Armchair Dragoons Reviews Aggressors Ancient Rome (Matrix Games)

Avery Abernethy, 15 May 2019

Aggressors Ancient Rome is a 4x (explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate) strategy game from Kubat Software distributed by Slitherine/Matrix games.

Many 4x games have been released over the years across multiple genres including the development of man from ancient times to the space age (Civilization), development of space faring civilizations (Master of Orion, Space Empires) and Fantasy settings (Warlock; Age of Wonders; Fallen Enchantress). Aggressors enters a crowded 4x field containing both old school favorites and recent releases.

My review is based on more than a hundred and ten hours of play and a cover-to-cover reading of the 225 page manual.  Aggressors has two complete games under the hood, an “everyone starts at the beginning” scramble game and a game starting in the Mediterranean in 282 BC with twenty unequal opponents ranging from highly advanced civilizations (Carthage, Ptolemaic Empire, Rome, Athens) to barbarian tribes.  Both the scramble start game and the 20 opponent 282 BC game were played to completion.   The game is stable and I experienced only one crash playing on a on a one year old Falcon Northwest Talon.  I was given a review copy of the game.

1 Two Games in One

Two games in one

This is my quick take.  Aggressors is a highly polished 4x game focused on ancient world combat. The combat AI does an excellent job on the tactical level and on certain map types an outstanding job on the strategic level.  Aggressors contains a traditional 4x “scramble for power” at the bottom of the research tree. But it also contains a complicated 20 opponent complex starting game set in the Mediterranean at 282 BC. Remarkably, both games work very well.

 

What are 4x Games?

Most 4x games share five common elements.  You start in an almost unknown world map with only a tiny scouted portion.  The rest of the game world is covered by a “fog of war” and units must explore the world map.  Players expand from their original tiny holding by building new cities, bases, or colonies on new planets depending on the setting.  Map resources such as gold must be exploited by the player to allow population growth and building new or better units.  Your faction’s research develops new technologies which improve your units, make entire new classes of units available (such as enabling a Navy or building warp points), allow better exploitation of resources, or allow faster population growth.

Other empires must be exterminated to gain dominion.

2 Pull back game map

Pull back game map

Traditionally in 4x games a player starts with a single city or base and a bare handful of units.  Players explore, expand, exploit resources and hopefully exterminate their opponents.  4x games vary considerably on the emphasis on building your empire through resource exploitation and research versus a combat emphasis.  Many 4x games have multiple means of achieving victory including a research win, winning through cultural advancement or most commonly winning by conquering all rivals.

 

Aggressors as a Traditional 4x Game 

Aggressors offers good flexibility in setting up your 4x game world.  Players can adjust the size of the game map; if the map is all islands or one land mass; the overall climate; the number and dispersal of opponents; the starting technology level; if there are independent (non-expansionist) cities; and the overall difficulty level.  Even better, after playing nine scramble start games I never encountered an computer opponent with a hopeless starting position which prevented expansion. I’ve played at dozen or more 4x games and this is the first which did not routinely start at least one faction in an impossible position.  This is an impressive programming feat.

3 World Customization

World customization

 

3a Multiple Victory Conditions

Multiple victory conditions

 

But there is even more flexibility built into the game world choice model.  Players can start at the traditional 4x position at the bottom of the technology tree with two weak units and no city.  But you can also start the game with a medium sized city, several advanced units and half of the research tree completed.  Start points between these two extremes are available.

Resource abundance and the geographic concentration of resources is another world design option.  Other start options include the ease of establishing trade, the ease of establishing alliances, and the military aggressiveness of your opponents.  The degree of player advantage/disadvantage can be tweaked on a sliding scale.  Last, the victory options (military superiority; technological dominance; country development) can also be chosen by the player. These world choice tools are well designed and can be carefully adjusted by the player to provide a game world ranging from a cake-walk to dominance to a doomed but brave band.

There are five map resources: stone, iron, gold, coal, lumber, and food (produced via soil fertility and citizens).  Your population generates three additional resources: knowledge, citizens, and influence.  All eight resources are tradeable and all can curtail your empire’s growth.  A dozen or so enhancements can be added to your cities with only one or two available at the bottom of the research tree.  City enhancements improve defense, protect from natural disasters, revolts, or foreign bribes, or enable production of different base units.

I found Aggressors required much more thought on resource use than most other 4x games.  City location is especially critical for lumber production. Your resource base (including number of citizens) limits the size of your military.  Last, the number of resources needed for a cultural win make it almost impossible for a player to achieve both a culture and a military victory.

