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Great Battles of History Series (1997-98)

April 8th, 2008 by Troy Goodfellow · 6 Comments · Ancients, Feature:Anc, Retro, Review, Wargames

Given the long history of portraying ancient battles in board games, it’s surprising that it took so long for historically faithful interpretations of the battles of Alexander, Hannibal and Caesar to hit the computer. Avalon Hill’s Alexander the Great portrayed the battle of Gaugamela way back in 1971. The same year saw SPI do a system for three battles in Phalanx. And given how much we “know” about troop dispositions for many of these battles (with the usual caveats via Theodore Ayrault Dodge and Hans Delbruck’s books) the move to the electronic tabletop makes eminent sense.

We are in some way blessed that GMT Games was the company that made the leap. GMT’s Great Battles series isn’t for amateurs; they had to release a “simplified” version after all. But there are few wargames that take education as seriously as entertainment; the Great Battles games do. And the PC translations of their titles gave us something quite unique in gaming history. The Great Battles series are games with an argument. Games with a thesis. Games with a point.

GMT and Interactive Magic released three games in quick succession Great Battles of Alexander, Great Battles of Hannibal and Great Battles of Caesar. Just as quickly, the three were bundled into a Collector’s Edition that included three additional battles and a scenario editor that wouldn’t let you edit the included scenarios. You could make new ones, though, and many are still available in scenario depositories around the internet.

The core concept of the GMT games is leader ability. Every army has multiple commanders as well as a commander in chief. You spent a number of points equal to your leader’s skill to give orders and giving orders to troops not under you direct command would cost you more points. Leaders moved in a random order, weighted to give better leaders a chance of moving first. So Parmenion on Alexander’s left wing would have a better chance of dictating the pace of battle than Expendable Satrap Five.

The board game had a “trump” mechanic that allowed superior leaders to pre-empt inferior leaders, but the random generation of turn order made this unnecessary on a computer. The “trump” system survived, however, by giving the side with the superior commander in chief three chances to ignore the random phase selection and move first in a turn. So part of the fun of the game was getting your Alexander or Hannibal or Scipio to a specific place in the battlefield, exercising the trump option and then hoping your underlings would be activated soon enough to take advantage of the situation you created.

I said above that the games had an argument. The general argument was that the great generals of the ancient world were great because they took advantage of mobility on the battlefield. Alexander added a strong cavalry arm and lighter hypaspists to traditional phalanx warfare. Hannibal was victorious so long as he had superiority in cavalry, something he did not have at Zama because Rome co-opted the Numidians. Scipio’s revolution in legionary structure was furthered by Marius moving from specialized line movement to a more modular cohort system.

But you had to use cavalry properly. Unlike many games, the Great Battles games were insistent that a head-on charge of horses into infantry would be a disaster. Cavalry were there to control the flanks, forcing the enemy front line to either shift to meet the threat (opening a hole) or to accept being the metalwork between the anvil of the infantry and the hammer of the horsemen. And, most importantly, horses are needed to run down fleeing troops. This is before stirrups; horses aren’t important because they are strong, they are important because they can get where they need to be quickly.

And Great Battles had none of this crap about elephants and scythed chariots being the tanks of the ancient world. They were useful for disrupting lines, but you had to keep them far away from your own men. Elephants would rout and rampage and pummel anything in their path.

The other core lesson of the game is that casualties were less important than heart. Most ancient battles have lopsided casualty totals, but that’s because one side lost its unit cohesion, then its guts. And then it routed making it vulnerable to attack as it ran away. You’d occasionally get tactical masterpieces like Hannibal’s at Trasimene (pin an army against a lake) or Cannae (encircle and pin an army against its own men). But mostly, losing armies ran and got eliminated in the chaos afterwards.

So the point of the game was to make troops run away. Leaders could rally their soldiers to bring them back to battle or keep them together, but your less skilled leaders could end up wasting action points on keeping the line organized. If you could get behind the enemy, you could destroy fleeing troops altogether.

