Friday, June 9, 2023

The Ancient Art of War: Islands of Doom

I'm happy to say that The Ancient Art of War finishes strong with a challenging island map that feels more like a puzzle than most.

Your opponent is Genghis Khan, and the rules for this map are:

  • Forts supply units, but not food.
  • Farms supply food at medium range.
  • Fog of war, but with a long line of sight.
  • Water is for all intents and purposes impassable.
  • Uniquely to this map, your men begin in bad shape


Khan begins by sending his northernmost unit southward and along multiple bridges to attack my west fort. This is a long march, but Khan's men move quickly without tiring.

My units in the north are the only ones currently in a position to do much, and the fort just to the south is weakly guarded, so I charge it, timing carefully to avoid Khan's warpath, and leaving two men behind to watch the fort and farm.

The opening clashes illustrate a curious mechanic of Ancient Art of War - when units clash, you may command the fight yourself, or allow it to auto-resolve, and occasionally it's better to let it auto-resolve.

For instance, when Khan's mixed unit attacks, your barbarians defending the fort are likely to disappoint should you take command.

But allow auto-resolution, and they'll probably win!


Is it an exploit, or is it simply using the best option that the game provided?

It can help with attacking forts too, and this is at least partly by design. Normally, when a fort is attacked, there are three ways the battle can work:

  • If both sides have archers, then they trade shots while the knights and barbarians stand by as meat shields. Whichever side runs out of archers first retreats.
  • If the defender has no archers, then there will be a fight inside the courtyard.
  • If the defender has archers and the attacker does not, then the defender's archers will take potshots at the attacker until they die or retreat.

But with auto-resolution, some other outcomes are possible:

  • A hopeless assault (i.e. one without archers) becomes successful because the auto-battle algorithm decided that the attacker won the numbers game.
  • Retreat is impossible - whichever side loses is eliminated. Should the computer make a futile attack, you might allow auto-resolution and deny them the chance to retreat. Though, this runs the risk of having the first scenario occur to your detriment.
  • While the fight goes on, a second unit sneaks into the fortress. If the defender wins against the first attacker, they must fight the second inside the courtyard. This tactic is certainly by design - the manual describes it. 

I used that last tactic to take the fortress. First I sent the barbarian unit in as a sacrificial pawn, followed immediately by everyone else. This is best done with the game speed set to maximum - movement speed is affected by it, but combat resolution speed isn't!

Following these battles, the map is a bit more open.

None of my units are in any condition to fight, but the second row of islands from the top is nice and wide open, leading a path to a farm and a flag! There is a fort of knights there, but it isn't in my way.

The southeast farm, though its flag has been changed to the enemy's, is now unguarded, giving my nearby units a chance to march in and get some much needed food and rest.

I issue a bunch of orders:

  • Two knights from the northern group split off and hobble over to the farm and flag to the west.
  • The rest of the knights go across the bridges to the south to join barbarians in the fort.
  • Archers in the north also cross the bridges to the west and stand guard near the fortified enemy knights.
  • One barbarian in the fort splits off and takes the farm to the east, depriving the nearby fortress of food.
  • The southern units go south to the farm.


And then I wait. The knights take a long time to reach their destinations. The southern units take a long time to rest. The enemy knights in the fortress take a long time to starve. Khan, thankfully, isn't overly aggressive for the next several minutes, but he has five unit-generating forts, and I only have three.

Eventually, my knights reach their destinations, and my units are well-rested.

The southernmost fort blocks the way to three of the flags I need, but my nearby units are in a great position to defeat it using the old sacrificial barbarians trick.

And then I realized something. I can win!

My surviving unit, consisting of 6 archers and 8 knights, splits up to get the remaining flags. The knights head west to the lone flag. A solitary archer heads north to get another two, And the rest of the archers head back east toward the fort guarding the last flag.

This plan is somewhat hampered by the sudden reveal of a task force guarding the west flag.

I retreat back to the southern fortress after capturing the two center flags, and then my northern fortress, which I cannot afford to lose, is attacked! Thankfully, it holds, though had Khan brought more archers - and he certainly has them to spare - it might not have.

I finally send my archers to attack his northmost fortress, totally starved by now, but at this point it's more retaliatory than anything that would yield strategic gain. Sun Tzu would not approve of the wanton slaughter.

