Sunday, September 25, 2011

Impressions of Ancient Conquest I

The Britannia "game system" has been used in other published games such as Maharaja (Avalon Hill), Hispania (Azure Wish), Rus, and most recently Italia (Phalanx) and China: the Middle Kingdom (Decision Games).  Some people categorize these and other games such as History of the World as “sweep of history” games.  The original game of this category may have been Ancient Conquest, which was recently reissued.

A fundamental idea for Britannia (and for most sweep of history games) comes from Ancient Conquest.   I read the rules while watching a game being played in the late 70s.  The idea: having each player control several nations each having individual objectives.  I did not see the game again until I bought a used copy several years ago, to see what resemblance there is between it and Britannia.  And now the original publishers, under different ownership, have issued a new edition of the game, so I have the opportunity to compare the new edition with Britannia.

This is not a review, because I have not played, nor have I watched anyone play, the game since that day decades ago.  I can't tell you how well the game plays.  But I can describe it and compare it with Britannia.  Hence "impressions".

Although the idea of having several nations controlled by each player is implemented in Ancient Conquest I, the game has very little in common with Britannia otherwise.  It's hard to say which of two things is the biggest difference:

First, Ancient Conquest I is a battle game and Britannia is a war game.  That is, economics and grand strategy are very important in Britannia, while Ancient Conquest I is a game of strategy and tactics because there is no economy, rather there's an order of appearance, and because there are thousands of hexes to maneuver in.  You always know what force your opponent will have available in the future, and control of particular locations does not generally affect the force available.  In Britannia the nations can vary immensely in strength owing to their economic success, which derives from their success in holding territory.  In a battle game territory is only useful for the terrain and geopolitical implications, and details of maneuver can be very important.  In a war game territory usually equates to additional forces, following the age-old principle that land equals wealth.  This is no longer true in the 21st century, but has been true for agriculturally-based nations through most of history.  Sometimes maneuver in such games is very important, sometimes not.  Axis and Allies equates territory directly with economy, and uses areas rather than hexes, but maneuver can be fairly important, so there are all kinds of degrees to these differences in emphasis.

Second, and not surprising given the first, Ancient Conquest I is a hex and counter wargame, with numbers on the counters representing combat strength and movement; Britannia is an area a game with larger counters that have no numbers on them.

The sequence of play is also different between the two games.  In Ancient Conquest I a player plays all of his nations at the same time, and they can cooperate with each other to the point of attacking a common enemy or garrisoning a single town.  In fact, if you ally with another player then troops of both colors can defend a single city.  In Britannia each nation is entirely separate, and plays in nation order.  Once in a while you will see a nation controlled by a player attack another nation he controls because that suits the strategic situation.

In Ancient Conquest I each player can score a maximum of 40 victory points, rather than the variable numbers used in Britannia-like games.  How you earn points differs as well, because more than a third of the point entries involve destroying a minimum number of enemy combat factors.  Most of the rest involve holding a city at particular times, often through several turns.  (There are a couple dozen large cities on the board, and a lot more than that which are fortified.)  The “kill the enemy” victory criterion fits with the “battle game” instead of “war game” nature of Ancient Conquest I.  Where there are no economic objectives and no way to generate more units than normal, it makes sense that destruction of enemy units becomes a primary objective.  Scoring is tracked on the four 8 by 11 cards that list the possible scoring.  The rules say that scoring the maximum is very hard.

Each player has from 20 to 31 ways to score.  7 of those 20 are kill points.  11 of those 31 are kill points.  Because there are no area borders on the board, cities are the territorial representation for points.  The most important nation by far (for points) is Assyria, which can score 28 of the 40 for its color; no other nation can score more than 15.   The 17 nations are grouped as:
•    Assyria (both Middle and Neo-), Marsh people (southern Sumeria), Mitanni, Lydia.
•    Elam, Hittites, Cimmerians (presumably including Scythians as well), Judah-Israel.
•    Egypt, Media, Urartu, Arameans.
•    Kassites and Babylonians, Chaldeans and Neo-Babylonians, City States (Neo Hittites?), Phrygians, Philistines.

Mitannia and Assyria were traditional enemies until Assyria turned them into a vassal state.  The Chaldeans conquered the Kassites, who were more or less broken by a bizarre Hittite raid.  These are the only combinations that are a bit odd, but it’s just about impossible to set up four sides without having some odd combinations.  For example, historically the Picts and Angles were deadly enemies but are the same color in Britannia, while the Scots succeeded the Picts peacefully but are enemies in Brit.

