Well, it’s finally here, so those who waited with bated breath can relax. “It,” of course, being HexWar’s Commands & Colors Ancients, a computer version of the wildly successful GMT board wargame, here covering the wars between Rome and Carthage. The thing to understand, however, is that this software is not a video game adaption of a tabletop game a la Field of Glory II, this software is the boardgame played on a monitor vice paper. Heck, the player’s manual is nothing more than a slightly – very slightly – modified reproduction of the boardgame rules book.
Light on history but heavy on fun, this point is both the greatest strength of the game, as well as its potential greatest weakness. Here is why.
Scale? We don’t need no stinking scale! Seriously, there is no universal, specific time each turn represents, no specific distance each hex measures and units can be anything from a 50-man barbarian warband to a full 5,000-man+ Roman Legion. This game is an abstract, hexagon-based contest meant for no more than two hours’ casual play, thus such details are considered unnecessary for its raison d’etre. And here we speak of the unpredictable nature of ancient warfare and how to control the chaos from a commanding general’s perspective. A random event card system makes this happen and without question it’s the foundation of why this game remains so popular in cardboard circles. Yes, it really is that good.
The game uses a very easy to use interface (but, see below) to mimic the boardgame’s sequence of play, which is as follows, a) Card Phase, b) Order Phase, c) Movement Phase, d) Battle Phase, e) End Turn. In the Card Phase the active player chooses a Command Card from his hand to play, the total number available determined by which of the 15 included historical scenarios is running. Presumably this number is determined by how good the army and its leadership are rated. Thus, at the battle of Zama (played for this review) each side has a hand of five cards, though oddly enough the Romans rate more cards than Hannibal at Cannae (six to four). The card drawn and subsequently played is what allows a portion of the friendly army to move and fight that turn. Typical cards include such things as Order Four Units Right to function (the map is divided into a left, right and center section), or Coordinated Attack which allows one unit or unattached leader from each of these three sections to function during the same turn. By far the best card you can get (in my humble opinion) is the Line Command card which allows an entire line of troops to function across all three sections so long as the individual units are adjacent to each other. I saw this first in GMTs Great Battles of History series and not only is it very realistic, but damned deadly.
When the card is played the game auto-moves to the Order Phase where the player selects those units he desires to function this turn in accordance with the Command Card Played. As such the software has already highlighted the hexes of those units available and the player simply clicks on the hexes of those formations he wants to move and fight. So, with the Four Units Right card, the software highlights all units in the right section, after which the player selects four, a small white circle appearing in each picked hex. In the next Movement Phase, the player clicks on each selected unit, one by one and the software again highlights all the hexes the unit can move to. Choosing a destination hex starts animation showing the unit moving to that location. In general infantry units move one hex per turn, barbarian warbands excepted when charging which can saunter two. Mounted units move up to four hexes.
In the Battle Phase any of the units noted above can start cleaving heads if adjacent to an enemy unit at the end of their move, or sling arrows if carrying ranged weapons like bows or javelins. Clicking on one of these units displays all the target hexes either adjacent for melee or within range for missile fire. Select the target hex and the computer AI rolls the dice. Literally. As in black six-sided dice plop down and start tumbling on the map. Modifiers are calculated with the nastier units having more dice thrown than weaker formations. As an example, heavy infantry battle with five dice, but light infantry roll only two. Depending on the results, hits are scored against an opponent, removing strength points as a result. When a unit loses all its strength points, it is considered destroyed. There are also opportunities for losing units to retreat, leader casualties, defender counterattacks, advance after combat and so on. The software will indicate this secondary movement or combat by highlighting the affected hexes.
At End Turn, the played card is discarded, and another is drawn for possible use next turn. Then the second player repeats the entire process. Victory is gained by earning a set number of Victory Banners before your opponent does, one being awarded for each enemy unit destroyed or leader rendered hors de combat.
The hex maps are pretty drab and lifeless, but that is not a criticism. History says that is likely the way the actual real estate really looked. This was a time when Phalanxes were still in vogue so pretty flat, unobstructed terrain was sought for battle. Also, even today we still don’t know where certain battles were fought, so getting within a 10-mile radius is pretty much graduate research level.
