Alexander the Great holds a special place in history because of the reach of his empire and because he imported Greek culture to Asia, but he holds a special place in military history because of the way he did it. Great Battles of Alexander plays like a textbook examination of just what made ancient warfare unique, and how Alexander changed it all forever.
The important thing to remember about Alexander the military leader is that he succeeded because of his effective use of combined armed tactics and his charismatic leadership. The army he took into battle was a force of professionals put together by his father, Philip II. The Greeks fought using shock combat: Men moved forward on open planes and bashed each other's brains in, with victory most often going to superior numbers. The Persians, however, preferred slashing attacks and missile volleys, which they found didn't really work against massed units of armored shock troops.
It was Phillip who saw that victory would require a blend of all these different kinds of forces: ranged weapons to rain arrows and rocks, fast-moving calvary for maneuver warfare to engage the flanks, and a firm core of phalanxes for shock combat. This was the professional combined arms force that Alexander inherited, and he used it as no general had before.
Great Battles of Alexander has a prickly, unconventional design that captures the essence of this kind of combat. The work of veteran wargame designers Mark Herman and Gene Billingsly, the system is based on GMT's excellent Great Battles series of tabletop games. As a gaming system, it is trying to do something very specific: capture the effects of leadership and the uniqueness of combined arms. In doing this, it is providing a rude wake-up call to many wargamers used to conventional handling of these issues.
The mechanics of the engine are fairly efficient if unspectacular. Battlegrounds and units are rendered in admirable detail, capturing the true feel of miniature wargaming. The interface itself is a mixed affair using small icons for facing, missile volleys, zoom levels, and other game functions. It's easy enough to use - select a unit to move forward, select a target to attack - but the lack of an undo button coupled with very small and tightly packed function buttons can make things awkward.
The game system is based heavily on leadership quality and initiative. Different leaders move in phases. If their leadership rating is good, they have a better chance of drawing up to two randomly generated momentum phases per turn. This means good generals can move up to three times a turn, and it captures the importance of charisma and organization on the battlefield. One frustrating thing about the leadership model is that leaders won't necessarily move in a given order. Some move far forward, while lesser generals lag behind, leaving openings that the enemy can exploit. Though annoying at times, it's a true reading of the often erratic nature of command in battle, and is a commendable element.
The troop quality of each unit is represented by the number of "cohesion hits" it can take before it routs. This is the weighted value given to opposing forces of phalanxes, light and heavy infantry, light and heavy calvary, skirmishers, chariots, elephants, and lancers. Missile units can approach and launch their volleys with a simple command. Shock combats are designated for each unit and take place on the turn itself, with results coming in detailed after-action reports. The whole system works pretty fluidly and completely logically. A battle is over when an army has used all its rout points and flees the field.
Ten battles are included in GBOA: Arbela, Arigaeum, Hydaspes, Issus, Granicus, Samarkland, Jaxartes, Lynginus, Pelium, and Chaeronea. Each can be played alone or in the context of a campaign that links them all together. Head-to-head play is implemented via Internet, modem, or LAN.
Some things would have made GBOA better. There should be a campaign option that gives you purchase points toward buying a custom army. Battles are hard-coded, with no variation in start-up positions and no opportunity to try a different initial deployment. These are straight historical re-creations, but some flexibility in setup would have given the game longer legs. A top-down view with counters is needed as an alternative to the 3-D isometric look, which sometimes blocks units. Unit information could be handled more efficiently than with the "fly over" mouse, and some onscreen representation of unit strength and cohesion would be welcome. For a fairly simple game, memory management is handled very poorly.
The core design of GBOA admirably re-creates the unique dynamics of ancient warfare. For gamers not used to this reality, and for people who aren't well versed on the best way to command combined forces in ancient battle, it can be hard going at times. But for those of us who have been waiting far too long for ancient battles to come to the PC, this system (and the Hannibal and Caesar versions to follow) are long overdue.