I am always on the lookout for interesting solitaire wargames and any good game on the Roman Empire. If these two can ever intersect, I have found a game that I am very interested in. So was the case when I came upon Rome, Inc: From Augustus to Diocletian 27 BCE – 286 BCE while I was looking at buying Almost a Miracle! found in Against the Odds Magazine #51. The game is a solitaire treatment where the premise is that the player runs the operations of the Roman Empire similar to a business enterprise, but with the addition of some other elements such as blood in battle, bread for those that are starving and circuses to keep the masses entertained. We reached out to the designer Philip Jelley to see if he could give us the details about the design and he was more than willing to work with us on this interview.
Grant: First off Philip please tell us a little about yourself. What are your hobbies? What’s your day job?
Philip: I used to work for the U.K. Border Force at Heathrow Airport, but I left in 2018 and I am now effectively retired. I keep myself busy with wargames, wargame design, reading history, and writing historical articles (which is why I like ATO, they encourage designers to write articles to accompany their game). I live near the Ridgeway in the North Wessex Downs, and I enjoy cross country hiking.
Grant: What motivated you to break into game design? What have you enjoyed most about the experience thus far?
Philip: I studied the British Civil Wars and Interregnum (1637-1660) at college and devised a game in 1993 which evolved into That Man of Blood, The Second Civil War of 1648. What I like most are the occasional flashes of inspiration which provide a simple solution to a complex design problem, usually streamlining a clunky process.
Grant: What designers have influenced your style?
Philip: Don Greenwood, Robert Haines, and Richard Berthold, who designed Republic of Rome (Avalon Hill, 1990). In 1995 I started on a sequel Empire of Rome, a monster co-operative game covering a thousand years of Roman politics, economics, and warfare, with a bot controlling the enemies of Rome. MMP considered publishing in 2011 and Adam Starkweather suggested changing cards into counters to reduce production costs. This fell through, but by replacing war cards with counters simplified the rules and worked better visually, with the war counters criss-crossing the map.
Here is a link to that design and its details in the CSW Forums: CSW Forum – EMPIRE OF ROME II 400 BC – 600 AD (consimworld.com).
Grant: What do you find most challenging about the design process? What do you feel you do really well?
Philip: In Empire of Rome, one player played Caesar while others tried to supplant him through assassination or civil war. The breakthrough came in 2014 when I realised that Empire of Rome worked as a solitaire game using bots to represent both the Roman factions and barbarian kingdoms. I also liked the system of combat and annexation I devised for Empire of Rome, the empire ebbing and flowing across the board, annexing provinces, creating buffer states, or losing them to Barbarians.
Grant: What is your upcoming Rome, Inc. design about?
Philip: Rome, Inc. is a solitaire game covering the Roman Empire at its height. The player needs to appoint governors, build and transfer legions, and annex provinces to build up the empire while beset by random events, assassins, barbarians, and rebellious generals. The player decides how best to collect taxes and allocate resources, while keeping the mob happy and increasing prestige, the ultimate record of his success.
Grant: Who is the developer and the artist?
Philip: Dave Boe is the developer and Mark Mahaffey is the artist.
Grant: How did you come to partner up with them?
Philip: Steve Rawling (Captain-General of ATO) assigned them to the project. Mark is the Art Director at ATO and creates most of their graphics you see. Dave is a contract developer.
Grant: What skills and experience do they bring to the design process?
Philip: This is the first game Dave has developed for ATO and he worked well. Apart from playtesting, his main role was to make me clarify and justify the rules and make sure they work, a lot better than letting things go ahead on the nod. Mark is a very experienced artist, I have played dozens of his games, and we worked together on Lilliburlero: The Battle of the Boyne, July 1690 (ATO, 2013). He did an excellent job on the map, charts, and rules, and was immensely helpful.
Grant: What is the time period covered by the game? Why was this the time you chose to focus on?
Philip: Rome, Inc. sees the Roman Empire at its height, starting when Octavian took the name Augustus in 27 BCE when Diocletian made his colleague Maximian co-emperor in 286 CE, leading to the division of the empire between east and west. This covers a wide range of opportunities and crises, giving the player the opportunity to expand the empire under Trajan as well as dealing with the disaster of Teutoburger Wald, the Year of Four Emperors, and the barbarian invasions of the Third Century.
Grant: What does the player have to manage during the course of the game?
Philip: The player decides which Statesmen govern which provinces (particularly if there is a war in the offing), and whether one should be made Consul. He also spends gold to increase Prestige (VP’s), lower Unrest, build new military units, and transfer them to protect the frontier and fight wars. He also has to deal with the administration of the game, collecting taxes, paying units, moving wars, and resolving random events.
Grant: How does each historical Statesman differ from others in the game?
Philip: Each Statesman has four abilities; Military, Administration, Popularity, and Intrigue, rated 5 (superb), 4 (competent), 3 (average), 2 (incompetent), or 1 (mediocre). For example, Commodus has 2 Military ability (he had military training and fought as a gladiator), 1 Administration ability (he was a drunk who squandered money), 4 Popularity ability (excessive expenditure on games won over the mob), and 5 Intrigue ability (as his behaviour encouraged plots and conspiracies).
