Alea Jacta Est: Roman Civil Wars – PC Game Review
Alea Jacta Est: Roman Civil Wars. PC game review. Publisher/Designer: AGEOD. $24.99
Passed Inspection: Great graphics, fine AI, exquisite historical detail
Failed Basic: Steep learning curve, long processing time, small font
After flirting with a complex mega-strategy game, AGEOD has come back to the grand strategy style that worked so well in the past. The return is not to the 18th–20th centuries stomping grounds but to ancient Rome. In Alea Jacta Est (The Die is Cast), the designers have zeroed in on a topic, Roman civil wars, but spread the time period from 87 BC to 193 AD. The game has many innovations over previous products. Nonetheless, how well will the transition from bayonet to gladius work?
Compared to earlier AGEOD games, Alea Jacta Est‘s graphics are awesome. The most stunning examples of this are the maps. The default military map has terrain features that approach 3D quality with great color representing terrain type, e.g. snow-capped Alps and varied-terrain Spain crisscrossed with rivers. The zoom feature picks out the number of towers on city walls and tiny, but vital, depots. The nine map overlays showing supply levels, control, loyalty, objectives, provinces, regions and terrain types also exhibit improved color and graphics. The most impressive map may slip under the radar; F7 will bring up a fine map of the entire Roman world.
Unit graphics equal the maps’ quality. On-map counters are reminiscent of boardgames using cardboard pictures in plastic stands. These counters show either commanders of forces or the dominant troop type for leaderless forces. The commander portraits appear to come from ancient pictures and coins, although one wonders if Spartacus really looked like Kirk Douglas. Combat units on the counters and in the unit panel are shown with equipage rivaling those shown in Osprey publications and coffee-table books. The depictions keep track with changes in appearance over the two-century span. These counters are so packed with information on special abilities, status, cohesion, and strength that players with high resolution monitors and old eyes will want to avoid eye strain by cranking resolution down to a comfortable level. Not as spectacular but equally well done are the ledger screens, option pages and message pop-ups that are the vital part of game mechanics.
Sound effects are helpful with winds howling, troops tramping and triremes’ oars splashing. The battle screen, consisting of a curved thermometer bar, is enlivened by the clash of weapons and screams of the wounded.
The Tooltip Is Mightier than the Sword
Moving units and forming forces are the only physical things players actually do. AGEOD’s typical click-and-drag area movement is used again with various movement options available through the special orders panel. Forces are formed by moving units from the unit panel to the map or by moving them to different tabs on the panel. Four combat postures with different rules of engagement can be chosen to give a force its combat stance. Players can shuffle forces like this throughout the game in vain if they don’t assimilate a great deal of data.
Alea Jacta Est is text and information driven. In order to win, players must check many ledger pages and pay attention to tooltips before making moves or decisions. Of utmost importance is the sortable force ledger page. Most games are large enough that browsing the map or even the mini-map to find troops isn’t efficient. At the force ledger, players can review their forces and go to them with a click. A tooltip hovering over a province displays who controls it, its civilization level, its economic value and its detection value. Hovering over a commander shows his command rating, activation status and seniority, while hovering over a unit gives information on strength, supply, cohesion and command cost. Clicking on a commander’s picture in the unit panel explicitly reveals his strategic, offensive and defensive ratings. Clicking on a force brings up its constituent elements that can be examined, including the 22 values for each, e.g. offense, defense and experience. Using map overlays is vital for finding supply-rich territories, objectives and friendly areas. Function keys display political and diplomatic options with tooltips explaining the options’ benefits and costs. Icons of a statue and an eagle over the mini-map allow access to political and recruitment possibilities. Tooltips serve the same role for the possibilities as in the other options. After a turn, the message panel explains what happens in a day-by-day manner for the 30-day turn. Events marked in red display on-screen messages when double-clicked. Players must weigh all these options against the realities of the present condition. Keeping track of all the data can be tough, so players are advised to leave the 96-page PDF manual open so they can ALT-TAB back for clarification.
Throwing the Die
All of these options and features are poured into five scenarios, one tutorial scenario and the Spartacus add-on, with scenarios lasting from 25 to 121 simultaneous turns. Civil wars are usually considered two-party affairs: such simplicity isn’t in this game. Five of the scenarios have three sides, with the possibility of other parties such as barbarians, pirates or Armenians opting to join the fray. Only the simple Spartacus and huge Caesar versus Pompey scenarios have just two sides. So what is a simple player to do?
