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Alea Jacta Est: Birth of Rome gets Reviewed

Alea Jacta Est: Birth of Rome gets Reviewed

Review - posted by Trash on Sat 9 March 2013, 15:58:29

Tags: AGEOD; Alea Jacta Est; Alea Jacta Est: Birth of Rome

I really like the concept of big huge board or tabletop war games. The more plastic and cardboard pieces, the thicker the rulebook, the larger the board or map the better. But unfortunately once I purchase said game everything goes downhill. Sure, unpacking the box is great and even the week or two spent reading the rulebook is fine. After that though the problem is convincing a group of friends to devote a whole Sunday playing whatever monstrosity I've purchased. Even if I get so far as gathering a group together, I'm the only one whose read the rules. So, the day quickly devolves into a bunch of drunk guys sitting around a table messily covered in pretty plastic and no one having any idea of what's supposed to be going on.

Which brings me to Birth of Rome, the stand alone expansion to Alea Jacta Est. It very much feels like a digitized version of a massive board game covering the Romans bloody rise to power in Europe. The game's ancient world map is covered in symbols reminiscent of board game pieces. You pick up, drag and drop commanders and order pieces like you would when playing on a table (there's even a reference to chits in the game's manual). The game has a transparent rules crunch like a board game, wherein the game's inner workings are explained up front. Fortunately you don't need to do any of the math yourself. You also don't have the problem of someone bumping over a commander piece and not knowing if last turn their army was in Sicily or Northern Africa. You will still need to read the rule book though.

Having not played the original Alea Jacta Est it actually chronologically makes more sense for me to begin with Birth of Rome. This is because it deals with the upstart Romans bullying their neighbors and taking over Italy and surrounds. Where the original Alea Jacta Est (Roman Civil Wars) mostly dealt with Romans bickering with each other, Birth of Rome features a cast of Samnites, Gauls, Greeks and Carthaginians. You can play as or against each (as well as the titular Romans or a mercenary side tromping about Northen Africa). There are 6 new scenarios ranging from 31 to 285 turns (a turn again being 30 in game days). The crux of Birth of Rome is the first Punic Wars scenarios, with the other scenarios being the lead up to, or aftermath of said war.

There's usually a lot happening on the map

Now, back to that aforementioned rule book. Birth of Rome's interface is identical to Alea Jacta Est's, which is based on Ageod's Age engine. At first glance everything seems simple, it's an attractive easy to use interface and the tutorial does a good job of showing you how to move an army about on the map. Unfortunately, that's all the tutorial really does and once you start up any of the game's campaigns your thrown in the deep end with opposing forces at each other's throats from the get go. A few turns in and you realize the simple tutorial has shown you how to click a few buttons and move the pretty pieces about the map but left you completely in the dark as how to actually play effectively. As I've stated before I'm not opposed to reading a rulebook, but reading a PDF from a computer screen can be a real chore. I would have liked to see a bit more meat to the tutorial, explaining some of the more important aspects of the back end. The shame here is that the game's systems, once worked out, are relatively simple but Birth of Rome doesn't do a good job explaining them to you.

Due to the importance of naval warfare in the first Punic war, ships play a much larger role in this game. As such the naval units have been expanded upon. The Carthaginians have the historically accurate naval upper hand at the start of the campaign. I found this advantage given away too easily with a cheap military option given to the Roman side to re-create a Carthaginian shipwreck in a turn. At which point the Romans then have access to a comparable navy. There is also a new set of Options for leaders of the new factions to play with.

For those that haven't played Alea Jacta Est, the Options are extra abilities your faction has access to; like appointing a dictator, calling for allies or taxing the population harder for more money for the war effort. I was a little disappointed by the lack of flavor in the Options, especially for the likes of the Carthginians from which I expected blood soaked human sacrifices. Alas, they were considerably tame. I also feel the Options aren't as exciting mechanics wise as they should be, all feeling rather cheap and anticlimactic, rather than being game changing choices with big effects and terrible costs. The way the Options are currently implemented feels like a wasted opportunity to emulate the enormously consequential decisions leaders sometimes have to make.

Lots of events and decisions can be taken but some more flavour to hem would be nice

Though Birth of Rome (and by extension Alea Jacta Est) largely simplifies the shady political dealings of ancient Rome and glosses over the societal operations of ancient civilizations, it's pretty damn good at being a game about commanding armies. Once you plod your way through working out the game's system it's hard not to enjoy planning out a turn, directing your armies about the countryside and then waiting anxiously to see how it all pans out. You decide the composition of armies, and tell them where to go but the actual fighting is handled by the game's number crunching backend. This is a good way of making the player feel like a high and mighty commander, giving broad sweeping orders but not involved with the micromanagement of individual armies. One of your main concerns is ensuring your armies are supplied with food. A besieging army can quickly whittle away to nothing without supplies, which is an interesting aspect of wargaming often omitting from PC strategy games.

Each turn of [b[Birth of Rome[/b] you will have a large amount of information presented to you, then be given a relatively small and simple set of decisions to make. This is one of the major reasons it feels so much like a digitized board game. It's also one of the major reasons I like it. Board games can be fantastic but like I explained in the introduction only when everyone knows the rules well enough and pieces aren't being bumped randomly around the board. Birth of Rome gives you what essentially feels like a huge board game where everyone knows the rules, there's always someone to play against and there's no chance of the pieces getting messy and the game falling to crap.

Considering that the Alea Jacta Est series is much better at being a wargame than a game about running a civilization, Birth of Rome is set in an era inherently more interesting for wargaming than the original. Personally I would much prefer to play out the first Punic War than simple Roman civil wars if the backroom political subterfuge isn't going to be treated with any depth. The other scenarios are nicely varied as well, in both size and subject matter. In particular the Mercenary wars is a interesting little scenario played out in 48 turns that doesn't even feature Romans. The game does seem to favor historical accuracy though, perhaps out of fear of a creating a rift in the space time continuum. I found it much easier to win a scenario using the side that historically triumphed. Speaking of triumphs, the AI seems competent enough at the beginning of a game. Unfortunately in most of the campaigns I played it dejectedly gave up the ghost after a few early defeats and I was able to steam roll my way through the rest of the campaign. I feel playing by email against a human adversary may be a more exciting way to play.

The First Punic War features a lot of naval combat. Better hope those pesky storms stay away

As attractive as I found the interface, there are some foibles that I assume have carried over from the original Alea Jacta Est. In depth unit information is a pain to get to and once you're there its tucked away in the corner of the screen . Tiny numbers feature too heavily throughout the game and information in general isn't all that attractively presented. Diplomacy options should have the option to snap to the affected region before you take them (like the after turn message system), as unless your ancient Latin geography is strong you're going to spend some time hunting around the map trying to find the affected regions.

Birth of Rome adds some interesting new content for players of the original Alea Jacta Est and also serves as a perfectly good starting point for newcomers to the series. Once you work out how to play properly (no thanks to the tutorial), it's a relatively simple (for a game that could call the Grand Strategy genre home) and enjoyable turn based game. The focus on the importance of supplies and sieges gives it a nice point of difference. It's not perfect, but I happily spent some long Sunday afternoons with it (which is my basic test for the quality of Turn Based Strategy games). If you're looking for a big board game-like experience without the need for real life friends, or maybe just enjoy Roman history featuring men riding elephants into battle, Birth of Rome may just be what you're looking for.

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