Swamp Hamster
United States
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Title: Belisarius’s War: The Roman Reconquest of Africa, AD 533-534

Basic information: Designed by Joseph Miranda (Decision Games 2012)

Overall Evaluation: I really like this little game despite some flaws in the mechanics. This game and “Caesar’s War” are the first two releases in the Ancient Wars “Mini Game Series.” The game is designed to be fast and simple with a low complexity system of rules that permit fast play. It’s a good little ancients game when you have no more than an hour of time to play. It’s also small and highly transportable for trips.

Background Theme: Emperor Justinian of the Byzantine Empire (transformed Eastern Roman Empire) sent the highly capable General Belisarius to North Africa. The Vandals had moved into North Africa from Central Europe and taken the area from the collapsed Western Roman Empire. Justinian intended to return the area to “Roman” rule. There were many reasons for the campaign and their range included economic, political, personal, cultural, and religious -- and are worthy of review in any general history of the area.

Format and Components: The game is packaged in a zip-lock style and includes rules, an 11”x17” playing map, 18 player cards (9 for the Romans and 9 for the Vandals), and 40 counters. The counters represent Roman leaders, infantry, garrison troops, cavalry, scouts, naval vessels, and a fortified camp. The opponents are represented by Vandal, Moor, and Hun cavalry, a leader, and naval vessels. The game utilizes a point-to-point system for both land and naval movement. The map covers the western Mediterranean world. Players provide their own six-sided die.

Rules: The basic “Ancient Wars Mini Game Series” system rules book is 4 pages (8 ½ “ x 11“ inches) and the “Belisarius’s War” special scenario rules are 1 page in length. The rules are fairly easy to follow and the game is easy to learn.

Abbreviated Play: The game consists of 11 turns with Roman naval and land forces (and allies) moving from Hellas (western Greece) to Sicilia (Sicily) and then making the determination of shifting to Sardinia and/or landing directly in what is now Tunisia. Once Sicily and Sardinia are taken, nearly the entire game will be played in what is now Tunisia and eastern Algeria. Each player draws a random Campaign card at each turn which provides information related to recruitment of new forces; loss or gain of allied forces; movement points for various types of units; fleet movement points; and unique events such as rebellions or special events. The player recruits reinforcements and conducts movement in accordance with the allowance on the card. Combat can occur between opponents in open territory or via sieges of towns and fortresses. Movement is via a point-to-point system with various terrain features that impact both movement and combat. There is an optional advanced rule for supply and I highly recommend incorporating it into the game even though it is simple and abstract. Other advanced optional rules include advance after combat, morale, and forced marches.

Replay Value: Average. The utilization of the campaign cards alters the flow of every game. However, the cards are too few in number and predictability increases with a corresponding reduction in replayability late in a game. As written elsewhere in this review, doubling the number of campaign cards to 18 on each side would greatly increase the replayability throughout each game. The Romans have one main goal -- capture all five fortresses. However, they are limited in strategy - land at the coast opposite Sardinia or Sicilia or attempt a naval outflanking movement to Caesarea or even the much distant Septem. The Vandals have the goal to prevent the Roman victory. They need to hold at least two fortresses to win. Thus, their strategy is to slow the Roman advance. I successfully experimented with an advance naval strategy that proved successful at slowing the Romans to the point of not obtaining their goal. A strong defense on Sardinia combined with blocking ports worked in this case.

Solo Play: Good. “Belisarius’s War” is designed for two players but is easy to solo due to its simplicity and game system with Random Events cards.

Evaluation: I found “Belisarius’s War” to be an overall good game and look forward to future games using this system. It is easy to learn and fun to play although replayability is limited. This would be a good game to introduce new players to the hobby. It does have some mechanical flaws but these are certainly easy to fix being that it is a simple game.

Here are a few points I like:

a. Easy to learn and easy to play as a game in the Mini Series. Can be played anywhere due to size and each game can be completed in about an hour+.

b. I really like the utilization of Campaign Cards to alter the flow of the game. These add to the replayability even if too few in number in my opinion. A player can have a strategy set for a turn only to lose allies or face dissention within the ranks. Frustrating but fun -- and realistic.

c. Good basic series system that leads to a potential for more games covering other ancient campaigns.

d. I enjoy the subject and time period. Interesting game.

e. The system offers advanced optional rules. I like this in a game. I prefer to learn the basic rules and give them a working to see how the system operates. I then incorporate the optional rules.

There are a few points some gamers may not like:

a. Some gamers are not into “micro games” such as the Decision Games mini series. Thus, one should expect an element of simplicity and abstraction in this game. This is a small game with small number of counters. Yet, I must add a caveat for those gamers that for its size, this game packs a big punch. Everyone has their preference for large vs. small games and I certainly respect that point. I am a big proponent that “one size does not fit all” in gaming and there is room for all levels of complexity.

b. Combat is fairly abstract (ie. not tactical) due to the game scale and level of complexity. This is a natural trade off as one decreases in game complexity.

c. Each player has only 9 Campaign cards for an 11 turn game. This presents a problem. For example with the Roman Campaign cards -- only one card is permanently removed from play after it is revealed. The others are discarded and then reshuffled when the 9 cards have been exhausted. One of the cards presents a scenario where the Romans automatically aid a rebellion in any Vandal fortress or town. With only 9 cards, that means this card will appear sometime in the first 9 turns of the game. Since the Roman player may select any fortress or town, one logical decision is to choose Septem -- the farthest fortress to the west located at what is now the Strait of Gibraltar. To win, the Romans must capture all five fortresses on the map. Each time I played the game, the Romans occupied Septem via the Campaign Card. As long as they hold it at the end of the game, this necessitates Roman movements west of Hippo Regulus allowing them to concentrate forces on the four central fortresses. House Rules time -- I changed that rule for better balance of play and rolled a single die. 1= Syracusa; 2=Forum Traiani; 3=Carthage; 4=Hippo Regulus; 5=Ceuta (town); and 6=Caesarea (town). If the fortress or town is already Roman occupied, roll again. My recommendation for a permanent solution is for future games in this series to have more campaign cards than turns. This way a unique card such as the rebellion is likely but not guaranteed to appear.

d. There are errors on the map that should be given pen-and-ink corrections before play. First, Hippo Regulus is a fortress and should have buildings within its marking. This has no impact on play as long as gamers utilize the hexagon shape as a fortress. The circle below Hadrumetum should have a port marker (ship) if the naval route from Melita is correct.

e. Some gamers have complained about a lack of decision making. I agree with them that decision making is minimal. However, this is more of a lower complexity strategic game. Decision making, due to lower complexity, is based more on setting offensive targeting and laying out defenses...and then changing everything when a campaign card dictates a new situation. Players more interested in tactical decisions can be frustrated with the strategic nature of the game.

f. The backs of both the Roman and Vandal campaign cards have the same design making them a little more difficult to sort. While a minor point, it would have been helpful to have unique backs to easy sorting and placement on the map. Being a small game...don't forget your reading glasses to read the tiny print on the cards!

Bang for the Buck: Very Good. This game packs a good punch for its size despite some problems with its mechanics and is a very good value due to being inexpensive.

c The Swamp Hamster
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