Saturday, September 26, 2009

Another game about classical Romans (Mare Nostrum, Ra, Dominion:Intrigue)

I've mentioned this a few times, but I've always been on the lookout for a good civ. type game that plays in a reasonable amount of time. I've tried a whole lot of them, and none have really satisfied. It's hard to cram politics, war, technologies, etc into one game that plays in roughly 3 hours, so it's understandable that most have dropped one or more of these facets.

Mare Nostrum has been on my watchlist since it's been released. It has had a much publicized falling from grace on BGG due to it's inability to live up to the Civ-lite hype, but I wanted to try it for myself because it has a very attractive presentation and an admirably simple ruleset. I received it and the mythology expansion at the most recent math trade, so I got my chance.

Mare Nostrum

Since we were only 4 players, and since it was our first game, we played with just the base game despite the fact that I've heard so many positive things about the expansion. We DID include the Greek blockade rule, and the revised heroes, etc. We set it up and got started. I was Carthage, Shemp was Rome, Kozure was Greece and Luch was Egypt.

There was a standoff brewing north of the Mediterranean between Rome and Greece. Meanwhile, on my side of the pond I focused 100% on producing resources. My sole, starting legion wandered eastward and attacked an undefended Cyranae. I was able to convert it and hold it for a few rounds, and during that time I had quickly amassed 2 heroes and a wonder. That last wonder seemed easy to get, but just then Luch managed to take back what was his. I was just a resource or two short of purchasing that last wonder/ hero, but by then the fleets and legions of Rome and Greece were heading southwards to make sure I wouldn't make it. Helen of Troy was doing her best to make my enemies love me, but it wasn't enough. I was decimated. Meanwhile, Shemp had managed to claim the military leader and the director of commerce roles and Rome was unstoppable. Despite a failed attempt to disrupt the Greek trireme chain to Carthage, which would have stranded many of Kozure's forces there, Shemp still managed to pull together enough resources to get the win.

We made a few rules errors: We forgot to carry over 2 tax cards from turn to turn, and during my reign as director of commerce I didn't know I was supposed to give a card from my hand to even out the trades if one player ended the trading period with one less card than the others. Given the difference a single resource card makes in this game, I'm glad I didn't win because I would have felt like I cheated.

All in all, it was a very fun game. The constant exchange of cards is irritating, but in most other respects there is a lot to like. The small number of... everything (legions, caravans, triremes, etc) keeps the game moving along, both in terms of forcing players to act aggressively in order to avoid getting shut out AND because there simply aren't huge numbers of units to consider. The heroes and wonders aren't really the same as a technology tree, but the impact (your civilization gains an advantage over the others) is quite similar. The combat mechanic is simple, but the fact that it integrates randomness keeps things unpredictable enough to be exciting. Lastly, the competition for resources and space makes a certain amount of alliances and deal making inevitable. Having players take on various roles to determine turn order and determining the trade limits is equally interesting aspect which also opens the door for a certain amount of diplomacy.

Speaking of trade limits, the trading mechanism in the game is very peculiar. The way it works is that the director of trade names a number of goods and every player HAS to put that many down and then the director chooses one of the available cards. That player can now choose an available card, and so on until all cards have been chosen. If you can't put down the number of cards, you can't participate. The reason this makes any sense is that the board very cleverly groups goods in various corners of the board, making most starting civs able to produce a couple units of a couple of different goods right from the start. The trick is that in order to use goods to purchase things, you need to make sets of DIFFERENT goods. This means that in the beginning, it is very easy to accumulate one or two sets of three different cards to purchase military units, caravans and influence markers, but getting sets of 6 or even 9 different goods requires some conquest and/or trading. The act of exchanging cards creates diversity without forcing players to take a province in each corner of the map, and simulates the actual exchange of goods that would take place in the world without taking the time necessary to actually barter between players. Already in our first game, certain strategies emerged. With four players, it's possible for three players to exchange amongst themselves and shut out the fourth player. This was used to good effect against me, forcing me to put all my doubles back into my hand, and thus not having the set of 9 needed to win before Luch started taking back provinces. Taxes seemed less popular than goods, but a few players started taking advantage of this and specifically targeted these easy to get cards (the rule that allows 2 tax cards to be carried over would make this even more attractive). I'm less sure how to make the most out of limiting trades to zero, unless the director of trade has more diversity than the others. I'm sure there is quite a lot more than we are seeing. I can also see that players looking for a traditional trading game could be disappointed, and that others might just not "get" this very important stage of the game and might dislike the experience because of the seeming uselessness of it all. Gladly, I thought it was quite interesting, and I think the whole group did, too.

I do have one big concern, however. Most games that revolve around resource gathering force players to build up their stockpiles over several rounds in order to afford bigger purchases. This makes it necessary to budget over time, and to weigh the short and long term benefits of the various items up for sale. In Mare Nostrum, players get resources every round, and must spend all of them that round. Then, the game makes the winning condition the purchase of 4 of the most expensive items, heroes and/or wonders. This means that a player who is able to generate 9 resources one round is also probably able to produce them the next round and the next round unless provinces are taken away or trading is shut down. Once a player gets to 9, the other players essentially have a two turn window to smack down that player or the game is over. So the first part of the problem for me is that I found this a little strange, that a player goes from nowhere to the verge of victory so quickly. The second part of the problem is that once the other players decide to take down a player, there probably isn't too much that player can do to stop them, and I don't see any reason why this process couldn't go on forever (one player rises up, others conspire to take him down). It reminds me of Ideology, another game where the leader can be bashed forever and the game can go on for much longer than it should because of it. I would have liked to see a kind of timer mechanism like end of the Triumvirate to ensure an end to the game after a set period of time. Anyway, with only a single game under my belt I have no idea if it will actually be a problem, but it is a concern that I have. Now that we've seen how the game can go, we will certainly be more wary of letting anyone get ahead... will it lead to a vicious cycle? Who knows.

So, ultimately Mare Nostrum is a world domination game more than a civ-lite game, but I am happy to say that it's an upper tier one. I look forward to playing it again, and to eventually including the mythology expansion.


We played a quick game of RA, which is always fun to play, and I'm glad we did... I won by healthy margin! (Ha!) I think I had the better part of the Nile sitting in front of me, and a fortunate grab gave me a number of monument points right at the end.

Dominion: Intrigue

Luch made up a semi random set of cards, and we quickly realized it was mainly composed of expensive cards and powers that screwed other players. For this reason, it took some time before anyone managed to get an engine going in order to start purchasing the 6 victory point cards. I never got there, but Luch starting grabbing them at an alarming pace. My saboteur robbed Kozure of 2x 6 point victory point cards, but otherwise I did very little in the game. I came in a distant last, Luch came in a distant first. A postgame recap revealed that Kozure would have narrowed the gap considerably if I hadn't made him lose those cards. Sorry, man.

It was an enjoyable game, though frustrating at times. I feel like I'm not very good at quickly processing the combos I need to get going. Like Race for the Galaxy, I enjoy the game despite not feeling like I'm any good at it. For me, the two occupy a very similar space... optimising random cards for VPs. Whereas Race for the Galaxy feels like a far more strategic optimization game with more options than Dominion, there is less direct interaction as well. I'd say I still like Race better, but I think I'm in the minority at WAGS.

One thing that clicked for me this game, however, is that you really want to do whatever it takes to draw as many cards as possible at all times. HAving multiple actions and buys is often useless if you are only holding five cards (or 4, as I was for much of the game due to Shemp's constant play of the torturer. Grrr.) Maybe I'll do better next time.

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