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Centurion: Defender of Rome (1990)

April 1st, 2008 by Troy Goodfellow · 10 Comments · Ancients, Feature:Anc, Retro, Review

Late in November 2006, I turned in my review of Medieval II: Total War to the editor of Computer Games Magazine. In his reply to that e-mail, he asked if I could quickly turn around a Revisionist History contribution (the magazine’s retro column) connected to the game. I suggested Centurion, the boss man didn’t argue and I accomplished a pretty remarkable feat for someone as fussy as me – I loaded the game in DOSBox, played it to refresh my memory and grab some screens, and then wrote the column – all within a few hours.

Looking back, this was easier than it should have been mostly because Centurion is one of those games that has crept into my memory and lodged itself there well beyond my limited affection for the game. Part of it is undoubtedly the haze of college memories. In an age of piracy, we actually bought Centurion. But a large part of it is because once I realized the connections between Centurion and pretty much every other ancients game since, it was an essay that I had been destined to write. Maybe I’ll find a way to upload that column someday in the future. On with the show.

First the basics. In Centurion, the player took control of the Roman empire and tried to conquer the known world one province at a time. Like Annals of Rome, the territories were laid out to match the historical Roman provinces so Italy was as united as Sicily and Egypt a single province just like Cyprus. You could take provinces by diplomacy if you liked, but most of the time you would be conquering them. As you gained provinces you earned promotions, which meant bigger and better armies. Once you hit Consul, you’d get a Consular Army. Eventually you’d be powerful enough to control more than one.

Unlike Annals of Rome, your opponents were mostly happy to just slow you down. Macedon wouldn’t carve out its own empire in the East, but it might invade Italy. Carthage certainly would come knocking. So would roaming barbarians. You would duke it out with a battle engine that let you choose basic tactics and then you would see the battle unfold. Any troops in your generals’ radius of influence could be given more precise instructions. But the battles were largely guesswork based on what you thought the enemy would do and how you would counter it. With the strategic map and tactical battles, Centurion was the homo erectus to the fully evolved Rome: Total War; there is clearly a line of connection but no doubt which is the primitive version.

The most memorable thing about Centurion, besides how good it looked, was that it would make you play minigames. A lot of minigames. Even the battles were, in the final analysis minigames. Kellyn Beeck, the designer of Centurion, took time from his busy schedule to reflect a little on the game.

In the 1980s, when this game was designed, the limitations of personal computers also constrained what we were able to do (there were Amiga and Sega Genesis versions but remember, we also had to program this game for DOS). I would love to tackle a full-blown sim of the Roman Empire today. Now you can have hundreds or even thousands of units on the screen, but in Centurion we were limited to a couple of dozen fully-animated units in a battle. Back then, we made serious compromises between realism and entertainment value in this kind of game, giving up some of the real behind-the-scenes number crunching of simulations for cinematic adventure. With the number of units limited, the battles were a minigame.

But the battles were the fun empire building part. Then you had too easy gladiatorial combat or too hard chariot races to appease the restive population. And the mostly pointless naval combat minigames. Where did these come from? The same place everyone’s ideas of Rome come from – Hollywood.

Centurion is definitely a Hollywood version of Roman history. It’s an homage to sword and sandal movies like Ben Hur, Spartacus and Cleopatra, with nods to each of those films within the game.

To add color and atmosphere – and more depth of play – to the game, we added other minigames to the design. By recalling Hollywood favorites, we hoped to borrow some instant atmosphere for our game, making you almost feel like you were in a movie even though the graphics were limited by low resolution and 32 colors, which seemed like a lot at the time.

The gladiator scene was a nod to Spartacus, recalling the flavor of combat in the Roman Colosseum. The chariot racing scene was a tribute to Ben Hur, taking you to the Circus Maximus. The naval battle recalled similar scenes in the movie Cleopatra – and the seduction of Cleopatra is there, too.

So Centurion is to ancient history as Pirates! is to the 17th century Caribbean, part simulation but a large part cinema heroics. You see some of this in Beeck’s earlier Defender of the Crown, too. It was more about Robin Hood and Ivanhoe than England.

The problem with most of the minigames in Centurion is that they had little impact on the outcome of the game. Win or lose the chariot race, the people are happy. Of course, if you won you would get a little extra cash to help pay for army upkeep, but if you let you let your gladiator get eaten by a lion, no one would really complain too much. The naval battle game had you lobbing fireballs at an enemy trireme, but, unlike the land battles, was only a small part of the calculation of who would win the actual battle. Even if you did sink the flagship, you could lose the engagement if you were outnumbered on the seas.

