Grilling and Games

I got a generous invitation to a grilling afternoon and evening from Chuck this weekend.  I got to eat some awesome food, meet his awesome family, and get beat by many of them in three awesome games.  First up was Century: Spice Road.  This is quickly becoming a go-to for faster, introductory type games.  The fast pace and short time-frame work really well with less intense players, and the complex puzzle aspect works well with those who like meatier fare – a great balance.  For a more rambling description of the game, see my last post.  Saturday marked the third time I’ve introduced this game to a teenager, and I’m 0 for 3 in those situations. This time it was Gabriel, Chuck’s 17-year-old nephew.

Initial setup, with a reference hand to demonstrate how HUGE you are.

Next up was the gem of the evening.  Ocean had brought a new title from GMT games, Time of Crisis.  Set at the beginning of the long, slow decline of the Roman Empire, Time of Crisis is at it’s heart a deck-building game.

Skip this bit if you don’t care about the details of game play.  Players begin with an army and governor in one of the eight colonial regions of the Empire, along with a deck of nine cards, three each with 1 influence in military, political, and the populace. The other areas are populated with neutral governors, including in At the end of each turn, players choose (!) five cards from their unplayed stack for their next play.  The timing here is important, because much can change on the board between the end of one of your turns and the beginning of the next. You have to anticipate what might be needed after your opponents have taken shots, as well as the ever-present threat of barbarian invasion.  On top of that, you have to think ahead to future turns to calculate what you will have left over in your deck. More on that later.

Each type of influence is used to spread the players’ across the map politically and militarily.  Military cards help to recruit generals, place armies, and then move them.  Political cards allow players to try and take control of regions by forcing out previous governors with a vote.  Populace cards are used to shore up support in controlled regions.  All three types have more powerful versions for sale, offering both more influence per card as well as special actions that can prove extremely powerful.  Then there’s the Emperor.  Italy starts out with a very popular neutral governor, but as players take control of the outlying territories, that popularity whittles away until one player gets bold enough to try for a vote in Italy, becoming Emperor.  Other players may then respond by becoming pretenders to the throne, or by challenging the current Emperor directly.

Of course, all of these actions are in service to the most valuable and elusive of Roman prizes – points. Romans were infamous for the varied ways they relentlessly pursued these treasures, and so too will you be.  You will earn them from beating back the ubiquitous hordes of barbarians, controlling regions with your governors, and becoming (and staying) Emperor or a pretender.  The game ends when one player reaches 60 points (and everyone has had an equal number of turns), simulating that other favorite pastime of the Romans – Governor racing.

My review:  On first spreading out the game, this looks like a minor miracle of modern game design.  It takes the historical depth of other GMT titles and seamlessly bolts onto it a Dominion-style deck builder.  While vaguely reminiscent of the under-appreciated Wallace game Mythotopia, this game streamlines the ideas he presented, and in many ways improves upon them.

First, let’s look at the theme.  While there is no dearth of titles set in Ancient Rome, I don’t know of many that focus on the early stages of the collapse (feel free to educate me in the comments). Within this theme, the designer has eschewed the temptation to fill the game with specific personalities, simultaneously avoiding overcomplicating the relatively straight-forward rules and allowing the player to feel like they are in complete control of the strategies.  Compare this to the nameless vague fantasy setting of Mythotopia, and you can feel the difference.  There is something more focused about vying for control of the Roman Empire, even as it crumbles, that makes it feel more consequential.

The other obvious comparison for this game is Dominion.  Players start with a small, generic, and ultimately crappy deck of cards and work to leverage them into different specialized behemouths.  But there are two distinctions between the way Time of Crisis and Dominion run their mechanisms, one big, and one small.  The big difference is in how players get their five card hands each round.  Players may choose freely from any of the cards that they have not yet played in the current rotation of their deck. Once played, these cards all move to the discard pile, only to return once every card has been used once.  This replaces the core Dominion mechanic of trying to minimize aberrant randomness by purchasing multiple copies of cards and thinning decks with something altogether more subtle.  Because what you quickly realize is that you are not just planning out your next turn, but actually you must consider all of the turns that remain until you can recycle your deck.  Should you go heavy on military next turn, but then leave yourself without military options for one or two more afterward?  (Hint: probably not.) Do you load up on your political cards now, swoop in and take control of a region, and then hold on for dear life until those cards come back?  And lest you think that this could lead to a game where the optimal deck ordered in the optimal way will be the ineveitable winner, let me assure you, nothing could be further from the truth.  Because you pick your next hand of cards at the end of your turn, so that every other player plays AFTER you’ve made your decisions.  Not only can their plans make yours rubbish by your next turn, but the barbarians that everyone is throwing across the board at the beginning of EVERY turn makes the map look very different than when you last played.