City micro-management is not overwhelming. There is a sliding scale determining central government support for birth rate.  Towards one end of the scale your citizens are fertile costing huge amounts of stone, iron, wood and gold.  At the other end of the scale population stagnates but resources abound to build your military (until you run out of citizens to fill in the ranks).  Compared to the Civilization series, the number of city additions is relatively limited.  City improvements do not stack so you are not having to keep track of the infrastructure specifics for each city. In sum, little game time was spent micro-managing city development.

4 City Improvement Choices Late game

City improvement choices late game

There are a limited number of unit types.  As your research progresses a handful of additional base units become available.  For example, across all nations there are only three naval units (boat, galley, trireme) and all can engage in combat and transport land units.  Nations can build a maximum of four different infantry unit types (barbarian nations only have three).  Depending on the nation, either three or four base cavalry units can be built by end-game.  Nations differ on the preferred combat terrain for their units.  Barbarian units are the best in the woods.  Desert nations fight best on the sands and in flatland.  Only a couple of nations, notably Rome, can build units which work across a slightly broader range of terrains.

Although the total types of military units available at end game is small, the number of unit enhancements is huge.  By the end of the technology tree you up to ten different enhancements can be added to a generic land unit.  Each enhancement costs resources and production time.  Even at the game start players can add two or three enhancements to each unit.

5 Late game Unit Improvement Menu 1

Late game unit improvement menu 1

 

6 Late game Unit Improvement Menu 2

Late game unit improvement menu 2

Throughout the game players decide if they want an army composed of a few highly trained and powerful units; more units with a small number of enhancements; many units with no enhancements; a few specialized shock troops with associated cannon-fodder; or some combination thereof.  If you train a mixed combat force be sure to disable “automatic unit naming” for quick identification of key units.

The heart of a 4x game is the opponent AI.  A good AI should be able to expand an opponent’s holdings, conduct research logically, make good city and troop upgrade choices, and fight wisely both strategically and tactically.  For the most part, the AI is outstanding. Your opponents will ruthlessly expand both on a single land mass and colonizing islands.

The strategic and tactical combat AI is excellent once an opponent is established on a land mass.  I’ve seen the AI pull damaged units out of a battle, heal them, and return them to the fray.  I’ve seen the AI start with infantry attacks followed by a wave of mounted exploitation attacks.  The AI can and will attack opponents until they are eradicated from the map. The only glaring weakness of the AI is an inability to launch coordinated amphibious assaults in mid to late game. The AI has not mastered loading 3+ of troop ships for an overwhelming amphibious assault.  But on a large land mass the AI can and will bring a solid military strategy.

7 Tactical Game Map

Tactical game map

Aggressors has seven difficulty settings.  On the third setting I lost three of nine scramble start games.  Games are much harder if a single continent game is chosen regardless of the game difficulty.  If the player chooses a nation other than Rome, winning is even harder.

Rome has multiple troop advantages.  Their starting unit is a 2/2/2 (attack/ defense/ movement).  The first researched upgrade gives a 3/3/3 unit.  Upgrade two provides a 4/4/2.  But Legions are a 6/5/2 with everyone else (I think) limited to a 4/4/3 max land strength.  Naval units do not vary between countries.  Some nations fight better in the desert or in woods, but at endgame the core Roman land force is significantly better than all other nations.  When playing Rome in a scramble start, if you can survive to late game you win.  If you want a truly challenging game, don’t take the default choice of Rome and play on a single land mass.

8 Roman Legion Blitz

Roman legion blitz

 

Aggressors Game Macros

Aggressors has the best 4x macro interface I’ve ever encountered.  You can easily highlight each resource individually (color coded for output), each type of unit and each city.  More remarkably, you can use the map macros to identify each enhancement (or combination of enhancements) for every city and every unit.  All of this works on an intuitive basis.

Let me provide two examples.  Take coal.  You can use the strategy map to locate each coal mine.  Mine productivity is color coded on a sliding scale.  You can quickly identify any mine with low productivity.  Click on outlier mines to determine productivity specifics.  Productivity can be improved by having road connections to a city or a blacksmith.  The map also shows in an easy to grasp color map the degree of coal consumption by every city and unit.  A few clicks easily determines where your coal comes from, if there are any overlooked options to boost coal production, what is consuming your coal. If need be you can click on excess coal using structures to rapidly sell them off and end the coal shortage.

