One of the main reasons I enjoy playing war games is because, to put it simply, I’m a history buff. I like to read about the past, contemplate it, discuss it, watch movies and documentaries on it, and write about it. History was my major in college and in grad school; and I even got to use those degrees for 10 years professionally. It still remains a hobby of mine. Board games with historical themes are just an extension of that passion for me. While not completely immersive, they are nonetheless a simple way to connect with our past, learn about it in some measure, and have a little fun at the same time.
So in honor of Veterans Day, it seemed appropriate to break out a couple of our favorites this past weekend – Battle Cry and Memoir ’44. Covering perhaps the two most defining crucibles in American History, both games are designed by Richard Borg and based on his Commands and Colors system. In the design, players assume the roles of famous, infamous, or obscure commanders in some of those conflicts’ most critical battles. Indeed, as each scenario claims: The stage is set, the battle lines are drawn, and you are in command. The rest is history.
How to Play
The Commands and Colors system is a set of mechanics and elements designed to simulate, albeit rather abstractly, individual battles. It comprises four primary aspects. First, the game board is hex-based and divided into three sectors: left flank, center, and right flank. The game map also utilizes modular terrain tiles to customize the battlefield’s layout based upon the chosen scenario. Little plastic miniatures (or wooden blocks in the case of some Commands and Colors games) are another major feature. These represent your forces. The number of dudes grouped together in a hex represents an individual unit’s strength, starting with between 3-4 minis depending on the unit type.
Third, a deck of cards drives game play. There are two types. The majority are Command cards which allow you to issue orders to a specified number of units, usually within one particular section of the field. An “order” constitutes moving and/or attacking with one unit. In a few cases, a card may allow a broader, coordinated assault of several units across multiple sectors. There are also Tactics cards which provide a variety of special actions unique from normal movement/combat. Finally, the fourth major element to the Commands and Colors system is custom dice with icons matching the game’s units, a universal “hit” symbol, and a flag. When battling, a unit rolls a number of these dice depending on its type and range from its target. Any resulting icon matching the targeted unit scores a hit. Flags force the enemy to retreat.
Those are the basics which are fairly universal to each game. Separate titles within the Commands and Colors system have specific rules, units, and other chrome applicable to the particular conflict each depicts. The overall objectives are the same: earn victory points by destroying enemy units and sometimes capturing objective hexes, depending on the scenario. Usually that equates to anywhere from 4-6 points. Whether or not you are actually able to change history depends on how you play!
A House Divided
Battle Cry was Borg’s first design to utilize the Commands and Colors system, published in 2000. It’s also the simplest in the family. We have the 150th Anniversary edition, released in 2010, which is a bit more polished and includes many new scenarios/battles.
In this little tilt between the states, players command infantry, cavalry, and artillery across plains and farms, through woods and towns, and over hills and streams. They will also control field generals for various benefits. Infantry begin the game with four minis per unit, while horseman and cannon each receive three. Commanders run around by their lonesome, unless attached to a unit.
Infantry can move one hex and battle. They have a combat range of four hexes and typically roll four dice when in a close assault against an adjacent enemy, and then one less cube for each successive hex in which the target is distant. Cavalry can move up to three hexes when ordered and may then battle, but only against adjacent positions, tossing three dice. Artillery can move one space or may fire, but not both in the same turn. The big guns have a range of five hexes and roll dice similarly to Infantry.
Various terrain features modify both movement and combat. For example, when an Infantry unit moves into a woods hex, its range is reduced by two for that turn. Woods, hills, and settlements provide defensive bonuses to troops. Water tiles can slow things down, as well. Besides restrictions to these logistics, terrain can also block the line of sight for your forces. If trees, hills, buildings, or even other troops for that matter, stand in the direct line between you and your target, no attack is allowed. Many scenarios also include breastworks, redoubts, and even a fort or two! The modular board provides for tons of variability and plenty of fun.
In Battle Cry, victory is tracked by collecting flags – essentially eliminating enemy units. One mini in each unit carries a battle standard and it’s the last to be removed when resolving causalities, placing it like a trophy along your edge of the game board. Generals also carry flags, so you can earn one by taking out these officers. Additionally, some scenarios designate a hex objective for one or both sides, which counts as a victory flag when occupied and held.
This game shines with using those Generals effectively. For the most part Infantry, Cavalry, and Artillery essentially go about business the same way, every battle. That’s not to say the game is stale from fight to fight. There are plenty of varieties and fresh circumstances. The initial orders of battle and terrain in different scenarios will inform your strategy, heavily impacted of course by the always alluring and seductive Lady Fortune. Your field officers are the true spice of life, though.
