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Commands & Colors: Ancients» Forums » Strategy

Subject: STRATEGY - The Dead Card rss

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BrentS
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This article was written in response to a post in another thread regarding the issue of a player holding section cards for a section where he has no units. This was directed at all games in the C&C family. As that thread wasn’t really an appropriate forum to debate that issue, I thought it best to respond here in detail. I’m very familiar with Ancients, have played a reasonable amount of Napoleonics, and have no experience with any of the other C&C games. I’ll discuss this in respect to what I know best (Ancients) but I expect it can be applied pretty generally to the whole family of C&C games. While this is my take on the issue and therefore not strictly a strategy discussion, it does cover elements of the strategic framework of the game and therefore I thought it best posted in the strategy forum.

The observation put forward in that original post was that the potential for a player to hold a section card, or possibly multiple cards, for a section where he has no units is a design mistake, a flaw in the game, and that some people refuse to play the game because they consider it ridiculous. The other opinion voiced in that post was that this would be best fixed with a card cycling mechanism like that in Combat Commander: Europe.

I disagree with both of these points and I’ll address them separately.


Are the section cards a design mistake?

In my opinion, no. In fact, I think they’re intentional design. and excellent design at that.

I should be clear that I’m discussing just the section cards here. Everyone who has played the game will understand that a significant part of the deck, the Troop, Leadership and most of the Tactics cards, allow a player to order a single unit anywhere on the board if they don’t have the relevant unit type to order, and are therefore always playable for effect.

I do understand the frustration of new or potential players and the perception that it makes no sense for a card to be unable to order a unit and therefore be functionally useless, so I’m not criticising that initial perception, but I’d argue that it’s not based on any understanding of the game’s real strategic imperatives, which comes through play and experience.

Ancients is an open and fluid game, with a constantly changing game state. The real question a player should ask themselves if they have no units in a section is how that happened in the first place. I’ve played almost all the official C&C:A scenarios available (and all of the Napoleonics base game scenarios), and somebody may be able to prove me wrong, but I’m not aware of any where an army starts a battle with a section devoid of units. So if a situation arises where a player finds he has no units in a section, it has occurred as a result of his actions or those of his opponent. While luck of the dice may occasionaly play a role, this is almost always the result of the flow of the game and player decisions, not a situation arbitrarily forced on a player.

If you decamp from a section, possibly a weak flank where you withdrew before the advance of a stronger enemy, then that was your tactical decision….and the real thematic implication of having limited your strategic options by surrendering part of the battlefield to the enemy is reflected in the risk of having section cards in hand that you cannot order units with.

If a strong enemy attack has forced you out of a section, then the limitation of your strategic options is a reflection of his successfully taking the initiative. It’s a thematically and mechanically appropriate modelling of the enemy dominating the field.

So this situation occurs as a natural result of play, often when the battle is advanced and reaching its climax, is the result of player choices and is thematically appropriate……all desirable features of any game and particularly well presented in Ancients.

What is even better is that you are now faced with the difficult strategic dilemma of how to deal with the situation, whether or not it was of your own choosing. It’s an enjoyable challenge…….and good players know how to respond to it successfuly. I won’t go into details (there are plenty of strategy discussions in this forum already covering this, including the glaringly obvious choice of moving units into that section so that you can use those cards) but one of your many options is……card cycling!


Should C&C:Ancients have a card cycling mechanic like CC:Europe?

No thankyou.

I really enjoy playing CC:E but its deck structure and hand management are entirely different to Ancients. There are far more dead card situations and non-functional hands in CC:E and multiple card cycling is necessary there. It also has a strategic implication in that game where the time triggers are dependent on deck depletion.

But of course, the real point here is that Ancients already does have the option for card cycling……it’s just more limited and difficult than it is in CC:E and therefore more challenging and rewarding of player skill. This greater challenge is just one of many reasons I prefer Ancients to CC:E (although I’d stress again that I do really like CC:E).

