It’s so rare these days to find an RTS that actually has something new to add to the picture, but Legion fits the bill.
On the surface Legion looks like a lot of the other historical titles that have come into vogue as of late. Over the past 10 years I have played at least that many titles involving Ancient Rome in some way. But Legion is by far the most interesting, and in many ways, the most historically accurate.
The game combines the standard province management features found in most games these days, with a turn-based strategic map phase where you move your armies around the board. Because the game is turn-based, you can painstakingly agonize over each and every decision to be made about the cities you control. Late in the game this can get to be fairly difficult due to the number of cities under your control, but the game does a nice job of letting you know which cities need orders in the management screens.
Like in Ancient Rome, each city is pretty much its own miniature world. Resources go into a central pool, but each city’s technological abilities are based on what you build there. Just because one city has a barracks and a training ground and can produce Legion units does not mean that the city down the road can as well. Different buildings also determine the size of the unit produced, which becomes a huge factor in battle later on. If you are producing a unit like archers, you are going to want to buy all the improvements so that the archer squads are huge when created, since small squads are not very effective. And because space for buildings is limited, you probably will end up with different cities specializing in different areas.
You will soon find that you are not alone in the world. Each game can have up to 20 different computer opponents. Most of them probably won’t like you very much to begin with, which is disconcerting when you see five or six neighbors with poor relations and growing armies.
Diplomacy is an important part of the game. Used wisely, it can help you conquer your enemies. I have found much success with making friends with all my neighbors in one direction, such as those along my northern borders, which frees me up to make all-out war to my south without too much worry of a second front opening. But keep a few units back just in case, the computer opponents are sometimes opportunists. No need to tempt them to betray you.
Eventually, you are going to go into combat, whether to defend one of your cities or preferably, as you roll into an enemy nation. Here is where the game gets really interesting. Battles during the Roman times were not micromanaged. Basically, a good commander set all his troops up in a good formation and gave them basic marching orders. After that, there was very little he could do to control the fight. Slitherine Software has done an excellent job accurately depicting this fact.
You are given a strategic overview of the battlefield, along with basic terrain features like forests and hills. If your scouts are successful at detecting the enemy, they will be shown as well, though often times the information you get from them is either incomplete or non-existent. Building watch towers in neighboring cities can help, but this takes up a valuable plot of real estate so often it is not used.
Units can be told to delay and then march forward, march forward normally, hold their ground or perform an all-out charge. Once they are set, the battle begins and you can only sit back and watch as hundreds of men clash on the 3D battlefield. At this point, it’s kind of like watching a football game from the stands. You can yell at your team, but you can’t really affect the outcome of the game in anyway.
That is not to say the setup is not important. One of the best strategies I have employed is to put your cavalry on the flanks with orders to charge forward after a slight delay. Then you put your wall-like troops like Legionnaires in the center, backed by missile troops if possible. The horse-mounted troops will rush forward and then turn inward, hopefully hitting the enemy army in the flanks, causing them to panic and start to run. You can use this strategy without cavalry if you tell your center troops to march slowly and your flanks to run into battle.
The one complaint I have with the combat interface is that the game completely ignores the use of forts, of which the Romans built hundreds. There are over 550 sites in England alone. In the game you can build forts in your towns, there are three different levels of fort construction actually. But all they do is give you extra troops on the field if your town is attacked and you already have a defending army. Otherwise they just surrender.
It’s hardly worth the effort, especially considering the valuable land they occupy. In fact, these troops are always inexperienced units and often do more harm than good. As soon as they get into combat, they often panic and run, which can cause even your veterans to question their morale. I’ve seen battles that could have easily been won turn into a horrible defeat because these fort-based troops turn tail and everyone else panics. Forts should instead give your archers high ground on walls, or force your enemy to attack through narrow gateways. The huge expenditure of resources for nothing more than a rank or two of throwaway troops is not worth the effort, and harms the historical importance of Roman forts when conquering land.
The other complaint I have is the use of gladiators as a fighting force. They are way more powerful than legions and I’ve tested this by having campaign armies full of legions and armies full of gladiators. The gladiators almost always prevail no matter who they are fighting, while the legions are prone to getting their horse-hair helmets kicked in from time to time. Granted gladiators were the WWF (or whatever they are calling themselves today) superstars of their time and an army of huge wrestlers would be a powerful hand to hand combat force. But to make them better than legions, which the game is named after and who were the elite of the elite of their day is a bit odd.
Despite a few minor flaws, Legion brings some fresh ideas to the table and executes them well. Winning or losing a battle in the setup phases can be a difficult concept for some armchair generals, but it causes you to think in a deeper way than most strategy games. Legion is also almost infinitely re-playable given that you can try different maps again and command other nations, and because of the variety and types of units available. With a little practice, you will be coming, seeing and conquering in no time.