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Encyclopedia of War: Ancient Battles (1988)

March 20th, 2008 by Troy Goodfellow · 14 Comments · Ancients, Feature:Anc, Retro, Review, Wargames

In 1988, Cases Computer Simulations and R.T. Smith released Encyclopedia of War: Ancient Battles, a game that was intended to be the first in a series of historical miniature games. The mid 80s was probably the high point of wargame dominance in the computer gaming market, and there were really no ancient wargames on the market; there were barely any wargames set earlier than 1800. Wargames were beginning to include editors, with 1986’s Wargame Constuction Set (from SSI) giving you almost complete control and 1987’s Universal Military Simulator‘s title promising more than it could deliver.

Ancient Battles was, at its core, a miniatures game. Though the Amstrad (1988) and Spectrum (1989) versions had very uninspiring graphics (one swords unit look exactly like another), the full miniature philosophy became apparent in the DOS (1988) version. You could tell your hastati from your principes, your phalanxes from your hoplites.

And there were lots of miniature armies to choose from. There were 24 base armies divided into four lists, from New Kingdom Egypt to the Visigoths. And within most of the armies, there were variants. Say you want to play a battle with Alexandrian Macedon (358 BC – 280 BC). You can choose Philip’s army, Alexander’s invasion army, his fusion army as he conquered Persia, the army he used to beat India or a variant that emphasizes hypaspists instead of phalanxes. The variant you chose would affect not only the types of units available to you, but the maximum number and effectiveness of them, as well. Troops were rated for their skill, discipline, professionalism, morale…all kinds of stuff that could only be calculated on a computer.

Of course, making armies from different periods fight each other could lead to interesting results. The Assyrians could kick Roman butt, for example, because their quality was measured against the other five armies of the pre-Alexandrian group. The mobility of their chariots could wreak havoc on the nice lines of cohorts. But by and large, Ancient Battles was a smorgasbord of history. It may have been the first game to have “rampage” rules for elephants and scythed chariots. It threw around words like Thureophoroi and Cappadocian, begging the curious gamer to look them up. Each army had a list of generals, names that could be used in enchantments like Nicanor or Vologeses.

But that’s the history. What about the game? It was revolutionary in a few ways. First, there was simultaneous resolution. Just like the classic Combat Missions, each side would give orders, then the computer would show what happened based on these orders. Then, the phase would end and new orders could be given.

Second, you couldn’t do everything. Each general had a tiny reservoir of order points – four on turn one, two on every turn after – and could only order those troops under his command. So, the more generals and more disciplined troops you had, the more flexibility you had. To conserve on orders, you were generally steered towards pre-fab battle plans or to giving orders like “Follow” which would help you keep a line together; following cost zero order points. And there were delays in orders. Drilled units would respond quickly, but untrained units distant from the general could take up to a full turn to react.

Smith’s designer’s note underline his thinking behind the system.

The main design aim of the game was to produce a game that would give a good overall feeling of an ancient battle, and be quick to play….The built in intelligence of the units means that there is little need to direct the actions of your troops in detail, as they can usually sort things out better then you can. The limitations on the number of orders allowed are another inducement to keep things simple by forcing players to move troops in blocks, rather than playing with individual units. Also, since you cannot check on where a unit is going once you have ordered it, players who try unrealistically clever manoeuvering will soon find themselves in a realistic mess.

You could never, ever, ever get away with this sort of thing today. Though Slitherine has managed to design a decent wargame engine that emphasizes “fire and forget” planning, who would sell a game whose thinking was “the units can sort things out pretty well without you mucking it up.” The idea of moving troops in blocks is a good one, and historically appropriate, but note how Smith doesn’t force the player to do this by making it most effective, he does it by making any other option almost impossible. You will have too many units and too few order points. Line combat isn’t demonstrated as the best tactical choice, but is enforced as the “way things were done” via a stingy command structure. Trying to defy the ruleset would lead not to chaos, but to paralysis, since your armies might never get moving as they awaited their next order.

And all the pleas to realism fall flat when you realize that a unit of 1600 phalangites and 800 Spartan hoplites or 800 legionaries take up the exact same space with the exact same frontage; you can pack that phalanx as tight as you like but you will always want it wider than it is deep. Add this to the generous flanking bonus on multiple attacks, and the outcomes could get peculiar. Making a model of Gaugamela would have the Persian army stretching from one side of the screen to the other, while poor Alexander has a blob of guys at the bottom. He doesn’t stand a chance, discipline or not.

