Summer of 2015, I decided to play the Pyrrhic War. This review is taken largely from a Usenet post I made, answering a question about PC games covering the ancients era.
- HPS: Punic Wars
- Field of Glory
- Alea Jacta Est: Birth of Rome
- Europa Universalis: Rome
The first two games seem to have fairly loyal followings, largely for multiplayer. I play games in single player mode only. I tend to rank “immersion” higher than innovative and/or challenging game play.
This exercise started when I tried playing Rome: Total War, and felt the disappointment at the lack of realism and depth. That caused me to begin digging through older games, sure that somewhere, someone must have done better.
HPS battles started off my “comparative gaming” exercise and, despite its shortcomings, ranked as the best available ancients tactics options that I tried.
HPS: Punic Wars
For those unfamiliar, the HPS product line is a series of games based on the work of John Tiller. The look-and-feel of the game series has largely remained unchanged from the 1995 Battleground series debut from Talonsoft, Bulge-Ardennes. I’ve never played that game, but had the second in the series (also 1995), Gettysburg. A big-budget title at the time, the game featured 3D figures (invoking table-top miniatures) and video of live re-enactments to augment the combat resolution. As the series developed, the latter was dropped quickly, while the former de-emphasized over the years. I still remember those muskets crackling in the pop-up window like it was yesterday.
The HPS Ancients series was developed from the core engine, but by developer Paul Bruffell. It is a turned-based, tactical-level treatment of the great battles of Rome, Greece, and Macedonia.
The screenshot above looks nice enough, but I find it to be incredibly impractical for actually playing the game. The functional view is one of the 2D levels, shown below with roughly the same section of the battle
Not so pretty, but functional.
The modelling of the battle seems pretty good. As far as the product itself, there are lots of scenarios, plus a scenario editor. Each scenario takes a brutally long time to play so you get a whole lot of hours for your money spent on a particular HPS module.
On the downside, the scenarios take a brutally long time to play.
A longstanding complaint about first the Battleground series, and then the HPS follows-ups, was ability of the computer opponent. The AI, while not obviously incompetent, probably will not beat you in any of the scenarios (mostly designed for balanced play-by-email).
Playing this scenario, it takes you through several distinct phases. The gameplay starts out OK as you close your army towards the enemy and need only make minor adjustments to your lines. Mostly you move forward using group moves, meaning (for example) you give a single movement order to all of one legion’s principes (10 counters) together. This works until the armies make contact, at which point the group move is useless and you have to give orders counter-by-counter. This isn’t too bad when you’re working on a tactically interesting section of the battle field. (Can you break his right wing before he punches a hole in your center?) But you pretty much have to visit every counter, every turn, whether you want to or not.
Another complaint about this product is, while the army detail is simulated to a lower level of detail compared to most other games (Example Scale: for legions, one counter represents a maniple), it is still the same mechanics as any other hex-and-counter game. That is, the difference between a roman legion and allied heavy infantry is in the stats of the units. There is no simulation of the manipular system and its unique advantages. Indeed, there is no enforcement (or advantage, as far as I can tell) for keeping your units in the historical formations and combat roles. This is up to you as the player to do for your own satisfaction, often expending a lot of on-screen clicks to do so.
Field of Glory
You’d think, then, that Field of Glory would be a breath of fresh air. Counter representative sizes are bigger (although, I’ll note, they are set by the scenario designer, so it really could be anything) so micromanagement is less. The AI can give a challenge, particularly in scenarios designed for single play – although this too is primarily a play-by-email game.
Field of Glory is a PC game based on the table-top rule set of the same name. The PC game has a large following, perhaps consisting of a significant number of table-top players who want additional remote play opportunities.
These are also the same rules that form the basis for the more recent game Pike and Shot, which is among my favorite new releases. But for some reason FoG doesn’t do it for me.
Similar to my criticism of HPS, there is no game enforcement or advantage to historically-correct formations. In fact, optimal gameplay seems to involve using the larger scale (and thus, greater movement-per-turn) to scurry around to an unexpected attack position.
I also find the unit stats to give some results that don’t match my gut.
Finally, linear combat and hexes just don’t match. The Pike and Shot system, while using the same rules, is based on a square grid system rather than hexagonal.
The advantages of Field of Glory are many. A huge number of scenarios and an active community, especially for multiplayer. The scenario editor is simple enough that you can actually throw together your own. Plus there are army building tools to create balanced, hypothetical match-ups. Most importantly, the battles are fairly quick. Even if a particular scenario model falls flat, you’ve wasted only an evening on it, not a month of your life.
The combined experience with these tactical-level games makes me wonder if the right battle simulation for ancient armies isn’t the “General simulator.” Rather than simulate the board game or tabletop and push all the units around, shouldn’t you sit in the saddle of the consul and give only the appropriate orders?
As the few games for other eras that do this demonstrate, this requires a level of AI (especially friendly AI) that doesn’t exist for ancients.
Alea Jacta Est: Birth of Rome
Enter Birth of Rome, which simulates the operational level and deals with the tactical battles in considerable detail, but outside the control of the player. You can set up the size, quality and makeup of your armies and, through the commander assignments, control its tactics. But once the armies are marching towards each other, there isn’t much micromanagement for a general to do – so why not just have the computer resolve everything. This game answers that question: it’s kind of the worst of all worlds.
Roman Republic games have two interesting aspects. One is the spectacle of massive formations of soldiers colliding and the fascinating rock-paper-scissors that actually played out as the army organization of the different cultures helped to dictate the fates of their nations. For the battles in question, the phalanx vs legion is the obvious, but most ancient battles are characterized by an array of unique units. At the other end is the political aspects of the Roman Republic. Control of the Senate, control of resources, the ability to install consuls, generals or governors. This creates an opportunity to design good games around even a nearly-invincible Rome against the world.
Birth of Rome lands right between these two interesting wings in the dull middle. At the strategic level, all the decision are made by the scenario designer. At the tactical level, all the decisions are made by the computer. Leaving what? A historical account might describe how the Romans, upon hearing of Pyrrhus’ arrival in Italy, mustered 80,000 men and divided them into four armies. Do any of us wish we could micromanage the makeup and lower-level command of the Roman response? I didn’t think so.
Europa Universalis: Rome
EU Rome is a game that I ignored when it came out. It seemed like easy way to capitalize on Rome: Total War’s popularity with their existing engine. But I assumed it would just be the same game as EU2, reworked with different window dressing. I finally picked it up in 2014 when I saw it for a buck or two.
In retrospect, the design was an intermediate version of the Crusader Kings system; improving upon the, at the time existing, Crusader Kings but not yet to the level of the outstanding Crusader Kings II. EU Rome does manage to immerse the player in that interesting strategic top end of the Roman era. In particular, whereas the RTW family system has little connection with historical politics, EUR does start to capture the feel of it. Once you stray outside the historical bounds of a scenario setup, EUR moves toward the classic 4X gameplay with build queues and constructing the right buildings, a mechanic without much connection to historical reality. But it is slower to silliness than most of its competitors and therefore, in my own Pyrrhic exercise of last summer, actually was the most satisfying attempt to play the Roman Republic.
Honorable Mention: Great Battles of Caesar
When I originally posted this article on-line, some comments were made about the Great Battles series. At the time, I did not expect it to challenge the two tactical games I was playing. One of the comments I made was I thought I had some troubles with stability in the original game. It was mentioned to me that the GOG version had fixed stability issues and compatibility with modern system. I’ve since picked up the GOG version when it went on sale, but I’ve yet to install and play. Maybe next time I get to this era.