“The greatest king Europe has ever known” extolled the busy-bodying Theopompos of Chios in one of the more positive moments of his fragmentary and conflicted 58 book biopic of Phillip II of Macedon. Yet games, books and films alike generally relegate to the far less magnanimous footnote “(father of Alexander the Great)”. Hegemony: Phillip of Macedon seeks to readdress this gross understatement.
You see, Alexander wouldn’t have been able to undertake his romp through Persia if Daddy hadn’t built the army – and the state – that made it all possible. Before Issus and Gaugamela there was nearly 30 years of Phillip II bit by bit transforming the chaotic status quo in Greece through the subtle diplomatic arts of drunken homoerotic partying and polygamy when people were willing to play ball, and at the tip of a few thousand 15ft long pikes when they weren’t. Hegemony primarily focuses on the business end of things, i.e. poking those long shafts in someone’s direction until they submit to you, Phillip, as Hegemon of all the Hellenic peoples.
Starting off in 364BC, the Kingdom of Macedon is in a bit of a sorry state. The glorious progress made in the days of Archelaus I have long since passed in the face of repeated leadership contests and invasions from the north. The house of Argeads has lost it’s grip over much of Macedonia, and your first task as Regent is to begin reclaiming lost territory in Lower Macedon.
It starts off on a deceptively small scale; your single unit of Companion Cavalrymen, and a couple of towns and farms. Towns create units, and are the basic administrative settlements, while farms produce the food which you need to keep your men smiling – without it they’ll far more easily flee in battle. You connect them with roads to create wealth. Next comes combat.
It takes a more hands off approach than say, Total War: the battles are mostly won on the strategic level over the tactical. There’s some scope for formations and holding back reserves, but it’s a visibly strategic system over tactical; least of all down to scale, which takes Hegemony into a sort of half-way between Total War and a Paradox game – small units of men represent whole regiments. You generally win battles because you’ve picked the right force disposition and kept them well fed. I dare say some will find it lacking; without enough of Total War’s pageantry and display for those hungering for battles of it’s ilk will not find it here, while those who revel in grander strategy over tactics may find the level of micromanagement taxing, or just an irritation, particularly when you’re handling a campaign in one region and minor conflicts throughout your kingdom. Hammer that pause button.
Expansion and progress are directed through a fairly loose narrative set of missions. As you scout around the map, pillars representing steps towards hegemony lay out specific objectives that must be met in order to progress and accrue bonuses – catapult building scholars and extra wives for example. It’s entirely up to you which order you complete the objectives, giving you a fair amount of freedom to plan campaigns.
And plan them you really do have to. Early forays of acquisition don’t require too much forethought; a unit of phalangites alongside the Companions is usually enough. But as you expand, your available pool of manpower means you have to balance your forces between defensive garrisons and those you allocate for a campaign while cities gradually become tougher nuts to crack. It’s no good just to beat off the defenders and capture the settlement – you have to seriously begin targeting their food supplies, and protecting siege catapults while whittling down their defensive forces bit by bit. All the while making sure your men have enough food to keep their fighting spirits up. To date, I think it’s the only strategy game that really understands the logistics and economics of the ancient Greek world, and I’d love to see the game expanded to other states – the Peloponnesian War for example would be a magnificent challenge from both the side of Athens and Sparta.
What really puts the icing on the cake for me with Hegemony is the sheer attention to historical detail Longbow have put in. I studied Ancient History for my undergraduate degree, and my chief “specialism” was in fact Macedon (as well as Thessaly and Epirus, who to my joy feature in Hegemony). Philip II is a confusing man to follow; his incessant campaigning, and the sheer number of people who made up his friends and enemies (who all of course have similar or the same names) mean understanding what exactly was happening, when, and where is no easy feat. First and most apparent is the fastidious attention to the map design. The sheer number of cities, in the most obscure regions of the ancient Greek world is a major achievement, and I think an utterly invaluable educational tool in fact; what I would have given to have it three years ago! Furthermore, pretty much every unit, character and city in the game is documented in an encyclopedia. All these details, combined with the semi-linear narrative structure means Hegemony is pretty much the best tool for understanding Phillip II’s world I’ve come across.
I would say it would be nice with a little more detail in certain aspects – wives and scholars, while a nice touch are in a way basically power ups. Similarly, companion generals are mostly just there to tack on bonuses to units. It would perhaps be nice if these characters required a little more management – besides the strategic genius, some of the most interesting aspects of Phillip’s life was the sheer character of his retainers. Once you’ve “escorted them to Pella”, wives don’t really feature too much – in reality, the court tension between his (6!) wives lead to very real sources of weakness, especially when it came to the matter of succession. Not that I could suggest how to put this in game admittedly, it would just certainly be nice to see more detail on the home front. Certainly if Longbow were to take Hegemony to the Peloponnesian War, it would be impossible to accurately portray either Athens or Sparta without some degree of representation of the inner tensions within their respective political orders back home.
All said, Hegemony: Phillip of Macedon is probably the most in depth ancient world strategic simulator on the market. It’s superbly detailed and educational – I’m in half a mind to point it towards my former lecturer in Macedonian history. It takes a keen understanding of ancient Greek strategic quandaries, and applies them in a challenging and entertaining format. While the slightly skewered scale of combat might not find a particularly happy middle ground, it’s solid enough to keep the game afloat.
Any game with this much historical depth, character, and challenge is a must buy for any discerning historical strategic gamer.