Sunday, September 04, 2005

Tin Soldiers: Julius Caesar Review

Tin Soldiers: Julius Caesar PC, developed by Koios Works and published by Matrix Games.
The Good: Strategic elements, tabletop feel, relatively simple to learn, togas
The Not So Good: Poor sound effects, no multiplayer matchmaking, very deliberate pace
What say you? A protracted but engrossing turn-based Roman strategy game: 6/8

Computers are wonderful: they can replace having real relationships with other people! A branch of this positive aspect is that computers can replace opponents in a variety of games, if you cannot find anyone that wants to play, say, a tabletop wargame (and who wouldn’t?). Thankfully, all the grognards out there are covered, as numerous wargame simulations have inserted artificial intelligence where real intelligence could not be found. Tin Soldiers: Julius Caesar is a computer simulation of a tabletop wargame, where two opposing sides move pieces around a game board, roll dice, and see who is the better strategist.

Tin Soldiers: Julius Caesar fulfills the goal of accurately simulating a tabletop board game. All of the units in the game are computer renders of board game miniatures, complete with color-coded base. The maps don’t have a completely convincing 3-D diorama feel, and seems more like a 2-D texture applied to a flat surface. The game has little touches which attempt to further convey the board game feel, such as a hand descending and removing fallen pieces: this is a nice touch, but gets old after the first or second game, especially since it takes so long. The music in the game is very well done; it seems that background music is something that wargames excel in, and Tin Soldiers: Julius Caesar is no exception. Of course, to balance this, the sound effects are very sparse and underwhelming: aside from the occasional troop movement effect and repetitive combat sound, you won’t find much else in the audio department in Tin Soldiers: Julius Caesar.

Tin Soldiers: Julius Caesar’s main feature is a campaign mode, where you can choose from a selection of battles to take and spend money on additional troops or buy strategy cards, which are special bonuses that can be used during battle, such as giving better accuracy or damage to your archers. The campaign mode looks and feels like a quick add-on to the game, just as a way to loosely tie together the individual battles you will fight. There isn’t any strategy in choosing which battles to play, and limited tactics in deciding where to allocate your funds. You will definitely not find a deep campaign mode found in other games such as Rome: Total War. You can choose to play the fourteen campaign battles individually, which really renders the campaign totally useless, except for the strategy cards. If you have friends over a network, multiplayer games are available.

Tin Soldiers: Julius Caesar is a turn-based strategy game, and each game day is divided into 15-minute turns, each of which is further divided into three 5-minute phases. The first phase is the command phase, where orders are assigned to each of your units. The first aspect of your units to keep track of is the direction that they are facing. They can only attack units that are in front of them (either directly or at a slight angle), and huge negative bonuses are found when units are attacked from the side or behind. You can change the direction your units are facing, but this counts as your only move during the command phase. I’m undecided as to whether the unit’s facing should be automated or not. If enemy units are approaching from the left, would real military units automatically change the direction they are facing to better engage the enemy? Of course, in Tin Soldiers: Julius Caesar, all of the actions of your units must be given to them explicitly, so automatic facing doesn’t really fit in this game anyway. Your units can, obviously, move around the map; however, each square on the map can only be occupied by one unit at a time, so if many units are present on a small map, the battles can move slowly. Of course, units can attack the enemy, either by using melee attacks on adjacent units, or missile units on units further away; which attack they use is dependent of what kind of unit they are. Units can be ordered to charge the enemy, which provides bonuses, which are positive or negative, depending on the relative quality of the unit they are charging. If you need to get out of there, units can retreat, which is a combination of a backwards move and a 180-degree facing switch. After the Command Phase, certain units can be issued new orders in the Reaction Phase. To be offered the Reaction Phase, a unit must have pushed an attacked unit back, have its movement blocked, attacked an unoccupied space (such as a missile attack on a unit that moved out of range), or an archer that has an enemy unit move next to it. This is essentially a replacement for reactive AI in the game, so decisions that would be made by the computer in most games are to be made by the player in Tin Soldiers: Julius Caesar. Again, the level of micromanagement you can stand determines whether you’ll like this feature or not. The final phase is the Reserve Phase; if units were given a reserve order, they can perform an order here. There is some strategy to keeping units in reserve, as since they can move last, you can counteract the enemy moves made in the previous phases.

The number of attacks a unit can make is determined by its size: small units can attack once per stand, medium units twice, and large units four times. A successful damage reduces the enemy by one step, and once five steps of damage are received, the stand is eliminated. Essentially, since the units are eliminated very slowly, the gameplay is very drawn out. A single round takes an excruciatingly long time and requires a lot of patience. Usually, each map has at least two objectives, usually a defend point and a counter-attack point. Accomplishing both of these objectives requires moving across the map, and if you want to keep your units in some sort of arrangement, even moving can be a real hassle, since some units can only move one square per turn. You really don’t want to separate your units, since they will be picked off individually, so keeping your units in straight lines is advantageous. Each unit has a leader, which appear to be based on historical figures with headshots that may or may not be accurate. The leaders can provide bonuses (again, positive or negative) in combat and morale. Each unit has a training level along with dynamic morale, which can be analyzed to maximize your army’s effectiveness.

Tin Soldiers: Julius Caesar is an interesting game to evaluate. I do like the overall combat model, although it’s been done in some form or another in other wargames. Personally, I like more automation in my strategy game, so determining the individual facing of each of my units is not my cup of tea, but it is for some. The historical touches show that a good amount of research was done in assessing the units and leaders in the game. The game does successfully express the board game feel through the use of simulated units. The battles take a long, long, long time, so patience is a needed commodity. Overall, I am just not singularly impressed by any one aspect of the game. Usually, I can find something that makes a game stand out, but Tin Soldiers: Julius Caesar is just slightly above average in most categories. The game isn’t bad, but it’s not outstanding. I wasn’t infuriated by playing Tin Soldiers: Julius Caesar, but I didn’t really want to keep playing either. The game might interest those looking for a simple historic turn-based strategy game, but Tin Soldiers: Julius Caesar is not at the top of the strategy heap.