Monday, September 26, 2011

Why I like Overlord

A Hinton Hunt General Murat, as flamboyant as his real life counterpart
(click to embiggen)
(thanks to Clive of Vintage Wargaming)

In a recent post I described Overlord for Foy, but due to pressures of time and to avoid writing a small novel as a blog entry I just stuck to describing what Overlord is and how it is played.

And now to the rather more interesting question of why Overlord is such fun.

Command & Colours is a simple system. It is designed for speedy play and it succeeds admirably in that goal. But by the nature of the beast, there are omissions, morale is folded into the combat system, the cards are by necessity an abstraction, but all for all its faults it is a good game that demands tactical skill, rewards adherence to the principles of war and forces players to make choices.

One of the advantages of the simple rule set is that not only is it easily learned, but that it quickly falls away in play. I've internalised the rules so thoroughly at this stage that I can just play, focusing on what I want to do - rather than wrestling with the rules or trying to remember modifiers. That could be said of any game once you've played it often enough, but based on my own experience and with the honourable exception of Little Wars, I have never found a ruleset that was so friendly to beginners.

A Hinton Hunt Davout - out looking for Bernadotte

I have played more games of Command & Colours with more people, with less set up and more willingness on the part of the players to play again than any other game. Some of these players are people who would not otherwise play wargames, others are people who didn't play wargames when we started playing Command & Colours and have now branched out. I can count the number of times I've been short of someone to play with on the fingers of one nose.

All these factors conspire to eradicate two of the perennial problems of the wargamer.

1. Not having anyone to play with.
2. Not being able to finish a game because of time constraints.

A Hinton Hunt General Nansouty - this little metal fellow is likely prove a more pliant subordinate then the usual Overlord player and somewhat less sarcastic

These two factors make regular Overlord games possible, because a game with six players can be finished in under two hours and because the rules are so simple to pick up, it's not difficult to find six chaps who are willing to play.

And it's this broad base of players that make Overlord such an interesting experience because as Commander in Chief you often find yourself having to make judgements very early on about which sections of the battlefield are going to be important and where you want to put your strong players versus your weak players. Play often enough and you'll start thinking in terms of defensive and offensive players, who is lucky and who is not as well as who will grow petulant if not given enough cards or attention. Our lead brigadiers and plastic brigade majors are singularly pliable and trustworthy subordinates, Overlord on the other hand introduces an element of man management into the game.

One of my favourite games of Overlord was Donogh's Champions Hill game from Warpcon a few years ago. We played the scenario three times and on the second occasion I was the Commander in Chief of the Federal forces. In brief, the situation was as follows, the Rebels held a strong defensive position along a long rise with a road running behind them. We outnumbered them, but not massively so. I had been a Field General on a losing Federal team the previous day and I was determined not to repeat the experience. Our Commander in Chief led with a very loose rein and allowed his three subordinates to pelt the Rebel position with piecemeal attacks which the Rebels defeated by juggling their forces to create local superiority and hammering our attacks in detail.

There was no way I was going to allow this happen. I came up with a plan for a slow, careful advance on a broad front in order to rupture the Rebel defence by exerting pressure all along the line. I explained my plan which was accepted with much nodding of heads. This seeming acquiescence went out the window once battle was joined. The player on my left flank, lets call him Sickles for the sake of argument, advanced rashly and began to take fire from Rebel batteries, while the rest of the army was shaking itself out of column and into line.

I told him to pull back and he advocated making a rush for the guns. I starved him of cards until the rest of the army was in position, during which time he took casualties and grumbled a bit. I gave him his head a little so that he could clear out Rebel sharpshooters ahead of his position, but watched him carefully to make sure he didn't over extend himself.

Once the right wing had moved up and were in position to begin the assault, we advanced all along the line and shattered the Rebel defence. It was an exhausting experience, but incredibly rewarding not least because I had to keep the centre and right wing commander focused on the long game rather than chasing short term goals. The commander on the left required careful management because I'd no desire to offend him, but I was damned if I was going to let him throw the game away*.

Along the way we had to cope with muddled orders (a lack of the appropriate cards), a traffic jam on the approach roads and Steve's spirited counter attack on the Rebel right, but we did it in the end and I have rarely savoured a tabletop victory more.

There have been other great moments, not least

- standing over my pal Andrew, yelling "You will attack!" Eventually he did, it didn't win us the game but it certainly tore the guts out of a Rebel victory and made their position considerably less rosy in the next campaign game.

- nominating Steve to draw cards for us (because he's lucky) when the US Marines got hung up on the beaches during our Guam campaign and were facing total ruin. Steve managed to draw "Their Finest Hour" three times in a row - a 216,000 to 1 shot - and saved the day.

- turning my back on Savage for two turns and returning to discover that in the best traditions of the cavalry he'd charged forward with his Soviet tanks, seized the objective and was making the Germans pay bitterly for failing to occupy their own defensive position promptly. That prompted some pretty speedy rethinking of the plan I can tell you!

I find that this additional human element incredibly rewarding and I think it adds a great deal to the experience of playing a wargame, both as a game and as a social occasion. That isn't to say that element isn't achievable with other game systems, simply that Command & Colours supports it better than most.

I have yet to find a better way to get a group of friends around a table and playing games while still having time to chat and I've never had a more challenging wargaming experience than trying to convince three rugged individualists to all pull in the same direction at the same time.

*Not least because I've done as much myself as anyone who played our Antietam game can testify to.


  1. There is no substitute for simple, effective multi-player games of any flavour to get that GOC feel.

    But you make a good case for your game of choice.

  2. Hi Conrad, let me be the first to point out that is actually Murat.... The Hinton Hunt Junot has a similar feathery hat, but is wearing a pelisse and carrying a letter or something, not waving his sword around...


  3. Ross - you're right, one of the major arguments for C&C is that it supports that style of play.

    Clive - Damnation, I'll fix that.