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Subject: A lesser known game by a famous designer rss

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Moshe Callen
Israel
Jerusalem
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ἄνδρα μοι ἔννεπε, μοῦσα, πολύτροπον, ὃς μάλα πολλὰ/ πλάγχθη, ἐπεὶ Τροίης ἱερὸν πτολίεθρον ἔπερσεν./...
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μῆνιν ἄειδε θεὰ Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος/ οὐλομένην, ἣ μυρί᾽ Ἀχαιοῖς ἄλγε᾽ ἔθηκε,/...
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1. Introduction

I turn out to currently own two games by designer Martin Wallace and although this game is the second one of them I have reviewed, it is the one of the pair I have owned and played the longest. In spite of the name, the game has no connection I am aware of (or can see since I own both games) to Empires of the Middle Ages which is much more of a straight wargame and is both a much longer and more complex game. Empires of the Ancient World is decidedly a waro, i.e., a ero-wargame fusion. The reason I've taken so long to get round to reviewing this fantastic little game is frankly because it is deceptively deep in spite of being composed of relatively simple elements. After a number of years of play, I still do not feel that I've figured the game out entirely in the sense that that it continues to reward repeated gameplay beyond simply the fun-factor. The game is indeed quite fun.

The main reasons I suspect it has not gained more notoriety (in a good sense) are as follows: 1. The title while not totally inappropriate certainly suggested to me a markedly different sort of game. I was expecting from the title when I first checked this game out before buying it from a fellow BGG user a true empire-building game covering the world of antiquity. While this game is a very good game, I would not at all characterize it in those terms. 2. The game is not the war-flavored euro of most waros but is more in the style of a true casual wargame that happens to use euro-style mechanics. Thus I suspect many wargamers think it too euro-ish and many euro-fans think it too wargame-ish. Since I enjoy both genres, I don't see either aspect as a problem. 3. Combat is governed by cards, albeit this game is by no means a CDG. Although I think the system works very well, it does take some getting used to.

Nonetheless I stand by my statement that this is a great game. The above elements are in reality by no means faults but rather features of the game. To play this game well requires genuine thought, outguessing one's opponent's and a little luck.

2. Components and rules overview


The board depicts the provinces of the Roman world in a style reminiscent of History of the World. If one were attempting to assign a consistent time period to the provinces shown, one would notice that Dacia has been established and is still north across the Danube rather than behind it on the Roman side (which though the river is not shown can be seen from the province's position and rough shape) and the province of Judea has not yet been renamed by the Romans so that it would have to be before the last Jewish Revolt (the Bar-Kochba Rebellion) but after the initial establishment of Dacia. Hence the date would be after 105 C.E. but before 136 C.E. Nevertheless I strongly doubt however this kind of historical analysis is appropriate to the game. While the game is by no means a historical simulation, clearly it is not meant to be one either.

A better view of the board and components wouldbe useful but is not currently in the game's gallery.

Black disks represent fortresses and black cylinders a bit more than twice as tall (roughly) serve as turn and round markers as well as three of these serving as markers in the unique battle system of this game. Control markers on provinces and sectors of the Mediterranean are colored disks and colored cubed represent trade goods. Cards and dice complete the equipment of the game.


Each player begins the game with a deck of six battle cards which can be supplemented throughout the game. While supplementary battle cards are often more powerful, only the the original six cards cannot be lost due to casualties in battle. Not all supplementary cards are battle cards though. Diplomats, war leaders, engineers and merchants give players advantages but also cost players points in scoring rounds, as do the more useful supplementary battle cards.

