Thank you for checking review #128 by Cardboard Clash. My aim is to focus on reviewing board games and how they play for two people and, on occasion, how they play for one person. Because my wife is my primary gaming partner, a lot of consideration goes into finding those games that play well with 2 players, and we typically prefer to find those games that do not require a variant (official or otherwise) in order to play it with just the two of us.
***Note: A copy of this game was provided in exchange for an honest review.
An Overview of Field Commander: Alexander
Field Commander: Alexander is a wargame designed by Dan Verssen that is published by Dan Verssen Games (DVG). The box states it plays 1 player and has a playtime of 90 minutes with a weight rating of 2.31.
Description from the publisher:
You take on the role of Alexander the Great in his world-conquering quest to extend the Macedonian empire and achieve personal glory.
When playing the game, you are placed in Alexander’s footsteps when he comes of age in 338 BC, just before the battle of Chaeronea. From that point on, you get to decide where to travel, when to battle, when to negotiate, and when to seek out divine prophesies to guide your actions.
You are supplied with soldiers and advisers to help you navigate the dangers of the battlefield and the negotiating table. These include Infantry, Archers, Phalanxes, Cavalry, Advisers, Scholars, Courtesans, and Spies. You will craftily combine these resources with your own plans to achieve victory, and glorification. And if you do well, you will be remembered as one of the greatest leaders ever to walk the earth.
The life of Alexander is divided into several campaigns, each spanning several years. During each campaign, you are given goals, but how you achieve those goals is up to you. Do you enter into battle? Or negotiate? How strong are you? How strong are they? What can you gain? These are all decisions you get to make, and must make well, if you are to live up to the immortal standards set before you.
The campaigns can either be played stand alone, or linked to play through his entire life. When played as one on-going life, the outcome of one campaign affects your starting situation in the next campaign.
I love the idea of having a string of battlefields to play through, each representing a different timeline in the career of a historical figure. The sheer number of brilliant field commanders in history opens this system up to be able to deal with a broad range of history, and you can see this already with the release of a game in Ancient battle (Alexander), Napoleonics (Napoleon), and WWII (Rommel). Having a different map for each battle within the box, each containing its own quite unique setup, win condition, and obstacles to overcome means you can have a lot of variety across several games, and that is definitely the case here with Field Commander: Alexander.
I am always a fan of player aids, and I like the combination of having the relevant information present on both the map (unique setup instructions along with the turn structure) and the score sheet (which doubles as the place for your army, battles to occur, and more). The less I need to open the rulebook, the better the game experience. I wish the prophecy info wasn’t something I need to cross-check in the rulebook, but since you are looking at only 1-2 of them per map they aren’t that terrible to deal with.
Speaking of the rulebook, it was done really well. It has good visual examples and a nice layout. It is presented in a way that makes it great for those not as accustomed to wargaming, as I was able to dive in and grasp the game with minimal issue. The visuals, especially, are helpful here in getting a new player up and playing in a short amount of time. The most confusing thing comes with the Cavalry units, as the have the same battle value printed on them twice (representing if they hit, it is always dealing 2 hits instead of 1) and it isn’t explained as well in the rules for them, but there’s enough to make the correct connection.
While I wish they offered a little more, the battle system here is extremely simple to grasp and flows well. There are a few nuances to remember, such as cavalry only attacking every-other turn and Phalanx units getting to attack multiple times if they hit, but for the most part you can line up the units and start rolling. As the player, it makes you feel in power to be able to allocate hits on both sides of the battle as you see fit. Faster units attack first, and same speed units attack at the same time, meaning you can make decisions that impact units still to attack for the round. A better field deployment, where formation mattered, would have been nice but this method keeps the game system approachable for new players and interesting enough for seasoned veterans.
Going with the above, I enjoy that the unit types are different enough to provide strong merit to considering them each individually, as they provide a benefit “unique” to them. Archers and Light Cavalry are fast to act, but have a lower hit ratio (33%). Heavy Cavalry have a better hit ratio (50%) but cavalry units (Light or Heavy) only attack every-other round which offsets their stronger 2-hit attacks when they do connect. Infantry are unremarkable in speed and strength, but can take more hits than the Archer or Peltist (the latter of which is the one unit I find least useful). The Phalanx unit is really slow, but has a strong hit chance and can do multiple attacks in a round if they continue to hit. The variety of units are great and let you customize your team.
