In mid 2019, I discovered the amazing solitaire game The Wars of Marcus Aurelius from Hollandspiele. The game is a solo only game that deals with the Roman defense of the Danube against several different Barbarian Raiders. The great thing about the game is that it uses cards, that not only provide the fuel to fire your actions, but also provide lots of detailed history about the time. I loved it and have played it north of 15 times now! Late last year, I heard buzz about an upcoming sequel to that game of sorts called Stilicho: Last of the Romans that uses the same core system as The Wars of Marcus Aurelius but that tries to take the theme in a new direction with some additional rules for special Surge Effects on Barbarian cards, to a bit of court intrigue with Olympius and some other interesting elements.
Once it was officially announced I added it to my list of the Top 12 Most Anticipated Wargames for 2020 and now have reached out to the designer Robert DeLeskie to get the lowdown on the design.
Grant: First off Robert thanks for taking the time to answer our questions. This is our first interview with you and we want to know a bit about your background Please tell us a little about yourself. What are your hobbies? What’s your day job?
Robert: I’m Canadian, and I live in Toronto with my wife and daughter. My day job is in the film & TV industry. I’m a writer and director. Right now, I’m working on a horror-themed TV show. It’s very pulpy and lots of fun. I also teach in the film and photography departments at a local college. In terms of my hobbies, gaming is obviously a big one! Wargames, historically-themed games, and some RPG’s. I also write short horror fiction. So, history and horror, which too often go together, unfortunately.
Grant: What historical periods do you prefer to game in? What game is on your table now?
Robert: I’ve always loved ancient and classical history. So in terms of gaming periods, ancients is obviously close to my heart. Really, I’ll play anything up to and including Napoleonics. Some modern stuff, but much less frequently. Playing face-to-face has been close to impossible for the past several months, of course, which has finally motivated me to learn Vassal. For a while, I was playing C&C: Ancients on an almost weekly basic, which has been a blast, and I think the game works very well that way. I was hesitant to try anything much more complex until I learned the ins and outs of the software, but I can see the advantage to running a bigger game and not having to keep it set up for days or weeks on the dining room table! I’m encouraged to try some of the games I was playing before COVID-19, like Pendragon, Kingdom of Heaven, Warriors of God, and Hellenes.
Grant: What motivated you to break into game design? What have you enjoyed most about the experience thus far?
Robert: I had a long hiatus from table-top gaming between when I was a kid and when I rediscovered the hobby about ten years ago. Back in the day, I used to make my own games (mostly RPG’s), and the impulse to start tinkering returned pretty quickly, especially when I saw how the hobby had evolved in some really interesting directions. As for what I’ve enjoyed the most, I think it’s been engaging with the community. The enthusiasm and passion people have for games—as players, reviewers, designers, developers and publishers—is really amazing, and it’s been immensely gratifying to participate in that.
Grant: What did you learn from your experience on The Wars of Marcus Aurelius published by Hollandspiele that has helped you in your current project Stilicho: Last of the Romans?
Robert: So, there’s a bit of a story here. I actually completed an earlier version of my current Stilicho: Last of the Romans before The Wars of Marcus Aurelius and had it lined up with another publisher. We spent about a year developing the game, but then things seemed to fall into stasis as the company began moving in different directions.
I was working on The Wars of Marcus Aurelius by that point, and after it achieved a bit of notice through the BGG Wargame PNP contest I approached Hollandspiele. I really liked Tom’s solo game Agricola, and found what Mary and Tom were doing with their company inspiring. They love games, love working with designers, love pushing things in new directions. We did some further development on The Wars of Marcus Aurelius together which worked out great. After I got the rights back to Stilicho, I pitched a new and updated version to Tom. Tom suggested we wait and see what sort of feedback we got from players about The Wars of Marcus Aurelius so that we could incorporate it into Stilicho, rather than just rushing it out. I think that was great advice, and Stilicho is a stronger and better game as a result.
Grant: What do you find most challenging about the design process? What do you feel you do really well?
Robert: To be honest, I’m not great with math and statistics. Some designers can map out probability charts that show the effects of a 1 or 2 point change to combat values or whatever, and what percentile effect that will have on a player’s chance of winning the game. I’m in awe of those people. I tend to brute-force such questions by playing through any changes I make again, and again, and again, until it feels right. Then I look to feedback from the developer and playtesters. So math and I, not such great friends.
