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In the years since I stopped playing Great Battles of Alexander (and its two follow-ons, Hannibal and Caesar), I longed for something to take its place. As I started have compatibility issues between the game and newer PCs, it seemed like Great Battles would be a fairly easy game to re-implement. It played pretty easy, and didn’t seem all that complex.

We Beg You, Tell Us Who

A deeper look led me to believe there is more there than meets the eye. Or, at the very least, more than I would be able to replicate if I were to program it on my own. This applies both to the rules (a glance at the Great Battles of Alexander, the board game, and its rulebook gives some hint, even if you don’t know how much of that was included in the computer model) and to the AI, which may not be brilliant but it does seem competent. I know I spent some time looking at the easier rules for Ancients and its potential for a home-brewed computer game. Eventually, Tin Soldiers: Alexander the Great came out and I figured I had something satisfy my fix, at least momentarily.

One of the more esoteric solutions I played during that time was actually an idea I had myself. I realized that one of the more difficult parts to programing an intelligent opponent is the fact that the map is in two dimensions. This is difficult for the AI, because of the number and complexity of paths from Point A to Point B and, at the same time, makes it more difficult as a historical simulation. Macedonian phalanges didn’t whirl around to face new directions, willy-nilly, or race around an enemy to hit them in the rear. The action was pretty linear. So, I wondered, what if you could play the game simply as opposing lines rather than maneuvering on a hex grid?

In fact, while we’re at it, do we even need the board part of this boardgame?

One conversion of the Great Battles series I played with for quite a while was Hoplites. Instead of a board, each unit is draw as a card from an army deck and then deployed a linear battle line, either in the center or on the flanks. The opponent has an identically-sized line opposing you. Units engage their counterpart or, if unopposed, gain additional options. It made for a nice quick play when the ancients theme was desired, but fell short of replacing the experience of Great Battles. If nothing else, recreating historical battles was impossible without a variable battlefield.

The First of Its Name

It is an interesting coincidence that the year Field of Glory became available, development and support of Hoplites stopped. For those less skeptical than I, I suppose Field of Glory offered to be the new incarnation of ancients battles for the PC.

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Same players, different field.

The Field of Glory package for the ancient Greeks, Immortal Fire, included the Battle of Gaugamela. At least one user made their own version of that battle, based on the board game’s setup. So as a comparison, I downloaded a version of that Great Battles conversion to FoG, a modification of that user-made version by prolific scenario developer Kilroy.

So how does it compare?

The battle plays faster in this format. Field of Glory uses a system for extra movement per turn when units are outside of engagement distances, to minimize the counter-pushing involved as the lines close in on each other. On top of that, there is a certain inefficiency to Great Battle‘s leader activation. In FoG, the simple one-side-then-the-other structure is going to make each turn a little shorter, even given the same number of units to move.

There are negatives as well. As I’ve noticed before, the Field of Glory units lack character. Yes, there is no double-wide phalanx formation, but that’s not all I’m talking about. The units just don’t seem to have the individuality that they did in Great Battles version. In Great Battles, I was genuinely afraid when that formation of chariots began heading toward me. In Field of Glory, I noticed my first chariot after it was already running away. I’m not saying there is no difference between units. In fact, the handling of phalanx melee is probably a little better – in Field of Glory, it isn’t until the phalanx have closed and engage that they start doing their real damage. It’s just that Field of Glory doesn’t have the atmosphere.

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The Macedonians were able to dominate the field from one end to the other basically by charging forward and hitting the Persian lines.

I don’t know whether to attribute it to a lesser AI or the fact that bringing the same units mix over to Field of Glory threw off the game balance, but whereas in Great Battles the game always seemed to be close, this one felt like a pushover. The scenario was explicitly designed to open the door for the historical breaking of the Persian center by Alexander himself, but I found the tactic neither necessary nor convenient. It may be that this scenario design goal was part of the problem; player-versus-player game with scenario might have the understood limitation that the Macedonians are to emulate Alexander’s historical strategy (counterintuitively) adding to the challenge for the Greek side.

More importantly, despite some obvious improvements in user interface and the like, the game does not feel like an upgrade to Great Battles of Alexander. Much like Hoplites before it, Field of Glory seems to get a few things right, but falls short in many other areas.

Worthy Successor

But now, finally, we have Field of Glory II. Perhaps we finally have a computer program that can get this period right? The mere hope that it could be was enough to break out the game I’d bought a while back, but had yet to play. What better battle to try it out upon than the Battle of Gaugamela and get its take on history.

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Alexander’s opening moves. First impression is that the battlefield is huge. Might be that fog effect for distant units.

I think it goes without saying that this is the best looking of my current options. Of course, it isn’t Rome: Total War: Alexander, nor should it be. One almost assumes that an emphasis on 3D animations is going to come at expense of historical fidelity.

