Rome! Arguably the greatest civilization of the ancient world, or at least one of the most successful. I have read lots of histories on the subject and watched that many more movies, some even serious, while others not so serious.
I have lots of good quotes from Mel Brooks’ hysterically accurate masterpiece on Roman civilization History of the World Part I swimming around in my head that have formed my love of all things Rome and that occasionally I use in my game playing. Here is one of the tamer ones, although I’d really like to share the quote on the punishment for a slave who strikes a Roman citizen quote or maybe even the new fangled plumbing salesman quote or the verdict of the Roman Senate as they debate what to do with their civilization. Classic! But you will just have to settle for this banal run of the mill quote that I used to maintain our PG rating:
Columns, columns! Get your columns here! Ionic, Doric, Corinthian! Put a few columns in front, turn any hovel into a showplace! Columns! Sir, don’t touch the merchandise!
There are tons of games with Rome as a center focus. Many Euro games use this theme and I have played many that I really liked including Trajan, Donning the Purple, Chariots of Rome and Ave Roma to name just a few. I have also played several wargames on the subject including Conquest of the Empire (the Hasbro Gamemaster Series from the 1980’s), Commands & Colors: Ancients, Time of Crisis: The Roman Empire in Turmoil, 235-284AD, Falling Sky: The Gallic Revolt Against Caesar, Mare Nostrum: Empires, Imperium Romanum amongst others. I guess that I want you to know that I haven’t played them all and there are several classic games that I really need to play on the subject including Sword of Rome, Pax Romana, SPQR, Glory to Rome, etc.
So what did I look at when making the decision about which games I have played are the best on the subject. Well, I looked at how history was interwoven into the design, how much attention is paid to politics and how the war element is handled. With those criteria in mind, here are 3 of my favorite games on Rome.
3. Al Nofi’s Imperium Romanum: The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire from Decision Games
This one is a bit of a monster! And monsters are really hard to get to the gaming table sometimes. But this one is a good monster and we really had a good time with it last year and are trying to get it tamed and back to the table sometime soon for another attempt. Imperium Romanum, which is now in its third edition, covers the intricacies of the political, economic, and military conflicts of the Roman world from the first century BC to its fall nearly 700 years later. And as you can imagine with a game that covers over 700 years, that there are plenty of scenarios. Over 40 scenarios cover the different ages and give players new challenges to overcome with each. These scenarios range from the Mithridatic wars (88-63 BC) through more than six centuries of greatness and decline to the final burst of glory in the last Romano-Persian War (AD 622-629).
The real joy in the design are the little elements that focus on the conditions of the time including foraging to support armies, logistics and baggage trains that use oxen drawn carts. The different terrains on the map have either wild or cultivated designations that offer a different level of forage and can really force a commander to think about those things when the begin moving their large stacks out to wage war. Taxing is also a very interesting element as if you overtax you can incite rebellions that you will have to deal with later.
The designer also put in a great deal of research into the makeup of armies and recruiting pools available taking into account ongoing historical conflicts as well as the proliferation of the plague and other diseases that weakened the empire. We really enjoyed the Seasoning Rules as when you place a newly recruited unit, you place it on its less effective side until it participates in a battle and survives at which time you will flip it over to its seasoned side.
Imperium Romanum is a very deep game with lots of great elements that will challenge players and give them a glimpse at the struggles of the Roman Empire. And while the rules are heavy, dense and not the clearest upon first reading, examples of play are given and after reading and playing it began to come naturally as we made progress. I only regret that we couldn’t find a few other players to join us as we really would like to explore the negotiations and alliance making as it really seems to be a very interactive and satisfying part of the design. The rules actually encourage players to write out their treaties and promises so as to not get confused or forget the finer points of the deals. A great game that we have only scratched the surface of.
2. The Wars of Marcus Aurelius: Rome 170-180CE from Hollandspiele
I would say that I am not a solitaire gamer. But over the past few years I have really gained a greater appreciation and love for a well designed solitaire game. And a good one that covers the Roman Empire is even better. Earlier this year, I discovered the hidden gem known as The Wars of Marcus Aurelius: Rome 170-180CE from Hollandspiele. Since first discovering the game I have now played it 10 times. Care to take a guess what my record is? Go ahead, guess! Well, its not great standing at just 2-8 but I have won 2 of my last 4 games and have learned how best to attack the Barbarian Tribes amassing in the lands north of the Danube. But that is just it though. I can plan perfectly, and play my cards perfectly, but in the end it all comes down to how the cards are drawn. Sometimes you just can’t anticipate every crisis that could come your way.
The game is played with two decks of cards and uses a pseudo CDG style in their use. The Roman Deck cards can be used for the printed event on them or they can be discarded to take various actions such as building forts, attacking or increasing public opinion and support at home. The AI also uses a deck of cards referred to as The Barbarian Deck which controls the three Barbarian Tribes including the Marcomanni, Quadi and Iazyges as they move down three different tracks on the map approaching the Roman civilized territory. The player must attack these tribes, using events to improve their odds of winning, as they beat them back across the Danube River and into their homelands where they are better aware of their surroundings and gain a home court advantage as they fight on terrain familiar to them. Once they are pushed all the way back to their home space and beaten by the Roman player that tribe will surrender and will tentatively agree to not fight Rome any longer. The Roman player must then turn their attention to the other tribes and do the same thing all along managing The Barbarian Deck as it will bring up events that will force and Oathbreaker Check on surrendered tribes who can reenter the battle if they overcome the pacification attempts of the Romans.
