Friday, December 24, 2010

Battle Cry 150th Anniversary Edition -- a review

A decade ago Hasbro's publication of Battle Cry introduced gamer's to Richard Borg's hugely successful and eminently flexible Commands & Colors wargame system (although it wasn't called that yet). The system's popularity is attested to by its sales, rankings and frequency of play. It's flexibility by its iterations depicting World War II (Memoir '44), fantasy/medieval (BattleLore), Classical (Commands & Colors: Ancients) and Napoleonic (C&C: Napoleonic) warfare. While not generally considered simulations, the ganes in the series do succeed in illustrating their eras surprisingly well considering their simplicity.

Of the bunch, the original Battle Cry always remained the most accessible to first-time wargamers. As time went on it and it went out of print it became both avidly sought and often criticized for various design shortcomings as the newer games improved on the game system.

So it's been a welcome development to see a brand new version of Battle Cry come out in time for the 150th Anniversary of the Civil War. Like the earlier version this edition is the easiest entry point for new gamers who want to try out a wargame. Being published by Hasbro means it will have wider distribution than most wargames and indeed, this holiday season I saw some copies for sale outside of the usual game store outlets.

The components of this new version are top notch, with a mounted map board, 46 double-sided terrain hexagon tiles, 14 flag tokens, 9 fieldwork tokens, 102 plastic figures, a sheet of flag stickers, 8 special battle dice, a terrain sheet, a full-clor rule and scenario book and 60 command cards.

The heart of the game system is the command cards, which come in two basic varieties: Section cards which allow a player to "order" units in a specified sector of the board, which is divided into thirds called the Left, Center and Right and Tactic Cards which can affect units in differents sectors and usually provide some special ability or benefit. A player's turn comprises selecting one card from his hand of available cards, performing the orders and actions allowed by that cards and then drawing a new card to replenish his hand. The varying capability of different commanders is reflected by how many cards are in a player's hand. A skillful commander such as Stonewall Jackson may have a 6-card hand while a putz like Pillow may only have three to choose from.

The figures come in four basic varieties: Leaders, infantry, artillery and cavalry, often with several poses. Groups of figures form "units" which are the basic playing element in the game. Each unit is comprised of at least one flag-bearer unit and then several other figures -- three more for infantry, two more for cavalry and artillery, none for leaders. Casualties are reflected by removing figures, with the flag bearer being last. Removing the flag bearer gives the opposing player a flag token, which is the basic measure of victory in the game. The first player to earn a scenario-specified number of tokens wins. In some scenarios flag tokens can also be earned for achieving geographical objectives.

When a unit is "ordered" it can move, and in most cases fire at an enemy unit within range. The movement speed and fire ability of units is related to the unit's real-life capability. Infantry and artillery units move one hex when ordered, mounted units such as leaders and cavalry move three hexes. Artillery can't fire after being ordered, and some terrain reduces the firepower of other units, but generally artillery units can fire five hexes, infantry four hexes and cavalry just one hex. An attack is resolved by rolling the special combat dice, with the number of dice varying on the type of unit firing, the range to the target (-1 die for each hex of range over one) and the terrain occupied by the target. For example, an infantry unit firing at another infantry unit two hexes away on a hill rolls two dice: Four for being an infantry unit, minus one die for range 2 and minus another die for the target being on the hill.

The results of the firing depend on which faces of the special die come up. Each icon that matches the unit type of the target removes one figure. Each "sabers" result also removes a figure, while each "flag" result forces the target to retreat one hex. Very simple and intuitive.

The terrain tiles mean that there's innumerable possible battlefields thatcan be created and the 150th Anniversary edition includes 30 scenarios. The designer has intimated that if sales support it, hasbro plans to publish expansions with more scenarios over the next couple of years during the 150th anniversary of Civil War events.

Compared to its sister games, Battle Cry is still the easiest and most straightforward. The nature of Civil War combat allows the game system to ignore some of the complications that technology (Memoir '44), tactics (CCN and CCA) or magic (BattleLore) introduce to the other games. Civil War armies were essentially mostly infantry (that was armed and trained about the same level) with realtively small numbers of guns and cavalry in support.
While obviously not the last word in simulation, games of Battle Cry are highly entertaining. Skilled play is rewarded, but there's enough luck to keep nearly every battle in doubt until the end. A string of bad rolls or card draws can upset the best of plans, but it doesn't matter because if Mars frowns on you just play the game again -- there's time. A typical game takes less than an hour to play.
The 150th Anniversary Edition of Battle Cry is highly recommended, whether or not you have the older version. Some rough spots in the rules and cards have been smoothed out, the presentation is superior and there are twice aas many scenarios as before with every expectaton of more.

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