16 October 2018
The wargaming classic returns bigger – but is it better?
If there’s a beauty to historical warfare – the fascination of reliving the taut strategising of virtuosic commanders across a sweeping battlefield – it’s to be found in Hannibal, Mark Simonitch’s 1996 historical recreation of the clashes between Rome and Carthage.
This, a 20th anniversary edition that packs in a revised and expanded version of that original game – plus a new mechanically similar but more naval-focused prequel, Hamilcar – is a fittingly gorgeous tribute to Simonitch’s politically-led simulation, with handsome artwork and the option to use plastic miniatures in the place of the cardboard tokens representing the generals of each side. (Though, it has to be said, we still prefer the tokens for clarity.)
The design remains just as beautiful. The action is built around an engrossing card-driven system that would go on to influence the mighty Twilight Struggle a decade later, offering a similarly accessible but head-scratchingly strategic back-and-forth of using cards either to trigger events or as generic points with which armies can be commanded around the map. This simplicity becomes the foundation for layer after layer of historical atmosphere that effectively captures the Roman domination of the seas, for example, or the hardy attrition of winter that gradually saps troop numbers – most of which only require a die roll and relatively quick table consultation. The decisions and consequences may often be weighty, but the gameplay that supports them is rarely so.
The focus here is firstly on immersion, as the staggeringly asymmetric setup for some of the historically faithful scenarios attests. Each is a slow burn of carefully manoeuvring forces, claiming regions to widen your political influence and avoiding conflict until necessary, inviting you to breathe in the Mediterranean air of the era.
When battles do occur – the ability to intercept nearby enemy troops and dodge approaching armies provides welcome tactical freedom – they are fast and brutal. What appears a simple numbers game at first (players draw up to 20 cards and match their attackers’ plays until they can’t, and lose) gives way to a more carefully considered strategic edge, with the option to deliberately concede battles to minimise losses and regroup. It’s an effective way to make you feel like a general at the head of an army, and it works a treat.
Unfortunately, the joy of Hannibal & Hamilcar’s central gameplay and ambiance is smothered by the game’s terrible trio of rulebooks. Ostensibly designed to make learning the game easier for complete newcomers unfamiliar with the original, the tutorial-like ‘Playbook’ serves only to convolute and confuse during a series of poorly-explained scenarios – the first three of which are single-player only, requiring both players to either play them separately or one person to passively watch before playing for real. The main rulebook helps clear some things up, but overwhelms with subclauses, lacklustre referencing and the need to search for further clarification in multiple instances. The wall-of-text player aids help somewhat to cut the chaff, but despite their visual density still manage to miss out certain details, meaning you’ll have to return to the books at points until you memorise every last specificity.
You wouldn’t believe it from the rulebooks, but Hannibal & Hamilcar’s gameplay in motion actually skews towards the more approachable end of the wargaming scale – it’s a crying shame that the exhausting drag of such fundamentals means players may very well miss the chance to experience an otherwise brilliantly devised and lavishly presented historical epic. Instead, you’ll feel like you’ve already spent years fighting your way across Europe before the game even begins.
A design that continues to impress decades on returns in a beautiful new set but, if you’re looking to enjoy Hannibal for the first time (or the first time in a while), be prepared to suffer through the painful approach to learning the basics.
Designer: Simonitch, Andruszkiewicz
Artist: Jędrzejewski, Kaczmarczyk, Szymanski, Słaby
Time: 60+ minutes
This review originally appeared in the August 2018 issue of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here – or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.
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