Republic of Rome

'Infamy! Infamy! They've all got it in for me!'

I must admit I was initially disappointed with Republic of Rome. There were three factors that spoilt this long-awaited game for me. Firstly, the Diplomacy element which regular readers will know isn't really me. Secondly, the rules; eleven dense pages of stodgy complexity. Thirdly, the playing time; Don Greenwood recently admitted to 4-6 hours for experienced players. But now, having played it and survived the ordeal of learning the beast, I am of the opinion that it is one of the more innovative and interesting games to come along for some while.

The theme, for those who don't read The General previews, is the internal politics and external history of the Republican Roman senate. Broadly, this covers the period from 264-43 BC and runs the historical spectrum from the First Punic War through to the Alexandrine Wars. Players take the roles of the senators, consuls and other officials of the fledgling Roman state and attempt to guide it through a series of pressing problems. The main requirement is for all players to work together sufficiently well to avoid losing to the game's 'history' but within this is plenty of scope for the individual win through a controlled faction.

The game cost me $35 (£18) on a recent trip to the States which is good value, and I understand it will be £24.95 when it appears here early in the new year. The game comes in the standard bookcase box and the graphics are attractive enough. Components include a board used for showing the game status and charts, a large pack of cards of various sorts (which don't look that durable - lamination required for keen players I think), a number of very nice legion, fleet and coin counters and plenty of markers. This one has gone through the Avalon Hill production department so you can guess the quality.

The rulebook is frightening. Almost a throwback to the bad old days, it is text heavy, complex and has too few examples. I found it hard going and my enthusiasm kept dying around six pages in. On the plus side it is complete and fairly well organised. Most queries are where you expect them to be and there is a good index. Sadly, with the whole game relying heavily on the sequence of play, it was here we had the most difficulty. The trouble is that many of the important rules are dispersed; some are in the rulebook sequence, others are on the quick reference sheets and yet others have to be read in full from the sub-sections.

Our main problem, with such a new game concept, was knowing how the sequence worked through and what was meant to be happening. Questions like 'how do wars happen?' and 'how do provinces get created?' were common. These were gaping holes in our understanding until we took the not-too-obvious course of studying the event cards. These contain an awful lot of information that rapidly clear the vagaries. For this reason, I would have found a brief explanation of the inter-relations of the rules and cards very useful in learning the game. As it is, in the absence of a tutor, you simply have to keep stopping for the first hour to read the appropriate rule until you're in the swing of it. This isn't a major criticism, it is more a function of the game's complexity and my lack of recent big game skills. This is a far cry from Elefantenparade and the old brain gets very partial to rules in half-page bites.

I have no intention, or desire, to go into all the individual rules and the detailed systems within the game. That would take pages and all that is really important is the structure and the relations between the different sub-systems, some of which I will detail below. Boiled right down, there is a Diplomacy style game of political intrigue between the various senate factions and, running in tandem, the game system throws up historical events and problems to be tackled by the government as a whole.

The senators are portrayed on cards showing a family name such as Porcius or Calpurnius (I suggest you ban all Bilius, Tweat Him Wuffly and Biggus Diccus jokes at the start) and a bust that looks strangely like Arthur Scargill. Each player gets dealt a number of these families at the start to form his faction and he can add to or lose them throughout the game. Each member of the faction is rated for military ability, oratory (for getting votes and persuading new recruits), loyalty (for staying power) and influence (again, to get your point over and as a measure of social worth).

Ideally, the cards combine to give you a strong faction with lots of voting power, a military leader or two and a likely candidate to attain a bag of influence points which is one way of winning the game. Plans can be wrecked by assassinations, death at the front and by natural causes. In this event, cousin Bob rolls up to take over the family's responsibilities. The faction is the source of one's power through voting, treachery and scheming but it also provides an income through concessions (armaments supplier, grain, taxes, hotdog stands etc) and personal 'salary'. Income is important to ward off predatory smooth-talkers through counter-bribes and also for buying the 'initiatives' that can lead to useful intrigue cards.

The rival factions meet each turn at the senate to appoint new consuls and take decisions on policy. This can range from appointing officials (shades of Junta here), enacting laws, passing land bills, deciding on strategy for the ever present wars and 'any other business'. All this debating is controlled by the current Rome Consul (the big cheese until a dictator appears) and is eventually put to the vote. If a faction has an overall majority, he gets to do exactly what he wants, but more often than not there is viable dissent and gentle persuasion might be called for. At this point, you can easily decline into 'whispering in corners' but our games were so tough that decisions for the greater good usually took precedence.

