Commands & Colours: Ancients – a few random thoughts about luck in games

I played this game a few times a while back – I believe in an online competition – and I didn’t much like it. There seemed far too much luck in it to make it a viable tactical game.

I’ve returned to it recently (online again on Vassal) as a break from playing more complex games like Paths of Glory and Through The Ages, and this experience has clarified why I don’t like it. Normally I wouldn’t post negative comments, but I think this one sheds light on why I got into game design in the first place, many moons ago.

CC:A’s rules explain the purpose behind the game:

“The Commands & Colors: Ancients game system allows players to effectively portray epic engagements of ancient history. The battles, showcased in the scenario section, focus on the historical deployment of forces and important terrain features on the scale of the game system…The Command card system drives movement, creates ‘fog of war’, and presents players with many interesting challenges and opportunities, while the battle dice resolve combat quickly and efficiently. The battlefield tactics you will need to execute to gain victory conform remarkably well to the strengths and limitations of the various ancient unit types, their weapons, the terrain, and history.”

That’s quite a series of claims in my view and may be purely marketing speak, so I’m not intending to critique the game on simulation grounds. However, the central tenet portrays CC:A as a tactical system in which you can make effective tactical decisions in a historical setting. In fact, the game system contains two major features in which luck plays an overriding role. One is the fog-of-war-creating command card system, and the other is the battle dice system.

My view of the command card system in CC:A is that the luck factor overwhelms the decisions that players must make for the management of a tactical engagement. Typically the cards restrict your tactical options as a poor proxy for ‘fog of war’. In fact, the cards can easily result in a complete inability to execute a perfectly plausible battle plan; for example I have played as Hannibal at Lake Trasimene and had no cards that allowed me to move the troops that were deployed to ambush the Romans until the very last turn of the game, in my view a perverse result. As you draw cards through the game, your best laid plans can come unstuck through simply failing to draw cards that support your battle plan or indeed any coherent battle plan at all. This means that the game degenerates into attempting to pick off any enemy units that happen to be vulnerable, while hoping that your’s aren’t so picked off, and occasionally carrying out simple combos to maximise the effectiveness of a power card, like Line Command or Darken the Skies.

I’ve always held to a basic tenet of game design that luck as a major factor must be deployed carefully, and a game system should preferably have not more than one major mechanic that is luck-based. In CC:A there’s the luck of the card drawing and also the luck of the battle dice. Troop types are differentiated by the battle dice they use (and also by movement), but with 6-sided dice, you’re basically at the mercy of the 1 in 6 limit – you cannot have a hit chance of less than 1 in 6. This means that poor troops can occasionally (note: occasionally, not rarely) be miraculously effective, and elite troops can occasionally be totally screwed. The variability of results in buckets of 6-sided dice are such that this can overwhelm your tactical planning.

Why have I brought this up? When I started gaming way back the late ’60s, pretty much all the games that I came into contact with relied on dice or random card draws for luck, and there were few well-developed game mechanisms compared to the current gaming scene, both wargames and board games. During the early ’70s when I was a relatively intelligent teenager, I was frustrated by this reliance on luck and worked on a few ideas of my own for injecting more skill and possibly a bit more historical realism into gaming, particularly wargaming, developing my own wargames rules and the occasional simple board game. Then, like many other gamers, I discovered SPI and some early published wargame rule sets, and quickly learned that there was more to gaming than rolling a bunch of dice and drawing from a common card pool; other mechanisms could be created.

Which brings me back to CC:A. I have the same frustrations with this game system that I had with the old systems of the ’60s and early ’70s. An over-reliance on luck and a game system that only pretends to provide the players with historical tactical choices, or indeed any real tactical choices at all. It has the merit of being a short game, so it’s over quickly. But this type of game is not what it’s dressed up to be. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons why myself and a bunch of colleagues are working on a 21st century rule set based on the old 1973 Wargames Research Group WW2 rules, and why I keep returning to board wargame design.

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