ANNALS OF ROME

PSS, £12.95

Screenshot

Time to invade one of the four neighbouring regions.., but who will lead the legions?

Nothing less than the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, managed over several centuries and possibly millennia, is the subject of this unusual game from PSS. The game concentrates on simulating the broad sweep of Rome’s military conquests in the early stage of the game, then its struggles to keep control of its captured provinces against native uprising and the increasingly likely threat of civil war. Details of individual battles are not gone into, and military decisions are limited to very broad-based movement of units from one country to another. But the player has control over strategic factors influencing political stability and long-term military success, such as the appointment of legates, tribunes and regional commanders, the setting of the tax rate and the option of bribing the army to remain loyal if a revolt seems to be brewing.

Unlike most other games from PSS, Annals of Rome has no arcade element, and does not take place in ‘real time’. The enormous timescales involved would make either of these factors ridiculous, but it must be said that having high BASIC content (and being alarmingly easy to break into — on my copy at least) there are parts of the game which are close to being maddeningly slow. It is the kind of highly strategic, abstract game which may not be too affected by a slow processing speed, but the moderately impatient may find that it detracts from playability.

The main map display shows Europe approximately as it was divided at the time of the Romans, rather squashed into a corner by two panel displays. I say approximately because of course the political map of Europe changed regularly from 273BC, when the game starts, and as far as I’m aware it’s possible to carry on playing Annals of Rome indefinitely. This is an unavoidable simplification, but it does typify a flaw in the idea behind the game design. There are twenty-eight states, including Italia itself — which you control from the beginning. Possessions of the other powers are shaded in a pattern distinctive to each race, though there is no index or description of these ‘fillings’ in the manual. The Romans do not have a pattern, and the visual impression created by this is that the Roman conquest of Europe made the continent look a lot tidier! The countries are not identified by name, unless there is no overall ruling power in the area, but a corresponding map in the manual does the job and prevents the screen becoming too cluttered with information. A symbol on each country shows either the military strength established in the area (if it is over 10,000) or the ‘code’ of the ruling power. An unnecessary complication arises when you start to conquer territories for yourself; Roman forces are displayed in units of 5,000. An over-large message window below the map throws up information in a computer-controlled fashion. The player has no real control over the sequence of play or the accessing of information, but this doesn’t make itself felt; the computer-generated sequence is complicated enough.

The game opens with a series of ‘football results’, which tell the player which powers predominate (and where) in ‘the known world circa 273BC.’ A detailed breakdown of each country’s population is then given, and this information is updated at the beginning of every turn. Most countries are occupied by more than one race, although in normal circumstances only one has any military strength. Every time an army captures a province it brings with it a small core of its own people, which expands if the occupation prospers, or dwindles away if another power captures the territory. Vestigial remains of former occupations have absolutely no effect on the gameplay — the only thing that really matters is the strength of the native population in a nation’s homeland, because for several turns after you capture the territory they will be persistently revolting — but it is an interesting touch of authenticity.

The economics phase which follows requires the player to set the tax rate between One and Two. A high tax rate will increase income (and so provide more money to spend on the army, which increases recruitment — I think) but it will also trigger inflation, shrink your population, and make you unpopular. Once the rate is selected the recruitment figures of that game turn are displayed in a confusing manner, and other facts and figures are updated. This phase is rather badly presented and does not merge smoothly with the main body of the game, partly because it is hard to see how the player’s participation affects its outcome.

By contrast the next strategy phase is fascinating; the player is presented with a list of twenty-one personnel, all of whom start out in Italia as senators. The senators are individually named in a convincing fashion — although historically Romans had three names, not two — and their age is displayed with two figures which denote their ability, which never changes, and their loyalty, which can fluctuate depending on how they are treated. When more than one territory is controlled, the assignment phase enables the player to transport any number of officers all over the empire, and to change the governors of any province which might be a breeding-ground for rebellion. In the later stages of the game the assignment phase is of the highest strategic importance. Officers with good ability ratings are best saved for leading armies into combat, because loyalty is far more important than ability when it comes to choosing governors. If the popularity rating has fallen below zero, effective organisation of the empire has collapsed and the personnel assignment phase no longer occurs.

