Press "Enter" to skip to content

Category: Review & Rating

Game #142: Rome and the Barbarians (1984)

[KRENtek Software, Commodore 64]

The box art is superb, particularly for a self-published game.

There is this meme going on that men think about the Roman Empire an average of three times a week, but that’s not something that I can back with data: out of the 90+ “history-based” games I covered, only 6 have been on the Roman Empire, compared to more than 50 about WW2. When they think about Rome however, game designers want to see it burn, given KRENtek Software’s Rome and the Barbarians is, after Emperor and The Fall of Rome, the third game about the Barbarian Invasions.

Before I start, I should state that this is my fifth “real” playthrough of the game – the first two were interrupted because the Atari version of the game randomly freezes at any point before 410 CE, my third playthrough (on Commodore 64) got lost shortly after completion when my computer broke down and the fourth one was ruined by a critical bug that makes the Barbarians stupid. I will come back to this bug later, but as you read this AAR please be aware that while the game may look easy, it is not. I am just well-trained.

A. Barbarians at the Gates (401 CE -404 CE)

Rome and the Barbarians starts in 401, 6 years after the Roman Empire has been divided between the Western and Eastern part. Unlike in The Fall of Rome (which started in 395), I only have to care about the Western part of the Empire, but well, it’s not looking so good at the moment:

401 CE – the map is 2 screens by 2 screens. Each city starts garrisoned by a Roman garrison [R] of various size. The 3 areas circled in pink are the recruitment centers – the only place in the map where Roman units are generated over time.

There are 6 Barbarian tribes on a collision course with Rome: the Saxons, the Burgundians, the Suevi, the Huns, the Vandals and the Visigoths. On my side, I have dozens of garrisons distributed in as many cities and the foederati, Barbarians tribes currently allied with Rome: the Franks, the Alani and the Alamanni.

The different tribes at the beginning of the game. The difference between “Roman Allied” and “Roman Employ” is that I control the latter. Roman Employ and the Romans themselves cost 2 in maintenance by strength point Roman Allied only 1

One front in particular requires my immediate attention: Italy. Italy represents 30% of my total revenue and furthermore Annonarian [Northern] Italy includes 2 of my 3 recruitment centres. I am facing 113 strength points of barbarians, and none of my Northern Italian garrisons has more than 10 strength points. My first order is to fall back and regroup in Florentia.

Regrouping my forces in Florentia. You move armies by simply drag-and-dropping them like in Eastern Front 1941.
The blue circle in the middle indicates where my mouse was – I forgot to remove the option when recording the game…

After that, years 401 to 403 are spent playing a game of chicken with the Barbarians. Defending a city gives a strong bonus, so I want the Vandals and the Visigoth to attack, but of course they also realize they won’t win so they remain in the North of Italy. In late 403, the Suevi – who had been loitering thus far – decide to join the fun and cross the Alps, forcing me to take direct control of the Alamanni and Alani (at a hefty cost), so they themselves join the Italian fun on my side. Everything comes to an apex in the first days of 404 CE when the Visigoths finally attack Florentia!

I won’t be showing who’s who in all the future screenshots because the situation is so fluid I often don’t know myself.
TOTL is the strength of the army. STAY is used to order some troops to remain behind, DISB is used to disband them. Over the course of the game, I disbanded more troops by mistake than by purpose.

In this massive clash, the Roman army retreats and the Visigoths prevail and take Florentia. But what a pyrrhic victory for them! They lost more than half of their army and their dream of taking Rome are over, at least for this decade.

I am only in a marginally better shape than the Visigoths, and now Italy is ripe for the sacking. The Suevi and the Vandals just have to head South, and there will be nothing I can do…

… except the Vandals and the Suevi are not THAT interested in Rome. You know what the Vandals really like? Tapas! Sangria! Flamenco! In one word: Spain! And so they pack their stuff and head West. I don’t know what the Suevi really like, possibly the Vandals, because they follow them into Gaul as well – they would not have been able to take Rome alone anyway. The Visigoths, now alone in Northern Italy, follow suit. The weak garrisons they left behind are quickly eliminated, and I reassert control of Northern Italy. Rome is saved. Gaul? Spain? Not so much, but that’s a problem for future me.

