Bay Area GamesDay XXXVI – part 2

This is the second time I’ve had a chance to play Sword of Rome. Last time I was the Etruscans/Samnites; this time I was the Greeks.

This was the first time I had played with someone else who had read the rules, and it was a good thing. It turned out I had seriously misunderstood how victory points are accumulated. I had been calculating VPs as simply how many VP spots you occupy, but it turns out what you really need to do is to add one VP each on each turn you occupy a VP outside your home territory, and likewise subtract each turn for each home VP you’ve lost. This makes losing home territory a lot more painful. It also makes it hard to recover from an early game deficit. Because combat is so attritional in the long run, and because there is a non-trivial “bash the leader” element in the game, it’s very unlikely a power will be able to go up 3 or 4 VPs, so if you get behind by a few VPs early it’s unfortunately a rather deep hole.

Our game started off in the usual way – the Gauls invaded the Etruscans, the Greeks wrestled with the Carthaginians, and Rome wiped out the Volsci. Things were looking good for the Gauls, who sacked Pisae on the first impulse and went on to do some quality plundering. Things didn’t go so well for the Greeks, who saw two 9-strength field armies virtually wiped out by poor dice rolling in the first two turns, putting them seriously behind the VP 8-ball by going at least 1VP down (Neapolis) starting on turn 1. The Samnites were eviscerated by the Gauls, losing a couple ungarrisoned cities to revolt after the Pisae debacle, and so the Etruscan/Samnite player spent most of his time trying to rebuild.

In the midst of all this, the Roman player was building up his position. The Via Appia was built up on turn two, which really helps them defend. Given the layout of the map, the Romans have a “hard core” of cities centered around Rome, where an army parked there can reinforce to 6 critical adjacent areas, and it’s extremely hard even for large enemy forces to push beyond this unless the Romans get bad consul draws (not as likely here as in Hannibal). Once the Via Appia is built, this protected corridor drastically expands and an army parked in Rome can easily defend a huge chunk of recruiting territory.

Up north, the Gauls ran into some spectacular bad luck, as large armies continually failed to evict a tiny Transalpine Gaullic outpost for several turns, costing them several VPs.

Meanwhile, I had started to recover as the Greeks and was going after Carthage, having decided there was nothing I could do to Rome with Lilybaeum as still a thorn in my side (even with the extra fortifications for Syracuse built, it’s not enough for a garrison to hold out there for long without a strong field army). With some help from some slightly over-aggressive Carthaginian activations, Phyrrus finally drove them from the island and could redeploy towards Rome.

While I was doing that, Rome was building up a lead. The Gauls and Etruscans/Samnites, however, were finding it difficult to take the battle to them. The Romans had two big field armies, and as long as they hid out in the Roman core the Gauls and Etruscans could only fight them at negative DRMs, not an appealing prospect. On the other hand, the Romans couldn’t venture outside their safe zone either without fighting at a disadvantage. So something of a sitzkrieg developed until the Gauls got bored and tried to attack, with predictable results.

The rest of the board was eventually able to nibble at the edges of Roman territory, but it was too little, too late; the Romans held on, although the lead was reduced from what it was in the middle game and things were closer than I expected.

There is definitely a lot to like about Sword of Rome. It’s got nice historical flavor. The individual event decks seem very well done, with events that are powerful enough to be exciting but not unbalancing; poor execution on the event mix (typically events that are too weak or too hard to play; or, interestingly, the opposite extreme of being overpowering in Wilderness War) has been a weakness in a number of GMT’s card-driven games. The game moves along well, as individual turns should not take too long. You get lots of choices with all the events, and it feels like you’re making interesting decisions.

There are two significant wrinkles though, and they are intimately intertwined. The first is the combat resolution system. It’s quite clever, but I’m just not convinced it really works. The results are hugely random, and it seems most battles are between roughly even forces and are usually a crap shoot, with the results of bad luck being potentially quite devastating. For example, in the early game, the Greeks and Carthaginians are staring each other down with equally-sized and similarly-led armies, and neither can really do much else until their opponent is defeated. But there is also little either can do to make this anything more than a dice-fest; the Greeks really have only 3 combat cards in the deck, and none do much more than simply adding a +2 DRM, which is just not that significant when compared to the combat cards in Hannibal or Successors, where the very powerful combat cards (Allies Desert, Gift of Oratory, Anti-Elephants, Silver Shields, etc., along with more plentiful Campaign cards) are an important element in the games’ overall balance in forcing action. (Although there is an interesting Pyrrhic Victory card for the Greeks, which hands them an auto-victory in one combat, albeit with the loss of half their forces for and inflicting only a single CU loss on the enemy – but this can be deadly in very specific situations, like, where the enemy has no retreat route. But the odds of having the card when you need it are extraordinarily low).

Anyway, all this alone really wouldn’t be that bad – just adding spice to the game – but Sword of Rome is a long game. Our game took about 6 hours, and we were playing only the 6 turn game and weren’t playing slowly. That’s a long game for something comparatively chaotic, and something you can be basically knocked out of pretty early by bad luck. I like a lot of stuff in Sword of Rome, but I really, really wish the playing time were closer to Successor’s 4 hours. It would make the high chaos factor a lot more tolerable. I think the 9-turn game’s 8-9 hour length is simply unacceptable, and it’s unlikely I’ll ever try that again.

With all this said, though, the bottom line is that despite some reservations, I had a lot of fun with the game, and look forward to playing it again. The relatively clean and straightforward system, nicely-done card decks, reasonable play-balance, and interesting situation add up to a game that is significantly more playable and enjoyable that some of GMT’s non-Racier card-driven games, which have tended to have some issues. I also like how each power has such a different mix of cards, and so plays quite differently – I want to make sure I get to play each one once. I think in the end the good stuff is strong enough to keep it on the table for a while; the more modest complexity is very important in this regard. So on balance, a thumbs up. But I still wish it were shorter.

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