Commands & Colors: Napoleonics – EPIC!

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Jim descends further into his Napoleonic madness with massive-scale gaming ~

Jim Owczarski, 18 March 2017

I have been waiting for this one for a long time.

It’s almost unreal to me that Battle Cry, the first of Richard Borg’s “Commands and Colors” series, was released in 2000.  I like the American Civil War well enough, but, from the beginning, I hoped that the simple, elegant system evident in the game could be elaborated into the best of all periods, Napoleonics.

In the years since, I’ve bought and happily played Memoir ’44 (2004), Commands and Colors: Ancients (2006), Battlelore (also 2006), not to mention the remarkable array of expansions, special editions, and the like for all these systems.  I gave Zvezda’s Samurai Battles a miss if only because it’s the only era covered that doesn’t appeal to me.

True Napoleonic wargamers are obsessed with scope, spectacle, and sweep.

And then it came out.  In 2010, GMT Games gave the waiting world Commands and Colors: Napoleonics.  Sure, it was wooden blocks not lovely figures.  Yes, it was the British, Spanish, and Portuguese versus the French.  And, yes, for reasons known only to the grim gods of game production, the Prussians were excluded from the included Waterloo scenario.  But it was Napoleonics and that, at first, was enough.

This was no longer the simplified rule set found in Battle Cry.  There was the forming of square; different grades of horse, foot, and guns; and even elegant rules to differentiate leaders and national troop characteristics.  In the latter case, French troops, and their famous columns, fight better in melee, while the British lines do real damage with ranged fire, &c.

After much fun was had, though, it was ultimately not enough.  True Napoleonic wargamers are obsessed with scope, spectacle, and sweep.  It is this that leads us to do really, really dumb things like this: Historicon 2010 Part V Wagram (Shako II) and Outro

For the record this is my shaky-cam — I’ve become better — but this game had run 14 hours before I had to leave with it far from finished.

And we wanted all the nationalities.  The British and French are grand, but the stories of Marengo, Austerlitz, Jena-Auerstadt, Borodino, and Leipzig cannot be told with so few.

With such a market, it was inevitable that the expansions would come, and come they did.

No small investment

No small investment

With each expansion came many, many blocks; sheets of stickers; a handful of new national rules; and typically a dozen scenarios.

At the end of it all, though, there was talk that, as had been the case with Ancients, the series would be capped with an “epic” expansion.  Even more, there was talk that included in that expansion would be not just a double-board “Overlord” expansion, but something Mr. Borg called, confusingly enough, “La Grande Battles” with a board even bigger than “Overlord”.

The road to release was not an easy one, though.  I spoke to Mr. Borg some years ago at Historicon and he told me the game was essentially done, but was stuck in the GMT production queue behind the game’s fifth expansion, Generals, Marshals, and Tactics.  When that finally was released, word came that the printing of the board for Epic had been mishandled and there were further delays.  It’s here now, though, and the only real question is whether any game, much less an expansion, could live up to all this waiting and expectation.

The first thing I dove for when I opened the box was the game boards.  I expected to find two mounted boards.  When these boards were fitted together, I thought one side would be the regular epic ,”Overlord” board, while the other would serve for “La Grande Battle”.  The GMT Games website would still have you believe this is so.  This is not the case.  For reasons that I can only presume had to do with the aforementioned printing problems, the epic boards are mounted and very nice, but the “La Grande Battle” board is not mounted, instead printed on fairly flimsy cardboard.  While it is the advertised six hexes wider than its epic brother, it was necessary to place the board under a Lexan sheet to deal with problems resulting from its being folded.

Also in the box are 150 unit blocks and attendant label sheets intended to fill out your forces, 33 new terrain hexes, another set of eight dice (as if I somehow needed more), as well as a rule book and scenario book in one.

The scenarios are an odd mix.  I’m not sure why one would want single-board scenarios in an epic expansion, but there’s a series of meditations on Austerlitz in that format.  There are 12 epic scenarios running chronologically from Austerlitz to Laon as well as two “La Grande Battles” scenarios.  The selection is very good, but I find the omission of Jena-Austerstadt as well as the entirety of the Russian campaign and the Hundred Days to be curious.

I promptly lashed my eight-year-old son to a chair and we set to stickering, with the goal of playing the epic scenarios provided.  The first one we had at was Austerlitz.  It was here that I realized just how deep into this system one must be to get Epic to work the way it’s supposed to.

Go back to that picture above; the one with the stacked boxes.  Know that to play the Austerliz scenario, you must own all of those boxes.  Why?  Let me tell you.

  1. You need the basic set for the basic components as well as the French special rules and troops.
  2. You need the Austrians for their special rules and troops.
  3. You need the Russians for their special rules and troops.
  4. You need Generals, Marshals, and Tactics for the larger deck of cards that facilitates play at the epic scale.  You’ll also likely want, although it isn’t strictly necessary, the special tactics cards that allow you to do special things like forced march, bring up reserves from your baseline, and other bits of chrome that actually add a good bit of flavor to the game.
  5. You need the Prussians because, well, look at this.
Corners that I defy anyone to try and round.

Corners that I defy anyone to try and round.

