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Annals of Rome (1986)

March 14th, 2008 by Troy Goodfellow · 7 Comments · Ancients, Feature:Anc, Retro, Review

Annals of Rome is usually forgotten when people talk about classic strategy games of the period. It was one part of a PSS developed trilogy called the Wargamer Series (the other two were Fire Zone and Sorceror Lord), and PSS didn’t exactly have a reputation for creating brilliant titles. Its early titles were arcade ripoffs. Frogger became Hopper, PacMan became Vacuumania, and Tron became Light Cycle.

By 1985, they made the move to strategy and role playing games, with Theatre Europe and Swords and Sorcery. Though more original than the arcade clones, neither was especially ground breaking. Well, you could nuke specific cities in Theatre Europe. Swords and Sorcery was similar to Bard’s Tale in many ways. But Annals of Rome stands out for me because it introduced mechanics that most game designers wouldn’t pick up on for years.

Annals of Rome was a single player game in which you took on the role of Rome, guiding it through the centuries. You would raise taxes, raise armies and conquer the world. Big deal, right? But the innovations introduced by programmer George Jaroszkiewicz are remarkable for their modernity. (EDIT: Originally this article attributed the design to Andrew Pan, whom Mobygames lists as the C programmer. Mr. Jaroszkiewicz wrote in to correct me. Apologies are extended to him, and gratitude for his gracious email.)

1. History happened around you. Your enemies would change based on how far along the historical path you had progressed. The Parthians would fall and the Sassanids would emerge. The Dacians would be replaced by the Huns. And, to keep the historical challenge high, most new armies would be more than a match for the powerful Roman legions – legions that could devastate huge Gallic armies or Seleucid forces.

2. Provinces were differentiated by income and by recruitment. You couldn’t raise legions everywhere, only in certain provinces. Spain, Asia, Italy, Sicily…everywhere else you had to make do with lower quality auxiliaries or immobile border armies, so your armies needed to strategically placed to meet problems as they arose.

3. There was a Senate that would evolve and change as members died or retired. It was populated with characters rated for military skill and loyalty. Loyalty varied depending on promotion or demotion in command status. You would have to balance these qualities carefully, because a disloyal Senator put in command of a large army could turn on the Republic and declare himself Dictator or Emperor, leading to civil wars. If the disloyal leader won the civil war, he would execute all disloyal Senators, replace them with new people and then you control the new regime. Foreign nations wouldn’t bother you in a civil war; time “stopped” while you sorted it out. But you would lose a lot of soldiers while the armies (you could have multiple rebels) fought it out.

4. There was a master stability stat that measured the popularity and vitality of the government. Inflation from too high taxes or repeated military failures would reduce popularity, making civil wars more likely. Inflation would also make it harder to recruit new armies, as each new legion would cost more than the ones before. So you had to carefully measure when to go for the big tax grab, since that would reduce popularity and could cause trouble in the long run.

The point of the game was, in the end, to do better than history. Could the Western Empire survive the Lombards and Vandals? Could the Eastern Empire keep the Turks and Arabs out? How long can you maintain a Republic? Can you find a safer capital than Constantinople?

Annals of Rome could be the first empire building game that didn’t simply dress itself in history, it represented the long sweep of it. This wasn’t a game about Napoleon or Hitler trying to win a single war as much as it was the story of a civilization through all its turmoils, foreign and domestic. Your enemies would target each other – not just gang up on the human – as if they had their own agendas. Empires rose and fall even if the player did nothing to interfere. The Ptolemies could ride roughshod over the Near East while Rome struggled against Carthage.

And the game always presented interesting choices. You could find two generals marching from opposite ends of the Mediterranean, both intent on seizing the purple, exposing long undefended borders. Do you, as the guiding hand of history, try to stop them? Would it make more sense to just let one of them land in Rome and take control, saving the cost of raising an army and trouble of killing fellow Romans? And if so, which one?

You could pre-empt history to some extent. If you occupy Dacia before the Dacian peoples are activated, then you can keep them from appearing as a threat, but there is a price for riding too strongly against history. You would have to keep a large force across the Danube to deal with the increasingly huge rebel forces. If you can do that, through good luck or special focus, then the Dacian historical moment (190BC – 275AD in game) will pass and you have a breathing space, at least until the next army pops up there.

If you look at the design, you see a lot of things that pop up in the Paradox games, especially. Characters have traits. History happens to you, but you can navigate it if you know what to expect. You don’t lose until every remnant of you nation has been wiped from the earth; you survive coups and civil wars, but not foreign conquest. Nations pop up on schedule, just like “historical events”. But most remarkable is the fact that the “Live Through History” design idea was alive and well in 1986 and then lay dormant for a decade and a half.

Sure, in Civilization you played from the Bronze Age to the Space Age, but it was about creating history, not recreating it. For the most part, historical strategy games have focused on particular moments or certain individuals. So you get games about Napoleon, but not The Age of Enlightenment, games about building castles but not The Middle Ages.

The reason for this is partly evident in the very structure of Annals of Rome.

Since history was the benchmark, the Roman armies were stuck at a certain military power ranking. Roman Legions had a power of 10, Auxiliaries of 5 and Limitanei of 7.5. In the early game, only Carthage was a 10. When you reach the medieval period, there will be six 10 power armies around the corner. Plus, as the empire grows, your powerful forces are overstretched and you face larger armies of middling quality.

And, though turns could represent anything from 1 to 25 years, the game was explicitly set up to mimic historical evolution. I have had a Republic last till 100 AD, but there will be an Empire and there will be civil wars.

So, the game becomes what Paradox tried to avoid with Europa Universalis 3; an exercise in remembering what is going to happen according the Event List and being prepared for it. Though the Byzantines didn’t expect a zealous army to erupt out of the Saudi peninsula, you do. So Egypt gets stacked with soldiers to pre-empt the Rise of Islam.

Not to mention the fact that, with this much history at your fingertips, the idea of always leading and following Rome could get a little repetitive. You couldn’t play the Celts looking for a homeland or try to recreate the empire of Alexander as Macedon. Rome was the star of a pageant with a lot of other very pretty people. But once you’ve seen the star’s talent over and over and over, there weren’t that many surprises.

Now let’s be honest; the idea of months and months of replayability was still not common in the strategy arena of the time, especially for single player games. But you could never release a game like this today without the option to try other armies and nations on for size. And in 1988, another three letter studio, CCS, would release a game that would offer unimagined variety to historical wargames – Encyclopedia of War: Ancient Battles.


7 Comments so far ↓

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  • JonathanStrange

    Very well well done! It’s an interesting read; I certainly would have liked to have played an Annals of Rome. It would have been intriguing to see how much more challenging it would be to face the same type of historical events (rise of Islam or the mass movement of peoples) in a random manner. An early Islam or an unanticipated barbarian empire. A very ambitious game in its day.

  • Gunner

    You can find it pretty easily on the internet if you want to. I had a good time with it a few years ago for the first time. Such a great game, puts Rome: Total War to shame in my eyes.

  • Michael A.

    Annals has been a staple on my harddisk since… well… I don’t recall anymore. I still play it from time to time. Obviously, the game has flaws, but in some ways, it attempts stuff that hasn’t been tried since. To my mind, Annals has more in common with Crusader Kings than the rest of the Paradox games.

  • Troy

    To my mind, Annals has more in common with Crusader Kings than the rest of the Paradox games.

    I can see that. The Huns are the big Mongol threat that CK gets in 12-something. There are basic personality traits that require careful allocation of roles in CK, where EU and Vic just had military talent.

    Annals clearly has echoes in all the Paradox history games.

  • T-Enterprise

    Excellent – good article.

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