Michael Eckenfels, 27 February 2020
On #TBT, we bring you the occasional classic article – an older review or analysis piece we wanted to rescue
Gamers, wannabe Romans, countrymen…lend me your eyes. Without having had a decent Romanesque conquest game of note in a while, Legion is on the scene and, while not one of the most realistic of games, it will bring you many months of gaming enjoyment.
The Usual Ubiquitous Roman Quotations
Publisher: Strategy First
Developer: Slitherine Software
Legion is yet another expand-and-exploit game but with the underpinnings of the Roman Empire for its support. There’s little here that hasn’t been done before (build farms/mines/lumber mills, gather resources, build units and buildings, pound the enemy), but it’s in the way that it’s presented that will allow this relatively old but still tried-and-true method to work well.
Within, you’ll find four scenarios that simulate some of Rome’s greatest campaigns: The Unification of Italy, The Conquest of Britain, The Conquest of Gaul, and The Pacification of the North (an attempt to conquer modern-day Scotland). I was severely disappointed to find that this was not a simulation of the entire Roman Empire, a’la Centurion: Defender of Rome , but the fact that you can play literally dozens upon dozens of sides – not just the Romans – almost makes up for this.
The goal is simple: conquer at least 40% of the map (in other words, 40% of all the cities on the map), and be at least 25% larger than the next largest country, and you’re proclaimed the winner. Get conquered, and…well, you know, but unlike those poor Roman Emperor slobs that got backstabbed and poisoned a lot, you get to simply start a new game over.
The main map of the lands is 2D, with the battle screen being 3D from a side view. Turns progress at the rate of one a season, or four a year; however, this has little to do with resources (bringing in harvests) or weather (even the most mountainous of regions are strangely passable in the Winter turns). Instead, the Summer, Autumn and Winter turns seem merely to be preludes to the Spring turn, which is when all the builds conducted during the previous year are completed.
Have Good Blade and Toga, Will Travel
Legion is presented in a fairly flat manner, with little mystery or depth beyond the “build and conquer” formula that defines it. The bloody history of the Roman Empire (and of their neighbors, for that matter) is toned down; despite a “Teen” rating from the ESRB, the only blood you’ll see is in the Battle Screens, surrounding the dead. There are no coliseums, no Circus Maximus, and no slave exploitation. Not that these would make the basis for a good game, but if you’re looking for historical accuracy, leave your predisposition to history at the door when loading this game up.
Once a town is taken, move your army along – there’s no looking over your shoulder here for a slave revolt or a scheming general turning against you, which would have added some challenge.
Would-be subjugators don’t have to worry about rebellious towns; once a city is conquered, they fall right in line and their populations are available to recruit immediately into your squads or into your workforce. I didn’t like this aspect of the game, as it took even the Romans time to integrate their conquered lands into the fold. Combine this overlooked aspect and combine it with the fact that there are no naval units of any kind in the game, and all you have to do is be sure your borders with your neighbors are secure. Once a town is taken, move your army along – there’s no looking over your shoulder here for a slave revolt or a scheming general turning against you, which would have added some challenge.
Treachery seems to be rewarded, which is another minor yet somewhat aggravating aspect. The Diplomacy screen allows you to send tribute (providing you have resources that the target country wants), offer alliances, or accept either of these from other nations. If you are able to whittle an enemy down to a single city, they’ll usually be quite eager to offer peace; you can hold out and demand tribute from them if you wish, or reject such offers outright. The treachery comes when you are able to accept a healthy tribute from the nation trying to buy you off, but are then immediately allowed to attack again – with no apparent consequences. I would have thought that stabbing someone in the back in this manner would at least have made other nations more hostile to mine, but they never wavered from their neutral standings. I didn’t have trouble obtaining peace or alliances from other nations in order to cover one front, even after performing such nefarious double-dealings on another. I would have appreciated at least an overall negative view, or drop in relations; further, I would have liked to see that a peace is enforced by immediately ejecting armies from the countries involved.
