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Subject: How I learned to love the Forum and enjoy Roma rss

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Roma caught my eye when I learned it was Alan R. Moon's favorite game
of 2005. I felt discouraged about buying it after reading statonv
otherwise outstanding review here in BGG. The game sounded quite
interesting, but she made it sound like it's almost broken. I
eventually went on and bought the game, and I am glad I did, since I
think it is a great game. I decided to write this review (my first
one) to provide my perspective on the game and to explain why I think
there is nothing wrong with the Forum card.

As you might suspect by glancing at the pictures, dice are important
in Roma. So are cards, that other classic device to introduce luck in
a game. Somehow from the mixing of dice and cards comes a game that is
not about luck, but rather the clever placement and combination of the
card powers.

Each round players throw three dice and use them to do any combination
of three different things: to draw cards, to get money (sestertii), or
to activate cards on the table. Sestertii are used to place cards on
the table. Every card goes next to one of six tokens, each
representing a die face. To use the card, you use a die with the
corresponding number. Placement is relevant, since some cards need to
be adjacent to be effective, while others "attack" only the opponents'
card immediately across.

The game's objective is to be ahead on the victory point count at the
end, which happens when one of the players has zero victory points
left, or when there are no victory points are left unclaimed.

A lot of the game fun involves tactical decisions involving composing
card effects to accomplish a particular goal. [Here's a real example
of a (particularly eventful) round. I used up my Haruspex to flip
through the deck and pick up the Mercator. I had to choose between
putting it in 2 or 5. 2 would sound like the best choice, since I
could then use the 5 die for money, thus maximizing the Mercator
damage (the Mercator turns money into victory points --- more about him
below). However, across in the 2 spot was a big ugly Centurion, that
would surely destroy the Mercator right away. So I went ahead with
5. My opponent responded by playing a Consiliarus, that allows her to
shift card positions... she moved her Centurion to the 5 spot, and my
Mercator went up in flames...]

Strategywise, there are two main routes, consistent with the two ways
the game may end. The destructive one seeks to reduce the opponent
down to zero points. This can be accomplished with the military
units, that allow you to destroy the opponents cards (like the
Centurion above). This not only prevents the opponent from doing much,
but also may take points away, since players have to pay one point for
each space left empty every round. I believe the destructive approach
is usually called the "military strategy" in other reviews.

One may also try to be constructive and win by accumulating
points. Unlike the destructive approach, in Roma there is a single big
way to get points: the Forum (there are three minor exceptions, the
Legat, the Tribunus Plebis and the Marcatus, and a major one, the Mercator --- more about him below). A Forum alone can give you up to 6 points. Combined with helper cards you can get as much as 14 points in one round--- a lot, considering there are only 36 points total in the game.

This strength has led to the suspicion that the game might be broken,
with an unbeatable "Forum strategy". I disagree. The key is to realize
that the Forum is the most common type of card. There are a lots of
opportunities for both players to build them, as well as trying to
smash them. For me the right way to think about the Forum is that it
is the basic building block of the game (or at least its constructive
side). If you permit me an analogy with Puerto Rico, talking about the
"Forum strategy" is not like talking about the "corn strategy", but
about the "building strategy" --- making money to buy buildings. My
impression is that any good strategy in Roma should involve Forum cards,
just like the buildings in PR. As long as there are many other things
left to decide on, that's fine. [One may still gripe about the choice
of the word "Forum" for this building block. In Roman cities the Forum
was a fairly central building, but it feels funny to have so many fori
(?) around.]

The flaw in the game is not the Forum, is the Mercator. The Mercator
allows you to take an indefinite amount of points away from the
opponent by simply buying them, two sestertii per point. Since money
is easy to come by in this game (you just have to use the dice), this
is ridiculously powerful, since it is at once the greatest destructive
and constructive tool in the game. [It is also weird that such an
incredibly powerful card is represented by a humble trader, and not by
someone like Julius Caesar. It also does not cost very much to build.]
I strongly recommend adopting some extra rule to curb its power ---
the one I use is to limit him to 6 points per round.

I would like to conclude by listing out the game characteristics ---
it's up to you to say if they are pros or cons.

-- for 2 players only. Not negotiable.

-- Fast play; 15-20 minutes is common. We often feel like playing
several rounds in one sitting.

-- pasted-on theme, big time. Could be a space exploration game just
as well.

-- Luck is involved, but does not seem to be decisive.

-- Some strategical aspects, most of the fun comes from tactical
decision making.

-- Good components. My only complaint is the insert, with just one space
for all bits and pieces (including the cards). It would be nice to
keep the bits separate.

In conclusion, a great game --- don't be discouraged by the complaints
about the Forum!

 
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The Steak Fairy
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Not having read Val's review, or anybody else's before picking this up, I will just agree that the Mercator is ridiculously powerful as is, and anybody having it in hand early on in the game probably has an insurmountable strategic advantage. But Roma is one of those excellent games where it's possible to anticipate almost anything, and occasionally even work to circumvent impending deathblows.

A 6-point limit still doesn't address the flaw I see in the Mercator--I'd alter it to say that it may never be used to purchase a player's last vp. This at least preserves somewhat the notion of self-interest that the Mercator so blatantly ignores.
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