At the end of each of the four turns except the first one scores for provinces and sea areas controlled, economic domination of provinces and plunder taken, subtracting for cards held as appropriate. Each turn begins with a revolt phase. One rolls a single die (d6) twice to determine which provinces loses one control marker if any are present, but fortresses prevent a province from revolting. Then on each turn, ten action rounds occur during which each player in turn takes one action. The first player alternates in each turn and will not necessarily begin as the first player to place a control marker on the board. Before the action rounds but after the revolt phase, players place a minimum of five trade goods cubes on a warehouse card kept in front of them; merchant cards and provinces with a jar of oil shown on the board get players additional cubes. As actions, players may place an additional control marker on provinces they control, build a fortress (which costs in trade goods), recruit a card from the six cards displayed (possibly after expending a trade good to refresh the cards displayed), place trade markers of attack a province either militarily or diplomatically. Provinces with fortresses are immune from diplomatic attacks, and this kind of attack can be done only by a player with a diplomat card; usually one also expends trade goods (up to three) to better the odds of success. Placing trade goods allows one to economically dominate a province. Although this earns only half the victory points, one can place more than one trade goods cube at a time-- two minimum and one more for each merchant card. The drawback is that trade goods can be taken as plunder during a military conquest and if the number of goods in a province at scoring is tied neither player gets points. One can however attempt to oust another player's trade goods. Military conquests (which can be made across water as well as in adjacent provinces) can only be done only once per round (barring a rout which earns an attacker a single extra action) but if successful they earn more victory points and possibly plunder which again translates to victory points but can also be used to pay for actions.

The battle system is remarkable. Normally each player selects and arranges in order five battle cards. Two advantages of a fortress are that it gives the defender the option to limit the confrontation to three cards and it limits which cards can be used. Some restrictions apply to the ordering of cards which allows one to try to outguess how an opponent would order their cards. Then in turn each player reveals a card which has an associated value and possibly advantages with respect to certain other cards. Then the three battle markers are moved to represent the progress of the battle. A rout occurs in a player moves all three battle markers into his area and casualties are taken as battle cards which must be discarded unless part of one's starting deck. Attacking across water, straits or mountains also lead to modifiers. Naval battles also can occur for control of sectors of the Mediterranean but restrictions on which cards can be used lead to players not being guaranteed to have five cards for such battles. Those sea sectors are however the most valuables areas on the board and increases the attacker's advantage when attacking across water.

3. Gameplay

In many ways even after having and playing this game for a few years, I feel I'm still trying to figure out how to play it for best effect. I've noted a player who can get and hold more than one sea sector will often win but I've also seen the battle to achieve this goals waste a player's actions so that the victory points that might have been gained elsewhere are lost instead. Every action has its pros and cons. If one recruits valuable cards, these will most often cost victory points at scoring rounds. Not all cards cost but the free ones are usually not the best. Military victory is never assured, and while attacking across water gives an advantage one has to roll to see if the attack can occur at all. Everything is play is a trade-off.

Adding to all this emergent complexity is the fact that provinces are not all worth the same amount. Egypt is the most valuable and so seems to regularly swap hands. Seas a worth even more than Egypt but one has to roll to see if the attack can even occur and galley cards other than the one one starts with cost victory points at scoring. One can discard such cards before scoring but each card discarded takes an action that might be used in other ways.

What I find with this game is that one won't get the blood pumping with the thrill of conquest but to win one has to use one's head. It's almost a brain-burner but not so abstract as this term normally suggests. Then again many will find the game fairly abstract as is the case with most euros. If however one is open to a fairly different game, this one is decidedly worth having and playing.
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Moshe Callen
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Jerusalem
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ἄνδρα μοι ἔννεπε, μοῦσα, πολύτροπον, ὃς μάλα πολλὰ/ πλάγχθη, ἐπεὶ Τροίης ἱερὸν πτολίεθρον ἔπερσεν./...
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μῆνιν ἄειδε θεὰ Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος/ οὐλομένην, ἣ μυρί᾽ Ἀχαιοῖς ἄλγε᾽ ἔθηκε,/...
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I wanted to add a note. When I reviewed this game, I was familiar with the term a "deck-building game" but was picturing something akin to Magic: The Gathering. Recently I've acquired another game referred to explicitly as a deck-building game. As such, I realized that the combat system in this game is also such to make this game a deck-building game. For those more familiar with that term, I thought it's inclusion important but do not wish to attempt to re-write my review.
 
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Richard Young
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The first time I encountered the term it was with respect to M:tG as well (although there the deck-building preceeds actual play). Since then I've come to consider that any game where cards play a major role, and where the contents of your "deck" can change over the course of the game, then the "deck-building" design element is applicable. I wouldn't say deck-building is the primary element as it might be in some (Dominion most notably), but it is certainly there.
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