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Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage -- Insert Clever Punic Here

John Goode
Falkland Islands
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From gallery of FinalWord

Hannibal: Rome Vs. Carthage doesn’t need me to sing its praises. Going on 4000 people have rated it on BGG, and even with the normal Chorus of the Clueless downgrading it because they can’t figure out how to apply die roll modifiers, read a table, or have attention spans measured in seconds, it still manages an average rating north of 7.8. It’s the eight highest rated wargame. And while BGG ratings have no external statistical validity, numbers like this should make anyone looking for a great game take notice.

I started thinking about Hannibal again after reviewing Hellenes. Though set in roughly similar periods, one is a classic that I loved from the first time playing it, while the other I would not sit through again without financial incentive. What makes one compelling and the other fall flat? Here’s a Top 10 list of why Hannibal is a classic game:

1. It puts you into the mindset of the side you’re playing. Though the play sequence is symmetrical, the Carthos and the Romans feel very different here. Though you have other generals, as the Carthos you feel like Hannibal. He is you and you are driving the game with your every action. As the Romans you feel more like the senate. You tolerate the current crop of generals and hope they don’t do something stupid, like get their army routed. You can always call up more troops, but you fear the political consequences of a major defeat.

2. It’s well balanced. There is no absolute balance since it’s a cards and dice game but I’ve had many games go down to the last turn. However, we play with one house: The ‘Messenger Intercepted’ card can be a hoser. We require the person playing it to discard a card at the end of their turn and don't allow it to be played for the event on the last turn of the game.

3. It’s playable in an afternoon: around three hours usually does it, so you can switch sides if you have all day. A good length for a classic game. Titles that take less than an hour tend to seem too trivial and you’re more inclined to take stupid risks since you can just lose and start over. Titles that take more than a full day tend not to get played enough to become classics.

4. Complexity is commensurate with what you’re simulating. As the overall commander of a nation in a three hour game I don’t want to be deciding what the horses are eating, what our march formations look like, or how much we are paying the blacksmiths.

5. Multiple options each turn, but not so many that it gets confusing or arbitrary. In Hannibal you usually have three: play the event, expand political control, or move an army (usually Hannibal hisownself).

6. Mechanics interact in a logical and interesting way. Victory requires winning hearts and minds. You can do this by buying their love or kicking Roman arse. The people love to see a good arse kicking. They’re not really that particular about the arse being kicked though. They just love a winner. The peasantry tends to be a fickle lot. You gotta love ‘em, or at least pretend to.

7. Components are well designed, functional and ideally, pretty. To feel part of the world being simulated you can’t have a hand-drawn map with white numbered chits. The original Avalon Hill Hannibal is the one to get. The map is theme appropriate, though I could do without the random sketches that serve no purpose. But since it was printed in 1996 the cards are not full color. Still, primitive works for a game set in primitive times. The current Valley Games edition isn't as period appropriate. Gone is the simple elegance, replaced by what looks like the result of a violent collision between a boardgame and a video game. The Cartho die now has Punic characters. That sounds cool, but constantly having to look up what each friggin’ crooked line equates to gets annoying fast. I seem to have gotten too old to remember six new characters. Which kinda P's me O.

8. Victory conditions are clear and the path to reach them apparent and within your control. You’d think this was a no-brainer, but many Euros fail this test. Sometimes the victory conditions are the most complex part of those games. Count the number of loaves in the oven, divide by pregnant teenagers and add the metric volume of barley in your barn etc … Here you just have to control more provinces than your opponent. There are only 18 so it’s readily apparent who’s ahead.

9. It introduces something new or uses existing mechanics in a novel way. Hannibal is the second title to use the card driven mechanic we all know and love today. It’s an evolution of Mark Herman’s We The People. It’s the first time the cards had Action/Command Points in addition to a historical event.

10. It balances replay value with historicity. Make it too historically limiting and you’re on rails, with every game following the same path. Make it too loose and you have Caesar discovering America. Hannibal doesn’t drift too far from history so the games tend to be similar, though not the same.

A not insignificant number of Hannibal players seem to detest the combat card mechanic. I find this baffling. It’s perfect for the game, though more time-consuming than rolling a die. The first game I can recall having anything similar was 1776, but you only played one card for the whole battle in that game. The implementation is much better here. Each time you have a battle you draw a varying amount of combat cards depending on how many troops you have, how good your general is, how many allies you can summon, and a few other odds and ends, such as if you successfully deployed your elephants. The attacker plays a card and the defender must match it (there are 5 types of attacks) or lose the battle. If the defender matches it, he can try to become the attacker. The attacker then plays the first card etc. until one side can’t match and panics, retreating from the battle. Both sides take some attrition casualties but only the loser takes retreat casualties. If you panic the opposing army by playing a Double Envelopment attack there’s a chance the whole army will be destroyed, as happened to the Romans at Cannae.

It’s simple and gives you some control over the battles, not to mention it’s often darn exciting. If you really hate it, someone has come up with a dice based combat resolution system.The game will play faster but definitely not better.

If you’re new to Hannibal, just remember the Romans can lose every battle and win the game. And sometimes you want to purposely lose quickly if your hand is bad, to minimize attrition casualties and avoid getting DEed.

Hannibal is on the clock. He has to invade, win the battles and the hearts and minds. It’s a tough balancing act. The Romans are on the strategic defensive for the game's first half, but once Pronconsul Scipio Africanus shows up the game shifts gears and things blow wide open. It never ceases to be exciting.

From gallery of FinalWord

Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage
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