I think many new players believe that once they have cards in hand that they can’t use, their Command effectively becomes reduced and that they’re only able to play the useful cards. On the contrary, you’re never obliged to order units on a card play, which means you’re allowed to play a section card that does nothing in order to cycle it for another card. This is key to good hand management in the game but it can be very difficult when you’re being pressed by the enemy. The trick is finding a lull period to do it, where loss of tempo is least likely to do you harm. In this situation I’ll look for the first sign of such an opportunity, or attempt to create it if I’m feeling particularly cocky, then cycle as aggressively as I can, for as long as the enemy allows, until I have a strong hand.

The limitation to card cycling in Ancients forces hard decisions and the opportunity for clever, creative play, and for my sesterces that is yet one more fantastic feature that contributes to an overall excellent gaming experience.

Discussion welcome.

Brent.

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Miguel (working on TENNISmind...)
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Thanks Brent, I didn't want to answer on RB's thread because I found too that it was not the place to discuss these things, happy that you created a separate thread.

goshublue wrote:
Should C&C:Ancients have a card cycling mechanic like CC:Europe?

No thankyou.

That was my first reaction too. It would penalize good hand management, or encourage bad one! Since many of the cards involve formations, there are always a few turns where your enemy will prepare those formations instead of "always attacking", and this is where weak hands have to be recycled. Formations are prepared step by step, recycling too.

But I understand newbies not getting it from the start. Indeed, new players follow a very similar trend, always use the card that allows the most attacks, each and every turn. I think it is the role of the player introducing the game to give some hints beyond the basic rules, especially when he hears "this mechanics sucks!"... If you always play the best card you will reach a point where you "lose momentum", and find yourself at the mercy of the enemy. If you don't want to reach that point, you have to play better, and the player introducing the game should tell the newbies how.

In some unbalanced scenarios you may have not many choices, but I find this a very realistic implementation. Yesterday I played "Plains of Alsace" as the barbarian, and Caesar was decimating my left, for which I had very few cards. It was a matter of a few turns for him to sweep my whole flank and win, so I started to attack in the center with all my forces. I almost won, but at some time I "lost momentum", one VB short, and I saw him getting the last three VB: 6-7! It was my fault, a consequence of my all out attack in the center, but at that moment I thought it was the best strategy I could follow...
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Nice posts !

I would add the following remarks :

- if one of your wings is devoid of units, you are in deep trouble, anyway.
- if such a situation occurs, you can activate units of the neighbouring sector and move them to the empty one.
- in practice, I nearly never have had a totally useless hand - in fact, I don't remember that having happened at all.
- your opponent doesn't know where your hand weeknesses are: that quite reduces him piling upon your disadvantage.
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Steve Duke
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I think it is funny that gamers can seem to debate almost anything, like it really matters.

If you don't like the mechanism, play something else. Simple.

Whether it is a 'flaw' to the game system or even a 'fatal flaw' is subject to opinion only. You either can deal with it or you can't.

It has been pointed out numerous times and places that while the game mechanics are pretty simple, the game itself is far from simplistic. What an inability to activitate units actually represents could be a myriad of things that really happen today and happened then in battles.

Command and control confusion, misplaced/late orders, poor subordinates carrying out the orders, chaos, and on and on. Some folks play within that design and like it a lot, and others just don't or can't or won't.

But to debate whether it is a problem or not is silly, imo. Either you understand it, like it and can deal with it, or you you can find one of the many other games on Ancients or Napoleonics that offer you more control or more of whatever you equate to be 'realistic' or a more accurate picture of the battlefield. It's not like the CC system is all that's out there.

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Ian McCarthy
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Well, the percentage of section cards changes from game to game within the C&C series of games. Ancients is generally considered one of the most advanced variants of the system and it has one of the highest percentages of non-section-based cards in the entire system.

I once compared Battlelore to Ancients in this respect and Battlelore had considerably more section-limited command cards. I can't remember the exact numbers, but I know that I feel far less frustrated playing Ancients than I do playing Battlelore or Memoir '44.

I think that part of this reduced frustration while playing Ancients has to do with less reliance of the card deck on limited use cards, although drawing mounted charge when you have a couple of green cavalry is just not a shining moment in the game.
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The 'dead hand' issue seems to crop up again and again. Here is my input. I currently own Memoir '44, C&C: Ancients and Napoleonics and have, in the past tried Battlecry and Battlelore. I found that the issue with the games I don't have was not the card play, but the game and rules instead. Battlecry 150th was disappointing in that hardly any of the rules had been changed to reflect the years of gamer input. Battlelore was just too expensive to obtain the expansions I wanted.