My second map macro example uses cities.  An important early addition to a city is trade.  With trade each city becomes a net gold producer.  In one game I had 75 cities in Carthage.  You could go to the strategic map and click cities. All are marked by a dot on the map.  Then toggle the “trade” box.  All cities without the trade improvement vanish.  Click trade again, note the change, then click on the map dot for each city without the trade improvement.  That brings up that cities menu and you can start building the trade improvement where needed.  I did not have to click on all 75 cities, nor did I have to look at a city menu where every city is listed with tiny icons representing improvements. Instead, strategic macro map allowed me to quickly pinpoint whatever I was trying to find.  This same process works for units including specific combinations of unit improvements.  With Aggressors you will not be searching fruitlessly for your troop transports which languished forgotten in a quiet sector.

The game itself can be easily altered with a few clicks.  This goes far beyond adjusting the music volume or setting up the game world.  For example, with the right treaty negotiations you gain intel on an ally’s units including movement and combat every turn. Seeing this gives you an excellent perspective of what is going on with allied countries and trade partners, but in the 20 nation 282 BC start game by mid-game it took the about 10 minutes to show everything happening during the AIs turn.  I went into the game menu, clicked “show ally movement box” off and now game turns took less than 60 seconds to finish the AIs turn.

9 Game Data

Game data

 

10 Battle Results

Battle results

 

The 282 BC Start Game

The second Aggressors game is set in the Mediterranean world with a 282 BC start date.  There are 20 nations on the map and all can be played.  Tiny Greece has five nations.  Anatolia has four nations.  The Balkans add a couple more.  The outskirts of the world are populated by multiple barbarian tribes. Unless the easiest play settings are chosen, winning the game with some of the barbarian nations or any of the tiny Greek or Balkan nations surrounded by enemies may be impossible.

11 282 BC Nations Map

282 BC nations map

 

The best comparison I have to the Mediterranean world game is the Hearts of Iron series. You can play Poland, but you probably cannot win playing Poland without playing on a very easy play setting. But the combat focus of Aggressors makes a “difficult nation win” much less likely than in Hearts of Iron.

The game designers urge you to choose either Rome, Carthage or Ptolemaic Egypt.  Each nation has minor objectives which help direct your overall strategy and provide useful resource or unit rewards when achieved.   No other nations have minor objectives.

12 282 BC Game Start

282 BC game start

 

Carthage has no close enemies and a huge territory.  The interior of Northern Africa can be developed without opposition.  About half of the Iberian Peninsula can be taken without fighting another aggressive nation. Part of Africa has isolated neutral cities which can be conquered with ease.  Carthage starts with a strong Navy and all naval technology. The only major power close by is Ptolemaic Egypt which shares a narrow and defensible land border.  But Carthage has relatively weak mid and late game land units.  If you want to use a “turtle strategy” without immediate warfare while aiming for a Culture or Technology win, Carthage is the nation to choose. I won a culture victory on the 166th turn with Carthage.  Carthage never engaged in a long land war with any major power.  I eliminated the neutral cities, concentrated on growing my population and colonizing North Africa, and took over most of the Iberian Peninsula while maintaining a strong Navy and a strong defensive force against Egypt.

Ptolemaic Egypt has a quiet border with Carthage but active opposition in Anatolia. Egypt has a very large starting population, a strong Navy, a corner position, and an obvious axis of attack through Anatolia.  If it avoids a two-front war with both Carthage and in Anatolia, it can concentrate on a single axis of attack.  Or the Egyptians can fight a defensive war in Anatolia and Syria and take on Carthage for control of Africa.  Either way Egypt has clear expansion opportunities and can win unless it decides to engage in a two-front war.

Rome starts in a perilous position with multiple enemies in Italy and a weak navy.  Compared to Carthage or Egypt, Rome is in a war of the knife from the start.  But Rome has the most powerful land forces if it can survive until early mid-game.  Rome starts able to build the 4/4/2 Principes unit.  Throughout my play I’ve not encountered any land unit as strong as the 6/5/2 base Legionaries unit available in late game.  The longer the game lasts the stronger the Roman armies become. Rome wins if they can knock out their early opponents and gain the breathing room needed to field sufficient Principes and eventually Legionaires.

13 Political Map

Political Map

 

I won playing Rome in 167 turns on difficulty level 3, almost the identical number of turns for my Carthage culture win.  However, I doubt if a culture win could occur much faster given research speed on the technology tree.

14 Overall Victory Win

Overall victory win

A military win as Rome might come faster with more aggressive play.  My 4x strategy is not losing early, building strength, defending your territory acquisitions, and closing with a win.  Rush strategies have a high early game fail rate.  Even given my cautious play style: 20 opponents, an effective combat AI, and sheer logistics and rebellion issues argue against most any player quickly winning the 282 BC game. A win in the 282 BC game will probably be a long, slow, grind.

