In the Beginning...
Some years ago, to their mutual advantage, the folk who designed Rome: Total War managed to persuade the people at BBC2 to put on a series of episodes based on their game. You can't advertise on the Beeb, so the game engine was not mentioned, but you didn't need to be Hannibal Barca to work out what it was.
There Was A Lot of Shouting
The format involved a team of four people running an army against an AI force. Two of the players were theoretically generals, in charge of the overall strategy, and two were captains, in charge of the tactical disposition of different wings or troop types. In practice, sometimes one general seized the reins, and the second sat around like an inept Roman consul. On other occasions the generals both flailed about, and their adept captains won the day in spite of them. Each pair would bellow at the other across the studio.
Enter the Experts
Dr Nusbacher of Sandhurst and weapons and tactics expert Mike Loades were on hand to set the scene in terms of the wide sweep of history, the reason this battle was fought when it was, and they also kept us supplied with educational snippets about the correct employment of the Roman pilum or Dacian falx or what have you. As the battle unfolded, they would offer a running commentary, complimenting or criticising the players for the benefit of the viewers at home. At the end of the battle, they told us how things actually turned out.
The King is Dead. Long Live the King!
After a long absence from our screens, the show has returned. There have been some changes. In addition to our experts in the studio, some re-enactors in an indoor riding arena (I think) gave us some delightful demonstrations of bashing people with wooden swords, and how effectively a pilum penetrates a shield, and how useless it is for throwing back after it's been thrown once.
More signally, the teams have been cut to three (a general and two captains), and no longer play against an AI. This excellent change to the situation sees the teams playing against one another, each on opposite sides of a huge screen (or rather pair of screens) dividing them. As before, they get to fight a skirmish prior to the main battle, and this is still against an AI.
The Battle of Zama
In the first episode, a team of nerdy Southern board gamers took the field as Scipio's Roman army against three Scottish wrestlers. The production team deserve congratulations for this delightful match-up of two very different teams. It isn't often one gets to watch a chap shouting "By Jupiter!" as he throws in his triarii! Both played a skirmish beforehand in which the Romans had to seize a small town from the Carthaginians, and I don't want to spoil that for you, because even that introductory bit was very amusing. After that they moved on to the main event.
It was truly fascinating to see how both sides reacted to the introductory skirmish. On the one side, ideas were reinforced, and on the other certainties were abandoned. Somewhat frustratingly, both sides responded to the situation with a surfeit of caution. I recalled a passage from Featherstone's Complete Wargaming, in which he remarks on the unreality of the wargame in which both sides "go gaily forth to meet one another", whereas in history one tends to have an attacker and a defender. The experts in the background remarked on the reasons why both sides should be rather more aggressive.
After the initial hesitation, things got a move on. I won't spoil it with any details, but it was just like the old days of this great show. A team would make a move that made sense to them. The experts would criticise their failure to notice this. I would expostulate to myself that they needed to do this or that. All too soon it was over. There are another two episodes, I understand, in this series, and - by Jupiter! - let's hope the viewing figures are as good as they need to be to justify to Auntie the recording of some more shows.
In conclusion, I want to say how wonderful it was to see Dr Lynette Nusbacher and Mike Loades back again. It just would not be the show it is without those two! If you want a rating out of 5, it's 5! If you have access to it, do watch it.