There are cases where the cards you have are absolutely useless and it can take a few moves to get back into action and, yes, it can be a real pain in the backside when it happens. However, to my mind, this shows well the ebb and flow of a battle and makes the player more aware of conditions outside their control. It's all part of battlefield confusion and chaos. If the 'dead hand' syndrome is too haphazard and 'gamey' then these are not the games for you.
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sduke wrote:
Whether it is a 'flaw' to the game system or even a 'fatal flaw' is subject to opinion only.

Well, I think there is a huge difference between a game where the designer didn't realize that a given rule made it broken, and then gamers realize and tell him and there is some official errata/variant... and a game where newbies didn't realize that they have not played the game enough to see wether there is a mistake in the design or not.

That's why I said that the player introducing the game should address this part of the rules too, to make clear what was the intent and how can one avoid reaching to these situations. And that reaching to these situations because you didn't plan ahead IS what the designer wanted to when he introduced this specific rule.

So of course anyone can "think" that a game is broken or has fatal flaws, but most of the games don't. And anyone can be sure he doesn't like a given game, but that is different, you say "I don't like it" but not "the game is broken and I am the only one to realize".

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franchi wrote:
sduke wrote:
Whether it is a 'flaw' to the game system or even a 'fatal flaw' is subject to opinion only.

Well, I think there is a huge difference between a game where the designer didn't realize that a given rule made it broken, and then gamers realize and tell him and there is some official errata/variant... and a game where newbies didn't realize that they have not played the game enough to see wether there is a mistake in the design or not.

That's why I said that the player introducing the game should address this part of the rules too, to make clear what was the intent and how can one avoid reaching to these situations. And that reaching to these situations because you didn't plan ahead IS what the designer wanted to when he introduced this specific rule.

So of course anyone can "think" that a game is broken or has fatal flaws, but most of the games don't. And anyone can be sure he doesn't like a given game, but that is different, you say "I don't like it" but not "the game is broken and I am the only one to realize".



I don't know about "mistake," but there is clearly evolution in the basic C&C design. IMO, the section-ordering system in Ancients works about as well as the system permits, only occasionally giving a player uncontrollable crap. However, earlier iterations of the system are definitely more at the mercy of the luck of the draw.

In order to properly discuss the ramifications of luck vs. control in these games, an analysis of evolving deck composition in the different games would be a good foundation.
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sduke wrote:


But to debate whether it is a problem or not is silly, imo. Either you understand it, like it and can deal with it, or you you can find one of the many other games on Ancients or Napoleonics that offer you more control or more of whatever you equate to be 'realistic' or a more accurate picture of the battlefield. It's not like the CC system is all that's out there.



Silly or not, I actually think it's useful for some people. There are some players who will never be willing to get it and some people who will never like it even if they do and that's totally fine. There are some, however, who may well appreciate the game but never have the opportunity to get past the surface impressions to what lies beneath.....and I think responding to misconceptions like those put forward in the original posting is more productive for those players than telling them to deal with it and like it or push off.

I may come off as overly invested in the game sometimes but it's only because I enjoy it and appreciate what it offers and would like more players around who do because it increases the chances I'll have others to play with. In the absence of being personally able to sit down with new players to show them the ropes, discussions like these provide an enduring resource for them to access.

Brent.
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KenToad wrote:

In order to properly discuss the ramifications of luck vs. control in these games, an analysis of evolving deck composition in the different games would be a good foundation.


I'll have to admit I can only discuss what I know and it's interesting to hear that other games in the system may not have decks that are as open as Ancients. I do find the Napoleonics deck a bit more constrained than the the Ancients one and if others in the system are even more so then yes, I could see an issue with that.

Brent.
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KenToad wrote:
In order to properly discuss the ramifications of luck vs. control in these games, an analysis of evolving deck composition in the different games would be a good foundation.

Agree, if Richard Borg wrote such an analysis it would be very very welcome. Sometimes it is not very clear if all the effects were achieved on purpose or if some, if any, were a lucky/random result!
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franchi wrote:
KenToad wrote:
In order to properly discuss the ramifications of luck vs. control in these games, an analysis of evolving deck composition in the different games would be a good foundation.