The units depicted are a combination of military symbology within a circle, square or triangle (matching the symbols on the cyber dice to indicate a hit taken) with miniature 3D soldier sprites underneath. The figures are really well done and the animation when they move and fight exceptionally natural and smooth. However, everyone looks early Republican Roman with a few Gallic axe swingers thrown in as a garnish. In other words, the three sides played all have miniature armies that look exactly the same except that the Romans are in red, Carthage in yellow and Syracuse in blue. While historically there was some cross over, I doubt very seriously if the Greek colony of Syracuse fielded Hastate, Principes or Triarii. Likewise, some of the national symbology used is odd, with the Syracusan Gorgon Trinacria (look it up) used for Carthage. Given that’s not nearly as egregious as my recognizing that immediately (proving I really need to get out more), I’ll let it slide. Otherwise the number of figures in the unit and whether they are in straight or ragged ranks indicates type very cleverly. A light foot unit has eight figures, a heavy infantry unit 24 and so on. Its also nice to see someone has finally included the generals on board (hint, hint, Matrix).
The interface, all nicely done up in Roman red, and is really easy to use… if you know how. To me this is a substantial issue, although one could reasonably argue senility is blinding me to the easily intuitive. Bottom line, there is NO computer game instruction manual included. None, zip, neyt, nada. Yes, the boardgame manual is included, but there is no documentation on how to physically play this boardgame on a computer. Perhaps the design team thought only HexWar vets would buy the game or that the repro of GMT documentation would translate well enough, but I found this not to be the case.
Things that delayed my enjoyment included trying to figure out whether I could drag and drop units for movement, trace the route I wanted or simply pick a destination and then which mouse button to click. Could I order and move a unit one at a time, or have to select all and then move? And while the game went immediately from Card to Order Phase, you have to manually go from Order to Movement to Battle Phase by clicking a small Scales of Justice icon in the lower right of the screen (oh, so that’s what it does). Likewise, instead of auto retreating a friendly unit when it loses, you have to click on the highlighted destination hex to make this happen, etc an ad nauseum. And the mentioned tutorial seems to be pop-up explanation boxes that randomly appear as you play a regular game, nothing more. This was really a big surprise, so even now I am going back to check and see if I missed something.
Yet let’s give credit where credit is due. On the plus side placing the mouse cursor over a unit will reveal a pop up revealing a lot of nifty information as regards modifiers or the number of dice needed for melee. It also shows how many strength points are left from the unit’s original strength. That’s a very useful touch.
Fortunately, YouTube came to my rescue and within 10 minutes Scipio Africanus had been vanquished and I was marching on the Appian Way to burn the Eternal City to the ground. Nevertheless, if there was only one recommendation I could make it would be to fix this. And even with the faux GMT boardgame manual, copious amounts of pictures would help players better understand what ultimately has to be one of the easiest games to play ever.
I came, I saw, I conquered
Indeed, the game played quite well and was both challenging and fun, not an unusual judgement for me given I like chaos driven wargaming. Commands & Colors Ancients is a game that rewards the ability to react to the unexpected – how Napoleon defined luck – and not detailed planning. Suck it up Tribune, this retired colonel can confirm this aspect as military reality. Nevertheless, as a consideration I might suggest somehow increasing Rome’s ability to use the Line Command more often than they can now. The Legions were professional armies led by professional soldiers, at least at the Centurion and Miles Gloriosus level. Despite some absolutely wretched commanders, this was an army that could and did win battles by merely shifting into tactical autopilot. This needs to be reflected better IMHO.
Yet when all is said and done, this will not be a game for everyone, particularly if historical detail and accuracy is an overwhelming requirement. But – when you figure out the uber-easy interface – it does seem to produce accurate results, give an overall authentic feel to the chaotic nature of conflict during this period and is easily playable to the end within an hour or so. If you like the parent GMT series, this game is for you, as it is for those who simply prefer the way cardboard counter games work regardless of presentation platform. And given that I’m running it on my wife’s Dell OptiPlex 9010 work station, the game is by no means a hardware resource hog and this makes a solid game even more attractive, especially at $19.99 US. Overall, it’s a game that reminds me of what Hollywood means when they say a film is based on history or inspired by history. This game is casually the latter, and if you buy into that intent, you’ll have a ball.