05th Mar2018

‘Command & Colors: Napoleonics’ Board Game Review

by Matthew Smail


Although I am fortunate enough to have hundreds of childhood memories that I think of with incredible fondness, some have certainly stayed with me more than others. When it came to television in the early 1990’s, access to Sky was very limited and no one had hard drive based Freeview boxes for catch up TV – we had to use video cassette tapes or simply watch live TV.

In my house, this simply meant that I was able to stay up for certain programs as long as I remained quiet and calm whilst making occasional (but not too frequent) observations about the subject matter at hand. Among the programs I was allowed to stay up for were Chris Eubank boxing matches, Fred Dibnah’s chimney demolition program and, when possible, the feature length adaptations of Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe (starring Sean Bean) on ITV. For those who don’t know it, Sharpe was a fictional series of books and movies about a British Sergeant named Richard Sharpe and set during the Napoleonic Wars of the late 18th and early 19th Century. Due to a mix of good fortune and bravery, Sharpe is soon promoted and finds himself the favourite of Lord Wellington, which in turn leads to a number of adventures behind enemy lines, in addition to taking a lead role in a number of key battles.

Ever since my childhood, I’ve been fascinated with the rank and file warfare of the Napoleonic Era, which has led me to seek it out in books, films, video games and of course, board game. Whilst the likes of Risk and Stratego may be among the oldest and most recognisable games to feature soldiers that bear the instantly recognisable red and blue coats of the period, they do not truly represent the complex and tactical warfare that the Marshall’s of the era were famous for.

Whilst it is still relatively straightforward to learn and play compared to some of the hex based games that I’ll review later in our war gaming series, Command & Colors: Napoleonics captures such battles perfectly. In the base game (there are several expansions) two players face off against each other across a large, hex based board which will be pre-configured with a number of forest, hill, river, village and other terrain tiles. Armies are fairly large and comprise of individual units made up of between three and five wooden blocks, each of which is double faced with a sticker that clearly dictates what it is. Only one unit can occupy each hex, but individual leader pieces can attach themselves to any unit in order to confer a minor bonus.

Movement in Command & Colors: Napoleonics is based on the classic Command Card system created by Richard Borg and implemented in several games. Each player maintains a deck of cards made up of specific movement cards and special cards such as Fire and Hold, which provides a situational bonus of some sort. Most cards simply instruct players to move two or more units in or more of the three, marked sections of the board – the left, the right and the centre.

Rather than being printed on the actual pieces, data for each unit is retained on a comprehensive player aid for each army. These handy four sided sheets list features such as the number of dice rolled when shooting from a standstill, or shooting after a short move, or when shooting into trees or up hills. Whilst it may seem like a lot to take in at first, I was pleasantly surprised by how quickly I memorised almost all of these nuances thanks to some simple and sensible rules of thumb. For example, a four block unit of line infantry will fire with four dice from a standstill, whilst a three block unit of line infantry will fire with three. If a unit has moved or is shooting into trees or up hills, you’ll subtract a die. Artillery is similarly intuitive – the closer the enemy, the more likely a devastating hit will be scored. Elite troops like Grenadiers may receive bonuses, whilst light infantry can move and shoot – I really do enjoy how every unit is made to feel different in simple, subtle ways.

Cavalry are fast and devastating in melee combat, but can be seriously damaged by withering fire if they are unable to close the distance. To add to the challenge of deciding how to use them, defending infantry can form square, although if they choose to do so, then they risk taking additional damage from any ranged units acting in support of the cavalry. When the dice do actually roll, scoring hits is extremely simple. You’ll want to roll symbols matching the unit you are aiming at, so when firing into cavalry, for example, you’ll want to roll the yellow faces that represent them. Each cavalry symbol rolled would remove a block, it’s that simple. There are specific faces for melee and there are also flags to indicate that the affected unit must retreat, unless a leader or other ability prevents it. Irregular units like militia often retreat three spaces for each flag, which is another great thematic nod that really helps to differentiate the way some of the units must be used in battle.

The game comes with the player guides I mentioned below (which will become your go to reference) but it also includes an attractive, detailed rule book which contains a lot of extended detail. There is also a scenario book that aims to replicate a number of battles to a good level of historic detail, inclusive of balancing features like the number of command cards each player holds, or in the finer details of where and what units are placed on the board.

Ultimately, the winner of each battle is the player to amass the requisite number of victory banners. These are often handed out as the result of defeating enemy units, but may also relate to specific objectives on the map such as holding villages or other points of strategic interest. Typically, a game of Command & Colors: Napoleonics will last around 60 to 90 minutes, with an additional 30 minutes of setup time, although I must also say that it’s rare to play just a single game – at the very least, you’ll want to swap sides and play the same map on opposing sides.

Considering that the box contains literally hundreds of pieces split between the French, British and Portuguese armies and the fact that there are plenty of scenarios in the box, with almost unlimited ones online, Command & Colours: Napoleonic’s offers incredible value for money. Even so, I have a real longing to see what other nations like the Prussians or Austrians bring to the table – and so do my friends.

The command card system introduces elements of luck and prevents runaway victories by (generally) forcing players to consider the entire battlefield. It’s a system that feels thematic given the chaos and poor battlefield communication of the time, whilst also allowing for incredibly appropriate moments of either sheer heroism or complete ineptitude from certain units which will generate sighs, laughter and cheering in equal measure.

It may not have the personal scale of the Sharpe movies that I grew up watching, but it captures the epic scale of the battles and the unique paper, scissors, stone combat of infantry, cavalry and cannon. There is just enough complexity and unit variation to make the experience feel more tactical than luck derived, but the manual and player guide make short work of teaching the game regardless of starting skill level. As such, I have no problem recommending Command & Colors: Napoleonics and awarding it:

****½ 4.5/5


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