Messy Politics and Pillage…Without the Mess
Depending on the scenario you choose, you’ll be starting at different times in Roman history. Play the Unification of Italy scenario, and you’ll start in 367 B.C., while the others will start much later in time. The same units are available to the Roman player over the eras, which seems a bit strange as the Roman Army took up many organizational changes over the centuries (such as in A.D. 43, before the invasion of Britain).
The four scenarios will differ in length depending on the country the player chooses; take a weak, small land in the middle of larger hostile ones and your game probably won’t last that long. Some scenarios have fewer countries to choose from, which makes for less land to conquer. And once you’ve won a scenario, there’s no ‘graduation’ to another; a link between them would have been welcome.
Some countries are more difficult to play than others; sometimes that’s a matter of being more resource-strapped than your neighbors, or having your cities spread out and vulnerable to attack. Using diplomacy to manipulate your neighbors into a false sense of security is the order of the day, and backstabbing them (as mentioned) is encouraged through the omission of any serious penalties.
Installation and Technical Issues
No problems here; Legion is a fast install and takes little time to load. In addition, it takes little power to run (233MHz, 64MB RAM), giving older systems a chance to march to glory.
The 32-page manual adequately covers the game’s functions, and flows reasonably well despite a few structural and grammatical flaws (such as: “All potential builds are completed in the spring. Let us reiterate that point. All potential builds are completed in the spring.”).
The unit summaries in the back of the book don’t make it clear exactly what nation may build what, although it becomes clear easily enough with play what units can do what and which are effective the most against whom. Given the number of possible playable sides, it follows that some units are going to be the same as others.
I would have preferred some country-specific descriptions and backgrounds for each possible country. Suspension of belief and game immersion come with the help of a well-written and detailed manual that covers background information such as this. Adding it isn’t necessarily important to the function of the game, but allows you to perceive much more than what is displayed, letting you wrap yourself up in it like an old tattered campaign blanket.
Straighten Up That Armor, Centurion
Almost immediately you’ll think you’ve returned to the land of 256-color VGA graphics; you may discount such a game immediately, but think before you leap. The simple yet vibrant colors and displays show off their details in the City and Battle screens, while the simplistic offerings of such screens as the Diplomatic, Overview and Empire Status screens won’t be a lot to pitch a javelin over…but they work. Some simple touches, such as plain green ivy or white columns within the interface, were interesting; I tried to not like them (such graphics you could see in an old DOS game such as Centurion ), but there’s an underlying level of simplicity present that doesn’t try to overshadow what the game is all about. Some games will flash brilliant graphics and sounds at you, much in the manner of a overly zealous movie trailer, but Legion doesn’t let that happen. Instead, it relies on its simple artwork, interface, and action to draw you in, adding the graphical elements not merely as an afterthought, but as a support.
The sound is acceptable, with the background music being mellow enough to just barely not be noticed. Battle sounds are decent, with the whinnying of horses (if there’s cavalry present) and the clanging of steel on steel. Surprisingly, there’s little in the way of men shouting commands or screaming as a weapon pierces them. The effect is spooky, which makes a player believe they’re watching a battle between automatons and not living, breathing men. Suspension of belief through battle sounds is woefully lacking, but really wouldn’t take all that much of an effort to rectify in a patch.
One shining example of sound is in the units themselves. When you click on one, they answer in their native tongue – for the Romans, this is Latin – adding a good bit of realism. If they had answered in English (or any other language), it would definitely have detracted.
Your Emperor’s Touch on the Pulse of the Conquered
Everything is mouse driven; there’s no hotkeys here. All clickable buttons are large and easy to read. Further, the information offered is well organized and kept simple, so you don’t have to sift through a ton of nonsense or unimportant stats before you get to what you want.
