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Legion (2002)

April 15th, 2008 by Troy Goodfellow · 7 Comments · Ancients, Feature:Anc, Retro, Review

If you’ve ever wondered what would happen if champion gamers were given a chance to design their own game, then you should probably take a look at Slitherine’s games. Iain and J.D. McNeil are competitive DBA/DBM players, with Iain winning a world championship in 2001 and both regularly placing in the top ten. Slitherine is a partner in an alternative miniature wargame rule set called Field of Glory.

Legion and the Slitherine games that followed are also further testimony to how timing is everything and how a more popular and better financed series can set the terms of discussion. Legion had the great misfortune to come out the same year that Medieval: Total War did and months before Rome: Total War was announced.

Legion is an empire building game with a tactical battle engine. You improve and conquer territories, engage in diplomacy and raise troops to fight your battles. “Citizens” were the key resource; you had to staff every building with people and the more people you had, the more effective the building would be. Mines, universities, embassies…every one depended on regular population growth.

However, troop recruitment also required citizens so your need for municipal manpower was always being weighed against your desire to push the boundaries of the empire. As you upgraded your city you could field larger and larger armies, with eight units being the maximum in a single force, though these eight came in variable sizes depending on your tech level.

With a simple diplomatic model that was pretty much just war/peace, Legion‘s strategic game could never be praised for its subtlety. In fact, in Chariots of War, the sequel to Legion, war seemed to break out randomly. (The designers justified this with some nonsense about how primitive diplomacy was in the Fertile Crescent.)

The game’s subtle side was only apparent in the battle engine, a simple and elegant fire and forget system that captured a central point about ancient warfare: Once the guys got going, they were pretty hard to control. You would set general parameters for your troops (advance, hold, charge, hold and then advance, etc.) and then watch them go. Terrain mattered, so you had to plan where you wanted the engagement to happen and hope that your flanking troops wouldn’t make their move too soon. The link between the topography on the strategic map and the battlefield in the tactical part is what made Rome: Total War so great; Legion got there first.

As simple as it was, with a little experience you coordinate masses of soldiers, including skirmishers. It wasn’t easy to beat larger armies – certainly not as easy as it is in Rome: Total War – but a good plan could inflict heavy casualties on your foe. Like all good ancients wargames, it was more about morale than murder; routing the enemy was the point of the engagement.

There were four Legion games. Legion, Chariots of War, Sparta (the best of the lot, it had a Trojan War expansion) and Legion: Arena (which was recently repackaged as The History Channel: Great Battles of Rome) and this number should qualify it as a success, I suppose. The visuals for Sparta even earned Slitherine an award at the Independent Games Festival one year.

But somehow the games didn’t quite take off outside a particular mad set that prefers them to the clearly superior in every way Total War games. Even as the strategic game got more sophisticated (as in Sparta) and the engine got further refined (like in the otherwise pointless Legion: Arena), Slitherine’s ancients titles never fulfilled their promise. Early plans for a grand strategy game that spanned the Mediterranean have come to naught.

The issue, I think, is much bigger than simply being mistaken for a Total War clone. That charge doesn’t stick upon examination and is unfair to what Slitherine accomplished. The reason why the Slitherine games are, to my mind, noble failures, has more to do with the lack of conviction. This was less an historic setting than it was a miniature battle generator.

It all comes down to the strategic end, you see. It wasn’t convincing. The cities you built never really looked Roman, and the simplification of resources gathering (food, metal, wood) seemed ripped straight from a real time strategy game where such abstractions are normal.

Most gamers are familiar with the uncanny valley – the idea that as photorealism and CGI get more convincing the more the human mind focuses on what is “off” about the animation. Strategy gaming has an uncanny valley, too. If one part of a system is persuasive, then it gets more difficult to accept generalizations in the other parts. Games can cross this valley, but they need to distract the user either with visuals or descriptive text – just enough to cover up the sleight of hand. By making the battle engine so compelling and period appropriate, Slitherine couldn’t help but draw attention to the cookie cutter cities, the weird unit recruitment system and how uninspired the strategic map looked most of the time. Then, given a chance to cut loose with a 3D battle engine in Legion: Arena, they stick on a really lame role playing segment where you level up troops and spend “fame points”.