You would have to make that model, of course, since the game came with only five historical battles – Hydaspes, Zama, Cynocephalae, Pharsalus and Chalons. (You can wiki those for the details, if they don’t ring a bell.) And as early battles editors go, it wasn’t bad. Considering how far games have come, it’s not much worse than the abomination they give you in Rome: Total War, probably Ancient Battles‘ closest modern relative.

Smith’s plan to release a second edition for the Middle Ages never came about, which is probably too bad. Despite its many problems, I am very fond of this game. There are a lot of good ideas in Ancient Battles. It is the ultimate toy soldier set. But it’s not really the type of game that is easy to promote, even among the wargaming set. There are lots of armies, but too little control. And unless you really knew which troops in your army would cost one point and which would cost two, your plans would stall in a turn as you realized that your alternatives really weren’t that varied.

In 1990, we would see a game that also limited your options but pretty much threw history aside. And it remains the most popular ancient strategy game in before Creative Assembly popped up: Centurion: Defender of Rome.


14 Comments so far ↓

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  • shanicus

    Thanks for the review! Did the creator ever make any more games at all?

    I am really looking forward to next weeks!

  • JonathanStrange

    Well, if one added a strategic overlay to the battles and added great graphics, you could live with being General Spectator. Maybe the shoving matches of the ancient battles aren’t inherently interesting to the gamer who’d have to wait-and-see the outcome of his limited command options. Didn’t the recent game The History Channel’s Great Battles of Rome have something like this sort of gameplay?

    Anyhow: great topics and good articles!

  • Troy

    Didn’t the recent game The History Channel’s Great Battles of Rome have something like this sort of gameplay?

    It did, and was a Slitherine game. But it also had role playing elements (units would level up and carry with you) and the battles had goals beyond victory most of the time (kill X enemies, win in 2 minutes, etc.). It also wasn’t very good.

    The problem with Ancient Battles isn’t being a spectator, since you do choose your units and do set a plan that you can intervene in, so much as that the limitations on intervention could be done in a way that made it more a sense of “That’s how it’s supposed to work” instead of “This is the way it has to work.”, emphasizing discovery of tactics more than forcing you to make do.

  • Scott R. Krol

    The mix-and-match battles made me think of the miniature game system De Bellis Antiquitatis, which pretty much is just a ruleset and army listing to do just that. There is also a homebrew online version that can be found at http://www.dbaol.com/

    DBAalso reminds me, will you be following up the computer list with a listing of miniature and board games? That would be pretty sweet.

  • Troy

    Ancient Battles was clearly influenced by the Wargames Research Group’s miniature rules, a rule set that Phil Barker would abandon in 1990 for the simpler DBA rules. You can see the DBA influence clearly in Command and Colors, too, with basic unit types that function the same irrespective of the nationality.

    If I had played more board games, I’d feel more confident about doing such a list. But I know that I would not be able to do the subject justice.

  • Scott R. Krol

    Actually there is no DBA influence with the C&C system, although I can see where the impression comes form.

    Borg began the C&C system back in the ’80s with a Revolutionary War game that eventually was turned into Battlecry. From that point he’s fine tuned the system for the various themes, with the common thread of iconic battle dice, card driven gameplay, and basic unit types which all behave the same.

    As a miniatures gamer he may have run across DBA, but in all the interviews on the C&C system he’s never mentioned it in conjunction, so I think standardization came more from ease of play, rather than being influenced by another system.

  • Troy

    Thanks for the clarification.

  • Michael A.

    It would surprise me if DBA has not influenced Borg’s game – considering that some of the first alternative rules for Battle Cry made was “Battle Cry for DBA”. But C&C has really been a process of continual refinement, and the core system is clearly unique to those games.

    I’ve always thought it should be possible to do a Peter Turcan like game for ancient battles.

  • Scott R. Krol

    That reminds me, someone converted a number of DBA army lists to work with Ancients but I can’t find it now. GMT used to have the file on their old site but looking at it now it’s not there anymore. I also checked BGG and Grognard but no luck there, either.

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