If you feel the ground trembling beneath your feet, do not be alarmed. Its only the pounding hooves of massed Kataphraktoi as they trample the unwashed masses of the Persian God-King. Yes, its DLC time for the uber popular Field of Glory II (FOG2) computer game, which in this round looks at the age of Byzantine General Flavius Belisarius (and his sidekick the Armenian eunuch general Narses) as they reconquer the old Roman Empire in the name of Emperor Justinian I. Though a price has not been announced as I write this little tome, previous FOG2 DLC have cost $14.95 US, so it’s likely this will be the price point for Age of Belisarius (AOB).
Is it worth it? Read forward and judge.
What it is Not
Outside the addition of dismountable cavalry – kinda mandatory when you’re playing Byzantines – the game adds nothing new to the underlying software that controls play. There are no new options available for the player, no new gameplay processes to learn, no corrections or modifications to the data such as the all important Points of Advantage (POA) which determines final odds for resolution of melee and fire combat. The game simply works the same way as always, and familiarity is not a bad thing.
Likewise, the game provides the same map editor as with previous iterations, the same process to play custom battles or campaigns, to include combat between factions that never existed at the same time or on the same piece of real estate. There as historical campaigns as before, as well as ‘Epic’ historical battles. Even the background music and clash of steel sound effects are pretty much the same.
Nothing has also changed about superbly rendered terrain layouts for the various battles, looking very much like a PELA (HMGS – Pour Encourage les Autres) award winning table, though alas the Hobbit Hovels and Dwarf Forests have not been changed. The individual troop sprites are detailed, with appropriate animation for the situation at hand. The garb is historically accurate to about the 85 – 90% as a barbarian army will have enough soldiers garbed in varying shades of blue to let you know which side the lads are on. Yet these units still come attired in various other types and color of clothing, with shield patterns (and a record of these exists for the Byzantines) also in multiple designs and colors. Seriously, when you zoom in this looks a top notch miniature wargaming collection, and folks of that ilk have a BIG reputation for getting their armies well painted, accurate and detailed.
And my tabletop background was one reason I was waiting with baited breath for this DLC to come out. I have already reviewed the GMT game Cataphract which covers this period, and I own a 15 mm Byzantine army from this era in pewter. The early Byzantines have always been known as a “Roles Royce” army in miniature circles. For tournament play these guys are very expensive point wise to field, but quality is through the roof. A great part of this army is still native, well drilled Roman troops with good morale, and everyone seems to have multiple weapons. Seriously, this is the time when Byzantine heavy horsemen are fully armored and pack lance, darts, bow, pulse rifles, rail guns and Stormbolters.
Well not really, but true enough to make early Byzantines the most unique of armies to deploy and play.
What it is
What this game is includes four new campaigns, six new historical battles, 37 new ‘Quick’ battles, 17 new units, 11 new factions and 30 new army lists (thus making a total of 166 for the series). The new units include everything from Bedouins to Byzantines, the latter counting two sets of dismounted cavalry within their ranks. In a nod to what is to come, the new unit list also presents both Spearmen and Raw Spearmen for the Dark Ages. These new units, in turn, add themselves to troop types from previous packages to produce the various factions and army lists, with several of the latter (there are three Byzantine, for example, representing different time frames) lumped together to produce a faction. The factions are Avars, Byzantines, Franks, Gepids, Lombards, Ostrogoths, Slavs, Turks, Vandals, Visigoths and Welsh. Many of these eventually wind up as Byzantine allies.
