The Flare Path: Diecast Romans

By Tim Stone on September 21st, 2012 at 1:00 pm.

In another life FP was an interpreter attached to Legio XIV Gemina during the Roman invasion of Britain. It was his job to trudge up to the skull-festooned gates of hill forts, usually dodging sling stones and hurled turds as he went, and do the surrender-in-the-name-of-the-Emperor spiel. The answers he carried back to his employers could be long or short, poetic or pithy, but generally they boiled down to the same thing: “We’d rather not, old bean. Attack us and by nightfall your finest warriors will be kissing crows’ feet and buggering mouse holes”

1st century FP ended up genuinely fond of the bolshy British dung chuckers, a fact that might explain why his 21st Century manifestation is mildly disappointed by the lack of Caratacus and Boudica scenarios in Ageod’s latest historical gem.

Unleashed tomorrow, Alea Jacta Est’s primary focus is the various civil wars that convulsed the Roman Empire between 87 BC and 200 AD. Cough up the not unreasonable 20 GBP and you get – if my preview build is to be trusted – six chunky/replay-friendly scenarios ranging from an evening-sized 25-turn ‘Year of the Four Emperors’ challenge. to a week-warranting 129-turn Caesar vs. Pompey epic. All of the scenarios can be played from multiple perspectives, and the larger ones utilize every province on the game’s vast and handsome Britain-to-Babylonia, Norway-to-Numidia map.

Thus far, I’ve spent most of my time in the sandals of a rebellious gladiator called Spartacus and a vain yet principled emperor called Ortho. Enemy armies have handled themselves alarmingly well, and campaigns have rung with historical echoes. The feel is unmistakeably Ageod (if you’ve played the likes of Birth of America II and Revolution Under Siege, you’ll settle in swiftly) but a host of new rules and tweaks, and the copious research that has plainly gone into the scenarios, ensures the era shift doesn’t feel forced or cynical.

Never tried an AGE-engined title before? Play mostly consists of splitting and merging armies, then giving those armies destinations and combat stances (attack vigorously, attack cautiously defend, evade… etc). Because the results of orders are calculated at the end of turns, the action can feel a little arms-length at first. You press the End Turn button and watch, helpless, as forces canter across the cartography, occasionally colliding and kicking the Strength Points out of each other. Until you grasp the significance of those combat stances, and come to understand the detailed battle results summaries, you can expect to be as mystified as you are mesmerised.

Happily, the Greenlight-hungry Alea Jacta Est isn’t just another game about building monster stacks of Praetorians and force-marching them towards victory locations. Size and troop quality is important of course, but more often than not battle results are determined by a swarm of less obvious factors. The leader you’ve placed at the head of a force is massively significant. A set of strong offensive and defensive stats and a selection of impressive history-based personality traits can – as Mr. Spartacus has proved to me time and time again – be worth thousands of spears and swords. Fatigue, supply status, weather, terrain, cohesion, force composition, experience, luck, morale, combat stances… they can all decide battles.

Scraps themselves are represented by the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Battle Circle, a kind of slaughter swingometer. To understand exactly why your force of escaped skivvies and uppity farmhands managed to outfight some of Rome’s finest professional soldiers, you need to study the lines of tiny tooltipped icons on the results screen. Ah, the opposing general was a drunken sot who deployed and led his weary, dispirited troops poorly… my defensive stance meant I held the high ground during the battle… they chose to attack across a river… There’s fascinating and useful information there for those prepared to search for it.

The brief text summaries of engagements are not always especially useful. Take the one below for example (click for a closer look). This ‘victory’ effectively demolished my second-largest slave army. The prospects for Kirk Douglas and co. are now decidedly bleak.

Inevitably the Ageod games are compared with Paradox titles on occasion. There is plenty of common ground but the French studio has always been more interested in the military than the political and civic. Alea Jacta Est fractures the mould somewhat by offering dozens of different governmental and developmental tools. Mostly funded by cash or ‘engagement points’ (a political currency), the options include organising morale-boosting ampitheatre events and loyalty-bolstering propaganda campaigns to bribing chieftains and building aqueducts. Presently I’m a little concerned that the expanded civil side distracts rather than enhances, but that feeling may well pass as I get more familiar with the new instruments.

Whether my scenario selection and unit portraiture complaints are still relevant a month from now, depends a lot on Ageod’s art and mission people. In the preview build many generals share the same marker portraits which can lead to confusion. More significantly, Alea Jacta Est is yet another wargame disappointingly short of small evening-sized introductory challenges. Some brief Northern tribe-suppressing mini-campaigns perhaps – even if they were semi-fictional – would have been a boon for  newcomers looking to transition from the trim tutorials to the continent-spanning splendour of the large multi-year scenarios.

