Pevans's Perspective

This was the title of my board games column in Flagship magazine, so I thought I'd resurrect it, 8 years after Flagship's demise. The idea is to get down my musings in a more contemporaneous way - expect things to appear later in To Win Just Once (www.pevans.co.uk/TWJO) in a more considered form. Now, can I manage a less formal style?
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Commands & Colors goes to Japan

Paul Evans
United Kingdom
UXBRIDGE
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Board Game: Commands & Colors: Samurai Battles
Nephew Tom and I have comprehensively christened my nice new copy of Commands & Colors: Samurai Battles, so it's about time I gave my first impressions. I was intrigued that it's billed on BGG as a re-implementation of Samurai Battles. I tried this at Spiel when it launched and it did not use the Commands & Colors system. Turns out it has two sets of rules, one of which is C&C. D'oh! Peter and I clearly played the other set. So bear in mind when reading this article that I don't know what is new to this game and what has been brought forward from the previous one.

[For anyone who isn't familiar with the Commands & Colors family, it's a series of simple wargames with the same core mechanisms. (Strictly speaking, only the games published by GMT Games, like this one, are titled "Commands & Colors", but the phrase is used to encompass the whole family.) In particular, players' actions are limited/powered by the card they play each turn. Military units are groups of models or wooden blocks, which are removed as a unit takes hits - the result of rolling dice. Players get victory markers for eliminating units, seizing geographical objectives and so on. Designer Richard Borg has done an excellent job of building on the core system to produce games - from several different publishers - that cover warfare from the ancient world to the future. As the name suggests, this game covers mediaeval Japan.]

Anyway, the new game: it certainly looks the part and the wooden blocks mean a hefty box as usual. Plus several hours work applying stickers. The two sides are generic red and blue rather than specific Japanese clans. Who they represent depends on the scenario and these span nearly a century: from Mori versus Takeda in 1517 to Osaka versus Tokugawa in 1615.

I was pleased by the good solid dice (a bugbear of mine is the poor quality dice in many of the C&C family) and that there are 12 of them: 6 for each player means no reaching across the table. The cards are good quality, too. The first quirk I noticed is that the board is 12 hexes wide by 11 deep - almost square. Most C&C games are 13x9 (widescreen!) and this board even has space where the 13th column would go. I don't know whether there's a reason for this, though I do like the extra depth. (As far as I'm aware, the only other C&C board that's 12x11 is The Great War, though several have boards 11 hexes deep.)

Blocks have the red square/blue triangle/green circle designations familiar from other C&C games, but they are not explicitly heavy/medium/light units. Red squares are samurai (infantry and cavalry), blue triangles 'Ashigaru' (foot soldier) spearmen and green circles Ashigaru archers and arquebusiers plus the peasant levies. Effectively, heavy, medium and light units. Especially as red squares are slow with lots of attack dice, green circles are fast with few attack dice and blue triangles are in the middle. Here's a scan from the rules showing a sample of the units.
From gallery of Pevans

Turning to the rules, the most obvious new feature is the 'Honor and Fortune' system. Like Lore (magic) in BattleLore and HQ tokens in The Great War, players (mostly) acquire chips when they roll the Honor and Fortune symbol on the dice - this side of the dice has no other effect. Chips can be spent to power 'Dragon' cards, which provide bonuses and special actions (just like Memoir '44's Combat cards or Commands & Colors: Napoleonics's Tactician cards). So far, so standard.

However, players also lose Honor and Fortune chips when a unit retreats - more if it's a samurai unit. And, if you run out of chips, there's the possibility of additional losses for the retreating unit and others. Effectively, the army's morale is damaged and soldiers flee. What a brilliant way of enhancing the game's setting and giving players something else to worry about.

As well as military units, Leaders (single blocks) feature in this game and, unusually, come in three types. Foot leaders attach to infantry only, while mounted leaders can command infantry or cavalry. As well as allowing their unit to ignore a retreat, they can use Honor and Fortune to add a die in close combat. The third type is the Army commander (and his bodyguard), whose presence on the battlefield boosts some effects, but takes no active part in the fighting (unless attacked). I have yet to play a scenario with an army commander, but their main purpose seems to be to provide a target for your opponent.

The usefulness of your Leaders is somewhat balanced by your opponent gaining a victory banner for killing one. And, as mediaeval Japanese commanders led from the front, Leaders are easier to kill than in other C&C games. In keeping with the setting, a lone Leader who is forced to retreat (and lose Honour) can commit seppuku (and gain Honour) instead. However, this also means the player reduces the number of Command cards they hold, so it's not an automatic decision.

There's also a difference in the way terrain can protect units (which I first saw in Commands & Colors: Medieval). Take forests for example. In most C&C games, attacking a unit in a forest means subtracting one or two dice from what you roll in attack. Thus, ashigaru archers, who normally roll two dice, might roll just one when attacking into a forest while samurai spearmen, normally four dice in close combat, would roll three. However, the rule in this game sets a maximum number of dice the attacker rolls. This is two for a forest, so those ashigaru archers would attack with their full two dice, while the samurai spearmen would only get two, too. This is a subtle change and I'm still seeing how this effects tactics.

From gallery of Pevans
Playing a few games has let me draw some conclusions. First is that archers are powerful. They have a range of three and roll two (if ashigaru) or three (samurai) dice. Infantry generally move one hex at a time (and cavalry two), giving the archers plenty of time to inflict damage before attackers can close. The mounted samurai archers are particularly dangerous and there seem to be a lot of them. In the photo (right), red's three archer units have eliminated one of blue's, despite taking damage, and blue's spearmen have retreated out of range.

As a cautious player, I keep a few Honor and Fortune chips in hand to cover units forced to retreat. However, there doesn't seem to be any need to hoard lots of them - Tom and I were generating plenty of them in every game. So spend them to add an extra die to attacks involving leaders. This does make a difference. Bear in mind, though, that your leaders are more likely to be killed if they're in the front line. (Tom is particularly miffed that he'd not managed to kill a single leader of mine in our first seven games, while I'd polished off several of his.)

Scenarios are generally quick to play (so far) as they don't require many banners to win. In fact, one only needs three banners for a win and killing the enemy leader gains you two. So be aware of this when you start a scenario or it could all be over before you realise.

Coming next: reports from Tom's and my battles.
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