NSKN are publishing my next game :)
Omega Centauri Published in 2014
I'll start with a bit of background, I like the Commands & Colors system - started with Battle Cry and then Memoir'44. Prior to Ancients I perferred the ACW period but thought Memoir'44 was a better incarnation of the game. So I'm a little biased.
The box makes an impression, it's very heavy weight - very nice, add the weight of the wooden blocks and you have a heavy game, which isn't such good news for those planning to purchase on mail order or wanting to send this as a gift.
When you open the box you notice a bag of blocks, 5 sticker sheets - yup you've got to put all those stickers on the blocks, a nice rulebook a couple of really useful reference cards a heavy weight 'unmounted' map, a deck of cards, some terrain tiles in die cut sheets and a set of rather cheap looking dice.
Players of Columbia's block games will be familar with the 'put stickers on blocks', and it doesn't take that long once you get into the swing of it, but you won't be playing this 10 minutes after ripping off the shrink.
Be warned the publishers have stated:
Important Note for owners of Commands & Colors: Ancients:
There are some extra stickers on the stickers pages that are spares but are not marked as spares. What this means is that if you just start matching blocks and stickers without referring to the rulebook, you could inadvertently put spare stickers on blocks needed for a different unit. To make sure this doesn't happen to you, designer Richard Borg suggests the following:
Separate the blocks by color, Gray Romans, Brown Carthaginian, then sort blocks by size. Go to Page 3 in the rule book and start with the Roman Units. Pull out 24 small gray blocks. Find the Roman Light Infantry stickers on sheet 1 of 3 (there are two of these sheets). Peel and place stickers front and back on the 24 small gray blocks. When you run out of the 24 blocks, move onto Roman Light Bow Infantry. Pull out 8 small gray blocks. Find the Roman Light Bow Infantry stickers on Sheet 3 of 3. Peel and place stickers on the front and back on the 8 small gray blocks. When you run out of 8 blocks, move onto Roman Light Sling Infantry 4 blocks… keep going it will really will be worth the effort!
Also you need to put stickers on the dice, but the stickers are a little too big, so you have to trim them with a pair of sissors or a craft knife - not so good, and the dice are rather lightweight and a little disappointing, I think GMT could have done better with these, especially as they are such a crucial part of the game.
The map isn't mounted like Battle Cry/Memoir'44, but it's serviceable.
Rating: 7/10 (because of the dice)
Although the title is Ancients, this game covers the Punic Wars - Rome vs Carthage (although the early scenarios it's Syracuse vs Carthage). Each scenario (of which there are 10) is a different battle, and like the other games of the series you get a brief historical outline, a graphic showing the layout of terrain and units, handsize, victory conditions and special rules. There is a nice variety of units, light units (infantry, including archer & slinger units, cavalry), medium (infantry, warbands, cavalry), and heavy (infantry, cavalry, chariots and Elephants) and also leaders. Leaders are very important in this game, more so than in Battle Cry. The rules give each type a different flavour, although I can't see any game difference between archers and slingers. Warmachines are included in the block mix but none of the scenarios use them and there are no rules for them in the box.
For those familar with the other games in the series there's not much difference. You have a hand of cards to activate your troops in a section of the battlefield - but leaders are important, a number of cards activate a leader and 3 or 4 adjacent units. A nice touch which encourages you to play the game like an ancient commander and keep your units together in a battle line. This is further encouraged with the combat system - again similar to the other games of the series - except now retreats are a little more vicious as units have to retreat their movement allowance (4 hexes in the case of light cavalry!), units that are with a leader or adjacent to 2 or more other units can ignore a (single) retreat result. There's now two types of combat, missile and close combat. With missile only the attacker rolls, 2 dice if the unit didn't move, 1 if it did. With close combat unless the defender is eliminated or retreats they can battle back - making close combat a little more risky. Close combat is usually more bloody as 2 dice faces apply in close combat that don't in ranged - crossed swords (but only if the unit attacking is not a 'light' unit) and a helmet (but only if the attacking unit has an attached leader or a leader in an adjacent hex). Also with close combat if you force the defender to retreat or you eliminate them then the unit can advance into the hex and in the case of cavalry move again and then attack again (infantry can attack again if a leader is present) - a bit like the 'overun' ability of tanks in Memoir'44. All of this leads to luck having a significant factor, the cards you draw and the results of combat - and a good (or bad) roll can see a unit eliminated or running for its life, and the attacking unit cutting a huge hole in the defence.
The system definitely feels like an ancients battle - you can see some very one-sided results and once your army fragments into little groups it becomes very difficult to control them and organise any sort of counter attack. However the player can significantly alter the outcome of the battle by the careful play of cards and the positioning of units and use of terrain. It's not always advisable to charge straight ahead, an unsupported unit in the front of your battle line is asking to be attacked, and the retreat rules mean your flanks are quite vulnerable as a unit on the end won't get the 2 unit support advantage and could quite easily be forced to retreat.
None of the cards are totally useless, if you draw a cavalry card for example but have no cavalry you can always use it to move one unit - however that makes it a rather weak card as usually you want to move 5 or 6 units, often in more than one section of the battlefield!
