Aggressors: Ancient Rome (AAR), the newest Matrix/Slitherine offering, will soon be upon us: it is a grand strategy game, which B. H. Liddell-Hart and others note not only involves coordinating and managing national military resources to obtain victory in war, but expands this process to include diplomatic, financial, economic, informational and other means. This includes concerns both internal and external to a country, and further is not only applicable during conflict, but likewise during times of peace to secure national objectives. Thus, the Western policy of containment during the Cold War against the Soviet Union was an example of grand strategy.
A game of this scope naturally reaches beyond the simple task of fighting wars, but the military components are still quite interesting on paper so I was asked to take up my Spatha for a detailed look thereof.
Getting to know you
The game begins in 278 BC and each turn represents one year of real time. The player can actually customize a unique world for play, but I imagine most will accept the option to play in the ancient Mediterranean. You can choose one of 20 different states to call your own, but the top three seem to be Republican Rome, Carthage and the Ptolemaic Alexandrian Successor Empire. These three are also the only states with an associated tutorial, a typical simplified version, as well as an advanced option which has less hand holding as you learn the ropes. In one of many unique twists presented by the game, not only can you adjust the difficulty level for play, but also the aggressiveness level for each of the 19 other countries challenging your supremacy. If you decide to play Rome, for example, you’ll find a trusted ally already in Massilia (as in Marseilles, France), so you can make them super nasty to keep the Celts at bay. You can also make the Seleucids a bunch of wimps to avoid all the Kataphraktoi on the planet from breathing down your neck.
Like most games of this ilk, the actual procedures and processes to play the game are really super simple, but not so the record keeping, calculations and decision making to support them. In general, the player each turn has two screens to make his moves for the year. The first is the off-map State Screen where military alliances can be made, trade routes can be established and so on. The second screen is on the very well rendered map itself where you will find any number of units, both mobile and non-mobile. In the latter category are things like towns or cities, farmland, mines and so forth. Mobile units on the other hand represent settlers, fleets and army formations. Each turn you simply click on a unit and tell it to move (if mobile) and/or perform some activity (either). Here we mean things like cultivate land, improve a harbor, build a road, recruit troops, build blacksmithing works ad infinitum. If your choice demands more than one turn to complete, say, moving the XVIII Legion from northern Italy to Sicily, the action simply carries over to the next several turns.
All the while you expend resources in terms of minerals, food plus as payment for each action. These commodities are collected each turn based on the properties held and how efficient they function, expending same as you stretch your empire to New Rome somewhere near Stockholm. Here cities seem to be key as they collect resources within so many tiles (what AAR calls the underlaying grid of squares that regulates movement and location) and then distribute these same items to mobile units within so many tiles as part of a logistics chain.
Simple, right? Just remember that everything you do in your turn costs economic resources to complete, and the results of those actions impacts how many resources you have in the credit union next turn to do it all over again. And while advisors do pop up in the game from time to time, there is no Proconsul for Agriculture to sluff off farming issues on while you take care of other matters. Its all on you because you are not only the absolute ruler of all you survey, you are expected to be one of the great ones such as Octavian or Aurelias, doing everything yourself down to the last olive grove. Seriously, ever think about building a bigger army by managing birthrates? Guess what, the game has an app for that.
Fortunately, the game also comes with a little bit of levity to ease the strain. When you finish doing everything, simply click the hour glass in the upper right corner to end the turn and let your 19 AI controlled competitors make their move. At this point portraits of the rulers in these lands flash by and, not kidding here folks, lo and behold here is Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra, a blue painted and tartan clad Mel Gibson as Braveheart doing temporary duty as chief of the Iberians, even Gerard “this IS Sparta” Butler as King Leonidas. Heck, when armies collide in AAR, they let out a hearty “AH-OO!”, very much 300 the Movie style. Nearly spit out my coffee laughing, but I like it!
