Legionnaire: Review and Analysis

by Bill Willett
TYPE:Real Time Wargame
SYSTEM:Atari with 16K
FORMAT:Tape or Disk (32K)
AUTHOR:Chris Crawford
PUBLISHER:Avalon Hill Game Co.
4517 Harford Road
Baltimore, MD 21214
(301) 254-5300

Sabinus had the high ground, as I remember. He’d had that hill for three glorious days and now rested confident that this battle would bring glory to his scorned group. The Nervii were tough, but the long journey would bring them near exhaustion. Even the newest conscripts had heard the stories of the Nervii chasing his enemy without end, and paying the price at the battle like the hound that collapsed while chasing the fox. Sabinus watched the enemy move into fast march as they came down the last hill before the two would meet.

Sabinus was ready. They had reached that hill tired and in no shape to fight, still stinging from their retreat from the Nervii of the north. But now he was ready, rested, and prepared with a simple but foolproof plan. When the Nervii trudged to the high ground, Sabinus would rush down the hill, taking full advantage of his greater speed, better view, and superior range. He knew that the enemy would quickly break and run back down the hill. He’d follow and secure the first substantial victory of his career. Oh he was ready, too ready.

The Nervii leader from the north had been through this before. He would almost have the Romans, then they would always slip away. But this last group had acted strangely: first running at the slightest hint of battle, and now sitting for days. The Romans could outrun him, he knew, but only if they got to it quickly. As he crested the last hill before the Romans. he noticed the tired southern Nervii doggedly marching towards the Romans. This explained it. That poor excuse for a Legion thought it had an easy prey. The Nervii leader quickly surveyed the valley before him and read the terrain perfectly, choosing the quickest and most level path. He stationed himself just on the other side of the crest of the Roman’s hill, just out of sight.

Sabinus felt his blood surge as he watched the Nervii break and run. He was shouting to his men to enjoy their victory even as it happened. He also felt his stomach knot up as the northern Nervii charged down upon him. The Romans were shattered. The hundreds of new recruits panicked at a rear attack by such a feared enemy. The Nervii were one group to fear when they were rested — and these were rested. Sabinus cried as he bled from his wounds. Not because he cherished his life and wished to live, but because he had come so close to pleasing Caesar this time and would now never have another chance to be the legionnaire he had dreamed of as a young boy.

This whole scenario happened to me while playing LEGIONNAIRE. I’d marched my infantry piece, commanded by Sabinus (described in the owners manual as being poor in leadership — almost all of the better centurions have inveigled transfers to other units), to the top of a hill and waited for the Nervii. While I was off commanding my other four pieces, a different Nervii piece rode out of nowhere and destroyed the Sabinus piece. Of course, I was only as experienced at Legionnaire as Sabinus was about the Nervii.

LEGIONNAIRE lets you command up to ten legions, all with different characteristics, against the computer-controlled barbarians. You must eliminate all the Barbarian units before they destroy Caesar’s legion. You play on a large topographic map with forests and four terrain heights. You enter almost all commands with the joystick during real time. Those of you who have played EASTERN FRONT can picture LEGIONNAIRE quickly by imagining EASTERN FRONT with terrain contours instead of streams, hills, and swamps. Also, picture having the Russians moving in real time forcing you to think accurately and quickly. Every second you ponder during Legionnaire is an action taken by your adversary.

The package is the standard Avalon Hill bookshelf size with a rather bloody depiction of Roman battle on the front and a story-like description of one Legionnaire game on the back. Also, this is one of the few games that has graphics good enough to warrant a picture of the TV screen right on the package. I have a cassette version which includes a full color game catalog, a price list, and the instruction manual. The twenty page manual devotes four pages to game operation, seven pages to detailed descriptions of the Romans and the Barbarians, four pages to historical background including a chronological description of the Gallic wars, three pages to tactical hints, and two pages to cassette trouble-shooting. Having played many games of EASTERN FRONT, just a glance at this manual had me eager to get on with my first game of Legionnaire.

