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Fight Like Channing Tatum (Online): A Short, Bloody History of Roman War Games

Slide 1: Fight Like Channing Tatum (Online) - A Short, Bloody History Of Roman War Games

Kevin MacDonald’s epic The Eagle features Channing Tatum smashing and stabbing his way to victory in multiple face offs between the Roman occupying forces in Britain and the local Celtic tribes. For these fights, filmmakers, trainers and consultants researched both the battle strategies of the Roman troops (well-organized, clockwork maneuvers) and the Celtic tribes (wild, chaotic bursts of violence). In so doing, they joined the legions of gamers who day and night imagine war through the mind of ancient Romans. Of course, as long as there has been modern warfare there have been war games. As governments and armies stage simulated conflicts, both with live troops and computer models, gamers from the casual to the diehard play along to conflicts both real and imaginary. And while chess (which, after all, involves capturing the king) dates back to the 6th century, possibly the earliest military war game was Kriegsspiel, developed in 1812 by two members of the Prussian army. Many of the elements of the games we know today — a board divided into grids, a rulebook full of charts and outcomes, dice — were featured in this early game that was also actually a military training tool.

Slide 2: Managing Risk

The first 20th century war game with mass appeal was Risk. What Monopoly was to capitalism, Parker Brothers’ Risk was to Cold War geopolitics. Risk was created in 1957 not by a military strategist or a game designer but by a filmmaker. Albert Lamorisse is known to film lovers of all ages for his charming Oscar-winning short, The Red Balloon. One year after making that children’s classic he created the game, originally titled The Conquest of the World. In Risk, players roll dice, move tokens representing armies and collect cards as they try to militarily dominate six continents of the world. Around the same time as Risk’s publication was the founding of Avalon Hill, a Maryland-based company specializing in more-detailed games based on actual historical incidents. Beginning with Tactics but moving into games like Stalingrad, Panzer Blitz and Waterloo, Avalon Hill brought historical research to the gaming world, creating a whole subculture of weekend warriors who’d play games lasting days, weeks, even months.

Slide 3: Dungeons and Dragons Suit up the Player

In 1974, the gaming world was revolutionized by Dungeons and Dragons, an original game created by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson that was set in a fantasy medieval world. Rather than move miniatures representing army squadrons, the players of this first “role-laying game” created characters and accrued experience, wealth and stature through adventures that were talked-through as much as charted. Yes, there were dice rolls, battles and grids, but there was also individual psychology, personality and imagination. Indeed, D&D games were stamped with the individual characters of their “dungeon masters” as much as game designers.

Slide 4: The Birth of Multiplayer Online Games

In the mid-90s, gaming was redefined once again with “massively multiplayer online role-playing games” like Ultima Online and World of Warcraft. In these games, the board is a computer screen and the gamers not a group of teens in a basement rec room but literally thousands of people spread over the globe and communicating in cyberspace. With their own virtual economies, these MMORPG’s can now be played on both gaming consoles as well as laptops, and they take the character-based play of Dungeons & Dragons into cyberworlds that can become addictively real for their players.

Slide 5: Rome, from Boards to the Web

A look at today’s Roman-themed war games finds games borrowing from all of these stages of gaming history. That’s undoubtedly due to the same reasons that have kept filmmakers returning to the Roman era too. The 500 or so years spanning from 27BC to AD476 include global warfare, the one-on-one, gladiatorial combat of the Roman ampitheater (reduced to its grisly basics in computer games like Mortal Kombat), and the diplomatic maneuvering occurring among the Emperors of the Roman Republic and its various enemies. And just as filmmakers have created everything from large-scale battle epics to more intimate adventures and dramas, game designers have created everything from classic old-school military tactics games to MMORPG’s (the forthcoming Gods and Heroes: Rome Rising) that allow us all to be gladiator or slave, emperor or serf. Here are some notable games that take us back to the days of the Romans.

Slide 6: Getting on Board with Conquest of the Empire

In 1984, the Milton Bradley company, known for such baby-boomer favorites as Life, Chutes and Ladders, and Twister, released a somewhat complicated historical game that went on to become not only a collector’s item but also the forerunner of almost three decades of Roman-themed games. Conquest of the Empire was part of Milton Bradley’s “Gamemaster” series, described by the site Board Game Geek as “known for their big boxes, big boards and tons of plastic pieces. The quality of these light war games had not been seen before, and likely served as the inspiration for many games released later by publishers such as Eagle Games, the later Avalon Hill and especially Fantasy Flight Games.”