Grant: What different special abilities do these Statesmen have?
Philip: If the Statesman is fighting the War named as his special ability then he has a better chance of defeating it and annexes more territory after a Triumph, for example Agricola’s Caledonian special ability helps him fight Caledonian Wars. Others increase Prestige (VP’s) if Caesar or Consul, and the Prefect must be made Prefect of the Praetorian Guard (which increases his chances of assassinating Caesar). Others are less useful, such as Terror, which decreases Prestige, or Usurper, which encourages rebellion.
Grant: What happens to the game at each new imperial dynasty?
Philip: Emperor counters represent the arrival of a new dynasty and change the rules of the game, showing how the Roman Empire evolved over three centuries. Flavian Emperors automatically makes Vespasian, Titus, or Domitian the new Caesar if the emperor dies and there are no Julio-Claudians in play; allows the building of the I Minervia, IV Flavia, and XVI Flavia Legions, Bosporan Fleet, and two Walls; the Province of Syria must now have a Fleet (Vespasian established the Syrian Fleet); and the cost of building, paying, and transferring units is increased (Domitian increased legionary pay).
Grant: What is the general Sequence of Play?
Philip: The Sequence of Play has 5 steps as follows:
Event Phase – check if Statesmen die (or are assassinated) and roll for Events.
Treasury Phase – collect Taxes, pay Units, move Wars, and draw new Wars.
Unrest Phase – increase Unrest, draw new Statesmen, and allocate resources.
War Phase – Resolve Revolts, Wars, Civil Wars, and Rebellions.
Victory Phase – Check for Victory on last turn, otherwise proceed to the next turn.
Grant: How does the game process flow and what are the major decision points?
Philip: Problems arise in the Event and Treasury Phases and are resolved in the War Phase. Between these two, the Player appoints Statesmen, increases Prestige, decreases Unrest, and builds and transfers Units to deal with the problems, so that is where he makes most of his decisions.
Grant: What type of crises does the player have to deal with from turn to turn?
Philip: Large wars are the obvious problem as they require extra Units to defeat, which must be taken from elsewhere. This can be exacerbated by a weak Caesar, unhelpful Events, high Unrest, reduced income, and an empty treasury. Rebels are a two-edged sword, their provinces pay no taxes, but their units need no pay, and they can be used to fight wars, but they must be fought in a Civil War.
Grant: What is the layout of the map? How are governors used to manage these different provinces?
Philip: Provinces are represented by circles on the map connected by roads, deserts, mountains, rivers/straits, and seas. The ten commands (Aegyptus, Africa, Britannia, Gallia, Hispania, Italia, Moesia, Pannonia, Pontica, and Syria) are each commanded by a Governor. This is a simplification, but major campaigns needed a superior commander in charge. For example, Gallia was one military command, but Narbonensis, Aquitania, Lugdunensis, and Belgica were removed as they became more civilised. Even so, Gallia is always treated as one for taxes, transfers, and rebellions under the command of the Governor of Gallia, either a Statesman or a generic Governor.
Grant: How does the player deal with Barbarians, Allies, or Insurgents?
Philip: Insurgent Provinces are those newly conquered by Rome, ruined by war or raids, or where the locals have revolted. They pay no taxes and increase the chances of their revolting further to become Allies or Barbarians. Allies are friendly to Rome, decrease the strength of nearby wars and protect the frontier. Barbarian Provinces represent those controlled by a hostile kingdom or tribe, increase the strength of nearby wars, and may cause neighbouring provinces to revolt. The player may annex Barbarian provinces as Allies, and Allies as Insurgent Provinces, which in turn may be converted into Roman Provinces by a die roll (which works best if it has a garrison and the Governor has a good Military ability).
Grant: How does combat and war happen? What decisions does the player have to make about leaders and their troops?
Philip: To fight a war the player must transfer Legions, Fleets, Auxilia, Praetorian Guards, and/or Imperial Cavalry to its Province, or one adjacent. Each war has a Naval Strength, which is the minimum number of Fleets needed to fight it effectively, usually an indication of the logistics involved in fighting the war as few Roman enemies had fleets of any size. You roll three dice, add the strength of the war and its leader (if any), and subtract the Military ability of the Statesman and his units fighting the war, with veteran units counting double. A low modified roll results in a Triumph, a high modified roll in Defeat, and between the two is a Draw. A Triumph removes a war, wins Gold, reduces Unrest, and annexes Provinces. You also promote one unit to veteran after a Draw or Triumph. Regardless of the result you take losses. The worst result is a Disaster (rolling three dice with the same number) which removes irreplaceable Legions, while a Stalemate (rolling two dice with the same number) acts as a Draw. Statesmen with a matching War special ability ignore Disasters and Stalemates, so it is useful to send them against their historical foe.
Grant: As a solo game how does the BOT operate?
