THE LATEST version of Richard Borg’s Commands & Colors series from GMT Games takes players to the battlefields of Medieval Japan. Indeed, Commands & Colors Samurai Battles (GMT Games, 2021) bills itself on the box cover as, “The exciting medieval Japan battlefield game.” If you are a Grognard and are looking for a lite, family wargame you will find a great one in Commands & Colors Samurai Battles…which at first appears to demand you buy into some fantasy. Just be warned; what looks at first to be “fantastical” will eventually lead you to a deeper understanding of Carl von Clausewitz.
Commands & Colors Samurai Battles takes Richard Borg’s proven (and very popular) card-driven Commands & Colors system and moves it to Medieval Japan. From a game mechanism perspective the move is a good one given the armies of the day were a mix of close combat and ranged attack units. The core rules for Commands & Colors is a relatively simple translation to this new era and long time Commands & Colors players will find the transition to this rules set very easy. New players to Commands & Colors will likewise have an easy time learning the rules and, like so many games in the series, can usually be taught how to play without even needing to read the rules.
Here there be Dragons…
Like every Commands & Colors game, there is usually some customized rules to reflect the peculiarities of the era being gamed. Be it Elephant Rampage in Commands & Colors Ancients or routing militia in Commands & Colors Tricorne or Form Square in Command & Colors Napoleonics, these extra rules add period flavor for their given game and take what otherwise is a very generic game system and make it highly thematic. Commands & Colors Samurai Battles is no different in adding customized rules for the period. The major difference between Commands & Colors Samurai Battles and previous iterations of the Command & Colors system is that one of those special rules outwardly appears fantastical and not historical. Thus, some have accused Commands & Colors Samurai Battles as being closer to the fantasy Commands & Colors derivative Battlelore than to more historic-centric designs like Ancients or Tricorne or Napoleonics.
In Commands & Colors Samurai Battles the period flavor rules are few but important how they portray the popular perception of combat in medieval Japan. The few special rules of concern in Commands & Colors Samurai Battles and the page in the rule book the rules appears are:
- Army Commander & Bodyguards (p. 10)
- Enemy Command Tent (p. 10)
- Leader Seppuku (p. 19)
- Retreat & Loss of Honor (p. 20)
- Lack of Honor (p. 20)
- Honor & Fortune (p. 21)
- Dragon Cards (p. 22)
Commands & Colors Samurai Battles treats some of these rules in a very straight-forward, historical manner. The Army Commander & Bodyguards rule works in conjunction with the Enemy Command Tent and is a good interpretation of medieval Japanese battlefield headquarters.
Other flavor rules in Commands & Colors Samurai Battles seem drawn more from popular films and samurai myths than the historical record. Leader Seppuku has some historical basis, but the way the rule is invoked in Commands & Colors Samurai Battles seems to be based more on trying to recreate popular samurai movies on the battle board than true history. Historical or not, the rule admittedly does make Samurai Battles feel more dramatic.
A key game mechanism in Commands & Colors Samurai Battles is Honor & Fortune. Both players have a pool of Honor & Fortune tokens that they must manage. The tokens, “in a roundabout way serves to measure an army’s discipline, its honor and the fortunes of war” (p. 21). At first glance, Honor & Fortune doesn’t appear unlike morale rules in many wargames. When units retreat or are routed or otherwise defeated you lose Honor & Fortune tokens. If one doesn’t have a sufficient reserve of tokens, then the Lack of Honor rule takes effect. Lack of Honor is a quick path to defeat making it imperative one manages their Honor & Fortune tokens carefully.
Fortune from Above or just a Dead Hand?
The special rule for Dragon Cards in Commands & Colors Samurai Battles is seemingly generating the most controversy. From all outward appearances, the play of Dragon Cards appears to be an appeal to mysticism rather than the employment of sound tactics and strategy on the battlefield. I say “appears to be” because that is the easy (lazy?) interpretation of what Dragon Cards represent. Let me show you another viewpoint; I see the Dragon Cards as the dead hand of Carl von Clausewitz influencing the design of Commands & Colors Samurai Battles.
How are Dragon Cards in Commands & Colors Samurai Battles and Carl von Clausewitz related? According to the Samurai Battles rule book, Dragon Cards are, “the gateway to legendary and mythical actions on the battlefield” (p. 22). While that certainly sounds like an appeal to mysticism, a closer look at the the 40 Dragon Cards in the game reveal they are less mystical and more fog and fortunes of war; factors even Dead Carl considered.
It seems fitting that Dragon Cards in Commands & Colors Samurai Battles are used in that “game of cards” for this battlefield game. A close examination of the Dragon Cards reveals that even the most “mystical” of them really are no different than a random event table in many wargames. Take for instance the “Blue Dragon.”
Play alongside your Command card.
Target: All enemy units on or next to a terrain hex with water.
Before ordering units, roll one die against each targeted unit. A symbol rolled will score one hit on the unit. Flags, Swords, Honor & Fortune and other unit symbols rolled have no effect.“Blue Dragon” Dragon Card
If we could ask the Panzer drivers who got bogged down in the marshes at Kursk I think they would agree that they came face to face with the “Blue Dragon.” So go all (but one) of the Dragon Cards in Samurai Battles—what outwardly appears as mysticism is really just the fickle hand of fate in war.
There is one Dragon Card in Commands & Colors Samurai Battles that is not fate, but a special nod to the period. The Dragon Card “Personal Challenge” again draws on popularized history to allow players to have those dramatic samurai movie moments. There is a historical basis for this card, and given that there are only two in the deck of 40 Dragon Cards and they can only be played if there are opposing leaders in a hex, it will likely they will be used only occasionally but in a very dramatic way.
Popular Samurai Battles
Some of you might of picked up on my repeated use of the words “popular” versus “historical” and “mysticism” in Commands & Colors Samurai Battles and maybe think this Grognard doesn’t like the game. Quite the contrary, I love Commands & Colors Samurai Battles and am very pleased to get this game in my collection. At first I was a bit worried by some of the comments on “dragons” in the game and other “mystical” aspects but once I got the game to the table I see that Carl von Clausewitz is simply doing some cosplay here. Maybe samurai in medieval Japan sought to understand how fortune and fate worked on the battlefield and the easiest explanation was to describe it in terms of mystical events. In Commands & Colors Samurai Battles that frame of reference reinforces the theme of the game, but don’t for a moment think the game strays into fantasy. For historical and family wargamers alike, Commands & Colors Samurai Battles deserves to be part of your Commands & Colors shelf (but not the top shelf or you risk the weight tipping over the bookcase and destroying your printer as a multi-pound box full of mounted boards and little wood blocks comes crashing down…not that I would know…).