Review: Ancient Battle: Rome

Cut off!

Over the river and through the woods.

With Ancient Battle: Rome, Hunted Cow has brought us their fourth hex wargame for iOS in less than two years — suggesting that Walter White is running the company snack shop up there in Scotland. Each game in the parade has steadily improved their formulation of turn-based combat in turn.

The previous three games in the Hex War series for iOS (Tank Battle: 1944, Civil War: 1863, and Tank Battle: North Africa) were good but definitely short of great, like songs that come on Spotify that don’t quite impel you to hit the “thumbs-up” button but don’t incur the wrath of the “next track” button either — and to be sure, each one was better than its predecessor.

Jumping in at the end of Hunted Cow’s wargame conga line is Ancient Battle: Rome, a game that continues the Hex War trend of steady improvement and (naturally) is the best game of the series so far — all because it adds just a dash of tactical depth and complexity.

The secret sauce that the Hex War games have been needing from the beginning was numbers. In recent game design thinking, everybody wants to hide numbers the way you stash that Commander Data statuette into your nightstand drawer when you think you might be bringing a date home tonight. Ancient Battle: Rome has the confidence to leave the numbers right out where you can see them — if you want to.

Swot up.

Numbers, beautiful numbers.

Wargames are the numbers. Not the scary “get out your graphing calculator and cyanide tablets” numbers from school, but numbers that tell a story. A story like, “It’s probably not the best idea to charge this cavalry maniple uphill into these spearmen.” Or, “My light infantry have a chance against the legionaries if we pin them and hit their flank.”

Ancient Battle: Rome has a combat engine that takes into account terrain, unit facing, experience, and armor and weapon types. It’s possible that the previous Hex War games had all this stuff baked in, but with the numbers banished to some unseen Naughty Corner you wouldn’t know. Because revealing the underlying numbers is entirely optional, maths-o-phobes can play it as a casual wargame on one of the lower of the three difficulty settings, leaving the crunchy stuff to those who would seek it out.

There are other concessions that Rome makes to contemporary gaming sensibilities. Touching the screen accelerates the animation of units, minimizing the inherent sluggishness of turn-based play — a decidedly good trick that Space Hulk would do well to adopt when it makes the jump to iOS. This works while the AI is playing, too.

Those new mechanics are put to work across 16 scenarios, which can be played from either side. One campaign follows Caesar’s exploits in Gaul, another his battles in the Roman Civil war against Pompey. The scenarios are absolutely excellent. Most of them take place on sizeable battlefields that give you some modest room to manoeuvre and work the terrain to your advantage. The AI is convincingly tough, too — there’s one battle I’m still thinking about where the Gauls managed to cut off part of my line and then destroyed it in detail. I will have my revenge, Gauls. Once you’ve had your fill of those campaigns, there’s two more (Britannia and Germany) available as DLC at a dollar each.

Ya jerks.

What do you mean, “badly led?” That last battle wasn’t my fault.

The game makes a solid effort at historical accuracy, with reasonably authentic units populating both sides. One area where the game might be a touch too realistic is the size of the maps relative to the size of the armies: it’s a bit of a tight squeeze. The maps are big, but the armies you’re directing are pretty enormous themselves, so your units are effectively caged to a relatively small number of movement options. You’re not going to be making drastic changes in your formation to do Scipio’s Manoeuvre here, but that lack of mobility is also fairly faithful to the warfare of the day, and doesn’t prevent the game from generating some dramatic outcomes.

Ancient Battle: Rome is a satisfying strategy experience that’s easy to recommend. it’s a bit ugly — the graphics seem to be a step back from Civil War: 1863, for some reason — and the close-in nature of the combat does limit your ability to manuever. But If the next Hex War game gives us Ancient Battle’s tactical complexity and scale of battle combined with a bit more freedom to move around and some persistence between battles, it will be an instant classic.

The game was played on a 3rd-gen iPad for this review.

Pocket Tactics Rating

4 Star Rating

4/5 Stars