The military system is quite basic as befits the game's emphasis, but can still be gripping when Rome or your thus far distinguished career is on the line. Essentially, the raising and continued funding of legions and fleets is an exercise in resource allocation. You decide how many legions and fleets you need, how many you can afford and which wars to send them off to. A war drains a fixed sum from the treasury every turn and will cause problems at home if unprosecuted (that is, no legions are sent to tackle it).

Each war is rated for the enemy's naval forces (if any), their army strength and the minimum number of fleets required to supply the Roman troops. These are doubled (or even trebled) if 'matching' wars are active at the same time. So, for instance, the appearance of the 2nd Punic War doubles the values of the 1st. This makes the situation a little hairy as Rome can only field twenty-five legions in total against twenty-odd factors of Carthaginians. Another small war at this stage normally tips the balance and the players lose. If the enemy has a navy, that must be beaten before you can get the legions into action and enemy leaders such as Hannibal and Philip of Macedon (both distinctly tough cookies) can make things very difficult.

The actual combat resolution is a simple differential calculation of legions (or fleets) involved plus your leadership factor, less the strength and leadership of the enemy. A 3D6 roll modified by the difference gives a result varying between defeat and victory with corresponding manpower losses. Additionally, each war and leader have key numbers that trigger military disasters or stalemates if that number is rolled exactly, but these in turn can be cancelled by having the 'right' Roman commander as in, say, Scipio. Victorious leaders create one veteran legion and then return triumphant with the chance to rebel and march on Rome with any loyal troops. Alternatively, he can return as the humble hero and grab bags of popularity and influence which makes most stay-at-home politicians look green.

Lurking in the background is the populace who, just like in Sim City, keep a constant eye on your performance. The unwashed get very aggrieved at battle losses, droughts, pirates and so on and conversely, in the best traditions of government, can be made much happier with the odd gladiatorial bash. If the unrest level climbs too high it becomes progressively more difficult to retain control and the natives end up revolting. Game Over, as they say. This system check is neat, cleanly done and simulates as much detail as you need at this level.

It may appear from this long description that Republic of Rome is really two or three distinct sub-games covering the political, economic and military dimensions. In practice it all meshes well and the actions of external factors on the Senate and their responses makes for a smooth and variable sequence of events. These episodes are driven by the above mentioned pack of event cards. This delivers both intrigue cards to assist in political machinations (sleeping with another senator's wife and so on) and historical occurrences that shape the course of the game. The latter includes such incidents as potential or immediate conflict or the arrival of leaders and important statesmen. There is also a separate pack of general events, such as storms at sea, barbarian raids, epidemics and manpower shortages, that are triggered by die rolls.

Three scenarios are provided (early, middle and late Republic) that offer shorter games in themselves but can also be easily chained together to make a full campaign game. It is the first, early scenario to which I direct my comments in the main. The scenarios are made up of separate packs that contain historically correct events and personalities. Should you survive each successive pack, you simply move onto the next one for yet more challenges leaving the game open ended if you are really keen. In practice, the events may not appear in precise historical order but the feel is spot on. Either way, these gentle anachronisms hardly matter in a game of this type.

Our first game (three players) got off slowly because of the rules complexity but quickly grew into a fascinating struggle against the game. There was little time for scheming against other players and most Senate decisions were quickly passed in an effort to avert crises that cropped up with every turn. Our political struggles were very low-key and I suspect there is a need for more back-stabbing and lying in the extended game. I suppose it really depends on who you play with, although I get the impression that one shouldn't expect Diplomacy levels of nastiness in the early Republic scenario. When the old knife does come into play, it is because the game situation clearly requires it.

In rough (and brief) sequence, our three factions formed with similar strength and income and were quickly faced with the threat of the Punic Wars. Aid from Rhodes arrived in the shape of a lend-lease navy and then, traumatically, the senate was decimated by an epidemic. Rapidly following the pox was a series of bad omens and a Macedonian declaration of war. Being Field Consul, I was despatched with fifteen legions to sort them out and returned triumphant after giving Philip's boys a sound thrashing. There was, however, no time to gloat for the next card draw saw the 1st and 2nd Punic Wars erupt with Hamilcar as a useful looking leader. Despite an initial naval victory, three long years of campaigning while labouring under unlucky generals and manpower shortages produced no positive results. In the end, Rome fell to a combination of the Punic wars, invading Gauls and war-induced bankruptcy. Either way, we lost, but it had been so enjoyable that it hardly mattered. This took around three and a half hours including the learning phase.

