Imperium Romanum is one of those games that has a devoted following, but from it’s sheer size and scale can seem a little intimidating. But fear not! We saw the newest edition coming out from Decision Games whilst at Origins this year, and it looks beautiful! The map and counter graphics are gorgeous and the new box pristine. Doc was very proud of it and pointed me to Al Nofi, the designer, who graciously answered a few questions about the newest upcoming edition of this Ancient Epic.
Alexander: To get us started, let’s learn a little bit about yourself. Who is Al Nofi, and what is your background?
Al: Native NY-er, though of late my wife and I spend most of our time in Austin (I sleep in Austin, live in NY) – for the rest see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Albert_Nofi
Alexander: How did you get into wargame design?
Al: In high school, a friend introduced me to Avalon Hill’s Tactics II, around 1959, and like all gamers began tinkering with the rules, while looking for more. There wasn’t more, but the Brooklyn and NY Public Library research collection had some . . . C.A.L. Totten’s Strategos, Jane’s The Naval Wargame, Chamberlains’ Coast Artillery War Game, and even H.G. Wells’s Little Wars. So I began to gin up my own games, stealing freely from those, while snapping up new Avalon Hill titles as they came out. In college (Fordham ’65), I encountered one or two other gamers, and we even set up a wargame club (officially as a “Chess and Gaming Club). In the mid-‘60s I began contributing to the AH magazine, The General, and in that way ended up in touch with Jim Dunnigan, who was just then designing Jutland. Jim got me involved in the pre-SPI S&T. In 1966, as I was leaving for an extended sailing vacation in the Med, borrowed $100. When I got back, I discovered he had bought S&T, and I was suddenly “Director of Research.” Then came Renaissance of Infantry, which is a very funny story that we can talk about.
Alexander: What is your favourite wargame, and why?
Al: I really don’t have one…my primary interest in wargames is how they can help understand events. A reasonably well researched and well designed game, can through playing, trough light on the possibilities of the situation. But more importantly, designing a game can lead a researcher to find important, but often overlooked information that may be critical to developing a better understanding of the situation being examined. There’s a great story about Dave Isby’s Marne, that’s worth retelling.
Alexander: Who is a wargame designer that inspires you and your own designs?
Al: I guess JFD, because I was looking over his shoulder, as it were, when he was beginning to learn the craft himself, and later as we developed a working relationship at SPI, that integrates game concept with research, design, testing, art (courtesy Redmond Simonson), and final product.
Alexander: Imperium Romanum is now entering it’s third iteration, for those new to the game, what can they expect to find inside?
Al: It’s a wargame with some very challenging scenarios, as well as some almost impossible ones, which certainly reflects the actual historical circumstances. But, in a sense it’s also a tool for anyone interested in Roman history.
Alexander: Can you walk us through a bit of the history of Imperium Romanum?
Al: Oddly, I’m a mite vague on how I came to design IR I – which was subtitled “The Clash of Legions”. If I remember correctly, Dan Palter of West End Games asked me to do it. The first edition sold so well, Dan proposed a second, and with the help of Nick Quane as developer, and a lot of additional work, IR II came out – people loved the historical quotes, which many thought lent authenticity to the game. What almost everyone didn’t know was that the very first rules had footnotes, so I could keep track of the justification for them. IR II went out of print eventually, but remained popular in some circles, especially in Europe, where there are several clubs who play it, usually with house rules and such. Over the years people kept asking for a new edition, and that finally came about some two years ago when Decision agreed to the project. A lot of the changes in the game are the result of input from fans over the years, and especially those in Europe
Alexander: For Imperium Romanum veterans, what does the third edition provide in the way of improvements and additions?
Al: Additional scenarios have been added, and the older ones mostly revamped. The rules have been carefully rewritten, to improve clarity, with many corrections and adjustments based on comments by the fans. As an addition there are some alternative versions to several rules; for example, players can decide to collect taxes by provinces, or by individual cities – while using the city rule adds more bookkeeping, it’s also more realistic.
Alexander: The game comes with over 40 scenarios – which was the hardest historical situation to really put into a game form, and why?
Al: I did flow charts for all the scenarios, showing the movements of legions. The most difficult was the series of civil wars that began when Caesar crossed the Rubicon and ended with the victory of Antony and Octavian over Brutus and Cassius, eight years later. These were enormous conflicts, involving literally scores of legions, with campaigns sprawling all over the Mediterranean. Most of the scenarios only required a couple of sheets of paper to trace movements, but for the campaigns of 50-42 BC I ended up with a six foot by two foot graphic keeping track of a half dozen or so factions. Oddly, it’s the only flow chart that survives – in computerized format it’s over 500 MB!
Alexander: Which part of the game’s mechanics are you most proud of?