Because the game uses hexes there are many more locations than there are in Britannia, which has 37 land spaces and a handful of sea spaces.  The board in this edition is plasticized paper, 22" x 34", with hexes sized for the 200 half-inch counters.  (Some of that width is for tables.)  It is after all a traditional hex boardgame from the 1970s.  Yet it does avoid one standard hex practice, big stacks.  Two missile units or a missile and foot can stack together, otherwise only one is allowed in any location except cities, where three can be placed.  This is the reason there’s a siege table, because those three defend together.  I’d forgotten how small half inch pieces are, but this is mitigated by the limited stacking.

In other differences from standard hex wargames, there are no zones of control and attacking an adjacent enemy is not required, so you could send several units adjacent to several enemy hexes but only attack one of them.

Combat in Britannia is "independent", that is, the strength of the defender does not affect the damage done by the attacker, both sides rolling.  Ancient Conquest I has only one die and combat tables (normal and siege) something like the original Avalon Hill 3-1 combat table.  You calculate the odds, attacker rolls, table gives result.  Hence combat is "dependent" on the strength of the other side as well as your side.

There are 17 nations in Ancient Conquest I, 17 in Britannia (though one, the Romano-British, is a successor to another).  As I have made more than one ancient Near Eastern prototype, I find the nation choices interesting.  But my prototypes cover longer periods of time.  This game is about 1500 BC to 600BC, so Hammurabi is not involved, nor empires before him such as Sargon’s.  There are a couple nations representing Sea Peoples, though no other indication of the ancient Near Eastern “Dark Age” around 1200 BC.  

Aside from horse/chariot, foot, and missile troops there are war machine (siege engine) pieces and pieces representing items involved in objectives, such as gods and the “Chosen People” who must be carried off the Babylon for the Babylonian player to score.

It’s impossible to successfully legislate against negotiation over the table, because players can comment endlessly about the state of the game in order to try to influence other players.  Nonetheless this game attempts to outlaw oral negotiations (presumably, secret oral negotiations) while allowing a player to send one written message and one reply to another message each turn (that’s not “per player”, that’s “altogether”).  (The rules mistakenly say “verbal” negotiation is not allowed; it should be oral, as “verbal” means “with words” and so includes writing as well as speaking, even though many people now mistakenly use “verbal” as a substitute for “oral”.  In another few decades we’ll no longer have a word that means “with writing or speaking or both”, in fact even now you can’t really use “verbal” any more because it may be misunderstood.  Your pedantry for the day... make sure your rules mean the same thing to everyone.)

Rules say this game takes five to six hours (presumably longer for beginners); there is no version for other than four players.  Ancient Conquest I is priced at $44.95 according to the Excalibre 2011 catalog.  The game was designed and originally developed by Denis P. O’Leary, and development for this edition is by Robert Mosimann, owner of Excalibre Games.

I’ve made a comparative table in WordPerfect, but that won’t display well here.  See a version of it at
Notice that is case sensitive, and it's an I, not a one.

Since this is a description, let me describe the other physical aspects of the game.  The 200 half inch pieces contain two numbers (combat strength and movement) and a silhouette and country name.  The words and numbers might have been easier to read if printed in black.

Aside from the board, pieces, and rulebook, there are four victory point charts, a double-width combat chart, and an order of appearance chart.  All are on heavy plasticized card stock.  The 12” by 9.5“ by 2” box is also coated for better resistance to wear, and a tighter fit than any game box I can remember.  You’re most unlikely to have it come open accidentally!

The 20 page rules (LOTS of photos) left me puzzled in a couple places, but that might be sorted out in actual play.  Unlike Britannia there are no leaders, but there are special rules such as the David and Goliath rule and Plague rules.

You can see from the copyrights on the various components that this game has been several years in the making, back to 2006.  It is part of a group of four reissues that Excalibre are offering to kick off a new series of game publications under new management after a very long period of inactivity.  The other games are Conquerors, A Mighty Fortress, and Battle for Stalingrad.

While we’re comparing, if you are familiar with Charles Vesey's Chariot Lords (Clash of Arms) you would notice a considerable resemblance to Ancient Conquest I, not only in the subject but in the way points are earned.  Vesey's game is also a battle rather than war game, in this case you generally receive reinforcements from your dead unit pile at a set rate.  Yet it is an area game, not a hex and counter game, so it's a mixture of Ancient Conquest I and Britannia and unusual ideas (most notably random movement order each turn, which makes for a very chaotic situation).

I have not tried to compare this with the original game, since the current game is what counts to potential buyers.  From memory I’d say it is very much the same game. 

While this is a “sweep of history” game (perhaps the first), it will be a very different experience from playing Britannia-like games.  It will be interesting to hear about the gameplay from people who play the game several times.

1 comment:

Paul Owen said...

I had not seen the difference between "battle" and "war" games articulated before, but now that you spell it out, I think I could easily classify my entire collection of what I would have called "wargames" into the two categories.

Thanks for some very thoughtful "impressions."