Wednesday, October 4, 2006

Republic of Rome

The last year or so I've been trying to get more classic games back on the table. These older games are never going to be regulars, but they're fun to play again: Dune, Civilization, Gangsters, Britannia ... and now one of my most highly regarded old games, #11 on my all-time favorite list, Republic of Rome.

For those of you who may be unfamiliar with the game, Republic of Rome is in my opinion the classic political game, and not just that, but in an whole different league from the others. Players take the roles of factions in the Roman Senate and cope with the issues of various Republican periods: the many wars in the timeframe of the 1st and 2nd Punic Wars, the growth of the empire and the internal discord of the era of the Gracchi brothers, and then the full-blooded internecine struggles of Caesar, Crassus, and Pompey. You marshal cash, influence, and popularity to compete politically for the offices of the Consuls (who run the Senate and fight the wars), Censor (who prosecutes Senators for Corruption, the appearance thereof, or hairstyle), Governors (good for some personal graft), Pontifex Maximus (a mixed blessing), as well as a few other various and sundry items. The players must also manage the affairs of state to cope with wars, drought, popular unrest, revolution, the Cataline Conspiracy, death, and taxes. Most things are run in a democratic process of voting, although the players elected to office will retain important controls over what is debated and how the voting proceeds. The thing that makes Republic of Rome so unique and compelling is that it is a truly cooperative-competitive game. The players have to deal with the random external threats, Knizia's Lord of the Rings style, or Rome will fall. But there can be only one winner, and you can win in a variety of ways which involve amassing influence or overthrowing the Senate with your personal army.

The big complaint about Republic of Rome has always been the complexity; to be more specific, the difficulty of learning to play the game (like several Avalon Hill games of this time period, it's far, far easier to be taught the game than to learn it from the rulebook). Interestingly, with the more recent onslaught of German games, I have become somewhatless sympathetic to this complaint than I used to be. I think the reason is just that the complexity of Republic of Rome is both a) not terribly burdensome compared to modern multi-player wargames like Here I Stand or The Napoleonic Wars, and b) all good. No, it is not an easy game to learn or play. But while there is a lot in Republic of Rome, and a lot of it could on first inspection be dismissed as chrome, almost everything in the game is interconnected and serves a purpose. Try to touch something, and in general it's clear that something else is going to break. The core resources of the game (money, influence, and popularity for the players, money and unrest for the state) are used in many divergent but interconnected ways. Take popularity, for example, in some sense the most limited of the basic resources: it is used to protect yourself from prosecution, to make the yearly "state of the union" address to keep the people quiet, as protection from Assassination, and can be spent to do some price-gouging on a grain concession during a drought. Popularity can be won by winning wars, sponsoring public games, and sponsoring farm bills in the Senate. But on the other hand, nothing is simple: money and influence are intertwined in all these things. Games covert personal cash into popularity, winning wars requires the cash and votes to get elected in the first place, farm bills are free to the players but cost the state money (sometimes a lot of money) while keeping unrest down ... and so on. The network of connections is very dense.

I think this interconnectedness is what makes the game so successful at what it does. Like so many wonderfully thematic games, when you drill down on the details, a lot of things are badly off: the Consuls didn't really wield power in anything like the way they do here, the Censor is an abstraction that bears little relation to any historical office, and the rules for the Dictator are a fudge. The lawmaking powers of the Tribal Assembly, such a critical focus of conflict in the period of the Gracchi brothers, are totally ignored. A conflict similar to the 1st Civil War (Marius vs. Sulla) will never happen, while one of the more common victory conditions in practice – becoming Consul for Life – is grossly ahistorical outside of the Late Republic. And the rapidly shifting alliances of a 5 or 6 player game simply doesn't reflect the factional politics of the Roman Senate, which never had more than 2-3 major competing factions.

But despite being so far off on so many of the details, I don't think anyone would seriously argue that Republic of Rome has anything but terrific, evocative historical theming that gives a real sense of Roman Republican politics. In part this is because the game has, where necessary, ignored history and done what is required for the game itself to work, and a deep, interesting, working game will do far more to immerse the players in the game-world than any slavish devotion to historical accuracy.

To bring this back to the issue of complexity, I'm not convinced that Republic of Rome would even function at all with a lower complexity level. Republic of Rome is unique because it combines both cooperative and competitive elements: the survival of the state and the desire of one faction to come out on top. The immersion of the players in the game-world is in my opinion a good chunk of what allows these elements to exist in uneasy balance. A much more abstract game like Terra (or even the competitive play option for Lord of the Rings) is too easy for gamers to heartlessly mini-max. But by enabling the players to become emotionally invested in the game, Republic of Rome makes it work.