Extending politics through Pila
In AAR the military forces of your empire will be one of five types Roman, Greek, Carthaginian, Persian or Barbarian, differing in combat modifiers depending on terrain and other circumstances. For example, Romans marching thru the Teutoburger Wald will be at a disadvantage if Arminius and the lads stop by as uncivilized Germans do well in forests, but legionaries do not. Each force also has three types of infantry and three types of cavalry ranging in effectiveness from minimal to superior. For Roman infantry this would be Milites, Principes and Legionary. Naval forces weigh in with Boat, Galley and Trireme. There is only one so-called “Mechanical” unit, that being a wagon or logistics train to extend the supply distance from friendly turf.
With that baseline, these forces are used pretty much as you would expect. They march and move into enemy occupied tiles to do battle. The computer calculates the odds, runs the engagement then tells you the result, though seeing your soldier sprite become bloody and vanish is a pretty good indicator things did not go well. Military units draw supply from cities and can also retreat back into them for refit and reconstitution if mauled in combat. Cities can be besieged whereby controlling the surrounding tiles with, but one enemy army formation destroys its ability to supply friendly units in the field. Cities can also raise new military units and then there is the ubiquitous research tree whereby you can expend resources to improve your military posture by developing new weapons or, one that I am particularly fond of, devising new tactics that allows your Principes to attack an enemy twice in a single turn.
Now, hold that thought for just a moment or few. That double attack option is indicative of a bevy of small things that make combat in AAR unique and for me at least, quite enjoyable. There are not less than 24 specific improvements that can be researched for your military units, and what surprised me was not only the sheer number available, but how many were not hardware oriented. I’ve already described one, but another is one called Traveler, which allows the military force to increase its speed 50% when hauling down the Appian Way or other roads (and historically they didn’t call Legionary Quintus Agricola “Marius Mule” for nothing). And for the combat itself, each unit carries with it five military properties, modified by 11 bonuses or penalties, not including anything the surrounding terrain might convey. Certainly, the usual suspects are here, and by this, I mean loyalty, experience, readiness, improvements already discussed, and in a sneaky little add-on with not one, but two types of morale. One is Military Morale, as in how much you respect or fear your adversary, which if you’re Varus in certain German forests, is quite a lot. The second is General Morale which considers such things as whether the army is being properly fed, paid on time and so on.
It’s a lot to keep track of, but you’re Octavian, right? Not to worry, the game provides a little pop-up to give you an idea of the odds before you throw the first Ballista bolt downrange. This gives you various percentages that will impact your combat, as well as an overall chance of success. Moving within striking range of the enemy allows you information about your adversary such as strength, morale and loyalty.
The same goes for naval units, but I found them most useful in a reconnaissance role. Unless its your or an ally’s turf, all the real estate is obscured by a thick fog like blanket. However, remember this is the Mediterranean and most countries either mostly or in total hunker down close to the coast. Moving a fleet in proximity can clear those clouds away and allow you to explore things like why an army of those obnoxious little twits from Epirus had not joined their brethren attacking Rome. Truth be told is that they had also ticked off Carthage and were fighting tooth and nail to retain their part of Sicily. This meant I could stop looking over my shoulder, gather my legions and counterattack. Sweet.
But perhaps the biggest surprise was how well the designer integrated all this military stuff into an interlocking, mutually supporting process. Just drop that thought re: the double attack improvement from above. The game allows an enemy unit to be attacked in the same turn by TWO different, but adjacent, friendly forces. The idea is that after the first attack, the enemy would be so severely weakened he would certainly collapse during round two. Now remember the improvement discussed allows a SINGLE friendly unit to attack twice in a turn. Light bulb just clicked on, didn’t it?
In closing and although grand strategy level of play is not my proverbial cup of tea, I have to admit I’m impressed with what they did with the military portion of this exercise. Its as well done as any I’ve seen, and some of the little period and historically related garnishments make it better than most. If you like managing armies in a grand strategy environment, I really think you will enjoy this game. I did.
OK, there is one thing. I’m just not too fond of the animated soldier graphics towering over the Hobbit hovels and halfling forests. It almost reminds me of another game called Field of Glory II and . . . wait a minute. A blinding flash of the obvious just happened. What would happen if we link the two games so when there is a battle in AAR you could fight it out in Field of Glory, then input the results back into AAR?
Holy SPQR, I think I just found my next article.
Aggressors: Ancient Rome is due out on PC on August 30th. Our sister website Strategy Gamer will be posting a formal review next week, if you would like to know more.