Since there has been recently a bit of theme involving Carthage and Rome in Basic Impetus, I thought that while that is going on, it would be decent time to introduce Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage. Card driven masterpiece from the distant history of boardgames.
Of course the game has its roots in Avalon Hill, albeit somewhat face lifted, but not ruined by Valley Games [that said, demise of Hannibal is no longer an instant victory for Rome]. Game is still as eloquent and it still holds the attraction, and beautiful design principles it had during Avalon Hill times.
Game board is sturdy, mounted … jigsaw puzzle. Only with eight pieces, so even I can put the board together. Neat idea by the way, I always thought that someone should make something like that once. Graphics are on the stunning side, everything is clear, political starting positions are clearly color coded, terrain effects and region boundaries are clear (albeit within Italy, dark red on reddish brown is not necessarily the best of choices) – nice little touch that initial positions and quantity of Roman and Carthaginian armies are actually printed on the board. Rest of the components, namely cards (one common event deck, one combat deck) counters & such are good quality cardboard.
Goal of the Game
Since Rome vs. Carthage only features single scenario and starting layout is same every time, it does make one wonder how long can this game stay entertaining. Answer is right there. Because the learning curve is not plagued by ever shifting scenarios, sole, well build, magnificently tough, but balanced scenario offers plenty of room for development for both sides. Yes, while certainly not balanced, both sides have radically different weaknesses and strengths.
Goal is simple, gain more political control over the mediterranean than your opponent. Political control is calculated by who has more provinces on his side at the end. Battle to the end is hard, and not fought by armies alone. In fact, it is fought with every bit of cunning, treachery and deviousness you can muster.
From the outset, Carthage is initially stronger, mainly because the commander of the forces is Hannibal. Rome, however, possess few advantages. While sea movement is severely limited for Carthage, Rome can go across the sea quite freely. Rome also has nearly inextinguishable manpower reserves to draw from and any prolonged conflict will surely chew up Hannibal’s forces and war will end up with Roman victory. Except it does not. Carthage has advantages, not only Hannibal being the best of the best, but also because draw is victory for Carthage, and draw requires only single Roman province if Iberia is solely Carthaginian. Rome will need to seriously challenge Carthaginian hegemony to win – and that is a tough job.
First, and perhaps obvious thing is that the game is card driven – nothing unusual in that, there are abundant examples of those these days. Hannibal’s exception is that the card system extends to battle resolution as well. There is one common card deck for players and each card can be played in multiple ways. One can use card to gain political control, rise armies, activate generals or play card as event (but quite few of them are only playable by one side). Quite few of the event cards can be played as reaction to hinder enemy movement or siege, or to cause unexpected casualties. Trick is that since both have same number of cards for game turn, you really do not want to run out of them too fast – because not having cards means your opponent can quite freely exploit the openings.
So, playing the cards for political control, activation and other matters has a lot of decisions, some that appear to be insignificant at start, but when played deviously, cause cascading effect.
Another aspect is a factual mini-game that is used to play out battles between armies. While it has it’s share of controversy, I think that the system is genuinely good and interesting. Since battles are relatively rare – and too often very risky when armies are close to equal, you wish to be careful where to meet and under what conditions. For the battle system, there is another card deck that contains number of maneuvers and few wild cards that can be played as any maneuver. Essentially, both players play maneuvers and opponent needs to be able to match. One who cannot, will loose. Attacker plays first, and unless opponent gains control and becomes attacker, this keeps going on until opponent cannot match the maneuver. After the card fight is over, depending on the number of rounds, players check the losses. After right number of losses have been removed, political control markers are removed totaling half of the losers losses. This implies loss of prestige and weakening alliances in the turbulent political climate.
If I would have to recommend single board game, this would definitely be it. Hannibal, Rome vs. Carthage is excellent game that offers countless of hours fun. Rules are well written, clear and concise. Game is balanced, but not in the usual way of making the opposing sides equal in every respect – that would be way too chess like. Mechanics are thoroughly tested and what might be the best part, it may actually work very well as campaign system for Impetus – if one gets bored with the card combat system.