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Legionnaire (1982)

March 12th, 2008 by Troy Goodfellow · 6 Comments · Ancients, Feature:Anc, Retro, Review

Any accounting of the development of ancient themes would be incomplete without Legionnaire. Though the theme was almost arbitrary, this was the first major computer game to be set in the classical world. And it was developed by Chris Crawford, once one of the most important game designers on the planet. And, fortunately for us, Crawford devoted an entire chapter of his book On Game Design to the development of Legionnaire. There were two versions, one for Atari and one for Avalon Hill, but both were similar in most important respects.

EDIT: The Nov-Dec 1982 issue of Computer Gaming World has a great contemporary look at Legionnaire written by Bill Willett.

The setup – Rome versus the Barbarians. A simple two sided wargame. It was real time. Today’s wargamers often forget that many early wargames were real time games, not turn based epics. Part of this was because of the attempt to make wargames more like arcade games, with the ability for the player to constantly intervene. And, since multiplayer at the time was primarily hotseat, real time MP wargaming took place in an environment that made it difficult to hide your moves.

The objectives were simple. Unlike his earlier Eastern Front there were no cities to hold; this was purely about destruction of the enemy army. The battles were separated from any strategic sense of worth, ripped from historical context to simply sit on the screen. Crawford privileged playability over realism, but he did include “disruption” effects for units. Troops would lose cohesion and need time to recover to be most effective. Since this is so early in the history of the industry, it’s pretty certain that Crawford was the first to introduce this sort of mechanic into a computer wargame. Between Legionnaire, Eastern Front and 1981’s Tanktics, Crawford also invented scrolling maps, asymmetrical opponents, and terrain effects. It’s almost a shame he doesn’t do wargames any more.

Considering Crawford almost picked the ancient theme from a hat – he had discarded lots of other ideas for the game to stick on the engine – it’s illuminating how the theme itself intruded on design. For some reason, the barbarians were a poor opponent in the single player game. The AI just could not manage a victory with the barbarians. He considered making the barbarians just move faster, but he’d already had trouble with symbolizing movement on screen; balancing the rate of movement would probably have made things even more complicated.

So, he turned to history. Romans fought hordes of barbarians, right? So why not give the uncivilized brutes a manpower advantage when controlled by the computer? “This was the lazy solution; had I taken more pride in my work, I would have dedicated some time to sharpening the AI.”

The biggest problem Crawford faced was one that any player of the HPS games is all too familiar with. How do you use a scrolling map without the player forgetting the units that are out of sight? This was before the minimap and there wasn’t a “next unit” button. Plus, this is real time action. He eventually had to scale back the size of the battles, setting the map size according to the number of units selected in the pre-game setup. The problem never went away, but since a small scale battle would only be fought on a portion of the scrolling map, he accepted the risks and moved on.

Crawford’s personal verdict on Legionnaire is a mixed one. As a product it was successful; positive reviews, some clever ideas, a good seller. But Crawford insisted on having some sort of “genius” and he doesn’t think there is much “genius” in Legionnaire.

And he’s right. Though separated from Eastern Front by only a year, Legionnaire feels like a step back in many ways. It is a wargame without a war; a rudimentary battle generator, like the one that would come a few years later in Ancient Battles and even later in the custom battles of the Total War series.

Legionnaire (1982) is the steam engine before James Watt came around. Very few games from the late 70s and early 80s hold up to sustained play. This isn’t the Silent Movie era we’re talking about; with a few major exceptions, this is the Magic Lantern period of computer gaming, where the basics are being laid out and no one is quite clear on what next year’s audience will look like. This is especially the case for strategy and wargames, where you have a small tabletop community getting interested in a technology that was being best used in role playing games (Ultima and Telengard) or arcade ports.

But the industry moved a lot faster then. By 1983 strategy gamers had MULE. By 1984, Ancient Art of War. Wargame designers were perfecting their representations of historical conflicts with Carriers at War and War in Russia. But it was all either sci-fi, fantasy or WW2. People who liked togas would have to wait till 1986 to see the first truly great ancient themed game, Annals of Rome.


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