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Numantia – Review

Numantia headerNumantia is a turn-based strategy game by RECOtechnology released for the PC, PS4, and XBox One. The game is set in the mid-second century BCE during the long, brutal wars the Romans fought in the Iberian peninsula as they conquered the region. Players can take the role of the Spanish or the Romans and play through a campaign that consists of a series of choice-based-text decisions on a stylized and attractive campaign map of northern Iberia punctuated by turn-based battles between Roman and Spanish forces on hex-based maps.

Some thoughts on reviewing video games for historical accuracy

Full disclosure & gameplay note
I received a free copy of the game, upon request, from the very gracious Reco Technology to review and to use in an upcoming article on Roman battle in video games. I played only as the Romans and I played eight hours. Those eight hours did not get me through most of the campaign, simply because much of the game involved restarts. I lost several campaigns simply because the interface and tutorial did not make it clear that I could levy additional troops. The game would benefit significantly from an instruction guide and the controls—I found the game to be best played with an Xbox controller, though one can also use mouse and keyboard—are a bit challenging to grasp, though that improves with time and practice.

I enjoyed Numantia despite its technical difficulties, and I would like to see it succeed commercially. I also know that video game developers are regularly abused by small vocal groups of players who forget that putting anything creative out in the world takes a great deal of time and sincere effort that should be recognized, not trivialized. Those points raise a little uneasiness when offering a historical critique. Of course, Numantia and other historical games are games and the goals of historical game designers and the affordances and constraints under which they operate are very different from the goals of academic historians. There is nothing wrong with this: historical games are not an inferior mode of doing history; they are simply a different mode. So I am regularly aware when critiquing these games that designers do not intend them to be academic history monographs. However, when a designer releases a historical video game, they are making a basic claim implicitly or otherwise: that their game in some purposeful non-trivial way reflects one or more  element of the past. Here’s the logic. If a designer has no wish to connect to the past in their games, they will simply design games that are more-or-less fully fantastical, or abstracted away from human life and society. The designers of historical games do not do that, however. They purposefully ground elements of their game in the human past. Evaluated along a hypothetical spectrum from  “no relationship to the past” to “extremely valid representation past” the historical game falls closer to the right than Mario Bros, Pokemon, Peggle, Mass Effect, Sonic, and so on.

So, there is always at least an implicit claim of connection to the past in a historical game. Many designers, RECOtechnology among them, go beyond this most casual connection and claim more explicitly that their game connects to history —and there is NOTHING wrong with this desire to make potential players aware of the connections. Here are some propositions from the Numantia Steam page

  • “Units, heroes and battles inspired in real events. Deep narrative linked to the historical evolution of the conflict … Numantia is a Turn-Based Strategy game that takes place in the ancient conflict between Rome and the city of Numantia, in a war that lasted for more than two decades.”
  • “The choice is yours: Play as a Numantian warrior against the Roman legions or expand the power of Rome throughout the Iberian Peninsula. Relive history fighting in epic battles alongside real historical figures, commemorating the 2150th anniversary of the Siege of Numantia.”(http://store.steampowered.com/app/588080/Numantia/ )

Again, there is nothing wrong with this. The designers have made a game about the Numantine wars because they found that topic interesting and of potential appeal to players of strategy games and players interested in history and historical games. It makes sense to point out the historical connections so that those who find that appealing are more likely to give the game a try. But since the claims of connection to history have been made, in this case explicitly, it is legitimate for anyone interested in the game to ask, what exactly are the connections to the past, and how authentically does the game model the past?