Philip: The player rolls dice to determine the number and type of Events each turn, how many new Statesman and Wars are drawn, and how Wars move across the map. Make a Rebellion triple die roll for each Governor who Triumphs, but he is unlikely to succeed in the early scenarios unless the die roll is high, there is too much unrest, and unhelpful Events.
Grant: What type of priorities does the BOT follow to make its decisions?
Philip: The BOT moves Wars across the map from province-to-province, roads taking priority over other terrain, and heading for Roman Provinces and Allies over Barbarian areas. If a War has several possible destinations the player rolls a die to determine which one it will move to. If a Roman Province or Ally is held weakly the War may make one extra move, taking it past the frontier and inside the empire where it can do the most damage.
Grant: Overall, what has been the experience of your playtesters?
Dave Boe: I think you’ve shown what a good solo game can be – winnable in a challenging way, or sometimes easy way, or a total disaster. The system allows the player to be pro-active, responsive, but then sometimes helpless against fate. It’s called replayability.
Edgar Gallego: I’m liking the game, it’s strategic (thanks!!!) without the fiddliness that all the other “strategic” games have because they like to put a lot of operational rules. Edgar also playtested Old Rome, Inc. and New Rome, Inc., especially in rules checking, which impacted on the game.
Edward Pundyck: As I have become comfortable with the rules, there is very little need to consult the Charts & Tables and even less so the rulebook. With experience, I’m finding that it becomes somewhat easier to beat the system. Section 12.4.’s optional rules, however, are an easy way to make the game more difficult to win…I can attest that replay value is good, as I’m still finding this to be an immersive and enjoyable gaming experience.
Grant: What has changed throughout the playtest process?
Philip: The Statesman changed the most, I was always playing around with their abilities and special abilities, nudging them up or down and comparing them with others. The Emperors Chart was changed as well. It was moved from the top corner of the map to the Players Aid Chart so that it was easier to read, and better presented and referenced. Most of the playtesting resulted in clarification and correction of nomenclature. As the game has been designed over several years, I had many variations which I could refer to if alternatives were needed.
Grant: What are you most proud of with the design?
Philip: I like the way the game creates a narrative, of emperors, wars, expansion, and crises which the player can follow. I remember a game where Commodus was Caesar for seven turns, he survived assassinations, rebellions, stalemated the same German War three times. In the end there was a doubled Usurper Event, and he was killed in the resulting Civil War. It was a constant struggle to survive and Rome fell to Unrest in the end, but it was certainly memorable.
Grant: What were some specific challenges that you had to overcome?
Philip: Calculating income and expenditure were the most difficult. Too much gold and the game is easy, too little gold and it becomes well-nigh impossible. Unrest costs gold to reduce, so this was affected, as was the cost of building, paying, and transferring units. It took some effort and a lot of playtesting to get the mix right, which is tough to do in solitaire games.
Grant: When is the game expected to release?
Philip: ATO has released the game and it became available at the end of February 2021.
Grant: What other projects are you currently working on?
Philip: Lots of different things going on.
Old Rome, Inc. (Republican Rome 400-27 BCE) is a prequel with the player expanding Rome across Italy and the Mediterranean World. The early scenarios are nasty, brutal, and short, but can be quickly replayed if Rome is sacked by the Gauls or Hannibal. By the Late Republic, the player will be more concerned about rebelling generals and assassination plots.
New Rome, Inc. (Late Imperial Rome and Early Byzantium 286-600 CE) deals with the collapse of the Roman West and its reconquest by the Byzantine Empire. This can be played solitaire or as a two-player co-op game, one controlling the East and the other the West, working together to keep the Empire afloat (or not as the case may be).
That Man of Blood is an area movement and impulse game covering the Second Civil War of 1648 for 2-4 players (Army, Parliamentarians, Royalists, and Scots). The New Model Army and Parliamentarians work together to defeat an invading Scottish Army and a rash of randomly generated Royalist rebellions across the country and mutinies by the Welsh Army and English Navy. The Army has the best leaders (Fairfax and Cromwell) and units but is outnumbered three to one and will be stretched to the limit. Includes land and naval movement and combat on a tactical battlefield. It is on the ATO pipeline (where readers vote on the games they’d like to see most), see Against the Odds (atomagazine.com)
Domesday (the Norman Conquest 1066-1100) is a COIN game dealing with the Normans, Saxons, Vikings, Scots, and Welsh vying for control of Britain. After Hastings, the country fell into a lengthy guerrilla war with the natives avoiding battle with the Normans, who used castles to control the countryside and provide secure bases for their knights.
Thank you Philip for your time in answering our questions on this very interesting looking design. I have played several ATO games and can say that they are high quality, with great graphics and nice counters, and I look forward to getting this one to the table.
If you are interested in Rome, Inc.: From Augustus to Diocletian 27 BCE – 286 CE, you will have to purchase Against the Odds Magazine #53 and can obtain a copy in various formats (ziplock poly-bag for $34.95 or boxed for $39.95) by going to the Against the Odds Magazine website at the following link: https://www.atomagazine.com/Details.cfm?ProdID=161