No German nudists in Rome under my watch – though the beaches of Spain are not safe yet!
The Sack of Rome by Joel-Noel Silvestre, 1890

B. The Foederati (404 – 408 CE)

With the emergency in Italy behind me, I can take stock of the general situation. The Suevi, the Visigoths and the Vandals are accounted for, leaving me to check the Huns, the Saxons and the Burgundians.

  • The Huns are the most inoffensive. There aren’t a lot of them, and all they do is occasional probing attacks on my recruitment centre in Aquileia. They’re irritating because I need to keep a strong garrison there, but nothing more. You won’t hear about them for a long time,
  • The Saxons are not too dangerous either. While the events in Annonaria unfolded, the Saxons have been crossing the North Sea in small groups to land in England. But I left England fully garrisonned, so the Saxons bounce between cities before crossing the Channel in tiny groups that don’t represent a threat but clutter my map. I detach some troops to block the Channel in the future so the survivors don’t cross alive, and then ignore England for most of the game. I will never mention the Saxons again.
Theoretically, I could occupy the Saxon home base and end their crossings, but I determined that this caused the bug I mentioned earlier: not being able to trigger the “crossing” AI logic presumably blocks all AI logic from triggering, and then the only thing ALL the Barbarians do is a Tour de France without trying to hold anything.
  • Finally, the Burgundians are the most threatening. While my attention was focused elsewhere, they kept themselves busy: they crossed the Rhine and pushed until they reached Lutetia [Paris]. This triggered a reaction of the Franks, who decided they would also love to visit Lutetia, the most beautiful city in the world, and well since Lutetia is not Roman anymore it’s fair game. This is the start of a chain of actions and counter-actions, and without any input of mine, the Franks are placating the Burgundians on their own.

The Huns, the Saxons and the Burgundians being either irrelevant or taken care of, I can focus my attention on the Vandals, Visigoths and Suevi dashing toward Spain. The Vandals, leading the Barbarian forces, occupy every city in the way, always leaving behind them small garrisons, weakening their main group. They are followed by their barbarian buddies, then by my smaller Roman army and finally by the Alani and Alamanni, now independent forces. I am too short of cash to keep the Alani and Alamanni under my direct control, but they decided on their own to follow the Barbarians, because just like with the Franks the revenue of any city they “liberate” will fill their coffers, not mine!

I am not quite sure what happened next: after giving some orders to my armies in the area, I tour the Empire to solve some issues near Italy and in the North of Gauls.

“L” represents local rebels fighting against all sides. They are weak and only a threat to undefended cities or cities with a garrison of one. In the rare cases where they take a city, they hold it and stop loitering.

When I return to Spain, the Alani are no more, the Suevi are neutralized and the Vandals a lot less threatening:

Barbarians with a star next to their number will always refuse to switch sides. That status can change if they are decisively defeated, as the Vandals, Suevi and Visigoth were – except for the Saxons which will remain hostile until the end of the game.

I suppose that the Alani and the Alamnni met the Suevi in the field and, as a result, the small Alani tribe was annihilated and the Suevi crippled. Meanwhile, the Vandals must have met my army and lost.

In any case, while the Suevi head North and out of my scope, the Vandals and the Visigoths continue their operations in Spain, but now I have enough forces locally to attack them. I want to destroy them before they can regrow: barbarian tribes gain soldiers quickly, whereas my reinforcements are generated slowly and must march from Italy. The Spanish campaign continues for one more year, until eventually both tribes are brought down to the low 10s. Victory is at hand… or is it?

Situation one year later. Each Barbarian tribe has a “maximum” population. The Vandals are on the verge of extinction because they really want to settle in Spain and I really don’t want them to settle in Spain, whereas the Franks who ended their feud with the Burgundians are at their maximum of 40. You can also see I paid the Huns and sent them to Greece.

C. Chaos in Gaul (408-433 CE)

In late 408, the unthinkable happens, and the Franks switch sides!

Many of the “Barbarian” units on the map are those irritating tiny Saxon groups with only 1 or 2 strength points inside.

It came out of the blue when I was playing, but using video arbitration I understood what happened: after several years of wars against the Burgundians, the Franks finally settled on the Rhine in two different locations taken from the Burgundians: Moguntiacum [Mainz] and Colonia Aggrippinensis [Cologne], where the bulk of their army was situated. The Burgundians, for their part, settled in Lutetia but also, more recently, in Burdigalia [Bordeaux], a situation I need to solve if I don’t want the job of oenologists in the future to be irrevocably difficult.

