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Sunday, 13 January 2013

What Glory Rome?

The year is AD 64. A great fire has struck Rome and at Nero’s command the city must be rebuilt. A number of young Patricians have come forward to answer the imperial call, hoping to win influence and a fortune in helping the Emperor. As their influence grows, they will be able to command Architects and Craftsmen who will rebuild Rome for them, Labourers who will gather the materials needed to rebuild Rome’s finest buildings, the Legions to take materials for their building efforts, Merchants to sell the hoarded materials that will ensure their wealth, and Patrons who will gather more Clientele who will also serve as Architects, Craftsmen, Labourers, Legionaries, and Patrons for each Patrician. All this must be done if a Patrician is rebuild the greatest city in the known world and bring Glory to Rome!

This is premise behind Glory to Rome, a strategy card game published by Cambridge Games. Originally published in 2005, in 2012 it was redesigned with all new artwork and a new box and funded through Kickstarter. Known as the “Black Box” edition, this is the version being reviewed here. Designed to be played by between two and five players, aged twelve and up, it is a card-based city building and resource management game with a novel mechanism. Most of the cards are Order cards that can be used not in one or two different ways, but in four different ways. Each Order card can be built as a building, used as a raw material in the construction of a building, hired as a patron, or sold for its material value. Each Order card can only be used the once, so a player will need to choose carefully if he is to gain the winning benefit from it.

Each Order card is first and foremost a building that a player can construct and then gain the special ability that the building grants. Each Order card is also a material that could be used to construct buildings, though if a player uses it as the material to construct part of another building, he cannot construct the building on the card. There are multiple copies of the buildings in Glory to Rome, so if a card is used for material in another building, another copy might pass into a player’s hand enabling him to try and build it. Each and every building grants its builder a special ability that will help him win the game.

Each Order card is also marked with one, two, or three coins. Once the building on an Order card has been built, these have a dual purpose. First, they indicate the Victory Points scored at game’s end for having constructed the building. Second, they indicate the player’s Influence. By increasing his Influence, a player increases both his capacity to hire more Clients and store material in his Vault.

Lastly, each Order card is marked with one of six Client types and an associated material. These are the grey Architects, which can also serve as Concrete; the green Craftsman, which also serve as Wood; the yellow Labourers, which also work as Rubble; the red Legionaries, which also serve as Brick; the blue Merchants, which also serve as Stone; and the purple Patrons, which also serve as Marble. Each of the six Client types performs a particular role or function in the game. The Architect can lay the foundation of a building or add material to its construction from a player’s Stockpile. The Craftsman can lay the foundation of a building or add material to its construction from a player’s hand of cards. The Labourer takes material from the game’s central pool and adds it to a player’s Stockpile. The Legionary demands material from both the game’s central pool and the hands of neighbouring players. The Merchant allows a player to move material from his Stockpile to his Vault. Lastly, a Patron hires a Client from the game’s central pool and adds it to a player’s Clientele.

So for example, the Market card serves as a Craftsman if used as a Client, as Wood in the construction of a building, but if built does two things. First, its single coin increases both the player’s Victory Point total and his Influence. Second, it grants a special ability, in this case, an increase in size of the player’s Vault above the limit set by his current Influence.  Whereas the Archway serves as a Legionary if used as a Client, as Brick for constructing a building, and it increases a player’s Victory Point total and Influence both by two. The special ability that the Archway grants lets a player take material from the central pool of cards instead of his Stockpile.

Glory to Rome consists of three other card types. One is the Jack, a wild card that can be used instead of a Client on an Order card. Another is the Foundation card, which come in the game’s six material types – Brick, Concrete, Marble, Rubble, Stone, and Wood – with a Foundation card being required to be laid before construction can begin on a building. Thus a Wood Foundation card must be laid before construction can be begun on the Market. The last card type is the Merchant Bonus, there being one of these for each material. Each is awarded to the player who the most of the corresponding material in his Vault at game’s end.

In addition to beginning the game with a hand of five Order cards, a player also has a Player Camp heavy card mat. The Player Camp serves as a reference for the players, providing a brief description of what each of the Order cards does when used as Clients. Primarily though, a Player Camp mat is used to organise a player’s cards once they have been played. Order cards are tucked face up under the top of the Player Camp so that only their Influence values are visible; face down under the right hand side in the player’s Vault; face up under the bottom of the Player Camp in the player’s Stockpile; and face up with only the Client type visible under the left hand side of the Player Camp in Clientele section. This neatly organises the cards that a player has so far played. Constructed buildings or buildings under construction are kept separate from each Player Camp. There is also another card mat called the “Rome Demands” which is used with the Legionary Order card.

At its core, Glory to Rome is simple to play. On each turn one player is the Leader (there is a Leader card which is passed round the table as the leadership changes). As Leader a player chooses an Order card from his hand and announces his intention to play its Client as an action. So for example, as Leader, Dave chooses to play the Ludus Magnus card as his Order card and use its Patron action so that he can take an Order card from the pool and add its Client to his Clientele. Now each of Dave’s rivals can do one of two things. If they decide to “Follow” Dave as their Leader, then they must also play an Order card with a Patron action from their hand, play a Jack card from their hand, or Petition. The latter allows a Patrician to play to two or three (depending upon the variant of Glory to Rome being played) identical Client cards of another type to serve as a Jack. So for example, Anthony has neither a Patron card that he can play to follow Dave, nor does he have a Jack, but he does have two Legionary cards that he can play as a Jack.

