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Subject: When in Roma... rss

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Mitch Willis
United States
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Roma is a card and dice game that, in my opinion, seems to have elements of Hera & Zeus, Battle Line, and The Settlers of Catan Card Game while remaining unique as a whole. It’s designed by Stefan Feld and published by Queen Games. The premise of the game is to rule Rome by collecting more victory points than your opponent by game’s end. You do this by placing your cards in an optimal way, with a few helpful rolls of the dice along the way.

Out of the Box
Along with multi-lingual rules, Roma comes with 52 playing cards (32 character, 20 building), 6 dice disks, 1 money disk, 1 card disk, 36 victory points (in 1 and 2 point tiles), money counters, 3 action dice in each player’s color, and 1 white battle die. The components are nicely done but the box, while not large, could have been smaller and still easily held all of the components.

Roma is strictly a 2-player game. Playing time is listed at 30 to 45 minutes and that feels about right. After about a dozen plays, most of our games have been right around 30 minutes, with a couple finishing in about 15 minutes and only 1 taking an hour. While the theme is not absolutely essential to the game, the card actions fit the Roman theme extremely well. The card art is also well done and complements the theme nicely.

The dice disks are put side by side in consecutive order (1 thru 6) with the action card disk on one end and the money disk on the other. Each player is dealt 4 cards, takes 10 victory points, and collects his/her corresponding action dice. The rest of the cards form a draw deck next to the action card disk, while the money counters and the rest of the victory point tiles are stockpiled next to the money disk. The younger player begins.

Each player keeps 2 cards and gives the other 2 to their opponent. The beginning player then places the 4 cards face down, each under a different die disk (2 die disks will be vacant). The other player then places his/her 4 cards face up. The first player then flips his/her cards face up and normal play begins.

Game Play
At the beginning of their respective turns, for any vacant dice disk (no card below it), each player must return one victory point back to the victory point pile. Then the player will roll his/her 3 action dice. For each action die, a player may then take one of the following actions: take money, take cards, or activate a card. To take money, you’d lay a die on the money disk and take a like number of money counters (i.e., if you rolled a 5 and placed it on the money disk, you’d take 5 sestertii). To take cards, you’d lay a die on the action card disk and draw that number of cards from the draw deck but keep only 1 (i.e., if you rolled a three and placed it on the action card disk, you’d draw 3 cards, check ‘em out, keep the best 1 and discard the other 2). To activate a card, you’d place a die on its corresponding die disk, and implement the action of the character or building card you have occupying that slot (i.e., if you rolled a 2 and placed it on your “2” die disk which is occupied by a “Tribunus Plebis” character card, you’d use his special power and collect 1 victory point from your opponent). Another action you can take during your turn, which does not require an action die, is laying down cards from your hand. Cards may be placed (after paying its cost, which is listed on the card’s upper left) either in vacant die disk slots or as a replacement in an existing card’s slot. Replaced cards are then discarded. Play continues in this fashion until a winner is declared.

The game ends under either of 2 conditions. If a player runs out of victory points, the game is over. The game also ends if there are no victory point tiles left in the stockpile. In either case, the player with the most victory points is the winner.

Three character cards (Legionarius, Velites, and Centurio) and one building card (Onager, aka catapult) allow you to battle, when activated. In a battle, you attack one of your opponent’s cards by rolling the white battle die and comparing it to that card’s defense value (found on the upper left of the card, below its cost). If the die roll is equal to or higher than the defense value, then the attack is successful and your opponent’s card must be discarded. Attack and defense values can be modified by other cards.

At first glance, seeing as Roma is a dice and card game, it might be easy to dismiss it as a “luck-filled dicefest”; however, we have found that to decidedly not be the case. Yes, luck is involved and yes, it can be frustrating to be foiled by an unlucky dice roll every now and then, but I think this is mitigated by the various options and strategies available to you. If you get a roll where you can’t activate the card you want, you might be able to activate a different card that’ll allow you to move the card to a slot that can be activated; or instead you can build up your hand, collect more money, and possibly lay down a new card that can be activated to your advantage. Some times you roll and it’s obvious what to do but many times you have several good options and must decide how to use the action dice optimally. The decision making can be agonizing, and I see this as a good thing.

