GMT Weekend West 2004 – Day 1

I finally had a chance to get a play of Sword of Rome in. It’s a pretty substantial game, with a lot of stuff going on, so given this was my first play you will again get sort of a mish-mash of first impressions here. I promise to get back to more focussed blogging sometime.

The game is the newest Hannibal-derivative from GMT, this time for four players, each of whom takes the role of one of the major powers in ancient Italy – Rome, the Greeks, the Gauls, and the Samnites and Etruscans (the last two get rolled into one). The game is extremely similar to Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage rules-wise, with a few large elements removed (the battle cards have been replaced by dice) and a few added (there is now a whole subsystem tracking the loyalty of the various cities on the map, of which there are now quite a few more). On balance, this will be a very easy game for anyone at all familiar with Hannibal to learn. For those who haven’t played Hannibal, this is to my mind the most straightforward of all of GMT’s card-driven wargames, and also the one that is at the most sensible and comfortable level of complexity. It’s also definitely a simpler and cleaner game than Successors, a game to which it is directly comparable.

The play feels very different from Hannibal, though, despite the tremendous rules similarities. While you still use cards to place PCs or move forces, the political control game is much reduced in importance and there is no equivalent of Hannibal’s provinces, control of which drives much of that game. Instead, much of the game revolves around the various cities on the map, which are rated for loyalty. This loyalty can be increased by using the number value on cards, and the results of battles can increase or decrease city loyalty. More loyal cities are harder to siege and take over, although unless garrisoned with scarce combat units, city loyalty tends to be shaky at best.

I quite enjoyed the game. The first 5 hours of the 7-hour playing time flew past. Each player has an individual card deck, and they seemed very nicely flavorful, and there are plenty of powerful events that make the game interesting and exciting – a big improvement over the somewhat weak event mix in The Napoleonic Wars, although it seemed not quite as dramatic as the card play in Successors. For the first 6 turns anyway, each player has strengths and weaknesses that make them interesting to play. Each position seems small enough that the game moves along at a good clip, but big enough to always have interesting options. And the rules seem very well under control, with very little excess chrome. It’s not a simple game, but neither is it needlessly complex – most games from GMT you can find a couple rules (at least!) that leave you scratching your head, wondering what possible purpose they could serve. Sword of Rome doesn’t seem to have this problem.

Still, there was also some stuff that didn’t quite work for me. I’m not particularly enamored of the combat result system (which involves each side rolling 3 dice, high dice plus modifiers winning, with the results of individual dice inflicting casualties), which doesn’t scale particularly well – the expected total casualties are the same if 10 units face 9, or 3 face 1, or 10 face 2. Also, the minor nations – particularly Carthage – seem to be ruthlessly abused for extremely short-term player gain; units were routinely sent on suicide missions to marginally inconvenience another player, since the costs of using them are basically zero, and if you don’t someone else will send them after you. This felt awkward.

My only really serious complaint, though, is on length. The 9 turn game is probably 7+ hours to play, and I’m not entirely sure the game carries itself that well past turn 6 and hour 5. It seems that after turn 6, the Gauls and Romans are really the only players with viable shots to win, as the Greeks and Etruscans/Samnites get really run down in the first 6 turns and don’t have the VP generation capabilities of the Gauls or the recuperative strength of the Romans. Fortunately, there is a 6-turn game option, which I will try next time in the hopes of a slightly more sensible playing time and a somewhat more satisfying experience for all 4 players.

The bottom line, though, is that I enjoyed the game and look forward to playing the 6-turn version sometime soon.

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