This month sees the release of Hegemony Rome: The Rise of Caesar, the latest title in Longbow Games' historical strategy series. If you want to lord it over an empire, Longbow have you covered. Their previous title, Hegemony Gold: Wars of Ancient Greece, was an excellent little wargame that mixed large-scale strategy with simple, innovative and fun base-building, logistics and combat. I chatted with Lead Programmer Rob McConnell about what budding conquerors can expect from the follow-up.
Strategy Informer: First of all, could you tell us a little about the time period in which Hegemony Rome takes place.
Rob McConnell: It takes place during the Gallic Wars, which started in 58BC. It basically follows Caesar's writings during the war, he wrote basically a journal per year about the campaign. It starts off when he's appointed Governor of Gaul. He uses a push into the Roman territory by the Helvetii tribe as an excuse to raise legions and march into Gaul. From there it covers the Belgae campaign in the next year, and then his invasion of Britannia, he tried that twice by the way, and the last campaign is the rebellion of Vercingetorix, who united the Gauls in a last push to try to get Caesar out. It wraps up with Caesar crossing the Rubicon, so the whole campaign is kind of shaped as 'what lead him to turn against the Empire?' It kind of stops once the civil war begins.
Strategy Informer: So this time there's more than one campaign?
Rob McConnell: Yeah, there's four chapters to the campaign. That’s one difference from previous versions. In Hegemony Gold we had a single campaign that lasted a whole military career. In Rome we decided to break into multiple chapters, partly so players could access the late game without having to complete all the early stuff, but it also allowed us to include more scripted battles than before. By having more control over that we can add battles like the final siege of Alesia and the Battle of Sabis, and the various other battles that Caesar described.
Strategy Informer: How do those new scripted battles slot into the larger tactical map?
Rob McConnell: What we've done is basically split the game a little more than we did previously into the separate campaigns and the sandbox mode in order to better emphasise what each did well. In the campaigns there will be more restrictions than there were in the previous game, so we'll cordon off certain areas that Caesar was acting in that particular campaign, so we can set up those battles. We still give players plenty of options as to how they approach those battles, we're not concerned that they use exactly the same battlefield tactics that Caesar did, but our goals is to set it up so those tactics do work, but the player has enough flexibility to do different unit combinations and set up his lines in different locations. You're following in his footsteps but you still have a chance to make it your own. The sandbox mode is where it totally opens up, so the entire map is accessible and you can play as any faction. The objectives in that mode are dynamic, so every time you play you'll have a different objective.
Strategy Informer: So there's not a Gaulish campaign? You'll have to load up sandbox mode if you want to play as the tribes?
Rob McConnell: The historical campaign you're just playing as Caesar, but in the sandbox mode you can play as anyone. The sandbox in Rome players will find quite familiar to the original Hegemony: Philip of Macedon campaign, we've set it up so the objectives feel very similar and open up in a very similar way. In that way you can play as a Gallic tribe for example, and you'll get objectives to take out certain cities, set up supply lines and defeat certain enemies, and those work as any faction on the map.
Strategy Informer: Apart from the Gallic tribes and the Romans, what other factions are there?
Rob McConnell: Well there's four main faction groups. Romans, Gauls, Germanic tribes and Britons. There's about 26 factions in total. In the Germans there's the most famous faction that Caesar describes, the Suebi, even though realistically that was a grouping of smaller tribes. In the Gallic tribes there's the Helvetii, the Sequanii, the Aedui...lots more, some of the names aren't on the tip of my tongue just now! There's a tonne of small tribes to play. Even the Romans we've split into the Cisalpine Gaul and Transalpine Gaul so you can have some Roman on Roman battles as well.
Strategy Informer: What different units and abilities can we expect from these new factions?
Rob McConnell: They do have some special units, the Britons have their chariot units that Caesar described, Romans have their legions and the Gauls have better cavalry and were the only faction that Caesar described as using archers in that period. We have a slightly different take with Hegemony than the Total War series, where it's not sheer amount of unit types, it's more how you specialise them. The different factions will have, and we're still working on this through the Early Access process, different upgrades available and faction-wide bonuses. The Gauls have recruitment bonuses to give them greater numbers, and the Germans are better at scavenging and hunting. It's something we're still emphasising through Early Access, to make sure there's more variety when playing the different factions.