My initial impression, as I mentioned in the above caption, was that the virtual board was huge. After some scrolling around, I realized that the unit count matches pretty closely both of the other versions of the battle. Since this version wasn’t build specifically from the Great Battles of Alexander board game order of battle, there are some differences in the detail, but not enough so that we wouldn’t recognize the setup.

Or, at least not from the Macedonian side. From Darius’ perspective, the setup has changed. In Great Battles of Alexander (the PC game, this time), one challenge the Persians have is that, while their numbers are superior, their generalship is not. It will take many turns for them to advance the main body of troops at their center into the fray. In fact, the player (or the AI in my case) must prioritize whether to advance or whether to attack with what comes up, as it comes up. In my games, the battle was decided while may of the Persian units were still maneuvering to engage. In Field of Glory II, on the other hand, the Persian units that would never engage are left off the map entirely. The forces that are to play an active role in the battle are themselves placed in close proximity to the Macedonian lines.

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Heavy infantry clashes really field like heavy infantry.

My general complain with Field of Glory was that the unit types lacked character. This complaint does not persist with Field of Glory II. While there are no double-sized phalanx units to be found in this game, the differentiation between units types, as driven by the rules, give each their own character. Skirmishers not only retreat from fighting, but can pass through the ranks of heavy infantry. Two opposing units of heavy infantry facing each other, on the other hand, engage in an escalating slugfest, possible with the weaker getting pushed back before it starts to break.

Also, as was the case with Pike and Shot, command and control issues, while not explicitly modeled through leader activation -type rules, do translate through in a believable way. At the outset, all of your units (absent some special scenario configurations) are available for you to control with the full ranges of options. As the battle proceeds, you begin to hit constraints. Engaged units and units undertaking pursuit of enemy forces cannot be controlled. Units that have suffered losses of order and morale have considerably fewer options, as do units that are under threat by an enemy. By the end of the game, it may be that less than a handful of your units are still under player control.

The system has notable improvements since Pike and Shot was released. There’s the skirmisher thing I mentioned above. The system now, also, allows you some additional control when units are already engaged in combat. In Pike and Shot, any units that were already engaged would be cycled through automatically at the end of each player’s turn. Now, a player can force the resolution of a combat during his own turn and, perhaps, change his plans depending on the results. Also, the game now includes leaders in the game, something notably absent from Pike and Shot. In perhaps one of the better implementations so far, leaders are attached to a specific unit but they can be reassigned by the player. This can be done during the scenario deployment phase or even during battle (under a more limiting set of circumstances).

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Alexander leads his companions in a charge to the rear of the Persian center. Have I finally found my hole?

The technical changes aside, though, does Field of Glory II handle historical scenarios well? I’d say, as good as some and better than most.

The feeling of the battle was reasonable. As the Macedonians, I had an advantage in part of the field while simultaneously worrying about the opposite wing. Unique to all my attempts so far, it was my Companion cavalry that was first to break their wing of the Persians, a first in all the versions of this battle I’ve played to date. In the above screenshot, you can see Alexander leading his Companions as they crush some Iranian cavalry, leaving the way open forward and towards the center (the top of the screenshot) and Darius.

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Somebody is missing.

This resulted in a win for me. Given the configurability of the game, this can’t be taken as any indication of either my skill as a player, the quality of the AI, or the balance of the scenario (from a historical perspective). I’m playing on one of the easier settings where I’m able to keep a pretty fair hold on my AI opponent. But this victory screen also illustrates clearly the way this scenario was configured, as I described earlier on in the article.

The Macedonian order of battle is at the very high end of estimates I’ve read for Alexander’s forces at this battle.  The Persian force is not only much smaller than any historical estimate, but even smaller than Alexander’s. As I said, I believe the intention was to simulate Alexander’s ability to break the Persian will to fight before the center of their army was even engaged.

So based on this battle, I have to give Field of Glory II its place as a worth successor to Great Battles of Alexander. There are still a few features* of the old program that FoGII hasn’t created a substitute for, but in general this appears to be a good way to relive these ancient battles with modern graphics and user-interface. Once you also consider that Field of Glory II has tools to create both new scenarios and random match-ups, it is clearly filling in the spaces where Great Battles was lacking.

*One, in particular, I’ll mention is the “group move” function. Field of Glory II also has a group move, but it is more of a UI improvement (over, say, Field of Glory) than a game function. In Great Battles, the group move would allow a commander to move more of his army if it stayed in formation than he could if he commanded each unit individually. That is, doctrine would allow command of larger armies by sacrificing flexibility. In Field of Glory II, the group move does give you any advantage; it allows you the same moves available unit-by-unit, but with less clicking.