Publisher: Valley Games, later Avalon Hill
Type of game: War game
Number of players: 2
Learning curve: Medium+
Estimated time to play (first time/subsequent times): 4 hours/3 hours
Estimated setup time: 45 minutes
I’ve said this before, but the best way to kill a great game, be it board, computer, or video, is to make randomness the centerpiece. I do think games need some randomness, to give inexperienced players a fair chance, but one of the reasons I’ve come to increasingly dislike standard Risk over the years is the ridiculous effect of die rolls. Hannibal does not have that problem.
If things had gotten slightly different in my life, I might have become a classical scholar instead of a historian of 19th and 20th century Europe. (Specifically, 20th century Russian Empire/Soviet Union.) A great deal of that is the awesomeness of my high school Latin teacher, who imparted to me a love of languages that still remains, incredibly, even after spending an hour and a half on freaking numbers in Russian class. Coupled with that love of Latin is my love of Rome and Roman history.
For the historically impaired, this game covers the Second Punic War between Rome and Carthage at the very end of the 3rd century BC. Rome had already defeated Carthage once before, securing Sicily and a chunk of Spain. Hamilcar Barca, the loser in that conflict, hated Rome so much that he made his son swear a blood oath to get revenge. His son’s name was Hannibal. Hence, this game, which is about the struggle to control Italy, Spain, and North Africa.
Let’s start with the height of awesome: you put together the board like the world’s easiest jigsaw puzzle. It’s 10 giant pieces. (Maybe 8.) Each player chooses a side — Rome or Carthage. Each side has advantages and disadvantages; the game is skewed towards Carthage in the early turns, but leans towards Rome as it progresses. You take your generals and your armies and attack other armies, or possibly capture territory.
Yet the heart and soul of this game is the card system. Originally used in “We, the People”, a game about the War for American Independence, each player gets a hand of strategy cards at the beginning of each turn. These let you move armies, take control of provinces, what have you. Yet even better, when you fight battles, dice are hardly used at all. You use a very simple system of combat — each player gets a number of cards, depicting various actions (from the dreaded Double Envelopment to the simple Probe). If your opponent matches it, they get a chance to take the initiative. If they can’t match it, they lose. Luck is a part of the game, but it’s weighted luck. You can get screwed on a single die roll, but you’d pretty much have it coming at that point.
It’s relatively easy to learn, but the difficulty comes from choosing the appropriate side, and the fact that they play differently. It wasn’t a purely even contest in real life, and it isn’t in the game either. The rules are just a bit ponderous; it’s not as bad as other games, but the wording could have been much better.