If I had to choose the hardest thing in game design, it would probably be the decision about what and when to abstract. There is always a temptation for historical themed games to push hard on the realism on the stuff that designers are interested in and to punt the rest. Too much abstraction, of course, gets in the way of what Bruce Geryk has dubbed “touching history” – the reason why so many people are drawn to these games in the first place. Being more of a strategic than tactical mind, I think I’d prefer it if the battles were more general than the big picture stuff, but the trick is finding a nice balance somewhere in there.

Ultimately, a game succeeds or fails for a number of reasons. It certainly didn’t help Slitherine to be stuck with Strategy First as a publisher, especially in SF’s Golden Age of “we’ll publish anything”. And the ancient world is still very much a niche subject, certainly not as popular as World War II. (Slitherine published Commander: Europe at War and it seems to have been a bigger hit for them than their home grown games.)

I ran into the McNeils at the 2007 GDC. They were still at the IGF booth (they became regulars there) and were demonstrating their medieval fantasy version of Legion: Arena. In a candid moment, they admitted how hard it was for a mid-sized developer to get publishers behind games set in distant history. They were optimistic that the History Channel branding would mean more widespread distribution for Arena, but seemed resigned to the fact that they were now working on a game with elves in it.

Though I’m not a huge fan of the Legion games, I think the series deserves more attention than it has traditionally gotten. Not just because the McNeils are really nice guys with a love of wargaming, but because the games are so close to be very good. A better diplomatic model and more attention to the city building stuff would have made Spartan great; it had a nice tech development system, intrigue missions, Roman and Persian interventions that would whack everything in sight.

Soren Johnson notes that mid range titles like this may be on their last legs.

Franchises like Civilization and Age of Empires and StarCraft are still quite safe, but oft-kilter games from major publishers like Majesty and Sacrifice and Tropico are gone, gone, gone, and they are not coming back.

I’d hate to see that. And maybe with a good digital delivery service like Stardock’s new strategy heavy Impulse system games like the Slitherine ones will be able to reach a similar sized audience for a bigger piece of the pie. Lots of people make average games who should probably find a different way of doing things. I think Slitherine could still surprise us.

In a couple of days, I’ll have a write up on one of the most ignored and underrated real time strategy games of recent years, Praetorians.


7 Comments so far ↓

  • A History of the Ancients Game

    […] Defender of Rome (1990) Caesar (1993) The Great Battles series (1997-98) Age of Empires (1997) Legion (2002) Praetorians (2003) Rome: Total War […]

  • Soren Johnson

    I crafted my sentence carefully – mid-range titles _from major publishers_ are definitely over. However, as something like Sins of a Solar Empire proves, there is more room than ever for small teams who can control scope and execute well.

  • JonathanStrange

    Troy, it’s scary have much you echo my thoughts on ancient-themed games. You’re like my smarter, more articulate, less evil twin (who I thought was long gone.)

    I enjoyed the Slitherine games but they always left me wanting more strategically. I think Slitherine’s designers could make a plausible argument that the battles were the point of the game and the strategy merely a way of getting there but probably most of us interested in historical gaming want both tactics and strategy. If either is abstracted, it should be done in a way that still feels somewhat realistic. And most of the time, Slitherines’ strategic layer wasn’t convincing. Still: who else but Slitherine’s Chariots of War allowed me to try and make ancient Judea into one of the greatest mid-eastern powers of the ancient world?

    Plus it didn’t help, I think, that the Total War series seems to generate expectations of every unit being capable of receiving and following orders throughout the chaos of combat.

  • shanicus

    I really enjoyed reading this article. Thank you very much.

    I would like to add that I think that Stardock, as a gaming company, has done an excellent job of showing what a small(er) developer is capable of doing. I know that Stardock is relatively well known for making Windows add ons but until Sins of a Solar Empire came out, I really doubted that it was a well known gaming company. Sure, Galactic Civilizations (the series) is a decent game but it is not as well known as Civilization or even some sub standart RTSs.

  • Dave Long

    It seems to me that Stardock will quickly become a “major publisher” if they continue down the road they’re on.

  • DESIGNER NOTES » Blog Archive » Ancient Strategy Games

    […] a good sample from the entry on Slitherine’s Legion (2002): Most gamers are familiar with the uncanny valley – the idea that as photorealism and CGI get more […]

  • Age of Empires (1997)

    […] If Ensemble is one of the great fulfilled promises of historical gaming, with two set in the ancient world, Slitherine is one of the great unfulfilled promises, a studio with four ancients games and some great design ideas that just don’t gel. Next week, we take a look at Legion. […]