Tuesday, 11 December 2007

Hannibal: Rome vs Carthage

On 30 Nov 2007, I finally got to try the highly regarded and long out-of-print but recently reprinted Hannibal: Rome vs Carthage. Most people only know the Hannibal played by Anthony Hopkins in the movie Silence of the Lambs (and the sequels and prequels). But Hannibal is also a famous Carthaginian general in history who fought many battles against the Romans, before Rome became the dominant power in the Mediterranean.

Hannibal: Rome vs Carthage is a card-driven wargame, like Wilderness War (which I own since 2003 but still have not played). I can probably count this as the first pure card-driven wargame that I have played. Other card-driven wargames that I have played are Twilight Struggle (about Russia and USA trying to exert their influence around the globe during the Cold War), Hammer of the Scots and Crusader Rex. Twilight Struggle is card-driven, but is not quite like the typical card-driven wargame. It is actually quite difficult to classify this game. It has a bit of a Euro feel, because of the area-majority mechanism, and how the pieces represent an abstract concept of influence instead of actual armies. Hammer of the Scots and Crusader Rex, although being card-driven, are mainly block wargames. Most of their cards are generic 1 / 2 / 3 numbered cards, and only a few are events, unlike a typical card-driven wargame where each card has a number and an event or special power. So, to me, and my opponent (who else but) Han, this is a new foray.

Han played the Romans while I played the Carthaginians

The game is played over nine rounds. A number of cards are dealt to each player at the start of each round, and the players take turns to play their cards. All possible actions are determined by what cards you have. You use your cards to exert political influence, to activate your generals (who are needed to lead armies into battle), and to trigger special events. When activating your generals, you are constrained by how good your generals are. A good general like Hannibal can be activated using any card. A so-so general needs a value 2 or value 3 card to be activated. A lousy general must be activated using a value 3 card. There are a few possible ways to win (or lose) the game, but primarily you win by having more political influence around the Mediterranean than your opponent, or you conquer his capital.

At the start of the game, the Carthaginians start with all 5 of their generals. Rome only has 2 mediocre ones. Both players have about equal influence. Carthage controls North Africa and Spain. Rome controls Italy and the islands. Hannibal is in Spain. Usually Hannibal comes terrorising the Italian Peninsula. Carthage is initially strong, so in the first half of the game the Romans are on the defensive. Later, on round 6, the Romans get a powerful general, Scipio Africanus, the match for Hannibal, and with him, 10 army units. So, in this game there is a turn of the tide, like in Axis & Allies: Battle of the Bulge.

There is a lot of historical flavour in the game. Romans have naval supremacy, and this is represented by the Carthaginians having to roll a die every time they move by sea. The sea move may fail, and in the worst case they may lose their whole army. The events themselves add a lot of flavour to the game, e.g. Syracuse will likely revolt, because there's such a card in the deck. The change of Roman consuls every round represents Rome being a republic ruled by a Senate. The Senate changes consuls regularly to avoid military leaders getting too powerful. And of course there are elepants too (for the Carthaginians)! The rules are a lot to get through. There are quite many special situations, or exceptions handling specific aspects. This adds flavour, but also makes learning the game harder. This game is probably considered one of the easier games to learn among wargames, but to the average Eurogamer this is challenging. Not impossible, but challenging.

There are few armies and few generals in Hannibal: Rome vs Carthage. Fighting battles is an important way to win but not the only way. The political game is also important. Battles are but a means to an end, i.e. to force your opponent to lose political influence due to his soldiers getting killed in battle. Even if you win a battle, your casualties can also cause you to lose political influence. Your people don't like having their sons getting killed in battle. You don't get many new soldiers. Every round, the Carthaginians can get probably four new units, and the Romans five. Some event cards give you one or two units. You need to conserve your men. This is not Axis & Allies where you just build and build cheap infantry and send them to die as cannon fodder protecting your tanks. The Carthaginians only have 5 generals. The Romans will usually have 3 or 4 at any one time. This may actually be a more accurate representation of a war, compared to other war-themed games I have played. Generals and soldiers are a limited resource to be managed carefully.

The generals and the soldiers. Hannibal is in the centre of this photo.

The political game is somewhat interesting, but by itself I don't think it can stand. You can play cards to place political control markers, but you cannot flip a political control marker easily to your side. You can do it only if your soldiers are stepping on it. This makes an interesting consideration, and ties the battle / army movement aspect of the game with the political control aspect. At the end of each round, you count how many provinces you control, and if you have less than your opponent, you have to remove a number of political control markers equal to the difference. So this is "poor gets poorer". Some event cards and some generals' special abilities have impact on the political game too.

