MINIATURES MARCH ACROSS THE MONITOR
A REVIEW OF TIN SOLDIERS: ALEXANDER THE GREAT
Board wargaming gave birth to computer wargames, and through most of the latter's history this relationship has been evident. But whereas the boardgame influence runs throughout software its older cousin, miniatures gaming, does not. When it does, the influence tends to be more cosmetic and aesthetic than functional, demonstrating that little toy soldiers have a greater intuitive appeal than flat cardboard with numbers printed on it.
Tin Soldiers: Alexander the Great from Matrix Games takes the computer game-miniatures convergence to an intriguing new level. Its graphic approach is that of a miniatures game, starting with units represented as figures on stands, four for infantry and two for cavalry. When a unit takes sufficient losses, a disembodied hand reaches across and removes one of the figures.
The terrain reinforces the ambience. The rivers look more realistic than on the average table, but the trees are very reminiscent of miniatures games, complete with round bases. The edges of the table even have the look of exposed wood.
Not only is this a miniatures-inspired computer game, it is more properly inspired a miniatures campaign. Tim Soldiers: Alexander the Great is not a set of stand-alone battles that one can play as soon as starting it up for the first time. Rather, it is a campaign in which Alexander starts fighting the Thebans before the gates of their city, with Macedonian hegemony over the Greeks in the balance. Then the action moves to Persia and Alexander's battles of conquest.
This connects with one of the game's shortcomings. A gamer cannot play one of the scenarios separately without playing it first as part of the campaign. Thus after installing Tin Soldiers: Alexander the Great, the only playable battle is Thebes, with no chance to jump ahead to Issus or Guagamela.
In addition, though players can go head-to-head over the Internet, when playing against the artificial intelligence one's only choice is to take the side of Macedon and its king.
Should the player win a battle, he receives booty commensurate with the level of the win, which he can use to purchase replacements, train the troops, make leadership changes, and buy cards that can be played in later engagements. A fear card played against an enemy unit, for example, immediately depresses its morale, and others friendly forces with combat modifiers or, in the case of the health card, recovers lost steps.
However, this is not a card-driven game by any means. Among the boardgames that I know, the closest parallel would be Lock 'n Load, the first board wargame published by Shrapnel Games. In the cases of both Tin Soldiers: Alexander the Great and Lock 'n Load, there is a relatively small number of cards, and none of them is central to the action. They can influence a combat or an entire turn of combats in which the affected unit engages, but do not determine unit activation or major battle events. Rather than being what drives the game, the cards in Tin Soldiers: Alexander the Great are secondary chrome.
The turn starts with assigning units their orders. These are the basic ones, such as movement, melee combat (which can be preceded by movement), charge straight ahead, engage in missile combat if the unit has bows or slings, and defend in place (the default). A unit can also be commanded to countercharge targets of opportunity, sit in reserve, or retreat. The last can be extremely valuable to get troops out of tight spots before that floating hand can take away their last figure.
Movement and combat come next. Depending on events, a unit may have a chance to be given new orders; this happens every time an enemy gets destroyed or pushed back, and when a unit's movement is blocked by a friendly one somewhere along its line of march.
Then comes the reserve phase. Units with reserve orders can be given new ones at this stage.
The game rewards basically historical tactics, particularly employing infantry in nice, orderly and coherent lines. When these units freelance, they are much more likely to be attacked from the flank or the rear, which is as deadly in Tin Soldiers: Alexander the Great as it was historically. A unit might be able to turn to face its attackers, but do not count on it. Besides, if a unit is already engaged on one side, it is far less likely to change fronts to meet the new threat.
Combat is lethal, and even a major victory can result in a lot of lost troops. In practice, killing the enemy is more important than breaking his morale and unit cohesion. Boardgame veterans whose experience with warfare in the Hellenistic age is mostly with the The Great Battles of History series and its now-out-of-print computer conversions from Interactive Magic will find this something of a surprise.
In addition, Tin Soldiers: Alexander the Great has no discernible command and control, a most conspicuous omission in any ancient tactical game. The only leaders who matter are the ones at the head of specific units; even Alexander appears only as the commander of a Companion cavalry unit.
It should be noted too that the Persians in this game are tougher than in other games. These are not weak hetergeneous mob that take the field in order to die. Their missile units are excellent, and their heavy infantry can be a force to be reckoned with. Alexander had the pleasure to fight some fairly one-sided battles, at the Granicus and Issus for example. The player who takes the Macedonian side is much less likely to repeat that experience, anywhere.
There appears to be another omission that influences play balance at the expense of history. Historically, the Macedonian phalanx was a major improvement over its Greek counterparts; it was comprised of better-drilled and better-trained soldiers, wielding a longer pike, factors that more than made up for their lack of shields and lighter armor. However, Tin Soldiers: Alexander treats them more as traditional hoplites.
Tin Soldiers: Alexander the Great is a strikingly innovative game, one that attempts to transcend the aesthetics of miniatures gaming and absorb a little of its substance. The card mechanism is also a nice touch, adding flavor without becoming intrusive.
At the same time, the game makes some compromises that many historical purists are liable to find unacceptable. However, Tin Soldiers: Alexander the Great really should be viewed on its own terms, not those even of the the best board wargames, or miniatures rules for that matter. Play the game, have fun with it, and keep an eye out for that floating hand.