Legion Arena

On January 16, 2007, in Games, by peterb

I have a stack of strategy games I’ve been meaning to review recently. I was talking to psu about this just the other day. He was saying how he always thinks they sound great, but when actually faced with the prospect of playing one, he tends to lose interest fairly quickly. I, in my turn, said that I tended to play them until the computer defeated me in a particularly offhand and crushing way, at which point I’d throw the game across the room and yell at it for cheating.

A fairly common attribute of strategy games is that they tend to be time consuming, and they tend to require sustained concentration. In today’s space-age-au-go-go world, it’s pretty rare for me to find enough free time to focus intently for, say, 4 hours — friends come visit, the phone rings, or what have you. This means that the only strategy games I can truly enjoy anymore are those which, through smart design, let me enjoy the good parts of strategy games (“Ah, a clever problem. Let me try this solution. It worked — I’m a genius!) while avoiding the bad parts (“Since I lost my job at the Taco Bell, I’ve been carefully modeling the effectiveness of artillery suppression at the Battle of Antietam, using this scale model I’ve built in my mom’s basement. Want to see my combat tables?”)

I’ve written about some of the better games of this genre before. Here’s another one. It’s called Legion Arena.

Legion Arena is a fast-playing yet thoughtful tactical-level game that simulates field encounters between armies in the era of the middle Roman Republic. It also borrows some concepts liberally from role-playing games. The game is presented as a series of encounters between your legion and various enemies. The most important tactical choice you make is how to deploy your troops, and what their initial orders are. Terrain is critically important: lightly armored troops have a strong advantage in wooded, rocky or boggy terrain, while heavy infantry and cavalry perform best on an open field. Troops can be given a set of initial orders, such as “short hold,” “advance,” “flank,” and will try to carry them out faithfully. When one of your centuries comes into contact with the enemy, they rush each other and clash swords.

It’s at moments like this that Legion Arena shines. It feels a bit like being able to control the camera in one of the battle scenes in the Lord of the Rings movies. Each of the troops in your legion is individually animated, and this helps eliminate some of the abstraction that can afflict military games. While you can issue orders during a battle (allowing for a substantial delay for a runner to deliver your new orders) there’s a sense that the chaos of the battle is, once joined, nearly beyond your control. This is a great incentive to get your battle plans right the first time.

Battles are generally not won by killing every enemy, but by making enough of the enemy’s units rout. There are few sights more satisfying than watching 70 soldiers drop their weapons and flee headlong from the field. As long as they’re the other guy’s.

Battles earn you gold and prestige. You can spend prestige on replacement soldiers for your legion, and you can spend gold on additional troops of varying types, as well as equipment that improves your troops abilities. Likewise, your centuries earn experience points which can be spent to learn more skills. You can quickly develop and personalize various armies; creating anti-infantry or anti-cavalry specialists, for example, or marksmen, and so on.

The game ships with three campaigns: a short tutorial campaign, a very involved Roman campaign, and a smaller but still lengthy Celtic campaign. An expansion pack called Cult of Mithras is already out, which has Romans and Zombies. I’m telling you, Zombies = Profit!.

It’s a great game, though, even without the zombies. The game is, as I’ve discussed, tactical in nature. Those who are looking for a grand strategy game won’t find it here. Rather, Legion Arena focuses very intently on doing one thing, and doing it well. In this they succeed grandly; I can think of a number of other recent games that tried to straddle the border between strategy and tactics and failed at both. With this game, I can decide to play for only 15 minutes, play one battle or two, but still be engaged and challenged. Try doing that with, say, Civ IV. The decision to focus the game firmly on the tactical level was a smart one.

Now if I can just convince them to license the battle visualization engine to the guys who made Dominions 3..

Legion Arena was developed for Windows by Slytherine Software. The Mac version is available from Freeverse Software. Demos are available for both platforms. Freeverse Software graciously provided a review copy.


5 Responses to “Legion Arena”

  1. Andy P says:

    From the screenshots it looks exactly like Rome: Total War, though the gameplay sounds a little different. R:TW without the campaign map, actually. And I really do mean: it looks exactly like it. The gaul models, in particular, look identical.

    There’s still never been a better strategy game than the Total War series.

  2. Hans says:

    That’s right it looks like Rome: Total War. And it’s true it’s a fascinating game, R:TW. I don’t think it beats Civ IV but it’s brilliant in it’s own respect. I love that it’s so balanced and well tested. What I love even more is the calm atmosphere (contradicting the title) and the very unsual British tone.
    Cool game. I haven’t tried Medivial yet since I want to play through R:TW first. (I picked it up two weeks ago).
    I happen to be a Rome fan and I have the idea that the RTS scenes are best suited for Romans so it might take a little while…

  3. You liked Legion Arena a lot more than I did. I found the battles more like puzzles than real combat. A lot of the scenario victory requirements mean that there are some things you *must* do, and until you figure this out, you’re stuck there.

    It’s a very nice looking game, granted, and Slitherine’s battle engines have always been more sophisticated than they appear at first glance. There isn’t enough variety in the armies, though, and even with the customization you end up putting the same force on the field time after time.

  4. peterb says:

    I think the essential difference between us may be that I view “battle is more like a puzzle than like combat” to be an unqualified advantage.

    You’re right that the game is fairly forgiving. I’m OK with that, though.

  5. [...] The developer of Commander also created Legion Arena. I don’t think this is a coincidence. Like Commander, Legion was in a genre that is nominally overpopulated and, to be frank, moribund. Like Commander, it managed to achieve a surprising degree of freshness through simple and approachable UI and putting playability before historical accuracy. These are tradeoffs that some might disagree with, but I think they made the right call. [...]