Al: Recruiting. It took a lot of research to figure out the ‘recruiting pool’ for various periods (even some seasoned Roman history buffs don’t realize how badly the population crashed due to epidemics that began in mid-Second Century, and recurred with greater frequency in the Third and later). Combat strength allocation and seasoning were was much easier – I cribbed some comments by Caesar on the relative qualities of recruits vs. veterans, and so forth.
Alexander: Was there anything that was too difficult to model in a game of this scale that you had to leave out?
Al: In IR I there was a tactical module, but apparently no one ever played it, so it was dropped for IR II. We couldn’t do it for this edition either. Perhaps if a computerized version could be ginned up…
Alexander: Doc over at Decision Games showed us the newest map and it looks gorgeous. In your experience how much do you think great artwork helps with immersion in a simulation and overall feel of a game like Imperium Romanum?
Al: Absolutely. Imagine playing IR with NATO unit symbols and maps? The counters and the map have a period feel, and that helps a great deal.
Alexander: Imperium Romanum is so much more than just a hex and counter wargame: Can you walk us through the intricacies of negotiation and alliances in the new edition and do you have any tips for diplomacy for the players?
Al: The earlier editions allowed for players some inter-layer diplomacy, but this has been strengthened with better rules, and even a recommendation that agreements be in writing – not because they’d be enforceable, but because people may misunderstand or mis-remember what was agreed upon.
Alexander: Players that enjoy logistics look like they’ll be well catered for, what can players expect from the supply rules, especially across terrain and weather types?
Al: There are a number of changes that try to make the logistical management easier, while as realistic as possible. From time to time special rules have been included in the scenarios to strengthen this.
Alexander: Here’s to a quick shout out to Decision Games: What’s it been like working with Doc and the gang and their storied history with making wargames?
Al: They’re very easy to work with. Virtually everything was done by email. Turn around on things – like questions about a rule change or art work — was quite good. I don’t think there was ever a notable snag.
Alexander: What’s your favourite memory from playing Imperium Romanum?
Al: When IR II came out, I was asked to introduce it to a wargaming club. So we laid out the game, and I ran through the rules. There were a few people present who knew the game, plus several more who wanted to try it, so they agreed to do one of the two-player civil war scenarios, with the seasoned players as supreme commanders, and the newbies as one or another of their named subordinates. They picked ‘The Triumvirs vs. the Assassins’, which has a lot of subordinate players on each side. One player wanted to play Sextus Pompeius, who was commanding a large fleet for Brutus and Cassius. As the scenario begins in December, I reviewed the weather rules, noting that it was a bad idea to put to sea in winter. So of course, the first thing this guy does, is put all his fleets out to sea, and for each he rolls a weather disaster – his comment was “This game sucks!” No amount of good design can overcome…
Alexander: When can fans expect to have this new edition on their tables?
Al: I believe it’ll be some time this fall, certainly before Christmas.
Alexander: Jumping the gun a little, but do you have any other projects on the horizon after Imperium Romanum’s release?
Al: I have some games I’d begun over the years but were never completed, including a more detailed game of the three great civil wars at the end of the Republic, but am currently working on a new book, Civil Warriors: Ordinary Americans in the Civil War, profiles (c. 500-1,500 words) about the experience of plain folks in the war, soldiers and sailors, housewives and swindlers, contrabands and blockade runners, poets and preachers. I’ve got about 200 ‘candidates’. A very few of them later attained some measure of fame, but are not noted for what they did in the Civil War, and a few had impressive connections, but had a story of their own about the war. I’m hoping to end with maybe 125-130. I’ve also been working on a book about the military experiences – or lack of same – of the presidents, perhaps to include their military actions during the presidencies.
Alexander: And finally, what would be your recommendation for reading material for us as a primer to playing this expansive game?
Al: Wow! There are a ton of good books, with some outstanding material coming out in the last few years. IR II had an extensive bibliography, which we chose not to repeat. Among recent books, for the novice there’s Mary Beard’s marvelous, witty, and subversive S.P.Q.R., and Adrian Goldsworthy’s scholarly Pax Romana: War, Peace and Conquest in the Roman World, which cover all of Roman history, plus in no particular order, Richard Alston’s Rome’s Revolution: Death of the Republic and Birth of the Empire, Patricia Southern’s The Roman Army, Peter Heather’s Rome Resurgent, Mark Hebblewhite’s The Emperor and the Army in the Later Roman Empire, AD 235–395, Stephen Dando Collins’s Legions of Rome, and Kyle Harper’s marvelous The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, and the End of an Empire, the most impressive treatment of the “Fall” to date. Just for fun, there’s also Peter Jones’s Veni, Vidi, Vici: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About the Romans But Were Afraid to Ask and Anthony Everitt’s SPQR, A Roman Miscellany.
Thanks so much Al, there’s a lot to chew on here and some fascinating reading ahead!