By George Arnold
“Commands & Colors: Napoleonics” is a great board game in its own right. Naturally, I had to fiddle with it.
If you read on-line comments about the game, new players are forever suggesting, based on just a game or two, some additional rules that they think would make CC:N so much better. Inevitably, more experienced players say, play the game as is a few times and you’ll begin to appreciate the rules as they are. They really don’t need any off-the-cuff improvements.
So, for me to tinker, even though I’ve played a few games with the original rules, is my original heresy with this game. I like the original rules. And I think they even work fine for a solo game. But, to me, it’s a somewhat slow-moving game, and the deck from which cards are drawn to provide the dynamics of the game restrict movement and combat a bit too much. How about a game of CC:N that uses the movement and combat factors of the original game, as well as the original board and terrain features, but eliminates the card-drawing and provides another way of limiting each side’s capabilities during the play of the game? A second heresy.
I’d been wanting to try some of these ideas ever since I received the latest expansion of the game, the Austrian Army. The game pieces are blocks of wood, with illustrations of various troop types on stickers that must be stuck to the blocks before the game can be played. I spent a not-too-tedious few hours doing that, but I saved myself some time by stickering only one side of the blocks, not two, as is standard. Call that heresy No. 3
I then set up the first scenario in the Austrian expansion, “Clash at Pordenone,” which was a preliminary encounter to the more famous Battle of Sacile between the French (and Italian allies) and the Austrians. What follows is a report on how my version of the scenario played out.
(Photos, and more, below)
The photo above shows the situation at the start of the game. The Austrians are at the top of the photo, the French toward the bottom. The French are slightly outnumbered, 10 units (and 2 leaders) to 11 units (and 3 leaders). You’ll notice that I’ve laid most of the blocks (except for leaders) on their sides. CC:N purists prefer the blocks standing up, on edge, but I can be clumsy and I tend to knock the blocks over if they’re placed that way, so I find the game more playable to do it my way. (Once you start with the heresies, it seems there’s no stopping.)
Without the standard CC:N card deck, how do I make the game move? I simply use a dice roll for initiative: Each side rolls a 1d6 (in this case, one conveniently colored blue, the other white.) High roll gets that many initiatives to move its troops or engage in combat. For example, if the roll produces a blue 5 and a white 4, the French (blue) get five initiatives that turn (and the Austrians would get none).
Each initiative can be used to move one unit, but leaders can use a single initiative to move any units they accompany or that are on adjoining hexes. Combat (whether fire or melee) is strictly on a one initiative per unit basis. So a leader could move, say, three adjoining units into contact with the enemy at a cost of one initiative, but each of those units would require another initiative to fire or engage in melee. Winning the initiative each turn is obviously quite important. It’s possible for one side to get a “run” of initiatives, and the other side is quite limited in how it can respond (if at all). It’s also important to choose how to spend those initiatives. There are rarely enough initiatives for a side to do all it wants in a turn.
There are a couple of special rules that make the game more interesting, even for a side that’s on the defensive this turn. When a melee is fought, if the defender remains in his original position (neither destroyed or forced to retreat), it is allowed to Battle Back, meaning the defender gets a free counter-attack against the attacker, at the strength it retains at the moment of the counter-attack.
In addition, attacking cavalry units are allowed Breakthrough moves, if the enemy target has been eliminated or forced to retreat from its original position. The successful cavalry attacker can move onto the vacated hex, then move up to 1 more additional hex and initiate a second melee if in contact with an enemy unit at that moment. It can be a devastating one-two punch for a cavalry unit.
In standard CC:N, victory goes to the side that accumulates a certain number of “victory banners.” (The number of banners needed for each side to win can vary from scenario to scenario.) Banners are awarded for each enemy unit or leader lost, and sometimes, for positions held or taken during the battle. This scenario, Clash at Pordenone, requires either side to collect five banners to gain a victory. In addition, the Austrian side would gain one banner for each hex of the village of Pordenone held by the Austrians — as long as the hex(es) are held. Should the Austrians be driven out of a village hex on a later turn, that victory banner is lost.
On the first turn, the Austrians win 5 initiatives. Under the command of the well-placed Austrian leaders, all 3 groups of Austrians advance. The Austrian horse artillery unit advancing on the French left gets off a lucky shot and forces one of the French light cavalry units to fall back onto the hex occupied by the French leader on the left.
On Turn 2, the French win 5 initiatives and use them to straighten their lines in the center and on the right.
Turn 3: The initiative swings back to the Austrians, with a score of 6. Their cavalry on the French left advances. Their foot artillery battery in the center scores a hit on a French infantry unit. And an Austrian Grenzer infantry unit on the French right fires and scores 2 hits on a French infantry unit — and forces it to retreat.
On Turn 4, the Austrians win their second initiative in a row, 4 initiative points this time. Austrian artillery fire is ineffective this turn, but an Austrian light cavalry unit charges a French light cavalry unit, causing 2 hits and the retreat of 1 hex. A second Austrian light cavalry unit, in the center, charges a French artillery unit and rolls an unusually lucky die roll, causing a hit and the retreat of 3 hexes, basically pushing the damaged artillery unit out of the fray. The victorious Austrian cavalry unit then uses a breakthrough move to advance further, hitting a French line infantry unit and causing 3 hits to it and forcing it back 1 hex. At the end of the turn, the French are on their heels and the Austrians are starting to feel confident of their chances in this encounter.