Let’s talk about the glorification system for Alexander. Essentially he starts off as a really, really weak unit in your army. With every completed prophecy along the way, he gains Glorification, which can let him “level up” to the next higher version of his unit (I think there are 8) which is going to increase his speed, his base attack, or his double-hit chance. And that aspect I really like. What I dislike is the battle where an opposing leader is involved. Alexander can either attack the regular army units, or he can attack their leader. If he attacks the army, their leader also attacks your army. As soon as Alexander attacks the leader, from that point on those two leaders only attack each other. Kill the leader and you auto-win the battle. But every time Alexander gets hit, he drops 2 Glorficiation levels. That is a HUGE penalty, meaning there’s rarely a strong incentive to choose to attack the leader – especially in battles where they have the Battle Plan that ignores the first hit on the leader – making it so you can’t even gamble to try and one-shot the leader (and later maps make it so that Battle Plan is always present in the leader battles). If it was a little easier to gain those levels, or if you lost fewer per hit, the motivation might be there to attack that leader and hope to end things early.
The most “interesting” battle in terms of potential also turned out to be a dud in my playthrough of it. The siege of Tyr is full of historical flavor, and is unique because you can pay to manipulate several tracks to try and control the enemy resources, increase your own resources, and try to destroy the walls enough to break in and conquer the city. Unfortunately, what this amounts to is 6-8 rounds of standing in the same location on the map, making decisions on how to spend your gained gold this time and hoping the dice don’t move you too far backward on your progress at the beginning of the next round. It never really felt like a dynamic siege, but rather a waiting game to see what would break first.
The difficulty is something I want to discuss in brief here (as I go on more about it in the Final Thoughts). The first two maps felt extremely easy, lacking challenge as I powered through the countryside and took down the opposition with minimal loss to my own forces. The third map came into play and, rather than providing a challenge, simply forced me to sit and wait longer amounts of time to make forward progress – but it was never challenging, either. The last map…let’s just say it is extremely unfair, although it has forced me to evaluate the value in retreating from battle, purchasing Insights with my Glory, and more. The one thing preventing this from being a point is that every map has optional changes to increase the challenge at the reward for more VP awarded at the end. And the more I think about it, the more I like that approach because you can have the game “grow” with your skill.
I’m not a fan of roll-and-move games, and I am less of a fan of the roll-to-move concept. You roll and compare the result with the size of your army. If you roll lower, you have to pay gold equal to the difference in order to move. If you roll higher, you take hits on your army equal to the difference. If you roll exact, you can move with no downside. That means there is a 16.6% chance of moving without penalty. Yes, you can voluntarily lose units after the roll to decrease the cost in gold to move, but most units will cost more than 1 Gold to recruit back into your army. And taking hits are worse, as it costs 2 gold to get a unit back to full health. The only saving grace here is that you can choose, after seeing the roll, to not move and end that portion of your turn. This is the engine that determines how far and fast you can conquer the map and, tied in with that, how many points you earn at the end of the map. My 2-turn victory conquest on the 2nd map? Almost every move roll was perfect, and the ones that weren’t were under by a single pip. My miserable experience on the 4th map? See more about that below…
This is another thing covered more down below, but the game is extremely linear in progression. The location of enemy forces never changes, nor does your objective (conquer all key areas) change – and that’s fine. But so many other aspects of the game either felt like there was no need to change my approach (why fix what isn’t broken and already feels like the best choice to make?) or that it would all come down to sheer luck of a d6 roll. Maybe I was just spoiled early from two other brilliant solitaire wargames (Agricola, Master of Britain and Charlemagne, Master of Europe), but so much of the game feels like it is on autopilot and I’m just along to decide how to allocate damage in battle.
This review was ready to look quite different after playing the first three scenarios of the campaign. I was ready to join others in proclaiming this game far too easy, at least without the addition of extra challenges unique to each map, as every game played proved to be minimal in challenge. I had come off the second campaign map with a strong victory in two rounds of play, and the third required a lot of just idling in Old Tyre until that nut could be cracked and then breaking through afterwards. The lack of challenge had been a little frustrating – I always prefer a challenging solitaire game experience over a cakewalk. But I couldn’t stop without seeing the final series of battles for the end of the campaign.
And boy, what a kick in the pants that map turned out to be.