Then there’s the small difference.  See, you start the game with 9 cards, not 10.  Which means that if you buy a card in the first turn, you can GUARANTEE that it will be in your next hand, should you wish it.  This makes watching what other people do on the first turn extremely important.  Is the player on your border buying a level 2 military card?  Or, more worryingly, are they buying the level 2 political card?  This means that after only one turn of “oh, right, how does this game start?” everyone is already off to the races.

There’s one more element that sets this game apart from it’s obvious ancestors.  Unlike most games that take place on a map with armies, this game is not all about smashing up against one another with the biggest forces and seeing who comes out on top of the bloody heap.  Importantly, you cannot control regions with an army.  In fact, having an army in a region does nothing to get you points, nor to deny your opponents points.  Armies only give you points when you use them to defend provinces from the barbarians.  Will you be smashing them against each other at all, then?  Yes, especially when you are trying to oust the current Emperor from his seat in Italy, but as is true in life, your military might is only useful insofar as it supports your political goals. (Current Events!)  Your military is incredibly important, and you will spend agonizing turns trying to eke out one more general onto the board, but the player who wins will not necessarily be the one who smashed the most heads.

The final board state for our game.

All of this is not to say that there aren’t potential problems with Time of Crisis.  Specifically, the ways in which Barbarians enter the board can be problematic.  At the begining of each player’s turn, she rolls two dice which results in either a card being drawn, or in one of the five tribes encircling the board pushing into one or two provinces with up to three units in each.  You can see where this is going.  Because, particularly early on, it can be difficult to get armies of even two legions on the board, this can create big problems if the Barbarians are gunning for you a lot early on.  To be sure, this isn’t game ending for you if you are.  For one thing, Barbarians don’t attack, they just hang around until they are driven out, sapping the good will of your people toward your Governor.  For another, just the act of driving out a stack of Barbarians can net you significant points.  In a game where holding three provinces at once is a significant feat, getting four points for kiling a pair of barbarian troops is huge!  No, the problem is that if the same person is targeted significantly more often than others, it forces them to play with a certain style.  Or at least that what appears to be happening.

Again referencing our game from last night, two of us saw significantly more barbarian incursions than the other two players, which made it feel like we were disadvantaged.  The player who became Emperor first (and ultimately won the game) never saw any Barbarians until they had taken control of Italy, and even then only once or twice.  It’s important to note here, though, that while he did win, it wasn’t by much.  We played the short version of the game (to 40 points) and his margin over the two of us in last place was only six points.  So the problem doesn’t appear to be as much with how randomness affects the outcome of the game, but rather how it affects how you feel about the game.

While playing, from the very first turn of the game, I was grinning from ear to ear.  Even while it looked like my ass was being handed to me by Barbarians and the player to my right, I still found the game to be entertaining and fun.  I am a sucker for deck-building games, and I have the heart (if not the patience) of a war gamer.  This game gave us moments of commeraderie, tension, and a few “take that” moments that made it memorable and completely engaging.  This is a must have if you like historical games with tough decisions, but only have 1.5 to 2 hours to play.  9/10.

Well, that went on longer than I anticipated.  Once the crowds had thinned out and our host Chuck was able to get to the table, Ocean pulled out a little gem from last year:  Martin Wallace’s Via Nebula.  This is Wallace again attempting to make a lighter, more Euro-y game (like the tragic Toledo), only this time it’s good.  I tell you what.  This post has gone on quite long enough.  How about I do a review of Via Nebula next time?  Ok?  Right.  See you later.

One Reply to “Grilling and Games”

  1. Again, I failed to mention who it was who actually beat me. Gabriel. Again. Then in Via Nebula it was Chuck. Bah.

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