The campaign of Numantia

Historical Problem Spaces 
Most historical games, I suggest, represent the past as a series of problem spaces: simulated geographical and topographical spaces, in which the player has a role and goal, and chooses, acts, and forms strategies influenced by the elements of the space, elements that can constrain actions, afford actions, or both. If you’re interested, you can read my article on video games as historical problems spaces online (McCall 2012 & McCall 2012)                                                           Problem Space Diagram    
As in many historical strategy games, Civilization, Total War, etc., the player adopts a role that does not quite correspond to any particular historical individual. In the Roman campaign the player is presented with a series of events in the form of choice-based texts. Sometimes these texts place the player in the role of a Roman commander. Other times the player represents the interests of the three proclaimed heroes of the game, a cavalry trooper named Quintus Laelius Nerva and two infantrymen named Titus Petronius Corvinus and Lucius Ovidius Asellius. The heroes’ sets of events and choices have a “scenes from camp life” flavor to them, though not always:
  • Whether elite cavalry trooper Nerva should to write letters home for the pedestrian and illiterate Corvinius and Asellius—not an unreasonable touch, certainly a historical possibility, but not a certainty.
  • Whether the selected hero should share a prize of fresh meat with all the soldiers or just with the other two heroes–an exaggerated but not unreasonable scenario to shed light on armies and food
  • Whether to hang some captured Spanish shepherds for being potential spies—solid, though Corvinius, always the bad guy, does the deed and this obscures that the Romans in general were often very brutal in Hispania, not just the “bad” Romans.
  • Whether to burn nearby crops to catch some Numantians in the conflagration—though why Corvinius, a common soldier, would be able to make this command decision is unclear.

20171230075740_1(1)Some of these decisions affect the army’s stats: the sharing of meat and the decision to burn crops, for example. Certainly, these do add interest to game and the story of Roman conquest, but should be handled carefully by those investigating history in this game and countered with research on the Spanish campaigns or pointed presentations by a teacher.

In the role of a Roman general, some decisions the player could make are:

  • What to do after a battle: recount the troops, search for Spanish spies, or tend to the Roman injured—odd choices of sorts since an effective command system would presumably authorize all three.
  • Whether to focus on certain kinds of military technologies (like the scorpio)—another somewhat puzzling choice. Romans already, we think, had that sort of siege equipment, and a general would not have to choose to research it. This sort of unhistorical researching of tech falls under the gamey-ness category: players like goals and rewards.
  • Whether to allow Roman troops to adopt certain elements of Spanish life and culture or prohibit such assimilation—this one was a real concern for historical Romans and quite a good concept to bring up in the game.

20171230075618_1These decisions during events generally increase or decrease the main variables of the game—supplies, silver, and morale—or the supply of troops for the army. The campaign is static in the sense that there are no dynamic functioning models at work here of an army that requires a regular supply of food and materials (supplies are simply used as a resource to purchase units); no ability to move armies to different places on the map; no ability to interact with the map at all, except to select event flags and respond to the text questions they pose. Instead the scripted campaign component provides some choices and consequences that provide some glimpses into the game designers’ generally reasonable, though stylized picture of the concerns of the commanders and lives of the common soldiers.

Ancient sources on the Spanish Wars
Appian, a second century CE historian, gives our most detailed account of Roman military activities in Spain in the second century BCE (Translation of the Spanish Wars online). Livy, a first century BC Roman writer whose text is fragmentary after the year 167, also provides details about Roman campaigns in Spain in Books 30-45 (Translation online

The campaign map also includes the Roman base-camp, which serves essentially for show: it provides an attractive graphic interface where parts of the camp can be selected to trigger, choice-based text events, when available, or bring up management screens. Through this single base-camp, the designers have simplified the Roman presence in Hispania considerably. Ancient sources make clear that Rome divided Hispania into two military provinces after acquiring a foothold there in the Second Punic War (218-201): Nearer Spain and Farther Spain. There were junior commanders, praetors, assigned to govern each province yearly, who campaigned and based their troops in various places, not just a single base camp. Sometimes a senior commander, a consul, would also have an army in Hispania for a time. In short, there was no single army or single base camp for Roman forces. The solitary base-camp is a little misleading in that it suggests to the player that the Roman presence in Spain was continuously on a knife’s edge with imperial-ambition-stopping disaster around every corner. That take, if the player came away with it, would be highly exaggerrated. The Romans experienced their fair share of blunders, particularly ambushes in the rugged terrain, and thousands of soldiers died in the process, but the Republic, with its seemingly limitless supplies of manpower, was  not in serious danger of losing influence in Spain once it gained a foothold.

