Rome at War: Fading Legions – Boardgame Review
I’m a fan of ancient warfare. Since my days in high school and college, I’ve been sending miniature Persians and Byzantines across tabletops and into the teeth of Roman legions, Japanese samurai, and Indian elephants. I love the raw nature of these kinds of battles: Men (and some women if you’re fighting the ancient Khmer of Cambodia) with spears and swords, pike and pilum, lined up across from each other on a deserted field… and had at it. Their military technology extended as far as the power of their arms. So when I was given the opportunity to review Avalanche Press’s most recent release in their Rome at War series, I jumped at the chance.
Rome at War: Fading Legions (Avalanche Press) covers the battles of Rome and it enemies of the 4th Century AD. As luck would have it, this period of history is one of my favorites. I’ve always been a fan of time periods of great change in the world, and this was one of them. Rome, in all it gluttonous, over-extended glory, was finally succumbing to its internal strife, and to the so-called "barbarians" at its gates. The Germans, The Goths, and the Sassanid Persians, were all making in-roads into the Roman state. The bully-on-the-block was finally getting smacked around. Rome would, in time, divide its holdings into East and West, and would ultimately fall. The Byzantines would rise, Islam would take hold in the Middle East and Africa , and the world would change. So is the backdrop on which this game resides.
The structure of Fading Legions is straight-forward. The game itself centers on a series of tactical battles between Roman and it enemies. There are 11 scenarios total, ranging from the battle of Argentoratum (Germanic tribes) to Maranga (Persians), and finally to the well-known Adrianople, where the Goths virtually annihilated the Eastern Roman army. The "sequence of play" is simple. Players first determine any weather conditions that might affect the upcoming turn, then they check scenario notes to see if they receive reinforcements. Then they check to see if all of their combat units are within range of their commanders. Then they each roll dice to determine who will move first in the turn. Once initiative is determined, players go back and forth activating commanders and moving and fighting with units until both players "pass" in turn. Then a new turn begins. Play continues until victory conditions within the scenario are met.
Players are each given a scenario booklet that details every battle, and indicates the number and types of units he/she will field. There are three paper maps of equal size, divided into odd-shaped and numbered boxes where the units are placed. Units are represented by cardboard counters: commanders and light/skirmish infantry are small squares, legions and phalanxes are larger rectangles.
The combat system is simple as well. Units move into contact with enemy units, and either conduct charges, close assaults, or fire ranged weapons. Players count up the total combat strength of all units involved in the battle, and roll an equal number of dice. For every 6 rolled (this number can be modified), a hit is scored. Hits are taken in so-called "step" damage, where an injured unit is flipped to its opposite side. Some units have only one step of damage before they are eliminated from combat entirely; some can take up to 4 steps of damage before elimination. Combat proceeds along these lines until victory is determined.
Like most Avalanche Press games, the components of Fading Legions are excellent, especially the unit counters. They are colorful and very easy to read and use. The maps are a little bare, but they too serve their purpose well. Where the components falter a little is on the rules booklet. The book is 16-pages of heavy text with few graphical examples of play. There are few examples at all, in fact, and this is always a problem for me, especially given the technology available to game studios these days. The lack of examples makes finding and absorbing rules difficult. Also, there is no reference sheet/card provided, so one must constantly jump around to ensure that he is not missing anything in the combat procedure or in the way command-and-control is handled. Indeed, the game isn’t very difficult and it doesn’t require enormous study, but a few more aides would have been helpful.
The historical research that went into this game seems complete, and I enjoyed reading the pre- and post-history of the battles. The scenario booklets themselves are well done.
In the final analysis, however, I found Fading Legions a little bland. Though I liked the Persian scenarios the best, the overall gameplay left me wanting: Players simply line up their units on an empty field and attack each other. The maps are so small that there’s little room for maneuver, and the number of options within a given action phase is small. Granted, a lot of ancient battles were fought this way, but with the rise of card-driven systems, and ancient miniatures systems that provide more compelling command-and-control and maneuver options, Fading Legions tends to fade from memory.
Persons who really like this period of Roman military history may find some measure of enjoyment in Fading Legions. Alas, I did not.
Robert has been in the gaming business for over 12 years, serving as the editor for Avalon Hill’s THE GENERAL magazine, and as a writer, designer, and producer for Stanley Associates, Interactive Magic, and Talonsoft. He currently works for BreakAway Games, and is also an assistant editor for the horror and fantasy magazine Weird Tales.