There are certain circles in this hobby where eurogames are looked down upon. There, these games are often decried as soulless cube-pushers, convoluted systems of oh-so-clever mechanisms with the vaguest semblance of a theme draped over them. They get criticized for their lack of player interaction. Playing them rarely succeeds in letting you feel something that matches the illustration on the game’s box and so on and so forth.
As a eurogame, then, The Romans has had its work cut out. For starters, it is set in the most eurogame-y of all settings: the mediterranean during the age of antiquity. It is built around the most illustrious example of eurogame innovation: the worker placement mechanism. Worse still – despite dealing with military conquest – it keeps player interaction mostly to blocking spots on a shared (cloth) board and does not allow players to sick their armies on each other.
And yet, The Romans succeeds in overcoming those worn-out criticisms of its genre. It fulfills all relevant criteria for a eurogame, except for how it feels. This is in part due to its playful presentation that houses an intriguing challenge. It needs you to make tactical decisions, strategic considerations and take some calculated risks which is enough to keep you engaged for the entirety of its play time. Considering that the box announces The Romans’ game length at between 90-180 minutes, that is quite a feat.
The Romans works, not least of all, because of the clear objectives it presents players with throughout. Each of the game’s five eras begins with randomly determining a province for each player to conquer or alternatively build a city in, if they’ve conquered it in an earlier turn already. From turn one players know what their goal is and can plan out their steps. As the game progresses, and new action spaces are revealed, the decision tree widens. Thus creating a deeper and more engaging challenge as The Romans pushes towards its conclusion.
Instead of a linear progression, though, each era ends with uprisings that may or may not damage your position going into the next era. It’s easy to overlook just how much these dynamic changes to your empire bring the game to life. There is an ebb and flow to advances your empire manages to hold on to over the eras.
You will have to build armies and fleets before strategically conquering your designated province. But you must also collect resources to pay for the actions you want to take, or to build defenses and cities later. On top of that, you also want your military campaign to reach the edge of the known world (i.e. your board), where you can pick new objectives to score at the end of the game. All of this takes place on your personal player board, which means you never actually meet another player on the battlefield. But you do get to choose your secret VP goals from the respective regions of all players, leading to some roundabout interaction by leaving another player with a goal that scores them precious little glory.
The Romans retains is structure throughout, never straying from the template that is set up in the first round. Yet it never feels static or repetitive. The changes introduced by the one-die-roll combat mechanic at the end of each era acts as both a resolution to your plans, or a stress test of your achievements, as well as rearranging your starting position for the next era.
As the demands and challenges of the game suck you in, The Romans manages to evoke a sense of history marching forward. As the eras draw to a close your ability to lead the Roman empire to glory is tested. Passing that test feels appropriately glorious. Because of your plans and decisions, the empire endures. Now stronger than ever. While failing that test, just provokes your ambition to become even more powerful in the new era to come.
In true eurogame fashion, the game has an uneasy tension between two styles of playing games. On the one hand you’re sending out your senators to garner glory, hoping to outpace the other players. On the other hand, you place those senator tactically to make other players’ plans less efficient and profitable. Many players enjoy being caught between these two different incentives.
But if, like me, you’ve never been drawn to the spectre of Schadenfreude looming over you while you play games, there is a solo mode worth paying attention to. It retains the plotting and puzzling over how to make best use of your workers, without the eyerolling frustration of getting blocked by other players. Either by accident or on purpose.
But this joyful and enticing package is not without its small imperfections. The rules could have used a more modern layout to convey the game’s bigger picture. It succeeds in carefully layoung out each individual step of the game, but never quite manages to convey a bigger picture until you’re a few turns into the game. The Romans’ graphic design, although friendly and bright, can also feel a little busy at times. It may take a while to get comfortable with all the tokens, pieces and tracks on the board.
These small criticisms shouldn’t detract from what is ultimately a game that is incredibly satisfying to play and offers a challenge that is worth revisiting. Both on your own and with multiple players.