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Subject: Mare Nostrum - solid mechanics but some odd design choices rss

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Boots
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Last year my new gaming group and I were playing 'Betrayal at the House on the Hill' for fun, and 'Game of Thrones' for serious. Then one of us got Mare Nostrum for a birthday.

We've since played three times - twice with the basic setup, and once with the advanced. Two of the games have been short - only four players. My basic call on the game is that it is really well-crafted (as you'd expect for a game this long in development), elegant in parts, but marred by some odd design choices.

The biggest positive is the trading mechanic. This is probably my favourite aspect of the game, and it is so good as to rival long-time favourite and pretty-much-perfect game, Settlers of Catan. Relative scarcities and abundances play out really well. We've found that players actually get into the 'marketplace' feel by hawking their wares - it's a hell of a lot of fun, surprisingly strategic, and really interactive.

Another plus is the really strong separation of early, middle and late game, with differing strategies playing out in each phase. Early game the push is for cheap development of resources, with players concentrating on the 3-cost improvements. Once these improvements run out, the game shifts into a middle phase of varying length - this is where the 6-cost improvements get built, and where military units start to count. It does usually play out with Rome going after Greece, though we've seen Persia and Carthage weigh in, especially with the re-balancing errata. Sometimes the military mid-game goes on for a while, other times we've skipped it altogether.

The final phase begins after the few (if any) territorial re-arrangements, and when the second-tier, 6-cost improvements run out, and it's when everyone goes in for the kill by collecting the 9-cost wonders/heroes, or going after the 12-cost pyramids. This phase is characterised by really tactical trading, with a lot of bean-counting and gamesmanship going on. The game often ends quite suddenly, as while trading is the province of the player who's earned the "economic leader" card, it's often the player who holds the "political leader" card who dictates which of two competing players actually wins. This is definitely a game where the playing is the fun, and the end is often anticlimactic. That's not really a bad thing, in my book.

My problems with the game start with the way the mechanics are matched to the board. The resources are spread pretty evenly across the provinces, though Gems and Metal often end up scarce because they're far from the starting points. You get just enough resource cards (similar to the ones in Settlers, though there are 12 types not 5/8) to make sure you'll never run out in a given trading round. However, there aren't enough improvement tokens to allow empires to spread very far.

This means empires are curtailed in growth not by running out of room or exploitable resources, but by limits on improvements. This is counter-intuitive in the extreme. I understand why the designer made this choice - to allow the primacy of trading rather than military action - but it's infuriating in the extreme and means almost no expansion. Why pay 3 points for an influence token when you need to build up your home provinces before caravans run out?

There are far too many provinces and far too many resources. Rome rarely builds more than one province out from its starting point, Carthage rarely develops more than two new provinces before tokens run out. There are provinces that never get developed, because there's a two- or three-turn turnaround to get them influenced and built up, in which all the tokens get snaffled.

Which is connected to my final gripe - the utter uselessness of armies. The best way to keep growing once improvements run out is to invade neighboring provinces. When you do, you can give your opponent one last turn of income while you take the whole province, destroy a building and build it in your own territory next turn, or steal its production.

The problem here is that the only smart choice is to sack the building and build it in your own territory - a slow and laborious process with minimal long-term gain, in comparison to taking the whole province. The reason for this is that with only 8 legions each, an attack is invariably followed by both players concentrating all 8 legions in the contested province. If your legions get tied to that province while going for one of the high-gain strategies, you're almost utterly undefended. The military mechanics themselves are really great, as are the improvement ones, but like improvements, the game ships with about half as many legions as you feel you need.

In short, Mare Nostrum is a game I like, but one that I find frustrating even as I enjoy it. Great mechanics, innovative and tactical gameplay, and lots of player interaction that doesn't revolve around the military. The biggest issue is the artificial caps you hit, irritatingly early.
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Sam
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The passive (minimal military) strategy is just one strategy. Start mixing things a little, and playing different to what you group has grown to get used to, and you will find that military has its uses, when used at the appropriate times...

I agree that "theoretically" it appears that resources are better spent (economically) in non-military development and focusing on strengthening your own regions, but there are more variables that need to fully be taken into account. (ie Egypt is resource rich and militarily weak, so one strategy is to trade many cards during the commerce phase so that Egypt is forced to trade most their cards... soon they will have to start expanding to gain the appropriate resources, which means focusing on some military, which they are weak in to start off with. Also, Rome may be militarily strong but if you could try to strangle their hold of different resources than it'll make it just as hard for them to gain the resources Rome really needs)

The special cards also play a decisive factor too.

But then again ,if only some people devote themselves to stalling the progress of others (while aiming to improve their own), while others play "safe" (either because they're new to the game or prefer to "leave it to others" attitude), then what I've found is that you achieve to stall that other person but the person who didn't get involved at all tends to benefit most by not expending any extra resources in the contests. Therefore, the game forces everyone to look at each other's situation as a whole, and to modify their strategy so as to make appropriate choices not to allow anyone else to run away with the game, as much as one would like to focus on little mini-battles.