On Turn 5, the French regain the initiative with 4 points. They mount a strong counterattack with their cavalry on the left, destroying 1 Austrian cavalry unit (gaining 1 victory banner), reducing the Austrian horse artillery unit from 3 blocks to 2 and forcing the surviving guns to retreat 1 hex. In the left center, a French and an Austrian cavalry unit battle to a draw, each losing half its strength. On the right, French cannon and musket fire force 1 Austrian Grenzer unit back 1 hex and eliminate 2 of 4 blocks of another Austrian Grenzer unit.
Turn 6, and the French get the initiative again, 3 points this time. On the French left, one French cavalry unit is reduced to 1 block after an Austrian “battle back.” But a second Austrian light cavalry unit is eliminated, giving the French their second victory banner.
On Turn 7, the French roll their third initiative in a row, with 3 more points. They use them effectively. On the left, an Austrian light cavalry unit is forced to retreat 1 hex, while an Austrian Uhlan (lancer) unit receives a second hit. On the right, French musket fire finishes off the half-strength Grenzer unit. The French now have 3 victory banners, while the Austrians, despite their impressive start to the game, have none.
The French get a fourth initiative in a row, with the maximum 6 points, for Turn 8. There’s not much to show for it though. The French advance on their right, while 2 light cavalry attacks on the left only manage 1 hit on an Austrian unit.
On Turn 9, the French get the initiative again — 5 points this time, amid much muttering by the Austrians. But it’s just more hammering away by the French: 1 hit on an Austrian cavalry unit on the French left, 1 hit and a retreat on the remaining Austrian Grenzer unit on the French right.
On Turn 10, the French defy all odds and get their sixth initiative in a row — very bad news for the Austrians, and 5 initiative points for the French. But all French attacks this turn prove ineffective (bad dice), including 2 light cavalry attacks on the French left and center.
Finally, after all those French initiatives, the Austrians regain one on Turn 11, and it’s a big one — 6 initiative points. Desperate to make up for lost, um, initiative, an Austrian cavalry unit charges into the right rear of the French and eliminates 1 French infantry unit, gaining the Austrians their first victory banner. In the center, Austrian infantry attacks and scores some hits, but is finally repulsed.
On Turn 12, the Austrians win the initiative again, 3 points this time. Their cavalry unit in the French right rear eliminates another French infantry unit, to give the Austrians their second victory banner.
On Turn 13, the French win the initiative with 4 points. They attack that rampaging Austrian cavalry unit, causing 2 hits and forcing it to retreat. But it cleverly retreats into 1 section of the village of Pordenone, gaining another victory banner as long as the Austrians hold that part of the village.
Turn 14 and the French win the initiative again, this time with 5 points. The French use their advantage to attack the Austrians in the village. The unit is eliminated, although its accompanying leaders manages to escape. But the Austrians lose 1 of their victory banners by losing the village, reducing their count to 2. The French pick up a fourth, based on the destruction of the Austrian cavalry unit on the right.
At this point, I decided to call the game in favor of the French. They had not yet collected their fifth banner, as specified in the scenario victory conditions, but they did lead the Austrians 4 banners to 2. It looked like any further banners would probably be gained by running down already depleted units and trying to destroy them. That sounded too game-y to me (a similar end-game also seems to occur fairly often in “regular” CC:N). To me, the French had clearly won this battle. Mopping-up operations offered little further appeal. So, I reverted to the old DBA victory rule: Destroy one-third of an enemy’s units and gain the win. In this scenario, the French had 10 units, the Austrians 11. One-third of each (rounding up) was 4 units. By that rule, the French were allowed the victory.
Conclusions: I found this to be a satisfactory game — up to a point. First of all, I’d played another game! Lately, there’s been way too much of my thinking about games and planning for them but never quite getting around to playing. There’s some real enjoyment involved in this seemingly simple accomplishment.
Also, I set this game up with the intention of seeing if most of the basic CC:N mechanics could be retained in a game that used something other than the CC:N card deck to make things “go.” My initiative dice rolls at the start of each turn did work for me. It’s the same system I also used in the ancient naval galley game that I reported on here, earlier on the LW blog. For now, I’m reasonably certain this is a usable system in the smaller-sized games that I tend to play these days.
There is, of course, the drawback with the system: If each side rolls each turn to see who has the initiative for the turn, one side might get a “run” of initiatives that leaves the other side with little to do besides standing there and “taking it.” The odds are against such lopsided runs, but, as this game showed, they do happen. In this game, the French won 6 straight initiative rolls. They also won 3 other initiative rolls, for a total of 9 in a 14-turn game. Not surprisingly, the Austrians took a beating.
In a 2-player game, this would be a considerable discouragement to the Austrian player. It was easier to absorb as a solo player: I still had a side to move and attack with, regardless of which side got the initiative. I’ll have to think about this some more though. This is the first game I’ve played using such initiatives that has been so one-sided. In some previous games, using a similar system, I’ve set an artificial limit on the number of initiatives either side can win in a row. Once that limit is reached, the other side automatically wins the next dice roll. Perhaps that is something I should try again on my next outing.
All that said, the game did have a reasonable historical feel for me, even though the historical results were reversed. Things could have easily gone the other way though. The Austrians were looking hard to stop in the first few turns.
I also need to think some more about the victory conditions. In this scenario, I felt the need — mid-game — to change the victory conditions from the number of victory banners set by the CC:N game itself, to something different. This was to avoid, or minimize, the gaminess I saw in the final turns, when each side was simply chasing down depleted units, trying to gain one or more last-minute victory banners.
The DBA rule that victory goes to the first side to eliminate one-fourth of the other side’s units seems less subject to this, artificial as the rule can sound.
All in all though, this was an enjoyable, interesting game. I’ll be using CC:N like this again in the future, heretical or not!