The Flare Path Foxer

…is in quarantine this week with suspected rabies. Sorry. Back next week.

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21 Comments »

  1. wodin says:

    I want..the first Ancient era wargame I will purchase…

  2. SuperNashwanPower says:

    I remember when I was little, whenever I got a new toy and saw DIE CAST METAL written on it, how excited I got. Like I thought it was military grade Titanium Alloy or something.

    Always got confused when it snapped so easily after my more moronic friends had a ‘smash ups’ session with them >:|

  3. JiminyJickers says:

    Does this run better than Pride of Nations? I got so screwed by that game. Even though I have a beasty computer, that game had an incredibly slow map and the turn times takes many minutes to complete.

    If they are still using the same engine then I’m not interested. Otherwise, I will be keen. They seem to make intersting games but if Pride of Nations is anything to go by, their optimisation leaves a lot to be desired.

    • djim says:

      I am 100% sure they are using the same engine. It is indeed a slow engine which is a shame, on the other hand they have to cut cost somehow which is why they have created an engine specifically to create this type of games easilly. That is what they claim anyway.

      Tbh their games are truly hardcore and i hope to find the time to learn the mechanics because when i had to time to play Birth of America i had lots of fun.

    • Arctic Fox says:

      While it does run on the same engine as Pride of Nations, Alea Jacta Est (and AGEOD’s other games) runs a lot faster because it has a smaller map and doesn’t have nearly as many different factions and other factors that caused PoN be so slow.

      The engine isn’t as well optimized as it should be, and lacks things like multi-threading (though I believe I read the developers saying they might implement that to speed up PoN’s AI processing at some point), but Pride of Nations is really the only AGE engine game that I’ve had performance problems with so far.

    • flowsnake says:

      I believe it’s faster than Pride of Nations, but still quite slow.

      My problem with PoN was the very slow startup time (Paradox games are slow too but not this bad), and the sluggish and generally ugly UI. I probably wouldn’t have really got into the game anyway, but those things made it so I didn’t want to even try. This doesn’t seem much different from what I’ve seen, but I imagine it’s mostly fine for those used to that wargame jankiness.

    • de_Monteynard says:

      I have to reply to this. No, the engine is not the same. It is a modified version of the one used in Revolution under Siege, which means that your beast of a machine will be more than able to run circles around the game. The only reason VGN was so slow was because of the new map and lack of multi-core support. The old version of the engine used in AJE is the one “we” are all used to and which offers a lot of fun.

      I pre-ordered the game and I’ve been playing around with it a bit and it looks runs wonderfully on an older computer, so for 20€/$ I do recommend that you buy it.

      • JiminyJickers says:

        Sweet, it seems that they will be releasing a demo so I will play the hell out of that to make sure it performs well.

        I gave up on Pride of Nations because of the slowness, will have to see how this turns out.

    • killias2 says:

      AJE runs fine. I never tried PON (despite owning it), so I can’t directly compare it. But this is a much smaller game overall. PON is sort of like AGEOD’s attempt at something almost on the scale of Paradox’s internally developed games. AJE is more typical for the AGEOD games.

  4. INinja132 says:

    Never played an AGEOD game properly (the occasional demo), which would be recommended to begin with?

    • RutigerP says:

      I found American Civil War or Birth of America 2 to be the best games to begin with, but it may be simply because I’m more familiar with those conflicts. American Civil War is one of the few AGEOD games that gives you control over unit production.

      Don’t try Pride of Nations unless you have a good book to read during the five minutes it takes to process each turn and are willing to wait 50+ turns before anything interesting happens.

  5. Stellar Duck says:

    I kinda want this one but I’m still miffed that Pride of Nations doesn’t actually work on my computer.

  6. wodin says:

    I’m sure it will run alot quicker that PoN, which ran slow because of it’s size..all the other games run fine. So wouldn’t worry about it at all.

  7. TC-27 says:

    Hmmm,

    Love the period – hate the AGEOD engine.

    By far my favourite ancient stratergy game is still:

    http://www.matrixgames.com/products/388/details/Hannibal:RomeandCarthageintheSecondPunicWar

    Its f*cking pricey but a real work of genius that has given me hours of challenging fun games (and I lose more often than I win.

  8. Damn You Socrates says:

    Ageod games were always worth it for their setting and detail, not so much their engine and UI. If you at all have an interest in, or have studied the period, there is really no reason not to get this.

  9. wodin says:

    Just bought it from Gamersgate..with my 15%IGN discount came to £16.99…

    Well worth it..

  10. Discopanda says:

    Unpopular opinion time! Europa Universalis: Rome is one of my favorite Paradox games of all time. WHERE MY ROMAN POLITICS AT, YO?

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