So how was it, ultimately, playing Republic of Rome again? I've played it three times in the last 6 months, after a break of about 7 years.

For a game I still regard quite highly, it's not as easy a question to answer as one might hope. As a game design, I still hugely respect it and consider it one of the most unique and compelling games ever made. But there are also a few pointy edges to the game mechanisms that bug me more than they used to. I think the main area that bugs me today that I considered just "part of the game" in the past are the Persuasion rules, where players can steal each others' Senators, Illuminati-style. It's a minor part of the game because the amount of influence required to successfully Persuade anyone is huge, and they are easy to defend against, but when Persuasion becomes relevant it's ridiculously high-stakes and rather chaotic. I'd rather a fairer and less arbitrary way of making sure each faction gets repopulated as Senators die off.*

Also, I don't think the Middle and Late Republic scenarios work as they should, as I think they have too much potential for serious pacing issues, as I talk about in this BoardGameGeek thread. And the Late Republic, despite the appeal of the most household names (Caesar, Cicero, Pompey), is much too long; the Early Republic is playable in 4-6 hours, while the Late Republic can take 10-12. The Early Republic is a very fun game in and of itself, but it's definitely not endlessly replayable, and the game does need those later two scenarios to work properly.

This is all comparatively minor stuff. The creakiness of the Persuasion situation doesn't have a profound impact on the game. And there is a lot of play value in the Early Republic. But still.

At the end of the day, though, I don't think these reflect the real reason that Republic of Rome has lost some of its sharpness for me personally, even though I still enjoyed playing it. I think the real reasons are probably two-fold, and more meta-reasons than any real issue with the game itself.

Firstly is the much more troubling state of the real American politics. With things as bitter, divisive, and negative as they are today, it's harder to get excited about what is probably the greatest political game ever made.

Secondly, and I'm not sure how closely this is related to the first item, I seem to have lost my killer instinct for this sort of game. This point might be a little more subtle than it first appears. One of the reasons that I was originally drawn to Republic of Rome, and the reason that I've rated it highly over the years, is that while it's true that it is a highly-competitive political game, it's still a constructive one with more similarities to the win-win deal-making of Traders of Genoa than the free-form hoseage of I'm the Boss. The deals you make with the other players are overwhelmingly about angling to gain offices or otherwise build up your own position rather than taking down your opponents. There is certainly scope for screwing Senators – the most blatant is through Prosecution, which is the only really overtly hostile element of the game, but you can also send them off to war with insufficient force in the hopes they'll be killed or banish them to a long Governership in the provinces – but this sort of overt personal confrontation is a lesser part of the game. The vast majority of the time, you're setting yourself up rather than specifically taking your opponents down.

I guess what I'm saying here is that from the game perspective (i.e., leaving aside the historical interest, which is considerable), I was drawn to Republic of Rome because it was a political game that lacked the overt nastiness of Diplomacy. But the game can still be a bit nasty. While what I say above about being constructive is literally true, it's also true that the benefits of office are considerable and somebody has to get frozen out, and the dynamics of the game can sometimes be seen as personal and can be frustrating. It's no Diplomacy; it's not even I'm the Boss or Intrige (I do love Intrige, but only because it's so brazenly ostentatious about its nastiness that it's hard to take it too seriously). But the nastiness is there, off in the corner smirking, and I don't like it when he looks at me. This is a hard point to make without overstating it, but as I've gotten older, I find I don't have the stomach for some of these things like I used to.

So I've lowered my BoardGameGeek rating on Republic of Rome. From a 10 to a 9. I still consider it a unique, wonderful, classic game, which I will still enjoy playing and will likely continue to break out every few years for a long time hence. The historical flavor is terrific, and the game succeeds at transporting you to a world that is immersive and interesting and compelling, as well as being a remarkably good game. But, it couldn't quite live up to the "all-time classic" label it had in my mind. And I really wish the later scenarios worked better.


* This may strike some players familiar with Republic of Rome as odd. After all, at the beginning of each turn, you play "death bingo". You pick a number out of a cup. The player who controls the Senator that matches that number then howls in agony. Geez, how much more random and arbitrary do you get then that? But even random death has its role in the game, forcing you not to invest too heavily in one Senator, and putting at least a theoretical cap on how long a hugely popular or influential Senator can make trouble. Persuasion attempts do not appear to ultimately serve such a useful purpose.

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