Battles in this game are resolved using a unique battle card system. I think it is unique. I have not seen this in other games I have played. There are many people who do not like this aspect, but it has its supporters too. After one play of the game, I like it so far. It's a quick and simple way to resolve battles. There is luck, of course, but I think it is acceptable. Whenever a battle is to be fought, you add up factors such as your general's strength, number of units, your political influence in that region, etc. This tells you how many battle cards you receive for the battle. Your opponent does the same. During battle, the attacker plays a card (e.g. left flank, right flank, frontal assult, double envelopment, probe), and the defender must play a matching card, or lose. Very simple. Naturally, if you get many cards of one type, then it is like your opponent has less or none of this type.

Another aspect I like about the battle system is the casualty concept. The longer a battle drags on, the more likely that more soldiers will be killed (both yours and your opponent's, and regardless of who wins the battle eventually). So, sometimes maybe it is a good thing to do to intentionally lose early, to minimise your losses.

The strategy cards that are dealt out at the start of every round.

In our game, as the Carthaginians, I brought Hannibal to Italy quickly, by land, across the Alps, to go beat up any Roman soldiers I could catch. Hannibal brought along two other generals, and these three guys kept busy visiting different towns terrorising the populace (stepping on political influence markers), so that I could "convince" the people to support Carthage (play cards to flip over the political control marker). I didn't bother with sieging any cities, even if there were Roman soldiers hiding inside. I had no patience. Han's Romans were defensive, but were also quick to grab any opportunity to intercept or attack my Carthaginian armies when they split up. However, Hannibal is just too strong for the Romans, and the Romans lost one battle after another. I guess that's historically accurate. Han sent some men to North Africa and did some damage (in terms of political conversion). I converted many of the Italian provinces. Battle casualties continued to haunt the Romans and they kept losing political influence. At the end of Round 5 (I think), the Romans conceded defeat, because they only had one political control marker left on the map. Scipio Africanus never had the chance to come into play at the start of Round 6.

We played one important rule wrong. After battles, you lose half the number of political control markers as your casualties, rounded down. We played 1-to-1 loss, which made things very very tough for the Romans. Since there is a "poor gets poorer" effect, things went into a downward spiral. Well, this is Han and my first time playing a card-driven wargame, so it really is a learning game. I look forward to play again, this time as the Romans. It will be a big challenge to stop or hinder Hannibal.

I don't have a firm opinion of Hannibal: Rome vs Carthage yet. I've enjoyed my first play, but maybe it's because I'm playing the "fun" side with Hannibal. I have yet to appreciate the game more to decide whether it's a game I really like and want to buy a copy too. And, of course, I need to know the rules better. I think I will need another one or two games to really get familiar with the game and then I can appreciate it much better. Perhaps Han and I should make this our "Game of the Month" (not literally) like Hammer of the Scots, and learn it well, and play it more, and then be able to appreciate all the intricacies.

One thing that really attracted me to this game is the graphic design by Mike Doyle. I like most of his work. Very classy. The box design, the rulebook, the card backs. However we found the map to be rather busy, and can at times be distracting. The map was not drawn by Mike Doyle though. I have a feeling that my urge to buy the game is more because of seeing Mike Doyle's graphic design than because of the game itself. So I shall give myself a few more plays before making up my mind. However, it seems the game is selling so well that it may go out of print again soon. I hope I'm not too late if I decide to buy it.


JR Todd said...

Nice overview. My son and I had our first game recently and enjoyed it very much. We're looking forward to the next game and we've even got his history teacher eager to try it out soon (maybe over the school break).

Hiew Chok Sien 邱卓成 said...

I too am looking forward to my second game. CDG's are a new experience for me and there is still much to explore in Hannibal: Rome vs Carthage.

Unknown said...

Nice review! How long was your first game? Would u ever play this with your wife?

I've tried Twilight Struggle with my wifey and she seemed to like it but the lenght of the game make it hard to bring it to the table often...


Hiew Chok Sien 邱卓成 said...

My first game took roughly 1.5 to 2 hours. I don't remember exactly. But we only played to end of Round 5 or 6 before Rome conceded defeat.

I wouldn't play this with my wife. She is OK with complex Eurogames, like Puerto Rico, Power Grid, but the war theme and the rule complexity of Hannibal: Rome vs Carthage is probably too much for her. But if your wife likes Twilight Struggle, then Hannibal may be workable. But I think Hannibal is more complex than Twilight Struggle.

BoardGameKing.com said...

I also really like this game. Check it out my review on it - http://www.boardgameking.com/reviews/hannibal-rome-vs-carthage/