As regular readers likely know, I am, always have been, and will very likely forever be a Grognard. My first real “game” was a wargame—Jim Day’s Panzer from Yaquinto Publishing—found under the Christmas tree in 1979. Over forty years later I still play wargames.
That said, I took in six titles this year that were published in 2021 and thus are candidates for my 2021 Wargame of the Year:
Atlantic Chase (Jeremy White, GMT Games) – Atlantic Chase is a very different wargame—in some ways too different for me. As much as I am a naval wargamer (look at my nickname!) this one didn’t click with me. At heart it’s a game of trajectories and time much more than locations. There are many out there who sing praises to the rule book but I found the 10-episode tutorial a bit much. (Status Update – SOLD!)
North Africa: Afrika Korps vs Desert Rats, 1940-42 (Multi-Man Publishing) – Released late in the year, this one barely makes the list. I’ve yet to explore this title too deeply but the Standard Combat Series version of the very popular Operational Combat Series (OCS) DAK looks to be yet another “playable monster” game.
…and the winner is…
…Empire at Sunrise.
Empire at Sunrise was released so early in the year it’s easy to forget. Also, not coming from from the larger GMT Games but tiny Hollandspiele it tends to get drowned out in the marketing and social media “talk.” Empire deserves attention because that telescopic scale takes what could be three separate games and relates them to one another to make a coherent story. It’s an interesting game design on an under-appreciated historical topic. While Hollandspiele may not deliver the production quality of a larger publisher, the games are perfectly functional and do what they are supposed to do; enable gaming, exploration, and learning.
Very happy to see Regimental Commander Brant and other members of the Armchair Dragoons at Origins Game Fair this week. Origins started out as a wargame convention and over the years it, uh, changed.
The Dragoons bring wargaming back to the Fair and it’s good to see. Some of the games played included Tank Duel (GMT Games), Second World War at Sea (Avalanche Press), Team COIN, and Command & Colors Napoleonics (GMT Games). I am very sad that I missed the Persian Gulf game with the admiraltytrilogy.com folks.
The October Sale from Revolution Games is underway. Great chance to pick up more than a few bargains. Personally I recommend Pacific Fury. If you are willing to purchase folio-packaged games some of the prices are really low and (hopefully) more affordable.
I continued my local acquisitions support program by picking up a copy of Jamie Stegmaier’s Tapestry (Stonemaier Games, 2019) from a nearby gamer. Used but in great condition. Will try to get this to the table soon, maybe as the season kickoff for the Weekend Family Game Night Return.
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 & Colorsderivative 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…).
Commands & Colors Napoleonics (C&CN) is a block version of the game (as compared to the little plastic minis of Memoir’44). The game ships with nearly 400 wooden blocks of three sizes and three different colors. Most any Commands & Colors owner has a story about how long it takes to put stickers on all those blocks. What I’ll tell you is that it is very therapeutic; there is a certain calm that comes over you when working through the stickers and watching your armies form in front of you. In many ways it’s not all that different a feeling than corner-clipping counters—repetitive, even a bit tedious, but extremely satisfying in the outcome. In some ways stickering-up wood blocks in Commands & Colors helps me relate to miniatures wargamers who spend all that time basing and painting figures for their army.
War Engine the Napoleon Way
Commands & Colors Napoleonics builds upon the long-proven war engine of the Commands & Colors family of wargames. All Commands & Colors games share a common baseline set of rules. Using a set of Command cards, players first play a Command card, then Order units, Move those units, conduct Combat, and then Draw a new Command card. Units themselves often are just a few types and the rules for movement and combat of each is easy to remember (or easily referenced on a single player aid card). This baseline set of rules is easy to learn and follow and helps make the game just as easy to teach or learn for beginners and Grognards alike.
Like every Commands & Colors game, Commands & Colors Napoleonics also uses special “flavor” rules to recreate battles of this period. In the case of C&CN the rules are 6.0 NAPOLEONIC TACTICS AND ACTIONS which introduces “Cavalry Retire and Reform,” “Infantry Square,” and Combined Arms Combat.” These rules, covered in a little over 3.5 pages of well-illustrated rules, work hand-in-hand with the colors of blocks, the images on units, and text of the Command Cards to make this C&C game “feel” Napoleonic.
