The Romans board game: A four-sided game review

The Romans board game is the latest release from the legendary Ragnar Brothers, a distinctly British design studio that has been putting out games for more than 25 years.

This is a worker placement euro with some interesting twists and ideas, but you’re in for the long haul. It’ll take 1-4 experienced gamers around 2-4 hours to play.

In the box you’ll find four very large player boards (18×12 inches), a long cloth central ‘board’, around 30 oversized cards, more than 100 wooden cubes/pieces, a tree’s worth of cardboard chits and three dice. The cloth array is a full three feet in length, which annoyingly didn’t quite fit width-wise on my gaming table. It’s quite the table hog, but with a bit of faff we got a four-player game squeezed on. And at less than £40 it represents good value for money.

The cartoony artwork isn’t going to suit everyone, but I like it. It invoked Asterix, which is always a good thing. But don’t let the cartoon style fool you – there’s some proper history going on in terms of locations, names and game flow. You’ll be playing through Roman history as the empire rose and fell. Just how hard each player falls is going to be down to how well they play, with a little ‘help’ from those damned dice…

Teaching The Romans board game

The basics of The Romans are relatively straightforward: place workers (‘senators’), complete tasks, earn victory points. But it’s the way you expand your empires, and especially combat, where the game starts to tread a path of its own. A game lasts five rounds (‘eras’) which are separated into two main phases: Roman expansion and the enemy’s response. Players use senators to take actions, then send generals to war; before the game gets to have a go at biting you in the ass.

Players start with four senators, one each of rank 1-4. Better senators can potentially do actions more effectively. There’s an action space on your player board you can use as much as you like (which basically generates cash). The rest you compete for on the main board (cloth mat). While each player can use each action area once per era, the quality of senator used impacts how effectively. If a ‘4’ spot is taken, you can only take a lesser version of that action – even if you have a level 4 senator to use.

There are five action spaces initially, plus a new one opens each era. The basic ones gain you troops, resources and buildings; and allow you to ‘level up’ your senators or use the powers of the gods (more on those later). Later actions are randomly drawn, but either give better options for standard actions or ways to earn victory points (plus new senators, expanding your options in later rounds). Your final choice is to flip a senator over, making him a general, and send him off to war…

If you wish for peace, prepare for war

Each player board has a similar, yet subtly different map of the areas conquered by the Romans. In what The Ragnars describe as ‘quantum game design’, each player has their own game board depicting the same period of time happening in slightly parallel universes. But you don’t need to worry about that science nonsense. The important thing is it’s a very clever system and it works surprisingly well.

Each round a random dice roll tells each player which region they will score bonus points for if they carry out actions there (either defeating it, or bolstering it if already conquered). In addition there are three regions at the edges of the board that give end-game victory point tiles if defeated – with the player defeating each of the regions first getting the largest choice of bonus tiles.

All players start with a garrison in Latium, in the centre of their board’s Italy – but have another 20 regions to potentially conquer. You can place a general and some troops in any region adjacent to one you control and use as many senators as generals as you like (as long as you have the troops to go with them). Once everyone has used all their senators, it’s time to do head off to battle.

At the start of the game, players seed all their regions with face-down tokens depicting the poor put-upon locals. Simultaneously, players now flip the token for an area they’re invading and work out the strengths of the two forces. The better the senator turned general, the more attack bonus you receive – while each legion adds a point too. So you can overload battles if you don’t want to worry too much about lady luck.

One roll to rule them all

One of the game’s refreshing mechanisms is one player now roles two dice, one for the Romans and one for the locals – and that one dice roll affects all players’ battles at once. So if I had a 2-1 starting advantage and you a 2-1 disadvantage, and the role was two threes, I would win my battle – but you would lose. My troops would leave a garrison behind and move to the next battle (Risk style) – flipping the next token in the next region. You would lose a legion, but if you had any remaining would try again. Again, the dice would be rolled – and again the roll would affect each of our battles.

Different regions will give different players the potential for victory points, resources or both. But no matter how far your forces spread, the game now gets its turn to hit back. Enemy attacks work in the same way, spreading across your board to undo your hard work with the same ‘one-roll-fits-all’ battle mechanism. Here’s where buildings you got in the action phase can payoff, with cities, forts and walls bolstering defences. After five rounds of this (and the usual adding up of in-game and end-game victory points) the player with the most points can laud it over the other Caesars.

The four sides

These are me, plus three fictitious players drawn from observing my friends and their respective quirks and play styles.

  • The writer: There’s a lot to The Romans. Fleets help troops cross the map but can be sunk in storms. Controlling Italy lets you call on gods, doing strong actions with weak senators and earning big rewards. You can tax regions, causing unrest – which lets enemy attacks sweep through your defences if you get unlucky. It’s fiddly, and luck can hose you. But despite the layers the rules do their best to get out of the way, making for a smooth (if Ameritrashy) euro experience.
  • The thinker: Turn order is dictated by victory points and affects two parts of each era: choosing a general and an enemy. A poor general means weak armies or low funds, while an enemy hitting you from the wrong place can be devastating. Having the lowest victory points can be a big advantage as you pick first. So, as in Power Grid, surging ahead late after being just a little behind is the way to go. This adds more depth to in-game decisions meaning that, while more tactical than strategic, I enjoyed it immensely.
  • The trasher: While there isn’t direct interaction in The Romans, there’s enough to keep me interested. The order you take actions can have an impact, so assessing what other need is part of planning. It’s the same choosing which enemy to face. If I can leave an enemy for you who’ll head straight to your capital and potentially cost you big points, that’s going to happen! And I love the battle system: one roll, the same consequences for all. Simple and effective. In a game that is a little solitaire, it brings you all together.
  • The dabbler: I took one look and backed away. The cartoony art is OK, but the font makes things hard to read and some of the cardboard chits are super small and fiddly. And three hours? No thanks! It was the right decision: the rules explanation was at least 30 minutes long. Not for the faint of heart…

Key observations

The Romans board game is great for solo play. Very little changes from the multi player game, with ‘the enemy’ (a dummy player) scoring points in a quick and easy process. As well as trying to get your high score, even just beating the enemy can prove tricky depending on your dice rolls. Otherwise, it plays well at all player counts with only table space and game length being potential issues.

The art style isn’t going to win everyone over. While font choices and size of the main cloth board (plus player boards) are also potential barriers to entry. Players will need to get on board, which is going to rely on the enthusiasm of others (me included!) to get people to the table. Hopefully it will have enough fans to spread the word.

You’re either going to love the luck factor in The Romans, or you’re going to hate it. Old school war game elements such as rolling dice to alter battles are pretty crude but having the one roll affect everyone cleverly sidesteps the issues. It’s up to you if you want to load up on the attacking side, moving the luck factor out of the equation. However defensively you’re very limited, as you can only get to a maximum of four defensive strength in any region. But again, that applies to everyone.

Similarly, the fiddliness is going to annoy some and enthuse others. But with a target audience of thematic, war and long euro gamers I can’t see it being a problem. But player aids, as always, would’ve been a very handy addition. Can’t we pass some sort of gaming law that they’re put into every game?

Conclusion: The Romans board game

I’m not usually a fan of Ameritrash factors in games, where the luck of the dice happens after you’ve made the thinky decisions. Nor am I usually a fan of long games or swayed by theme over form. But despite all that, The Romans totally won me over and will be staying in my collection. No, it won’t be played on a weekly basis. But with certain friends, and especially at cons, I can see this being a long-standing favourite.

For 150+ more like this, visit my board game reviews page.

* I would like to thank The Ragnar Brothers for providing a copy of the game for review.

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