Legion interview

We sit down with Slitherine Software to learn more about the studio's strategy game set in ancient Rome. New screenshots inside.

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Earlier this month, Strategy First announced that it had teamed up with Paradox Entertainment to publish Legion, Slitherine Software's upcoming strategy game. In the game, players will control one of many tribes, city-states, or leagues in ancient Italy during the time of the Roman Empire, and they must use both conquest and diplomacy to build an empire. To learn more about the game's features and setting, we talked to Iain McNeil, lead designer of the game for Slitherine.

GS: First, tell us a bit about Slitherine Software. When was the company founded, and what sort of background did the founders have?

IM: Slitherine was founded by four people--Dave Parsons, technical director; Fad Stevens, creative director; Iain McNeil, designer; and JD McNeil, business manager. We have a wealth of experience in games, with an average of around seven or eight years in the industry, and we have recently worked on titles such as Red Alert, Dune 2000, Emperor: Battle for Dune, Deus Ex, and Urban Chaos. I'm also interested in tabletop wargaming and have won the world championships twice. Because of this mix of skills, we are ideally placed to create a strategy game of our own.

GS: Your upcoming game, Legion, is set in the time of the Roman Empire. What inspired you to choose this setting?

IM: It was always a period we had been interested in separately, and when we started to look at possible settings for the game, we narrowed it down to a shortlist. Egypt and Rome were the two favorites for the setting, but we felt the mixture of opponents that the Romans fought against was more diverse than that of the Egyptians, giving us more freedom to create a really interesting gameworld. So after much deliberation we decided to go with the Roman era.

GS: What sorts of opportunities and challenges does the Roman setting present?

IM: One of the opportunities is that most people are familiar with the Romans and at least have a rough idea what they should look like. They can identify with them and this gives extra value to the gamers' experience when playing Legion. This also ends up being a challenge, though, because many people know what the Romans looked like and how they behaved. We have had to put a lot of effort into making sure the game lives up to people's expectations.

GS: How much of the game will be based on historical fact? What sort of research did the designers do to learn more about the subject?

IM: When we first started out, we had a good working knowledge of the Romans, but we didn't know enough of the detail. We soon found that there were many experts out there who were only too willing to assist us. We have had a lot of help in making sure the uniforms, weapons, names, and maps are all very accurate. This has meant our designers have been released from this to spend their time making sure the game plays really well. From the start we decided we wanted Legion to be first and foremost a fun game. Wherever possible we are making it is as historically accurate as we can without compromising the gameplay, but it is a game, not a simulation of Roman life!

GS: Tell us a bit about the game mechanics. How will the game incorporate both strategic and tactical elements?

IM: At the strategic level, players control their empire--making decisions about whether to invest in their economy or recruit more troops--in a turn-based system. They make diplomatic decisions deciding whom to go to war with, when to make peace, alliances, and tributes, and so on. They also move their armies around the strategic map and decide where to fight and when to run away.

When a battle does result, the player is taken to the tactical level. From here, players plan out the battle ahead. Placing their units, making use of the terrain, setting formations, and giving orders. Once players are happy with their setup, their officers are sent out to carry out the orders, and the battle starts. Once the battle starts, players may not issue any new orders, but instead get to watch the battle unfold. The battle is fought in real time. It has a lot in common with a football manager game in the way that you set up everything before the battle starts and then sit back and watch the game. Watching hundreds of men moving in formation over the terrain and then seeing these formations clash just looks great. Morale is a major part of the battles, and armies do not fight to the death but instead run away when things go wrong. This can happen when you take too many casualties, or when other units start to run away. So, if the cream of your army is routed, this has a severe impact on the morale of all the other troops.

GS: What sort of game engine will the game use? What are some of the technical features that make this game engine different?

IM: After playing many strategy games over many years, we felt there was a gap in the market. There are two camps, the real time and the turn-based. The real time games tend to look much prettier and appeal to a younger market. The turn-based games almost always look inferior and appeal to an older audience who appreciate a more cerebral approach. With Legion we have combined the looks of an RTS with the non-reaction-based gameplay of a turn-based game. The battles use prerendered sprites on 3D terrain. Dead bodies are not removed, and by the end of the battle there are bodies and blood everywhere, which gives a really good feel for how things must have been. Surveying the aftermath of the battle is something we have found people really enjoy (I'm sure that says something about the type of people who want to play Legion).

GS: How far along is the game at this point? What parts of the game is the team working on now?

IM: Legion has just entered the beta-test phase. The last major job is to make the AI deploy its troops at the start of a battle, but after that, it's mainly fixing bugs and tidying up the loose ends. We are already getting loads of ideas pouring in from the beta testers, so we may want to try and include a few of these.

GS: What role is Paradox Entertainment playing in the game's development?

IM: Paradox is modeling in 3D and rendering out all the unit graphics for the game. This will give the units a much more realistic feel than the ones we've previously had, which were hand-drawn. It's also allowing us to increase the number of different units. Paradox is also managing the beta-test program through its Web site. We had around 2,500 applicants to be beta testers on Legion, so it's been a pretty big task for them to select and manage that process. They are also organizing many of the things that we don't have the resources to deal with, such as the manuals, box art, and so on.

GS: Do you plan on having an open beta test?

IM: As mentioned above, we have just started our test program for Legion. The application process was open to anyone, but we wanted around 100 testers, so those who did not get in will have to wait for the completion of the game! The testers are all under NDA, and we think this will be more than enough to get Legion fully tested and balanced.

GS: When can we expect to see the game in stores?

IM: We're hoping the beta-test phase will take six to eight weeks, so sometime soon after that, assuming all goes well. In North America it will hit store shelves at the end of May.

GS: Thanks for your time, Iain.

For more information about Legion, take a look at our previous coverage of the game.

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