I think the amount of luck in the game is a fair representation of the difficulty in commanding a large number of troops - and the game certainly shows the advantages of good leaders.
Ancients is an excellent tactical warfare game that should appeal to most gamers. Those who found Battle Cry/Memoir'44 a little too light have more to think about - those who liked those systems should have enough grounding in the basics to cope. Most battles are playable in under an hour.
Just like the other games in the series the battles are historic, which means they are usually not balanced and one side often has a distinct advantage. This isn't a problem in my eyes as the battles are short enough for you to swap sides and replay it - and give your final score as a summary of the two (for those who like to 'win').
What are the downsides:
The dice (pretty poor, and you have to trim the stickers)
No nice figures, although I find the blocks look attractive and work fine in the game, it's actually easier to move the blocks around than a hex of figures.
The board - totally fine for the job, but not as nice as the mounted mapboard in Memoir'44 and Battle Cry
Only 10 scenarios, and only Rome/Carthage - although for me there is a desire to replay the scenarios to see if there is a winning strategy to 'solve' each battle. I'm sure if the game does well GMT will release expansions.
It should be possible to balance the game if you wanted to by reducing the number of cards one side gets, or removing a leader.
Overall: 10/10 for me - but if you tried and disliked Battle Cry and/or Memoir'44 you might want to try before you buy, the system is not that different.
And if you never have, you should. These things are fun and fun is good.
My first impression of this system years ago was that it would be amazing for Ancients and their battles/conflicts. Nice review. I'm really looking forward to playing this one!
Excellent review. I'll just add a few bits here and there:
First impressions: I haven't played Battle Cry or Memoir '44, so I don't have a point of comparison for the quality of the components. The blocks work fine for me, they are certainly evocative enough, and while it was a major pain to put all the stickers on, it wasn't any worse than Europe Engulfed...alright, it was a little worse, but that's okay. My biggest issue with the blocks actually is that my dog managed to get his hair into the box, as he does everywhere else, so many of them have got stray black hairs affixed to them. The dice are lightweight but entirely useable, and I'm frankly a little surprised that they've generated so much discussion. The overall quality of the components is very high. (On the other hand, the rulebook and scenario book have some errors in them.)
Theme: It's primarily Rome versus Carthage, which is fine by me. The first two scenarios do feature some phalanx combat, and the system handles them well. It would be a simple adaptation to add Greek versus Roman, Macedonian versus Persian, so on and so forth.
Gameplay: The system is simple and extremely elegant, and it gives you a historical feel (and often historical results) without any fiddliness at all. The scenarios fly past so quickly and with so many tactical choices that it often feels a bit like an Up Front game. No, it's not GBoH, but it gets a surprisingly large number of things right, and it does so while keeping the playing time way down.
I would like to add that the scenarios give you a great variety. There are battles where it's two medium sized-ish armies squaring off, a few where it's all about playing terrain, and some where you must negotiate large lines of men, and it all plays beautifully.
One thing I would like to add is the quicker units' abilities to "withdraw" from close range combat. Light infantry, for example, can withdraw from heavier infantry while cavalry can withdraw from infantry and light cavalry from heavy cavalry. This makes it possible to do things that would be suicide in games like Memoir 44 (maybe Battlecry). After a bloody turf war for the left flank, both our lines were lost (mostly cavalry), but one light cavalry was left alive, so the player made sure to move him back towards his side, away from my army, so he would live. Good call. Excpet I had one of my light cavalry run him down and make a fire attack at him. He either needed to force him to retreat (retreating 4 spaces can be rough!) or get a green circle. 1/3 sounds good for a much needed victory point. Sure enough, I hit, YAY! He curses, then strikes back with the medium infantry right next ot my horse. The horey withdraws. He rolls 2 swords a flag and a green circle, normally 3 hits (enough to kill a horse unit) but instead only 1 hit because I withdrew! YAY! Next turn my line moves up and the light cavalry is safely attached to my flank again.
The implications of this are great, and basically make your ranged units very effective at these types of quick hit-and-run style strikes.
NSKN are publishing my next game :)
Omega Centauri Published in 2014
Opps, yes I forgot to mention evading - very useful in some situations. You saw a bit of hit and run in Battle Cry (using Cavalry and the Hit and Run card) for example - but in Ancients you get it taken to a new level, especially with the very mobile light cavalry.
It's probably worth mentioning the differences in units too. Archers/Slingers have a range attack of 3 hexes (others it's 2). Warriors are special medium infantry that can ignore the first retreat until they lose a block, and can charge (move 2 hexes) but must attack if they do that. Chariots are special heavy units that get more dice attacking than defending (but can ignore one crossed sword hit). And of course you have Elephants Haven't had chance to try them yet - they're in the later scenarios, but Elephants have a number of special rules, including one where they rampage all over adjacent units if they have to retreat.
All in all, much more unit choice than 'infantry, armor, artillery'. Although Memoir'44 has a bigger mix of special combat cards - and also the 'probes' which let you draw 2 and pick one, but I don't really miss them.
Another minor niggle, which bothers others more than me, there's references to firing, such as the move,fire,move card. Of course no-one 'fired' missiles in this period, that terminology arrived with gunpowder ...