The camp layout is reminiscent of, but does not strictly follow, the standard Roman camp layout testified to by the 2nd Century BCE historian Polybius nor does it seem to particularly follow the archaeological remains at Numantia (though I could easily be wrong about this – Dobson, Army of the Roman Republic is the definitive work on Roman camp structure in Numantia). Not a critical point, but there does not seem to be any reason other than perhaps aesthetics to have this stylized model when the purpose is to serve as a set of clickable spaces. A more authentic camp map would serve.

campThe most important areas in the base camp are the market, where one can purchase special (unhistorical but fairly ubiquitous in military history games) bonuses for soldiers, the barracks, where one can purchase additional troops by spending the required number of supplies and silver, and the praetorium, where the available soldiers can be incorporated into an army. As in many games about ancient warfare, soldiers are purchased, in this case by spending the requisite number of supplies and silver. The idea that Roman soldiers needed to be both paid and fed adds a bit of sophistication, but tends to obscure the principle that supply was a continuous need for any army and  required a sophistical logistical apparatus. It also obscures the fact that the Romans of the second century were citizen-soldiers levied for war and that the limits of force sizes were convention and available manpower, not money—units were not purchased; soldiers were not hired, they were conscripted. Still, the problem space Numantia clearly wishes to focus on more is the battlefield, not the campaign, so it is reasonable that they did not go into more accurate detail here.

Battles in Numantia

Combat events on the main map lead to the core of the game, the turn-based battles between Roman and Spanish forces. Here the problem space is realized more fully than in the campaign. The player takes the role of a general with the goal of defeating the Spanish forces in a terrain that really does not vary much. Unlike Spain where rugged terrain proved problematic for Roman forces that managed to run into ambushes a fair amount— Numantia mostly offers a hex-based map of flat terrain punctuated by some hexes containing impassable (but not impenetrable; missile troops throw through the obstacles just fine) terrain.

Terrain

The Roman general may deploy a fixed number of units, often fourteen. They are broken down by unit types and there are limits on each class: heroes, close-order infantry, cavalry,  skirmish/missile infantry, and siege weapons. The units that may be placed in these slots provide a reasonable approximation of the historical units of a Roman Republican army in Spain.

In the early and mid second century, the Roman army consisted of three kinds of heavy infantry: hastati, principes, and triarii. Historically, these classes were distinguished by the age of the soldiers and divided up into small units called maniples, 120 soldiers in each maniple of hastati and principes, 60 in each triarii maniple. Hastati and principes, a point often misunderstood, had identical equipment: short sword, javelins, large oblong shields, helmets, and a small bronze heart protector. The only distinction was that the wealthiest soldiers in each of these classes supplied themselves with a mail shirt. (Polybius 6.26 is the main source ). The triarii were armed somewhat differently with a thrusting spear. In battle, the Romans formed these troops into lines of heavy infantry with reserves. The hastati, the youngest of the heavy infantry, were the first to enter battle; the principes, the soldiers in their prime, would relieve the hastati if needed. The triarii were the veterans, the eldest soldiers. They used their spears to serve as a third defensive line if the army was worsted and needed to regroup.

Maniple DIagramVelites were the youngest Roman infantry; they served as skirmishers who used javelins to harass the enemy and avoided hand-to-hand combat. Finally, equites were the elite Romans who served as cavalry and protected the flanks of their infantry while attempting to harass and disrupt the flanks and rear of the enemy infantry lines. In addition to all these Roman soldiers, Roman armies also had an equal or greater number of Italian allied troops divided up into the same kinds of categories and classes.

Numantia, like many games about Roman warfare, represents hastati and principes units as substantially different. They have different numbers of soldiers, different costs, and the principes are more effective in battle. I suspect this misunderstanding often crops up because the difference between the two types of soldiers was fundamentally a social one (age), but a game on warfare needs to justify the existence of different units by providing them different abilities. Triarii are also different, and again I suspect this is more because of the game’s need for distinct units. In the early stages of the campaign, War Elephants appear as a choice for cavalry (also historically accurate), as does the scorpio, essentially a siege crossbow.