What I think I’m relatively okay at is matching historical dynamics with mechanics. I always start with the history – at least my amateur understanding of it – and look for ways to reflect it in the gameplay, in the simplest, most effective way possible. The forts in The Wars of Marcus Aurelius, for example, came from my research about archeological finds north of the Danube. I knew they were important to the history of the conflict, so I had to find a way to make them central to the game. I feel every element really needs to pull its weight, so the forts became vital to both attack and pacification, and plugged in nicely to the concept of terrain value, which was my way of simplifying and abstracting the challenges posed by supply.
I think I’m also okay with narrative. Not every game can or should be narrative-focused, but that was my intention with The Wars of Marcus Aurelius and Stilicho. With a little imagination, both games can generate entertaining stories and dramatic moments. I’ve seen this reflected in some of the awesome AAR’s that people have published. That’s immensely gratifying to me.
Grant: What is your stated design purpose in your new game Stilicho: Last of the Romans?
Robert: I wanted to create a relatively fast-playing, relatively rules-light game that would capture some of the fascinating historical flavour and evoke some of the struggles facing early 5th century Rome. Hopefully, Stilicho gives players a bit of the feeling of being caught up in a dramatic historical epic.
Grant: What historical event and period does the game cover?
Robert: The game covers the early 5th century (406-415CE) in the Western Roman Empire. This is the time of Alaric the Goth, the first sack of Rome in 800 years, the great Vandal invasion, the beginning of the end of Roman Britannia, the feckless emperor Honorius and the half-barbarian general Stilicho. Lots going on!
Grant: Who is Flavius Stilicho and what does history say about him?
Robert: Stilicho was the magister militum, the top military commander, of the Western Roman Empire in the early 5th century. He dominated the young emperor Honorius, who appears to have been weak-willed and disinterested in the job. This effectively made Stilicho ruler of the western half of the empire. His fractious relationship with the Gothic king Alaric – they were sometimes allies, more often foes – often overshadows other aspects of his tenure.
By every account Stilicho was a gifted general and, until he lost his head, a skilled politician. One of the notable things about him as a military leader is that he recognized the new realities facing the late-imperial army. Replacement rates for regular soldiers were low and barbarian mercenaries filled the ranks. This meant the older style of Roman warfare that hinged on decisive set-piece battles resulting in the total elimination of the enemy was not only impossible but also unadvisable. Stilicho also understood that Alaric’s goals were political rather than military, and that his large army could be an ally and effective tool if handled correctly. Stilicho’s enemies in the court and Senate used this against him, whispering that he was secretly in league with the Goths, a charge fueled by the fact that Stilicho was half-barbarian himself. Much of the tragedy and failure of the late Roman Empire seems to stem from its inability to comprehend the motivations of outsiders like Stilicho and migrant people like the Goths, and to fully accept them and make full use of their potential.
Grant: What does the tag line “Last of the Romans” refer to?
Robert: After the cascading events of 405/406 – a surprise Gothic invasion led by a man called Radagaisus resulted in Stilicho pulling troops from the Rhine frontier which incentivized the Vandals to invade Gaul which led to the revolt of Constantine III – Stilicho fell from grace. Rather than resist the tides and plunge the empire into civil war, Stilicho surrendered to his political foes and was beheaded. Gibbon praised this final act as “not unworthy of the last of the Roman generals” and I agree. Hence the subtitle of our game.
Grant: What elements from the history did you want to model in the game?
Robert: I really wanted to put the player in Stilicho’s shoes and make them feel the almost overwhelming mix of political and military factors he, or anyone in his position, was up against. Military pressure along multiple fronts, the lack of resources to deal with them, the political costs of diplomacy, people maneuvering behind your back in the court.
Grant: How much of the system used in The Wars of Marcus Aurelius did you use in this game?
Robert: Mechanically, the game is very similar to The Wars of Marcus Aurelius. Turn and round structure is the same, and the cards function in a similar fashion. So, enemy cards drive your foes forward or trigger events, and you respond by playing cards from your hand for actions or events of your own. You’re still trying to push your enemies back into their home spaces and force them to surrender – and then keep them that way. Like The Wars of Marcus Aurelius, you win if you manage to defeat all three enemies in their home spaces and prevent them from “unsurrendering.” There are lots of ways to lose, such as Constantine III capturing your capital at Ravenna, all your armies mutinying, the empire falling into revolt due to mismanagement, or Olympius getting the better of you. If you’re familiar with The Wars of Marcus Aurelius you can pick up Stilicho quickly, I’d say it’s about 85% the same.
That last 15% is pretty significant however! The surge mechanism has been completely reworked. Now, each card has a specific instruction that happens when a surge takes place. This can create some devastating chains of events if you’re not careful. The player has a few new ways of managing this however. Some surge events are actually beneficial to the player. And some cards allow you to turn surge events to your favour, representing Roman diplomacy and subterfuge. I was quite happy with how this aspect turned out.