In sum, the 282 BC game is a long slug-fest.  Three nations have a clear path to victory with Rome having a hard early game.  The player gets a first hand lesson in how the eternally squabbling Greek states slowly kill each other off only for all to eventually be swallowed by Rome, Egypt or Carthage.

 

Some Game Quirks

No game is perfect, and Aggressors has its foibles.

Don’t let your “magic supply nomad” die in combat and never, ever consume it to build a city.

The scramble start game begins with one settler unit and one nomad unit.  That nomad unit can live off the land without supplies.  Subsequent nomads cannot live off the land until the exploration stage of the game is largely over.  If your “magic supply nomad” gets killed, exploring the map will become a much more slow and difficult process.  Don’t let your “magic supply nomad” die in combat and never, ever consume it to build a city.

Aggressors: Ancient Rome is a complex game requiring thoughtful resource management. The 282 BC start game drops the player into a highly complicated tactical and strategic situation.  You can easily become overwhelmed if you begin playing the 282 BC game without first playing the “start at the bottom game.” But the designers unwisely set their tutorial in the 282 BC game.  I began playing the 282 BC tutorial and became lost.  Then I read the 225 page manual and played some scramble start games.  Only then could I understand and enjoy the 20 opponent 282 BC game.

Extinct nations can return from the dead.  Keep a strong garrison in former capital cities until the technology which prevents revolts is learned and that technology is built in former capital cities.  In my 166 turn win as Carthage Rome was forever putting down revolts.  In a scramble start game I built a handful of powerful military units and attacked a technologically backwards nation encroaching on my turf.  My opponent had eliminated my former neighbor Sparta decades ago.  I blitzed my opponent and captured the former Spartan capital and a gold mine. Then the Spartan Capital revolted, most of my elite units defected to Sparta, and I had a reborn and well-armed Sparta on my border.  Be very, very careful how you handle former capital cities.

 

You eventually research many possible upgrades for your units.  But most upgrades are not worth the cost.

The “victory” video clip is identical for all nations and all types of victories. This was an odd oversight by the designers considering other wonderful features incorporated into the design.

You eventually research many possible upgrades for your units.  But most upgrades are not worth the cost.  After an initial attack, offense/defense upgrades deplete markedly until the unit regains full health.  But some upgrades work well regardless of unit damage. Key upgrades for the mid to late game are blitz (allows two attacks per turn), stalwart (allows multiple defenses per turn), city assault, medics (allow much faster healing of damaged unit – a key military tech) and occasionally increased movement.  Spending the time and resources to build a super-elite unit gains a devastating initial attack which quickly becomes depleted as casualties are suffered.

Random events can radically alter the game.  Sometimes earthquakes strike harming cities and units in limited areas. But a world-wide plague hit one game with about 75% of the world population dying over a couple of turns. Made me wonder if the Avengers opponent Thanos had used the infinity stones in the galaxy holding my game world.  I look at this as an interesting chaos factor which will occasionally upend the game world and not as a design flaw.

 

Summary

Aggressors is really two games in one and both are excellent.  The scramble start traditional 4x game is highly polished, easily customized, and can be geared towards more of a random map wargame or a traditional slowly developing 4x game.  The game does not place opponents in impossible initial positions in scramble start games.

Aggressors Ancient Rome is one of the best ground combat, military focused 4x games ever sold.  There are many complex features, but those features enable someone who has read the manual to obtain a ton of information very fast.  Managing a huge empire on a large map becomes quite quick and easy if you master the controls.  Last, the game can be easily customized to the nth degree that should allow any player to set up a challenging and interesting game.

This game has the best 4x AI I’ve ever played against.  If you forgo playing Rome and especially if you play on one large land mass, the scramble start 4x game is highly challenging.  The AI will hit you with a wave of opponents, exploit breaks in your lines, and will often retreat damaged units for refitting. The only notable flaw I noted in the AI was an inability to execute large-scale amphibious invasions on a well defended island.  But the AI can readily exploit a land mass, can provide a good military opponent, and is competent (but not great) in research.  The AI still cannot match a reasonably talented human opponent but is excellent compared to other 4x AIs.

The 282 BC game with 20 nations will be a long, slow grind.  Winning the 282 BC game requires a solid understanding of game mechanics.  The game is much easier to learn using a scramble start with only two starting units at the bottom of the technology tree.  The 282 BC game provides much stronger rewards when playing Rome, Carthage, or Ptolemaic Egypt.  Many of the other 17 nations are pretty hopeless – think 1939 Poland.  But the three designer-suggested nations will probably require quite different strategies to win.

In sum, Aggressors is an excellent game if you like combat heavy 4x games with intelligent resource management.

 


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Armchair Dragoons Reviews Aggressors Ancient Rome (Matrix Games)

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