Birth of Rome – PC Game Review
Passed Inspection: Great graphics, fine AI, exquisite historical detail, fascinating scenarios
Failed Basic: Steep learning curve, long processing time for older computers, small font
Rome’s expansion was like a snowball rolling down a steep hill; small and slow at first with velocity and size growing exponentially. Rome needed approximately three hundred years to secure the Italian peninsula but only half that time to conquer the Mediterranean basin and Western Europe. While AGEOD’s first Roman era game, Alea Jacta Est, covered the civil wars of a mature Rome, the stand-alone prequel, Birth of Rome, covers what can be called a tipping point. In 296 BC, Rome was a major regional power but was faced with powers of equal might. Can the AGE engine handle the subtle and not-so-subtle differences between this earlier period and the civil war era?
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Familiar Yet …
Terrain graphics, interface and game mechanics are the same in Birth of Rome as in the earlier game (Click to see Jim Cobb’s review of Alea Jacta Est on ArmchairGeneral.com). Suffice it to say, these features are attractive, accessible and historically accurate. Game mechanics are so similar between the two games that the manuals and tutorial scenarios are the same. The challenge graphically is to represent the varying equipment and armor of so many types of troops. Not even the Romans had standardized apparel within the main lines of the maniple, with hastati, principes and triarii appearing very different from each other. Throw in the Samnites and four other Italian peoples, the Celts, the Greeks and Carthage’s polyglot of mercenaries and one could almost accept a standardized “the other guys” troop graphic. The crew at AGEOD did not take the easy way out; instead, they provided a detailed, accurate picture and game values for all troop types. The only “fudge” is giving all Roman legions an eagle standard when the eagle only became universal with the Marian reforms of 106 BC.
Other new graphics appear in the military, diplomatic and decisions displays. These line drawings reflect the clothing and furniture of the period. The pop-up displays of scenario events also have similar era feel. The font on tooltips remains a bit small for comfort.
Citizen Soldiers, Amateur Generals
In order to understand the quirks in the scenarios, the basic structure of the Roman state and military of the period should be clarified. The Republic had attained its stable form and the Camillan military reforms had been instituted. These reforms were a response to the long and only partially successful Samnite wars. The phalanx was replaced by the more flexible maniple, the pike by the throwing spear, pilum, and the short, stabbing sword, gladus. The circular shield, long a hallmark of the phalangeal system, was replaced by the tall, oblong scutum. The ranks of the legions were still filled by citizen levies but pay had been adopted to recompense the farmer-soldiers on long campaigns away from home. Troop requirements were also met by a uniquely Roman policy. When a tribe or town had been defeated, the Romans granted the entity one of three levels of citizenship. Citizenship came with rights and privileges but also the obligation to provide troops when Rome beckoned. This system of socii assured Rome of an almost unending pool of manpower.
However, Rome had a serious flaw: leadership at the top. Every year, two consuls were elected with each leading two independent legionary forces. These men were politicians and, although they had some military training and experience, they were not elected on the merits of command capability. Thus, Roman leadership, a crucial component in the AGE system, goes through a pot-luck change of command annually with a few talented men appearing only to be offset by many mediocrities. No highly gifted officers of the ilk seen in Alea Jacta Est appear. Players may choose to alleviate this problem by appointing a praetor to command smaller forces or, if matters have become critical, appointing a dictator. These appointments cost sparse Engagement Points. Players should rely more on units gaining experience so salty centurions can save their commanders’ bacon.
Scenarios in Birth of Rome
Birth of Rome comes with six scenarios, although the First Punic War is divided into a full, long scenario and an abridged one. (Additionally, version 1.02a will bring up the seven Alea Jacta Est scenarios when Birth of Rome is booted with the earlier game present.) The scenarios span from 296 BC to 227 BC and can last from 31 monthly turns to 284 turns with a nice spread of lengths in between. Victory or defeat usually requires playing until the end unless an exceptionally skilled or inept player triggers an automatic victory or defeat. Each scenario comes with an introduction explaining the broad strategies for both sides.
The first scenario, the Third Samnite War, may be the most important for Roman expansion. The Samnites were a rugged mountaineer clan with settlements on the east coast of Italy and immediately south of Roman territory. Their economy was centered on plundering Roman territory, an activity they excelled at. Their mobility and ferocity had humbled Rome several times. In the scenario, the Romans must take the main enemy territories in the east, apparently a simple enough operation except that it calls for crossing the Apennine Mountains. Once across, Roman forces can be blocked there while Samnites ravage the lands to the west. Roman weakness can spur her other enemies to join the war so Roman strategy should initially be to take low-hanging fruit on their side of the mountains in a war of attrition. Samnite strategy should be hit-and-run while coaxing other tribes to enter the fray.
The second scenario, the Ager Gallicus campaign, is almost a throwback to the times of raids and counter-raids. A Celtic tribe that was an ally of the Samnites did not accept the peace and continued to despoil Roman territory. The Celts have a fine time pillaging and looting cities in the early turns, but Rome cranks up the machine and takes the Celtic home land.
Pyrrhic Victories represent the Roman conquest of the Greek cities on the southern coast of the Italian peninsula. Unfortunately, King Pyrrhus arrives with a large army from Greece, and he is as tough as the histories say he was. The early game has Pyrrhus using slow and bad Roman commanders as punching bags. The Romans’ only hope is to wear him down, build a blockading fleet, have at least one movement force to take a few towns and keep recruiting sword fodder. At the end of the game, Pyrrhus may take his hoplites and go home.
The long First Punic War scenario begins with Rome virtually unprepared. They have no fleet, only a tiny toehold at Messina in Sicily where Carthage and Syracusian Greeks rule, and absolutely nothing in North Africa. Rome’s only ace is a one-time trick to walk across the Straits of Messina. Rome must build, build and build to take out Syracuse, neutralize the Carthaginian navy and get troops into North Africa. Carthage can win a quick victory by taking Messina but is handicapped by the quality of her troops; otherwise, Rome’s persistence will prevail.
The short Punic War scenario begins halfway through the full war. Rome has a fleet and has developed the quadreme. Half of Sicily is Roman and a Roman army is near Carthage. Rome holds most of the cards while Carthage merely tries to hold on.
The last scenario has very little to do with Rome. After losing the First Punic War, Carthage couldn’t pay her mercenaries. In a tradition lasting through the ages, the mercs get riled and decide to take payment in kind by plundering cities and provinces, even threatening Carthage itself. Carthage must find a reliable army while sacrificing babies to Baal. This scenario is just fun and quirky.
Played on a machine capable of Windows 7, the old complaint of slow load times for the turns disappears. Replay is guaranteed not only by PBEM capabilities but also by the fact that armies start in slightly different places with the booting of new games. The variety of nations, troop types, situations and options make Birth of Rome more interesting than Alea Jacta Est. With more add-ons coming, this series will have a long and fascinating run.
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.