Hannibal: Very good. But not *That* good.

Hannibal: Very good. But not *That* good. Hot

MattDP     
 
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Like many people on this site, my first experience of card-driven games was Twilight Struggle which I loved and continue to enjoy. Indeed I loved it so much that I've been on a drive to learn and try other CDGs ever since. The first I attempted was Paths of Glory which was a disaster - I was completely swamped by the rules and options and bumbled around achieving nothing except making my more experienced opponent very bored. Then I tried 1960: The Making of the President, which was good, but not great and left me still on the lookout for a more maneuver-based CDG. Looking at the simpler end of this range of games there was We the People and Hannibal - and the latter ended up getting the nod.

Premise

Hannibal is wargame set during the second Punic War between Rome and Carthage - the famous one in which the Carthaginian general Hannibal crossed the alps with his war elephants. The word "wargame" needs to be taken with a pinch of salt here as there are a number of people who feel that whatever its qualities as a game, it fails the test of an actual conflict simulation and is more of an area control game. I'm not all that well read on my ancient history, but I do know that Hannibal spent a large part of the Punic Wars marching around southern Italy, something which is quite unlikely to happen in this game, at least until nearer the end. So as a direct representation of history, it does fail. Whether it gives players enough of a taste of the real challenges and decisions that were faced by the commanders of the era is something I am unable to comment on.

Rules

Hannibal, like many wargames, has a fairly straightforward and understandable core set of rules which are then made rather messy by a sizable number of details and exceptions. My experience of wargames is not extensive and I regard Hannibal, often seen as a relatively simple wargame, as being somewhere near the extreme edge of what is playable without regular and dedicated sessions simply to learn the rules. A simple test of how I feel about the complexity of a game is to consider how happy I'd feel teaching it to another new player, and in the case of Hannibal I can honestly say that I wouldn't bother trying - I'd get a new player to learn the rules from the book and then correct any mistakes they made in play. I don't think there are any other games I've ever played more than once that I can say that about. A more objective test is to point out that I learned the game against an experienced player and even he made minor rules errors from time to time. If regular players can't keep it all in their heads, what hope is there for more casual fans?

I'll attempt to summarise those core mechanics I talked about, to help you get a handle on the game.

The game is played over a series of nine turns, each one representing a year of history. Play occurs on a board representing the Mediterranean with land areas through which forces can move represented by interconnecting circles and lines. Each area can come under the political control of one or other player, or it can be uncontrolled. These areas form 18 provinces, mostly of five areas each, and controlling the majority of areas in a province hands player control of the province. The provinces determine victory - the player controlling most at game ends wins, with ties going to Carthage. Some spaces contain cities or warlike tribes. These cannot simply be moved on and controlled but must be besieged, a multi-stage process which can cost the besieging player some troops.

Each player has a number of generals which can guide armies around the map either across land or sea. Generals have two ratings: a strategy rating from 1-3 and a battle rating from 1-4. Most of them also have a special ability. Carthage starts with by far the better generals while Rome has to randomly determine two of their each turn from a pool, most of whom are rather poor. Rome does get a competent general as the game progresses. Armies consist of stacks of "combat units".

In each turn, each player gets some re-enforcements (Rome gets more and in more flexible locations than Carthage) and a hand of cards each one of which has an event (which can apply to Rome or Carthage or both) and an operations value of 1-3. Players take turns to lay a card, choosing whether to use the operations value or, if it is "their" event or one applicable to both players, the event. Operations points can be used for three things. The first is laying control markers on to empty provinces on the map on a 1:1 basis, or converting an enemy-controlled province of the same basis providing you have troops there. The second is moving a general (and his troops) with a strategy rating lower or equal to the ops value up to four spaces on the map (or over sea if it's a "3" card"). Rome has naval superiority, so Carthage cannot freely move by sea but must instead roll on a risky table which can see all the units involved lost to Roman fleets. Finally, "3" cards can also be used to add a single troop unit to a generals' stack.

If you move a general and his troops into a space containing enemy troops then there is usually a battle. Before battle is joined various maneuvers can be performed - the defending player may attempt to retreat or to intercept the attacking troops and the attacker may attempt to pursue a fleeing enemy. Success or failure of all these actions is determined by rolling a single die and attempting to score under the generals' battle rating. If a fight ensues then players tally up the battle rating of the general, the number of troops under his command and a bonus for allies - one for each province that player controls in the country where the battle is fought. This translates into the number of "battle cards" each player gets. Battle cards represent maneuvers on the field - flank attacks, frontal assaults, envelopments and so on. The attacking player chooses and plays a card and the defender then has to try and match it from his hand. The defender then rolls a dice against his generals' battle rating which, if successful, allows him to assume the role of the attacker. This carries on until the defender cannot match an attackers card or one side runs out of cards. Both sides take attrition damage to based on the length of the battle and the looser also takes retreat damage - which is usually much higher - and has to remove a number of province control markers equal to half his losses.

