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Subject: Mastering Mare Nostrum...with deck-building! rss

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Steven Dolges
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The hobby has no lacking of games about Rome. Caesar is always a good bet. Carthage is a tale. But once you get to the Empire's hegemony of the Mediterranean things tend to get harder to portray. Imperium Romanum provides a complex treatment of that period but that is certainly a game that can be tough to pull together a group for.

Enter Time of Crisis.

Rather than try to simulate the Crisis of the Third Century in chrome-laden detail, ToC approaches the subject with a bit of abstraction and a sandbox playing field for up to 4 would-be emperors.

I first played this game with one other person, but have now gotten to get a few 4 player games off and feel I can talk to the game fully now.


Components and Rules Organization:


Standard sturdy bookcase box from GMT, mounted board, solid quality counters and cards. The game has the good GMT quality one can expect from them. The actual art design of the game is pretty solid. The map is pretty, if basic, though it is more 'basic' due to the low complexity of information needed to be conveyed. The cards have nice art and are easy to read. Counters are large (compared to other games) and are easy to handle and identify. The overall presentation of the game is very good. It's hard to be 'stellar' in the components department. I'll say it is exactly what it needs to be.

The rules are a quick read and easy to follow. The game in general is easy to learn for this reason. All the rules are laid out in a solid manner though some clarifications are required (available here and elsewhere). I kind of wish there were more designer and historical notes like many other games, but those are always just a bonus.


Gameplay:

Time of Crisis takes a gamble in being a very different game from, say, Sword of Rome (shares a designer). While SoR used a card driven system, Time of Crisis takes cards and focuses on building a deck, similar to Star Realms. This might call into question whether or not this game is a war game. I won't dwell on the subject, as the game is fun, easy to teach, and accessible/playable. We may even have the dawning of a new system standard incorporating deck building into war gaming mechanics.

Each player represents a nameless (besides color) dynasty/family/house within the Roman Empire circa 200-300AD. Right away, being a nameless faction removes some of the thematic detail but it doesn't stop one from picking a historical family and 'role-playing' if one really wanted to I guess.

At the beginning of the game, players are given a basic deck containing 3 of each basic type of card. 'Yellow' cards represent influence and resources related to 'the people' of Rome, 'Blue' cards represent influence and resources related to 'the Senate' of Rome, and 'Red' cards in turn represent 'the military'. Player select a starting province on the map to start and get a free 'governor' that determines control of said province. Also at start players get a free military leader and one legion. Sadly the individual provinces don't have much individual flavor besides being in the path of certain barbarian hordes and subject to certain global event cards that come up, but any more flavor would likely complicate a game that intends to be low complexity.

Players choose 5 cards from their beginning deck to start the game and play proceeds around the table, each player on their turn playing all their cards and taking actions based on the points generated by the cards. Red cards will help create and expand armies, move them, and initiate battles. Blue cards are mostly used to change the governors of provinces. Yellow cards place militia (weaker, stationary combat units), increase provincial support, build improvements to provinces (worth VP), and quelling mobs (which can be placed by other players with events).

Early on players will typically have very similar turns, consolidating provincial support and nabbing another province early. This is due to the same starting deck, but over the course of the turns, support in governed provinces generate points to spend on buying new cards to add to the decks. Players can choose to focus on a certain type of card set but will likely need to balance a bit of all type to remain competitive. Purchased cards also have events on them (same event on every different colored number card) that are in addition to any action points generated. Many of these end up being more valuable than the points at times, like the blue events that de-activiate barbarians or bring them into your army. Eventually a beefed up deck will have to suffer through worse turns where the only available cards for a hand are the initial crappy '1' cards, so culling is required to a degree, which costs the same points used for buying them.

Movement is very basic, mostly between regions and potentially the 'capital' within each province. With 3 red points, once can travel to most places on the map, for instance. There aren't hundreds of hexes or spaces, just broad regions.

Every player turn a die roll is made on the crisis table, which will either bring barbarians into an 'activated' state and thus able to invade player territory. Relatively often the result may instead be 'event' which will cause some global effect, sometimes bringing a modifier to dice rolls until the next event, sometimes bringing in barbarian leaders, and even bringing in 'Rival Emperors' which are non-player enemy units that are tough and will be a thorn in the side of the reigning Emperor. There is a card representing Diocletian, shuffled into the bottom few cards of the event deck, which may bring en early end to the game.

