In this series of Action Points we are taking a look inside The Age of Iron and Rust expansion for Time of Crisis from GMT Games. The game is a lite wargame focused on the Crisis of the Third Century AD in the Roman Empire and uses cards and deck-building to move the action along.
In Action Point 1, we examined the tactical advantage provided by the Military card Spiculum. In Action Point 2, we took a look at two cards, the Senate card Triumph and the Populace card Demagogue. In Action Point 3, we examined two Populace cards designed to get your Governors into seats of power, including Mobile Vulgus and Ambitus.
In this final Action Point, we won’t be looking at any new cards. The expansion provided 9 new cards but also gave players an AI Bot to be able to play multi-player games when 3 or 4 players can’t be gathered. So we will take a brief look at the system and show you a bit about how it works.
The AI Bot is supposed to be used by players to create a full faction 4-player game when you are missing friends at game night. Why have they gone to this effort when the game is a very serviceable and well designed 2-player game? Well it’s because it was really intended as a 4-player game and the true genius comes out of the design at the full player count.
The game provides 3 different Non-Player Faction mats that are supposed to simulate the actions of a human player and the contents of their deck of cards without using the actual cards. I was surprised by this as the game is focused on cards but it actually works out very well.
When it is the Bot’s turn, they will have a certain amount of points to spend in two areas of influence. This simulates very well what a human player typically does as they will normally choose two different colors of cards in their hand of 5 in order to get the most utility out of actions. The type of influence they will use will be determined by the mode box along the left side of the the mat that is selected for the Bot. One of these areas of influence will be denoted as your primary focus, which simply means it will provide more points to spend, and the other area will be denoted as secondary, providing less points to spend.
The designers took great care to develop this system so that each of the three Bots provided will have a very different focus for their desired area of influence. This focus can readily be figured out by looking at the top influence area on the mat. The three AI Bots are characterized as Emperors from the Year of Six Emperors (238 AD) – Pupienus & Balbinus prefer Senate Influence, Gordian III prefers Populace Influence while Maximinus Thrax prefers Military Influence (with a name like that were you expecting anything else?). The Bots will generally increase their available power in their preferred area the fastest and will therefore have more to spend on actions of that type and will use a focused strategy.
Bots will always take their turns first followed by the human players. They will be subject to Events and must roll for a crisis check just like other players. Then the work starts for each of the Bots. I say work because it can be a bit overwhelming to have to play more than one AI. One was very simple but get two in the game and it starts to require some focus.
Determine Available Influence
First thing to do is to determine how much influence an AI Bit has to spend this turn by following the table found on the left side of the mat above the Mode section shown above. The Players will first place the AI Bot’s mode marker for the turn according to the following priorities:
Pretty simple as you can see. You just follow the table down until you find what is the current situation facing the AI and the Bot will then follow a set of guidelines to take certain actions to address that concern.
On the first turn, we follow the table down until we see that the Bot matches none of the stated situations and then places its marker in Mode 1. Why is it doing this? Well it is typically only the case at the start of the game as there typically is nothing vexing them right away and being in Mode 1 will cause them to begin building their preferred influence. Senate will be his Primary influence and Military will be his Secondary influence. In the case of Maximinus Thrax, a cylinder is placed in the top box below its Senate pawn, showing that it will have 3 Senate influence to spend this turn. A second cylinder is placed in the bottom box below its Military pawn, showing that it will also have 2 Military influence to spend this turn. If the boxes chosen included the small circles with numbers you would also play an event. The events are listed on the AI player aid.
You then simply move the cylinders over to the Influence Point Track located on the right side of the mat in the number that corresponds with the value they were placed on. In this case, the Populace cylinder (Blue) gets placed in the 3 IP spot while the Military cylinder (Red) gets placed in the 2 IP spot. This simply means the Bot can spend as if it had 3 Populace IP’s and 2 Military IP’s. On to their priority sheet.
Spend Available Influence
Next, the Bot will attempt to spend all of its available influence using the AI Action Priority List on the AI instruction sheet. You will start at the top and proceed down the list going action by action, performing each one in order if the Bot meets the criteria and has enough available influence points to afford it. Subtract the cost of any action performed from the bot’s available pool and continue until you spend all available IP’s or reach the end of the list.
In the example used, Maximinus Thrax will attempt to place its available Governor in a province determined using Senate Influence and then will spend Military IP’s building a new Legion.
The trick to following the list of priorities is simply taking your time to examine the board and understand what each step is asking. Sometimes we found it was a bit confusing but overall we were able to use the Bots to have a great time. The Bot can be very aggressive and will typically do whatever it can to become the Emperor so once you have ascended to the throne be prepared to be attacked with impunity.
AI Buy/Trash Cards Phase
If you have played Time of Crisis you know that the game centers around improving your deck to get better and better cards with more impactful events and with higher Influence Point values. Players accomplish this by literally buying cards and tracking weaker ones to get them out of their decks. But remember, the AI Bot doesn’t use the cards but their actions are meant to simulate their decks. Instead of actually determining specific cards for the AI bot to buy or trash, the improvement of the bot’s deck is represented by determining if it can increase the value of one or more of its influence areas by moving the black cylinder to the next higher level. To do this, players will do the following steps in order at the end of the AI Bot’s activation (taken from the rules with some minor additional clarifying language):
• Any influence points the AI may have remaining are lost (just as they are for human players). Move all cylinders on the Influence Point Track to the 0 box.
• If the AI mode marker is on its +2 side, return it to its portrait side.
• Count up the AI bot’s available political points by counting the number of provinces it controls.
• In the top or its preferred influence area on the AI Bot’s mat, move the pawn one circle to the right if it can spend political points equal to the value in that circle. Subtract the political points spent from the Bot’s total to be spent this turn.
• If any political points remain, repeat this check for the other (non-preferred) influence area that is least developed. Ties will be broken in favor of influence that is located higher on the mat.
• If any political points remain after that, repeat this check for the third influence area.
• If the AI bot did not have enough political points to advance any of its three pawns, flip its AI mode marker to its +2 side. This is a form of a catch up mechanic that will give the AI Bot +2 political points to spend next round.
For example, at the end of its activation the Maximinus Thrax Bot has a total of 4 political points to spend. You will simply look at the top most or preferred Influence and see if 4 political points can get you an increase. The cost is located in the bigger circle at the top of the columns and as you can see it can purchase one slot in the Military Influence by moving a it’s black pawn from 0 to 2 and spending 2 political points. This leaves it 2 political points remaining and you then simply move down the column in order and see that it can purchase a 2 Senate Influence space for its remaining 2 political points. This Action simulates the purchase of cards by human players and will provide the Bot with more points to take actions in the next round as if they had purchased better cards.
Overall, this explanation of the Non-Player AI Bots in the game was woefully inadequate but does at least expose you to how it works, or should in theory. We found the Bots to be fun and a bit unpredictable at times which actually added to the theme of the game and its chaos as the Roman Empire was collapsing in on itself as everyone wanted to be in control. Whilst the methodology of the bots might sometimes seem suspect the outcomes of the AI are fairly reasonable. So just play their turn through before saying “why did they do that?!”
The Age of Iron and Rust expansion for Time of Crisis is a must buy for anyone that likes the basic principles of the game and simply wants more good cards and some other new mechanics that we didn’t really cover in our Action Points such as the different type of Emperors. The Non-Player AI Bots are also very useful when you simply want to fill out a game with 4-players and need a few Bots to beat you up. And honestly, that should be their primary use.
We recently posted our video review of the expansion and you can check that out here. Thanks for following along and I hope you have as good a time as we did with this expansion.