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Designer Diary: Tetrarchia, or The Four Swords of Rome

Miguel (working on TENNISmind...)
(from Valencia, Spain)
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My latest game: Big*Bang, a simple abstract about the first minutes of the Universe
My best-rated game: Tetrarchia, about the tetrarchy that saved Rome
By the end of the III century BC, the Roman consul Marcus Claudius Marcellus was nicknamed "The Sword of Rome" for his exploits in the wars against the Gauls and the Carthaginians.

Five centuries later, by the end of the III century AD, the times of the old Republic are too far away and the now Roman Empire seems doomed. Enemies cross the borders, rebellion spreads over its provinces, and when an Emperor has both the courage and ability to face the threats, usurpers take his place in Rome, increasing the chaos. The Emperor Diocletian sees only one revolutionary way out: Share the divine power with trusted colleagues. In a few years he forms an Imperial College with Maximian, Constantius and Galerius, leading to the first Tetrarchy. Now the swords of Rome are four, and they are going to fall without mercy over their enemies...

This is the fascinating story that pushed me to design Tetrarchia!

The Idea

This game was born from the overlap of several passions:

1) After playing Gardens of Mars (from nestorgames), I was amazed about how much can be done with so little. A board that can be rolled up, plastic discs, laser-cut meeples, some dice...and that's all. No cards, no tables, no box! Only components that are wear-proof in a format compact and light that can be taken anywhere. I fixed this component limit as an objective for my next design.

2) I am a fan of games, but most of all of history. I read a lot about military conflicts, and I play wargames. I felt like introducing the genre in nestorgames, since I think their format would be perfect for light wargames. I have several very different ideas for some wars; I only needed to pick one to start with...

3) I play solitaire often, for lack of time and/or players, and I have found that cooperative games are a fun alternative to the more traditional solitaire games. I started with Pandemic, then Ghost Stories, and finally Flash Point: Fire Rescue. I love the fire-spreading mechanism of the latter; you can always be surprised because it is not deterministic at all, but following a strategy you can limit the surprises and end up controlling it. I needed a period in which threats spread in an unpredictable way.

4) My passion for Commands & Colors: Ancients, the game I play the most, has shifted my history interests from Classical Greece to Rome. First the Republic, then the Empire...and finally the Late Empire. When I started reading about Diocletian and the Tetrarchy, I felt that all these passions fitted together!

First Steps

The random mechanism to spread revolts required two levels of threats, which I defined as Unrest (gray disc) and Revolt (black). I also needed two coordinates per space that would be obtained by rolling dice, which I immediately identified with Regions and Provinces. In order to distinguish both coordinate dice I chose a thematic solution: a Roman die and a normal one. I tried to find six regions (with Roman numerals) holding each six provinces (decimal numerals), around the central region Italia. I had to distort the Late Roman Empire maps I found (more on that below), made a very rough sketch, and started to play!

The players would handle the four Emperors, and on their turn they would first spend action (Imperivm) points to fight for Rome, then roll the dice to propagate threats on the coordinates obtained. In Flash Point there is "only" the fire-related threat; here the revolt in the provinces would be completed by Barbarian armies that would try to reach Rome. The aim of the game would be to protect the Empire borders (those of the six outer regions) before half of the provinces revolted or Rome fell.

Several items played several roles. The numbers on the provinces gave me their coordinates within the region, but by ordering them in some way they could also give me the path the Barbarian armies would follow through that region. The dice that gave me the coordinates could also give me the combat results: the Roman die for the Roman, the decimal die for the Barbarian. Making them white and black, respectively, made this function become even more explicit.

The final touch to add strategy to combat was the ideas of support (discs that add to the result of the die) and of combined attack (other Emperors/Barbarians connected to the battle multiplying the result x2). With neither tables nor complex calculations, a single roll of two dice solves battles, with a touch of uncertainty and, more importantly, the promotion of cooperation. After all, in many situations it is impossible to defeat a Barbarian army on your own, and that requires careful team planning because armies are a threat that moves from turn to turn.

The Map

The map had to be A4 size (nestorgames) and hold six regions around Italia with six provinces each (of 15mm diameter). Therefore, the "real" maps (above) could not be used. First, I had to remove Britannia from the Empire because its border would have been too far north and some oriental conquests that pushed that border too far east. Then I had to distort some regions: Hispania smaller than Gallia, push the Danube up to leave more room for Illyricvm and Graecia, compress the Turkish peninsula...

Once the frame had been defined (below left), I chose among the historical provinces those that were better known (as there were far more than 42), though I had to move some and make up others. The nature of the links connecting provinces was an easy issue as it was given by the geography (some are "broken" and cost twice to cross), and this is an advantage when you design real world conflicts! Finally, I had to find a border/threat for each region. For Gallia, it allowed me to take Britannia back to the board, but I had a problem with the Iberian peninsula...

