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HANNIBAL by MARK SIMONITCH from THE AVALON HILL GAME CORP.
22"x33" mounted map; 232 counters of various shapes; 64
Strategy Cards, 48 Battle cards;
Reviewed by RICHARD H. BERG
AH's venture to cash in on the emergence of ancients as a viable marketing venture, Hannibal, has two things going for it - for me, at least - even before I started rolling dice: it's based on a very clever Mark Herman system, and it put everything into the game that I would have, if not exactly in the form in which it shows up. And, with some telling reservations, Hannibal pretty much follows through on its promise.
As most of you are aware, Hannibal is an adaptation of AH's critical, if not (immediately) financial, success, We the People. The WePeo system managed to combine ease and speed of play with a sophistication that not only did on not find in more ambitious designs, but one which put a premium on player decision-making. It proved to be an exceptional tournament game, too, even as it also proved to have some flaws that stopped a fairly vocal minority from adopting it as a "classic", mostly because of what basis on which the player was making those decisions.
The way Hannibal plays, and the system it uses, also brings up a somewhat larger question, one that causes a rather healthy debate to spring up almost instantly: why do we play historically-oriented games? How accurate must they be, and, perhaps even more important, what is "accuracy"? And to have fun do we really need all that historicity? The answer, unfortunately - or fortunately, depending on what side of the line you're standing - is that there is no set answer. Each of us does this for his/her own personal reasons, and the choices run tha gamut from those of us who will play anything, as long as it is done well, through the folks who stick to one series, all the way to the somewhat anal fellow I met at last year's Avaloncon who said he only played Afrika Korps. Hope he's good at it.
Reason I bring this all up is that Hannibal, like WePeo, is the type of game that elicits some deep-seated responses from the grognard section, which, at last look, is pretty much the last section left hereabouts. That's because it manages to work so well on so many levels, but far less so on others. Problem is, some of the "others" are where people start drawing those imaginary lines.
No one ever really complains about AH production values, though, although many carp at some of the details. The same applies here, as, like virtually all AHers, Hannibal is most user friendly. The box cover is striking in the manner for which it was intended to get the consumer to look at it. Kurt Miller seems to have found a "style", if this, and the recent Machiavelli, are any indication. Big, dominant head shots with detail in the background. Here we get a rather Hollywoodish, heroesque looking Hannibal - pre-optical problems - with some rather craggy Alps looming in the background. In some ways it looks like second prize in the Rodger MacGowan look-alike contest, but it works for me.
So do the counters, which are colorful and useful, and the excellent cards. OK, so we can ignore the fact that all of the Carthaginian Leaders are the same guy with different colored tunics, and I'm not sure why they should be iconned with a spear and a shield. Maybe we can lay it down to the fact that the entire Carthaginian photo gallery went down as soon as the Romans took the delenda est stuff to heart.
I'm rather less happy with the striking map, though. Again, very user friendly, although once you put all the Political markers down you can't see which town is which. Not that it's too important. But, while the basic map is OK - excluding the god awful featherfluff that passes for the Alps - it appears that Kurt M. then set about doodling all over every square inch that wasn't covered with information. We get faded sketches of hands (and dreadful hands at that), helmets, swords, spears, and elephant... even a galley battle. Even worse is the faux marble look of the Mediterranean, which looks less like a Sea than a kitchen table top from a third rate condo. Nothing that will stop you from enjoying the game, but one does wish that Kurt would show a little more restraint. I also note a design decision reflected on the map with which I do not agree, and which could have used some explanation. There are no Apennines. Not that I think that, on this scale, they were that great an impediment to movement "rates". However, because they are not there, it is possible for an army in Samnium to intercept another in Etruria, across the mountains. Never happened. Never could. Just one of the historical oddities that float through this game like bodies in a bay.
The rules are clear and, except for some typos that should bother no one, apparently errata free, which should please some of my AoL compatriots to no end. Well, none that WE could find during play. The historical summary does contain a glaring gaffe, though. It states that Hannibal lost all but 3 elephants in crossing the Alps. Not true. His elephant corps was virtually intact for The Trebbia; where he lost them was in passing through the swamps in Etruria, around Pisa (which is where Hannibal also lost his eye to an ophthalmic condition).
