Dice not included
Out of the many phrases attributed to the father of comb-overs, Julius Caesar, “Alea iacta est” (The die has been cast) is undoubtedly the most appropriate for something that feels like one of the most complicated board games I’ve ever played.
Alea Jacta Est is a massively expansive Roman strategy game from AGEOD, a French developer probably best known for American Civil War. It covers scenarios focusing on the internal strife of the Roman state, from Republic to Empire, and it makes me wish I was better at making spreadsheets.
Alea Jacta Est (PC)
Release: September 22, 2012
Alea Jacta Est is one of the first games in a long time that has caused me to go hunting for information in an instruction manual, even after completing the title’s bare-bones tutorial. Before I could even cross the Rubicon, I was punched in the face by the game’s dizzying array of menus, elements, and systems, and I found myself more than a little bit lost.
There’s no babysitting here, no advisers to tell you what to do; you’re given your armies, land, and your greater objectives and sent off to either recreate history or rewrite it. It’s easier said than done. After doing a bit of homework, however, I found myself planning sieges, controlling troop movements, and building or toppling empires like a veteran general — it felt wonderful.
Six campaigns are offered up to prospective military masterminds, representing some of the most famous conflicts Rome had with herself, including some that you might not be as familiar with. It starts with the civil war between Marius and Sulla, one of the most famous conflicts of the Late Republic and ends with the conflict between Septimius Severus and Pescennius Niger, who were both elected Emperor by the legions of the west and east, respectively. They cover a lot of ground, from the end of the Republic, to the end of the Principate and the first age of the Roman Empire. An interest in Roman history comes in quite handy, as scenarios are designed to play out with a great deal of historical accuracy.
The introduction to each campaign outlines the historical context for the conflict, as well as offering a couple of hints on what obstacles each faction must overcome. Although it’s nothing but a nudge in the right direction, it’s a welcome one. Factions are not particularly balanced, and without foreknowledge it’s rather difficult to now how challenging playing a faction will be — not making players aware of the difficulty levels seems a bit remiss.
This Roman romp is a turn-based affair, with each turn being split into two phases. The first phase is where players plan their faction’s actions, whether that be making political decrees to curry favor with the masses by giving out bread or hosting a circus, or ordering troops to besiege a city and sorting out what legions need supplies and so on. The second phase fast forwards the game by 30 days, and your plans are put into action. Battles are fought, enemies strike, and come the next turn, you are left to deal with the aftermath. Watching the twitching and sliding of the battle meters and the waiting for the conflict reports can be a surprisingly nail-biting experience. Player forces and AI-controlled ones move together, so one can easily be taken by surprise, and the 30 or so seconds it takes for the action phase to complete feel like an age.
Even the simplest commands, like ordering troops to move, require a lot of planning. Dragging the portrait of a unit or a stack and placing it on the desired destination will automatically send it across the fastest route. That’s rather handy, but it’s not necessarily the smartest strategy. Different terrain confers bonuses and penalties — as does the weather and infrastructure, like roads — so it’s often better to fine tune the unit’s route, and perhaps take the long way around. This makes the often dull mechanic of army movement a lot more engaging.
Supplies are an important aspect of any military campaign, but keeping troops fed and equipped isn’t particularly flashy so it usually gets glossed over in strategy games. This isn’t the case in Alea Jacta Est; managing a supply system is challenging, sometimes restrictive, but also rather rewarding. Unsupplied troops will find themselves at a major disadvantage, and it’s imperative that besieged cities are supplied, or they will fall to the enemy rather easily. Supply wagons can be built and sent to armies in the field and other cities, either over land or sea. Creating a supply chain is a manual undertaking, which can become a little frustrating when trying to field larger armies; so naturally, it’s better to try to create smaller forces tailored for specific actions. Fighting a long way from home feels like the massive undertaking it should. Men grow exhausted, supplies run out, and each conflict becomes all the more worrying.
Even a well supplied army will be ineffective when led by the wrong general, however, so it’s equally important to pick the right leader for the job. Leaders have a large list of stats and abilities, specialties, and limitations on how many men they can effectively lead — overextending them can accrue some significant penalties. Some generals are able to attack besieged cities before their walls have been breached, others get bonuses when defending settlements, and they also get less battle orientated traits like generating loyalty through propaganda each turn. They are some of the most important units in the game, but their many strengths and weaknesses are a bugger to remember. Luckily, like everything in Alea Jacta Est, there’s a detailed menu that provides a mind-boggling amount of information. The stats are particularly extensive, and unfortunately lacking in tooltips — hence why I was so often scouring the manual.