If a governor does decide to rebel, and more than one may do so at once, he will rampage across the empire — and, mysteriously, across unconquered territory — towards Rome. Rome has the option of mobilising loyal forces in other territories against the advancing rebels, but unless the rebel army is very weak this is usually a waste of resources. When arriving in Italia a battle is fought between the rebels and the loyal army there, and if the rebels win, their leader is proclaimed Dictator and the player thereafter takes his side. Apparently later in the game an Emperor can arise, though I can’t say I’ve got to that stage yet. Civil war is absolutely devastating, because it wastes army resources and leaves hitherto secure territories without any occupying strength.

The longest and most important phase gives you the opportunity to vacuum-clean Europe in the name of Roman imperialism. Unfortunately this is where the game slows down — the manoeuvres of each territory are handled in turn, and the player has to watch while provinces belonging to enemy powers plod laboriously through their moves one by one. There are twenty-eight countries and the player starts off controlling only one of them; that means about five minutes of watching what the rest of the world is doing. Although it’s important to be able to see what other races are up to, the execution of this part of the game is clumsy, unprofessional (especially by PSS’s standards) and infuriating. Just a little more speed would have added an edge of playability to the combat phase.

When it is Italia’s turn at last, the player is presented with information about his own military strength and those in the territories immediately adjacent. You can move troops into any one adjacent territory in an attempt to capture it, or you can choose to do nothing. There are three types of troop: Legionnaires, the excellent fighting units of the Roman army; Auxiliaries, who are non-Romans acting as support for the legionnaires; and Limitanei, fixed garrison troops who cannot be moved. Auxiliaries and Limitanei are recruited from captured territories. The player starts with a number of legionnaires, who, with a combat value of ten, are at a tremendous advantage compared to all the other armies in the ring. An army has to be led by at least one officer, chosen from a displayed list of personnel. Combat with the army in the territory you are intending to capture is resolved immediately, but represents the outcome of a struggle for power that has gone on during the period of years represented by the game turn. Sometimes, but not often, the conflict remains unresolved until the next game turn. If the Roman forces triumph (as they usually do in the early stages), the province comes under the player’s control immediately, and if that country has still to have its turn, there is nothing to stop a march onto territories adjacent to it.

The sequence in which the countries move is random, but it determines the structure of play. If, for example, you march 30,000 legionnaires into Alpes in the first turn, whether or not you can proceed to capture Gallia in the same turn depends on whether Alpes has had its turn. It’s therefore possible to capture several territories in the first turn, or possibly only one. This artificial limitation is unrealistic, considering that some of the game turns last twenty-five years, there is clearly no reason why troops could not march onwards without restriction if the way is clear. Something of this sort happens in the civil war phase, and although it would have required more thought to make flexible movement work in the combat phase, planning campaigns would have been easier and the game would feel less abstract.

Annals of Rome comes substantially packaged in PSS’s usual laudable style, though the cover art is excruciating. And although the instruction manual contains the sort of ‘game-mechanics’ information that I would like to see more of, it is organised in a most unhelpful manner. Well-written and authoritive background adds immensely to the atmosphere of a wargame, which has after all, to compromise on its on-screen appearance. Annals of Rome shows no sign of lack of research or absence of a feel for the historical period, so it is disappointing that the authors don’t share their knowledge with us in the manual.

I must say that I like this game very much, despite its faults of presentation and the painful slowness of the combat phase. There is something in the idea of recreating the entire sweep of Roman history that captures the imagination, and vacuuming Europe at the start of the game is very satisfying indeed. But I suspect that later on it becomes impossibly frustrating, as hordes and hordes of technologically advanced Goths and Vandals and Huns steamroll your legions in ridiculous numbers, no matter how well you play. It is a game that ultimately, you can’t win.

Presentation 49%
Slow without excuse, and somehow the successive phases feel tacked together.

Rules 60%
Some interesting material in the manual, but it is ill-organised and difficult to consult. There is a lack of historical material.

Playability 85%
Despite all that, it is compulsive and fascinating.

Authenticity 86%
Without question the authors have a deep understanding of the history of Rome, and this is imparted in the feel of the gameplay.

Opponent 50%
Other races show a lack of common sense, and will attack against impossible odds. However, because of the nature of the game there is not much scope for intelligent opposition anyway.

Value for money 75%
While I feel there’s a lot of game to be got out of it, £12.95 is too much.

Graphics 70%
Somehow they don’t quite work; too elaborate to be called functional, and too messy to be cosmetic.

Overall 85%
The sum of this game is greater than its parts and I have to rate it highly.