Reviewed by Pevans
THE ROMANS (Ragnar Brothers, 1 to 4 players, ages 14 and up, 90-150 minutes; £50)
The title of this game designed by the Ragnar Brothers (Gary Dicken and Phil and Steve Kendall) rather gives away its subject matter: yep, it’s the Roman Empire. What it doesn’t tell you is that each player has their own version of the empire, on their own board (and it’s a sizeable board, too). Over five Eras, players extend the Pax Romana by defeating the natives in province after province. However, in the second half of each era, the barbarians attack, pillaging Roman cities and wresting back control of provinces from The Romans.
Income from conquered provinces provides more legions to expand further – taking the remotest areas – and to defend against the barbarians. Get it wrong and the barbarians sack Rome (as has happened to me several times). They may well do this in the final era anyway, as the game mirrors the rise and fall of the historical empire. Indeed, the last two eras see players spreading Christianity across their empire.
What fuels all this, in game terms, is earning victory points. No surprise there. Players score points through the game and then get a whole heap more at the end. And points come from extending your empire to the remotest parts of the map, building (Christian) cities and achieving goals (“Glory” objectives) along the way. Having your Rome sacked subtracts points. Oops!
So, let’s take a closer look at the game. Every player’s board shows the same map (southern Europe, north Africa and the near east around the Mediterranean), divided into provinces that may be conquered by the Romans as they spread out from Latium. However, each map has slightly different connections between some areas. Only one has Mauritania and Ægyptus without mountains between them, for example. However, the key difference is which provinces produce what resource when they’re taxed. This income is one incentive to conquer provinces.
As well as the individual boards, there is a central one (actually a cloth, in a nod to the Ragnars’ early games which featured cloth boards) where players place their senator counters to take actions. Each action is in a different “building” and there’s (just) room in each for a senator from every player. However, the strength of the action depends on the position taken within the building and senators must be of the corresponding rank (or higher – though that’s less efficient, of course).
There are five initial buildings printed on the board. Four of these provide obvious actions: upgrade your senators, recruit legions, tax your provinces and buy cities, fleets and fortifications to place as you expand your empire. These cost resources and cash, of course. The fifth building, the Temple of Jupiter, lets players make an offering to the God associated with one of the other buildings. This gives them free upgrades/legions/income/stuff and/or scores points for what they have. However, you can only use this building if you control all of Italy. Here’s an incentive to conquer Italy first and be able to use this action – plus get the God’s other bonus.
A new building is added at the start of each era. Some of these provide different versions of the standard four, while others give ways of scoring points. The very first thing at the start of an era, however, is for players to choose a leader for their empire. The available leaders are shown on that era’s leader card and players choose in turn order. Depending on the leader, players get some gold and possibly a free city, fleet or fortification. Their leader also sets the maximum number of legions they can deploy with a general. Then players get a “Glory” objective: a province they’ll score points for if they conquer or build in it this era.
The meat of each era is when players, in turn, place a senator in a building and take the applicable action. Or they can flip over the counter to show a general and march into a new province with a bunch of legions (this is when that maximum number of legions matters). Only when everybody’s played their senator/general are these attacks resolved, flipping over the barbarian counter in the province to reveal its strength. I won’t go into the detail of the combat system, but players need to have a force that’s several points stronger to be reasonably confident of winning. Success means garrisoning the new province with a legion and marching (or sailing) on to attack another. Failure means losing a legion and attacking again – though players can stop attacking at any point. A tactical point here is that you need to plan your campaign as you can find there’s nowhere else to move to.
This is particularly true of the three remote provinces: Britannia, Germania and Mesopotamia. These are also hard to control as they revolt every era. The incentive to conquer them is that each provides a “Triumph” tile which will score valuable points at the end of the game, a neat mechanism that means the first player to conquer each of these gets the biggest choice of Triumph tile so there’s a good reason to get there quickly – and then not worry about holding them as they’re too much trouble – even if you build a wall.
Once all players have used all their senators/generals, it’s time for the barbarians’ part of the era. Turn order is re-evaluated and then players choose which set of barbarians they want to face – in the same way as they chose leaders at the start of the era. The barbarian forces (for some reason they’re in Imperial purple – that’s just wrong!) attack provinces exactly as the Romans do and their aim is to sack cities.
Early on they appear in Italy, making their target often Rome itself, but then start from further afield. They also get stronger each era. Another incentive for conquering provinces is thus to provide a buffer to absorb the barbarian attacks and shield Rome. And the cities and fortifications you build add to the defensive strength of their province.
After the barbarian storm has been weathered, it’s time for a new era, with new leaders, a new building, new turn order (though my experience is that it doesn’t change that often) and new Glory goals. Note that some buildings introduce new senators for players, at the lowest rank. While you start with four senator counters, you’ll end the game with six or seven (depending on just which buildings appear). And eras 4 and 5 allow players to convert cities to Christianity so that they’re worth points at the end of the game – assuming the barbarians don’t sack them in the meantime, of course.
I’ve rather glossed over much of the detail, but this is a highly tactical game. You have a limited number of actions, so you need to plan out what you want to do and in what order – particularly when it comes to military campaigns. You’ll have noticed that there’s little interaction with the other players. Essentially, you’re building your Roman Empire on your own. There is some interference from the game (i.e. the barbarians), but not from your opponents.
Apart from placing senators in buildings. While there is always room for everybody to get a senator into any building (and you can only place one in each), the level is important. If your opponents have played level 4 and 3 senators to raise legions, you’re left with a 2 or 1 – or even using a 3 or 4 as a 2. Hence you also need to take account of what the others are up to when planning.
I have no problem with the multi-player solitaire nature of The Romans and am thoroughly enjoying the game. I do tend to get lured into going for Glory points early on. The problem with this is that it moves my legions away from Italy. I may gain the Glory, only to lose the points again when the barbarians sack Rome! Let that be a lesson to you. And one rule to be careful of (I keep forgetting) is that players can only get income from provinces outside Italy if they have a fleet in the appropriate sea. This makes players’ fleets more important than may seem to be the case at first. The Romans is a largely tactical, mid-level heavy, game. It gets 8/10 on my highly subjective scale. – – – – – – – Pevans
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