Alternatively, get the expansion. The extra special/Gods/Heroes cards really add to what choices you can make. And military plays a much more prominent role. Most games we've payed so far though have felt as if they've ended a little prematurely- just when you've got your empire going, somebody seems to sneek in a quick victory. So we've modified the rules to play to 14 rather than 13 resources.

In fact, ever since obtaining the expansion, we've never played without it. Definitely worth investing in it, if you are going to persist with Mare Nostrum.
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Maarten D. de Jong
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While you wrote a commendable review (nice and short, but still very much to the point) I think you don't realise how the game 'works' or at least works as the designer intends it to work. This isn't a 'growth' game where you quietly trade a little and collect improvements until you have the Greatest Civilization around. Mare Nostrum is a race to get to 4 wonders and/or heroes first. Trade isn't trade in the normal sense, it's an offensive weapon to break up card sets of your opponents so that they don't get to 9 or---heaven forbid---12 tax or unique resource cards. The idea of there not being enough improvements is exactly what forces players to do something else, usually kicking each other's butt, in order to secure the win. Armies are therefore far from useless, and the fact that you seem to think they are indicates you haven't yet grasped the many nuances of this game.
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John Clark
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cymric wrote:
Mare Nostrum is a race to get to 4 wonders and/or heroes first.


I have only played two games so far (both with expansion) and have enjoyed them but the quoted comment is exactly correct in my experience. Both games played were really very quick, as people rushed to get the wonders/heros.

The winner was the person (Carthage both times) who managed to avoid battling. After the first three turns, where the caravans etc are bought, some civs can afford a wonder/hero each turn, so the game goes for only 6-7 turns.

I am finding it tough to see why the military units are worth it, unless you are directly attacking the current leader, which is sometimes tough.

The game seems to rely on the players knowing what they are doing. If Rome does not play policeman (with the cheap legions), for example, then it will be an uninteractive game, with either Carthage or Babylon winning, provided Egypt does not grab a sneaky pyramid win.

Anyway, these are my impressions after a couple of plays - keen to try more!

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Sam
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It's definitely a race game... but with 1-2 games under your belt, you need to start looking how the trading system can influence and more importantly control game play... military just adds as a "stumbling" block to others being ready to trade what they want, and a means of "buying time" for yourself.

After 8-9 games (~7 with expansion), and after all of us having started to appreciate each country's starting strengths and weaknesses, they way we trade and include military into our strategies has changed considerably... making the game very interesting and way more fun

Until people come to grasp with this, you'll probably find that the countries that are tax/resource rich will tend to win most games... and often without any combat either... you will all need to change your strategies to counter this. Out of the 9 games or so we've played, all countries but Greece, have managed to win a game... although Greece has tended to get quite close... probably a matter of time for her too ...

I'd say, don't give up... keep exploring ... and you'll discover the real gem of a game that it is...
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Boots
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I should say that the above is a review intended to capture play experience, and I did end with the statement (though qualified) that I enjoy playing Mare Nostrum. My intent was to give prospective buyers a feel of what to expect, not to request help in enjoying the game.

To Cymric's comment that I "don't realise how the game ...works as the designer intends it to work", I beg to differ - I take issue with design choices (stated explicitly in the title of the review). I fully understand that it's a race to the wonders, but at 9-cost each, it depends on an economy or empire that can reliably produce this 9-card cost, through resources or trading. With resources deliberately limited, it leaves it up to trading, or the army, to increase your diversity.

Given that military expansion is a way to redress a perceived resource imbalance between players during play, I feel it is underpowered not in its ability to take territory or resources, but because it will only work once per game due to the localised arms race described above that quickly reaches 8 legions. The 8-legion cap is what I'm talking about - a design choice, not my misunderstading of how the game works.

I also understand, as stated (again, explicitly) in the above review, that the limited improvement counters were a design choice. What I don't understand is why, then, there are so many provinces on the board. The board could have had substantially less white space for an almost identical play experience. My issue here is that no ancient empire with the resources to build wonders failed to expand because they couldn't build new marketplaces. One of my pet hates is mechanics that don't match setting.

But this statement ruffles my eathers a little:
cymric wrote:
Armies are therefore far from useless, and the fact that you seem to think they are indicates you haven't yet grasped the many nuances of this game.

Resorting to Ad Hominems is pretty weak. There are much less insulting ways to say 'play the game more'.
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Matthew M
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Boots01 wrote:

Given that military expansion is a way to redress a perceived resource imbalance between players during play, I feel it is underpowered not in its ability to take territory or resources, but because it will only work once per game due to the localised arms race described above that quickly reaches 8 legions. The 8-legion cap is what I'm talking about - a design choice, not my misunderstading of how the game works.


If two nations have a localized arms race both are going to get eaten alive militarily by their neighbors.

That doesn't mean you misunderstand how the game works, but it does suggest that there is a degree of collective thinking in the group you play with that allows these perceived shortcomings to exist - enabling them rather than acting to exploit them.

-MMM
 
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