Monday, December 20, 2010

We're not dead yet

Well, after a rather extended hiatus, we're baaaaaaaack!

It wasn't really a hiatus, as such, just that our plan didn't really work out as we'd thought it would. Our OCS Korea game has been going on for most of this year, with (mostly) regular weekly sessions, and we were both taking notes and pics, but we just never got around to writing anything up. Partly that was down to our schedules, but at least on my part there was a certain amount of lethargy and disinclination to actually say much. It's hard to give insights into your thoughts and plans when your opponent is reading.

Anyway, we discussed where to go from here, and the idea of quietly closing the blog was quickly voted down on a 2-0 count. We agreed that the blog works best when we're playing shorter games, and that's what we're going to get back to. Moving forward, we'll get back to focussing on games in the 1-2 session length (i.e. 3-6 hours), unless we can find time for a longer session. That means shorter war-games (hex/counter, block, and CDGs), and (probably) more 18xx. Sounds like a plan, and I'm certainly very comfortable with that mix.

So, the first topic (and, in fact, the above conversation took place while we were playing) is the new GMT release Command & Colors: Napoleonics (BGG entry), the latest in the Commands and Colors series. This game covers the battles in the Peninsular War, featuring the British, French and Portuguese, and a single scenario featuring a small segment of the Waterloo battle. An expansion for the Spanish is currently on the P500 list, and tentatively scheduled for an August production slot. I'd expect to see more expansions for the Prussians and Russians, as well as lots more scenarios covering those armies, as well as some sort of 'Epic Napoleonics' rules/expansion. Sigh, more money sucked from my wallet.

The production is just as you'd expect for a C&C game from GMT; lots of wood blocks; colorful stickers; mounted map; good player aids; all in a bullet-proof box. In other words, up to their recent production standards, which have certainly taken a step up in quality.

I'm not going to go through the whole ruleset, but here, in my view, are the major differences from C&C:A (and others):

  • Unit losses: the number of dice used when attacking is based on 1 die per block in the attacking unit
  • Unit/Nationality distinction: various units get extra dice in combat depending on their unit type or National characteristics; e.g. Light/Rifle units gain a die in ranged combat; British line foot units gain a die in ranged combat if they do not move, and French line foot units gain a die in melee combat
  • Terrain: unlike the Ancients battlefields, we now have terrain to deal with, more akin to the Battle Cry and Memoir '44 battlefield
  • Objectives: just like in M'44
  • Square formation: infantry can form square in the face of cavalry assault

Of these, the first is the biggest change, in my view, and one that has been a bug-bear for quite a few C&C players, or potential players. Now those 1-block units are really fragile and mostly useless, and have to be withdrawn from harm's way. The unit/nationality distinctions are an interesting change, and allow for some variation in the way you use your force, with both the composition and side impacting your strategy/tactics.

OK, terrain really isn't a change, per se, but it's just that there is some, often a lot, unlike most of the C&C:A scenarios, where I've seen pool tables with more features. Some of the terrain features are also classed as objective hexes, in the same way that M'44 has. This was, in my view, one of the biggest issues with BC, as often there was no incentive to move forward and get shot at, as the other player would get the first shot due to the move/no fire rules. (In C&C:N you can move and half-fire.) So, that provides an incentive to do something.

C&C:N wouldn't truly represent Napoleonic warfare without allowing foot units to use square formation, and the implementation is interesting. As part of the cavalry melee procedure the infantry unit has the choice to enter square, but to do so, the player has to give up a command card (and you must have more than 2 in hand), which is placed on a holding display, reducing his hand size and, hence, tactical flexibility. Furthermore, the card is chosen at random from your hand. To quote the Guinness advert, 'Brilliant!' With some good cards in your hand, you now have a tough choice to make. Protect your unit, or potentially give up the ability to carry out your plans. Of course, all those that hate the C&C abstraction style will have more reason to hate on the system, spluttering about lack of control, etc. I think it's a stroke of genius!

We played the first two scenarios, both from the battle of Rolica, with me drawing the French each time. The first saw me move to a quick 4-banner position (with 5 required to win) as the dice gods favored me with an embarrassment of dicey riches, seeing me score 4 hits out of my first 5 rolls on his Light Infantry unit. (With 5 blocks and a 1-die bonus they can be pretty lethal, so that turned the good fortune into great fortune.) However, I thought to dash forward with a good card to claim my winning banner, but an untimely flag result on the first combat took his unit out of range of my second unit, allowing Eric to isolate them and bring it back to 4-3, before I did manage to claim that winning banner.

The second scenario, later in the same battle as the French were pushed back, once again saw me with the French. The sides are almost identical, with the Allied forces gaining an extra leader. What makes the scenario interesting is that the terrain provides for only 4 axes of advance for the Allies, with prohibited terrain funneling the attacks. The French, meanwhile, are sitting on a ridge of hills, which reduces incoming ranged fire by 1 die. So, restricted advance options for the Aliies, and a strong defensive position for the French, quite a puzzle. To make it even worse, most of the Allied artillery (which doesn't lose a die for firing into hills) is still stuck at the base line.

Sounds easy for the French player, but my sole artillery unit ran out of ammunition (an early card play by Eric) and returned to my base line. The issue was where to place it, as I was unsure of where Eric's main thrust was going to come, and although my hand had some really interesting cards, I had few section movement cards. In the end I chose to concentrate on the Portuguese on my left flank, but also drew a card that allowed me to redeploy a unit by 4 hexes, so my artillery was able to reduce the Portuguese threat, then move to the center to counter the advance in the center and on the other flank. I had one opportunity for using square, but with a hand of great cards I had to decline, as I had plans, which all worked as I ran out a comfortable winner.

A tough scenario for the Allies, in my view, but Eric felt that he played it wrongly in not bringing up his artillery first and using them to reduce my units. That would have given me a tough choice on whether to hold or force the action. The French bonus die on melee means that closing the action is of use, but is it worth leaving the hills? I'd like to get this scenario back to the table, and try it from the Allied side.

Here's the ending position, which shows the terrain:

(The 2 units at bottom left are Portuguese, one with a leader.)

OK, so what are my thoughts on C&C:N after my first play? As you've probably surmised by now, I really liked this one. I found it more interesting than C&C:A, which was partly due to the terrain providing a more interesting battlefield. However, the bigger factor was unit/nationality characteristics, and how to leverage them in my favor. I know it probably sounds like cult of the new, but so far this is my favorite C&C game. The mix of terrain, characteristics, everything. A great balance, and the continuing development of the C&C system is very evident. In play, I think C&C:N also flows better much better than BC, and has more tactical choices than C&C:A. The choices are tougher, as witnessed by several times in our games, as Eric or I had to take a moment to weigh our options and consider the potential implications. Yes, this will definitely see more table time.

For next time, Eric has requested GMT's Washington's War (BGG entry), the remake of We The People and the first of the CDGs. I've played it once before, so I'm looking forward to getting a second chance to try it. Beyond that, I'm thinking of Fury In The East (BGG Entry), one of the games that came in the MMP Operations Special Edition #3 magazine. But who knows, there are so many good choices out there.

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