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Julius Caesar

[Block wargames from Columbia Games have often been reviewed in Gamers Alliance Report. Ironically, the first Columbia Game to appear in GA Report was a collectible war-related CARD game – Dixie – in the Spring 1995 issue. This review is the 9th for Columbia Games and the 678th for me! – – – – – – – Herb Levy]

(Columbia Games, 2 players, ages 12 and up, 1-3 hours; $64.99)

 

Reviewed by Herb Levy

julius1The Roman Empire has long attracted the attention of historians and, by extension, historical gamers. Capitalizing on that interest is the latest release from Columbia Games. This time, the focus is on the rivalry between Caesar and Pompey for power and control of the empire in the appropriately titled Julius Caesar: Caesar, Pompey and the Roman Civil War 49-45 BC.

Julius Caesar is by veteran designer Grant Dalgliesh teaming up with new designer Justin Thompson. As is typical with games in the “block” line, wooden blocks are used to represent leaders and forces (Legions, Auxilia, Equitatus [cavalry], Ballistas and Navis [warships]) by affixing labels to the blocks with 31 tan blocks representing Caesar and his forces, 31 green for Pompey and his troops and 1 blue block used to represent the beautiful – and treacherous – Cleopatra. There is a deck of 27 Action cards, 4 six-sided dice, a large map (on heavy cardstock) and 8 pages of rules.

The map depicts the Mediterranean area (divided into land and sea areas including several straits to link them). It also shows 11 cities worth 1 or 2 Victory Points (a total of 13 VPs in all). Controlling a city by having your forces there uncontested earns you that city’s VPs. Have 10 VPs at the end of a turn and you win the game!

Five “years” make a full game and each year consists of five turns. The game follows a similar play pattern found in other Columbia Games’ releases including Richard III (Winter 2010 GA REPORT) and Texas Glory (Summer 2009 GA REPORT) in using a combination of card play and block movement. The 27 Action cards are shuffled and each player dealt a hand of six. One of these is discarded leaving each player with a hand of five cards. One card played by each player each game turn. (When the fifth turn is over thus concluding a year in game terms, a Winter turn occurs. Once that is completed, all cards are reshuffled, another hand of six cards dealt and we do it all over again.)

Of the 27 Action cards, 7 are Events and 20 are Command cards. Event cards are powerful “one shot” occurrences. Depending on the card, you might be able to copy a card played by your enemy last turn or have an enemy block near one of your cities DEFECT to your side or receive extra movement or launch a surprise attack and more! Command cards are the more “nuts and bolts” of your military planning.

Command cards display two characteristics: Move and Levy. When each player reveals a card, the highest played Move value earns that player initiative. If the Move value is tied, Caesar gets the initiative. Should an Event card be played, that card goes into effect first. (Should both players play an Event, then both Events are cancelled and the game turn immediately ends!) Move values on a card (ranging from 1 to 4) allow a GROUP of blocks in any one location to advance one or two cities. Movement of land forces is generally done over roads as opposed to hex movement or area movement. Four blocks are able to move along a major road; two blocks can travel along a minor road. Two blocks is the limit when crossing straits; only one block if attacking. Land forces may move from one port to another friendly or unoccupied port across a friendly sea area (i.e. an area controlled by that player’s navis) at the cost of 1 movement point per block. Navis may move from port to sea. from sea to port or from sea to an adjacent sea. Each Levy value enables the player to add one step to an existing block in a “friendly” , that is, uncontested area OR “recruit” a new block from that player’s pool of forces, allowing the block to enter the fray at a step level of 1. Should opposing forces find themselves in the same city or sea, battle occurs.

julius2Block wargames, in general, excel at certain things. The concept of “fog of war”, where enemy forces are not sure of the strength of their opponent, is, as always, well done here. While both players can see the blocks advance and retreat, the abilities of the blocks are only revealed when a battle ensues. All blocks display a combat rating indicated by a letter (A, B, C or D) and a number (1, 2, 3 or 4) The letter determines attack order (an A block will fire before a B, a B before a C and so on) while the number indicates that block’s firepower. A roll equal to or less than a block’s firepower results in a hit on the enemy. Loses in strength are charted by rotating the block 90° to a weaker strength value. Should a unit be reduced to no strength, it is eliminated and returned to that player’s pool and cannot be levied for that year. Leaders, on the other hand, are permanently eliminated. The eliminated Leader block is given to the player who vanquished it and is worth 1 VP. (Each side begins with two Leaders with a third in reserve. If a Leader is eliminated, the third Leader becomes available to be built and deployed in any friendly city.) Rules covering amphibious assault, supporting forces and retreat are also provided. The Cleopatra block is a little unusual. Although she starts on Pompey’s side, she is decidedly fickle and will fight for any side. If eliminated in battle, she IMMEDIATELY joins the other side at a strength of 1 (Cleo has a maximum strength of 4) and may join in on the very next battle turn. When all five Action cards have been played and the five turns concluded, a Winter Turn occurs.

During the Winter, certain things happen. First, Cleopatra goes home to Alexandria. If a player controls Alexandria, she IMMEDIATELY joins that side at her current strength. All Navis at sea move to a friendly port. If no friendly port is available, those blocks are disbanded (but may be rebuilt later in the game). Now, blocks must be checked to be “in supply”. All cities can support three blocks; cities with VP values can support additional blocks equal to the VP value. For example, Genoa can support 3 blocks; Rome (with a VP value of 2) can support up to 5. Unsupported blocks are disbanded (but may be rebuilt and redeployed later). Now, players check to see if they have the necessary Victory Points to win. If not, the next game year begins. If it is the final (fifth) turn and no one has the needed number of VPs, then the player with the most VPs claims victory. Still tied? Then the game is a draw.

Despite what you might think based on the title, it is Pompey who has an edge at the start for when the game begins, Pompey has 7 VPs and Caesar only 1. But the perceived advantage is not the reality. The game turns out to be quite balanced as Pompey needs to maximize his advantage quickly while Caesar can turn the tide if he is able to stall Pompey and utilize his growing strength to gain control of vital areas. Anytime you add card draws to a game, you increase the luck factor there and this is certainly true here. However, luck is mitigated since players are allowed to discard one of the six cards dealt, decide in what order to play the cards held (and, of course, being able to change the order as the situation warrants) and run the risk of having a powerful Event card cancelled is both you and your opponent decide to unleash its power on the same turn! Giving the Action cards the names of Roman gods adds to the atmosphere. The tactile treat of moving those colorful blocks across the map is a pleasure too. The map is large and pleasing to the eye and certainly serves its purpose although a mounted map would have been nice. This graphic package should certainly please “old time” wargamers but is pleasing enough to entice new converts to the genre, aided by the rules which are only 8 pages long and liberally sprinkled with sidebar notes and examples which are clearly laid out, helping to keep the learning curve to a minimum.

Julius Caesar serves as a good introduction to block style wargaming with its easy to read rules, graphic excellence and balanced and challenging gameplay.

 


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