The remains of the Suevi army, coming from the South after being vanquished by the Alamannis in 407 CE, attacked Mainz, and there defeated the small Frankish garrison. Losing a city is one of the reasons that can make Foederati doubt Rome, and maybe aware that most of my forces were in Spain, the Franks defected.

The Franks quickly swept all my remaining cities on the Rhine (including my recruitment centre in Augusta Treverorum [Trier]), and along with the Burgundians they represent a force of the same order of magnitude as the one I faced in Italy.

My own armies are divided into many small groups because I was trying to eliminate the last Vandals while placating the other tribes, but now I need to react to the developing situation in Gaul. I offer to the Vandals, the Visigoths and the Suevi an alliance under my control, and I send them with my army North to fight the Frankish-Burgundians.

I would be pointless to describe every operation of the war. Suffice it to say that the Visigoth and the Suevis are both decisively defeated by the Burgundians and the Franks, which makes them leave my side and add to the confusion. The Vandals, however, shine and become my shock troops. Around 415 CE, the war reaches its end: the Burgundians try an ill-advised crossing of the Alps and lose their army to mine, while the Vandals are powerful enough to be sent alone to face the Franks on the Rhineland.

The manual advises to use the mountains as good defensive positions, but I don’t see the point when the cities are just as good.

The following years is a series of mop-up operations, and in 423 CE I control directly or through my Foederati all the Empire again.

The Empire restored, I try to eliminate the surviving Barbarians, and I get rid of the Suevi forever in late 423 and of the Franks in 427. I would love to say that my only remaining problems are the Visigoths and Burgundians, but in reality my main problem is more and more becoming the Vandals and the Alamannis.

At -51 gold by revenue impuse and with 44 in reserve, I must downgrade the Vandals right now, lest I experience bankrupcy: loss of all my Foederati and massive Roman rebellions in all the Empire.

D. Betrayals and rebellions (433-450 CE)

By 433, the Alamannis and the Vandals have been playing whack-a-mole with the other Barbarians for more than 5 years. The “moles” are in no shape to fight back, so over time the two Foederati tribes have grown back to their maximum: respectively 30 and 50. That’s costly to maintain, and I have to downgrade them from “Roman Employ” to “Roman Allied”. Still, this is not enough to be cash-positive, and my funds dry up quickly.

I am a ruthless Roman, so the solution is obvious. Assemble a large army, then end peace with the Alamanni and destroy them in combat.

There was one problem however:

The R on the map represent Rebels, as I was about to attack the Alamanni homebase in Tarraco [Tarragona]. For now, it is one large army, but it will quickly spread out.

My large army turned into rebels in the few seconds separating “ending peace with the Alamanni” and “attacking the Alamanni”.

I like to see the good and the bad in every situation. The glass half-full view of the situation is that with 30+ strength points of Romans and 30 strength points of Alamanni out of my P&L, I am suddenly massively cash-positive, so I can pay to control the Vandals again.

The glass half-empty view of the situation is that I don’t have an army any more, and since the Foederati under your control never accept to split theirs, I can’t possibly squash the rebels and Alamanni fast enough.

Gaul falls into chaos for the second time, with one half under Rebel control and the other half under Alamanni control. The good news is that the Rebels are still at war with the Barbarians, and somehow they eliminated the Visigoths forever.

Rebels can spread out quickly and “convert” your forces, but unlike the other factions they can’t recruit new soldiers.

Starting in 438, I am satisfied with the forces I slowly accumulated and counter-attack, quickly retaking the Gallic cities I had lost. I am confident the Barbarian and Rebel Invasions should end soon, except they don’t because in 441 the Vandals decide to switch sides for some unfathomable reason, and Gaul is lost again!

Every time a city is taken, it may be pillaged, which decreases its tax value. At this point in the game, Gaul is worth a lot less than in 401 CE.

With close to 50 strength points of Vandals taking the field, guess who I make my new besties? The Alamanni and the Burgundians, of course!

The number of Roman units I can use collapsed from 213 [cost = 426] in 427 CE to 153 [cost = 306] in 442 CE. As I said, replacements are slow, and over the course of the game the available forces will decrease – I have to slice the salamis of my garrisons every time thinner to field my armies.

