Last night, Sarah, Tim, Michael, Jon and I played two games of Republic of Rome, an awesome board game originally published by Avalon Hill and later republished by Valley Games. We were using the Valley Games version. It’s a long game and is best played with five players, but seeing that we had five players and that I had it in my car, Sarah leapt on the chance.
We also got a bunch of rules wrong. The era of Avalon Hill games was also the era of some very complicated games, and Republic of Rome is no exception. Once you know it, the major rules will be remembered, but there are situational rules that you’ll get wrong. I don’t play the game very often (5 players, 4+ hours? Nah!), so I got some basic rules wrong as well.
The game is set between 264 BC and 27 BC – from the beginning of the Punic Wars to the end of the Civil Wars that saw Augustus rise as supreme ruler of the Roman Empire. These were the great days of the Roman Republic. The Punic Wars were its first major test as a nation, and their interest in recording history started at that time, although it was a Greek historian, Polybius, that give us the earliest tales of this era. The players each control a faction of senators (however ahistorical those factions might be), squabbling for power and influence in the Senate. Along the way, they have to deal with the various trouble besetting Rome. This game requires the players to work together, or everyone loses, but only one player can win; either by leading a successful rebellion against the Senate or by becoming elected Consul for Life. Alternatively, having the most influence on your Senators at the end of the game can win you the game.
The game is terribly chaotic. At the start of every turn, one senator is selected randomly to die – you could lose your extremely popular and influential senator just because of a chit draw. Epidemics and poor battle results can cause even more senators to die. Assassination attempts become more frequent as the game goes on… some things you have control over, other things you don’t.
The balance of the game comes through the players not wanting one player to get too far ahead. If you’re doing badly, you’re likely to be given the influencing-giving Consul and Censor positions, rather than someone who is doing well. It’s for this reason that five players is best: it makes it much, much harder for one player to dominate the game. So, even though you’ve been rolling sevens for all your initiative rolls, and thus gaining no new cards, or your prime senator just got carried off in an epidemic, you can probably come back.
I first saw this game when I entered Melbourne University in 1990. I borrowed it and played around with the solo rules (it does not make a good solo game, incidentally), but never got in a proper game. It was only a few years ago that I finally picked up my own copy. Unfortunately, getting a good group together with the time to play it doesn’t happen very often. It did last night, and so I’m happy!
The first game saw the first card off the top of the deck turn out to be the Second Punic War. This had the effect of doubling the strength of the First Punic War, as well as making it active and something we had to deal with. Well, it wasn’t doubled in strength that first turn, but Evil Omens and a Manpower Shortage meant we couldn’t deal with it. Or the Second Punic War. Or any of the next two wars that came up, despite them having relatively low strengths. Rome was overcome in two turns… an extremely short game.
The second game went longer. The First Punic War was made active in the first turn by Hamilcar and Hannibal joining it (a few decades too soon in the case of the latter). We never were able to deal with it, but – luckily – the Second Punic War didn’t turn up for a very long time. Instead, we kept electing Dictators to deal with the lower strength conflicts. Rome was constantly short of funds, but it survived. Sarah, Jon and Tim had good early games, until Jon got too powerful and we slapped him down… aided by an epidemic. By the end of the game, he only had one senator in play. Tim became powerful, then began to lose power as Sarah dominated the Senate. Assassination attempts against Sarah failed. We ran out of time, with still a couple of turns left in the game (a lot of sevens had been rolled for initiative, causing a lot of events and the game to take longer to play; the game ends when the deck runs out). We elected one of Sarah’s senators, the current Dictator, Consul-for-Life as she would have won anyway.
What did we get wrong? Mainly the way we counted votes for senators, and no-one paid money to increase their vote count. The game still worked, and given there were lots of other things to worry about – elections, prosecutions, wars, games – it wasn’t that important. I’ve got a few cheat sheets in my bag now, so the other players get a better idea of the procedures in the game.
The second game played for about 3 hours, and that was just the Early Republic. The full game? Possibly 10-15 hours, but playing just a single age gives an enjoyable game.