The cassette version takes about one minute to load. The program first asks you how many Roman legions you would like to command. You can choose a number between one and ten by movig the joystick forward or backward to increment or decrement a number on the screen. You make your choice by pressing the fire button. If you choose all ten, your army will include Caesar (the most powerful legion in the game), Crassus and Labienus (the only two Roman cavalry legions), beginning with the large and spirited legion of Galba and generally decreasing in effectiveness to the hopeless legion of Sabinus. When you choose any less than ten, your army is created from the strongest legions. For example, if you choose four legions, your army will include Caesar, the two cavalry, and the strongest infantry, Galba.

The number of legions you choose affects both the difficulty of the game and the playing time of the game. The computer will always give the barbarians twice as many units as you take. So, even though the ratio of barbarians to Romans remains the same (two to one), the effectiveness of the Roman army decreases with size as you add more and more of the weaker armies like Sabinus. This makes a game with one legion (Caesar) quite manageable. But, with ten legions, some of which are nearly useless, keeping track of so many pieces and watching out for the weaker legions is quite difficult. Of course, the more legions involved in the game, the longer it takes to play. A game with Caesar alone may take ten minutes to play whereas commanding all ten legions may result in a forty minute game.

After you have chosen the number of legions with which you wish to play, you choose the barbarian army that will opppose you. The opposing army is half infantry and half cavalry. You choose which type of infantry and which type of cavalry you will oppose by using the joystick as you did while choosing the Roman army. There are sixteen different tribes, eight cavalry and eight infantry. Once chosen, all the infantry or cavalry within that army will be identical (as contrasted to the Roman army where each legion is different). Your infantry opponents begin with the nearly defenseless Aedui to the “most feared infantry in barbarian Europe”, the Helvetii. Similarly, the cavalry range from the helpless Auscii to the Huns. The Huns are nearly indestructible and can only be defeated with a liberal application of luck. The Huns were added to the game to give even the heartiest and most skilled game player a monumental challenge. In fact, the Huns did not even exist at the time of Caesar, as the manual explains, and had to be borrowed from Caesar’s future in order to get a powerful enough opponent.

Once you have the armies chosen, the computer prompts you to press the start key on the console in order to begin the game. Doing this will start the Barbarian attack and will intensely rivet you to your computer for the next half hour. You can, however, break away from the game, as there is a pause function which is toggled on and off by pressing the select key. But, before beginning the game, you should look over the entire map to locate Caesar and the enemy, and create your battle plan. The map board, which remains the same from game to game, is actually much larger than the screen and can only be seen by scrolling over it. This is done with the joystick. You move the cursor, a rectangle the size of one legion, over the screen in the direction that you push the joystick. When the cursor reaches a side of the screen the entire map scrolls across the screen to reveal other sections of the map.

What you will see is a topographical or contour map with three colors of contours. These are connected lines which define an area and indicate the elevation of the ground contained within it. There are four elevations, ground level and the three heights denoted by the green, blue, and pink contours. You can read or picture the hill structure with these. This is vital in order to take advantage of height-related attack effects and slope-related speed and exertion effects. Moving across a contour line represents either moving uphill or downhill. You will also see groups of trees on the map. These represent dense forests that are impassable to all pieces in the game. The Roman legions, in pink, are represented by an eagle for Caesar, a horse’s head for cavalry, and a sword for infantry. All pieces of similar type are represented by the same symbol on the map. The Barbarians, in blue, are also represented by horse heads and swords. The armies are placed on the map randomly different in each game. The Romans form one cluster and the Barbarian infantry and cavalry form two other clusters, not necessarily together. This represents all the information available before the start button is pressed and the game begins. Once the game is under way, the player can inspect each of his units and the enemy units by positioning the cursor over one of them and pressing the fire button. What you will see is;


First is the name of the unit, then the actual number of men in the unit. The number of men decreases throughout the game due to battle attrition. The last number, swords, denotes the power of the piece. Swords will equal the number of men when a piece is fully rested, however, it will be reduced if the piece is tired from marching or weary from battle. Swords tells you the actual fighting ability of the piece at any time.