Gameplay - Good Stuff

The first thing you'll notice about Hannibal is that it's an asymmetric game, with all the advantages in terms of longevity that that offers. Carthage starts as the more powerful side because Rome has nothing which can stand up to Hannibal and Hasdrubal, the two best Carthaginian generals. In the long term however Romes' greater quantity and flexibility of re-enforcements and their control of the sea really begins to show. Once they get their superior general they can usually push Carthage onto the back foot and in fact the game is biased in favour of Rome. This doesn't bother me terribly as I usually feel that historical games kind of ought to be biased in toward the historical victor and Rome did indeed win the Punic wars and anyway like a lot of CDGs, half the fun in Hannibal is figuring out how to play your hand as much as playing it to win. Your mileage may vary and it's worth noting that some people feel the game is very strongly biased toward Rome.

The second thing you'll notice is that it forces some very tough decisions on to the players from the outset. For starters it pulls a common CDG trick of forcing you to choose whether to play your cards as events or ops - I understand it was the first CDG design to do this. However it also has a number of competing priorities for you to attend to in a game in which timing of the right moves can be critical. Rushing to grab spaces with political control markers denies them to your opponent, but if you choose to do that, you offer your opponent the chance to camp an army on them and convert them, rather wasting your ops points. You might wish to go campaigning, but neither side has enough armies to both defend and attack all the areas they need to, so where do you send your troops? If you're Carthage, do you risk a sea move to get troops where you need them or accept a risk free move which will pay lesser dividends? If you're Rome, do you split your armies in such a way as to ensure you can use your best generals for the turn, or do you risk stacking generals together which might find the lesser soldier in charge if a Carthaginian force attacks? There's lots here to challenge your thinking, and little in the way of obvious answers although sometimes, as in real life, what might be the best choice of action for you is heavily influenced by what your opponent does.

This sort of decision making is nicely complemented by the fact that Hannibal is very much a game which rewards creative thinking. This has partly to do with the list of conditions for sudden death victories - players will normally focus simply on province count but it is possible for both players to suddenly find themselves in a position to grab a sudden victory with some cunning ploy. These attempts rarely work - but they do usually succeed in derailing the opposition enough to hand you an edge in the province count race. A number of the events also lend themselves to creative use - "Senate Dismisses Proconsul" which replaces one of the current Roman generals with another of the card-playing players choice for example can be used by both sides in various ways, and can be especially interesting when the different strategy ratings and special abilities of the various leaders are taken into account. The creative element to the game is very much enhanced over some other CDGs such as Twilight Struggle and 1960 by the presence of troops, since one can pull some surprising rabbits out of the hat simply by where and how you choose to move your armies. Between the creative thinking and tough decisions in the game, one has to conclude that there's a relatively heavy level of intellectual analysis in this game, although as we'll discuss later this is sometimes torpedoed by the whims of fate.

One thing that really stands out about Hannibal is that it enjoys the distinction of being one of a very small number of games I know in which you can bluff your opponent through your actual play choices alone, and not through table-talk. This is best illustrated through example. In a recent game as Carthage my opponent landed an army in Africa and threatened to take Carthage itself (which would have won him the game). While is poured all my resources into countering this perceived threat, he made a couple of small moves in Spain which resulted in him cutting off all my political influence there, winning him the game. In other words I had been successfully deceived by a feint designed to draw my attention. In a more minor example there is a relatively common card in the deck, "diplomacy" which allows you to take over control of one of your opponents' spaces. A patter of control marker placement put down by my opponents deceived me into thinking he had this card, so I slowed the advance of an army to cut off his new markers, loosing him a couple of spaces but buying him valuable time to re-enforce. This potential for bluff pervades the game - in addition to actual strategic deception you can get a long way just by sitting behind your hand of event cards or battle cards with a good poker face and trying to send your opponent into a panic about what's coming next. This is especially true in battles where confident play might even force your enemy to change tactic if he think you're strong in the same cards. It can also be added to by more traditional table chat and banter.

