Monday, May 15, 2006

GMT's Carthage

We played the Hiero, Hero, or Gyro scenario (get it?). This is just the first two years of the First Punic War, played without the political and manpower rules. Rome has a couple legions in Italy, and Carthage and Syracuse have armies in Sicily. You want to control cities in Sicily to win. To do this, the Romans have to cross the Straits of Messana, probably against an opponent dug into the city.

I was impressed by the core system of Carthage just on reading the rules, and playing it was not disappointing. Every leader in the game has a certain number of markers in a cup. When you pick a marker, that leader gets to do something, ranging from marching and attacking through laying siege, recruiting, and sending out embassies. Every time you do something, you can roll to see if you get to go again; if you roll less than your campaign number (which is usually 5-7), you can take another action. This uncertainty about when your leaders are going to get to move and how much they can do feels both realistic in its managed uncertainty and gives the game a nice tension. Most leaders have a high enough campaign rating that you're usually going to be able to do a few things, but never as much as you'd like. I particularly liked how siege operations are handled: you've got choices between doing the dicey assault, spending time to wear down the walls and/or defenders, or trying for a lighting-stroke using guile (leaders have a wonderful "guile" stat which they can use in a few decisive ways, but the main one seems to be trying to take a city by treachery). Siege operations seem modeled at just the right level, with interesting player choices, at a nice balance point between playability and detail, and they fold into the chaotic land campaigning very nicely. Overall, we definitely struggled with the rules the first time out, but once we got going things started to play pretty smoothly. The core rules for the various actions (moving, fighting, sieging) are pretty clean, with the possible exception of the naval rules which felt a touch choppy.

So what's the downside here?

The problem is, this particular scenario was lousy. It's all about getting across the straits and fighting a battle in the Messana hex – if the Romans win that battle, they'll win, if they don't, they won't. The frontage over which they need to do this is, in fact, just the one hex wide straits. They need to roll a die to determine if one of their two armies can leave Italy; if they blow that die roll, their forces are cut in half. They need to roll dice to do the crossing. They need to get their markers picked before the Carthaginians/Syracusans pile in. There is no game here. It's nice to familiarize yourself with the system, but it's not a game.

The other two small scenarios (Agathocles and The Mercenary War) are not very appealing either. The Mercenary War doesn't look very interesting, and both have a reputation of being very unbalanced, a reputation that is enhanced both by the designer's own comments in the scenario descriptions and by the history of Berg's (along with Mark Herman's) other ancients series, SPQR (any takers for one of the scenarios from Veni, Vedi, Vici? How about Tricameron?).

So having been tempted by a play of Hiero, Hero, or Gyro that, while it wasn't technically "fun" per se, definitely made me want to play a "real" scenario, I am now facing down the 1st Punic War scenario. It looks cool. I think it would add even more interest to the game to be able to recruit my own legions, armies, and fleets, and to wrestle with the Carthaginian and Roman political rules.

It's 24 turns. It's threatening to consume 16+ hours of my life. I think I'd rather enjoy it.

I also think that it's unlikely to come to pass anytime soon, for the usual reason that most games that long don't get played: they take a really long time to play. I was rather taken with the Carthage system, even given the complexity (which, I should say, is only out of hand in a couple spots). If there were scenarios that were 6 hours to play, maybe 8 turns or so, I'd be all over that.

But there aren't. It's either the short scenarios that are toys or have every sign of having significant balance problems, or the monster. Which is a shame.


Addenda: I've griped about the rules differences between Rise of the Roman Republic and Carthage online, but I realize in retrospect that this may be unfair. My two favorite "operational" games, The Gamers Operational Combat Series and Avalon Hill/MMP's Great Campaigns of the American Civil War, both went through massive rules turmoil before finally settling down to be the great games they are today. Compared the differences between OCS 1.0 and 2.0, the differences between The Ancient World Vol. I and II are fairly minor.

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