Don’t get me started on the scorpio
There is a great deal of fascination, too much fascination, with the scorpio as a major infantry weapon for field armies. As far as I know from my readings of ancient battle narratives, scorpios, indeed no siege weaponry, were used for pitched field battles; they would be very difficult to move and maneuver effectively. But Roman military game designers LOVE their siege equipment serving as moving artillery for their infantry battles.

To assess Numantia’s battle model, a brief overview of ancient battle is necessary. The clash of heavy infantry battle lines was the core of Mediterranean battle in the second century. Generals, especially Roman and Greek ones, deployed their soldiers into battle lines of more or less organized closely-ordered infantry. When the battles began, generals, if they did not personally command a unit of soldiers (Roman generals often commanded a cavalry wing in the third century and earlier, but this practice mostly stopped afterwards) were severely limited to inspiring troops around them, commanding reserves to relieve the front, and, very occasionally, initiating tactical maneuvers to outflank enemies. Infantry, especially Roman infantry, stood together in close-order formations and fought their enemies in brutal hand-to-hand combat. The killing-zone itself was limited to the first couple of ranks at the front of each battle line. Javelins, slings, and arrows had a greater killing distance, and the long pikes of Hellenistic phalanxes brought more spear-heads into play, but for practical purposes, the killing zone only extended a few yards for the longest hand-to-hand weapons. In this killing zone, enemy infantry lines engaged in a series of clashes and pauses, segments of the line rushing forward then resting after one or the other side backpedaled a bit. Infantry certainly fought and died in these clashes–and the sights, sounds, and smells must have terrified those who survived–but most casualties did not occur while the battle lines engaged. Rather, the morale—the psychological willingness—and the physical capacity of each soldier to maintain their position in their formation and withstand the attacks of the enemy infantry were sorely tested. When enough units in a segment of the battle line were overcome by stress, exhaustion, wounds, and/or panic, they fled, and the segment of the battleline collapsed. Attacks by cavalry or, far less commonly in this period, infantry on the flanks or rear of an enemy, increased their disorder considerably. Infantry units and battle lines were intended to face and fight in one direction. Attacks from other directions increased confusion and casualties, making it more likely that the flanked infantry would flee the engagement. Whether through flank and rear attacks or just the overwhelming psychological pressure of the enemy, one side would grow disordered and flee. Then the real death-dealing followed, the casualty count soaring as the victors cut down those fleeing opponents who could not escape. Panic and flight on a large enough scale would cause a battle line to disintegrate, and the victors would often pursue the defeated, a task that ancient cavalry often aided with. Ultimately casualties, as far as can be determined from the limited evidence for the ancient world, were usually very one-sided, the victors losing a fraction of the casualties suffered by the defeated (something like 10-15% vs. 40-60% or more).

Numantia does a serviceable job including the basics of this complex battle system. Their troop-type limits insure that Roman armies will consist mostly of infantry, complemented by cavalry. On the hex map, units are activated according to their initiative rating. The player can command any of the troops with sufficient initiative to either move and attack, move only, or attack only (attacking first ends the unit’s turn). Like essentially every Roman battle game ever produced, the player general has a super-human view of the battlefield, able to see everything and zoom in and out, and super-human control of units, able to issue precise commands to each one so long as it is active. It is worth noting, but more comment than critique. A very authentic Roman battle problem space would severely limit the player’s view of the battle and control over units, perhaps allowing them to deploy troops, set a few plans, then watch and exercise control over perhaps a unit or two, depending on where the general was on the field. That would be a hard sell for an entertaining video game, however, and, understandably, it really has not been attempted for an ancient world battle game.