Strategy Informer: You mentioned unit upgrades, can you tell us how they work in Rome?
Rob McConnell: Sure, this is something we've really expanded on in Hegemony Rome. So your units earn experience from combat and completing objectives, and you can use that to essentially promote officers in your units. Each unit has a certain number of officer slots, and using your experience you can choose from a large list of officer types that includes offensive, defensive, supply consumption, ranged combat, speed, siege tactics, bridge construction and so on. All those things are customisable but you have a limited number of slots. The hope is that your units become a little more specialised, as you can't afford to have all the upgrades for each unit type.
Strategy Informer: Are there any new tactical options in battle?
Rob McConnell: Essentially the battlefield tactics still come down to combined arms, flanking, charging, all those basic mechanics. We do have a new stance system in the game that allows you to tell your units how you want them to behave on the battlefield, so it gives a little bit more automation and a higher level of control. The battle line stance will order your guys to stick together, give a bonus against charging and means they'll try to stay in formation when engaging the enemy. Whereas you can also switch into a skirmish stance that will more or less try to swarm the enemy and get a flanking bonus, so they don't stick to a formation. There's a ranged support stance that will hold back and won't engage the enemy. Those stances are something new that we've added to Rome.
Strategy Informer: So leaving the battlefield behind, have you made any changes to the way building construction and infrastructure development works?
Rob McConnell: Yes, actually there's quite a few changes in that regard. The Romans were obviously famous for their construction, Caesar especially. The crossing of the Rhine, his bridge construction amazed the Germans. They thought they were safe and he built a bridge across just to terrify them and show them he could do it, to keep them at bay in the future. So yeah, bridge-building is something we've added, and as well there's more emphasis on camps and forts. The Romans were obviously known for setting up defences in the field. One of the tactics for doing sieges and larger scale battles is setting up a fort near to the battlefield, and then linking that up with a supply line back to base in order to feed your troops over the course of the battle. Within the cities we have a system that's basically analogous to the officer system for your troops, cities have a certain number of slots that you can construct buildings to specialise how the city works. Those let you build new unit types, upgrade city defences and view distances and the city's ability to supply armies in the field and prevent rebellions. There's a fair bit more you can do to your cities once you've captured them or set them up.
Strategy Informer: How do Gauls fare in that regard? Obviously they weren’t quite the builders the Romans were.
Rob McConnell: There's an interesting objective in the second chapter where Caesar builds siege equipment for the first time. The Gauls basically retreated behind their walls thinking they were safe, and when Caesar rolled up these siege towers they surrender almost immediately! The Gauls don't quite have the same level of construction, but they still built forts before battles and fortified their cities, Caesar described that. They won't have access to the same siege equipment, and will have more limited bridge construction. They do have access to similar upgrades to the other factions in their cities, which is something we're still playing with in terms of play balance in Early Access. We still want them to be fun to play, but ideally they won't have quite the same level of construction as the Romans.
Strategy Informer: How does the map size compare to Hegemony Gold?
Rob McConnell: In actual straight kilometres they're very similar, roughly a thousand by thousand kilometres in size. The Gaul map does generally feel a lot bigger, particularly because in the Greek map the entire centre was mostly water, whereas there's relatively ocean in the Gallic map. We've also changed the scale of the game, your units are relatively smaller on the map, so it tends to come off as a lot bigger. But we've adjusted units speeds and stuff as well, because as nice as the grand scale is you don’t want to be waiting forever for units to cross the map.
Strategy Informer: Managing a huge empire could end up being somewhat overwhelming in the previous Hegemony games. Are there any new tools to help players deal with that side of things?
