In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. It’s what most people in the western world think of when they hear the word Genesis. Well, in GMT’s second game in the Pax Series the opening words are a little different. This is a big game, maybe not size-wise, but scale and time-wise. It spans 500 years, from 1,700-1,200 BC, so put on your big boy pants and prepare for generations of growth and war. Published in 2015, this was actually a game we’d had access to and then sat on my shelf for a few years before we actually played it. And boy were we glad we did!
Designed by the late Richard H. Berg, Genesis is a multiplayer game of civilization growth, maintenance and conquest. There are a couple of two player scenarios, one of which we played to learn the rules, get familiar with the strategies, etc. and do our initial thoughts video. As a two player affair the game is fairly linear. We expand, taking over new cities to expand our power and influence and gain needed funds, fight each other and then try to screw each other over with event cards and barbarian/minor nation activations. It’s a great way to learn the game, but this game isn’t meant to be played with max players. Trust me on that one.
It’s a one mapper, and uses point to point movement. The map, and by map I mean the number of spaces, is actually pretty small. Certain paths with nodes on them make routes artificially longer due to rough terrain or just lack of infrastructure but you won’t get overwhelmed with a sand box that’s too big with various movement options and paths to gain an advantage. That’s something I actually really liked about this game, rules wise there’s some crunchiness, but strategically speaking the game does not try to hide itself from the players. Expand, conquer, defend, repeat. There are some very obvious places to do that early for most factions, and making a strong start can set you up for the late game nicely.
Once we started playing I was surprised at how easy it was to go along with the flow of the game. Of course that’s relative, if this is your first wargame, then it’ll be a much slower start up, but I’m used to the rulebooks GMT puts out and once you get the combat figured out it goes along at a decent clip.
The one thing that I will say, and it’s something I’d read online prior to playing it, is that you have to remember that at it’s core this is a representation of the historical situation. What I mean by that is you cannot expect for all five factions to be equally balanced in game play, because they weren’t historically. As such some players will have a much harder time. The Assyrians for example have limited expansion options and will be fighting, or at least standing off against the Mittani the whole game. The Hittites, if left unchecked, can grow quickly and maintain that, as they’re a little further away and more isolationist. The Egyptian, whilst very rich in resources has to contend with the terrain in order to influence world events, and that can be a big investment for them.
Basically, whilst the rules are symmetrical for all the players, their tactical situations and long term goal executions will be different, and everyone needs to “do their part” to stop a power imbalance and a run away leader. Some people like that in a game, and others do not. But I enjoyed the ecobalance, trying to get people to see the board and do things in order to secure your position. With all that said the alliance rules are very strict. There basically is no allying allowed outside the confines of a card that may be played that gives specific instructions, so as much as you might try to influence people to do things, the game will always have you pointing spears at each other.
Combat was the one aspect of the game I had the most trepidation about before we actually started playing. The rules are pretty dense, and there’s some (rudimentary) math involved, but I wanted to make sure we were getting it right as it’s a unique system I had not encountered before. Your armies are effectively stacks of strength points, that may or may not have accompanying chariots with them. If it’s just men then you march them with a leader and attack other stacks. You calculate the difference in strength points, any terrain effects (fortified spaces and towns, etc.), and then a leader bonus, roll some dice. Your dice are rolled off, and the difference is in effect how many “shifts” you get on the CRT.
The CRT is percentage based. If I have 10 SPs and you have 5 SPs then it’ll cross reference with a number of guys that are killed. The shifts I apply can either be used to increase my value of SPs or decrease yours, both have a similar effect in making it so that I inflict a larger percentage loss of troops on you. And then you will do the same thing with your roll and values. It’s a fascinating mathematical challenge. Not in the actual resolution so much, but in how you form your stacks. A 10 SP stack that suffers 50% losses vs a 5 SP stack that suffers 50% losses are not the same thing. So, again, how you organize your troops and set them out in different defensive positions can make a big difference. Having a singular stack of death might seem appealing, but if you take a bad result it can effectively end that military campaign as the sons of an entire generation litter the battlefield.
Did I mention the slaves and plunder? Oh, yeah, that’s present in this game. Any time you attack and defeat an enemy army with troop SPs you have the opportunity to take an SP or two as slaves. And yes, you guessed it, you march those slaves back to your home regions and use them to rebuild walls and build monuments to yourself and the gods, for Victory Points. That and the plundering of coin when the enemy king is present is a stark reminder of the brutality of war, especially seeing as how little has changed in that regard.
B-but aren’t the Ancients boring?
No they aren’t. Indeed the more Ancients games I play the more interested I am in Ancients. But enough of platitudes. We know relatively little about the Bronze Age, so having complex a-symmetric tech trees and civilizations would be too much guess work, so Berg kept that part of it simple and allowed the land, the map, terrain, sea, etc. to do the talking. The Babylonians only really have to worry about the Assyrians as their closest enemy player. However they will need to cross a lot of terrain and expand precariously along the south in order to establish a strong economy. That leads to some complexities in defending your hard won empire. Also the minor nation, Elam, is always there as a constant threat in the east. Activated by a card, Elam will charge out of the East and very quickly lay waste to Babylon if you’ve pushed out too hard too fast.
I loved that the minor nations were controlled by enemy players. It gave them more purpose than an AI making a die roll on forking paths. Also it kept you in check that no one was your friend. And ultimately that’s something you have to consider about this one. It can be very harsh. You will fight each other, you will debilitate each other, you will unleash barbarians and minor nations into rear echelons and soft underbellies of your flourishing civilizations. The cards can be incredibly cruel, and sometimes down right ridiculous. The sands of time can just destroy your monuments you invested so much money and time into, a plague can kill your population, and so many other mean spirited cards you play on each other. That does add a chunk of randomness/unpredictability to the game. You might get utterly hosed with a card, and have to change tact very quickly, or simply sit it out for a while whilst you gather your strength.
All in all, the game is pretty grand in it’s scope and scale. It’s long, for sure. We played about 5 hours, and called it quits as the Hittites were running away and there was no way to stop them in time. But when you have the player count maxed, the time investment will invariably be much larger. So knowing that, and having an interesting combat resolution system, and good people to play with, I had a blast. When this first showed up on my radar all those years ago I can’t say I was all that excited, but sitting down and playing a big multiplayer was a blast, and I would do it again.
There’s a lot of ‘good not great’ said about this game, and I can understand where that thinking comes from. The game has a nice balance of civ management, combat, crunch and chrome. The card play is savage, but helps to remind you that yes, this is just a game, and sometimes history is a cruel mistress. I had fun playing this one, and I even bought the mounted board for it. It’ll stay in my collection, but seeing the light of day regularly will be tough as the time and players needed can be tough to muster.