Levee En Mass (Market)
If I have a quibble with Commands & Colors Napoleonics it is the components. Not the wood blocks—I had only a few useless blocks included—but in the quality of the terrain tiles and cards. The hexagonal terrain tiles seem a bit thin to me; they are perfectly functional but just seem thin. Same goes for the (few) cardboard chits in the game—thin. More importantly, the cards also seem thin to me. I occasionally sleeve my cards, but usually only when I feel they need to be protected and I question their durability. This is one of those times. I also am not a fan of the dice included. Not only did I have to sticker them myself, but they seem too large and heavy. I own a dice tray and use it when necessary but generally avoid doing so as it adds another component that demands real estate on the table which is not always available. For myself, a fully laid out game of C&CN takes up the entire 3″x4″ gaming table in the loft; I simply don’t have room for a large dice tower or tray.
Napoleon’s True Colors
Quibbles over components aside, I will admit that Commands & Colors Napoleonics looks beautiful on the gaming table. There is real beauty in seeing lines of blue French soldiers squaring off against red-coated British. The highly visual element of C&CN is a great part of the charm of the entire series—the game simply looks good, is easy to learn, plays with just enough theme, and doesn’t overstay it’s welcome.
First Play – Battle of Rolica, Aug 17, 1808
In my Battle of Rolica, Wellesley got off to a slow start with only his left flank advancing (all the Command Cards initially were for the left!). However, aggressive action by a lone French Hussars (Light Cavalry) unit forced the British infantry into squares that slowed the advance buying time for French infantry to arrive. In a series of devastating melee actions the British infantry collapsed. Wellesley was furious because his leader on that flank, Fergusson, hung back behind the lines and therefore was unable to rally the infantry to stand. Even a desperate charge by British Dragoons (Heavy Cavalry) to seize the initiative was repulsed when the French Foot Artillery got a First Strike (battle first when attacked) and used canister at point-blank range to mow down the hapless riders. Apparently unable to get a courier through with orders (again, no Command Cards for that flank), Wellesley watched his left flank disintegrate with only a lone Foot Artillery unit left to halt any French advance (bolstered by Fergusson—finally).
As Wellesley watched his left flank disappear, he took some solace in watching his Portuguese allies on the right finally advance. They actually made it parallel to the French main line before a foray by two French line infantry units struck out. Again, the Gods of War (and Luck?) smiled on the French who drove the Portuguese back to their starting positions. As night feel, Delaborde held the field, but Wellesley had a strong center that might make the next days battle interesting.
At this point the battle ended with the French having gained the requisite five Victory Banners to win. My Battle of Rolica was a classic Commands & Colors game with Wellesley never seemingly having the right “cards in his hand” and being frustrated commanding his forces. Delaborde started out with a “poor hand” but was able to order units at just the right moment to arrest any British advances. His right flank far exceeded all expectations and seemingly couldn’t be stopped. Along the way I got to play all the new Napoleonic-era rules of Cavalry Retire and Reform, Infantry Squares, and Combined Arms. It felt grand and epic like one imagines a Napoleonic battle to be.
I’ve already gone ahead and placed P500 orders on GMT Games for what else is in production for Commands & Colors Napoleonics. I will be checking my favorite FLGS and online retailers to see if I can get some expansions at a fair price.
The Battle of Waterloo scenario is the last scenario presented in the base game of Commands & Colors Napoleonics. Like Quatre Bras before it, the scenario is large with a wide variety of forces. This makes setting up the game interesting as I paused at times to “pass in review” new units to ensure I understood their unique characteristics. After all, I want to make sure the Old Guard is used properly!
One reason I like most Commands & Colors-series games is that even the “big” scenarios like Waterloo are still playable in about an hour. My game took ~75 minutes and it was a see-saw battle the whole way. The battle developed in a classic Commands & Colors way complete with elation and frustration.
Specifically, elation and frustration is about the only way to explain how the game went for the French. Elation came early with the French advancing on both flanks and taking the Victory Banner towns of Hougoumont on the left and Papelotte on the right. Then the frustration set in it became almost impossible for the French to draw a Command Card for the center. Even then, there were some highly thematic moments like when the French drew the La Grande Manouevre card and made a bold move to retake the initiative in the center. However, it was not enough, and in the end the British were the first to the requisite eight Victory Banners (final score 8-6).
Grognard is also a slang term used by the tabletop role playing and wargaming community to refer to older, long term players of such games. The usage started with Napoleonic miniature war gaming, and originally referred to those who would seek out minor details that were wrong with another’s painting or modeling, mostly in terms of historical accuracy. Various online forums have popularized the usage among the tabletop role playing and war gaming community.
First, this is a grand battle with a full compliment of troops deployed on both sides. One needs nine (9) Victory Banners to win which means this scenario is also one of the longer ones published in the game.
My play of Commands & Color Napoleonics featured several moments that make a wargame memorable. Like early in the battle when the French right led by Bachelu pushed ahead but ran headlong into British rifle troops under Picton. The hazards of leading from the front were clearly demonstrated here with Bachelu falling in nearly the first volley of the battle.