Agree, if Richard Borg wrote such an analysis it would be very very welcome. Sometimes it is not very clear if all the effects were achieved on purpose or if some, if any, were a lucky/random result!


I have a feeling that the increased complexity of the non-section cards in Ancients has to do with the target age group of the publisher GMT vs. the publishers Hasbro or Days of Wonder. So, yeah, I guess that the game was basically dumbed down. However, with this kind of system, a high complexity is not really warranted.

I'm sure Mr. Borg achieved his design goals with each iteration of the system being targeted towards different demographics.
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Yeah, I don't think I've ever been stymied by the cards in CC Ancients. Sure, sometimes I get a lousy hand, but I can always do something with it.

I do find the dice can go one way or the other and produce wacky results sometimes, but not the cards. Sometimes the dice can throw the game towards one player, like your opponent's Elephants dying without doing any damage, or an entire line of Heavy infantry failing to make a dent in Auxilia, but then I don't think I'm anything like an expert player, so maybe even that is not so much down to luck as accidental/intuitive good play!).
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Grainger wrote:

I do find the dice can go one way or the other and produce wacky results sometimes, but not the cards.


Yes. Essentialy Ancients is an exercise in playing to optimise probability in your favour when the most random element comes into play, being the dice. The game does reward skilful play and you can achieve a very high level of consistency if you become good at the main skills that allow you to best optimise probability.....being unit positioning, hand management and timing...but player control ends with the roll of the dice. I'd never disagree with the opinion that the dice are subject to luck but I do disagree with the frequently voiced argument that the cards are all about chance because they aren't. Hand management is a critical element of the game and while it is in part subject to the luck of the draw, it is primarily a matter of practice, versatility and skill.

I never blame the cards for a bad performance, I blame my own failure in hand management. I never resent the dice for failing me because if I've done my best to optimise probability, then it's out of my control.

Brent.

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goshublue wrote:
I never blame the cards for a bad performance.


Let me hold my hand up and say that I have. I couldn't agree more with your central argument, Brent. The game *is* about hand management and planning and trying to optimise probabilities (and that is why I love it) but there have been occasions when I have felt powerless.

I am thinking of situations where, when playing with command four, I have tried to hunker down and wait for better cards. I have used my opening moves to bring in exposed flanks and make my formation as tight as possible to try and resist enemy action. I then find myself holding three cards that order in the right section (I have no units there) and a "mounted charge" (my meagre cavalry is now cowering behind my main line). As my opponent crashes into my front line, I am powerless to respond and the game is all but over a couple of turns later.

I accept your initial argument that my predicament is self-inflicted because it was me that moved units from the right section, but I didn't know that I was going to draw a succession of cards for the right flank. Would I blame this on an unlucky card draw? Well - yes.

If we rewind to the start of the game, the overwhelming likelihood is that my future card draws will offer me a range of tactical options. As we have agreed that the game is about optimising probabilities, I would defend my decision to abandon the right flank because the most likely outcome is that I will still have options available. When I don't have those options I feel that the cards have gone against me.

The situation I have described is rare, and it doesn't detract from my enjoyment of the game (the only one that I rate "10"). I am just challenging the view that there is no such thing as an unlucky card draw.
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ReggieMcFly wrote:
I am thinking of situations where, when playing with command four, I have tried to hunker down and wait for better cards. I have used my opening moves to bring in exposed flanks and make my formation as tight as possible to try and resist enemy action.
... I would say that a command four has the aim to limit you choices.
You know that you won't be able to maneuver with as much flexibility as you would have liked.
A nice way to "reincarnate" you into an incompetent Varus-like commander.devil
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Ian McCarthy
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Robin wrote:
ReggieMcFly wrote:
I am thinking of situations where, when playing with command four, I have tried to hunker down and wait for better cards. I have used my opening moves to bring in exposed flanks and make my formation as tight as possible to try and resist enemy action.
... I would say that a command four has the aim to limit you choices.
You know that you won't be able to maneuver with as much flexibility as you would have liked.
A nice way to "reincarnate" you into an incompetent Varus-like commander.devil


Command 4 is supposed to limit that Commander's ability to plan, not hand them a pile of limited or unusable crap so that they can essentially do nothing. That's not fun for anyone, unless you like being a loser.