The second game was much quicker at three hours, we got right through the event pack and one player gained enough influence to win right at the finish. By that time we had seen off all the wars and had ridden through a few stormy turns with the help of a dictator and some dipping into our own pockets, but having played before it was a good deal easier the second time out. The third game took nearly four hours, infighting was rife and we lost, again through bankruptcy.

At three to four hours plus (unless you lose quickly as a group), Republic of Rome is a long game. There has been a noticeable trend away from the longer, more complex game but I feel that there are still some worth the effort and this, at least on first impressions, may be one of them. Although lots of hours disappear with worrying speed, the play value is high with very little downtime. It offers acceptable variety, no little excitement (the omens are against you, the populace is revolting and you have just three veteran legions to beat them back), a richness of detail and fascinating opponents in the shape of other players' factions and the game system. It also rewards intelligent, quick thinking play and best of all isn't prone to perfect plan strategies. Events move far too quickly for those.

However, I need to stress again that the game is complex, is occasionally heavy going and requires a lot of combined mental effort. This was even true for our 'learning' games which really covered only a simple scenario and the core system. The game also contains several elements that, through choice, we didn't initially engage at all (such as the Kremlin-like Sensorial prosecutions, laws, land bills, corruption, rebels and assassinations) and ones that remained low-key (senatorial infighting and the governing of provinces). Each of these, used more fully, adds to the length and complexity of the game. To balance these comments, I have to say that the standard of design is good to high throughout and the sub-systems work smoothly, helping to keep the whole thing moving along albeit in a slightly mechanistic fashion.

As a word of advice, the initial learning curve is daunting (though much easier if you are taught by someone else) and the rules could have been better organised (though everything is in there somewhere). Whatever, you should definitely plan to stick with it through that first hour of stumbling confusion. Work as a team when you need to, persevere and it will all fall together in the end. I know, because I got there eventually. The first game will prove hard work and a post game re-read of the rules is absolutely essential, but the result should be a game you will want to return to.

As far as play balance goes, the neatest angle is the constant trade-off of playing to win individually and playing not to lose as a group. A lot of the decisions you make will have wider implications - if you bump off a strong rival who also happens to be the best commander, everybody suffers. Throughout the game there are constant shifts of power, fortune and opportunity, many ways to win (and lose) and scope for most types of gamers to get something from it. The game has both depth and subtlety. Even if you ultimately lose, the satisfaction of influencing group decisions, or the successful prosecution of a war, is enough to replace the victory. I suspect it will appeal most to multi-player groups who will thankfully have to tone down their competitive urges in order to survive, but it also works well as a co-operative game for two or three and as a solitaire jaunt to experience the strong historical flavour. Solitaire play may well also be the best way to savour the full campaign game given the likely time needed.

Republic of Rome's system is certainly innovative but perhaps could be a little leaner by way of trimming off some excess chrome. It is slightly on the wrong side of unwieldy and I think overstretches itself in trying to cover too much detail. Are the land bill rules, for instance, really cost effective or could they have been left out or simplified into a table? The same applies to the governorship rules that add some flavour but a lot of work.

Minor gripes aside, and perhaps because of those initial reservations, I have to say I am quietly impressed overall. I think the basic idea of cards generating random history within history is a good one but having now played the first scenario three times, I do detect distinct signs of 'sameness'. I do hope therefore that this central idea will survive extended play and also hope that the later scenarios aren't too dependent on those 'orrible internecine struggles. That would rapidly put me off and may, for once, drive me to solitaire play. To an extent, I suspect that even three full games may not be enough to fully assess this expansive game system but I hope I have captured the main strengths and weaknesses. If there is even more scope to be gained from extended play, then that can be regarded as a pleasing bonus.

For me, the clever system and the highly flavoured historic feel are Republic of Rome's main assets, but less pacific gamers will probably find it stronger in other areas. It will be interesting to see the emphasis and playing styles that emerge from widespread play and I suspect the forthcoming General analyses will be fascinating. The designer, Richard Berthold, deserves the credit for a sound basic idea but Don Greenwood's excellent work in development is obvious for all to see. A promising start to 1991 then from the Boys at the Hill and, length considerations aside, is a game you should strongly consider.

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