The Romans — Will you be hero or Nero?

In the latest from Ragnar Brothers, players guide the city of Rome from kingdom to republic to empire. Muster armies and send them out across the ancient world to conquer neighbouring lands but don’t neglect Rome herself. Senators must also compete in the political arena for influence, power and the favour of the ancient gods.

First things first; the state of things being what they are this will, unfortunately, not be a full review of The Romans. I am, of course, like the rest of the nation locked down and the day when I’ll be able to crack out this, or any other, game with a group of friends doesn’t appear to be close. Thankfully The Romans is in line with the latest hot trend in tabletop gaming and comes equipped with a comprehensive solo mode. This review will be about the solo-play experience of The Romans. I hope to update this review with information on how it plays with others when I get the chance.

Right out of the gate, there are some very interesting concepts at play in The Romans. Every player gets their own little map of the ancient Mediterranean where they will keep track of their armies, cities, forts and enemies. The central shared play area consists of a cloth mat showing different parts of Rome that players can assign their senators to. Each of these different areas provides different abilities and, in grand worker placement style, there is limited space in each building.

Observe the dinky legionnaire meeple in its natural habitat

The Romans adds an extra dimension to worker placement norms though. The player’s senators each have a different rank, from one to four, and each building in the central area has space for only one senator of each rank. In the group version of the game players will compete for space with each other but in the solo mode there is a set of blocking senators placed at random into the buildings at the start of the game. These unhelpful guys never move and so the player isn’t able to have free choice of where to send their senators. Whilst this isn’t able to replicate the cut and thrust competition of true multiplayer worker placement games it does a good job of forcing the player to adapt their strategy and ensures they don’t get everything their way.

Adding complexity to this decision making is the fact that these actions often cost resources and The Romans comes with three: manpower, materials and the quaintly named victuals. These are represented by simple cubes of different colours and managing these resources, as well as the levels of your senators and the open spaces in the central board, can be quite the juggling act. Yet another twist to this is the presence of the gods. Players can gain the favour of one of five gods in the game, each good for different types of help. Mars, for example, is terrific for mustering armies and getting your military game on whereas Minerva is all about that wisdom, levelling your senators up and letting them access more powerful spaces.

There are not many games that come with an honest-to-goodness cloth mat play area.

Senators are not just good for political manoeuvering though; as in real history, the key figures of Rome’s politics are also capable military leaders. Every Senator can be flipped to become a General and head out onto the player’s map of Europe to conquer. These generals can take troops with them (cute little legionnaire meeples are a high point of the game’s design) from the player’s reserve. Areas that are not subject to the glory of Rome contain face-down tokens that are revealed when a general marches in to show what defences there are in that region. Sometimes this might be just a solitary single army, nothing but meat in the grinder of Roman military might, but other times there can be multiple armies, walls and even forts, providing much stiffer opposition.

Once all those senators have been put to work it’s time for the Gauls, Persians, Egyptians and what-have-you to feel the point of the Roman pilum. Combat is a simple affair. A die is rolled for each side and then a number is added based on how many troops are present on each side, the strength of any generals (the natives can have leaders too) and any walls or fortifications in the area. Whoever rolls highest wins. If that was the player, the token representing the natives is removed and the Roman war effort marches on. If the player loses they must remove an army and try again although, crucially, the strength of each side is not recalculated. The general moves to an adjacent area, taking all but one of their meeples with them and another battle is fought with the token in that area. This carries on until the player runs out of meeples and can’t expand any further.

Bloody Macedonians, always causing trouble.

This battle dynamic creates an incredibly fluid arena of conflict as the armies of Rome are capable of advancing across an entire continent in one turn with enough armies and a strong general. The seas of ancient Europe are little barrier to conquest either as fleets can be built to transport armies around easily, although storms can destroy fleets if you’re unlucky. Adding to this fluidity is the fact that the natives get a chance to fight back. Later in the turn an enemy army, led by their own general, will be generated on the map and they will march on Rome, potentially re-taking areas the player just claimed and putting a fresh native token back there for the following turn.

If all this sounds very sensible for a single-player game but odd for a multiplayer game then remember that every player has their own map of Europe with their own forces and territories. Every player will generate one of these enemy armies and generals on their turn. The Romans is more like a single player game that comes with the ability for several players to compete at once and compare scores at the end. Players only come into contact with each other in the central worker placement area as they jostle for positions for their senators. Everyone is very much playing their own alternate reality of the same events with multiple views and versions of history based on the events and choices made. A nice twist on this is that, in a multiplayer instance of the game, only one player rolls the dice for battle and every player applies those results. A number pairing that gives one player victory may spell defeat for another player. This has no strategic effect on the game but is a nice way to keep turns moving and is something unique about the game.

For additional “fun” try taking a short break every round to research all of the Roman generals who come up in the game.

Conquering foes on the battlefield is not just about the glory of Rome, it is also about winning the game. As well as the vital tax income these areas provide, each turn players randomly generate an area of the map that is the target of that turn’s campaign. Taking control of that region (or building a city there if it is already wise to the majesty of Latium) gives a nice points boost. In the solo game a location will also be generated that will deny the AI points if it can be kept from them.

As well as these single-turn objectives there are three Triumph tokens in the three most remote corners of the map. These are the most difficult parts of the map to conquer (and they are very difficult to hold as they will come under attack automatically every turn if held by Rome) but the rewards are worth it. These Triumphs provide powerful end-game scoring bonuses and, in the multiplayer, are another point of interaction between the players as the first person to conquer one of these regions can look at the corresponding Triumph on every map and pick the one they like the most.

From small roots, tyrannical regimes grow

The AI in the single player experience is fairly simple and the rules to follow are intuitive and straightforward. It is refreshing in a fairly complex game to not be stopping and checking the rule book ten times a turn to see how the rules are different in solo mode. There is a combination of some rubber-banding aimed at keeping the AI in touch if it falls behind and some worst-case scenario decision making that ensures the player is always up against the toughest enemy armies. The fact that, even with other players, The Romans plays like a fairly solitary experience works in its favour when you are actually playing on your own.

The Romans has got some very interesting ideas and I can honestly say I haven’t played many games like it. The worker-placement element of the game is solid and deep, with plenty of factors to consider. The duality of the senator/general state of your workers in particular keeps things interesting on a tactical level. The military side of the game is very innovative too and it really feels like your Rome is progressing from a small kingdom to an empire spanning lands, seas and peoples beyond count. The Romans is one that I would definitely recommend for fans of historical or COIN-style gaming as it has something fresh to offer. The caveat to that is that if you don’t fancy a game in which large parts of it play out like a solo puzzle with little interaction with other players then this is not the game for you.

Edit 14/07/2020: As it transpires I missed a rule in the solo game that would have given the AI significantly more points than it accumulated in my testing.  For this reason I have removed my criticism of the solo mode being too easy.

The Romans can be found on boardgameprices.co.uk.

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