Since Legion is a turn-based game, there’s no hurry to click to continue to the next one. A simple interface allows you to jump to any of your current cities or armies, or to conduct diplomacy. ‘Diplomacy’ should be taken with a grain of salt, as you’ll use it to protect your flanks as you ruthlessly crush another enemy. Be careful, though, as the computer can conduct its own diplomacy and form its own alliances – so attacking one country could cause you the pain of having to fight two or more. So how can you tell who’s allied to whom? It’s simple enough; move an army into the borders of the country you want to attack, click to advance the game a few turns, and then access the Diplomacy screen. The country your army is nestled in will take a dim view of your actions, and their color will correspondingly get closer to red (hostile). If they’re allied with someone else, that country’s color will be the exact same as the one you’re trespassing on.
Winning Hearts, Minds, and Many Slaves
The game is centered on resources, of which there are three – Food, Ore, and Lumber. Players get to guide their empire through a host of production choices, and needs to tailor each city to suit its particular strengths. Some cities, for example, are located next to forests, so will be especially strong Lumber producers. Others near hills and mountains will be better Ore producers. The player will build improvements to gather these resources, and then assign up to three workers to each improvement. It’s possible to build add-ons to already present structures, such as improving a Mine to a Large Mine, or to build a Miner’s Guild to help raise your output of Ore. The entire time a player is managing this, they’ll have to deal with finite space for each city, and can expand the number of buildable areas by upgrading their Village Hall to a Town Hall, and then to a City Hall. Also, constructing a Bath House and Hospital will help drive down disease and encourage population growth.
Population, essentially a fourth resource, can be used to place on resource-gathering structures or can be recruited for your armies.
Population, essentially a fourth resource, can be used to place on resource-gathering structures or can be recruited for your armies. The types of armies, or squads as the game terms them, that a city can build is based on what structures that city has; for example, without a Blacksmith you can forget about having anything heavier than light troops. Build a Fletcher if you want Archers, build a Training Camp for more experienced and heavier foot soldiers, and so on. You can add a Quartermaster or a Barracks as well, which will both increase dramatically the size of the squads you produce.
Once you’ve built the pretty, large army that you want, you’ll have to keep an eye on your resources. Upkeep is required for all military units (and some structures). Once your total production is in the hole due to too much growth, a player won’t be able to build anything until you get back on track. The only answer here is conquest; usually if a player is in this situation they’ll have a large army anyway, and may as well use it.
There are no difficulty levels to limit the number or types of units you have specifically, but taking a poorer country over a richer one will act as a ‘difficulty setting’ all on its own.
The Nuts and Bolts
The learning curve in Legion is shallow, but the experience of being able to play many different countries is intriguing and will bring a player back for more.
The world map itself is divided into squares, and are used solely for movement purposes. Click on a unit and they’ll be surrounded by a shaded zone that signifies where they can move in that turn (season). Terrain can seriously limit this zone so plan carefully. The movement restrictions have been criticized in some areas on the net, some of which point out that Hannibal managed to invade Spain, move through Southern France and across the Alps into Italy in three months. In three months in Legion , you’ll be lucky to move Rome to Latins (about seven squares’ distance). Nevertheless, the limitation helps balance the game out; moving an army from one corner of the map to the opposite in one turn would leave them stranded and surrounded by more than one hostile country; they don’t like strangers marching through without their permission.
The units of these armies are defined by the book as ‘squads.’ While definitely an un-Roman term, it keeps things on an even keel by setting all armies to be the same size. Eight squads is the maximum number of units you can have per army, and building them in cities with a Barracks and/or a Quartermaster can increase the size of these squads. Experience is another factor that makes an army more powerful than it actually is; by winning battles, the squads within it learn from the experience and become that much better. Players will find themselves using elite armies as ‘fire brigades,’ as they’re far too valuable to lose frivolously.
The only exception to the army size rule lies with garrisons. Any army or squad in a city is considered a garrison, and can be enhanced by building Forts. These special buildings come in three sizes, Small, Medium, and Large, and increase a garrison by either one, two, or three squads respectively. So, having an eight-squad garrison in a city with a Large Fort will net an army of eleven squads. Having the Quartermaster and Barracks will pretty much make that city invincible.
