Having worked my way through the opening moves of Imperium: Rome, a couple of obvious comparisons immediate demand exploration. The competing efforts behind Imperium and Field of Glory: Empires released games at nearly the same time on the same subject. How do they compare? In addition, given how quickly Imperium: Rome departed from the historical record, does Field of Glory provide a better historical experience? And are there any other option for experiencing early history of Rome at the turn of the 3rd century BC? Read on, my quarantined friends.
One immediate and obvious distinction of Field of Glory: Empires is that it is a much coarser game. The provinces are bigger and the armies fewer and less maneuverable. While different than Imperium: Rome, I’m not sure it is any less valid. When we read about, for example, the Third Samnite War descriptions likely focus on the decisive Battle of Sentinum. Yet that battle was one fight among several during a single campaign season in a war that was already three years old and would last for another two. Does it make for a better game to try to include all the ancillary pieces, or would it be better if we could distill the entire war into that one battle, as the history books often do?
Imperium: Rome, in its way, reproduces the minor engagements and secondary movements that might lead up to that decisive battle. Likewise, once the battle is won, you still have to win the war. A large battle will still be followed by a process of taking territory and running down survivors so as to obtain the most favorable surrender turns. Field of Glory: Empires, to contrast, seems more likely to limit the conflict to that deciding battle. Not explicitly, as you aren’t required to fight one-and-only-one battle. Rather, it is a function of the number of provinces and the “distances” between them. Does it make sense to fight a battle that is less than your best effort to win it? And if you lose after your best effort, there is no room to recover (at least not when the Republic is a mere three provinces).
If you look closely at the screenshot above, you’ll see that I did, in fact, bring less than my “best effort” to the fight against Senones. This was a mistake. I made the same mistake when I first installed Field of Glory: Empires at the end of last year. Last December, I tried out the Pyrrhus Scenario, a mini-campaign included along side the full campaign. In my opening move, I marched my legions south just to see what was up and was surprised by a superior Epirote force (which had been obscured by the fog of war). Field of Glory: Empires‘ limited information means that you don’t see enemy units in neighboring provinces unless you have an army there. That is, owned but unoccupied provinces can’t “see”. Although my mistake is easily avoided, I’m sure I’ll make it again – next time I pick up Field of Glory: Empires after a break.
As unintended as my move and subsequent battle was, I did draw one thing from it; the detailed battle was was similar enough to the what happened historically in the the Third Samnite War. Granted, the specifics of the tribes are still a little mixed up, but I fought my battle in roughly the historical location using roughly historic force mix. At the screenshot above (taken during the set-up phase for the exported battle) shows, the forces are not close to being balanced. It is recorded that the Battle of Sentinum was very evenly matched, whereas here Rome is at a considerable disadvantage. Imbalance aside, the size of the Roman army is a fraction of the historical force. Rome fielded two Consular armies, each containing two Roman legions plus allied infantry. This is off by a factor of six.
For the auto-generated battle, the roughly two-to-one disparity in forces is more than I can manage, particularly given my lack of skill playing Field of Glory II. No surprise, I lost and that loss fed back to losing the war on the strategic map. However, given that I’m getting close to the historical battle, a battle Rome actually won, I’m kind of in the mood to play that scenario.
The Battle of Sentinum is not one of the pre-made battles in the FoG2 distribution. A little more surprisingly, no user has tackled it yet. While I searched for a downloadable version, I couldn’t find one. What I can and did do was use the quick battle generator create another approximation using FoG2‘s template for the Second Samnite War. After some fiddling, I wound up going with the biggest (Very Large) scenario possible. That gave me a total Roman force of 16,000+ soldiers, still less than half of Rome’s force at Sentinum. Furthermore, the auto-generation doesn’t give set up the two-army force that Rome fielded. More fidelity obviously would require a hand-built scenario.
This exercise highlights one area where FoG2 seems to be faltering. Out-of-the-box, the unit size/unit count is too small to recreate the pivotal battles of the ancient world. Of course, every part of the scenario creation process is editable. The number of individuals per in-game unit can be set in the script which generates battles, either for quick-setups or as part of a campaign. Compare the size of the armies in the above scenarios with the Battle of Ashdown to see this illustrated.
The obvious implication of this is that the FoG2 is intended to be scale independent. You could have “stands” the size* of a cohort, and this seems to be the standard. However, there is nothing that says you must commit to this standard. You could model the individual maniples, as the HPS system does. You could create individual units that are half or a third of a legion. Tactically speaking, and in terms of combat resolution, each of these systems should behave rather differently. Yet, in FoG2, this would be impossible to account for without a serious rework of the game. So while I could generate a battle between Rome and Samnium where Rome fields two consular armies, having the confidence that would produce a meaningful result is another question entirely. As flexible as this system is, this “cohort” scale seems to be THE correct one.