When you press the start button you will immediately hear the sound of marching men. This, and the other three distinct sounds are not only for effect, they also convey vital information. There is a low-pitch beep which signals the start of a time period. In LEGIONNAIRE, all actions take certain amounts of time. These are measured in time periods. For example, a particular cavalry unit may take five time periods to move up a hill, or an infantry might take twenty-five time periods to move across flat land. In this way, all pieces move at different speeds. The marching sound that you hear is actually a sound accompanying each piece’s attempt to move. That is, each time period that the infantry tries to move would cause one ‘foot stomp’ sound. The effect is that ten or twenty pieces all ‘foot stomping’ between each time period beep sounds like marching armies. With each ‘foot stomp’ comes what the manual calls ‘animating’. Once during each time period, when you hear the stomp, you can see the marching piece be replaced by an arrow pointing in the direction it is trying to move. This arrow is quite important because it can tell you which of two pieces is going to move first. You do this by listening for the time period beep and then looking to see which piece ‘animates’ first. If a piece should attempt to move into an enemy piece, a battle ensues. The third distinct sound in the game is the sound of battle. simulated by a clashing swords sound. This is a terrible sound to hear when you are busy at one part of the map and the Barbarians have caught up to one of your pieces somewhere else. Of course, the last sound, the squeal of a dying legion, is by far the most heart-stopping in the game.

Your first order of business is to give your legions their orders. This is done by positioning the cursor over them and pressing the fire button on the joystick. You can then enter up to eight movement instructions with the joystick. You will see an arrow move along the path that you have directed ending in a ghost of that piece. Releasing the fire button gives that piece those instructions which it will now attempt to follow. You may change the orders of a piece by again holding down the button and then pressing the space bar on the console. This will erase the last movement given. The piece will now make the moves you have directed and, if you inspect it again, it will show, with the arrows, the remaining commands which you can change or add to. In this way you keep all your legions working towards the goals of your battle plan.

The Barbarians are relentless and keep pursuing the nearest group of Romans. Eventually the two armies begin to clash. A battle is indicated by the clashing swords sound and a flashing of the defending piece. Both the attacker and the defender are affected by the attack with a reduction in men due to losses and a reduction in swords due to exertion in battle. The losses are in proportion to the swords of each side. This is affected, however, by a number of things. First, slope effect gives the piece on higher ground the advantage since he has better visibility and range, and can more easily push the defender downhill than the defender can attack uphill. Also, the attacker is given a bonus just for being on the attack. An attacker has a large advantage if the defender is moving. This makes a flank or rear attack devastating. Shock effects can cause a piece to retreat. That is, if a piece is losing badly in a battle or is attacked by an ominously larger enemy, he may break and run from the battle. Once a piece breaks, as Sabinus did in the story at the beginning of this article, he is very vulnerable to the rear attack as he scurries from the attacker.

Usually your first directive to the legions is to take the high ground. Getting your troops there in time can be difficult. The speed that they move is determined by two things. First, the characteristics of the piece. Cavalry pieces and Caesar move at about the same speed, around four time periods per move. The infantry vary but will generally take about twenty time periods to move. The Barbarians vary widely on their speeds, the stronger units tending to be faster. The second affect to movement is the terrain. Moving uphill slows a piece, downhill speeds it up. One obvious effect is that if two identical pieces are given orders to attack each other at the same time, the one moving downhill will attack first. A typical speed change for a move that normally takes four time periods might be, uphill becomes nine time periods and downhill becomes two time periods. Obviously, the skilled player of LEGIONNAIRE must learn to take full advantage of the slopes.

