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Posted on Mar 8, 2011 in Boardgames

Commands & Colors: Napoleonics – Boardgame Review

By Sean Stevenson

Commands & Colors: Napoleonics. Boardgame Review.  Pubisher: GMT.  Developer: Richard Borg.  $70.00.

Passed Inspection:  Basic system is quick to learn and game, multiple tactical options available from mix of unit types and period-specific rules such as forming infantry squares.

Failed Basic:  Random chance card draws determine unit movement and combat.

The latest release in the Commands & Colors line of boardgames, Commands & Colors: Napoleonics brings the system nearly full-circle to where it began. The Commands & Colors system was first released by Avalon Hill (owned by Hasbro) back in 1999 as the Civil War game Battle Cry, and after dozens of releases covering everything from Greeks and Romans to World War II, Napoleonics re-introduces us to the "musket and bayonet" period with a wealth of fine changes to the base system.


The first thing I noticed was the sheer weight of this game; this is a heavy box! That’s because Commands & Colors: Napoleonics uses wooden blocks (340 of them are included) for units. Six sheets of handsomely illustrated unit stickers need to be peeled off and applied to the blocks—three sizes of blocks and stickers, large rectangles for artillery and leaders, large squares for cavalry, and small squares for infantry. Allow yourself a few hours to get the game ready for play; it takes about three hours to get all the stickers on (two stickers per block, one on each side, that’s nearly 700 sticker applications!). Be careful; some of the stickers are marked "spares" on the sheets, apply those after you use up the rest of the stickers or else you might find yourself short of a particular unit.

You also have to sticker the dice; 8 blank faced six-sided dice are included, each one gets stickered with two infantry symbols, one cavalry symbol, one artillery, one crossed sabers symbol, and one flag. Punch out the 56 cardboard double-sided terrain hexes and the 18 small Victory Banner tokens, then shuffle the deck of 70 Command Cards and you’re good to go.

Game play is identical to the other Commands & Colors games. The mapboard is divided into three sections, Right Flank, Left Flank, and Center; as each player sits opposite his opponent; your Right Flank is your opponent’s Left Flank. The oversized 2 1/8 inch diameter hexes on the mapboard are clear terrain; the large terrain hexes representing forests, hills, rugged, rivers, and so on are placed on the board depending on the scenario being played. Units are then placed into each hex; usually four blocks make one infantry unit, three blocks for cavalry and artillery units.

Each player begins the game with a number of Command Cards drawn from the deck, usually five or six cards. Each card gives you specific instructions on how many units you can move and what part of the field they are in; so an Attack Center card lets you move and fight with any three units in the Center.  Infantry can move one hex and engage in battle, either ranged or melee; cavalry moves up to three hexes and can then melee, while artillery generally either fights OR moves, not both.

In combat, roll a number of battle dice equal to the number of blocks in the attacking unit; for each symbol that matches the target unit, score one hit by removing one block from the unit. Crossed sabers are misses in ranged combat, hits in melee; each flag rolled causes a one hex retreat. When a unit loses all of its blocks it is destroyed; the attacker collects one Victory Banner, with the scenario specifying how many banners are required to win (usually five or six).

So far, same old song. A good song, but you’ve heard it all before in the other games of this series.  But Commands & Colors: Napoleonics really adds levels of flavor and realism to the still smooth-running Commands & Colors core.

To begin with, forget the basic infantry / cavalry / artillery. Artillery alone is broken into Foot Artillery, Horse Artillery, and Horse Guard Artillery; there are nine different infantry types and four different cavalry types spread across three different nationalities, each with its own tactical abilities and flaws. Thus, Militia Infantry don’t score hits on sabers in melee, Guard units ignore two flags, French Line Infantry roll one extra die in melee, while the "thin red line" of British Line Infantry rolls one extra die in ranged, and so on. Even the units themselves highlight organizational differences; British Light Infantry have 5 blocks, while the horse-happy French have 4 blocks for each cavalry unit. This gives you a vast array of tactical choices in battle.

Several rules also add depth to the game. Cavalry can now retreat before battle when attacked exclusively by infantry, and they also have a powerful break-through ability (if they can advance one hex as a result of victory in melee, they get a bonus move and attack).  Artillery and infantry can utilize combined arms attacks, adding their dice together into a single powerful attack. Infantry units can form squares to repel cavalry. Rules on battling back (a defender that survives a melee gets to counter-attack) and morale (being adjacent to two friendly units enables a unit to ignore one flag) from prior Commands & Colors releases also find their way into Napoleonics.

The fifteen battles in the scenarios book cover the British under Wellington from their initial landing in Portugal (Rolica 1808) all the way to the familiar Quatre Bras and Waterloo. This allows the base set to introduce the main antagonists, the British on red blocks and the French on blue blocks, along with the Portugese army on their brown blocks. (I’ll take Vegas odds that future expansions will have Austrians on off-white blocks, Russians on green, and Prussians either grey or black.)

Each side (France and Britain / Portugal) gets their own player aid card (one for each player) detailing how many blocks a unit begins with, any special rules for those units, base overview of the rules, etc. Each player also gets a player aid card detailing the 11 terrain types and their game effects, and a full listing of every Command Card with their full text reproduced.

Commands & Colors: Napoleonics is a solid release for this long-lived franchise. It serves as a great base set for future musket and bayonet releases and as an excellent round-up of prior system rules. The quality of the components and artwork is Grade A, as we’ve come to expect with GMT releases. Like all the prior Commands & Colors games, with a minimum of research you’ll be using the terrain and units provided to re-fight any engagement you can think of.  (And the terrain hexes from all the previous Commands & Colors games across four companies can be utilized on this mapboard, so you can have the French storm a castle or the British slog through swamps.) The player aid card listing of Command Cards with their texts makes it so easy to replace any that are lost that this should be mandatory among all game publishers; contact your congressman.

The most serious drawback of Commands & Colors: Napoleonics is the same issue affecting all of the games of this system.  The Command Cards are randomly drawn, which can sometimes lead to some pretty useless hands. Although GMT has mitigated this somewhat with a healthy dose of special Tactics cards (such as Cavalry Charge which allows you to issue orders to any four cavalry units anywhere on the map), every game I’ve played so far has had both sides virtually helpless in one section of the battlefield at various points in the battle. You can cut back on this tactically by not playing a card unless you have another card for that same section in hand; or use the two-card mulligan rule, you can discard any two cards in your hand to give an order to any one unit on the map (my own house rule).

Overall Commands & Colors: Napoleonics gets an A grade, a well-done and beautiful-looking release with enough period specific rules and flavoring that you can smell the gunpowder. And even though the random chance of the cards might seem unfair, remember that when several aides were talking about an up-and-coming young cavalry officer Napoleon himself demanded to know, "Yes, but is he lucky?" So even in that, I suppose, this game captures the Napoleonic spirit quite well.

Solitaire Suitability: 3 of 5 (the random draws of the command cards allow you to play both sides without possessing godlike omnipotence).

About the Author

Sean Stevenson started wargaming with SPI and has spent the past 35 years as a freelance game designer and playtester. When not playing any of the 1400+ games in his personal collection, he can be found reading a book on Colonial America or running one of several Pittsburgh area bookstores.




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