Thursday, October 07, 2010

Hannibal: Rome and Carthage in the Second Punic War Review

Hannibal: Rome and Carthage in the Second Punic War, developed by Forced March Games and published by Matrix Games.
The Good: Require unique strategies for success, command structure necessitates planning ahead, random special ability cards, competent AI, extensive tutorials and game documentation, some battle strategy
The Not So Good: Unflinching difficulty at even the easiest setting, opaque combat calculations, can’t play as the Romans, no multiplayer
What say you? The odds are very much stacked against you in this outrageously difficult but quite distinctive turn-based strategy game 5/8

One of the creepiest movies of all time is The Silence of the Lambs. Transgender serial killers skinning women and dancing. Rubbing lotion on the skin. Screaming lambs. Fava beans. So when I heard that there was a computer game where you could play as Hannibal Lecter, I was pretty excited. Wait, what's that? Hannibal: Rome and Carthage in the Second Punic War isn't about that movie? It's a turn-based strategy game where you repel the Roman Empire in 200 BC? Oh. I see. Well, can I at least keep the fava beans?

Hannibal: Rome and Carthage in the Second Punic War takes place on a stylish 2-D map that evokes classic cartography of the era. By simply looking at the game, you can decipher the appropriate time period of the campaign, which is more than can be said for a lot of games. There is a nice level of detail without the map becoming too busy. Once you turn the appropriate icons on (which are, strangely, off by default), you can gauge unit strengths and city allegiances at a quick glance. While the game lacks a comprehensive list of all your forces, the map isn’t so large that you can’t simply find everyone. Generally, the interface makes things easy to access, although I wish the transition between elements occurred more quickly. The units occasionally have some small animations (the ships, most noticeably) that breathes a bit of life into the ancient world. My only issue is with the font, which can be hard to read (the symbol used for the letter “D” really threw me off) and can’t be changed. But this is a very minor complaint in an otherwise solid package. The sound design is well done, starting with period-appropriate background music that is subtle but pleasing. The effect for combining ships is confusing (it sounds like a battle is occurring), but otherwise Hannibal: Rome and Carthage in the Second Punic War uses appropriate effects that cue you in to in-game events. Overall, I was satisfied with the pleasing graphics and sound designs that Hannibal: Rome and Carthage in the Second Punic War brings to the table.

In Hannibal: Rome and Carthage in the Second Punic War, you lead the Carthaginians against the evil Roman Empire, taking command of their heroic leader Hannibal and eat the livers of census takers who try to test you (wait…that’s the movie again, isn’t it?). You will always play as Carthage, as the game doesn’t allow a human to play as the Romans. Granted, they have a much easier time at attaining victory, but the option would be quite nice for online or hotseat or play by e-mail games. Victory is attained by capturing Rome or earning more points after twenty turns. If you lose control of Carthage or Hannibal dies in battle, you automatically lose the game. The longest a game goes is twenty turns, so all of your games will take under an hour: a nice quick strategy game. While the objectives and starting conditions are always the same, each game does play different after first couple of turns: there are a lot of strategies to employ (defending Spain, attacking the Mediterranean islands) and the AI seems to react well to all of them. The main objective is to capture cities, as the provide additional troops to fuel your military. Terrain can also alter the game rules, preventing cavalry charges or inducing attrition on your troops as they pass through the mountains. Hannibal: Rome and Carthage in the Second Punic War features three difficulty levels, but even the easiest “introductory” level isn’t easy enough for me, for reason I will complain about later. The tutorials do a great job covering the basics of the game’s unique mechanics; the only thing I missed was how to move across the ocean. There is also in-game help and tips, a quick start guide, and full manual as well.

Groups must be lead by a leader, and only one leader can be moved at a time. Once a leader has moved and passed on command, he cannot move again during the same turn, a mechanic I like a lot as it forces you to plan ahead. Each leader is given a rating, clearly displayed on the leader icon, which adds a bonus during battles. Your armies are comprised of infantry and cavalry units of varying nationalities (which can affect their use and abilities). They are given explicit attack and defense ratings shown on their unit icons, making it easier to decide on the best troops for an engagement.

At the start of the game and after a significant victory, you are given an option card. These are neat and can be played during your turn; they grant things like more troops, attack bonuses during battle, extended moves (advancing more than one province per turn), or Senate influence. In addition, Hannibal a number of special abilities, such as retreating, surprise attacks, cavalry maneuvers, and avoiding mountain attrition. This is a nice board game mechanic that works well, giving Hannibal: Rome and Carthage in the Second Punic War a sense of randomness that offsets the same initial conditions found in each campaign.