Meanwhile, the penultimate flag defense force's condition has deteriorated, and my knights, rested and reinforced, do some serious damage.

My own archers finish them off and take the flag.

One last flag remains, in the east, guarded by two forts.

Both forts are well defended and supplied from the farm that they guard. Defeating either would require overwhelming force, and I have some reinforcements coming just in case they're needed, but sneaking past only requires coordination and timing. My archers, trapped on an island for the entire mission, though exhausted, starved, and useless for battle, are useful for one last distraction.

GAB rating: Good.

This is a tricky one to rate. War is a forward-thinking game, well anticipating much of the RTS formula to come, and yet also avoids being made completely obsolete by improvements to the formula - a fate that very much befell genre codifiers Dune II and Warcraft, in my opinion. Wargame-like aspects such as energy management and supply lines, which don't feature prominently in other such games, make War distinct, as does the potential for victory through deceit and cleverness rather than superior force.

At its best, I had as much fun with it as I with did any other game this year. But as wargame blogger Scribe observed, you have to chew through a lot of pumpernickel to get to the pastrami. Strategy games, more so than other kinds, are prone to becoming technically dated, and this is certainly one of them. The interface is a constant struggle, forcing you to use inadequate tools for navigating troops through the boundaries of difficult terrain and clumsy hotkeys to survey units' stats under the pressure of realtime gameplay. Mechanics can be wonky, straddling the line between unintuitive and broken. AI can be erratic, whether it's Sun Tzu abandoning a strong defensive position for no reason or seeing your archers do the shuffle dance shoulder-to-shoulder as an enemy unit half their size closes in and sticks them with the pointy end. Far too many of the maps are one-note gimmicks, though even the gimmick maps implicitly teach valuable lessons to use on the  good ones. And I'm still not really sure how supply lines work.

But I've said before that I can tolerate a lot of flaws in a game that offers me something interesting in exchange, and War definitely does. I haven't even touched on the scenario customization aspect, allowing you to fight any opponent on any scenario with any combination of rules that the engine allows, nor on the scenario creation program, a feature commonplace in the mid-90's but rare indeed in the 80's, which could provide limitless gameplay potential.

In the end, I enjoyed and recommend The Ancient Art of War, and consider it a standout title. It's certainly more accessible than any wargame I've covered yet, but not quite elegant enough nor deep enough to merit a harpoon.


  1. Evryware certainly were a moving target, but it seems likely that this was their peak!

  2. I said what ?

    I feel indeed that wargames are more likely to age due to UI issue than due to anything else, after all you are rarely playing them for art.

    I really would love for you to test Ancient Art of War at Sea (another commenter made the same comment I think). It was an extraordinary game, and I don't think it has any game doing the same thing even now.

    1. AlphabeticalAnonymousJune 9, 2023 at 4:11 PM

      Yes, 100x yes to WAS (War at Sea).
      Then please get a modern studio to commission a remake.
      And then while you're at it, a big studio to commission a multiseason Aubrey/Maturin series. ;)

      Because we all need more nautical fiction in my life...

    2. Long-time reader but first-time commenter here. I'd like to third a review of The Ancient Art of War at Sea. With its introduction of a separate, more action-oriented map and control mode for medium-range ship-to-ship combat, I think it's a big step up from The Ancient Art of War in terms of realism, playability, and enjoyment. I'd be curious to know how you think the two games compare.

    3. Wow, I'm kind of astounded that there's so much interest in coverage for the sequel! To be honest, I'm a bit war'd out right now, but perhaps in the future, when my brain has capacity for this stuff again, I'll give it the full DDG treatment.

    4. AlphabeticalAnonymousJune 13, 2023 at 11:58 AM

      I suppose it partly suggests that we commenters are all of a fairly similar age. And that if you don't give the game a thorough review... who will? No-one is demanding an immediate play-through, but it would be fun to see it added to the long-term list.

      Besides: Captain Ahab, of all people, should never be afraid of sailing on the high seas ;)

  3. Good memories of playing this game back in the day! Enjoyed the series. I was probably 11 or so when I got the game, I suspect I missed many of nuances.

  4. When I was a child, my parents had a copy of this game, and I perused the manual many times despite not having a computer that could play it. Sadly, once I actually had a computer that could play it (a birthday gift of an already-retro system in the early 90s), I was completely overwhelmed and made no headway in it. I still think about it--and Crazy Ivan--occasionally, though.


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