Review of Wars of Marcus Aurelius: Rome 170-180CE

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Game Information

Designer: Robert DeLeskie
Artist: Ilya Kudriashov, Gonzalo Santacruz
Publisher: Hollandspiele
Players: 1
Playtime: 30-90

A solitaire, CDG-flavoured, strategic-level game set during the Marcomannic Wars, 170CE-180CE. Playing from the perspective of Emperor Marcus Aurelius, your goal is to defeat and pacify three different tribes while managing off-map wars and rebellions, troop shortages, limited resources, and the effects of plague—all while maintaining your standing with the Senate and people of Rome.

The Marcomannic Wars were a series of conflicts fought by the Romans against a loose coalition of German and Sarmatian tribes along the Danube from 166CE to 180CE. After crushing a Roman army and killing as many as 20,000 Roman soldiers near Carnuntum, German barbarians ravaged the Danube provinces and besieged Aquileia, marking the first time a hostile force had entered Italy in nearly 300 years. Meanwhile, Sarmatians invaded Dacia and Costoboci descended deep into the Balkans and Greece as far as Athens. It took Rome more than a decade to restore peace, with war and plague extracting a terrible cost of human and material resources.

The game covers the war from the disastrous Battle of Carnuntum in 170CE to Marcus Aurelius’ death in 180CE. Each turn (lasting one year) is divided into four rounds: early campaign, late campaign, winter and an attrition/house keeping round.

At the start of each round, the player draws three barbarian cards and resolves their effects. Barbarian cards activate enemy tribes (restoring their morale or causing them to advance), trigger off-map conflicts, or cause special events such as plague, mutiny, or rebellions.

On their turn, the Roman player draws a set number of cards (5 during the early campaign, 3 during the late campaign, and 1 during winter) and plays as many or few as they choose for either actions or events. Actions include: attacking barbarian tribes; building forts; moving legions; and increasing “Imperium Points.” Many cards can also be played for historically based events, such as the “Lightning miracle” depicted on the Column of Marcus Aurelius; and the “Galen” event that mitigates the effects of plague. All cards must be used by the end of the year or discarded, except for one card that can be held over into the next year by use of the “Meditations” deck.

Battles are resolved by rolling 1d6 for the Romans and 1d6 for the Barbarians. The Roman role is modified by the number of legions assigned to the front and the combat rating of the leader. Cards can be spend to commit “reserves” to avoid a defeat or eek out a victory. Other cards including “Ambush,” “Tactical Superiority” and “Route” can affect the outcome of battles. Enemy die rolls are modified by the morale of the tribe and the terrain, representing the barbarians’ knowledge of the lands north of the Danube and Romans’ difficulties in maintaining supply lines.

Players can lose in a number of ways: if the Marcomanni break through into Italy the game immediately ends. Suddenly death also occurs if the player’s Imperium Points (IP) drop into “usurpation.” If all three tribes have not been defeated and pacified by 180CE the game also ends in a loss.

The player wins by driving barbarians back into their home space and defeating them there. Once a tribe is defeated they must be kept pacified by building forts and keeping troops assigned to garrisons, or they may break their treaty and rejoin the fight (as happened historically). Final victory occurs if all three tribes have surrendered. The player’s score takes into account the number of years that have elapsed, their IP level, and the number of off-map conflicts they have resolved.

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My Thoughts

 Tension abounds in this game as you (likely) struggle to juggle three tracks effectively. Realistically, your forces are strong enough to be well-positioned in at most two of the tracks, and if an off-map conflict comes up that further thins out your forces. It’s the classic situation in a game where you can never do everything you need to, so you need to consider where you ought to focus. Sometimes you’re flat-out wrong. I’ve seen a track completely blow up with a string of moves that took it from being the one you can “safely ignore” to being the game-ending threat. Nothing is ever safe, at least until a tribe gets quelled. And even then, you need to allocate forts and/or troops to keep them pacified or run the risk of them returning to harass you. This tension is what makes this game (and it’s sequel game, Stilicho) so incredibly brilliant and fun.

 The card play in this game is part of its masterful design. You will get 9 cards every game year, and the Barbarian forces will also get 9 (except in the first year, where they get 6). The difference in how you get them is what makes it interesting, though. The Barbarians will use 3 cards during each of the three seasons, revealed one at a time (with a slim chance you get an early card that stops the reveals of the remaining ones). You will get 5 cards in the first season, 3 in the second, and only 1 in the last season. You can carry a maximum of 5 from season-to-season and only one from year-to-year, so how and when you play those cards offers a ton of flexibility. This allows you to make decisions on when to aggressively push early, or when to hold some key cards until you see how things play out. However, once it hits that last season you get a maximum of one battle (at a -1 penalty, no less), so you can’t completely hold everything until the end of the year. This decision space is wonderful, and a strong reason why I enjoy this game.