Hannibal: Rome and Carthage in the Second Punic War doesn’t feature any fog of war, so you always know where the enemy is located. You can position your troops to intercept enemy units or float across the sea using naval transports. While amphibious landings are automatic if you hold the “ALT” key down, you are limited in the number of troops you can bring (usually three to five); this important information is buried in the abacus information panel, and I wish it was readily available on the main screen. You will need to conquer cities in order to get new recruits, and each province has different rules and different amounts of incoming troops to further complicate things. You will always get less than Rome, it seems, and the advantage the Roman Empire has should have been lessened even more than it is for the easiest difficulty setting as you are learning the game. When Rome raises ten troops in one turn to three of yours, what can you do? You will also have to worry about the Senate, who will only authorize combat operations in theaters (Spain, Italy, Corsica) it deems important.

Combat is inevitable, and Hannibal: Rome and Carthage in the Second Punic War offers a simple but still interesting battle mechanic. You get to choose eight of your troops for the front line, and through a magic system of magic, some units are destroyed and some units are routed. Where the strategies lies is in the fact that you get to choose which troops are permanently destroyed and which ones are temporarily routed, which makes for a far more interesting time. Once your choices are made, you add some more troops from your reserve on the front line (plays Hannibal can recover one routed unit per battle round) and keep at it until someone retreats (after two rounds of combat) or one side is completely routed or destroyed. Hannibal can also use option cards in open-field battles, which usually give a combat bonus to the front line troops for a turn or two: perfect for taking on larger numbers. My issue with the combat is that the game doesn’t tell you how it determined how many troops are routed and destroyed. When my army of eight superior troops lead by a competent general loses two units and a city garrison loses none, I’m left scratching my head: why? The game never tells you. I guess it’s luck, which should only go so far in determining a victor, and I feel that in Hannibal: Rome and Carthage in the Second Punic War it’s too significant of a factor. You can kind of figure out what the results will be in general, but there is still too much mystery for my tastes.

Hannibal: Rome and Carthage in the Second Punic War takes some solid game design and ruins it with impossible difficulty. I realize that Hannibal was up against incredible odds with the superior numbers the Romans had, but that doesn’t mean sticking to this historical accuracy would be fun at all difficulty levels. For “hard”? Sure, that’s appropriate, but not for “easy”. The impossible odds means luck is required for victory: you must get lucky and win some dice rolls to stand any chance against the troop producing machine that is the Roman Empire. If you lose one battle, you might as well quit and restart: you can’t possibly out-produce the Romans, so continuing after a loss is a futile effort. While Hannibal can take on superior numbers out in the field, he is much less effective at city siege (since he can’t use option cards), but that's what you have to do for a lot of the game in order to get more troops to replace the ones the dice rolls deemed disposable. You also can't persuade the Roman troops out of their superior defensive positions, even after taking some of their land. You also can't possibly defend everything (by design), so it’s a matter of striking the right provinces at the right time, and catching the Romans off-guard. Unfortunate for Hannibal, the Roman AI rarely does anything stupid, executing good plans and maneuvering the troops in appropriate areas of the campaign map. The AI also plays each game a bit differently (apart from the first turn), so you can’t count on the same plan coming from the AI. While this is fantastic from a gaming perspective, it adds to the already significant level of difficulty Hannibal: Rome and Carthage in the Second Punic War forces on you: it certainly doesn’t help that the Romans are given a lot of troops and the AI is smart about using them. I realize that a difficult game is kind of the point, but there is a difference between being challenging but fair and difficult but unfair, and Hannibal goes on the wrong side of the equation, even on “easy”.

Hannibal: Rome and Carthage in the Second Punic War has a lot of interesting ideas, so the extreme level of difficulty comes as a significant disappointment. There are a host of unique mechanics that makes this strategy title stand out: allowing you to only move one leader at a time is great at mandating forward thinking, and option cards give you a lot of strategies to try out along the way. Battles are a nice diversion from map-based conquest, and while there are some nice decisions regarding routed and destroyed units, I wish the results were more clearly described to the user to see why a city garrison routed my eight-unit stack of superior infantry. The tutorials are comprehensive and the games are short (really short if you lose quickly as I tended to do) and the AI is quite the opponent, almost negating the lack of human opponents (almost). But it’s the difficulty that, for me, is the deterrent. How can I recommend a game that I can rarely beat on “easy”? You’ll try Hannibal: Rome and Carthage in the Second Punic War for a handful of games, get fed up with the difficulty, and never play again, which is frustrating because there are a number of interesting and unique features that beg for further investigation. It seems like the only path to victory is pure luck in battle results, or the Romans doing something stupid (which rarely happens). All the developers needed to do was decrease Roman production levels on the easiest setting and Hannibal: Rome and Carthage in the Second Punic War would have been much more enjoyable to players of all skill levels. Constant losing gets quite tiresome after a while, no matter how intriguing some of the game mechanics might be.