Those of you who have played We the People will feel pretty much at home with the way Hannibal plays, except that someone seems to have moved all the furniture around. The system essentially uses Strategy Cards to determine what a player can do each turn, either by using the cards to move armies or as events. Movement is geared to the Leader strategy ratings, in which the better guys have a greater chance of moving. There are, though, 2 Major campaign and 4 Minor Campaign cards, the use of which allows a player to use virtually anyone, and use them in combination. These are "killer" cards, and an unequal distribution of them during the game will pretty much seal the issue, as we soon shall see.
When combat does occur - and it does not occur that frequently, a rather felicitous aspect of the design - there is no CRT. Instead, players get a number of Battle Cards - Flank Left, Probe, Frontal Assault, Frontal Nudity (Scots and Gauls only) - equal to the number of Combat Points plus Leader rating (and a few other items). Attacker plays a card; if Defender can't match it with the same card, he loses. It's that simple. I did not like this idea in WePeo, and I still don't like it. It reduces battle to a game of Go Fish, in which the outcome depends more on the mathematical probabilities of having one more card of one type than anything else. Yes, the more cards you have in your hand the better chances you'll have. But it still comes down to a guessing game. Fun? Perhaps. Evocative of the era, or any other era? I think not.
As you can see, even with some tangential rules that provide additional color, the game is quite accessible, easy to play and understand, and rather fast moving ... although it does take about twice as long as WePeo. On the other hand, because of the general strategic situation, there is far more for each player to do here than in the colonies, and that provides Hannibal with its strongest drawing card: it forces players to make difficult decisions almost each play of the cards, and that creates a level of play tension rarely found in other games. That many of those decisions are based on what cards are in your hand, not the actual situation, is not the issue...yet. The mechanic works, and it works quite well.
What also works well is how neo-designer Mark Simonitch has folded in much of the feel of the era. The Carthaginian use of Celtic and other allies is nicely represented, so much so that Southwestern Hispania becomes an alluring target for Rome, mostly because that's where Boy Barca gets half his troops. The Roman consular system is also handled nicely, if somewhat generically (and rather ahistorically, to be sure), the mechanics for naval movement, although they do ignore the dangers of long voyages, nicely reflect Roman Naval Superiority, and the problems, both Gallic and Attrition-wise, in crossing the Alps reflect reality.
On the other hand, I was most curious as to why both players were saddled with a 10 point movement limitation, 10 combat points representing a Consular army of some 20,000 men. Rome fielded armies far in excess of that size throughout the war, and Hannibal crossed the Alps with twice that many men (at least). This rather ahistorically limits any Roman attack to using only one Consular Army; at Cannae they attacked with at least two, and probably four (and a fat lot of good it did them). Even at Zama, Africanus had a Consular Army reinforced by an additional 17,000 men. One assumes that this sort of restriction is in place entirely for "game" purposes, so that the Romans can't gang up on the Carthos with pure numbers ... which they tried to do but with remarkably little success. I don't entirely disagree with this design decision, and by using a Major Campaign Card you can manage to roll two, or even three, Consular armies against a Carthaginian army. But they come in waves of separate battles, a rather unusual approach to reality.
What I do disagree with, though, are the rather high ratings (overall) for the Roman consuls. Even if one excludes Scipio Africanus (who doesn't enter play until Turn 6 - there are 9 turns, with some artificial, but necessary, telescoping of time going on here), there isn't a truly bad consul in the lot ... and we do know that the Romans fielded some pretty inept politicos for far too long in this war. Gaius Nero and the infamous Varro both have the same strategy ratings as Hannibal, the reasons for which are not only not given (or apparent) but stretch credulity so far out of the envelope that they get left in the mailbox. Fabius, he of the "Fabian" strategy of avoiding combat, has the highest Battle Rating of all Roman leaders other than Africanus and Marcellus (who does get his due here). The result of all this - and one can always quibble about such ratings, which is why God invented the Internet - is that the Romans are just adept enough so as to make a Carthaginian victory a rather remote possibility. And this apparent lack of balance - the official AH position is that repeated plays, about 6-8 repeated plays was the number they offered, will ultimately reveal the strategies necessary for Carthaginian victory - could be the ultimate drawback in what was obviously intended as a game, not a history lesson. Add to that the fact that most Roman players even vaguely familiar with the situation will quickly realize that adopting the strategy that Rome implemented after about 5 years of getting their heads bashed in by Hannibal - run away at home while denying Spain to Carthaginian use as quickly as possible - is, the cards willing, an almost sure winner.
