Hegemony Gold: Wars of Ancient Greece – PC Game Review
Hegemony Gold: Wars of Ancient Greece. PC Game Review. Developer & Publisher: Longbow Games. $29.99
Passed Inspection: Hegemony works best when it’s trying to tell a story, be it the rise of Philip of Macedon, or the wars between Athens and Sparta. Few games I’ve played give the player such a thorough tutorial. Satisfying period battles with flexible unit formation, and a clever logistics systems make this a must-play for RTS and board gamers alike.
Failed Basic: The game does not lend itself to either play-by-email or online play. To shoe-horn that in would change the game fundamentally. If this is something you are looking for, take a pass. If you enjoy single-player games, though, look no further as replayability can be found here in the Sandbox Mode.
In the waning hours of my Saturday at GenCon I began my ritual stroll along the fringe of the vendor floor. Here, among the steampunk-goggle peddlers, LARP outfitters, and the high end dwarf-centric oil painters I stumbled across the small, unassuming booth of one Longbow Games. After introducing myself to their lead programmer, Rob McConnell, I found a copy of their game, Hegemony Gold: Wars of Ancient Greece, eagerly pressed into my hand. I tucked it away in my Bag of Holding and, frankly, forgot about it for a few weeks
When I had fully recovered from missed work and family, I booted Hegemony up and was patently stunned. You see, I hate real-time strategy (RTS) games. I hate them with the red hot passion of a thousand flaming suns. The spastic click-fests eat at me in a way that I cannot politely communicate. But this game hooked me, and I think it might just hook you as well.
Longbow’s 2D artist Britt-Lise Newstead creates stylish paintings in Photoshop. She demoed the process live at GenCon. You can see it on her blog at daestwen.blogspot.com.
The first campaign in Hegemony starts small. You play as Philip of Macedon and must bring order to your corner of the Ionian peninsula. To do so you will be asked to protect farms from raids and hunt down two-bit usurpers to the throne. The right side of the user interface holds a task list, giving you the steps to complete in achieving your goals. Open a mine, stop a fire, cut off a party of raiders … check, check, and check.
But click a link in the task list and up pops the tutorial’s help window, itself embedded with links to the in-game manual, itself studded with historical tidbits and helpful strategic information. Float along the surface of this tutorial and move quickly toward your objectives, or dive deeper into the literature to be rewarded with meaty bits of information and advice. And all along the blessed pause button is at your service so things don’t get out of hand on the game map. In such a way did Hegemony squelch my RTS agita and earn my respect. But how well did it function as a simulation of ancient Greek warfare?
Grognards know that the particular type of warfare waged during the Hellenistic period was a brutal, bloody affair. Philip, and later his son Alexander, equipped their mainline troops with an 18-foot-long spear called the sarissa. They formed these troops up into a box, called a phalanx, which enabled row after row of heavy infantry to employ their sarissa at the same time in the same direction. A battle line of infantry so deployed could engage an enemy formation and hold it in place, while cavalry destroyed the enemy in detail. Think of it as a more up-close and personal type of fire and maneuver warfare: fix the enemy and then flank them.
Games which deal with a similar time period take two differing approaches to modeling this type of warfare. Civilization calls for a player to stack up the largest pile of units and then push them forward relentlessly, while the Total War franchise seeks to delve into the minutia of every unit variation and capability up to and including flaming farm animals. Hegemony takes the middle road.
A small set of unit types are available to the player, namely phalangites, hoplites, light infantry, and cavalry. Each has their purpose, clearly explicated to the player in the documentation. The key to using them is neither overwhelming numbers nor tedious micro-management, but proper planning and timing. Scout for the enemy with specialized light cavalry, harass them with light infantry to keep them guessing. Then carefully form battlelines of hoplites and phalangites and march them into the field so that they must be dealt with. Engage the enemy on the place of your choosing, not theirs, and crush them with well-planned flanking maneuvers.
The unit models on the 3D map in Hegemony are not going to bowl you over with their graphical complexity. Soldiers carry a variety of shields, and their animations are varied enough to give battles a gritty realism from afar, but that breaks down on close inspection. Eventually what you get is a clot of models scrumming together, their movements obscured by blatant clipping issues.