Going back to the units in the above screenshot, careful inspection reveals something interesting. The Roman heavy infantry is called Hastati/Principes. I think what we’re seeing is a representation of the manipular legion tactics implicit in the unit statistic. Contrast this to the Great Battles/SPQR system where the modeling of the quincunx (checkerboard formations) and its deployment into the battle line are explicit. In FoG2, we need to think of each “stand” as two maniples of hastati backed by the corresponding two maniples of principes. The associated** triarii are represented as independent pieces. Using either the unit size or the unit-count-per-legion, the triarii seem to represent four maniples rather than two. In game turns, this allows the player to be flexible in his use of the triarii. They could be held as a reserve, used to support their own cohorts, or redeployed as an independent reaction force, all of which was done successfully by one Roman commander or another. Again, contrast with the SPQR restrictions where only Scipio Africanus can use triarii before 200 BC. In all other cases, the triarii are unable to move until “activated” by certain specified triggers.
FoG2 has added (relative either to the original FoG or to Pike & Shot) the ability of skirmishing units to retreat though (and advance through, for that matter) line infantry. Although this isn’t restricted to Roman units, it does provide an excellent representation of Roman tactics, whereby the velites withdrew behind the protection of the heavy infantry after initial engagement. The similar tactics which allowed the principes to replace the hastati as the front line, I think, should be seen as implicit in the stats for the combined Hastati/Principes unit. Within this understanding, the checkboard deployment of the Roman legions in FoG2 is more cosmetic than anything else. At the frontage of four maniples, the Roman configuration would not have appeared to be staggered.
This all left me feeling that something was missing. I could, I think, get the battle set up properly (1200-man Hastati/Principes units might actually work) and FoG2 more-or-less accounts for the tactics, but I’m a long way and a lot of scenario editing from a satisfying representation of this battle.
Feeling disappointed, I began looking for alternatives. Surely someone must have modeled this battle and someone may have even got it right. What pops up foremost in a search is a Commands & Colors: Ancients scenario*** for the battle. There are also plenty of pictures of miniatures recreations of the battles, some using a Commands & Colors ruleset, other using various miniatures systems. I don’t have Commands & Colors: Ancients and I don’t want to be digging through miniatures rules. However, it is a quick indication of what that scaled-up battle that I propose might look like. A little more focused digging reminded me that Sentinum was one of the stock scenarios in the original Field of Glory.
I loaded up the Field of Glory – Unity (FoG(U)) version of the scenario first. The graphics are a little less glitchy in the newer version making it 10x easier to take screenshots. I’ll come back to that decision, in terms of gameplay, in a moment. I chose to play the “barbarians” as this was the “first side”.
The first impression was, again, a failure to engage me with the historical feel of the Roman legions. Yes, I can see that the units are labeled appropriately, but they just don’t act like Romans in terms of doctrine or tactics. You can see in the screenshot that follows; the AI has rushed his principes in ahead of the hastati. If that weren’t bad enough, the AI just isn’t very good. I beat the Romans with little effort.
As usual, I wondered if my experience was made worse by the FoG(U) reimplimentation and, in fact, that appears to be the case. Replaying the scenario from the same side with similar tactics, but in the original engine, resulted in a much closer and more reasonable game. The AI was still not what I would consider strong, but the result wasn’t as completely lopsided. That the original AI still broke the Roman formation and moved his principes to the front, so I’m not saying that this version was good. Just not as bad. It’s so far removed from a historical recreation, that I feel cheated for having taken the time to load it up (strongly suspecting what I had coming).
I had pretty-much despaired finding anything else that even came close when I stumbled across another option, entirely by accident. Given my comments above, I wanted to verify exactly how the units were sized in HPS’s ancients games. Scrolling around in the loaded game, I realized that the Battle of Sentinum is one of the scenarios that came with HPS Simulations – Punic Wars, and that’s a game that I own.