The diplomatic game was more adventure game or RPG text than real diplomacy. You chose dialog and, if you were lucky, you picked the right ones and you could eventually build up a good relationship. You could seduce Egypt into the Empire but not Cisalpine Gaul or Britannia; Celts just aren’t sexy I suppose.

I have more respect for Centurion for what it represented than for what it is. It should certainly be considered the first “hit” ancient themed game, and it was also significant for being one of the first strategy games developed simultaneously for console and PC. Its influence on future games is apparent, from using historical leader names to separate strategic and tactical engines to the glorification of classic cinema instead of Tacitus. It was one of the first historical games to introduce popular support as a prerequisite for success; this is 1 BC (Before Civ). For good or for ill, Centurion is probably the single most influential game on my list. It came from a respected developer, followed tried and true formulas and used what was then high end graphics to draw in the eye.

But I can’t play it any more. Where Annals of Rome can still surprise me, Centurion is too often interrupted by things that take my mind off the grand historical narrative I am playing in my head. I still suck at the chariot racing (that turn just sneaks up on you) but for the most part the minigames aren’t interesting enough to want to play them more than a couple of times. And you can’t avoid using your precious money on gladiators.

Centurion was, by any measure, a success. And it arrived in a golden age of strategy gaming. There wasn’t an explosion of other ancient titles in its wake. A few years later, a new game would also draw on lessons outside of history and historical gaming to become the most successful ancient series in gaming history. Next up, Caesar.

Thanks to Kellyn Beeck for providing insight and commentary exclusive to this essay.


10 Comments so far ↓

  • A History of the Ancients Game

    […] (1982) Annals of Rome (more here) (1986) Encyclopedia of War: Ancient Battles (1988) Centurion: Defender of Rome (1990) Caesar (1993) The Great Battles series (1997-98) Age of Empires (1997) Legion (2001) […]

  • roberton

    Once you’d published the Ancient Battles retrospective, I grabbed a copy of Centurion and the aforementioned DosBox and went through a little comparative exercise: how does Centurion played now compare to how I remember it back then (in my case on an Amiga)?

    Well not too well, not surprisingly.

    I agree about the mini-games and I’d be surprised if many strategy game fans (e.g. readers of Flash of Steel) thought otherwise. But I did enjoy them originally, perhaps because I was more into arcade aspects then, perhaps because the graphics in them were more evocative back then. I loved all those Cinemaware games too, of which Defender of the Crown was the first and set a pattern many of then would follow.

    However I still think the battles were pretty good for its time. True, they’re small, simplistic and worst of all repetitive. I played and replayed the first 30 years to see how well I could do at the start, and once I’d done that the fun was fading fast. But until I’d seen all they had to offer I *had* enjoyed them. I couldn’t say the same thing about Legionnaire (which I also dug up when you wrote your article, although in that case it was the first time I’d played it).

    What I was more disappointed in was the strategy level. I thought somehow there was more to it than there is; it’s not even at the Risk level. A slightly stronger high-level game with some need to have longer term plans and my 21st century dabble in Centurion would have lasted a lot longer.

    Anyway, great article.

    As for Caesar, it was one of the most disappointing games I’ve ever bought! It will be interesting to read what you have to say about it…


  • Vic Davis

    The Pirates! comparison is very interesting. I didn’t catch this one at release. I was spending my meagre money on SSI gold box games. Anybody have any idea how well this sold for the PC? 30k units? 100k units?

  • JonathanStrange

    Centurion: Defender of Rome: one of my childhood favorites ! It matters not to this grizzled legionarie that the world has moved on. Still waiting for a computer Hannibal that can command the A.I. forces.

  • Toilet Cleaner

    I can’t imagine going back to this game. But I have hit “Annals of Rome” three different times since you brought it up a couple of weeks ago — and thanks for reminding me.

  • Encyclopedia of War: Ancient Battles (1988)

    […] 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. […]

  • António

    Centurion was and is simply the game you would still install again just because of longing it. The kind you didn´t grow with but still marks a stage in your early life together with SimCity from Maxis.

  • JonathanStrangerer

    The thing about this game is that it sets you up for dissapointment is this. The first time you see it, it blows your mind and keeps on doing so over and over untill you become addicted to recieving more and more. And then you find yourself playing the game bone dry with nothing left but an intense craving of wanting more, unale to get it ofcoarse. And no other ancient historical war game after Centurion has seemed to scratch the right spot .

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  • All roads lead to where you want: I want an open-world Roman game « Matchsticks for my Eyes

    […] what about the Hollywood, sword-and-sandals version of Rome? Consider Centurion: Defender of Rome (as described here by Troy Goodfellow), which, 20 years ago, let you race chariots, fight as a gladiator, and command the flagship at […]