#Wargame Wednesday – Clausewitz Cosplay with Commands & Colors Samurai Battles (@gmtgames, 2021)

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.

In short, absolute, so-called mathematical, factors never find a firm basis in military calculations. From the very start, there is an interplay of possibilities, probabilities, good luck and bad, that weaves its way throughout the length and breadth of the tapestry. In the whole range of human activities, war most closely resembles a game of cards.

Carl von Clausewitz, On War, Chapter 1, 21 (p. 86)

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.”

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.

Panzer crew deals with “The Blue Dragon” (courtesy hürtgenwald on pintrest)

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…).

Carl von Clausewitz is simply doing some cosplay here.

RockyMountainNavy, September 2021

“War is merely the continuation of politics by other means” – Clausewitz in Cataclysm: A Second World War (GMT Games, 2018)

Cataclysm: A Second World War (GMT Games, 2018) is an interesting game. I have been trying to get my head wrapped around the game, but I think I didn’t actually grok it until listening to the Three Moves Ahead Episode 439 podcast. Host Rob was joined by Bruce Geryk (@SpaceRumsfeld) to discuss Cataclysm. After listening to their discussion I finally realized a major reason I have a hard time wrapping my head around the game is because I was expecting Cataclysm to be a wargame when it is not.

Let me explain.

Looking at the GMT Games publisher’s page forCataclysm the second paragraph (Not Your Father’s Panzer Pusher) is squarely aimed at the wargamer. It talks about grand strategy, military pieces, military production, prosecuting war, no Combat Results Table but operational effects, resource acquisition, control of border states, and perceptions of power. Everything I think about in a wargame.

However, the next paragraph is actually more important:

Geopolitics and The Clever Use of Flags

Flags are the currency of political capital in Cataclysm. Nations earn flags through public mandate or provocation by opposing powers. Spending this political capital is subject to the effectiveness of your power, which determines how easily you can implement your policies. Readying for war requires you to increase your commitment, straining the stability of your government. You can offset this by using propaganda to shore up your position. You can form strong alliances with friendly powers, or use diplomacy to sway your neighbors to your side. You may need to pressure reluctant partners into taking action. Manage your political actions to suit your goals, but be wary of provoking your opponents, allowing them to earn flags in reaction.

As Rob and Bruce discuss, it is the political game that is actually the core of Cataclysm. Indeed, in the 3-player game they played there was almost no combat. Now that I think of it, I agree that Cataclysm is actually a political game where there is a chance of a Second World War breaking out. This realization requires that I recognize that the “core mechanic” of Cataclysm is not the combat model (my wargame expectation) but the Flags and Political Actions. Once I make this connection the whole “game thesis” as Bruce puts it makes sense. I went into Cataclysm expecting a wargame but instead played a strategy game of politics and diplomacy where war is just another option in each nations toolkit. To put it in Clausewitz-like terms, in Cataclysm, “war is merely the continuation of politics by other means.”

carl_von_clausewitz
Carl von Clausewitz -by Karl Wilhelm Wach (Wikipedia Commons)

Thinking about Cataclysm as a Clausewitz-influenced strategy game instead of a wargame actually grows my respect for the design. I encourage you all to listen to the 3 Moves Ahead podcast, and especially Bruce’s comments on the “game thesis” as I think this will help many folks wrap their own heads around this game. I have to admit I am more excited about the game then Bruce and Rob seem to be. Now that I have groked the game thesis and realized Cataclysm is “not a wargame” I want to get it back to my gaming table and play with this newfound perspective.