Along with getting your legions to the high ground comes getting them there in enough time to rest up for the battle. Each piece has a different rate of recovery that varies from Caesar’s nearly immediate to the slow recuperation of Plancus. At the beginning of a game a typical piece may have men and swords equal to 2600. After a long trek over a hill or two his swords may be down to 1200. The piece must rest for perhaps forty time periods for his swords to gradually come back to full power. You will notice that the Barbarian infantry will travel exhausting distances to reach you but will stop short of actual battle and wait to regain most of their strength. You too must do this unless you are still powerful enough after travel to attack successfully. Movement will never lower a piece’s swords to the point of destruction, but it will make it so weak that one attack will destroy it. To destroy a piece you need only bring his swords down to zero, not his number of men. It is assumed that when his effectiveness is zero the remaining demoralized men scatter into the countryside.

Of course, your overall goal is to destroy all the Barbarian pieces before they destroy Caesar. The player can quit anytime by pressing the option key on the console. Accidental quitting is protected against by an inquiry from the computer asking if you would like to continue the game. But winning isn’t everything. You receive a score once you have completed the game, whether Caesar died or not. The score is based on the losses each side took. This score can be negative, very bad, to positive, fair or good. The scoring scheme seems to offer scores proportional to the number of men you take and to the power of the Barbarians that you engage. In order to have a quantitative value for any combination of number of Legions and difficulty of Barbarians I did the following. First, I assigned to each Barbarian tribe the number of their location in the list in the manual, one for the weakest up to eight for the toughest. I then always picked the same number for Barbarian infantry and cavalry. Next, I multiplied my score times the Barbarian number times the number of legions I had chosen. For a game in which ten legions fought against the Eburones and Ubi and the game score was fifty, the quantitative score would be (10 legions) X (2nd set of Barbarians) X (50 score)=1000. In a 44 game stretch where I recorded my scores for each game, my high scores averaged about 400. My best so far is 1050 while commanding ten legions against the third set of Barbarians.

But how do you get high scores? Some of the tactical hints given in the manual are useful. Make the enemy fight from the lower position. Make him tired by marching to reach you. Plan your moves to give your legions maximum rest. Keep your better legions up front and use your weaker ones for clean up. Try to eliminate all of the infantry or cavalry before the other group gets to you. Use the cavalry for chasing down weak retreating units. Use cavalry to counterattack downhill against an enemy who is himself attacking one of your legions downhill. Try to surround an enemy with forest and your pieces. Avoid frontal attacks, concentrate on rear attacks. The manual also suggests two overall strategies. One is to assemble on top of a hill and wait for the enemy to come to you. The disadvantages are that this may give the two Barbarian groups time to join together before they reach you; also, you may not be close enough to a hill to assemble there before they reach you. The other suggestion is to use the forests to funnel the enemy through to you one or two at a time.