If a player does not Follow the Leader, he can instead “Think.” In which case, he draws cards up to his hand limit, a single card if he has more cards than his hand limit, or he takes a Jack. If a Leader decides not to lead, but instead to “Think,” he takes a single “Think” action and then the Leadership changes to the next player. Similarly, once everyone has followed a Leader or decided to Think, then the leadership also changes hands.

Normally, only single actions are possible from one turn to the next, but multiple actions become possible when a player has Clients placed in the Clientele section of his Player Camp. Actions for a player’s Clientele can be taken when either the player or another player Leads with the particular Client type. A player can decide to “Think” rather than “Follow” the current Leader and still have his Client take an action as long as the Client matches the Order card played by the Leader. So for example, when Dave used the Patron action of the Ludus Magnus card, he managed to take the Market card from the central Pool and add its Craftsman to his Clientele. On a subsequent turn, he managed to add an Architect to his Clientele, giving him two Clients. On a later turn, Anthony is the Leader and plays a Palisade Order card to make use its Craftsman action. Dave can choose to “Follow” Anthony and play a card that would give him the Craftsman action, so giving him two Craftsman actions – one for the card he is playing and the other for the card he has in his Clientele. Or if he does not have an Order card with a Craftsman, he can “Think,” draw cards or a Jack, and still gain a Craftsman action from the Client because Anthony Lead with a Craftsman.

Once each and every player has played an Order card, that card is not out of the game. Rather it goes into the central pool of cards from which cards are drawn as material, using either the Labourer or Legionary actions (the Legionary action also steals from a player’s neighbours as well as taking from the central pool). To an extent it is possible to deny rival players the materials that they want by not playing certain types of Order cards and thus not discarding them to this pool. Plus it is easy to track what materials that a player wants from the buildings that he has under construction. For example, Dave knows that Anthony requires Concrete because he is building a Vomitorium. As long as Dave or another player does not Lead or Follow with an Architect action, the Concrete that is on all Architect Order cards is not discarded to the pool where Anthony might be able to get it later with a Labourer or Legionary action. Anthony is, instead, forced to rely upon the Architect/Concrete Order cards that he might draw when he “Thinks.”

During the initial stages of the game, constructing buildings will take several turns, as will moving material into a player’s Vault. As a player adds Clients to his Clientele, he increases the number of possible actions that he can conduct on a turn, either as Leader or a follower. Further, completing the construction of buildings not only adds towards a player’s Influence and Victory Point total, they also provide him with a special ability or benefit that will help him on subsequent turns. For example, when constructed, the Circus Maximus doubles the ability of a player’s Clientele by letting each one act twice. Thus each time that Dave uses his Architect or Craftsman clients, they take two actions rather than one. Essentially, the more buildings that a player can construct, the more he is able to do, and what he can do, he is better at.

Glory to Rome ends when the draw pile has been exhausted or there are no Foundation cards available to lay without the use of two Architect or Craftsman Order cards, at which point the player with the most Victory Points wins. Victory Points are scored by constructing buildings and by getting materials into a player’s Vault. Both of these objectives take several actions to complete. To construct a building, a player must use an Architect or a Craftsman action to lay its Foundation card and then add material to the building either from his hand (with a Craftsman action) or from his Stockpile (with an Architect action). Getting material into his Stockpile requires a Labourer action and there has to be the right material available in the central pool. To get material in his Vault, a player must use a Merchant action and the material must come from his Stockpile – so a player needs to decide whether to use a material card in his Stockpile as part of a building or to add directly to his Victory Point total in his Vault.

This is a medium weight, strategic card game with a light theme, one with plenty of replay value because of the variety of buildings and their special abilities available for construction. It offers replay value because although there are only two ways of achieving victory – constructing buildings and squirreling away material in a player’s Vault – there are multiple means to support those two ways, and those means are the special abilities granted by each building. It can be played in in an hour and it fits neatly in a surprisingly small box given the number of components in the game.

Physically, Glory to Rome is well done. The Player Camps and the Rome Demands mats are done in sturdy card. The cards are neatly designed and attractive. The previous edition had cartoon-style illustrations, but the updated “Black Box” edition opts for an elegant art style that echoes that of the classic board game, Civilisation. One issue with the cards is that they do get a lot of handling, so my advice would be to sleeve all of them.

As enjoyable as Glory to Rome is, it is far from perfect. Physically, the cards are not quite sturdy enough for the degree of handling that the game calls for – thus the suggestion above to sleeve them. A primary issue is with the rules which are underwritten and thus not easy to learn or comprehend. This has an effect on the teaching of the game because the multiple uses that the Order cards is not easily nor necessarily immediately grasped. Nor is this helped by the numerous special abilities that the buildings on the Order cards grant – reading them slows the game play down and understanding how a special ability works with the game’s mechanics is one further to learning the game. Thus learning to play Glory to Rome is a challenge in itself, but once grasped, the game just motors along. Experienced board game players will have less of a problem, especially if they have played games such as Puerto Rico, San Juan, or Race for the Galaxy

Once mastered, Glory to Rome is an enjoyable game to play. The game play is simpler than it first looks and it offers plenty of replay value as the number of buildings to construct means that no two games will be alike. Indeed, I enjoyed it so much that after my first play I purchased a copy for myself.