Central to the battle model are core stats for each unit. Endurance: essentially hitpoints, and reflecting the number of actual soldiers in the unit or, in the case of elephants, some conversion (the endurance of war elephants is 600). Morale: a figure that provides a—generally small—bonus or penalty to the damage the unit inflicts. Damage: seemingly the base number of men the unit will kill in an attack. That number is modified by a number of unclear factors because Numantia does its battle calculations mostly under the hood.

principes There are some problems with representation here. Hastati units are smaller than principes (320 vs 360); historically maniples of each were the same size.  The size, as noted above, was 120 men, so it is not clear exactly why the units in Numantia are 320 and 360. (It is possible the designers meant to refer to the three-maniple + velites sized cohort, a tactical unit that became prominent in the later second century. Then the unit should have been in the neighborhood of 480 soldiers.Hastati inflict less damage than principes (48 vs. 64); historically they were armed the same way. One might argue, perhaps, that young men (the hastati) were less physically capable of inflicting damage than men in their prime (principes), but that’s a bit of a stretch, and, in any event, Numantia does not make this case. Rather the descriptive text for the principes asserts, they are “infantry that fight in the second line, once the hastati have withdrawn. Their armament is superior to the velites and hastati. They make up the elite corps of the legion.” The statement that they formed the second line is true; the other two statements are not. Again this is a gamic feature. HastatiIf one is to represent Roman armies of this period authentically there should be these different types of troops.  But if the troops differ in name only, they are completely redundant from a player perspective. Hence the un-authentic distinctions in cost and combat ability of these troops.

A unit can attack an enemy from the front or on the flanks or rear. Generally speaking, attacks from the front will cause both attacker and defender to suffer losses and Numantia does well to model engagement this way rather than using a complete turn-based approach where only one side attacks and inflicts harm at a time. Attacks from the flank and rear inflict, generally, far greater casualties on the defender than the attacker. Heavy infantry units—hastati, principes, and triarii inflict more damage than velites, but can only attack adjacent hexes, whereas velites, as missile-skirmishers, can launch their javelins at a target several hexes away. Cavalry have considerably greater movement than infantry, as is fitting, and elephants can maul a unit of foot soldiers or riders.

Though the components of the model are reasonable, three core problems snowball into a misleading model of Roman battle in the period. The first is the problematic model of morale. Morale can be increased by defeating the enemy and decreased by overexertion or suffering flank and rear attacks. So far, so good. But morale is only used to assign small damage bonuses and penalties to a unit. In other words, the morale stat hardly models morale at all. Units fight to the death as this Spanish cavalry unit did when surrounded by Romans: surrounded-cav.jpg

As a result battles require the complete elimination of the enemy; units do not flee no matter how badly mauled they are. This can lead to end-of-battle screens like the following:

This runs counter to all modern scholarship on ancient battle, which emphasizes that morale was the single most important factor in battle and that soldiers regularly fled rather than stay on the battlefield and die. It creates a goal for the general that does not fit historical realities.

Second, casualties inflicted in combat are very high. In a single front-on-front attack between two opposing infantry units, each side often suffers far greater casualties than historically the victors would have in an entire battle. Casualty rates like this would have depopulated the ancient Mediterranean as victor and vanquished both regularly lost most of their soldiers. This is a particular problem with velites and Spanish slingers. They can inflict devastating casualties from a distance when the basics of shield and body armor, so far as we know, really meant these soldiers harassed and disrupted far more than they killed. Finally, units have no zone-of-control. This means during its turn, any unit engaged against an enemy and adjacent to several others can, without penalty, disengage an enemy, run to its side and deliver a flank attack.  (The picture below illustrates such an maneuver: the blue arrow indicates a move and the red arrow, an attack)

flank.jpg

This model of movement and flexibility is simply not historical. Orderly ancient infantry formations were lumbering beasts that required considerable effort and coordination to maneuver. A unit withdrawing and turning a side or back to an enemy, would provoke that enemy to take advantage of the opportunity to attack with impunity, to “score free hits” as it were.