Something that Hannibal does does really, really well is generating tension in the game - tension to the point of a thundering heart and sweaty palms in my case. Given the problematic choices on offer, waiting through the turn to find out if the choices you've made are the right ones is tense. Given the potential for bluff, waiting through the turn to see if you've been suckered in or whether you've pulled off a successful deception on your opponent is tense. Since there are many events which can be particularly destructive if played late in the turn, waiting through the turn to see if you're going to be sucker punched, or waiting in the knowledge you've got a killer card to play can be tense. Because the game (like all CDGs) kind of invites you to plan your turn the instant you get a hand of cards, waiting to see if your plans come off or whether they'll be derailed by your opponent (they usually are) is tense. After all that, dealing and picking up a new hand of cards to see if you'll be able to do what you need to do in the next turn is tense. One particular PBEM session of this game that went over several days actually left me unable to sleep with the anticipation!

This tension is bought to its climax in the battle card system. One thing about this system which is not immediately apparent from learning the rules is that it allows conflicts to go haywire in a way which a combat resolution table doesn't and which even just rolling dice-per-unit can't match. It is, theoretically, possible for one side with a small army to get virtually every copy of one maneuver card in the deck while their superior opponent has none, in which case just a single play will determine the victor. This is an extreme example, but I've seen it happen, and slightly less extreme examples where one side has maybe only two of a given card are fairly common. This means two things in the heat of battle - that you play knowing that every card might be your last, no matter how superior your force, and that the dice roll to assume the attack can and often is critical in determining victory. All this makes for an almost indescribably exciting time when fighting out a battle, allows the historically valid event of a smaller army defeating a much larger one (virtually impossible in many other wargame combat systems) and has the added bonus of actually bringing a narrative element to the battle (Carthage attacks the left flank in force, while Rome bought up reserves to counter). It is not, however, without significant downsides, which brings us neatly on to the next section.

Gameplay - Bad Stuff

Since we were just talking about the battle card system, we best continue. The problem is that while it's great to have a system which allows an inferior force to win out sometimes, in Hannibal it simply happens far too regularly, especially when the weaker force can still manage to rustle up a decent number of cards regardless of how many more the opposition has. It only takes a weakness in one maneuver for your opponent to win, remember? And of course if you're weak in one area, since both sides are dealt from the same pack the chances are the enemy will be the one with the cards you lack rather than them being left in the deck. To make matters worse, this issue of turning on a single card means the result can be heavily influenced by a poor general making lucky counterattack rolls, or a good general making unlucky ones. Then there's the retreat table which the looser rolls on: this can make an immense amount of difference to the damage suffered - from two units all the way up to loosing the entire army (often 10 units, the limit a general can move around). So the system on the whole is prone to producing wildly unexpected results.

This is symptomatic of a more general and widespread problem with the game being prone to huge swings of fate. There are a small number of extremely powerful events in the deck which are playable only by one side (Hanno Counsels Carthage and Syracuse Revolts to name two). It's possible for a game to pass with the side that can play the card simply never getting it and never getting the benefits. The timing of the card can also make an immense difference - I've seen Hanno Counsels Carthage (which stops Carthage shipping troops out of Africa) hand a game to Rome because they were lucky enough to have it at a time when there were lots of Carthaginian troops in Africa. Syracuse Revolts which hands a difficult to besiege one-city province to Carthage, is similarly decisive played late in the game. There are similar issues caused by powerful card combinations, should you be fortunate enough to get them. Carthaginian sea moves are another case in point, where an unlucky roll can simply wipe ten troops off the map in one go. The value of ops cards is yet another example. There's often limited room to place or flip control markers late in the game which puts an emphasis on the other uses of the cards. But if you don't have cards which match the value of your generals, you're wasting points or worse, might not be able to use them at all. In addition, a big emphasis is put on value three cards over value two cards because they can be used for sea moves and re-enforcements. So you might, for example, have a hand full of value 2 cards, which is plenty of ops, but find you can do very little with them through no fault of your own.

Now I'm fine with randomness in games. Indeed, it's difficult to create truly tense and exciting games without some sort of random factors. But Hannibal marginally crosses over the acceptable level for me, especially when you take in to account the fact that the game is pretty heavy in every meaning of the word - complex rules, demanding analysis and relatively long play time. It might be the price you pay for games of Hannibal having the potential to reach astonishing crescendos of thrill-a-minute action, but the result is that many games completely fail to live up to that height.

