18th Jul2018

‘Hannibal & Hamilcar’ Board Game Review

by Matthew Smail

han-ham-box

Following a recent Kickstarter campaign, Hannibal & Hamilcar represents the final product of a real labour of love from Phalanx Games, lead by popular designer Jaro Andruszkiewicz and with full backing from the creator of Avalon Hill’s original Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage, Mark Simonitch. With a visually overhauled remaster of the original game (that features relatively minor rules tweaks, but lots of new content) and a completely separate game based on largely the same components, Hannibal & Hamilcar is quite the package, but is this twenty something year old wargame still worthy of your attention?

Well, despite a hyperbolic reaction from the Kickstarter backers who seem to view it as either the very best game ever or the very worst (and nothing in between) the more balanced answer would simply be “yes, it is.” Whilst I must refrain from suggesting that there is no better game, I am reasonably comfortable using terms like “superb production quality” and “exceptionally deep, strategic game play” to describe it, especially in the Hannibal game, which is where I’ve spent the vast majority of my time so far. Both games are simpler to play than the rule book suggests, but both games offer high variability and the kind of depth that is only revealed after multiple play throughs’ on both sides of the conflict.

Before I get into the detail of how the game is played, I want to mention the components briefly, because they represent probably the biggest individual change in comparison to the older versions. Firstly, there’s a new, double sided board that presents the Hannibal game on one side and Hamilcar one on the other. Both are beautifully drawn, with detailed and attractive recreations of Italy, North Africa, the coast of modern Spain and numerous other features of the Mediterranean that were of interest during the Punic Wars. During setup, the players will place double sided control tokens onto the numerous locations on the board in order to demonstrate the current political ownership of each area; these tokens will be added, flipped or removed as the result of in game operations and events.

So far, aside from the impressive nature of the new board, there’s little change from previous versions of the game. A combination of additional Roman Generals and large, attractive miniatures (for all Generals) is the first obvious change. There are now quite a few more options available to the Roman player, which increases the variability of the game considerably, without materially affecting balance (at least as far as I’ve been able to identify so far.) Every General has an associated card detailing his Strategy and Battle Ratings, as well as a special ability (if applicable.) There is also a token for each General if that is the players preference, but most importantly, those detailed, individual miniatures bring real table presence and hugely improve the look of the game.

There are a number of other components that combine to finalise the overall aesthetic of Hannibal & Hamilcar, all of which are equally well put together. The card decks are attractive, clear and usually detailed, which makes the game straightforward to drive during both the Strategy and Battle phases, each of which use their own deck. There are tokens for numerous denominations of combat units (or CU’s) which are perhaps a little unexciting, but nonetheless entirely functional. Finally (aside from a few ancillary bits and bobs) there is only really the paperwork to discuss. Hannibal & Hamilcar comes with three books; a play book (which offers tutorials) a rule book and a scenario book, as well as a couple of player aids.

Personally, whilst I appreciate the idea of offering a simple way to get up and running in the form of a play book, I found that as a document it was just too verbose, which ultimately rendered it no more helpful than the rule book, which actually got me up to speed much more quickly. Whether spread across one book or two, the way in which the rules of Hannibal & Hamilcar are laid out is just hard to come to terms with, although the game itself is very easy to play once you are actually in play. The scenario book, on the other hand, is a great feature that effectively transforms Hannibal into a series of individual campaigns that depict various stages (essentially each year) of the Second Punic War. Hamilcar only features one scenario, however based on my single play, it is an enjoyable alternative to the main attraction, with a greater focus on the naval aspects of the First Punic War.

In game, the action is all card driven based on a simple system of Strategy Cards. This will be immediately familiar to anyone who has played a campaign level war game that uses a similar system, for example Twilight Struggle. Players are dealt a hand of cards that will increase in size depending on the round, with each round lasting until the players have used all of their strategy cards. Each card is marked with a red, blue or multicolored circle with a number in it, which represents its strategic value. Also printed on each card is a thematic event (for example famine) and the effect it has if used as an event.

Taking turns to play one card, each player chooses to use either the strategic value of the card, which allows them to either move a General (and his army) as long as he has a strategic value of the same or less than the value shown on the card. Alternatively, the player may use the strategic value to place political influence markers on unclaimed spaces, or to flip opposing political control markers on spaces where he or she has an uncontested army in place. Event cards can be played by either side as long as the colour of the card (Red for Rome, Blue for Carthage, multi-coloured for both) matches. So for example, Carthage can play the events from blue or multi-coloured cards, but they can only use red cards for their strategic value and not their event. Some cards also allow naval movement, but they are easily identified by ship icons on the card.

