The popular perception of galley combat has been cemented by the overrated 1959 movie, Ben Hur. With the drums picking up the beat, sweating slaves switch to ramming speed and their ship gouges a hole in an enemy vessel. In fact, naval tactics during the millennia that galleys ruled the waves of the Mediterranean and narrow waters were much more complex and intricate. Slitherine and Turnopia demonstrate the details of over five hundred years of naval combat and maritime evolution in the Mediterranean with Mare Nostrvm – and no, the “v” is not a typo.
Cruising the Wine-red Sea
Terrain may not seem all that important in a purely naval game but as this university article indicates, a fleet’s position relative to a shoreline could be crucial. Most of the maps in this game are surrounded by shorelines. The shorelines are a bit crude, colored tan for sandy beaches with darker images of trees and white breakers hitting the rocks. However, woe to the admiral who was pinned against them! The only graphic function for terrain is toggling hex grids on the water; prettier off but harder to play than with the grids.
Color for the map is provided in more useful ways. Green, yellow and red stripes show the speed of ships when planning a move. Black lines indicate cruise radii and communication lines. When a ship is selected, a black silhouette at the bottom of the screen has the ship type along with the number of marines aboard, cruising distance, maximum speed, crew quality, hull strength and ramming ability. Add-ons to the ship like towers, corvuses and engines such as ballistae are also shown. If a commander is aboard, his name and special ability are evident. Other colorful items are the victory bar above the map showing by sliding color bars the victory points for each side and, after clicking, how many ships have been damaged by type of action. A final nice touch is the turn button having the ancient symbol for the player’s side colored to match the base of the ships if that option is turned on.
The galleys are the primary graphical stars. Fourteen different sizes of these ships are included from the primitive lembi to the huge ten-row dekares transport. Of course, the nimble and cheap trireme is the workhorse of many fleets. From maximum zoom-out, the 2D images appear as tiny splinters but the ability to toggle bases allows easy view of large fleets and several separate squadrons. Zoomed-in, the birds-eye view shows ships’ colors, dot-like masts and engines, square towers and ant-like marines. Ramming prows are very discernable. Sails when unfurled add grace to the scene. Although a 3D option would be nice, the many viewing heights facilitate play. The close view brings out ships’ status such as cut-off, crippled, grappled, fouled, captured, fatigues and half speed. Clicking on a galley produces its silhouette as described above.
Animation invigorates play. Oars can be seen propelling ships like legs on centipedes with wakes flowing astern. Commanders’ flags stream from their ships’ sterns. Fires blaze on decks as arrows and javelins fill the air. Marines swarm over the decks of grappled ships while rammed ships turn turtle, perhaps dragging their attacker down with them. Sounds also create immersion. Drums beat out the stroke rhythm as waves slap against hulls. The marines’ missiles whizz through the air as fires around them crackle. Wounded crewmen grunt as those missiles strike home. Grappling and boarding create the clash and yells of hand-to-hand combat.
The thirty-one page PDF manual is well constructed and the in-game tutorial covers all the basics and more. Other publishers should take note of how this documentation was brief & written as to match the game’s flow.
Row faster; Our Drummer is on a Roll!
Mare Nostrvm has nine historical campaigns, covering early Greek colonialism to the Roman civil wars and much in between. Each campaign consists of one to five battles and players can switch campaigns at will but, once in a campaign, must follow the battle sequence as the side originally picked. Choosing sides involves more than making sure of the best and most ships for the battle but also checking crew quality and commander abilities.
Movement is the key to victory. Moving four hexes – five if under sail with a good wind – won’t tire the rowers but makes the chance of successful ramming negligible. A bit faster yields a yellow stripe with a better chance of ramming a foe but an even better chance of tiring the crew. Red ramming speeds guarantees a good ram if contact is made but will leave the crew tired, fatigued or exhausted, limiting further movement. Crew weariness can be decreased one level each turn. Crew quality plays a part in creating and decreasing tiredness. At the tip of movement stripes are large circles representing orders to either ram or grapple enemy ships encountered during the move or the ability to turn right or left. Players can curve movement without choosing an initial turn but the turn orders select entirely new vectors. Movement distance is decreased for each hex side turned. Ships can also back oars and move a few hexes straight back as denoted by a grey stripe. Entire squadrons can be moved when a commander’s ship is selected and his command follows his course. Command range is four hexes, unless the commander has a special ability to increase his range, either from the command ship or a ship in command. Vessels outside of this range are cut off, uncontrollable and automatically sail toward their commander. With commanders, tactics such as forming a crescent or using columns to speed through enemy formations, raking oars as the ships speed past opponents, can be employed.
Combat starts when a galley moves to within two hexes of an enemy allowing marines and engines to start firing, dividing their attacks between all enemies in range. Serious combat falls into the categories of ramming, raking oars, grappling and boarding. All these actions require the attacker to be in the same hex as the target. Given the WEGO nature of the engine, players must estimate where the enemy may be during the turn and adjust speed and distance accordingly. Early in the battle, slow maneuvers gain position and avoid fatigue but, in close quarters, speed helps combat but risks running afoul of friendlies. Also, successful combat depends on crew quality and some of the seventeen commander abilities. Hence, a ship running alongside of a foe to rake their oars to cripple it may have its own oars snapped off if the defender has a better crew. Crew quality is also a factor in grappling, boarding and unfouling/ungrappling. The fact that an enemy’s crew quality can be seen points out one of the few flaws in the game: no “Fog of War”. Did ancient commanders know every attribute of the enemy? Other combat functions like fire and towers are automatically used in combat. Galleys can be equipped with a corvus or a harpax – a grappling catapult – a tower, a flamer and Rhodian fire pots. Commanders can have special skills in archery, grappling, boarding and setting or dousing fires. All these factors make combat chaotic with every ship needing orders. Battles are over when victory points, determined by ship features, hit zero for a side.
Play is not limited to history. The skirmish mode allows players to create fleets from seven different point sizes. After that, they can choose their vessels and customize them by adding commanders and equipment for boarding and artillery while modifying quality and manpower. A multitude of maps is available. An editor is being considered to allow players to construct AI fleets. Multiplay is seamless and sweet via the Slitherine server.
Mare Nostrvm covers the essentials of ancient galley combat with accuracy and style. Improvements in mechanics would be hard to point out. Play is simple yet exciting. However, discerning gamers will see that this game traces the use of navies in the expansion of the Greco-Roman hegemony over a five hundred year period. Inherent in this is the progress in naval construction and tactics from simple coastal ship running into each other to huge vessels employing sophisticated weapons similar in concept to modern day ship-to-ship action, differentiated primarily by distance. If the engine can do this, Turnopia should extend its series into the Middle Ages and Renaissance. After all, galleys carried the heavy water at Lepanto in 1571 and were present in the English Channel in 1588. Chinese war galleys ruled the South Pacific and Indian Ocean for centuries. Great concepts should be carried out to the very end and this game’s concept is great.