The players will compete to gain Legacy points (VPs). What is great about the game is that there a multiple paths to victory. Winning battles is worth some Legacy points regardless of the kind of opponent defeated (human player or non-player barbarian) but killing barbarians provides a bonus to those points. So being the 'defender of the Empire' is a viable strategy, though constantly being in the way of barbarians can be resource draining. You CAN enter barbarians regions pre-emptively and fight them, so don't be afraid to venture out. You also gain Legacy for governing provinces so expanding is good, but you also gain points for improving your provinces so a stable and well protected smaller territory can work too. You get points for your support as Emperor, so it pays to become the Emperor as much as you can. The player with the most turns as Emperor at game end also gets bonus points so unsurprisingly it will feel like King of the Hill at times. On the other hand, via the strongest yellow card, you can break off from the Empire proper and form an independent state (like the historical Gallic and Palmyrene Empires). This will be a problem for the reigning Emperor and you get extra Legacy points that way as well.

The game ending state is triggered when a player is the Emperor and has 60 or more legacy points (or 40 for the shorter game). Play will continue until every player has had the same number of turns, then bonus Legacy is tallied and a winner is determined. So if the first player hits this at the end of his turn, the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th players get one last turn as well. This gives some advantage to the last player, as no one can change the outcome once they hit the threshold and the game will immediately end. It is possible though, that someone who was in 2nd or 3rd (or 4th) place before the bonus points are tallied jumps ahead to 1st because they had the most turns as Emperor.

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Overall the game is a lot of fun. The 2-player go of it was okay, but this game really ought to be played 3 or 4 player. There is more interaction in those cases. With the rules simple and relatively low-complexity it is easy for folks to jump in and learn. I really enjoy you have multiple ways to accrue points and you always feel like there is something you could be doing (though sometimes a crap hand feels dull). I appreciate you can hire barbarians as Foederati via card event, just a nice touch. While not a simulation of the period, even with abstraction it gets the 'feel' of the period across: Barbarians encroaching, new Emperors every week, political upheaval, and civil wars.

Here's hoping this game gets some love in the future in either expansions or sequels. Being able to properly play the barbarians would be neat or jumping ahead to the era of Attila would be an interesting twist on what is a fun and unique (to me at least) hybrid system.

This will be a great game to get to the table with friends, even those that aren't big on war games. It also plays fairly quickly, a couple of hours. I recommend this game to anyone who enjoys light war games, Roman history, and/or deck-building. If you are into hardcore high-complexity games, maybe give this a look as a gateway game for friends you want to introduce to the hobby.

Overall Rating: 9/10

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Roger Hobden
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Re: Mastering Mare Mostrum...with deck-building!
Mare Mostrum or Nostrum ?
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Roger Hobden
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Re: Mastering Mare Mostrum...with deck-building!
Very nice review !

Makes me want to buy this game.

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Steven Dolges
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Re: Mastering Mare Mostrum...with deck-building!
Mallet wrote:
Mare Mostrum or Nostrum ?


Oh crap I missed the title typo...
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Ron
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Devoted Follower of the Most Holy Church of the Evil Bob. Possessed and down the road to become chaotic, evil & naughty. All hail the Evil Bob and his Stargate.
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Mallet wrote:
Very nice review !

Makes me want to buy this game.


Agreed. I just ordered the game because of Steven's review!
Steven, I hold you responsible if I don't enjoy the game
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Steven Dolges
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PzVIE wrote:
Mallet wrote:
Very nice review !

Makes me want to buy this game.


Agreed. I just ordered the game because of Steven's review!
Steven, I hold you responsible if I don't enjoy the game


Well as long as you hold be responsible if you enjoy it too.
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Cezary Domalski
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Steven, how you compare this title with Successors? (I see looking at your microbadges, that you are fan of this GMT game)
 
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Steven Dolges
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clownPL wrote:
Steven, how you compare this title with Successors? (I see looking at your microbadges, that you are fan of this GMT game)


Hey Cezary,

Comparing this to Successors? Hm. Firstly I'd say both are really great games and it is worth having both. Only problem maybe being that Successors is currently out of print and copies can go for quite a decent chunk of change until a 4th edition gets printed/announced.

Time of Crisis is simpler and easier to learn. Successors is more complex in that is closer to a standard Card Driven Game, with more spaces for movement than the broad regions of ToC. Things like interception, battle avoidance, and distinct leader ratings/differences means there is more to consider. More unit types. Naval rules. It is not too hard to learn either, just a little more rules burden for a newcomer.

Successors also spends a little more rules budget on chrome and historical detail, where ToC remains more abstract. For instance Successors has two different types of victory points, regular VPs from territory and Legitimacy points (LP) from being and doing things that reflect trying to maintain Macedonian culture and customs in your faction.

I mentioned in my review ToC is a good gateway game. By comparison Successors is another great multiplayer game that folks can graduate to once they get the urge to play more wargames, not that a newbie couldn't enjoy it.

Hope that makes sense. We really need a new printing of Successors!
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