There’s a widespread belief in the gaming, that we ignore the flaws of games we like. Whether it’s ignoring the historical background a game alludes to, because we enjoy the game’s puzzle so much. Or that weaknesses of its design are rebranded as a strength for a certain demographic, because we like a game’s theme so much.
A similar approach is just as common, though rarely addressed. Some games have their flaws over-emphasized. Sure, maybe a game is not on par with the pinnacle of its genre. Maybe its theme is a little too fuzzy, or its rules are too easily pushed to their breaking point by experienced players. It’s an unfortunate situation, because by doing so we turn the extraordinary into the enemy of the good.
So simply put, Caesar’s Empire is a good game. It is not an outstanding game, but perhaps it doesn’t need to be. Its presentation and thematic background signal family-friendliness at first. The “Romans”, as we know them from the stories of Uderzo & Goscinny, provide the thematic hook here. The much better-known Gauls, on the other hand, are not to be found. By laying out Roman plastic legions, we expand Caesar’s empire. This is vaguely reminiscent of Ticket to Ride, in which cities are also connected by placing pieces on a map.
Here, however, the game plays much simpler: you connect the nearest town to the Roman Empire, take the tiles there and distribute points to the legions that lead to the new town. When all the towns are connected to the Roman Empire, the game is over.
This succinct description of the game highlights two points: One, that the rule book is written in a terribly awkward way, but also that Caesar’s Empire is at heart a breezy little game, to bring along to your friends or neighbours. It doesn’t take much time to figure it out, and little effort to play it.
The clever bit is in the slightly convoluted scoring system at the end of the game. Here, the type of tiles, their number and the distribution you own plays a role. Thanks to this short burst of arithmetic, final scoring can still surprise you with unexpected turns or victories. It is a peculiar design decision for a family game, but commendable all the same.
If however, you are somebody who will pull the final victory point calculation into the current game, to carefully calculate the optimal connection, you will either be banging your head against the table or tearing out your own hair by round 4 or 5. Too many options, coupled with too many variables, spread out before you make figuring out the perfect path to victory a fool’s errand. What’s more play becomes an exercise in doing calculus in your head, which doesn’t mesh with the game’s family appeal. It will be up to your group to find the right mixture of gut decisions and roughly estimated point yields. You could play Caesar’s Empire very competitively. But that it is quite exhausting.
If anything, Caesar’s Empire’s presentation is ironically its shortcoming. The board’s size, the volume of the plastic pieces and the number of tiles in the game, give the impression that there is a much more elaborate game lurking in the box. A game of hidden strategic depths suggesting the chance to perform impressive tactical feats. Instead, the game holds little moments for inexperienced players to feel a sense of achievement, when they seize a slew of points they hadn’t noticed before it was their turn. This fittingly makes Caesar’s Empire an approachable beginner’s game.
Size, presentation and also player experience may raise expectations here that the game cannot fulfil. That is very unfortunate, because this can easily lead to a good game being ignored for not being extraordinary.