As already mentioned the rules are, for me, of a level of complexity which alone is problematic. This is an entirely personal issue of course and the game is perfectly playable - but it's not something you can dip in and out of, as you'll forget some of the intricacies involved. It took me six games before I was fairly comfortable with the rules and even then I was still making mistakes.

The game also seems to have a bit of an issue with playing out along similar lines each time. This has a lot to do with the fact that the game seems to be built to discourage aggression. An attacker, for example, is usually stuck with a maximum of 10 units where a defending force can be larger. The allies system favours the owning power in a country with more troops than an aggressor, especially so in Africa. A defender with a competent general who is outnumbered can simply retreat from an attacking force or even withdraw once the battle has started at little or no cost. As a result games tend either to involve a lot of fighting in North Italy where Hannibal comes down out of the alps or the Romans cutting their losses in Italy and using their control of the sea to run to Spain. Bizarrely this doesn't actually impact on the amount of solid, creative decision making and problem solving there is to do in the game because the intricacies of exactly where to go with whom are perfectly demanding, so it isn't a huge issue. But it can makes games feel a little same-y after a while.

Comparisons

There are two games that I know of which make good comparators to Hannibal and might be worth you checking out.

The first, almost inevitably, is Twilight Struggle. The bottom line here is that although both are based on the same basic CDG concept, require similar skills and satisfy many of the same gaming urges, for me Twilight Struggle is the better game. Hannibal has a bit more creative strategy than TS because of the troop movements (TS still offers you the chance to use events in unusual ways) and it has a good bluff element which is tough to pull off in TS. In most other areas however, TS wins hands down. It has all the same interesting, excruciating, exciting choices that a CDG forces on to you, but with the added bonus of the required risk management resulting from the fact that your opponents' events go off on cards you play for ops. There is randomness in TS to help keep it a tense and exciting game but it's rare that I feel during a game that my ability to play successfully is being hampered by my luck, whereas that's been a relatively common perception in games of Hannibal. There are few, if any games of TS I can recall where a single powerful card can alter the face of a game completely. Although the early game in TS can be same-y, the rest of the game most certainly isn't. It's also a lot easier to learn and play, although it's a little bit less forgiving than Hannibal on new players who don't know the card deck. In short, Twilight Struggle remains my two-player title of choice, and the only two-player game which I would willingly split up a larger gathering in order to play.

The slightly more left-field suggestion is Hammer of the Scots. Although based on two quite different base rules sets I found that Hannibal actually scratched a lot of the same gaming itches as Hammer does. Both are pre-gunpowder historical wargames. Both demand and reward creative thinking and strategy. Both have a minor problem with games playing out along similar lines. Both have a big rush of thrills and excitement when the cards are dealt and the dice are rolled. Both have elements of bluff (although Hannibal implements it more successfully). The big differentiator for me is simply that Hammer has a rule set which is considerably easier to learn, digest and remember. So if you're after an easier to play experience along the same lines as Hannibal, it might be the game for you.

Conclusion

My attitude to Hannibal can be summed up fairly neatly. When it fires on all cylinders it is peerless as a two-player gaming experience, especially in terms of creative thinking, bluffing and tension. However it has a significant raft of problems which stop it reaching those heights in the majority of games. In fact in a significant minority of games the problems lead to it being dull and frustrating rather than enjoyable. It is certainly a game which requires repeat plays to start getting the most out of - this is not a game one should play once or twice and then abandon. I feel that the issues which exist with this game are, in many ways, an inextricably bound up with what make it brilliant, which is kind of a shame, but then again perhaps a number of tedious games are the price you pay for occasional perfection.

Because I perceive this is a game of extremes, I found it very difficult to rate. That the game has the potential to be capricious to the point of annoyance is definitely a mark off, as is the rules complexity. The tendency for games to appear broadly similar is a much smaller issue, but an issue nevertheless. I also have an inbuilt bias against two-player titles - I prefer more players round the table and rarely find myself in situations where there are just two wanting to play. So I eventually settled on a rating of seven - this is a game I'd certainly play again in the hopes of hitting that gaming nirvana, but after seven sessions I don't feel any great desire to make it a regular fixture.

Matt ThrowerFollow Matt Thrower Follow Matt Thrower Message Matt Thrower

Head Writer

Matt has been writing about tabletop games professional since 2012, blogging since 2006 and playing them since he could talk.

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Hannibal: Very good. But not *That* good. There Will Be Games

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MattDP
Rating 
 
4.0

Summary

Game Name
Hannibal: Rome vs Carthage

When everything comes together, it's the best two-player game around. Sadly, everything comes together less often than it should.

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