But there’s still an issue here. The difficulty spike was more from the increasing mass of an army placed in your path at the start. Even with the -3 Enemy Orders from my advisor, they still drew EIGHT orders. My army of six was outnumbered 2:1 and I did a soft reset on the battle three times before finally weathering the obscene number of die rolls enough to take a few of the enemies out and retreat from the battle, allowing me to replenish and finally break through the enemy force. Prior to that last attempt, every single battle ended Round 1 with just a reduced Alexander remaining, and with only a single loss on the enemy side. The dice were NOT my friend that morning. I figured from here it would be smooth sailing, as I would be able to sweep up north and take down a few strongholds to replenish the coffers but, alas, another string of terrible luck left me bereft of gold two spaces from any battle spot. Several straight rolls of 1-2 and I did another soft reset to the end of the battle, keeping the needed Raze intact (because the funds were needed to recover) but also reserving what I hoped was enough to travel through the desert. No luck, I got stopped at the same exact point without funds and with the same ridiculous run of low rolls – to be honest, I rolled that die another half dozen times in frustration and never saw anything higher than a 3. So I “allowed” myself a free move each turn rather than a reset again to simply move. And, well, money remained an issue. I was locked into a cycle of frustration, because it felt like random factors, sheer numbers in the opposing forces, and diminished return on money were grinding the game to a halt rather than poor play on my end. It stopped being fun in any sense of the word. It wasn’t a challenge. I wasn’t being expected to discover some clever way to circumvent things and find success, but rather battle against improbable odds.
And yes, history. I get that and I don’t hold a grudge against the game for trying to make it a tough map to overcome. But at the same time I want to feel like there’s a way I can do better, apart from “roll better”, and I couldn’t see it as possible, unless I knew to spend my Glory and Gold better at the end of the previous scenario in the campaign and, well, how could I know that going in the first time? The next campaign, perhaps, I could make different decisions leading into that game but not this time.
I know it sounds like I am venting out frustration here, and maybe part of me is doing just that. But I also want to make sure it comes across clearly: the game goes from super easy in the first two maps, to being a “battle of attrition” in the third map as you stall for turn after turn waiting to break the walls, to being a completely hopeless affair in the final act. And, ultimately, my biggest disappointment in the game overall is that it feels mostly like it is “on rails”. The map has set army sizes that appear in set locations, and your goal is to conquer all of those locations as quickly as possible (and then depending on die rolls, your location, and Operation draws they might get bigger). Battles are “line up” both sides by speed and like speeds attack simultaneously. But my Archer way over here in the line can hit, or be hit by, anyone else in the line on the opposing side. Sure, I get to at least determine who takes hits (both enemy and friendly units), but I don’t have to agonize over how to deploy my units to minimize risk. Even the Battle Tactics I employ feel like there’s little choice required: regaining a force after battle is essential to save Gold, canceling a hit is equally essential, and assuming I have Cavalry the tactic allowing them to not wait to attack again (up to 6 times) is the other must-use to make the battles go well. The maps were relatively linear, with a clear progression from the start to the end. Even my force never really seemed to need to change often: a Siege Engine to minimize Wall frustration once those became a factor, an Archer to fire early, a Light Cavalry to strike early as well, a Heavy Cavalry to deal big damage, Alexander, and a Phalanx for the multi-hit opportunity. Advisors? The one who reduces Battle Plans for the enemy by 3 and the one who allows you to do multiple purchases at the end of a Round to get both a City and units back into your force.
There are decisions in the game but, looking back, it felt like there were rarely good reasons to do something different. The good news is that, for three of the plays, I didn’t notice and greatly enjoyed the gameplay in spite of its linear path – enough that I plan to revisit the campaign with a difficulty+ attempt through the first three maps and to work to set myself up better for the fourth map (which will NOT get any added benefit). The fact that I am wanting to revisit it again is a testament to how much I did enjoy the game until that final play, where I even texted a friend of mine with a knee jerk reaction that was extremely negative reflecting my bitterness over that final map. But I like challenges and I enjoyed this game more than the level of frustration experienced at the end, and so it’ll remain a staple to revisit when I am ready to string together another four plays – ideally across an entire afternoon – and see what else this game might have to offer.
And so while Field Commander: Alexander isn’t my favorite solitaire wargame to pull out and play, it definitely was worth exploring and is one I intend to revisit again when I’ve had time to let the scars heal from that last beatdown. And if DVG releases another Field Commander title in the Ancient, Medieval, or Renaissance timeframe you bet I’ll be lining up to check it out because, in spite of my aggravation with parts of the game system, I did enjoy the experience as a whole enough to want to try more.