I considered adding an exception for Hispania and saying that region (like Italia) had no border/threat, but it was a blow to my quest of elegance and simplicity — then history came to my rescue! It turns out that at that time they had included the most western African province, Mavretania Tingitana (modern Morocco), into Hispania in order to better answer to threats coming from that area. Problem solved: Africa would end between modern Morocco and Algeria, and Hispania had its border!

The rest was "easy": Play with the colors, textures, contrasts...up to the final touch of using the die symbols for the region/province numerals because as soon as you roll the dice, you see the province they refer to.

All in all, I am very proud of the map! If you scroll back to the top of the diary, you'll see the final map stretched to fit on top of the real one. I wanted the game to be language independent, so from the start I chose Latin names for everything, even the title! The rulebooks are available (for the moment) in English, Spanish and French.

The Capitals

I added a final touch of history to the map by drawing the Tetrarchic capitals. Although Rome continued to be the nominal capital of the entire Roman Empire, the Tetrarchs based themselves in other cities closer to the borders, mainly intended as headquarters for the defense of the Empire against the most immediate and menacing threats:

-----() Augusta Treverorum (modern Trier) was the capital of Constantius, the western Caesar, near the strategic Rhine border (province Germania Inferior).

-----() Mediolanum (modern Milan) was the capital of Maximian, the western Augustus, in charge of Italia and Africa (province Cisalpina).

-----() Sirmium (modern Sremska Mitrovica) was the capital of Galerius, the eastern Caesar, on the critical Danube border (province Pannonia Inferior).

-----() Nicomedia (modern Izmit) was the capital of Diocletian, the eastern Augustus, a base against invasion from the Balkans and Persia (province Bithynia).

In the game they play their historical role, a base to reach the borders more rapidly and a support against revolts and Barbarian armies. And without adding specific powers to each Emperor figure, they give them a historical flavor.

The Nestorgames Edition

The design process had been extremely fast: I started drawing maps freehand in June 2015, and by September 2015 the game was ready! I was lucky enough that all the different ideas fit from the start; everything worked as I had expected or better. The couple of things that hindered the game flow were solved with the help of my brother Fernando, who has the ability to "see" through game designs. As I said, one of the precursor ideas was fitting the nestorgames format, so contacting Néstor was the natural next step.

For a moment I was tempted to try more "traditional" publishers in order to have a box, mounted map, miniatures...but very soon I realized that the game would be much better with a case, a rollable board, and meeples, my original idea. So I contacted Néstor, and (as with my BASKETmind) he surprised me again! Very professional, respectful of the design, always fast to suggest ideas. Sometimes we forget how globalization has changed our lives: being thousands of km away, an e-mail, a picture taken with the phone, a search on google...and a new idea replaces a problem.

For the Emperors, we chose a Roman silhouette inspired by the statue of the tetrarchs above, with cylindrical helmets. As you can see, the Roman meeples look great. (I know I'm subjective...) They are cute, you can spot them very easily on the board, and they give the game a lot of character. I like them more than the Greek and Roman miniatures I had bought for the prototypes (see above, left-center)!

The printed map looks great, too. It is the first time I take a freehand drawing so far, going through a computer vector drawing (that I already had) and finally aging it with Photoshop. It is also the first game map I've seen on a mouse pad, and all the players have loved it!

Fight for Rome!

I hope this diary has given you an overall view of the game, of the why behind some design choices, and also the will to try it! It has nothing to do with my first design, BASKETmind, except for the format. The latter was exclusively two players, face to face, sports themed... Tetrarchia can be played solitaire or with 2-4 players, is cooperative, has a historical theme, and plays in about 30 minutes. I am very happy with the result, it has become the game I play the most (alone or with others), and the nestorgames edition has exceeded all my expectations.

The set-up has four parameters that can take three values each, depending on the difficulty you wish, so you can define up to 81 different challenges! The game also includes five official variants that twist the gameplay, especially the last one — "The Great" — that moves sooner in time the historical facts that followed the Tetrarchy (the rivalries that ended it to the hands of Constantine the Great), adding a competitive aspect that hinders cooperation.

And the design process is not over. We have already an expansion that will introduce a new and redoubtable enemy (Gothic Army), a new obstacle (Pirates) to block naval movement, and a fifth colleague (Dux) to help the Emperors. I am even thinking of a different game for three players set 150 years later, not cooperative at all, that will use the same components, but it will take longer to develop...

Thanks for reading, and I hope some of you will enjoy the game!

Miguel Marqués

P.S. #1 For those who don't know, Constantine the Great was the son of Constantius, the "Red Emperor" in this game.

P.S. #2 You can find some strategy tips here or here.
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