Rob McConnell: To some extent we redesigned the game to have more options for smaller-scale maps. As I said the campaign chapters are more isolated theatres of war, because we didn't want the player to get dragged down by the hundred other cities they're managing during those campaigns. We wanted them to be focusing on the specific battle that Caesar was, so we've set that up so that you start at Caesar's base of operations for that season of campaigning. So those maps tend to be a little bit smaller to allow you to focus. We're also mixing up the sandbox, in addition to the full map we're setting up a number of smaller faction maps for people who like a smaller game. For those playing the full game we have tried to improve some of the automation, your units can respond a little more autonomously. Going back to what I was saying about the stances, where you can instruct your units how yo behave in combat, that gives them a little more autonomy to react reliably without you being there.
Strategy Informer: So units can be set to guard an area?
Rob McConnell: Yeah, though they won't venture far out to engage enemies. We're still trying to leave most decisions to the player, because as much time as we could spend on getting the AI to predict what the players wants it to do, half the time we're not going to get it right. So it's still generally been our approach to get the player to pause the game and issue their orders themselves, but we've done some things to improve the way your units react when they come under fire, they can react better themselves when you're busy. That's also when the new fort mechanics come into play. You can set up forts and camps in areas to control the territory, and you can actually wall off areas to provide protection to certain zones.
Strategy Informer: I wondered what your thoughts were on multi-player? It hasn't made an appearance in the Hegemony series as yet, but is it something you're considering in the future?
Rob McConnell: It's something we'd like to do, but we want to do it right. We don't want to just tack it on to the single-player game. Particularly because what makes Hegemony unique is the scale and the large empire management side of things, and some of those things are a little harder to organise in a multi-player environment. We picked the Caesar campaign for Rome because we liked the asymmetry of the Romans' small units against the larger Gaul tribes, so this campaign was particularly suited to a single-player campaign. If we got the opportunity down the line to do multi-player, we'd want to pick something that was particularly suited to having different, balanced factions, with multiple parties competing on even ground.
Strategy Informer: You're starting off on Steam Early Access this time around. As a smaller development studio, what are the benefits of the Early Access process?
Rob McConnell: It is certainly very important to us. We created the first game, Hegemony: Philip of Macedon, in a bit of a vacuum, it was quite a detour from what we'd previously done, and we didn't have a community or audience to draw on for feedback. After we'd put that out we did some convention tours and got some more community feedback, which really emphasised to us the importance of having that external input and wider audience for feedback is. We were so close to the project that it's hard to see it how everyone else sees it, so Early Access was a very natural format for the way we like to develop. In Hegemony Gold we did our own open development process and everybody who bought the previous game got in on the beta, so when Valve opened this up it was something we were naturally looking at as a good fit for us.
Strategy Informer: With a smaller team it must be a complex process building a large-scale strategy game like Hegemony. How many of you are there working at Longbow Games?
Rob McConnell: There's half a dozen of us full time, and we have a few people helping out on a contract basis. The core team is three artists and three programmers. All the Hegemony games have definitely been more programmer-heavy, because with strategy games you're dealing with everything from AI issues to a lot of GUI work, the nature of Hegemony on a single map there's a lot more graphical and performance issues than some other strategy games. So yeah, it's taken a long time! We had so many ideas we wanted to do with Rome that we really went back to the beginning, most of the systems have been rewritten to support more units, better AI and the new graphics engine and scripting system. And also we were targeting form the beginning opening it up for modding and further content.
Strategy Informer: I realise it's probably a bit early to start thinking about the future, but do you have other plans for the series beyond Hegemony Rome?
Rob McConnell: We've certainly brainstormed things, we're really trying to focus on getting this one right. The Early Access means we're still not done on it, we've still got a lot more balancing and tweaking to do and we're trying to remain flexible on what the community are telling us to see if we can hopefully incorporate some of those ideas. Yeah, we'll see how it goes. We've got some other ideas in the Roman period, but we'll see how it goes.
Many thanks to Rob McConnell for the interview, and apologies for attempting to make him recite the name of every single Gallic tribe off the top of his head. Hegemony Rome: The Rise of Caesar is out now on Steam Early Access.