You need the whole Prussian set exclusively for this single unit of horse that first appeared in that box.  I drove myself near mad trying to figure out where that unit had gone off to and, when I figured it out, I had grave doubts about the judgment of those that thought it a good idea to make such an ask of their fan base.  Overall, the game does a horrific job of telling you which unit types come from which expansions.  No small matter when you’ve got dozens of units now spread out over six expansions.

I also beg the forgiveness of the graphic design staff at GMT Games, but the Devil himself can take the unit reference guides included with the base game and each of the expansions.  It feels like I have a hundred of them now and none are as good as those done by the folks on the forums at Boardgamegeek.  If one would take my recommendation, grab Major Sholto’s brilliant work, make two copies, and never look back.

But, after no small amount of stickering and fuss, I got it all laid out.  And, may I say, I felt it was worth every moment.

Seventeen years after Battle Cry

Seventeen years after Battle Cry

As I let my varied frustrations with the set up process go, and began to play scenario after scenario, I realized that Richard Borg had a vision of where this game was going from the beginning and has brought it all together onto the epic table.  This photograph taken from the Allied left at Austerlitz is a good example.

There's a diner right where that vineyard used to be on the Allied side of the Goldbach.  They sell Diet Coke there.

There’s a diner right where that vineyard used to be on the Allied side of the Goldbach.  They sell Diet Coke there.

Off the table one can see the courier rack.  As in all Commands and Colors games, players order their troops by playing from a hand of cards.  In the Epic system, however, one card is played from a general’s hand while another is played from a pool of cards set on the courier rack which all players can see.  Beginning with five cards at game start, these cards are replenished whenever only two remain, so each player gets a chance to pick from the “full” hand every now and again.  There’s a lot of strategy to this and, in one game, my son was able to beat me because I forgot the importance of denying him a particular card from the rack.

Elsewhere in this picture, off to the left, can be seen a battered unit of Austrian Grenzers who have been driven off by fire from the other side of the Goldbach stream.  Also, at the middle bottom, a unit of Russian regular infantry advances.  The circular counter marks it as at “paper strength”, meaning it gets the usual four blocks as opposed to the three most get (it’s taken a casualty).  Who is and is not at “paper strength” is determined by a “Mother Russia” series of die rolls made at game start.

There were other fine stories from our Austerlitz game.  Here, I’ve brought up my Russian guard heavy units to counter the advance of the French Old Guard.

I call it the Frog Killer.

I call it the Frog Killer.

This horrifying unit — the Russians get only one — has six blocks and fights with seven dice.  As in the battle, it charged straight into the teeth of the advancing French cavalry creating what amounted to a separate battle at the North end of the field.  The result was a bloody draw.

That did not go well.

That did not go well.

This is no longer a short game.  The epic scenarios were running in the four to six hour range, even once we had the system down.  And it truly is a game with sweep, particularly for the French who usually have more command cards than their opponents and can proffer some truly brutal advances.  Here’s only one example, again from Austerlitz.

This pretty much ended the Allies' day.

This pretty much ended the Allies’ day.

Each of the units marked with dice have an order and coordinating cards and units in such a way as to make an attack of this scope happen is rewarding and, well, epic.

Here at the end of a long wait, I can no longer imagine playing Commands and Colors: Napoleonics any other way than using Epic.

The game is very thoughtful about how it scales up the number of players.  Perfectly playable with two, there’s an interesting command friction element introduced at each of the levels between two and a prospective eight.  I very much look forward to seeing how my miniature-loving brothers play this game on a much larger tabletop.

Here at the end of a long wait, I can no longer imagine playing Commands and Colors: Napoleonics any other way than using Epic.  I remain disappointed that no attempt was made to upgrade Napoleonics to the spectacle that is D-Day Landings for Memoir ’44, and, as a result “La Grande Battles”, about which I’ve said little, will likely remain a sideshow for me.  Its requirement that players own more than one set of particular expansions just to fill up a few extra lateral hexes is a flame not worth the candle.  Nothing will ever replace OSG’s brilliant offerings in my affections, but, because of Epic, Commands and Colors: Napoleonics will have a permanent place in my collection and on my game table.

Vive L’Empereur!

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4 Responses to Commands & Colors: Napoleonics – EPIC!

  1. Mike B says:

    What a brilliant post!

  2. Jim Owczarski says:

    You are kind to say so. Glad you enjoyed it!

  3. Ian Long says:

    Great article, very well written and the photos are excellent. I have just ordered the whole shebang in one hit, a bit pricey, but then it should give me years of gaming pleasure. Your last paragraph made me double take, the La Grande Battles would mean buying more than one set of a particular expansion! I think like you, Epic will be my choice, I prefer a proper board, not some flimsy cardboard. Your photos of the epic battle, are good enough to whet my appetite.

  4. Clay says:

    I too am absolutely enamoured with “the system”. I find the ‘grande battaille’ unnessesary so really don’t worry about it. If fact I stowed the map cards in the epic box since I keep the game boxes in storage and retain the epic scenarios only. Began working some of the standard battles to bring up to epic size. I find that with research and care, you can get a scena4io remodeled from a standard to epic in about 4 hours. Just finished Friedland this week.

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