Monday, September 21, 2009

Out to sea, with no Romans in the Boat (The End of the Triumvirate, Mexica)

Another Math Trade has come and gone, and this one has been particularly good to me. New in my collection are Mare Nostrum+ expansion, Steam, Attika and End of the Triumvirate. I'm sure they'll all eventually see some table time (well, not sure about Attika), but this week End of the Triumvirate was chosen by Shemp along with Mexica.

End of the Triumvirate

When this game came out a few years ago, I was intrigued. Games that play well with three are probably the most difficult to find, and this one comes along that is specifically designed for three. It was also getting good reviews, which didn't hurt.

It's a game set in (where else?) ancient Rome. Caesar, Pompei and Crassus are vying for control of Rome in the dying days of the senate. Players take on the role of one of these leaders and try to win by achieving one of three possible victory conditions:

1) Military victory: Control 9 regions.
2) Political victory: Get elected consul twice, or get elected consul once and then get 6 senators under your influence.
3) Competence victory: Reach the maximum level of competence in politics and military skill.

On a turn, a player checks to see how much income or legions his controlled provinces generate, then moves around the board collecting said resources and/ or conquering new ones. The last step of the turn is to take up to three actions, with the available actions changing depending on the province the player's marker ended on. Possible actions include swaying politicians, training military units or advancing competency on the political or military track.

A few things struck me as I played the game:

- Mechanically, this is a very streamlined, very abstract euro. The game is essentially a variety of ways to push around cubes, and these types of games often have thinly applied themes. Surprisingly, the theme comes through very well and I consider that a testament to the quality of the design. To me, there was a real feeling of balancing three spheres of influence (military, politics and competency). The conquest of provinces worked well, and the combat mechanic was very nice (essentially, it's a one for one loss system, but supplemented with a cube draw from a bag. Any cubes drawn count as extra casualty for the other side. Simple, not fussy, but adds a little excitement and risk).

- The component design is excellent. There are a number of little touches that make reinforce the rules in unobtrusive ways. For example, players are given 9 province markers. When they are all placed, one of the victory conditions is met. Another example: the player marker is an odd flat square. When moving around units (which happens a lot), the piece is perfect for loading up the units and bringing them together to their destination.

- The ability to win through three distinct paths meant that everyone was in the running until the very end. It was anyone's guess who would win, and it's also possible to make it look like you are pursuing one path while secretly going for another.

- The game has a distinct "Tug of War" feeling with the military. Provinces are taken and lost throughout the rounds, but there is never a feeling of futility because the voting for consuls and progression in competency means that the end has to arrive eventually. A player going for a military win needs to act quickly to succeed, while the political win takes more time. The competency track seemed like it progressed at a similar pace between players, and it seemed like the most likely way for the game to end early. It's also the one way that players have no way of directly countering the leader's progress (provinces can be retaken, and politicians can be swayed back).

Overall, I was very impressed with the game. As a three way tug of war with a timer continuously running in the background, the action started right away and the tension did not let up until the last round. The mechanics are impressive in their elegance and simplicity, and the playtime is short for this type of game at one hour. My only concern is that the whole thing is simple and streamlined enough that I'm not 100% sure how much it will be re-playable before it gets stale. Luckily, few of my games get played often, so it shouldn't be too much of a problem...

For the record, I took a rather aggressive tact as Caesar and amassed a number of armies and conquered quite a few regions. Meanwhile, I had designs on winning a political victory while the other two were focussed on combat. Unfortunately, Shemp slyly stole the first consul vote from me. By the last round, I had managed to get my first consul vote and had the choice to end the game by improving my competence for the win or enlisting the 6 senators I needed. I went for the senators, because it seemed cooler...

I think Shemp liked the game quite a bit as well. Luch, well Luch seemed like he had more fun sending the player marker out to sea without soldiers than playing the game itself. He said at the end that he wasn't crazy about it. Oh well.


Afterwards, we played Mexica for the second time a a group. Not much to say, except that there was a lot of nasty bridge moving by the end and the area majorities where hard fought. We concluded that we probably spend too much time defending our regions by attempting to block bridges, etc, than allowing the chips to fall where they may while being aggressive elsewhere (I don't want to make it sound like we were playing in silos, however, we WERE all over the board and in each other's faces... ). Anyway, Luch managed to out Aztec-temple us for the win.

In the end, the board was an absolute mess of canals and bridges to blocked spaces. If we were in charge of Aztec planning,
they may not have become such a great civilization after all.

It's a very good, fairly abstract euro. I'd say I like it nearly as much as Tikal, and yet they are different enough to keep both for now.

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