The battles include Dara 530 AD, Tricamarum 533 AD, Taginae 552 AD, Volturnus 554 AD, Bukhara 557 AD and Raith 596 AD. The first four are Belisarius or Narses against somebody else, but Bukhara features Persian against Hephthalite (yes, I had to look them up) while Raith features Scots-Irish fighting Angles. One of the things I did notice when playing these battles was a little bit of tournament style tweaking to even things up a bit. At Volturnus, for example, both history and game commentary acknowledge 18,000 Byzantines deployed to meet 20,000 Franks as another 10,000 were down and out from dysentery. However, the actual number as expressed in the scenario indicates 35,000 Franks. I do get it, because any army that meets these specific Byzantines with anything like equal numbers tend to DIP (Die in Place). The same battle, BTW, also featured off turn board reinforcements for Narses in the form of Heruli Dismounted Noble Armored Cavalry arriving turn nine.
Finally, there are four campaigns. These are King of Kings II (Sassanids), Rise of the Avars, Belisarius and Clovis I. I’m not usually big on campaigns, but the last one has me intrigued as Total War Thrones of Britannia really got me interested about that slice of history. Clovis, as you recall, converted to Christianity in 496 AD at the behest of his wife, and then united all Frankish tribes under his rule. He is now regarded as the first King of France.
At first glance, this DLC may seem a little light on content for your drachma, but I would argue what really makes this a must buy is the gameplay. The period represented covers a period of transition from classical antiquity to the Dark Ages. This in turn means a transition from infantry heavy armies to one based primarily on cavalry, Kataphraktoi to western knights. Incursions from the east of cavalry based armies like the Huns forced first line defenders like the Byzantines to adjust and adjust they did. Yes, earlier Roman armies had heavy cavalry support, but the numbers were far less and multiple arms on one soldier was not often seen. AOB represents a clash between old and new.
All of this makes for very different gameplay than before. On one side, such as at Volturnus, you have a typical barbarian army consisting of warriors toting sword and shield, while archery support may be 2 to 5 % of the total force, if that. Their initial charge might be tough to stop, but they don’t maneuver well, and the absence of any horse whatsoever is not pretty. If the AI does its job well, the tactical sophistication of these “grunts” is likely less than Neanderthal 101, particularly if lead by a dunderhead like Butilinus.
On the other side of the field are early Byzantines, where not only do you have a lot of regulars, but most everybody wears armor, even the Roman archers, and everyone totes more than one primary weapon. Indeed, this is a very bow heavy army, but the difference is a lot of these archers are on horses, often armor clad. Quite frankly, I’ve never really played any army in the FOG2 series that had this many ranged weapons, as I have always considered them to be a tertiary weapons system without a lot of staying power, or so I thought.
AOB has pretty much changed all that with game play that demands a mental shift from conventional wisdom. Armored Byzantine bowman shoot the Franks unmercifully but can still hold their own in close combat. Byzantine horse circle to the rear and flanks of their opponents, but do not charge. Instead they also unleash holy arrow Hell upon their opponents. When the Franks slowwwwwwly wheel enough to face them and charge, the Roman horse evades. Then the next turn said Romans return to shoot again and so on, until an emaciated Frankish warband is charged in the flank or rear by enemy armored heavies with lance. From an overall picture, this also seems to encourage the computer AI to break formation and send small 750 man Frankish mobs hither, thither and yon to counter these threats, thus creating gaps with additional flanks and rear to exploit. While not normally thought of this way, it might not be a stretch to suggest that the bow, not lance, was the Byzantine super weapon at this time.
Hopefully the boss will allow me an after action report on my latest clash on the Volturnus but suffice it to say it’s a new style of fighting, historically accurate and an awful lot of fun.
Yeah, it’s worth it. As a pewter pusher I like the fact that it plays like a tabletop game, and considering the design pedigree of the underlying game, why shouldn’t it. Now consider that FOG3 tabletop is going for $48.00 US, only two army lists included and no historical scenarios. Conversely FOG2 computer sells for $ 29.99 with 75 army lists and 12 historical battles, and all the POA calculations are done for you. Due to reformatting, the add-on army list books for tabletop are more difficult to compare, but you get the picture. And when fused with the new type of warfare and its related unique supporting gameplay, these are shekels well spent.
I’ll close by saying after 55 hours of play time, this DLC is better than excellent. It’s addictive.