Attacking in the field means keeping an eye on terrain. Lighter troops fare better than heavy troops in broken and forested terrain, while archers work best from on top of a hill. Heavy infantry and cavalry are at their best in the open. As the Battle Screen opens, you’ll have to keep this in mind when you’re setting your troops up.
Once your units are deployed, you have absolutely no control of them. According to the manual, this is an accurate depiction of ancient warfare. I’d disagree to an extent, as there were some examples of good command and control from a few sides in the conflict, but overall the concept is an interesting twist on an all-to familiar format.
With the twist comes an annoying drawback, that of the enemy’s armies not being indistinguishable from your own. Once they clash in a wild, swirling melee, you’ll lose perspective and wonder which side is yours. Even though the player’s troops always come in from the left, sometimes flanking and rearward attacks will cause you to lose your troops. A status bar at the bottom of the screen helps you keep tabs on your squad’s statuses (a strength bar gets smaller as more troops are lost, and the head superimposed over it loses its flesh and tone until, once the unit is destroyed, it becomes a skull). Being able to place the mouse cursor over one of the squad’s status and seeing the corresponding men on the screen be highlighted would have made it much easier to follow the larger battles.
Once a battle is completed, if you lose, you lose the army. If you win, your army remains in the field. This all-or-nothing element may be somewhat realistic given the game’s simplicity, but it would have been useful to not lose everything all at once and have the option to retreat. If you do happen to come out on the winning side, your army’s squads will very slowly regain their losses; placing them in a city will increase the rate at which they recover.
AI Ad Nauseum
The AI is pretty good, although gullible when it comes to diplomacy; most of the time it won’t even be messed with unless you’re desperate (as the other countries will when they’re in similar straits). Their battle set ups are good, and can catch you flat-footed especially if your scouts can’t find the main body. Flank attacks and rear attacks will make even the mightiest Legion crumple like a used aluminum can. Don’t underestimate the AI when planning a battle.
Pathfinding is good; I learned the hard way that moving an army in between one of my cities and an approaching army will do little good, as the army will go right for the city – much as a human player may do. Maneuvering in the field becomes a chess match as you try to anticipate what the AI will do and not leave your cities vulnerable to attack.
Editors, Expansions, and Replay Value
As of June 21st of this year, Slitherine Software is promising a “bonus features” patch but “can’t say much about what’s going to be in it at the moment…” which is just slightly vague.
Clicking on the “Legion Forums” option in your Start menu, you’ll find a message board over at Europa Universalis’ website, where several AAR’s reside that will prove useful for the novice conqueror.
While no editor is present in the game, there is the option of setting up a game as ’Historical’ or ‘Alternate’, which helps set a random element to any game and helps to increase the replay value that much more.
There is no multiplayer support at this time; Legion is strictly a one-player game. It would be nice to at least see some PBEM support in the near future in a patch, but there’s no telling what Slitherine has in store at the present time.
In Ergo Sum
While Legion seems to have a few faults that could break it, they don’t detract enough from the game to make it fall into the pit of no-play. I kept coming back to this title, and will probably keep it on my hard drive for many months to come, just because it does allow so many different sides to play as and for the alternate set-ups.
While I’ve seen better battles conducted, the ones here are good enough to stand on their own, different in their own right by not allowing any control over the troops once they’re set up. As mentioned, a better interface for keeping track of the troops a player controls in these battles would have been very helpful. Being able to designate a ‘reserve’ of troops and having control over where they deploy would have helped also, and would have made the game more challenging – especially if the enemy’s troops employed the same tactics, making you guess right up to the last minute.
Legion still has a lot to offer the military gamer with an interest in ancient warfare, even though it may not be the most realistic of simulations. This realism, however, is effectively traded off for playability, which is not an easy thing to accomplish usually. Games may last a few days, but it will never feel like you’re biting off more than you can chew.
Related Romanesque Resources
- Rome at War: Fading Legions (board game)
- Rome: Caesar’s Will (PC)
- Legions of Rome (VHS)
- Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire: From the First Century A.D. to the Third by Edward N. Luttwak (ISBN:0801821584)