I know that you might be joking, but the foundation of your joke is frequently used in all seriousness to "counter" the persistent evidence of the very real limitations of the C&C section cards.

Sometimes, while playing the game, you just have to remember that you're playing a game of cards.
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Spot on!
 
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rjpomeroy wrote:
Spot on!


Thank you!







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I have to agree. I love this game but I think it would be even better with less luck in card draw. For example having a average secondary option on all cards instead of a crappy one on some cards (the ...or move one unit of your choice).

As it stands, I find draw luck (not hand management which is fine) has too much impact on too many games (especially since card powers vary to the extreme - Order 2 units right vs Leadership cards for example). These games where you keep drawing useless or just low unit count orders are just not fun or balanced.

As I said, still one of my favourite games despite this.
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One of the things I've learned about the C&C Command Deck/Section mechanics is that with experience comes a stronger ability to play "bad" hands. I've been beaten by strong players whose hands were "weaker" upon reviewing the run of played cards.

I think there are ways—especially if you are teaching the game–to mitigate the vagaries of the hands dealt.

One way is to have two veteran players teach two new players the game while all are around the same table. One veteran and one new player are on each side and are each dealt their own hand of cards. Open with the veterans exchanging a turn and explaining their plays. Then the new players exchange their turns, with the veterans answering whatever questions the new players have. This technique doubles the number of available cards each side has to play, though each player is only limited to what the scenario states for their hand.

Another might be to simply allow a novice player to draw double the number of Command Cards the scenario calls for him to have. He then picks cards from the doubled draw up to his limit Command Card limit. Reshuffle the discards to reform the draw deck. (Let the novice play the stronger side, too!)
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Steve Duke
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Sometimes, while playing the game, you just have to remember that you're playing a game of cards.

And to Ian's point, sometimes in battles in reality you have to remember that the people that you tell to do something sometimes don't do what you want them to do, when you want them, the way you want them, etc.

Whether that reality is 'fun' to game in this situation is the real question. Lots of reality situations would be unfun to game, like logistical distribution.

The dead hand is certainly frustrating and how well you deal with it is a matter of experience, what the other guy has in his hand, your own poker face, luck and all kinds of other things. Is it enough of a turn off to run some people away from the game series because of it? Clearly it is.

I don't see it as a shortcoming that needs fixing. Sometimes in this 'game of cards' (btw, I think the game system is much more than that, there are crappy dice too!) , you are just screwed. As in life. How you deal with it can determine whether you win or lose and, as in life, sometimes no matter what you do you end up as the bug and not the windshield.

The good thing is, you can play the same scenario again against exactly the same person with the same sides and the outcome could be completely different.
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For those who really can't stand the card game mechanic that limits their options, there's always the very similar Hold the Line and Napoleon's War II: The Gates of Moscow games which use a die roll to determine the number of "Command Action Points" a side has to order units. Generally 1 CAP orders a unit with 2 needed for some intense activities such as melee. Generally this approach means that while you can't do everything you want to do, you can almost always do the one thing you really want to do. I'm not entirely sure this is more realistic than Borg's system, but it's probably a little less frustrating to the players.

I like and play both systems. I think each one has it's good points and they're both very good. I think there's a little more drama in playing under Borg's system, but that may just be me.

One thing to consider about both systems and the entire Borg family of games specifically is the fact that they are all short enough that you can often play several times in a session. While a string of bad cards or, more often, bad dice, will cost you a game now and then, it's my experience that better play will generally tip the scales most of the time. There's really hardly a wargame -- particularly the sort of wargame that you can play in an hour -- where flukes of luck don't play a role anyway. If I'm going to lose agame by luck, better that it happen in an hour so we can play again than spend all day and then get robbed by the dice! arrrh

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I played 95 official scenarios at least twice switching sides against the same player and logged the results. We were already veteran players and the final result was 104 to 96. I ended up with 96 wins after being tied at 50 to 50 and 75 to 75.

In games in which one side had the two card advantage, it won won 78.8% of those games. Skill levels being equal, it's a huge advantage.
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I'd say 200 games with equal players that come out with a 4game differential bespeaks play balance beyond what anyone could hope for.

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