you’re finished and lay them out ready for battle, you’ll see how beautiful the game actually is to look at.
The battle is all but over as the French cavalry decimates the British left
So then, what (apart from putting stickers on all the blocks!) are the negatives? Well there are a few, which you may have gathered a little already. Firstly the game does have quite a bit of luck in it. From what cards you draw to command your troops, to the dice you roll to attack. Now sometimes you can work around the cards but sometimes you just have to make the best with what you can. A good “commander” should always be able to make the best of what cards they have. As for the dice, that’s “wargaming” for you. You’re only ordering the troops, not personally firing all their muskets. Even the best orders might fail if the men aren’t brave enough or skilled enough. Still, some players may be annoyed if they keep missing the enemy’s troops a few turns in a row!
As mentioned above, the player aids are clear and helpful but you WILL be referring to them on a regular basis. This is good as it’s because of an interesting variety of troops and shows that Borg has looked at the strengths and weaknesses of the unit types of the period, but it’s bad because it can slow the pace of the game down a little.
Finally for the negatives, the game does take some time to set up (look at the battle scenario, lay out all the terrain, work out how many blocks in each unit, lay out the units…) and pack away…unless you just throw all the blocks in together!
However, for all the negatives the game has, I think it has more than enough positives. I’ve really enjoyed my plays of this and love the look and feel of the blocks as I move them around. The battles really do tell a story as flanks advance or wilt under fire, as cavalry make brave charges and then get over-excited and run straight into the toughest enemy troops and as control shifts from side to side as the battle plays out.
Add to this the fact that a Spanish army expansion has already been released (along with a few more French troops and a new booklet of battles) and Austria, Prussia and Russia (with units and battles) are all on the horizon. The game has a lot of replay value and, as Ancients has shown, will only get better as the game world gets bigger and bigger.
- There is a LOT of wood in the box and laid out it looks gorgeous
- Battles are pretty varied and ebb and flow as you fight, telling a grand story
- Expansions are coming out for Prussia, Russia and Austria!
- An improvement over the earlier games with some excellent new rules and well laid out player aids
- Hits are decided by rolling dice. That means luck. Not ideal for everyone
- Takes quite a long time to set up and pack away
- Plenty of double-checking abilities for different units