Events range thematically from minor or major campaigns (which are mostly about moving armies) to rebellions and famines that affect political control. In almost all cases, choosing when to play events is all about timing, whilst taking political control of an area is always good, taking control of the area your opponent just spent their entire turn fortifying is even better. Some events can swing entire regions from one direction to the other, or at the very least, completely remove opposing control. Overall regional control is important, because it is one of many factors (helpfully explained on the board) that affects the number of battle cards drawn when a fight breaks out.

On that note, battles in Hannibal & Hamilcar are perhaps one of the standout features that made the original game such a popular choice among war game fans. When battle is joined, each side draws a number of Battle Cards that is determined by the size of the clashing forces, the Battle Rating of the General, how much regional control they have and as the result of other factors like the presence of elephants, fortifications and so on. The attacker begins with the advantage and may play any card in their hand – the defender must match it exactly, or they will lose immediately. If they succeed, they can roll a dice to attempt to seize the initiative, in which case they play the next card.

The deck of Battle Cards consists of just under fifty cards and each player has a maximum hand of twenty cards. It’s not uncommon to reach about fifteen or eighteen cards in a battle, but achieving the full twenty is fairly rare and almost never something that both armies will be able to manage. There are a limited number of each of the maneuver cards in the deck, so unless you plan on feinting or something similarly tactical, it’s not a bad idea to attempt to hit your opponent with the card you have most of on repeated occasions. At some point, they’ll begin using their Reserve cards (which can match any other) and you’ll know that you’ve exposed a weakness – unless they are feinting.

As you can imagine, battles can be quite exhilarating in Hannibal & Hamilcar and there is a lot of strategy involved. Whilst luck plays a part in the Battle Cards that each player has access to, there are enough ways to influence the amount of cards you’ll have that it heavily mitigates randomness. Similarly, being able to choose different cards and to leverage other rules (potentially including retreat) all plays out much more sensibly than a simple dice based outcome. Casualties are decided on both sides as the result of how long the battle lasted, as well as for the loser based on a die roll. Losses are not as drastic as you might hope, but they can certainly be sufficient to break the back of a once proud army and force it to retreat away from the victor, giving up significant ground in the process.

The game tends to begin with a fair amount of Carthaginian dominance, but the tide often turns over the course of a game. This can happen sooner or later due to the way in which Roman Generals constantly change as the result of a consular election system. Without getting into all the detail, the Roman player may elect a Proconsul who will remain in play, but her other Generals will rotate out randomly, giving access to some powerful (and some weak) alternatives – Roman battle plans can be affected fairly drastically by these changes, ensuring that no two games are the same. Carthage has much fewer Generals, but those in play are a lot more predictable!

Whilst this (apparently fairly long) review does cover a fair bit of the detail in Hannibal & Hamilcar, I think I’ve covered most of the salient points. As I mentioned earlier, the basic game isn’t actually that complex, although there are a fair number of low level rules and features that can be accommodated as and when they come up. For example, naval movement in Hannibal is certainly possible for Carthage, but because Rome had a more impressive navy during the Second Punic War, it is risky and therefore any Carthaginian army moving by sea must roll against the Naval Dominance chart – which can result in them being lost entirely.

Once you’ve taken the time to learn it (and especially if you have a regular partner to play with) then Hannibal & Hamilcar is a wonderful and hugely rewarding game. The core Hannibal experience is fantastic in isolation, especially with the extra variety that the new Generals provide, whilst the additional scenarios and the Hamilcar game add enough icing to the cake that the players will have even more variety to access. I don’t think that the play book is the best way to teach the game from a cold start, but I don’t have any major issues with the actual rule book and the scenario books, both of which are clear enough and very well made.

As far as two player war games are concerned, there are few that I’ve played that are more enjoyable than Hannibal & Hamilcar. It looks absolutely fantastic on the table and delivers real presence when set out with the Generals, cards and political tokens all in place. It also features a strategic depth that is quite rare considering that the game is actually fairly accessible. It’s the kind of game that usually allows players to make their grand plans come true (and allows their opponent to break them) in sensible, logical ways. If it looks like a plan is viable in Hannibal & Hamilcar, then it probably is, which is something that isn’t always true of war games and as a result, players are able to pick up rules as they go, often preempting them, which makes everyone feel clever and rewarded. This is a fantastic remake that I highly recommend, so I’ll score it:

**** 4/5

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