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Subject: A masterclass in making a rich game from simple rules rss

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Dan Dingleman
United States
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This review covers Hannibal only - I have yet to try Hamilcar.

INTRODUCTION:
Hannibal covers the second Punic war between Rome and Carthage. A deck of cards which can be used as historical events or for generic operations points drives the action. Though armed conflict happens frequently, and is very important, victory usually turns on control of regions. 

The game flows gracefully, creates extreme tension in decision making, and balances historical flavor with openness to many different strategies. No wonder people have been playing it since its debut in 1996.

Hannibal creates a remarkably deep and engaging strategic puzzle from very simple components. The individual parts of the game - movement, political control of areas, armies, and combat - use uncomplicated systems with just a few twists.

GAMEPLAY:
Each round players alternate playing cards either for OPS points (used to accomplish one of a very few actions: taking control of locations, moving armies, or recruiting troops) or for their events, which are usually more spectacular than what you can accomplish with points. At the end of a round the players remove isolated political control points, roll for attrition on armies wintering in hostile areas, and compare their overall dominance of the Mediterranean, with the loser forfeiting territory.

Other reviews have covered the specifics of the gameplay in great depth, and the rules are available online, so I won't spend much time describing how the game works. I would like instead to focus on a few things that the game does exceptionally well:

- Political control: Either player can place a political control marker (PC) on any neutral area for one OPS point. This seems very much in accord with Livy's account of the war, which is full of traveling ambassadors and generals negotiating with local tribes. If you want to remove an enemy's PC you need a military presence in that area. This means that political control is  easy to put in place and hard to dislodge; on the other hand, plenty of event cards will throw entire regions into turmoil, instantly removing four or five PCs. This encourages strategic thinking that also reinforces the historical theme. If you play a rebellion card while your enemy is secure and well defended they can probably regain control with one card play. If you trigger the rebellion when your enemy is under pressure then things become more complex.

This is interesting for both players - sometimes it's expedient and wise to let the enemy win a remote province temporarily, but if you let your opponent get too many footholds in your territory things will become difficult for you later. The alternating card play support this kind of back and forth, and asks the players to balance their strategic goals with reactions to the enemy's movements. In early rounds you have seven card plays, and as the war ramps up this rises to nine. Even at nine it never feels like enough to accomplish everything you need to do.

- Battle cards: Combat uses a very simple card system: the attacker plays a card, and the defender must match it or lose the battle. Players receive varying numbers of card (up to 20) based on the size of their armies and the presence of local allies. This means that a larger, better prepared army fights at an advantage, but is not invulnerable. The cards follow an ancient linear combat theme, with cards for flanking, probing, frontal assaults and double envelopment. When I read the rules for this I was quite disappointed - it seemed neither thematic nor very rich. In practice it is tense, exciting, and deep. Almost every battle feels like a desperate attempt to break the enemy before your opponent discovers your weakness. 

During my first few plays battles took a little while - you need to calculate how many cards each players gets, play the battle, roll for combat attrition, then determine retreat casualties. After a few battles this began to move very quickly, maybe not as quickly as a simple opposed dice roll, but with a much more satisfying emotional and tactical arc. It also opens interesting grand strategic possibilities - withdrawing from battle early may save your troops for some other vital purpose, and conversely drawing out a battle for as long as possible is likely to wear down both armies. Where you choose to fight is also very important: fighting in friendly territory grants additional cards, and fighting where the enemy has no clear line of retreat punishes a rout very harshly.

- Open strategy: In some card driven war games the cards attempt to recreate the historical sequence of events with great fidelity, which can lead to a kind of on-rails pantomime in which you simply play through a mostly predetermined script. Hannibal has plenty of cards that encourage a particular strategy (Hannibal Charms Italy, for example, or the various territorial revolt cards, or the very few cards that let Carthage sail to specific ports without risk), but the design of the map and the general progress of the game allows for great flexibility. 

On the other hand the goals for each side are constrained enough that most of the time anything that you try to do would make sense historically. Carthage wants to conquer Rome, reclaim the territory lost in the first Punic war, and expand its influence. Rome wants to destroy Carthage, hold onto its territory, and also expand its influence.There are cards that help you do this in pretty much every region on the map. Things are wide open for the Roman player, who can sail wherever he pleases thanks to the might of the Roman navy. Want to assault Carthaginian Spain? Go straight for North Africa? Subdue tribes and consolidate power in Gaul? You can! 

Carthage faces a serious constraint in that sailing is very risky, especially with large armies. Hannibal will probably need to cross the Alps at some point; but with some luck and some very specific card plays Carthage can mitigate the power of the Roman navy to the point that sailing isn't unduly hazardous.Risking your best generals in a quinquireme is certainly not wise, but carefully chosen sea voyages are an option.

FINAL REMARKS:
The component quality, as you can see from the images, is excellent. The graphic design is attractive, clear, and works to make the game flow as smoothly as possible. Setup is daunting at first but becomes very fast after the first one or two games.

I have a few minor criticisms: though the rule books are attractive and nicely formatted they could have been organized more intuitively. They are nowhere near as bad as some other reviews and comments have made them seem. The additional scenarios provided start the game at later points in the war, which is historically interesting but not as exciting as the blank slate of the main scenario. The attrition table on the map board initially confused me because the axes are not clearly labeled. And the game can run a little long, but this is more of a neutral point than a complaint.

Hannibal accomplishes a rare goal in wargames: it allows the rules and "gamey" elements to recede into the background so that players think mostly about strategy and tactics. Truly excellent!
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Over 50 Gamer
Canada
Penticton
British Columbia
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Oliver......one cool cat
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Still one of my favourite war games. IMO it has aged very well.
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Chris Ferejohn
United States
Mountain View
California
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Pitying fools as hard as I can...
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I love this game. There is no world in which I would describe it as having "simple rules." I think they are *good* rules, but there are plenty of people who would bounce off these rules, like instantly.
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