Victory and defeat must be defined first. Victory is pretty straightforward, with the side having the most victory points triumphant. These points are gained by winning battles, taking objectives and using social or diplomatic options. Defeat is usually a function of national morale. Morale drops from losing battles and regions, and it rises when that side makes gains. The game is automatically lost when morale drops below a scenario-specific minimum but is won when exceeding a maximum. Every strategy must consider these two factors.
Taking stock of initial resources begins with checking money and engagement points. These items are the currencies for social options such as giving the populace bread and circuses or some of the 23 more complicated social reforms and decisions. Diplomatic options such as alliances and military possibilities like hiring mercenaries also require money and engagement points. Money comes from monthly sea trade and annual city taxes. Engagement points are received each month; the rate increases with victories and positive events.
The players’ initial military forces won’t be sufficient to win. Many units will be locked in place either conditionally or permanently. Existing field forces may not be sufficient to hold important areas or may not have the right mix of infantry, archers, cavalry or irregular forces to function on all terrain. Remedying these deficiencies begins by recruiting new troops, preparing replacements for the inevitable losses and hiring mercenaries.
An even more glaring problem is officer quality. Some officers may not have a high enough strategic rating to be activated, while others may be stacked with more troops than they can effectively command. The former problem can be solved by moving a better leader to the head of the force, even if a victory point may be lost by ignoring seniority. The second case is solved by splitting off a leader and some units to form a new force. This force can be used to reinforce a weak point or threaten an enemy’s outpost while reducing the main force’s command cost to fit the commander’s ability. Thus prepared, land and naval forces are now ready to move.
Turn processing in Alea Jacta Est
Turn processing can take up to two minutes, depending on the size of the scenario. During this period, players can see movement and battle screens but will primarily just watch the day count. Many players who are used to more action may find this irritating. Once the turn is processed, the message box is filled with messages detailing activities and results. Every turn will report attrition and cohesion hits due to terrain and weather, as well as costs of maintaining forces and trade income. Other reports will chronicle the gain and loss of regions and enemy activity. Military reports include successful avoidance of battle and commanders’ promotion or demotion due to combat performance.
Messages about battles show up in red; clicking on them displays the reports. Battles can last up to six rounds. The weaker side early in the battle can try to retreat, depending on its posture and its opponent’s number of mobile troops. The first report summarizes the fight with initial elements, ranged casualties, assault casualties and total losses per side. Also shown are which of the over 70 special abilities were used by each side. A more detailed report lists how each unit performed per round. Outcomes include dead and routed, prisoners who can be sold, and weapons and supplies captured, as well as slain officers.
Other messages include random events. Bad weather can increase attrition and decrease trade; other nations may enter the war; the gods may smile and increase national morale. Such events are random and increase replay value.
After the turn, a force may find itself low on cohesion and should remain in a friendly area to restore itself and receive replacements. These activities can be expedited by building depots and field fortifications. Other forces may be besieging a city. If the city has towers on its walls, immediate assaults are impossible if the commander doesn’t have the "assault" special ability. Fortunately, Roman legions automatically build siege engines and, after two breaches are made, can assault. Other nations must either starve the garrison or use one of the subversive options in the decision menu. The AI will not have been idle during the turn and probably overran some garrisons. Players should shrug this off in the short term and go for the enemy’s throat. The canny AI plays the long game and the player must not be distracted from primary objectives. Using amphibious attacks along the theater periphery can confuse the enemy as much as his pinpricks confuse players. If players want to examine a bad turn, a replay mechanism allows minute examination.
Alea Jacta Est is a big, wonderful game that puts all other Ancient-period games in the shade. Some players may flinch at its complexity and processing time, but connoisseurs of the period will recognize its brilliance. Rumored add-ons for other periods of the Roman Republic and Empire abound. If these rumors are true, then "Ave AGEOD!"
Armchair General Rating: 94%
About the Author
Jim Cobb has been playing board wargames since 1961 and computer wargames since 1982. He has been writing incessantly since 1993 to keep his mind off the drivel he dealt with as a bureaucrat. He has published in Wargamers Monthly, Computer Gaming World, Computer Games Magazine, Computer Games Online, CombatSim, Armchair General, Subsim, Strategyzone Online and Gamesquad