The Alamanni and the Burgundians are depleted, so their contribution is marginal, but then I am also depleted so there is no way I can match the Vandals on the field. I split my smallish army in two. The first half harasses the Vandals by taking the poorly defended garrisons. While it does not really dent their forces (with so many cities, they regenerate quickly), it keeps their main Vandals busy, which is good, because idle Vandals plan travels to Spain or Italy. With the other force, I siege the Rebel cities one after the other. Instead of retreating, defeated Rebels become loyal again, so this is net positive in terms of men. I am however only partially successful in this strategy: in 450CE I have recovered the South-Eastern Gaul and the Rhine, but I lost part of England to the Vandals.

If you wonder why I have left two Rebel garrisons in Northern Spain, it is because the game is in real-time and I never found the time to do it!

Hey! Who’s that?

E. A new challenger appears (450-460 CE)

In 450 CE, Attila and his horde appears in the East, as a mega-stack of 80+ strength points of Huns.

The 92 Hunnic Strength Points include 80+ in a new army that appeared on the border of the map and around 10 in the old army I have more or less ignored so far.

That’s a lot – at this point my main army is 40 strength points strong, with roughly 100 strength in garrison duty and 20 strength points in transit or waiting in the recruitment centres. What saves me is that the Huns don’t abide by the same rules as the other Barbarians: they don’t leave garrisons, and they attack everyone else, including the Barbarians hostile to Rome!

I abandon the Rhineland as the Huns are approaching, letting them ransack the place in 451-452 CE, where they exterminate the Alamanni till the last man. In 453 CE, they move to Western Gaul, and they kill Vandals there until 455 CE, at which point they move South toward Burdigalia, leaving behind a no-man’s-land separating Rome and the Vandals’ last cities in Southern England.

The small yellow pixels are the cities – they are rarely visible.

They loot Burdigalia, and then return to Northern Gaul for a few more years. Meanwhile, I have reoccupied the Rhineland and squeezed the last available strength points from my garrisons. When the Huns return to Burdigalia in 460 CE, I am ready with a mixed Roman-Burgundian force: this will be our Catalaunian Field, but this time we only invited the Burgundians.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 460Decisive.png
I did not catch the beginning of this combat, but it was around 65 Romans and 15 Burgundians against 75 Huns

The Burgundians receive so many losses that they defect, but as I explained the Huns never update their IFF so they keep hitting the Burgundians, who ultimately go the way of the Alamanni. As for the Romans, I lost “only” a quarter of my army before the Huns fall back with two-third of their.

This is a victory, and victory against the Barbarians means they are willing to discuss – so guess who become my new Foederati?

Rome and the Barbarians still has 16 years to run, but it could just as well end there. I use the Huns to eliminate the Vandals from the map and with no enemy left except the irrelevant Saxons who will never make peace with Rome nor disappear (new Saxons appear out of thin air if it happens), the size of my army soars. Meanwhile, the size of the Hunnic army stagnates as it is already above maximum. In 472 CE, I betray and defeat them decisively, bringing them to manageable numbers. When the game ends in 476 CE, the Huns are still around, but I control all the cities and I finish with the highest ranking possible!

According to the manual, a score between 830 and 900 (the maximum) gives you the title of Caesar

I have won the game, but it was intense from 401 to 460 CE. In my first complete playthrough, I lost England, the Rhineland, all of Gaul except Massilia, had to chase the Visigoth from Southern Italy and Sicily and only managed to control Spain after the Vandals over-extended and I counter-attacked from North Africa. What made the difference, I believe, is that I had to endure only one rebellion, against 5 or more in my previous game. I learned the hard way to keep my armies small (20 strength points maximum), only regrouping them for decisive battles. That’s probably what made the game look easy, but again it is not.

Ratings & Reviews

Rome and the Barbarians by Steve Krenek, published by KRENtek Software, USA
First release: June 1984 on Atari 8-bits
Genre: Grand strategy
Average duration of a campaign : 3 hours
Total time played: 12 hours
Complexity: Average (2/5)
Rating: Three stars
Ranking at the time of review:  5/137

If you want to test Rome and the Barbarians yourself, you need to use the Commodore 64 versions (all existing Atari versions will freeze before 410 AD) and NOT attack the Saxon homeland (it kills the AI routines)

Context – Rome and the Barbarians is the only non-Napoleonic game ever released by Steve Krenek, whom I introduced with its much weaker Napoleon at Waterloo. There is little else I can say on the game or on the company, so let’s move directly to the review.