When I heard about people using the number of units they had left after annihilating the Germans as criteria for how much better than 255 their score was in EASTERN FRONT, I started to doubt my abilities as a wargamer. None the less, I’m going to present the strategy I used to earn my 1050 composite score in Legionnaire. I was playing against the Suevii infantry, a large and strong group that fight well but become disorganized easily. This meant that I had to force the attack and stay out of their way when they attacked. My cavalry opponents were the Menapii, a large and speedy group. They weren’t going to be easy to defeat, but with my strong pieces at the top of a hill I should have little chance of being thrown off. I was fortunate to be very near a large high hill with a group of trees at the base between me and their cavalry. The infantry were far off and would pose no danger for quite some time. I sent my weaker cavalry, Labienus, to lure these infantry from my hill when they finally got in range. Crassus, my main cavalry, charged straight toward the oncoming enemy cavalry with the hope of breaking this huge mass into something I could handle. I had long ago found that the weaker infantry, Plancus and Sabinus, were useless in battle so I sent them over my hill well out of danger of attack. I then set up my remaining infantry on the hill with Caesar in the middle of a line along the ridge that was nearest to the forest below. Cicero and Galba, my next two strongest infantry, flanked Caesar. They were themselves flanked by Fabius and Roscius. My plan was to get the oncoming cavalry to chase Crassus around the forest below while I lured one or two of the horde up the hill to their death. Due to the game’s tendency to keep all of a Barbarian group together and marching towards the nearest Roman legion, the cavalry dutifully marched after Crassus as he constantly circled the forest. Due to traffic problems, only about one half the enemy group would actually get around the forest. I’d then send Caesar temptingly close to one of their cavalry and lure him up the hill where Caesar or Cicero could make short work of him. I took about nine trips around the forest to finally finish off the cavalry. Because of my high-ground advantage, I’d suffered only minor losses. Meanwhile, Labienus had started leading the infantry horde toward my forest trap. These poor soldiers were nearly dead from their constant chase of Labienus. With the long rest afforded my troops on the hill as the slow infantry approached, I had good strong troops to attack with. I broke the infantry into two groups using my two cavalry to get one half of them to go off chasing Crassus. I finished up the game by finishing off first one, and then the other, tired infantry group. I didn’t lose one legion, although I lost quite a few men while destroying the infantry. My score of only 35 hurt, but I was proud that my plan worked.

One of the more enjoyable battles I had was with only Caesar and Crassus against the two strongest Barbarians. My average score after six games was minus nine. But out of that there was one score of plus eight. The Huns are very, very tough. The only way to beat them was to start Caesar attacking down the hill before they even got to him so that I got the first strike in. Even then. I would have to have the height advantage and be clear of the second cavalry piece or risk destruction. I found that five Roman legions provided the most pleasurable game for me. This provides an army of two infantry, two cavalry, and Caesar against the two groups of five Barbarians each. Of course, the Eastern Front aficionados will be bragging about clean sweeps against the Huns in a few months, but I’ll give a few of my scores for future reference and the amusement of the professional wargamers out there.

# LegionsBarbarian #ScoreComposite

There is a fine balance between playability and historical accuracy that is very difficult to reach in war game creation. I have two friends who play war games. One won’t touch a game that doesn’t have complete designations on each cardboard marker. He’ll pause in the middle of a move to reflect on some historical incident in that game and alter his strategy accordingly. My other friend tried LEGIONNAIRE and found the game fascinating. When I tried to explain why a piece would all of a sudden become weak and run away from a battle with discussions of shock factors and morale, he ignored me. LEGIONNAIRE tends toward the latter of my two friends as a game that anyone can sit down and play without reading endless instructions or learning complex strategies. The historical gamer may be appalled at finding the Huns fighting Caesar, but he’ll be more than compensated by the logical and realistic procedures he will have to adopt to successfully play the game. The real time action in this game is my favorite point. When I sit down to play, I know I’ll only be at the computer for an hour at the most, and that I won’t have to sit through twenty-minute brainstorming sessions between moves.

I consider LEGIONNAIRE to be as challenging as EASTERN FRONT and immensely more playable. The only other Atari game I have played that is similar (besides EASTERN FRONT) is SHATTERED ALLIANCE. There is little comparison. Chris Crawford has shown what can be done on the Atari in only 16K. Imagine what will happen when some programmer undertakes a machine code, 32K, disk accessing, full color, full sound. scrolling, multi-character set, player missile graphic, sophisticated wargame on the Atari. It’s coming and LEGIONNAIRE and EASTERN FRONT are breaking ground. When Avalon Hill merges their knowledge of game design with the Atari’s full capabilities, we should see some very good headway made towards sophisticated, playable simulations. I have no complaints about LEGIONNAIRE other than I’d like to be able to scroll around a bit faster to rescue my poor distant legions. I hope Chris takes the LEGIONNAIRE format, expands the map, adds random terrain generation, moves it into the gunpowder era, and adds a two-player option. I think he should be able to give us this in a month or two. Don’t you?

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