Now I can already hear you saying, “How is this an argument or thesis? Isn’t this what all good wargames do?” And the answer lies in the documentation, which was thorough, fascinating and a wonderful distillation of a century of beardy men thoughts on whether or not a phalanx could stand up to a legion. Then the game would put these thoughts into practice. The manuals and online help weren’t there to explain the game; they were there to explain ancient warfare. The entire package was a class in military history, still unequaled in the computer gaming arena.

However, like many wargames, it had serious AI problems. Once you understood the system, it became nearly impossible to lose unless you put extreme victory conditions on yourself. The way the game operated, Cannae was less a matter of getting a double envelopment than it was smashing the first couple of lines of hastati and seeing them run for the hills. This was largely because as clear as the game was about its lessons (with variants for many battle settings) the AI wasn’t as clear on them and would do stupid things like expose a phalanx (worth double rout points) to multiple flank attacks. It was if a good student was in a spelling bee against the class hamster.

Not to mention the terrible campaigns.

Despite being critical successes, they were almost certainly commercial failures. GMT didn’t enter the electronic game space again. Their other Great Battles games (Gustavus Adolphus, Belisarius, some Japanese stuff) never made it to a computer. And until Paul Bruffel’s Ancient Warfare games for HPS, no one else would really work at making a “realistic” ancient wargame. (The Tin Soldiers games live in a fascinating universe somewhere between realistic and imaginary. Great games that deserve an entry in this series, but won’t get one.)

Few other facts so well confirm my impression that I am a freak for finding ancient warfare inherently interesting. It could be that we are just so limited in what we can do in this era that the period has little attraction for designers. You have a bunch of guys with spears facing other guys with spears. The “fun” stuff would have be higher design concerns than realism or colorful uniforms. You are limited to the same couple of dozen battles because precise information is so hard to come by. And there are lots of unsettled questions about ancient warfare. What were the Cardaces of the Persian empire? What was the average strength of a late Republic legion? How reliable are any of the numbers we have?

What made Great Battles such a great series is not that it answered any of these questions but that it made a case for answering them. (In sequence, Cardaces were light infantry positioned like a phalanx, legionary size wasn’t as important as training and frontage, and the numbers we have are crappy, especially Caesar’s.) You can accept or reject their conclusions but they acknowledged the debate and addressed it.

The same year that Great Battles of Alexander came out, another ancient themed title was released – one that would cement the ancient world as a vibrant setting and fertile ground for strategy gaming. In a couple of days, we’ll explore how Age of Empires changed everything.


6 Comments so far ↓

  • JonathanStrange

    Great article – again. I,too,am fascinated by battles and tactics of the ancient world – everything from logistics, weapons, organizations, command & control and am intrigued by games that model that era. I think you made a very important point that these games were serious attempts to test tactical theories concerning ancient warfare. You knew the game’s creators were really trying to recreate history and not Hollywood.

    One has to sympathize with a game creator striving for virtual realism only to have his digital warriors leave their flanks unguarded, not react to missile fire, abandon strong positions, randomly roam the battlefield: I’m all for confusion, and limited control of ancient troops, but come on…

    Great series of articles!

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  • Michael A.

    Well, GBoH were board games first, and only virtual games second. I have to say that I have never liked the games much (the unofficial GBoH page has some excellent critiques of the system that point out most of what I dislike). Then again, this is a period for which there are many conflicting views about history (as is inevitable, given the paucity of material). As you observe, the game does push its “agenda” rather strongly – in my case, enough to get in the way of the enjoyment of the game.

    Strangely, I’ve always loved the strongly GBoH inspired “Hoplites”. It’s a pity Zak never got around to completing the campaign module he was building around that game.

    Commercially, I suspect the problem may have been that the computer games were essentially made for the same market who also bought the board games, and in that respect brought little new to the table. It had a rather active community on the Wargamer at one point, though.

  • Bill Abner

    I loved this series. I recall playing Issus with 3 other people, two on two and we assumed command of certain leaders — one of the best wargaming experiences on the PC I have ever had.

  • XPav

    I beta tested Great Battles of Hannibal (my one and only credit on Mobygames!). I had no idea what was going on, because my Punic War knowledge was, well, puny.

    I enjoyed it, but never really “got” it.