Sword of Rome – Boardgame Review
Down the Appian Way
So you want to build a Republic? It’s not easy doing so when you have tribes nipping at your heel, Gauls raiding your villages and a massive Greek war machine building power just over the horizon. The problems of nation building in the 386 to 272 BC period of history are brought out in fine manner using GMT’s excellent new card-driven game Sword of Rome.
Sword of Rome covers the period of Rome’s rise to prominence from a nascent republic to the beginnings of empire just prior to the Punic Wars. This two, three, or four player game encompasses the military and political struggle for control of Italy between the Romans, Greeks, Etruscans, Samnites, Volsci, Carthaginians, Gauls and Trans-Alpine Gauls. With all these actors vying for power, one can suspect that such a game can take many twists and turns, with tactical and strategic surprise around every corner. This success is a credit to Wray Ferrell, Sword’s designer (his first title).
The Sword and the Spear
GMT once again provides us with a well presented and produced game. The area movement map is well rendered, is pleasing to the eye, and gives historical flavor while remaining functional to the game play. There are three types of spaces: a normal space, a walled city space and a tribal space. Units move along paths, which can be clear, rough or strait; the Romans can even build the Appian Way to speed their legions along. The counters are colorful and, like the map, remain functional while also giving historical flavor. The combat unit markers simply give a value for the strength of the army and can be exchanged like money to reflect the changes of strength due to combat and reinforcement. They also contain a nice drawing of a warrior of the nation or tribe it represents. The leader counters show a helmet worn by that nation’s army, the name of the leader (or simply "Minor Leader"), an initiative (for activation) rating, and a tactical rating. That is all the information one needs to glean from the counters; it’s simple and it works. There are also markers for city loyalty, control of spaces and other game information.
The key components of this game are the four decks of Strategy Cards. These cards are the fuel that drives the game by allowing players to activate leaders and move units, build new forces, disrupt other players’ moves, and even bring the "non-player" powers of the Trans-Alpine Gauls, Volsci and Carthaginians into the action . Players expend these cards as part of their action phase, five of which make up a turn. In the nine game turns, players will use a minimum of 45 cards. I say "a minimum" because you can also play cards in response to another player’s cards, and combat cards to enhance your forces or degrade those of your opponent at the moment of combat. To make things even more unpredictable, each player has two "desperate times" cards that he can throw down at almost any time to give him another action phase in addition to the 5 per turn. This adds up to a highly interactive and fluid game where almost anything goes. Because of the ability of players to interrupt the sequence of play, they have the ability to quickly upset the plans of the other powers. But what goes around comes around, and one’s own plans can be hit hard too. But don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to portray a game that is totally wild. A healthy dose of realism tempers the action with things such as combat losses, flanks to protect, limited activation of some leaders, and what I think is the genius behind the game, the unique strengths and weakness of each of the player powers in the game.
Sword of Rome cards and counters
Consuls to the Senate
This uniqueness of strengths and weaknesses is portrayed well while keeping the game play mechanics identical for each player. My hat is off to Mr. Ferrell for accomplishing this feat. He did so by having simple movement and combat mechanics that apply to all players, but giving them certain attributes and situations that force each power into their historical roles. For example, The Roman player has a strong army that rebounds easily from combat losses. Rome can build walled cities thus allowing them to consolidate gains. But they have to receive new leaders (the Consuls) every turn, and may get strong ones or weak ones. Once a game they can bring in the Dictator, who is a very strong military leader. The Greeks are very strong militarily and have the best leaders on the board, but by being a democracy they have to build up loyalty in their cities every turn to be able maintain the leaders on the board. This, coupled with the fact that the Greek leaders have (for the most part) high activation ratings, makes it difficult for the Greeks to launch continuous operations.
The Gauls, on the other hand, have a different way of gaining victory points from the other players; they need to plunder territory and cities to win. They can move faster than the other players and can suddenly appear down a coast raiding and looting along the way. But it is difficult to do long term planning for the Gauls, as they must draw a new hand every turn. They also have to deal with the pesky Trans-alpine Gauls who may suddenly appear on their northern frontier. The Etruscan-Samnite player has two tribes to handle. His Etruscans are wedged between Rome and the Gauls and his Samnites are in the hills between the Greeks and Romans. This player can be the big spoiler and needs to be clever in who he takes on, and with whom he allies. But their strength lies in the ability to bribe off attacks and the Samnites are well protected in the hills of south-central Italy.
There is an underlying political and loyalty control system to this game. It is very subtle, but very important to the game play. One needs to control areas and cities or your armies can suffer attrition. You gain control by either spending activation cards to place control markers, by card-induced events, or by winning battles. It took me a few turns to figure out how the political control system worked and what it was doing for the game. It is probably the most complex part of this title and needs to be well understood by the players. The game comes with a Playbook that gives an extensive replay of one whole turn of a four-player game. I recommend new players set up and go through the example to see how the different mechanics interact. This will provide a sense of how the game works.
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