Back in 1994 Piatnik released a collection of 14 simple games by Reiner Knizia, all themed around the rise and fall of the Roman Empire. Many of these games were revamped and fleshed out and released as individual games. Seven Hills of Rome became Schotten-Totten, Mercator became Medici, etc. GMT has re-released three of the original games (with relatively minor changes) in a single package called Rome. I'll have a look at each of the three games individually:
You can't have a Rome-themed collection without a chariot racing game. Each player (up to five) controls a team of three chariots. The goal is to have each of your chariots complete a single lap and then move onto one of the finishing hexes in the center of the map. The winner is the first player to have all three of her chariots finish. The game is played in rounds and each chariot will be moved (in current race order) using one to three cards. Every player has a hand of five cards labeled 1 through 5. When it's time to move one of your chariots you place one of your cards down and move that chariot exactly that number of spaces in a straight line. You cannot turn during this move nor may you move through another chariot. If you can't move the full amount, you do not move at all (a very bad thing). As stated you can play up to three cards for each chariot and each one of these card plays is independent of the others. So, you could move a chariot two spaces to the outside (using your "2" card), then play your "4" to move four spaces forward. The only restriction is that you must save at least one card for for each chariot so if you play three cards on your first one, you must play one each on the remaining two. Once all chariots have been moved everyone picks up their cards and another round starts.
Almost painfully simple but there appears to be a surprising amount of depth to the game. There are various strategies to employ—should you use all your good cards to move your lead chariot as fast as possible or use them more evenly? Should you try to block others or take the most efficient route? Much depends on what your opponents do but I must confess that the game has confounded me somewhat. It seems as if one tactic should be superior but I certainly have failed to find it. I've tried a number of different approaches and they've all failed equally! This is probably a good thing as its simplicity keeps drawing me back for more punishment as I struggle to figure the damn thing out. I do worry that I'm searching for something that simply isn't there however. All the games have been very close with most people finishing during the same round and so winning is often determined by a single hex of movement. I would feel more confident if one player was really able to run away with it. When all players finish within a turn of each other it seems that maybe the finish is more a matter of luck than skill. Still, this remains just a suspicion and, for now, Circus Maximus provides a quick, 15 minute challenge.
The Mediterranean region is divided in 8 provinces and the players vie for control of them. Each province is numbered 1 through 8 and this indicates both its' value and the order in which it will be evaluated for victory points. Each turn, all players will simultaneously add up to three influence markers into provinces of their choice and then the current province will be scored. On the next turn, everyone will add another three influence markers and the next province scored and so on through the provinces until one player has attained at least 40 points.
The original version of the game had each province scored but a single time and I think this may have been a better system as it kept the game relatively short (more on this later). There are a couple of additions that I do not believe were in the original game. The first is that if there is an outright winner in a province, that player leaves a single influence marker there (normally all markers are removed after a scoring occurs). This can be a decided advantage and really encourages players to fight for ownership of at least one province. There are also two special, one-use cards that definitely improve the game. The first, Oracle, allows you to place your influence markers after all other players. The second, Ear of the Emperor means that an extra province will be scored this round. So if you would normally be scoring province 4, you'll also score province 5 (and province 6 if more than one Ear of the Emperor card is played). This shakes things up quite nicely and prevents anyone from developing a "perfect plan".
I found that playing with five an unsatisfying experience—it felt too chaotic and difficult to control your fate. Since it's rather hard to know where your opponents will place it seemed that success normally went to whoever was lucky enough to have the least number of competitors. This problem is still present in three or four player games but is not so pronounced and I think this is because with fewer numbers it becomes easier to guess at what your opponents are up to. When playing with five, your four opponents will place influence markers in 8 to 12 different provinces (some of which will be duplicated). As there are only 8 provinces total it is very unlikely you'll choose a province that no one else has chosen and so there's a feeling of futility in what you can do. What makes this really worse is that five player games tend to last about 40 minutes and this is just a little too long for this game. Three & four player games tend to last 25-30 minutes and this feels much more acceptable. In the future I'll be limiting my games to these numbers.
Hannibal vs. Rome
This is a short (10 minute) two player game depicting the action of the second Punic War. Each player has a number of armies and fleets (Rome has one more army but Carthage has the powerful Hannibal unit) and a hand of five cards with values 1 to 5. Each turn a player may move an army to an adjacent territory or a fleet to any of the five straits. You may instead move an army across a strait if you already have at least one fleet there. If you move into an area that contains an enemy unit (army or fleet), a battle occurs. Each player simultaneously selects a card from their hand and the higher card wins. (On a tie both units are lost.) A player wins if he moves a unit into Rome or Carthage (even if there are defenders present) or by controlling three specific areas on the board. For the most part, that's it!
Clearly this is a very simple game of trying to out-bluff your opponent. The forces are so equal that it's a guessing game of trying to figure out what card your opponent will play in battle and then playing a card one higher. Obviously the best possible outcome would be for you to play your "1" against his "5" and then win the next four battles by one point (after which both players renew their hand with all five cards). In practice this is largely going to be a matter of guesswork though so you can't really plan too deeply.
Despite this simplicity there is a surprising amount of room for maneuvering and tactical play. There is some skill in deciding which battles you can afford to lose and which ones are important to win and this can often tip the scales in your favour.
There is an annoying error on the map which is the alternate victory condition of controlling certain regions. The rules mention controlling three specific regions (different for each side) whereas the map states that controlling 5 marked regions will win. This isn't a terrible problem as if you satisfy the "map conditions" you'll have also satisfied the conditions in the rulebook.
It seems clear to me that Knizia reworked the basic premise of this game into the far more interesting Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation but I still rather enjoy Hannibal vs. Rome. This isn't something that I'll play terribly often but it makes for a good little diversion while you wait for others to show up.
The Whole Shooting Match
The idea of releasing three games in one package is an unusual one and not without pros and cons. One of the main advantages is that you get excellent value for your money. Released individually, these three games would cost much more than the retail price of $39US and I'm sure the components would be worse even at that higher price. It's very unlikely that a large mounted mapboard would be possible for a $20 game. However, this cost savings is only really valid if you actually want all three games in the package. If you're only interested in Circus Maximus, well, it's pretty expensive for such a light game.
The components are very nice and so there are very few complaints there—nice chunky wooden bits with labels to be applied, I think the chariots are particularly attractive. The boards are simple and very clean looking. The Colisseum is very well done in my opinion and adds to the experience. (Some people have complained that the shadows are at odd angles. Normally this sort of thing would really bother me but, for whatever reason, it doesn't.) The cards are the usual GMT standard, clear and functional, although I'm not especially fond of the artwork. The quality is a little suspect though—it seems that they tend to show little nicks and scratches on the edges very easily so I think that placing them in clear card protectors is a must, especially for Hannibal vs. Rome. (A marked card in that game would practically ruin it.) The cards are the same size as most collectible card games so for a dollar or so you can get enough protectors for the entire game.
There is one semi-serious problem with the components and that's the sticker sheet—they're all a little bit too large for the wood blocks! If you don't trim them they'll hang over the edges and I guarantee you that they'll start to peel off before long. The stickers are purely decorative and you could play the games quite easily without them but they're attractive enough that I'd recommend giving them a slight trim with a knife or scissors.
Overall, I think Rome is a very good package and all three games have merit and are worthy of play. Recommended.
- Greg Aleknevicus