Ancient Battle Rome – iOS Game Review
Passed Inspection: Varied and colorful graphics, passable AI, good interface, challenging missions, great price, compatible with iPhones and iPods
Failed Basic: Incomplete documentation, unable to change formation, locked missions, no multi-play
Hunted Cow Studios and Hexwar have used the same engine for four games: Tank Battles: 1944, Tank Battles: North Africa, Civil War1863 and Civil War 2 1862. All are good, enjoyable games with a nice combination of abstraction and history. However, is the system flexible enough to reach back two millennia and cover ancient battles? Can it do better than Total War: Rome II? Skeptics can be excused a raised eyebrow.
In Ancient Battle: Rome 40 hex-based, high-definition 2D maps show terrain in Italy, Gaul, Germania and Asia Minor with hexes representing about one kilometer. The natural features include streams, fords, lakes, shores, forests, scrub, rocky ground, plateaus and desert. Man-made structures are represented by roads, bridges, camps, ditches and field works. These characteristics are not only clear and pleasing but have definite effects on game play. If the maps were zoomable as well as scrollable, the scenery would be even better.
However, the real excitement in this game’s graphics lies in the units. The game boasts of 37 unique units but that’s only half the accomplishment. What is astonishing is that the units depict the garb and physical characteristics of their nationality or tribe. Hence, the birds-eye view of Roman heavy infantry shows legionaries in clean lornica armor and clean-shaven while the trousered Gauls have large shields and wild hair. Showing units this way is a feat as many armies had auxiliaries from regions different from the primary side. Few games other than HPS’ Ancient War series have shown such detail.
Unit counters are stylized by type and size. Huge pike formations are represented by nine figures and heavy infantry by eight or seven. Medium infantry (spearmen, warbands) have five or six icons while light infantry (archers, javelin throwers, slingers) only have three figures. Cavalry formations are even smaller with four, three or two figures per category. These sizes are comparative for strength as the actual number of men could have been hundreds for some combat types. With the exception of light troops, all icons are shown as linear and columnar. Special units such as generals, catapults, wagons, elephants, regular chariots and scythed chariots are represented as single figures. Sexy as some of these units are, their impact on play isn’t crucial. Still, they’re fun to see. Chevrons indicate unit experience: white for raw, two gold for veteran and three gold for elite.
Animation tops off the graphic show. Infantry marches in step while horses rear and prance. Arrows, javelins, and pilum fly through the air. The capes of commanders flow behind them. Catapult boulders make a definite impact! Casualties die grasping their chests and vehicles fall to pieces. Accompanying sounds such as the clash of steel, whizzing arrows, and horses’ neighs add verisimilitude. The tramping of unseen feet during the enemy’s turn is particularly unnerving.
Learning the game is made easy by a fourteen-slide primer and an eight-battle tutorial campaign ending in an episode from the Alesia siege. An in-game help function explains friendly and enemy forces for each specific battle and how they compare to each other. Unexplained are parts of the optional Combat Analysis and the yellow-shaded hexes that are on an attack path.
Touching the Eagles
The basic interface for movement and combat is simple: touching a unit brings up white-bordered hexes as possible destinations, and enemies available for attack are shown in orange hexes. Two new additions to Hunted Cow’s color-coding are green hexes that increase unit movement by one hex if the unit is four hexes distant from an enemy and a yellow hex adjacent to an enemy that can be attacked. The purpose of the yellow hex is not documented but indicates the direction (hexes) from which a charging unit can enter melee—useful if you want to strike a flank or protect your own flank and rear. Units cannot be stacked with the exception of commanders who can be stacked with a unit via a button on the upper left of the screen, giving that unit and adjacent unit a combat bonus.
Combat is elegant. By categorizing units as heavy, medium and light, Ancient Battles: Rome avoids the common mistake of making the parts of maniples or cohorts (hastati, princeps, etc) separate units. Instead, each unit performs historically, e.g. a cohort will throw its pilum at the enemy before going in with the sword. Light and mobile units, marked with a three-pronged fan, can retreat before attacks once per turn. The attacking units may then plow into nearby enemies instead. Missile units can either shoot or move and then shoot, allowing “shoot and scoot” tactics. Missile units also have buttons to choose between fire and melee combat. Units always advance into an eliminated unit’s hex, leaving the winner open to flanking counterattacks so victories can indeed be Pyrrhic.
Combat is also very bloody. Units start with strength and power levels ranging from ten to eight. When attacking weaker enemies, even a tough legionary unit will usually lose points. Terrain and fortifications can make some scrawny formations into giants. No battle is truly assured but a new element in the series, the toggable Combat Analysis, shows modifiers for unit category comparison, experience, armor, command bonus, flanking and terrain. Possible outcomes may be shown here via swords but documentation is missing. Missing from combat are formations and disruption due to terrain or combat, features that are present in the other games using this system.
All of this action comes in the two campaigns that are bundled with the base game: Italia, which covers the latter half of Caesar’s civil wars, and Gallia, which deals with Caesars conquest of Gaul. Italia is a slight misnomer as battles are fought in Spain and other places. Available add-ons are actions in Britannia, Germania and against Pontus in Asia Minor. Here, Boadicea can kick some Roman hindquartersm and Herman gives Varius a guided tour of the Teutoberger Wald. Planned add-ons are Parthia and “Terra Incognito.” Each campaign is playable from both sides. Campaigns consist of eight locked missions, each harder than the previous one. The three difficulty levels only differ in the number of enemy forces—the word “horde” comes to mind for the hardest level. The goals of battles are to hold out for a certain number of turns, destroy a percent of the enemy while keeping friendly forces above a percent, taking control points to gain reinforcements and keeping a general alive. These goals are different or mixed for each battle.
An amount of replay is a given through the number of battles and difficulty levels. However, this series cries out for both hotseat and game center play. Hopefully, such functions will be added.
Ancient Battle: Rome proves the clever design can beat bloated, expensive and inaccurate games. Hunted Cow Studios is showing the way to accessible tablet games. AB:R is for iOS 5+.
Armchair General Rating: 84%
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.