Good: Board game look and feel, simple rules, in-game tutorial, excellent in-game documentation, sense of history.
Bad: Punishing difficulty, cannot play as Romans, single player only.
Verdict: Difficult, and sometimes frustrating, but something keeps pulling me back.
Buy it?: Only if you are the kind of person who doesn’t mind losing most of your games.
There are times when Hannibal: Rome and Carthage in the Second Punic War (henceforth Hannibal) is the most frustrating game that I have ever played. Sitting (again), watching Hannibal return to Africa to combat another horde of Roman troops, knowing that this probably spells the end of my game can be an incredibly dispiriting moment. There are times where, after I play the game, I am ready to quit forever, uninstall the game, and pretend it never existed. But despite the frustration, something keeps pulling me back. Next time, I think, I’ll be able to pull it off. Every once in a while, I even succeed. The difficulty, while punishing, makes the feeling of success when I win all the sweeter.
If you haven’t gotten the point already, Hannibal is incredibly difficult. No review of the game can be complete without addressing this issue up front. When I started playing, I struggled with the introductory difficulty level. I eventually reached the point where I was winning 50% or more of my games on the introductory level, and moved to normal. I still cannot beat normal difficulty 50% of the time. I have tried the hard difficulty level, and I am confident that I will never be able to beat it. If you are the kind of player who delights in a fiendishly difficult game, and is willing to play through many losses to get to the point where you can play competently against the AI, you should keep on reading the review. If you are the kind of player who likes a more moderate challenge, and who likes to be able to win games right out of the box, or at least after an investment of only a few hours, you should probably skip the rest of the review, and the game.
Still here? Then I should start by addressing the documentation and tutorial. While Hannibal is a difficult game to win, it is not a difficult game to control The manual and tutorials are adequate, and provide the information necessary to move the pieces around. The in-game documentation is also fantastic, describing the way that all of the cards work, the game systems, and even offering good strategic advice. This is all accessible in the game, either by right-clicking the header of a card or on a unit, or by clicking the question mark icon near the end turn menu. The challenge in playing Hannibal is rarely one of struggling with the UI. I don’t always find the choices intuitive, and occasionally I will (maddeningly) forget an important but obscure feature, but the UI is simple to use, once you have learned it via the tutorials.
The only objection that can be raised to the UI is the lack of information it gives you regarding the “die-rolls” that are going on internally. The game does not give a lot of feedback during combat, or during interception on the field. You know the number of losses in the system, but it is not exactly clear what is going on. There has been some discussion of this on the Matrix forums, and the developers have provided some information about the combat system. It is a shame that the game doesn’t make it accessible. This is especially true in a game that is so like a board game in its elements. I can accept that the calculations that produce results in War in the East are too complicated to explain in detail, given its effort to simulate the effects of individual squads and vehicles on combat. It is harder to accept in Hannibal, where units are reduced to two numbers, attack strength and hit points.
While it makes me question the lack of feedback provided in combat, the board game style translates beautifully in terms of graphics. I find that I grow more attached to the graphical style of Hannibal the more I play it. It is not, by any means, a realistic style of presentation, but I think that is a plus for the game. The relative graphical simplicity of Hannibal goes well with the simplicity of its rules.
The thing that I enjoyed most about Hannibal was the sense of history that I felt playing it. Hannibal faced a difficult challenge in fighting the Romans. He fought the war mostly on Italian soil, which stretched his supply lines while leaving the Romans able to recruit. Like the historical Hannibal, it is not enough for the player to destroy Roman soldiers. Hannibal will win most (and in some games all) of his battles, and can still wind up losing the war. Even if you can engineer your own Cannae, the Romans will be able to replenish their forces in several turns if you cannot press your advantage and deny them access to recruits. This sense of a Roman juggernaut, able to recruit army after army to throw against a superior general, comports with my understanding of the history of the Second Punic War.
Another aspect of the game that aids this sense of history is the Roman AI. The developers specifically designed the AI so that it would not be aware of the superiority of Hannibal’s generalship at the beginning of the game. This leads the AI to attack Hannibal when a more prudent course would be to hold back. That allows the player to recreate some of Hannibal’s successes. Over time, the AI learns that Hannibal is dangerous on the open field, and will begin to refuse battle and pursue something more similar to the Fabian strategy. This development means that the Roman strategy progresses in a plausibly historical fashion, even when the player diverges from Hannibal’s historical strategy.
The cost of this sense of history is that Hannibal is single-player only, and only playable as the Carthaginians. The designer’s rationale for this is that a human player, with knowledge of the history of the Second Punic War, is in a position to crush the Carthaginians using ahistorical strategies. I personally do not find this much of a problem. I generally prefer single-player games to multiplayer, and the AI is sufficiently skilled to make the single-player game a great challenge. If you demand multiplayer, or the ability to play as the Romans, you will have to look elsewhere.
There is an interesting and good game at the heart of Hannibal. It is unfortunate that the difficulty means that some people will never discover it. I found the game difficult but playable, but others whose reviews I trust, such as James Allen from Out of Eight, found the difficulty off-putting. Hannibal is a game that provides an excellent challenge and a strong sense of history. While the difficulty level can sometimes be frustrating, the feeling of victory over a superior opponent makes the effort worthwhile.
I purchased my copy of Hannibal: Rome and Carthage in the Second Punic War from the Matrix online store. I spent between 30 and 40 hours playing the game prior to this review. During that time, I lost many campaigns, but managed to eke out a number of victories as well. I have limited experience with the game’s hard difficultly level, but I personally find normal sufficiently challenging.