Generals can make or break a battle, regardless of the units under their command. That is not to say that the soldiers aren’t important — they demonstrably are — but having Julius Caesar commanding the troops, for instance, can vastly improve their chances of survival and victory. They can move faster, pour into enemy cities like a wave of destruction, stave of hunger and exhaustion, and even learn to get along better. Yes, Caesar teaches people to be friends. What a guy.
The men under their command are given just as much attention, and boy are there a lot of them. From the large forces of the Orient to Germanic mercenaries, and, of course, the infamous Roman legions, there is no dearth of troop variety, both for players to command and fight against. Clicking on one of them causes yet another window, overflowing with information, to pop up. Pretty quickly, I found myself taking brief notes; saving me from repeated trips back to the dreaded manual that lingered on my desktop, mocking my terrible memory. It was overwhelming, but forced me to study every unit, actually give serious thought to the contents of my stack, and think hard about how I was going to employ it.
Battles themselves are hands-off simulations that get resolved very quickly. All the planning and studying of units ends in a clash that lasts for only a few seconds. Far more time is spent examining the battle report — trying to figure out what the hell went wrong and lost you all your legions, or how you managed to scrape through and grab a victory against all the odds. There’s a story in these numbers, even if it’s hidden between digits and tiny icons.
The combination of solid enemy AI and realism makes every battle count, and players are given a lot of options for how they want to approach any situation. You can blockade ports, weaken the loyalty of your enemies’ citizens, conquer city after city, or go straight for the main objective areas for greater spoils. Picking and choosing the right battles — and, more importantly, the right locations for said battles — is imperative for a leader who doesn’t want their rule to be short-lived. The attitude of any given force can also be altered, so an army can be set to passive or defensive if you want them to avoid engagements or possibly wait for reinforcements. Special orders allow players to further define their troops making them set up ambushes, start pillaging, or build forts. Leaders in a rush can even enact a forced march, speeding up their unit’s movement at the expense of their combat readiness.
When not planning battles, there’re a broad range political machinations to get all up in, both domestic and involving foreign powers. Alliances can be created, citizens can be pandered to with bread and games, loyalty can be fostered through propaganda — which can undermine other factions — and money can be raised through means both mundane or less pleasant, such as selling slaves. Though you might want to save them, as slaves can be forced into military service. The focus is definitely more on warfare, however, as these political actions don’t really add very much to the game. They are there to make things a little bit easier, while giving players something extra to spend resources on, but not much else.
Four types of resources can be gained in the game, from the tangible, like cold, hard cash, to the love of your people. Engagement points can also be earned, mainly by capturing objectives, and like morale and denarii it can be spent on military or diplomatic actions. The final resource, victory points, cannot be spent; rather, they get added up to decide the victor. While four resources probably doesn’t sound like too much to handle, the way they overlap, both in terms of how they are earned and how they can be spent, can be an annoyance. However, due to the game’s penchant for detail, it’s very easy to see how much you have, where it’s coming from, what you’ll have next turn, and what impact your spending habits will have. Even when you hover over an option to buy something, a tooltip breaks down all the important information for you, including your current total.
Alea Jacta Est could never be accused of being a pretty game. It won’t be invited on many dates, and even if it was, it would politely explain that it’s far too busy crunching numbers and simulating battles. The map is utilitarian and informative, but still manages to avoid being an eyesore. There are geographical touches like trees, rivers, rolling hills, and massive mountains, but it is all very simply presented. Menus are rather hideous, unfortunately, masquerading as papyrus sometimes, other times containing tacky borders that scream “I’m trying to be Roman! Look at all these columns!” Often there aren’t tooltips, so you don’t know what the hell you are looking at, and it just becomes a jumble of words, abbreviations, and random numbers.
Scrolling across the map could do with being quite a bit smoother. The jerky movement of troops during the action phase is exceptionally awkward to the point where, at first, I thought my PC was having issues. Thankfully, my PC is completely fine and the game just likes to make my little units’ portraits look like they are drunk. These issues are fairly minor, and I didn’t encounter any bugs during my many conquests and failures. It’s merely a shame that the attention to detail shown throughout the rest of the game didn’t extend quite as much to the presentation.
Alea Jacta Est is by far and wide the most complex and historically minded Roman strategy game, or indeed strategy game in general. It’s tough to get into, and not in the least bit welcoming to players unfamiliar with AGEOD’s titles. With a lot of investment, it becomes a compelling experience that will devour your time, making you forget to go shopping, wash the dishes, or do anything that isn’t obsessing over numbers and strategies. It requires a great deal of patience, and even more reading, but I found it more than worthy of the work.