Monday, November 30, 2009

Hannibal Is At The Gates

I designed the game Hannibal Against Rome to give the player (okay, me) a sense of the challenges faced by Hannibal 2227 years ago in the Second Punic War. Of course, it is just a game while Hannibal faced a more complex reality. Still, we might explore some of the aspects of that long distant conflict that are part of both the computer and the PnP board game from White Dog Games.

When the game starts the Carthaginian side has more land units. This is because Rome was not looking for war but was deliberately provoked into it by Hannibal’s siege and capture of Saguntum on the eastern coast of Spain.

The head of the Roman embassy sent to Carthage after the fall of Saguntum said to the Carthaginians: "Here I carry peace and war; say, ye men of Carthage, which you chose."

"Give us which ye will," replied the Carthaginians.

"Then we give you war," said the Roman.

From that point, the Romans played catch up. But the Roman well from which to draw manpower was quite deep. It seemed to me the most interesting way to frame the game was to use unit production. The central tension during the Second Punic war and in the game is the question, can Hannibal win the war before Rome builds its strength to an almost invincible level.

In Hannibal Against Rome, cities produce units so whoever controls the most cities generates the most units or prevents the other side from producing units. It thus was Hannibal’s strategy to win over or subdue the Italian cities. That he failed to do so may be because he was not able to bring many siege engines with him across the Alps. When some Italian cities were able to resist Carthaginian sieges, other cities were encouraged by their successes to defy Hannibal. Accordingly, few siege engine units are available to the Carthaginian side in the game.

Hannibal, however, did win over a number of Gallic tribes in northern Italy. These formed a significant part of his army in Italy. But he could not have been certain that the Gallic tribes would break with Rome and join him. Therefore the game requires a die roll for the Gauls to side with Carthage.

Travel in ancient times was difficult. With his army in Spain, Hannibal had two possible ways to invade Rome, each not without hazards. He could transport his troops, cavalry and elephants by ship. But sea travel could be chancy. About 250 BC, for example, the weather dealt Rome a series of severe blows when three fleets were wrecked in storms. Hundreds of ships were lost and the drowned numbered tens of thousands. Due to the danger of heavy weather ancient navies could not risk sailing too far from shore, making sea journeys often longer. Ships of that time had little room for water or food so long journeys of more than a few days were impossible. When able, galleys were beached at night to give the crew a rest. A large number of ships would have been needed to transport 40,000 foot, 12,000 horse and 40 war elephants. Maybe the deciding factor was that Hannibal knew that Rome controlled the seas. Still, invading Rome by sea was an option for Hannibal and is an option in Hannibal Against Rome. The fun of game playing is that you can explore what-if scenarios. I will tell you that, on occasion, I have had success invading Rome by sea but it is not for the faint of heart.

As every school child knows, Hannibal took his men, horses and elephants across the Alps. What they may not know is that Hannibal also needed to cross the Pyrenees and many rivers, some of the later which might be in flood (a game die roll). If it seems astonishing to us now that it took only 16 days to cross the Alps, an idea of the terror and surprise Romans felt to find Libyans suddenly in the plains south of the Alps comes down to us in the phrase "Hannibal is at the gates!", which was used for centuries by mothers as a threat against misbehaving children.

Hannibal’s army was a melting pot of nationalities. At the beginning, his army consisted of mercenaries, Numidian cavalry, Libyans, and Spanish Celts (infantry and cavalry). Once in Italy, as mentioned above, he managed to convince the Italian Gauls to join him. Carthage allies were Illyricum and Macedon. War elephants found a place in the Carthaginian ranks as well although many of them perished on the arduous march across the Alps. Wonderful counters designed by Tom Cundiff represent these contingents in the print-and-play version of the game along with Balearic Slingers and the navies of both sides.

During the Punic War era, Rome employed a militia of propertied citizens for its armies. The basic unit of the Roman army was the legion and they were the best soldiers in the world. For that reason, legion counters get more strength points (20) in the game than most other units. One reason the propertied Romans made good soldiers might be that a man naturally fights harder to defend his property. That it might be a good idea to follow this example with the vote today (also only propertied Roman citizens could vote) is the subject of another discussion.

The Romans had their own system of counting the years based on the founding of the city of Rome or Ab urbe condita (AUC) in Latin. That year is traditionally set as 753 BC. The Second Punic War, then, to the Romans lasted from 536 AUC to 554 AUC if my math is right. Hannibal Against Rome uses the Roman system for the game years and we also gave cities and geographic entities like the Alpes (Alps) and the Padus (the Po) their ancient spelling on the game map, all to get the player a bit in the mood of the times much like putting on a costume for a play. Heck, it’s just good fun to do that.

Hannibal is my choice for greatest general of all time and for this reason the Hannibal counter increases Carthaginian odds when determining combat results in the game. Putting aside marching an army across the Alps, which stands even today as an amazing military accomplishment, and inspiring his men to incredible feats with his charismatic personality, for eighteen years he held the Roman Empire at bay and produced brilliant tactical wins at Trebia, Trasimene and Cannae over the world’s finest soldiers.

After Scipio Africanus beat Hannibal at Zama to end the Second Punic War, the two old soldiers sat down for a chat. Scipio asked Hannibal who he thought were the greatest generals ever. Hannibal listed himself third after Alexander and Pyrrhus.
Scipio then asked, “And what if you had beaten me at Zama?”

Hannibal replied, undoubtedly with a grin, “Why then, I would be the greatest general of all.” Thus Hannibal flattered himself and complimented Scipio by suggesting Scipio was greater than Alexander.

(The PnP game Hannibal Against Rome is available at for a donation of 8.50 USD which supports the development of more games. The computer game is free.)

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