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 While the opponents are anything but predictable in nature, the game does reward patience and planning on the part of the player. Some of that is forced, such as the need for extremely good luck on rolls to try and finish off a tribe near their homeland. Yet there are ways to work around this, such as saving a card that can demoralize the enemy force or reduce their terrain value for a combat, or to increase your odds with the strategic building of forts. It takes a lot to get the forts up that far north, and even then they might not last long, but that extra 1-2 in your favor can make all the difference. Plus, building forts can slow down the advance of these barbarian forces, adding more incentive to push along that direction at some point in the game.

 Surges make the game even more interesting. Remember how the Barbarians get 9 card plays per year? Odds are those 9 cards will trigger at least 2 surges that year. What is a Surge? It activates a move for all of the other barbarian forces that didn’t move on the third card added to the Surge area. So basically the cards which move one of the Barbarians also inform you to put the card into the Surge area after resolving, and the instant a 3rd card is in the Surge area, a Surge will trigger. It increases the impending threat of doom and destruction caused by the three forces out there. It also brings about a check to see if removed Barbarian forces will come back into play – although having enough numbers stacked on their track will give you an automatic success on keeping them pacified.

 There are several ways to lose, only one way to win. This really circles back to the initial points made here, but it is worth emphasizing because that’s my favorite aspect in a solo game like this. You can’t get tunnel vision, focusing on only one thing to the detriment of everything else. Ignore the IP track at your own peril, for instance. So many of the losing conditions will just hover in a low-but-not-dangerous area, but can quickly turn at a moment’s notice and suddenly somewhere you knew could be an issue eventually is an issue you need to address…now! But not you, friend. You have exactly one path to victory and it resides in pushing back all three forces on the map.

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 Multiple uses for cards is always a thing I enjoy in games, and in common CDG fare the cards can be used as an event or to trigger actions. Unlike most CDGs, there are no “Ops” values or anything of that ilk on the cards, but rather any card can be discarded to do one of the host of basic actions. Many of them will be spent to initiate battle, but sometimes you might just need to reposition troops, build forts, or something equally important to set you up for success. And some of those events, when used, will be removed from the game which will really make you weigh the benefit of doing that strong event or spending it for the action and hoping the card comes back around before the end.

 I have to nitpick something, right? Because the forts are both the boon and the bane of my existence in this game, they get called out for it here. You can burn a card to build two Level 1 forts, upgrade two forts to Level 2, or build a fort and upgrade a different one. The catch? You have to build a chain of forts starting from the bottom of the track going up and, well, you really just want them near the top. This in itself would be fine. But every year you roll a die for every fort on the map and on the wrong number, it either downgrades from a 2 to a 1 (which is fine) or it is removed from the map. Okay, I can deal with that. BUT. Then you check the map and any fort chain missing a fort in the path will have the forts above that missing spot each take a loss, too. Guess what? It gets really tough to build and maintain forts the further away from your home you are. I get it, this is accurate. But it almost always causes me pain during the game to see the forts I just built get wiped because of a really unlucky roll on the wrong fort.

 Teeny tiny nitpick here, but they gave two d6 in the same color with the box. Why not have them be different colors, so players can roll both at the same time and know which is their result and which is the barbarian one? It would also remove any temptation when, after seeing the die roll, to backtrack whose die it is, anyway. No, I’ve never been tempted to do that…

Final Thoughts

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I first played this game on a whim, stuck in the hospital with my daughter and seeking something to chip away at on Vassal while she napped. I enjoyed that first play, although the game failed to show its teeth and I walked away thinking this was a fun, but easy, solitaire game. Well, I was wrong about one of those things. It certainly is fun, but it is far from being easy. My next three plays, once I ordered the game this fall, ended in a loss within a handful of rounds. One of them started so unbelievably bad that I am shocked at how long I held on (Summer of round 3). Even in victory, with my most recent play, the game was a challenge – this time finally taking me into the Late War cards and up to the last card of Spring in round 10.

This game is fun. And winnable – something I am not completely convinced holds true for the Tom Russell’s Master of… trilogy of games. This game gives me an itch that I need to scratch by playing it again, rushing to reset and try again regardless of the outcome. Not every solo game (or multiplayer game, for that matter) manages to inspire such a feeling. And the playtime of this one is right in that sweet spot for a game. My 10-round session might have clocked in around 90 minutes, giving a perfect ceiling to a game that usually ends far, far sooner. And the strength of decisions being offered is delightful – if this game was inspired by the States of Siege engine, then it did well at emulating that same feeling of trying (hopelessly) to juggle too many balls at once.

That multi-layered threat is what makes the game shine. Even when you think you know what to focus upon, you might end up discovering the real threat was along the track you left defenseless and now need to either accept the pain that track inflicts and stay your planned course or use cards to shift troops and commanders to try and staunch the bleeding. When things go according to plan for a round or two, it feels outstanding. Most of the time, what you expect to happen ends up going sideways. And gosh, I enjoy that tension and the riding of both the highs and the lows it can provide along the way.

Rating

A tense and exciting experience that pushes players to the limits of trying to juggle more problems than they can handle at once. This game is easily four out of five swords.

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