posted 12/9/2010 by Tom Bitterman
other articles by Tom Bitterman
Bronze bills itself as a historical strategy game.  You are put in charge of a series of Bronze Age civilizations in Mesopotamia and must survive a series of challenges.  Lex talonis is definitely the law around here.  There is no negotiation, there will be no trades, you will make no alliances.  There can be only one.

Sounds great, no?  Right now the reader probably has visions of thundering chariot charges and hordes of raging Hittites screaming across the screen in full 3D.  Enemies will be crushed underfoot while their women lament their fate!

Well, no.  Bronze is a turn-based strategy game that would be equally at home as a board game.  The primary game mechanic is placement of tiles on a game board.  Even the historical character is largely incidental, mostly shaping the terrain types of the historical map.  It is nice to know that the Assyrians settled in Place X where there were a lot of hills, but the game could easily be “Settlers of Mars” and that would have no effect on play.

So what is Bronze, exactly?  The best way to describe it is to go through the game mechanics so we can see it better.  First we will take a brief look at the strategic map, then a longer look at the tactical map, where most of the action happens.

The strategic map is a map of ancient Mesopotamia, divided into squares.  Some of the squares are special in that they offer the potential for combat on the tactical map.  All other squares are non-playable and one can ignore them.  The player can choose to engage in battle in any square on which they have an entry point.  Winning a tactical battle in a square rewards the player with entry points on all squares adjacent to that square.  The more entry points the better, so sometimes one can make hard battles easier by winning nearby battles, thereby surrounding the troublesome square.  In the campaign, your civilization wins its phase by winning all the available tactical battles.

The tactical map is where most of the action happens.  The map is a square grid.  Each square has three properties: terrain, ownership, and building type.  At the beginning of a battle the terrain for each square is set, each side owns one square per entry point (max 3 per side, 4 total) and no other squares are owned..

Players (human and AI) then take turns placing tiles.  The rules for tile placement are simple:
  • if a square is empty, and it touches a square you already own, you may place a tile on it.
  • if you own a square, and it does not have a building on it, you may place a building on it.
  • if an opponent owns a square you may not place a tile on it.
  • Terrain may dictate what type of tile may be placed in a square.
  • In any case, you must be able to pay the cost of the tile you want to place
  • Play continues until the player that owns the fewest squares can no longer place a tile.  The winner is the player that owns the most squares.

The first thing to do upon entering the tactical map is to assess the terrain.  Different terrain types provide different advantages.  Lots of silver deposits, for example, make for easy money, and therefore more expensive buildings can be placed.  Deserts are the exact opposite – they provide no money.  Mountains cannot be built upon at all and make for strategic choke points to the player that can get there first.

The next thing is to start deciding which tiles to place, and where.  Tiles come in two basic families:  ownership tiles and buildings.  Ownership tiles come in two flavors: simple ownership and farms.  Simple ownership counts toward victory but is otherwise not all that useful.  Farms provide money when placed, which is nice.  As a bonus, you can always build a building on a tile that you own in this fashion.

Buildings are where all the fun is.  Each building has an effect on the surrounding squares and/or tiles.  This effect is generally to change the ownership of said squares and/or tiles.  For example, placing a Town will convert all adjacent unclaimed tiles over to your ownership.  Placing an Army will convert all enemy tiles (except Farms) over to your side.  Strategic use of buildings to grab land and convert your enemy's land, while preventing your enemies from doing the same to you, is the heart and soul of the game.

It sounds easy enough – just place lots of Armies, Towns, Palaces, Citadels, and the like.  The problem is all the cool buildings cost money, and the cooler the building the more it costs.  The solution is to lay tiles that provide money.  For example, placing a farm provides a little money.  Placing a mining village provides more, or a whole bunch if a juicy mineral deposit is nearby.  There is an opportunity cost to placing a revenue-generating tile: other than money, they provide little or no advantage on the map itself.

The task before the player is now clear.  One must determine the most valuable squares, claim them before the opponent does, convert the opponents' tiles to your ownership while simultaneously resisting his attempts to convert your tiles, all while judiciously slowing progress to raise the money to finance it all.

Hey!  Wait a minute.  That sounds like fun.  And what do you know?  It is.  Despite the lack of 3D chariots, even with the lack of lamenting, there is a good game here.  “Bronze” does not have the complexity of, say, “Europa Universalis”, but it neither needs nor wants it.  What it does have is a set of simple rules, well put together and balanced, that lay bare the bones of the strategic decisions at hand.

There really is not much to not like about this game.  The graphics are a bit primitive.  It fits more comfortably into the “casual” than the “hardcore” market despite its depth.  The actual historical content, after being heavily featured in its description, is minimal.  There is a definite Eurogame feel that some gamers may not find to their taste.  The only thing keeping it from a higher score is its limited scope – one feels like one could play this game perfectly.

As a side note, the AI is good, but I cannot see why it isn't perfect, or near so.  The game tree is well-defined at any point and a simple min-max search (with maybe a little alpha-beta pruning thrown in) would seem to do the trick.  Even solving the various maps looks possible.

* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company for review.

Buy two. If you buy one for the casual gamer in your life you will just end up fighting over it. For the sake of your friends and loved ones, I beg you, buy two.