Also surprisingly, this ranks as the best experience that I’ve had with this battle. If you’ve read this far, you’re probably figuring that’s not saying much – which is true. However, Punic Wars gets certain things right – certain things that it handles uniquely. Make no mistake, it also does a lot of things wrong. I feel cheated in that the 3D unit models are all but useless and I’m stuck playing in this low-res, minimalistic 2D view. It’s awful that, despite 25-year-old graphics, the turn resolution is interminably long. The UI interaction is bound to drive up my blood pressure and take a few months off of my life. Get any of the many specific, sequential, and non-intuitive clicks wrong and the whole game is going to lock up on you. But other than that…
The best thing about this game is that it actually simulates the army composition in the realistic way. Obviously, the actual order-of-battle is itself speculative after 2300 years, but the modeling of the proposed forces has a clear basis. Each unit represents a maniple, allowing the model to track very clearly to the Roman military specifications. In the above screenshot, as an example, we see the right wing of the Roman side consisting of one of Rome’s two consular armies. In the bottom right corner is a Roman legion in proper historic formation. Leves are screening the front with a line of hastati and principes following. The triarii and additional skirmishers bring up the rear. For those unfamiliar with this system, leaders (down to a Tribunus commanding each class of infantry) are represented by their own unit, indicated on the screen with a helmet.
As I pointed out before, this series seems to have been designed primarily for playing 2-player over email. Forum comments have long argued that the true purpose of the AI is allow players to learn the rules well enough so that they feel comfortable going head-to-head with other enthusiasts. Within this context, I’d imagine games are played with plenty of house rules in force. A disciplined player can enforce Roman doctrine, even if he perceives that breaking it (within the limits of the rules) would give him an advantage. For example, as the Roman, I could agree not to move my triarii out of formation until the line of the principes breaks – à la SPQR. Taking the Roman side in single player games allows that to work, for the most part, even without an agreeable partner.
But what, you may be saying, about those checkerboard Roman lines and the resultant ability to retreat through advancing formations? Well, like I pointed out for FoG2 above, this isn’t necessary (albeit for different reasons). Punic Wars does not have single-unit stacking within a hex. This makes it feasible to, for example, retreat faltering hastati through the advancing line of principes. The transition between the staggered quincunx and the deployed line of battle is “internal” to a counter representing the maniple. In fact, it is assumed that the the counter is in whatever formation is has to be in at any given time – an assumption that, given the remarkable amount of micro-management already present, is probably a relief. As best I can tell, the game makes no special allowance for unique abilities possessed by hastati and principes. But even if it doesn’t, what is the right way to model this? Should allowing retreating hastati to pass through their lines disrupt principes? Doesn’t that appropriately simulate the staggered deployment of the centuriae or is it better to allow them to pass without disruption? I have no idea, and it isn’t clear from the documents that this has been deliberately simulated or accounted for.
Each turn, in the HPS ancients series, represents 15 minutes of real time. Execution of that turn takes up approximately that same duration on the real clock, although it seems like longer. This means that an 8-hour-plus battle, as this scenario estimates Sentinum to be, will engage you for at least that amount of uninterrupted game time. For me, that suggests weeks of playing one-or-two turns a night. For head-to-head, it probably means aiming for an exchange-a-day. One might also try to replicate a miniatures session, where you intend to spend the better part of a day and evening endeavoring to complete much or all of the battle. It is quite an investment, especially considering that I’d expect to finish the same battle in FoG2 in under an hour.
One dreams of being able to automated some of these functions, to command legions with few clicks, but even manually the experience is worthwhile. Nowhere else could I find a reasonable representation of the circa 300 BC Roman army for the stuck-at-home computer gamer.
*While the roughly 500 men in each unit in the screenshot is numerically equivalent to a “cohort,” this tactical designation was by depth, not breadth. That is to say, a cohort in the early-to-mid Roman legion consisted of the velites, hastati, principes, and triarii which created a frontage of one maniple. Besides the organizational/definitional problem presented in creating 500-person “stands” hastati, 500 principes, etc., there is the implication in tactics and battle resolution. This organization, and this applies to pretty much every Roman Republic game I havev played, encourages non-standard tactics by the way the units are grouped. It makes me wonder if there are any readily-available alternatives.
**The velites are also, obviously, separate stands and, I’m going to assume, less closely associated with their cohort than the line infantry is. Skirmishers were used for functions other than leading the main battle line, including screening and cavalry support. Their disconnection from the Hastati/Principes blocks, with which they share adminstrative organization, probably makes sense. For those with a keen sense of history, the very terminology of velites is an anachronism. In the legion of this time, the skirmishing infantry were the leves. It would be another 80-90 years before including velites in the army would be historically correct.
***The units of C&C:A scaled to a very coarse representation of scale. For the infantry, there are three unit types. Light Infantry (the skirmishers), Heavy Infantry (the Roman legion, including all ranks, and a medium infantry to represent the Allied forces. A Roman legion is represented by two blocks, the skirmishers and the line infantry.