I say "the cards willing", because, more than any other mechanic, including player planning, the Strategy cards delineate the course of the game. If this doesn't bother you - and it can be fun - it won't be a hindrance. For those of you easily frustrated by not being able to do anything of what you'd like for turns on end, you will be about as happy as Hasdrubal after The Metaurus. And that's just about what happened in the first (of two) games we played.
For the first three turns very little happened, as no one got the type of cards that would allow major campaigning. Hannibal rattled around Italy, picking off one or two towns, the Romans launched an abortive invasion of Africa - it looks far easier than it turned out to be - and Publius Scipio did his police action rounding up the usual Celtic suspects in Spain. In the 4th turn, the action picked up (we had yet to have a battle). The Carthaginians sent Hasdrubal back to Africa to wipe up Paulus and his consular army, which they did almost without blinking, Hannibal took Syracuse and then laid siege to Tarentum (which didn't pan out, thanks to a nice play of the cards by the Roman), and P. Scipio got recalled from his Spanish holiday to join Marcellus in Italy.
Thus, at the start of the 5th turn, Hannibal, whose capabilities and Battle rating of '4', make him a formidable foe regardless of army size limitations, is sitting in Terventum - a location, by the way, I have much difficulty locating in either Polybius, Livy or any maps I have, unless Mark means Teruentum, a hamlet of truly minor import - with Roman armies in both Rome and Neapolis. Hannibal has the opportunity to try to either ravage the south, or pick off the Romans one army at a time. Unfortunately for him, Fate, in the form of Cards Dealt, is about to give him a "hot stick in the eye", which, all things considered, is not what Hannibal wants. The Roman Player fans through his cards for the turn, upon which his eyes grow larger than those of a squid with goiter. He has both Major Campaigns cards and one Minor! The initial Major allows him to grab the turn's initiative from the Carthaginian. His first move is to trap Hasdrubal in Lilybaeum and drive him into the sea, destroying that army. He then launches Marcellus at Hannibal, an attack which Hannibal manages to fend off with minimal loss. But, given the Roman card situation, even minimal losses are going to be a tragedy if the Roman can keep those Campaign cards coming.
Doesn't make much difference, though, as the follow-up attack by Publius Scipio, who is even outnumbered by Hannibal (a rarity indeed) reveal the innate weakness of the Battle Card system. Again, the Romans get a glaucoma-like eye-popper: out of 9 Battle cards, 4 are Double Envelopment and two are Reserves (which can be used as Double Envelopment). As there are only 6 DE's in the deck, the conclusion is foregone. Even worse, because the Romans win with a DE Card, the Carthaginians have to add two to their Retreat loss DR; in doing so they eliminate the entire army, thus ending the game.
Now, it's not that this play out will happen often, or even sometimes. (Those of you who did not snore through Statistics class can figure out the odds of getting two specific cards out of a deck of 64 in any one deal of '8'.) It's that the cards created the opportunity, not the player. The player is not acting, he is reacting to what fate has dealt him. It is as if each player's HQ is located at the Oracle of Delphi. Whether this is any different from rolling a '1' on an old AH 3-1er is a question of perception. But the reality of such perception is that far too much is left to random chance. The Control Freaks are going to need a whole bunch of Pepcid AC to get through this one.
Oddly enough, and despite all of my cavils, we did have a lot of fun ... and maybe that's the bottom line here. Hannibal rates very high in terms of both playability and play tension. Neither Simonitch nor AH is trying to get us an MA in Roman History; they're trying to sell games and give some people an afternoon of fun. To that end, they have succeeded marvelously.
Of course, I won both games as the Roman, so perhaps that clouds my view of fun. Then again, any game I can win twice in a row must have built-in problems.
Graphic Presentation: Very good, very user friendly, but far too much busy doodling visible.
Overall: Lot's of fun, but some of you are going to be mighty frustrated by either the system's reliance on chance or its ahistorical restrictions.