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On Site Review: HPS Punic Wars

March 20th, 2007 by Troy Goodfellow · 1 Comment · Ancients, HPS, Wargames

Since my CGM review of this title is stuck in the limbo of publishing termination, I thought I’d pen a few of my thoughts on this game while they are still fresh in my mind.

Regular readers know that I am a sucker for games with an ancient theme. I also really like the simultaneous turn mechanic. Punic Wars from HPS has both. So I’m predisposed to like it.

And Paul Bruffel did a good job with it. The command structure is easy enough to figure out, the battle system emphasizes cohesion and morale over casualties and the battles have the right ebb and flow. Simultaneous turns allow a battle to evolve based on expectation and anticipation of your opponent’s move. So your velites may scatter those slingers, but in the same resolution they might be pelted by enemy javelins. This keeps the number of turns down to a manageable level (I don’t think many scenarios top 40 turns) but still gives the impression that these battles are grand encounters.

Despite its name, Punic Wars is about more than the life and death struggle between Rome and Carthage. Most of the battles have that theme, but there are also highlights from Pyrrhus’ campaign in Italy. Oddly, two of the most important battles in Roman history (Metaurus and Zama) are nowhere to be found, while there are over a dozen tabletop style battles with each army having equal point counts. Oddly enough, nearly all of the historical battles in the game are Roman defeats (Bagradas, Trebbia, Ticinus, Cannae) or virtual draws (Pyrrhic victories for the Epirotes). The state that wins the wars loses the battles presented in the game.

It’s not a very attractive game, and I don’t hold with those who say that looks don’t matter in wargames. Sure, scenario design and proper combat resolution are most important, but there should be some concession to the modern age. Because of the simultaneity, the lack of animations even as simple as arrows flying or sword arms flailing means that it is not always clear who is killing whom. Casualties figures flash on the miniatures, but if the dudes are under attack from more than one enemy, it’s hard to tell who is posing the real threat. Even colored hexes indicating attacker and attackee would be more help than the din of weapons and red blotch of death. As good as the underlying design is, HPS can learn a little from the amazing presentation of the period in the Tin Soldiers series from Koios Works.

The battle editor and designer seems pretty powerful, though you are required to designate Rome as one of the sides. So no hypotheticals about Pyrrhus marching on Carthage. I’m not very good at scenario design, so you won’t see me trying to redress the anti-Roman bias with my creation of the Battle of Ilipa.

Once again, I am puzzled by the HPS insistence on strictly limiting how I can see the battle. As plain as the miniature soldiers are, it makes little sense for me to choose between seeing twenty or thirty of them or seeing the entire field marked in traditional wargame counters. This is a design decision that is rooted in “we’ve always done it this way” more than in any justfiable game/art balance like you would find in a real time strategy game. It may be time for HPS’s desiginers to experiment with the zoom key.

But Punic Wars is good enough to have me hopeful that the “Ancient Warfare” series will be a success. The battles are much more difficult than those in the otherwise brilliant Great Battles of History series. The command movement system means that you can easily move a dozen units in a group; clicking on every individual unit is not necessary until the battle lines start to break down. Skirmishing is given its proper place in ancient warfare. Even better, the game models units running out of control. (One of the great dangers in this period was having soldiers filled with bloodlust pursue defeated enemies off the battlefield, making them useless for the duration.) Finally impetuousness and discipline mean more than combat bonuses in certain situations.

For fans of the period, I recommend Punic Wars unreservedly. It has the typical interface quirks of a hex-game from HPS, but won’t try your patience as much. I look forward to more talented gamers than me churning out proper scenarios to flesh out the historical selection and eagerly await Paul Bruffel’s next foray into the world BCE.


One Comment so far ↓

  • JonathanStrange

    It’s always been ironic to me that the pretty and exciting graphics of games like RTW (among the most recent of the them) do capture quite a bit of the pageantry and combat but, somehow, don’t quite replicate the same tension of “will that unit obey its orders” or “what’s behind that ridge?” Turn-based games, like Punic Wars, do seem better at recreating a semblance of the “wait and see” feelings an ancient general might have had: “His lead units are heavy infantry. Where’s his cavalry?” or “The Fourth cohort is breaking. What I can send in to cover the gap?” and you DO feel an accomplishment when a plan works.

    I liked quite a bit of Punic Wars graphics, btw. The individual units looked decent and some quite cool. However, I’m no fan of the NATO military units – it’s too generic, too similar to old-style “let’s model warfare from 3000BC to 2100AD” games that used similar symbols for chariots, elephants and tanks. The lack of animations like flying arrows and flashing swords isn’t a plus; and substituting sounds while helpful doesn’t quite make up the difference.

    Will we ever get ALL that we want: looks and brains? We’re closing the gap, but meanwhile you pretty much have to buy RTW and Punic Wars, they both have their charms.