Given the scale of the game (the entire European territory of the empire), off-map conflicts are gone. Forts have been replaced by garrisons which you draw from your troop pool. Walled cities can slow your enemies by forcing them to besiege you. There is also unrest which can develop into revolt, representing the erosion of central control over the provinces. And your enemies can fight each other, buying you precious time.
Grant: As you mentioned, the game uses cards and is card driven. Why does this medium fit the design? What opportunities does it provide you in telling the story?
Robert: As every fan of CDG’s knows, cards are a great way of abstracting material, military and financial resources, as well as hammering home the agonizing realities of opportunity-cost. They also provide a way of injecting historical flavour into the game. I think they work great for this kind of scenario.
Grant: What does the map look like and what area of Europe does it cover?
Robert: The map looks awesome! It’s by the great Mark Mahaffey and it provides a sort of zoomed-in look at the Western Empire from Britannia down to Hispania and over to Illyricum.
Grant: What Fronts are identified on the map? How are these central to the game?
Robert: There are three enemy fronts: the Goths, the Vandals and Constantine III. The idea of fronts is probably the biggest borrow from States of Siege. I think they work great for this sort of game. They simplify movement and, more importantly, they capture a crucial aspect of warfare from this period, which is that enemies were rarely decisively defeated in battle, merely pushed back or contained. Usurpers kept popping up, the Vandals ranged all over Gaul and Hispania, and the Goths invaded Italy multiple times. I think the push-pull mechanic is a great fit for the history.
Grant: What is the Olympius Track and who is this character? How does the track get advanced or retreated?
Robert: Olympius was a rival courtier to Stilicho and he gets his own “front” in the game. It’s sort of a reverse-version of the Imperium track in WOMA. The man appears to have been the instigator behind Stilicho’s downfall and the principal beneficiary – until he proved incompetent at managing the fallout from Stilicho’s removal and took his own tumble. The Olympius track represents his efforts against you, whispering into Honorius’ ear behind your back, luring Senators and junior military officers to his side, that sort of thing. Specific events advance him up his track – losing Rome to the Goths, for example, or northern Italy breaking out in revolt. The fortunes of war can also advance or hinder his plans, representing how Stilicho’s power was tied to the perception of his battlefield success. The player can fight back by spending resources to push Olympius back down his track. Think of this as spending gold on popular building projects, spreading your own rumours, or sucking up to Honorius.
Grant: What are you most pleased with about the design?
Robert: I think I’m most happy with how the new surge mechanism works, and also with the way enemies can “collide” on the map and end up fighting each other. Hopefully that opens up new strategic possibilities for players.
Overall, I feel Stilicho is a logical refinement of The Wars of Marcus Aurelius. It’s also quite a bit harder! I really hope people enjoy it.
Grant: What other topics from history might fit this system?
Robert: Like States of Siege, this system is well suited to “many-against-one” scenarios. That said, I think the card mechanics open up possibilities beyond simple tower defence. There are a wide variety of historical situations that are a good match for these basic mechanics. Too many to mention in fact!
Grant: What other games are you working on?
Robert: Depending on the interest and the reception to Stilicho, I’d like to make one more Roman game using this system. I like trilogies! To that end, I’ve been working on a game about the Justinian reconquests. I think it would be fun for the player to be on the offensive for a change.
Recently, I’ve been fascinated by the contest for the Mediterranean in the 15-17th centuries, specifically the Ottoman-Venetian wars, and I’ve started preliminary work on a design for that. I’ve also got a nifty little card-driven siege game prototyped I need to get back to. Lots of ideas, but it’s a matter of time which always seems to be scarce.
Thanks so much for this opportunity to talk to you and your readers. Enjoy your gaming!
Thanks for your time in answering our questions Robert. This game is a good one as well as I have already played it nearly a dozen times! I can attest to the fact that you have made this game quite a bit more diabolical with the addition of the Surge Events, which are simply pure evil and can really blow things up quickly. I also really love the narrative of the game and find it very engaging. I think that I still like The Wars of the Marcus Aurelius the best but I think that is because I am simply more familiar with it. Give me about ten more plays of Stilicho, and hopefully at least one more victory, and I am sure I will have more affection for it.
If you are interested in Stilicho: Last of the Romans, you can order a copy for $50.00 from the Hollandspiele website at the following link: https://hollandspiele.com/products/stilicho-last-of-the-romans
Here also is a look at our unboxing video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LlFf0vqyaKI
Oh boy, Justinian reconquests and Venetian-Ottoman wars are a must buy for me!
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