As far as a strategy for winning, there’s no single strategy that wins every time. Thus far, each game I’ve played has been different; your strategy will initially depend upon you and your opponent’s beginning cards, and can change several times throughout the game. There are 17 different types of character cards and 8 different types of buildings. Each has their own unique action; some cards allow you to battle, some allow you to collect victory points, while others allow you to manipulate cards or dice. Some cards complement other cards but each is unique and this is what dictates strategy; with so many different cards, you must find the right combination of cards to adapt to your current situation. Each card also can be strong in its own way; every time I think a particular card is weak, I’ve later found it to be very useful. It would’ve been nice if each card’s action text was printed on the card, but I’m guessing they decided to make it language independent by placing pictures describing the action instead. Any way, after a couple of games each card’s actions become second nature to you.

I’m sure there are several strategies that we haven’t yet discovered, but two basic strategies you might try are what my nephew and I call “Attacking” and “Hoarding.” In an attacking strategy, you try to take out as many of your opponent’s cards as necessary, costing him victory points each turn for having empty dice disks. You’re basically trying to win by running him/her out of victory points. The Tribunis Plebis, Mercator, Sicarius, Gladiator, Nero, and the 4 aforementioned battle cards are good to use for this particular strategy. In a hoarding strategy, you try to gather the most victory points and bleed the VP stockpile dry as a result. The Forum, in conjunction with the Templum and Basilica, and the Legat can be useful cards with this strategy. Initially, I preferred to “hoard” while my nephew preferred to “attack”; however we quickly found that sticking to one strategy was a losing venture. The best strategy probably lies in between these two extremes; try to maintain a balance of cards that will best allow you to adapt quickly to changing developments.

Balance Problems???
I’ve read where some people are of the opinion that the Mercator character card and the Forum building card are too powerful. As for the Mercator, whose special power when activated is that you can buy as many victory points as you want from your opponent for 2 sestertii each, I haven’t experienced it as of yet. Whenever I’ve had him in play, either he’s taken out quickly (he only has a defense of 2) or when activated I haven’t had enough money to fully exploit him. If you are able to activate him and you have a bunch of money saved, I can see where that could be devastating. The Mercator’s low defense value mitigates this somewhat. I’ve heard Mike Fitzgerald has a variant that addresses this, so I’m hoping to check that out. (NOTE: Since writing this, we've found that the Mercator is indeed devastating if one player holds him, hoards gold, and both places and activates him on the same turn. I'd suggest using one of the variants to limit his power which will hopefully be addressed with the release of [thing=30683][/thing]).

As for the Forum, which when activated you can use another action die to collect that many victory points, we’ve seen it happen a couple of times. There was one game where I got a Forum early and my nephew didn’t, and I was able to collect VP’s quickly and ended the game in about 10 minutes. However, there was another game where I had 2 Forums in play, along with a Basilica and Templum, and was only a turn or two away from depleting the VP stockpile and winning easily, when my nephew turned the tables. He built his cards up and in one turn, he took out 1 of my Forums and 2 characters. A couple of turns later he took out my other Forum (leaving my Basilica and Templum useless) and I quickly started losing VPs due to vacant card slots. He came back and eventually trounced me by running me out of VPs. So while the Forum can be powerful, thus far it hasn’t been an overwhelming factor in most of our games.

I have found Roma to be fun, challenging, and very addictive. It definitely has that “just one more game” syndrome; the first 2 days after purchasing, my nephew and I played a dozen times. No two games are ever the same, there are painful decisions to be made, and I’m always discovering new subtleties to the game. It rivals the excellent Kosmos 2-player games. It looks like I owe thanks to Alan Moon; he put out a Geeklist here on BGG ‘bout a week or so ago listing Roma as his top game of 2005. I’d never heard of the game before then but when I saw his list, I did some research and ended up ordering it the next day. I currently rate Roma an 8.
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