This is very, very good news: Valley Games will release The Republic of Rome again. In the mid-1990s, we used to play this extremely complex board game for hours and hours, usually starting at noon and continuing until ten o’ clock, only interrupted when the pizza man arrived. We would have liked to continue after ten, but the first bottles of beer were usually open at four, and at ten, we were too tired. Usually, we reconvened next week, and another week. But even after three weeks, thirty hours of game play, eighteen pizzas, and countless beers, we usually had no winner.
Perhaps, we lacked the ruthless determination that was necessary to win. Playing was too much fun – why spoil it by winning?
The Republic of Rome was about six factions of senators trying to make one of their members the first man in Rome. You would have to negotiate with other factions (but were not obliged to keep your promises) to obtain the consulship, fight wars, and gain influence. But having won a war, you had created a province, which meant that someone had to become governor; and this someone was not in Rome, which changed the number of votes and the balance of power. On the other hand, when you were in a province, you were able to improve it, and gain additional influence.
In the first phase, you didn’t have to think about eliminating a fellow player, because the enemies of Rome were too dangerous. The Punic Wars were difficult, especially when the Hannibal card was on the table. The Roman who defeated this opponent, would immediately be excluded from any further office, more or less like happened to Scipio. Ignoring the war was impossible, because “the game would win” and all players lost.
It was only in the second phase, when the main enemies had been eliminated, that the power struggle between the factions could start. As I said, perhaps we never properly learned this part of the game. We were too amazed about its realism: it could be pretty nasty when Spartacus was in the neighborhood, evil omens prevented attacking him, and one of your fellow players was known to contemplate marching on Rome. Fortunately, there was always the possibility of introducing a landbill, while persecuting an opponent was also an option. Cilician Pirates, exploding Vesuvii, manpower shortage, slave revolts… it was all there, just like tribunes, consuls, an occasional dictator, his master of horse, and the pontifex maximus.
What made these evenings so special? In the first place, the complexity of the game. Monopoly becomes boring because it is simple and yet lasts pretty long. Settlers of Catan is also simple, but remains nice because it is finished in an hour or so. The makers of The Republic of Rome had chosen to make a game that was as realistic as possible. You understood why the pontifex maximus mattered, why you had to organize games, why it was dangerous to revoke a landbill. The course of the game always remained surprisingly close to reality, and this made it a useful educational tool as well, but most of all, it was a good game: you had to have some luck (it’s quite frustrating to see your fleet sink in a storm after you’ve just won a naval battle and are ready to invade Africa), but you were challenged to use your brains too.
In the second place, good company. By chance, we had a nucleus of four men, twenty-something, who liked the game, and some others who would join more or less irregularly. As things go, we developed a jargon of our own. The mortality chits were drawn by the “hand of death”; the player of the Julius Caesar card would inevitably be saluted with cries that Julius had to die; and so on. It was imperative that there was a portrait of Jeanne Tripplehorn on the wall. (Boys will be boys, for sure, although one of the best players was a girl, who went on to study Classics in Oxford.) We had just great fun.
The key to successful gaming was, of course, the willingness to read the 17 pages of the rules. The first afternoons/evenings, you will be absolutely shocked, and think how you can possibly ever master all rules. But you will learn. We benefited from an excerpt of the rules, printed on big paper sheets, that we attached to the wall, next to the photo of La Tripplehorn.
It’s good to know that the game will be available again this autumn; read more about it here, and read about a hickup in the production here. I notice that there will be a map added to the game; maybe a useful innovation – in any case the artwork looks great. I can’t wait to have a new copy, and will try to invite the old gang again. Although one of them now lives in Oxford, three are married, one of them has a son, one became a teetotaler, and things may be complex, I am sure all will like the idea to gather once more.