What impressed me the most about these models was not their appearance, but the flexibility of their formations. Click on a unit and you are given eight “handles” by which to change their shape. Drag the sides and you can create long marching columns, thin skirmish lines, or densely-packed phalanxes. Grab a corner and wheel the entire formation around a central axis. Unpause the game and your bronze-studded warriors smartly parade around and precisely follow your orders. With multiple units side by side I found myself pausing and unpausing the game to slightly adjust my army’s spacing as it closed with the enemy. To have a breach in the lines can allow an enemy to flank individual units and blunt your advance, or shatter it entirely.
A group of Macedonian phalangites, in a column to march through the narrow ravine at the top of the screen, is commanded to form up and spread itself wider to meet the advance of the enemies below. The “handles” are clearly shown in green and allow you to stretch and turn the formation.
Greek armies, like any other, march on their bellies, and I was very much impressed by Hegemony’s logistics model. That is a topic for another column entirely, but what enables that model as well as others within the game is the sublimely crafted world map that informs players while simultaneously helping them cope with its huge scale.
The Total War series is, to this day, critiqued for its cumbersome and flat macro layer, which it sacrifices (in terms of design effort) in favor of spending more time achieving the fidelity of the 3D battlefields it creates. Conversely, Civilization (and to some extent, Mount and Blade) exist strategically in this macro layer alone and provide the player with complex, grand-strategy gameplay atop a rich 3D map. Hegemony’s world map is completely abstracted out to resemble a board game, and takes the form of an ink drawing on parchment paper. The cities, leaders, and units in play are depicted here as brightly colored pawns. Objectives take the form of ceremonial pillars, and garrisoned units are represented by chits piled beneath city tokens.
Playing the game on the massive world map is a completely different experience than the 3D battlefields, and communicates information to the player more quickly, and more effectively, because of the design decisions that Longbow has made. Zooming between these two views is not only necessary, but seamless and enjoyable for the player. Far away Philip’s pawn is a massive thing that commands the region of the map it is placed in, but as you zoom in and down, through a mist, the world becomes a rolling place of hills and rushing water, zones of influence stretching around walled cities, and Philip is just a single man on a single horse.
The World Map is styled like a board game. Here you see a flock of sheep outside Eleusis, which has no garrison. To the northeast sits Athens, with a whole stack of forces kept on hand to repel invaders. Roll the mouse wheel…
… and the game engine seamlessly zooms into the 3D tactical map. Athens sits along the coast, it’s sphere of influence ranging out into the ocean, triremes docked along its port and more on the way from the northeast. That same flock of sheep sits along the lower edge of the screen, gently grazing outside the smaller city of Eleusis.
The other elements that add to the overall polish of the game are the sound and the cut-scene art. Middleware licensed from Shinyo Interactive Audio, combined with some great foley work by Stefan Fratrecelli, creates a soundstage that is dynamically affected by the level of zoom and the situations on screen. From great distances the low base of marching units keeps pace as the martial music rises. As they zoom in the player is rewarded with the deep pound of thousands of armored feet and the clank of wood on metal, amid the ambient sounds of the natural world at rest. Insects, birds, and sheep give way to armies on the move and men crying out in anguish.
While I was surprised to see a hardcore RTS game on the floor at GenCon, after a few hours playing Hegemony it all began to make sense. This game could just as easily be an impossibly complex Advanced Squad Leader set in ancient Greece, a massive plastic game board with hundreds of cardboard chits and reams of documentation. But it uses the technology at its disposal to enhance the user experience, to ease the player into the artifice of the gameplay. In so doing it takes a complex ruleset and makes it transparent to the player. And that’s the most we can ask of any great wargame.
Armchair General Ranking: 93%
A demo of the game may be found here: http://www.longbowgames.com/hegemony/buy/
About the Author
By night Charlie Hall is a writer for Gamers With Jobs and Armchair General. His relevant interests range from pen-and-paper role playing games, to board games and electronic games of all types. By day he is a writer for CDW Government LLC. Follow him on Twitter @TheWanderer14, or send him hate mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. He, his wife, and daughter make their home in far northern Illinois. This summer you can find him crouched over his newly built PC, or prowling the vendor floor at GenCon in Indianapolis digging up new and exciting games to play and stories to write.