If I impressed you with my knowledge of ancient Roman cities, that’s because they are in the manual.

Traits – Facially, Rome and the Barbarians is simple: the economic loop is straigthforward (own cities, generate gold, pay soldiers), the warfare even simpler (strength points you allocate freely), yet it manages to be an interesting strategy game with realistic outcomes. This is because real-time forces you to focus your attention on one front while hopefully the garrisons delay the barbarians on the others, but also thanks to all the hidden rules that make the game shine.

The most impactful is the way the Barbarian factions behave: they each have their long-term objectives (Spain for the Vandals, the South of Italy for the Visigoths, Northern France for the Burgundians – I am less sure for the other factions) but they are also opportunistic and try to seize poorly defended cities near them. This also applies to the “allied” (but not “controlled”) Barbarians, which can move on their own initiative. The fact that Barbarians always leave garrison behind their conquests (except the Huns!) makes them lose their steam over time, but also gives them many locations from which they can regrow after being defeated. The “local” forces and the rebel Romans also have their own logic. As all those factions can fight one another (enemy non-Hunnic Barbarians are always allied, but local rebels, Roman rebels and Barbarians fight one another) the situation remains lively and organic for most of the game.

I also find the diplomacy simple but effective: you must use the Barbarians to defend Rome, but you can never trust them completely – though if you “respect” them (don’t remove them from cities they control, don’t send them to die in battles they can’t win) they are unlikely to defect. However, allied Barbarians that are successful are increasingly costly, so you will also be increasingly more likely to betray them over time – so maybe you’ll want to send them to die in battles they can’t win after all. That’s really well done for a system with so few moving pieces.

You’ll get the superb AI ONLY if you don’t do the easy and logical move at the beginning of destroying the Saxons with the Franks.

Besides some UX issues, my main gripe with Rome and the Barbarians is that it is about eliminating the latter, not managing them. First, it is not that fun to micro-manage your armies to destroy that last remnant of a Barbarian tribe, but more generally I reckon the game should not have allowed the elimination of Barbarian tribes in the first place – something it actually did for the Saxons. This would have rebalance diplomacy and warfare in favour of the former, and made the game challenging until the end. While I am on the wishlist, I would have loved to have the Eastern Empire represented – there were after all occasional wars between the two factions. Similarly, the Rebels are not ambitious enough: they should have been able to recruit their own troops and try to march on Rome. Instead, they take as many cities as their starting strength allow them, and then hold their position until you come back knocking.

Did I make interesting decisions? Yes, often. A lot of time was unfortunately spent micro-managing armies so they follow or counter a barbarian force.

Final ratingThree stars. Rome and the Barbarians is a Crawfordian game and one of the best wargames I have played for this blog.


I was impressed by Rome of the Barbarians, but alas the game went largely unnoticed, with only a trickle of reviews, none of them in Computer Gaming World despite KRENtek software advertising there for more than a year!

Reviews were good but measured. Jim Bumpas writing for the Atari Computer Enthusiast Newsletter in September 1984 states “You don’t believe you need to be a wargame enthusiast to enjoy this well-done game”. In December 1984, Bob Cockcroft for ROM Magazine called it “an interesting simulation […] both challenging and enjoyable, positive but not enthusiastic. His main criticism was the use of a “multi-screen system”, by which Cockcroft means the force assignation and diplomacy menus: “the player should not be forced to divide his attention from the main map display.” I find interesting that both reviewers complained about the game being too fast – back then gamers’ average action-per-minute was probably fairly low.

Steve Krenek did not like having to resort to multi-screen either.

The two strongly positive reviews came from Evan Brooks’ list of all existing wargames (Computer Gaming World, November 1985): “Three stars Easy game mechanics coupled with difficult strategic decisions make this a real player. Recommended it for the aficionado.”) and from Michael Ciraolo (Antic, January 1985), who reckoned the game was a masterpiece. I am disappointed there were not more.

That’s all for Rome and the Barbarians, a wargame that never received the attention it deserved. Steve Krenek will return with two more games, but not before 1986 and his Napoleon in Russia: Borodino. I don’t know yet what will be the next game, but I can guarantee we return to the modern era!

1 Comment