The game deals with all types of dangers from this period in the Roman Empire including rebellions, insurrections, famine, plague and mutinies of Legions. The game abstracts some of these conflicts with special Off Map Conflict cards that are placed in special boxes and must be dealt with by the Roman player at great expense of cards and actions or they will cause favor at home in the form of Imperium Points to wane and if this track ever reaches zero Marcus Aurelius will be usurped and the game will come to an ignominious ending.
I simply love this game and its treatment of the history with the cards is simply fantastic. I love playing historical simulations because I learn something from my plays and this one teaches me a lot about the history. As you can see from my record, this game is challenging though and definitely has a learning curve but I am fine with a challenge and don’t mind losing a solitaire game over and over again as long as I feel that I have a realistic chance of winning. This one is going to stay in my collection for a long time and will see regular playing time. I have also heard that the designer is working on another title using this system and I simply cannot wait.
1. Pendragon: The Fall of Roman Britain from GMT Games
I love the COIN Series of games from GMT Games and have each of the 9 released volumes in my collection with the exception of Volume II Cuba Libre. A few years ago, we came across this fantastic looking game that took a look at the fall of Roman Britain and used this COIN system perfectly, even taking the system in new directions, showing off its flexibility in relation to all types of conflicts throughout history. I reached out to the designer Morgane Gouyon-Rety at that time for a series of interviews on the game (Part I, Part II and Part III).
Pendragon takes us into the 4th and 5th centuries A.D. and to the embattled Isle of Britannia. The game revolves around 4 factions, there’s the Dux – the original Roman Army in Britannia, a faction with many forts and very powerful cavalry units. There’s the Civitates, the ruling aristocracy left over from Rome. They have wealth, culture, and a few military units, but have to tread the line of home grown forces and paid foreign mercenaries called Foederatti. Speaking of which, the other two factions are both outsider barbarian factions called the Scotti and the Saxons. These two factions are some of the most unique in any COIN game, they deploy quickly and easily steal gold and pillage the land. Their units however can be paid off and hired as mercenaries by the Dux and Civitates at which point the units switch player control.
Politically/historically speaking, Pendragon has a lot of game in the box. There’s a few different scenarios which illustrate the various states of decay of the Roman Empire, or you can play the long game in which the Roman’s have strong influence to start. The roads are in good order and the Raiding factions seem to be less of a threat, but over the course of several Epochs the Roman Empire begins to collapse and retreats back to Italia and the resulting power vacuum and dearth of resources means the fighting quickly becomes bloody.
Combat resolves with some level of familiarity if you have played COIN, but has a lot of cool nuances. Each faction has a “home” terrain where their units can more easily gain defensive/ambush bonuses, so picking your battles and where you fight them is very important. There were far fewer pitched battles in this game than in something like Liberty or Death, or Fire in the Lake. This stems from the nature of the two barbarian factions. The Scotti and Saxons both use raiding tactics to establish themselves on the board. The controlling player uses a number of dice to roll and places that many pieces on the board in a space adjacent to a legal sea-zone or friendly stronghold. It means you get huge hordes of war bands just dumped onto coastal areas that start stealing gold and going all out on the garrisoned forces.
Each barbarian war band is only worth 1/2 a strength point in pitched battles, so you’ll find they spring up, take your gold, and then return home to cash in on the spoils of war. This makes for an effective harrying technique as the barbarians. The barbarians need to do this kind of thing in order to actually earn money in the game, but it means that there’s rarely large stationary forces in a given region. I personally think that the way the barbarian factions work brings me back to the feeling of some of the earliest COIN games in the series. As the Dux or Civitates you’re trying to stamp out a thousand barbarian fires while maintaining some kind of economy, or growth. As the barbarian factions the raiding is never enough, you’re always needing more money than you can plunder and bring home. On top of that you’re trying to keep your weak forces in place long enough to establish them into full strength troops and establish strongholds. This is time consuming and often your war bands will be swept away by Dux cavalry or Civitates trained troops. This process can be very frustrating and take a committed player to pull off. It is not for the weak of heart or impatient.
I love the historical detail of this game and applaud Morgane for her deft use of the past to make a very fulfilling and deep game. I love that the game includes mundane elements, such as the condition of the Roman roads as the Empire crumbles, and also takes into account many of the fantastical and mythological elements of the Arthurian legend into the cards used to drive the game forward. This one is one of my favorite COIN games and I would recommend COIN enthusiasts give this one a try to experience the decay of the Roman Empire in Britannia.
There you have it. My favorite games that focus on Rome. It was really hard for me not to include Time of Crisis from GMT Games on this list. Such a good game that is not only fun to play but takes great care to integrate elements of the Roman Empire into the gameplay with lots of historically inspired cards. I also really love the Euro game Trajan designed by one of my favorite designers Stefan Feld as it gives you a real run for your money as you must focus on lots of different elements including the Senate, trade, war in the north and construction of great monuments to win. What do you think are the best games out there that use the Roman theme? Please share so that I can broaden my gaming horizons!
And if you are mad or think that I am the dumbest gamer in history, maybe you can take advice from the Romans in History of the World Part I and “shove a living snake up my ***!”.