Review: Numantia07 Nov 2017 1
Released 25 Oct 2017
The Roman Empire is the empire as far as historical nerds are concerned, though Chinese historical nerds might disagree. However, it was just a republic before it became an empire, and it had a fair share of military blunders. And while Rome had an extreme ability to bounce back from defeat, I doubt Numantia the game does.
After the Romans defeated Carthage in the Second Punic War (of Hannibal fame), they got a foothold in Iberia – modern Spain. Unfortunately, Iberia was full of Celtiberians, the local variety of Celts, who didn’t much like being conquered. The game begins with the Second Celtiberian war, when the Romans accused the town of Segeda of building walls in breach of their treaty. Rome sent in 30,000 troops under Quintus Fabius Nobilitor while the Segedans, having not finished any walls, fled to the more defensible town of Numantia. And so began a series of Roman military blunders that eventually crushed the Celtiberians.
Since the game doesn’t have a multiplayer mode, the campaigns are its meat and bones. You can choose to play as the Numantians (Numatenes?) or the Romans. Each campaign has both real historical figures who make the more strategic decisions, and some made-up soldiers to handle the more low-level stuff. The campaigns are separated into chapters (called “capitulum”, because it’s Roman times, you see), which are just a linear series of “events:” some of them are non-combat, allowing you to win resources, troops or impact the morale (though some might end in combat if you mess up) while others are straight-up fights.
The campaign map is separated into nodes, marking settlements. You don’t interact with it in any way besides firing off events. Each faction has their main settlement – like the Roman camp – which has its own map, again, separated into nodes. In the main settlement, you can hire and fire troops, equip items, exchange resources and, again, deal with events.
When battle comes, you will (usually) be able to choose what troops you’ll take, up to the scenario limit of around 14. Your troops are separated into types: heroes (powerful, single man versions of other units), melee, cavalry, ranged and special. You can take any mix of them, as long as you have enough type-allotted slots. The units' stats are simple: endurance (health points), number of soldiers in the unit (6-to-8, usually), morale, melee attack, ranged attack (and range), initiative, movement range and occasionally, some powers.
In the battlefield, units move according to their initiative, from highest to lowest. The factions don’t really share any initiative steps: for example, only Numantians have 8 initiative (fastest) units, while the fastest roman unit has only 7. Units can move and attack but not vice versa, and they can expend morale to move an additional hex. Morale may or may not influence how much damage a unit deals and/or takes. The is also something about flanking.
Numantia is a not a very clearly explained game. The tutorial exists and battles have a tracker that shows who did what and how much damage they dealt, but that’s it in terms of information you get. I never knew why one unit did more damage than other, how morale impacted things or if flanking ever happened. Outside of some lazy particle effects that go with some powers, you really can’t say if you did anything special. It took a while to realise the ripples that radiate from where a unit was killed symbolised the morale effects for surrounding units.
Morale is a stat that is of dubious value, and doesn’t really work as one would hope in a game created in 2017: units don’t panic, retreat or run away. Every battle is a battle to the death of the last opposing soldier. Which will usually be a Roman, because I can’t shake the feeling that the game thinks Celtiberians are much better than Romans are.
As a person who is vaguely aware of Roman history, I know that pre-Marian reform Roman legions were a different beast that the popular culture image of them. Your citizen-soldiers were separated by age and income, with melee units going from young and lightly armored hastati to principes who went into battle once hastati had bloodied the enemy to the veteran triarii who were committed if the going was tough. You also had velites as skirmishers, and most of the rest – ranged and cavalry – was provided by auxiliaries.
But in the game, it seems like almost every Roman unit is inferior to Celtiberian. Melee almost always favor the Numantians, and, what is super important, their ranged units almost always go before the Roman ones, allowing for some alpha strike capability. Even a single attack on an enemy unit that kills a soldier or two drops its effectiveness, and the AI does love to pour its love on one unit until it becomes ineffective by the time you get to use it.
Units are fragile in this game, and not even the big shields can help you against slings and javelins. So a Roman force is likely to start the battle already mauled, since the enemy will have had time to pepper it with both ranged units and attack it in melee. Only heroes and special units like war machines or elephants are mostly immune to this -- a unit loses attack damage as it loses soldiers when its endurance goes down, like some visual representation of HP dropping. However, your hero is a single-man unit with the endurance of a Praetorian guard squad, so they retain their effectiveness until they die. Same goes for war machines, though those are immobile, can’t fight in melee and, like all ranged units, can’t fire if they have an adjacent enemy (no area-of-control in the game, so any mobile ranged unit can just retreat a hex and fire at their attackers). Elephants, meanwhile, have two beasts in one unit, and they’ll keep on trucking until one of them dies. Incidentally, javelin-armed cavalry is your best bet, since they move further than elephants while still able to throw pointy sticks at them.
So the battles are a dreadful and dreary slog – and I can’t really praise other aspects of the game, either. The campaigns hop around haphazardly, and I’m still not sure if the Numantian campaign doesn’t jump from the Second Celtiberian War (154-152 BC) to the Numantine War (143-133 BC) without really notifying the player. In fact, if you don’t know the histories of those wars, you won’t get a lot of what’s supposed to be happening.
You won’t even know some game mechanics, like how units aren’t healed/refilled after battles – that only happens at chapter break . Having a spot of bad luck early in a chapter can leave you crippled for the final battle. And while you can hire and disband normal troops (they don’t gain experience levels or anything like that), you can’t really do that with heroes.
On the visual side, the game fails to leave any good lasting impression. The character portraits that appear in events are ugly, and the drawings used for cutscenes aren’t that great, either. 3D graphics would be OK in our niche market if the battlefields didn’t look so flat and lifeless (all maps are flat, barring houses or fences or other objects), and the combat didn’t feel so dull. When two units in neighbouring hexes fight, they rush to the hex border, take a hack at each other and some dudes fall to the ground if the units suffers enough damage. Fights in Civilization are more animated these days! Here, only the elephant attacks are special, throwing rag-dolling corpses around.
But elephant attacks are the only impactful thing in the game, since no effort was put into showing the scale of events. The ambush that killed 10,000 Roman troops at the start of the expedition is merely a scuffle for you, while I only identified the siege that ended with scared elephants trampling Roman troops because I read Wikipedia.
The game is really frustrating to use, stinking suspiciously of a console port – the campaign and settlement maps basically don’t have any use for mouse. Sometimes, even trying to goad some information about unit abilities from various is impossible. Also, I’ve encountered bugs related to equipable items not showing correctly or Spanish words creeping into the text (I know that “Endurance” is “Resistancia” in the original!). I’ve experienced crashes, too.
At the time of writing, Numantia has three Spanish, three Russian and one English review on Steam, and it feels almost like something that was released as modern Celtiberian propaganda. The game feels stacked for Numantians and even if it wasn’t, it’s still too impenetrable for such a simplistic game. If you want history, there are some really good Rome: Total War realism mods out there!