Collectively, these problems create an image of Roman battles that is simply misleading.  Granted, Roman units receive a morale bonus for remaining adjacent to other units. Morale, however, has so little impact in the game that the bonus does little to encourage the maintenance of battle lines. Lengthy battle lines, critical to Roman success, are unhelpful in Numantia—though, to be fair, having some troops side by side makes it harder to outflank. The built-in historical rotation and relief system of hastati, principes, and triarii is a hindrance. One is better off using all principes (a choice an ancient Roman commander could not make) and engaging all at once since leaving troops out of battle allows more of the enemy to gang up on the front units in their hit and run way that ignores zone of control. Units can, and really should from the player perspective, regularly break formation to gain advantageous attacks on enemy units rather than, historically, remaining in formation to gain the advantage of a continuous front. Units will never waiver and never break. And maneuvering without consequence is reminiscent of fighter planes, not ancient infantry. The units in Numantia practically dance across the map in their nimbleness. This is just not how the Romans fought battles.

Thank you if you’ve stuck with me this far; many historical details seemed necessary in this post to understand what Numantia does. At last, it is time to close. As an ancient Spanish and Roman flavored, well-researched historical novel and simple introduction to the armies and soldiers of the conflict, Numantia does well, and those interested in the period and willing to learn the fiddly controls should find something entertaining here. Its general classroom use (i.e. a whole class playing and discussing the game) is probably limited, unless teaching a course with a special focus on ancient war. The controls on the gamepad take time to learn and are not always intuitive. The mouse and keyboard controls are less intuitive, a real problem for the PC version of this game.

However, even though as a model of ancient battle, it is highly problematic, one still might consider letting an appropriately interested student play and critique it. Numantia is in the ball park: the unit types basic variables, etc. are historically identifiable and have some authentic features. The fact that they combine into a misleading historical model of combat may serve as the perfect grist for a researched analysis and critique of the game (see the Unexplained Game is Not Worth Playing? on Playthepast.org).  No source stands on its own, and by analyzing Numantia using sound historical research and evidence, one might learn a great deal about how to imagine Roman battles in this period.

Epilogue: Toward a formal problem space analysis of Numantia’s battles

A formal historical problem space analysis should consider how the parts of a game’s virtual space work together in the game, how those parts map onto the historical space, actors and elements, and consider why those design decisions might have been made. Here’s a sketch of what a problem space analysis of battlefields in Numantia might highlight:

Role and Goal: The player takes the role of a Roman general with the goal of defeating a Spanish army. The role deviates from history in that the general possesses a view of the battlefield and control of the troops that is supra-human. The designers’ goals to create an entertaining game where players have many interesting decisions to make and a high degree of control likely led to this portrayal, and it is a common feature in video games about ancient battle. The criterion that armies be completely destroyed, which will appear again in the overview of soldiers, presents a goal that is at odds with the primary historical goal of ancient generals in the field, to incapacitate and drive off enemy armies. It is not clear why the designers chose to have a morale stat but not allow for the primary historical effect of low morale: flight.

Environment and Geography: Battlefields (at least in the early game) are represented as mostly flat and negotiable terrain with some unpassable obstacles. Iberian geography was and is far more diverse with woods, hills, watercourses all contributing to a far more varied landscape that could pose all manner of problems for Roman armies. As a result, the historical difficulties of deploying and maintaining large battle lines and negotiating terrain are minimized and player-general’s task is easier. The designers likely designed the battlefield topographies this way because of their available design resources.

Roman Soldiers: The basic division of troops into different categories and classes in the virtual problem space matches the historical problem space. Modeling soldiers with the core stats of troop numbers (i.e. endurance), damage potential, morale, movement allowance and initiative cover the basic (though of course reductionist) affordances and constraints of these elements historically: they were factors a general had to consider in the historical problem space to some degree. Units in general, however, are afforded far more ability to harm than they had historically. They are afforded a far greater ability to manuever and move even when adjacent to one or more enemy units, not matching the historical reality that adjacent enemies would play a significant role pinning down the unit. Their morale stat does not constrain them authentically in that it does not determine flight. The morale breaking point of soldiers does not exist in the virtual problem space.

(one could go further of course and note the high damage inflicted by missile troops; the use of siege equipment as pitched-battle weapons, and the seeming categorical superiority of the Spanish troops in hand-to-hand combat unattested by the sources)

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  1. January 20, 2018 at 2:53 pm

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