These leaders allow attached units to ignore one flag on an opponent’s combat roll. Such a rally can prove critical to sustaining your line for a devastating volley on your next turn. Generals also allow your troops to take ground following a close assault. When eliminating an adjacent enemy unit, or forcing them to retreat, you may move into the vacated hex which could prove decisive in winning a victory point when that location is a declared objective. Of course, Generals themselves are victory points when eliminated, and they are very vulnerable when alone. Using them carefully and fruitfully can turn the tide in a battle’s crucial moment!
As I said, Battle Cry is the most accessible title in the Commands and Colors family. There are only four unit types, much like other designs in the series, but they are very basic with few modifications through scenarios. There aren’t too many bells and whistles. Besides terrain, there are only a couple of other fortification enhancements. And the majority of the Command cards consist of the routine, “move X number of troops in Y section.” When compared to later designs within the same mechanic, the Tactics cards here a little more “low-key,” although they are certainly fun and powerful and easy to interpret.
Besides those battles included in the rule book, there is a fairly active online community with many more custom scenarios that you can tap into – even a few contributed by the designer himself. Therefore, I readily recommend Battle Cry as the entry point into Borg’s line of titles with this system. Unless that gamer you’re introducing these to is simply an avid World War II fan, nut, and/or buff – in which, case you should go with Memoir ’44.
Memoir ’44 is probably the most accessible of titles in the Commands and Colors series. It covers a more popular and widely known conflict, and is only slightly more complex than Battle Cry. At least the base game is. First published in 2004, there have since been about two dozen expansion packs, modules, maps, and campaign books released. The more you add, of course, the more complex and fiddly game play becomes. The only extra content we have is the Air Pack, but we’re usually content with just the vanilla game.
Forces in Memoir ’44 consist of Infantry, Armor, and Artillery. Foot soldiers have an initial strength of four miniatures. They can move two hexes, or one space and then battle. Their range is three hexes, starting with three dice for close combat, less one per distant hex. Armor may move up to three hexes and then blast away. They have a range of three hexes and always roll three dice. Artillery can either move or fire, and get to ignore line of sight obstructions.
In addition to similar types of terrain and fortifications with comparable restrictions to Battle Cry on marching and fighting, Memoir ’44 includes a number of other kinds of obstructions peculiar to that war, such as wire, hedgehogs, and bunkers. Victory in this title is tracked through earning medals, essentially replacing the flags idea from Battle Cry. As with its Civil War cousin, you win these by eliminating enemy units or, in some scenarios, obtaining certain objectives. Again, the magic number tends to be from 4-6 medals for the victory.
While Battle Cry often hinges on your effective use of Generals, Memoir ’44 is all about Armor and Artillery. Tanks can be absolutely devastating. They’re quick and just as effective in close range or long. Additionally, they can pack extra firepower in an overrun action. Here, all units can take ground – the role of field officers in Battle Cry. However, Armor can do so and then take an extra shot, called overrun, taking ground a second time after that! If you’re able to move and bring to bear multiple tank battalions against key points, you can turn the tide in the span of one turn.
Artillery, on the other hand, is particularly effective in that it ignores line of sight. Depending on the scenario, a lot of the battles in the base game don’t use the big guns extensively. When fielded against you, however, you must keep a wary eye on your opponent’s operations. Then again, they only take two hits to knock out and are slow. Therefore they are vulnerable. So noted.
Memoir ’44 makes use of more specialized units/rules per scenarios than Battle Cry. They’re not terribly complex, but add just a bit of fiddliness, though generally in a good way. There are also a few extra bits in the vanilla game for variety. However, you can certainly introduce increasing degrees of complexity with the many add-ons and expansions. All of these add extra rules and more chrome which can ramp up the fun and immersion, but also the cost. Still, all in all, Memoir ’44 is sufficiently accessible to newbies, especially to one even a little familiar with gaming.
Strike the Colors
The Commands and Colors system is a great one, with varying levels of manageability and complexity. Each title does a good job of depicting its conflict, with many individual scenarios having uniquely thematic aspects that really make that engagement pop. Yet the designs are never so detailed as to bog down play. Obviously, these are abstracted tactical games with lots of historical flavor in which you can change their narrative outcome – they are not simulations or recreations. Sessions move quickly, with lots of action. There is randomness and luck, but no worse than the real fortunes of war that commanders had to face. Battle Cry and Memoir ’44 are particularly effective as gateways into war gaming, while later titles throw in the extras that will appeal more to veteran grognards. But best of all, the system is remarkably accessible and should appeal to a wide range of gamers of many ages and stripes to enjoy together.