Slide 7: Re-Conquest of the Empire

Set in Second Century Rome after the death of Marcus Aurelius, Conquest of the Empire allows gamers to play out a civil war within the Roman empire, with each player receiving one faction as well as emperor figure, military leaders, and an army. Players can wage both war and diplomacy, and must be skilled in not only combat strategy but money management — war is expensive, and the game factors in the continually rising cost of inflation. The game went out of print and became a cult favorite, with copies scoring high prices in second-hand shops and, later, on eBay. But in 2005 Eagles Games purchased the rights and re-released Conquest of the Empire in an expanded edition with a bigger board, better dice, and a second rule set enabling gamers to play two completely different versions of the game. The first set was a revised version of the original rules by Larry Harris; the second, a new set by Glen Drover influenced by another game — Martin Wallace’s Struggle of the Empires. In the new “rule set 2,” strategy and diplomacy is more important, with even a Roman Senate and series of votes added.

Slide 8: A Never-Ending War with Commands and Colors: Ancients

Commands and Colors: Ancients is perhaps the top serious Roman war game today, a classic, old-school strategy-and-tactics game in which scenarios are drawn from specific historical battles. Ancients is the Roman edition of the Commands and Colors series, a set of games that include adventures set in World War 2 (Memoir ’44), the Civil War (Battle Cry) and the Napoleonic Era (Napoleonics). Of the Commands and Colors system, Mike Betzel at the blog Beware the Gazebo wrote, “… Richard Borg's Command and Colors system is an attempt to make war games faster and easier to play. In all of the Command and Colors games… the game board is divided into three flanks (left, center, right) and units are grouped by relative strength. To help narrow a player's options they have a hand of action cards that specify which flanks or types of units may be activated by playing that card. A Command and Colors game is as simple as playing a card, activating the specified units and rolling dice for combat!” Writes Borg on the company’s website (http://www.ccancients.net/Rules/index.html), “The battles, showcased in the scenario section, focus on the historical deployment of forces and important terrain features on the scale of the game system…. The Command card system drives movement, creates ‘fog of war’, and presents players with many interesting challenges and opportunities, while the battle dice resolve combat quickly and efficiently. The battlefield tactics you will need to execute to gain victory conform remarkably well to the strengths and limitations of the various ancient unit types, their weapons, the terrain, and history.” The main game features battles between Rome and Carthage, while five expansion packs add battles with the Greeks, the Persians, the Scythians, the Indians, the Barbarians and the Parthian Empire.

08_ComandsColores

Commands and Colors: Ancients is perhaps the top serious Roman war game today, a classic, old-school strategy-and-tactics game in which scenarios are drawn from specific historical battles. Ancients is the Roman edition of the Commands and Colors series, a set of games that include adventures set in World War 2 (Memoir ’44), the Civil War (Battle Cry) and the Napoleonic Era (Napoleonics). Of the Commands and Colors system, Mike Betzel at the blog Beware the Gazebo wrote, “… Richard Borg's Command and Colors system is an attempt to make war games faster and easier to play. In all of the Command and Colors games… the game board is divided into three flanks (left, center, right) and units are grouped by relative strength. To help narrow a player's options they have a hand of action cards that specify which flanks or types of units may be activated by playing that card. A Command and Colors game is as simple as playing a card, activating the specified units and rolling dice for combat!” Writes Borg on the company’s website (http://www.ccancients.net/Rules/index.html), “The battles, showcased in the scenario section, focus on the historical deployment of forces and important terrain features on the scale of the game system…. The Command card system drives movement, creates ‘fog of war’, and presents players with many interesting challenges and opportunities, while the battle dice resolve combat quickly and efficiently. The battlefield tactics you will need to execute to gain victory conform remarkably well to the strengths and limitations of the various ancient unit types, their weapons, the terrain, and history.” The main game features battles between Rome and Carthage, while five expansion packs add battles with the Greeks, the Persians, the Scythians, the Indians, the Barbarians and the Parthian Empire.

Slide 9: Ostia and the Politics of War

Set in First Century, A.D., Ostia, by Pro Ludo games, is a boardgamer for ages 12 and up that focuses not on warfare but on commerce. Players work the Roman equivalent of the construction and public works businesses, importing goods from abroad, trading them with other players, and trying to land deals with the Roman Senate. But, as the game’s advertising copy warns, “The needs of the Senate change from year to year… Will you be clever enough to become a favorite of the Senate?” In a review at RPG.net, Shannon Appelcline praises the game, writing, “Ostia is also somewhat notable because it's one of the few logistical games that I know of that's got relatively deep gameplay, but still plays in just over an hour. In both its mechanics and its components, Ostia is quite compact.” But, he says, the game is best played by friends and not rabid competitors. “It really shines as a social game, to be played by people who enjoy talking with each other and engaging in group gameplay.”

