Sword of Rome

I played Sword of Rome for the 3rd time. I’ve now played the Romans, Greeks, and Samnites/Etruscans.

Each time I’ve played the game, my opinion of it has gone down. First play was fun, second was frustrating but still OK, third was often just frustrating, and now I think it’ll be a while before it comes out again.

Some of Sword of Rome’s problems:

  • It’s too harsh on the attacker. It’s impossible to get anything going with decent odds since leadership is so similar between players, force advantages generally don’t give you much, and the combat cards are generally indiscriminate between attacking and defending so even if you have the cards lined up you may just get reamed by defender’s cards. This is combined with the combat system which is just far too random.
  • Two positions – the Gauls and the Greeks – spend way too much time dealing with the non-player powers, the Carthaginians and the Transalpine Gauls, and not enough time playing with the other players. The Greeks in this game felt like they spent like 20 minutes of the 5-hour running length actually playing with everyone else, the rest of the time banging their heads against Carthage. It doesn’t then help that the war for Sicily is just a total crap shoot, since both sides have equivalent troops and leaders. It just comes down to die rolling and drawing the right cards at the right time.
  • I didn’t get as good a feeling from the card decks on the third play as I did on the first. Some decks (like the Greeks) are pretty good, in that you’ll usually have a few good cards in your hand and some choices. Other decks, like the Etruscans/Samnites and the Romans in the 6-turn game, just seem to me to have too many cards that are so specialized they’ll hardly ever be relevant. It almost seems like the 9-turn game is the real game, but the 9-turn game is way too long. I wonder if the decks should be thinned for the 6-turn game?

These three things are significant problems. I think, though, that the real fundamental problem here is that I’m just not sure where the fun is supposed to be. The game isn’t mechanically bad, but I can’t point to any element of it that is really engaging either. You try to do some planning, but you never get any feeling of progress towards intermediate goals, or doing anything more than just reacting to immediate circumstances, and as a result, there is almost no strategic content to the game. On the other hand, the cornerstone of the tactical game is the hugely chaotic combat system, which combined with the on-board difficulty of ever getting reasonable odds of success, is awful. The pacing of the game is also significantly off, as players spend far too much time in recovery mode with absolutely nothing interesting to do from simple bad luck, as a single bad combat result will set you back an entire turn or more and a couple back-to-back bad results can effectively take you out of the game.

I think the designer made a valiant effort on the hard problem of doing a multi-player free-for-all wargame, and I understand that he’s trying to address a few of these issues in the expansion. All in all though, while there is some interest in the ambiance, the issues with the underlying game combined with its length and complexity (it’s significantly more complex and time-consuming than Hannibal) means I probably won’t be coming back to it anytime soon.

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