(In Commands & Colors Napoleonics, when a unit with a leader is attacked and a hit is scored a second roll is required to determine a Leader Casualty. The roll requires “crossed sabers” on two dice—a 1-in-36 chance. Guess what happened here….)
Neither Ney or Wellington seemed able to get their center moving and the battle switched from left to right and back again. The French took the low hills on the right only to be thrown off, and on the left the British allied troops surged ahead. It took Kellerman and his French cuiarassier’s to push them back, and once they got started even infantry in squares seemed unable to stop them. By the end of the day Ney had ejected Wellington from the battlefield and was close to securing the crossroads.
As big as this Commands & Colors Napoleonics scenario was it still played in less than 90 minutes. Next, on to Waterloo!
I am very interested in getting Wing Leader: Legends to the table as it includes the “Decision Over Kursk” campaign system. Some readers may recall several “My Kursk Kampaign” postings from earlier this spring where I dove in-depth into that battle. At the time I wanted to explore the air war more:
As I start this exploration, my copy of Wing Leader: Legends 1937-1945 (GMT Games, forthcoming in 2021) is “At the Printer” meaning it may deliver sometime in mid-2021. If it delivers in time I would certainly like to play the campaign system which focuses on the air battles supporting the Battle of Kursk. I really want to explore a point Glantz makes on page 63 in his book; “Red aircraft might be inferior to their German counterparts, but they were certainly sufficient in numbers to deny the Luftwaffe undisputed command of the air.”
Although you can’t see it in the photo of The Dark Summer, I am, frankly, a bit surprised the game shipped in a 1.5″ deep box. One can interpret this as a sign that the game is smaller, and with a single 22″x34″ map and two countersheets that appears true. I guess I thought a Normandy campaign game just “has to be” big but this one-mapper is already challenging my preconceptions.
Game of the Week
Now that I’m back to a pretty regular work schedule (office is basically 100% reconstituted) I need to work on getting back to a “regular” gaming schedule. Thus, I will be starting a “Game of the Week” approach to play. Basically, the Game of the Week approach gives me seven days to unbox, learn, play, and consider a game. I have a rough idea of how a week might progress:
Sunday – Unbox new game, start rules learning/review
Monday – Rules learning/review, set up first play
Tuesday/Wednesday/Thursday – Play
Friday – (Skip Day)
Saturday – Considerations/Clean up (Family Game Night?)
I have a backlog of games on the “To Play” shelf that I need to get to over the next few weeks of summer before getting to Wing Leader: Legends and The Dark Summer: I’m trying to play games in the order of their arrival:
While playing games I also am also committed to reading more. When possible, I like to mix a book with the Game of the Week but that’s not always possible as I have other books on the “To Read” pile. I finished up Meade at Gettysburg: A Study in Command by Kent Masterson Brown (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2021) and it will be the subject of this coming week’s “Rocky Reads for Wargame” column. I am pretty sure that 2034: A Novel of the Next War by Eliot Ackerman and Admiral James Stavridis will likely be read in conjunction with Indian Ocean Region when it is up for Game of the Week.
One of my favorite online sources for plastic models closed due to bankruptcy late in 2020. Thanks to a new owner, www. squadron.com is back. The reopening has not been the smoothest, but they are trying to work out the kinks. Given how few good plastic model retailers there are online I hope they make it!
The RockyMountainNavy family tried a new-to-us restaurant this week. The Capital Burger bills itself as purveyors of “luxe” burgers. They use a proprietary blend of beef to make their burgers; I never imagined it could make a difference—but it does. Their Kung Pao Brussel Sprouts are my new favorite and a great replacement for french fries. Oh yeah, it all pairs well with a good ale….
I spent the past week looking through and learning each of the smaller games. Star Wars: Destiny will be turned over to the RockyMountainNavy boys as I know it’s not my thing but they are “modern” Star Wars fans so they can enjoy the characters. Samurai Spirit and Tiny Epic Defenders are actually quite similar cooperative tower defense-like games and either will make for a good family game night title—though I think the look of Samurai Spirit is more appealing. Tiny Epic Kingdoms will compete with Tiny Epic Galaxies (Gamelyn, 2015) which is already in the collection. Sylvion is actually more of a solo game and as such it will land on my table occasionally; if it has a drawback it’s because it’s more eurogame-like and therefore not my personally preferred gaming genre given it’s obvious preference for mechanism over theme (but the theme—what there is of it—is cute). Space Empires 4x is in the “wargame to play” pile…just behind Indian Ocean Region and Stalingrad ’42.