Slide 10: Ancient War Made Modern with Rome: Total War

For both PC and Mac, Rome: Total War, in the words of its publisher, Creative Strategy, is “an epic-scale strategy game that invites you to experience the grandeur, glory and brutality that was ancient Rome.” Encompassing both real battles and fictional ones occurring between 270BC and AD14, Rome: Total War requires players to not only marshal armies but also assassins, mercenaries, traders, and even families. (In a nod away from contemporary sexual politics, only the male members of a family can be controlled by players.) Highly acclaimed when it was released in 2004, Rome: Total War brings the strategy genre from board games to the computer, adding sound and image that enhance the battleplay. Writes, Steve Butts in IGN, “The plaid pants on the German spearman, the rivets on the Legionnaire's armor, the crests on a hoplite's helmet -- the details here are well beyond the standard for the genre… When you see a group of infantry charge into one another and start swinging swords around, well, it's hard not to get wrapped up in this local scene and forget, if only for a second, that there's an entire battle raging all around you. And: “From the simple cheers let out by your victorious units to the full on battle cry of those crazy German ladies, the sounds of your men on the battlefield add a lot of life to the conflicts. Your own general will even give a surprisingly fitting speech as a prelude to each battle.”

Slide 11: Getting War Right with Rome: Total Realism

Rome: Total War was a massive hit, but as its popularity grew, serious gamers began to criticize its casual approach to the history of ancient Rome. The original developers had always admitted to adding fictional elements in order to simplify gameplay, but one portion of the community that grew up with these games desired something more. Enter Rome: Total Realism, a “mod,” or series of modifications, that can be downloaded by owners of Rome: Total War and which tighten up the historical record. The mod was created by a team of 14 programmers who, according to UGO, “makes significant revisions to two areas of game play: the setup of the factions and their armies, and the establishment of control over newly conquered territories. Gone are the three quasi-independent Roman families and the meddlesome Senate; Rome operates as a single military and political unit, as it did in history. Rome's initial territories are more compact — you'll have to fight the other Italian tribes for control of the peninsula before you take on other groups — and their armies are different, too, as the standard hestati, principes, and velites mix things up with spear and javelin based Italian units. As a result, until you build up your power base, you'll be using the hoplite units that comprise many of the Greek armies. RTR's developers ditched the Britons from the playable faction list as a historically irrelevant group, and replaced them with the Illyrians, a people whose centrally located starting position (between Italy and Greece) gives RTR a completely different strategic dynamic than the original game. Finally, RTR replaces the Egyptians… with a more authentic Greek style military, putting the new faction, called the Ptolemaics, on par with the Seleucids, Greeks, and Macedonians.” Phew! Like the original Rome: Total War, there are multiple expansion packs that add new battles and conflicts to the mix.

Slide 12: To Roma Victor Goes the Spoils

Many of the Roman wargames stress the ability of players to manage their economies. One of the most historically accurate Roman games, Roma Victor, also deals with economy — both within the game and outside of it. The game was developed by U.K.’s RedBedlam, a company created not as a game publisher but as a developer of “virtual economies,” in which real people use real money to buy virtual things, much like purchases can function in Second Life. “The game came after [the company],” said President and Managing Director Kerry Fraser-Robinson in an interview by Shannon Drake with The Escapist. Drake explains the gameplay, in which the agrarian barter economy of ancient Rome is given a credit-fueled 21st century spin: “Players purchase an account key, which comes with a small amount of game currency, to access the game itself. Rather than a monthly fee, players can use their credit cards to purchase "sesterces," RV's in-game currency, if they need or want more money.” The fact that players can improve their characters and increase their Roman social status by maxing out their real credit cards makes Roma Victor, as well as other games in the “virtual economy” genre, controversial. But for Fraser-Robinson, the game simply mirrors human behavior. “We've got one guy who is much wealthier, personally, in real life, and who's spent quite a lot of money in game. [He] controls what you might call a 'legion' — well, they're auxiliaries — of soldiers. And these two major houses try to vie for the attention and power of the 'legion.' It's like real life. They love it. They're having a great time. It makes the politics and intrigue that much more interesting.”

Slide 13: The Mod of War - Mount and Blade

In the independent PC game Mount and Blade by the Turkish developers TaleWorlds, players roam a fictional medieval world called Calradia, engaging in combat on foot, on horseback, or simply avoiding confrontation and building social and community stature. So if Calradia is a fantasy land, what’s it doing in this round-up? The answer: Mount and Blade has some of the best “mods” of any game, including a Roman-themed version called Hegemony 268 BC in which players can play as the Roman Republic, Carthage, Egypt and other ancient civilizations. A thriving “Hegemony Series Mods” forum contains hundreds of thousands of posts that get deep into the history of the period, and it contains dozens of new quests. At the forum, one poster started a new thread entitled “This ain’t a mod” before continuing his thought in the message: “You guys are making a wonderful new game.”

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