As I wrapped up the recording of the Dice Tower, episode # 85, I reflected on the topic for the show - the myriad of games based on Klaus Teuber's fictional universe of Catan, begun by his immensely popular game Settlers of Catan. With over thirty variants, expansions, and versions, Catan has become something of a phenomenon in the boardgaming world. This has led some to an apathetic attitude towards the introduction of any new Catan game - including the new Struggle for Rome (Mayfair Games, 2007 - Klaus Teuber), the latest version in the "Catan Histories" series of games. A cursory glance at the board reveals that it looks very similar to the original game, albeit in the shape of a map of Europe.
But really, the gameplay, while retaining some of the basics of Catan mechanics, has a completely different feel - quickly becoming a favorite of mine. With a de-emphasis on trading and a heightened sense of exploration and war - the theme certainly fits the mechanics. Players control a tribe of northern raiders during the demise of the Western Roman Empire (Huns, Visigoths, etc.), and roam across Europe, plundering cities until they finally settle down and begin a civilization. I found this to be an excellent backdrop, and games remain tense and interesting until the end. Struggle for Rome is the next natural step in the Catan game progression, forming an excellent game in its own right.
Each player has two boxes on their side of the board - one representing their horsemen army, and the other their warrior army. A supply wagon and a warrior/horseman are placed in each - with another warrior and horsemen placed in starting spots on the board. Players place the rest of their warriors, horsemen, and supply wagons in a reserve spot in front of them, as well as a reference card. There are four different types of resource cards in the game, and the grain and ore cards are placed in face up piles next to a face down pile (pasture cards) that consists of a shuffling of the horse and cattle cards. Some victory point cards are placed face up near the board (Diplomacy, Scourge of Rome, and Heir of Rome), as well as a stack of shuffled development cards. Four white markers are placed in a compass on the board that shows the eleven numerical combinations with two dice, and a legionnaire piece is placed on a forest space in Spain. A pile of gold is placed on the table, with each player receiving five gold, one random pasture card, and one grain card to start the game. Several cities are scattered throughout the board, separated into five different color groups. Plunder counters are shuffled and placed face down on each of these cities. Dice are rolled, and the player who rolls best begins the first round.
The first part of each round consists of resource accumulation. The starting player rolls the dice four times; and if a player has a piece that is at the junction of a hexagon that has that number on it, they receive one resource card of that type (pasture hexes allow a player to draw the top card from the pasture pile). Once a number is rolled, a white marker is placed on that number, which prevents it from being rolled again this round. If a player rolls a "7", they move the legionnaire to any hex, canceling that number for future rolls as long as the legionnaire stays there. The player may also steal a random resource (or two gold coins if the player has no resource) from a player who has a piece bordering that hex.
Starting with the first player, players may then freely trade their coins and resources, and then build. When trading, a player may trade three identical resources to the bank for one card of their choice. Players may also use three gold coins in place of any resource card ONCE during their build phase. The three things a player may build are:
- Development card: The player discards one gold and one cattle card to take the top development card into their hand.
- Supply wagon: The player discards one grain, one horse, and one cattle card to place a wagon into either tribe box.
- Warrior/horseman: The player discards one ore and one horse to place a warrior in their warrior box, and a horseman into their horseman box.
After this, starting with the first player, players may move their horseman tribe and take an action. Following this, players do the same thing with their warrior tribes. Instead of moving a tribe, players may elect to do nothing and take two gold from the bank, or a resource of their choice. When moving tribes, players move them along the borders of hexes as far as they want, or crossing sea paths. All over the board and sea paths there are arrows, and a tribe may cross ONE of them for free. Additional arrows crossed over on a move cost one gold per additional sea arrow, and three gold or one grain per land arrow.
After movement, if a tribe is adjacent to an unplundered city, they may plunder it IF the amount of warrior/horsemen figures in the matching box is equal to the number of towers surrounding the city (two to five). When a tribe plunders a city, the plunder marker is flipped over. If it shows a red area, the plundering player must remove one horseman/warrior figure from the attacking armies box. Then, the player receives the reward, which always includes one gold coin per supply wagon in the plundering army, and may also include a development card, a pasture card, or more gold. The plunder marker is then placed in the matching tribes' box. If a tribe plunders a city from each of the five colors, they receive the "Scourge of Rome" card, which is worth two victory points. Each tribe may plunder a maximum of two cities of the same color.
Once a tribe has plundered cities of three different colors, they may conquer a city instead of plundering it - even if the city no longer has a plunder token on it. When a player decides to do this, they place the moving figure into the city along with a supply wagon from the tribe's box. From now on, this tribe will no longer move but will still generate resources from rolls. On future turns, the player can conquer any city within one arrow, discarding one warrior/horseman and placing another supply wagon in the city. This grows a player's empire, giving them more resources, along with one victory point per city. When a player conquers four cities with each of their tribes, they receive the Heir to Rome card, which is worth two victory points.
One development card can be played during the building phase and each movement phase, for a maximum of three per turn. Most development cards are Diplomats, which allow a player to move the Roman legionnaire, following the rules outlined above. Once a player plays three Diplomat cards, they receive the Diplomacy card, which is worth two victory points. Another player who plays more Diplomat cards can take this card from them, along with the points! Other development cards give the player more gold, allow them to attack cities with more towers, move their tribe farther, etc. Three of them are worth a victory point and do not have to be revealed until the end of the game.
As soon as one player reaches ten victory points (automatic if any player has gotten an Heir to Rome card), the round is played to conclusion, then points are calculated - one point for each city; and points for the victory point cards and development cards. The player with the most points is the winner, with ties going to the player with the most gold.
Some comments on the game:
1.) Components: "High quality" are certainly the first words that come to mind when looking at this game - it's an amazing thing when set up. The board is a decent representation of Europe, using hexes of four types (forests are on the board - although they produce no resources). The cities are scattered around, and the arrows and numbers are clearly visible. The cards are small - just like the original game, and of good quality. The plastic pieces reminded me somewhat of those in Domain - even being of similar colors. The plunder tokens are cardboard hexagon tokens that easily show what loot the plunderers receive. What impressed me most about the game, however, were the coins. The plastic coins look rather realistic - as if they came out of a poor mold, giving them an authentic feel. Everything fits in a nice plastic insert inside a beautiful, large square box. Mayfair games continue to get nicer and nicer, as evidenced by this game.
2.) Rules: The rulebook has six full colored pages with a ton of illustrations, doing a fantastic job of explaining the rules. Someone who hasn't played Catan before will easily be able to play - while there are a few references pointing out the major differences. Teaching the game isn't that difficult, though players usually take a game or so to formulate a strategy - as it's a little open-ended in the beginning. I was able teach the game to people who had never touched any Catan game, while those who have played Settlers made the switch fairly easily. While not up at the time of the writing of this review, there should also be an online tutorial at www.profeasy.com, which - if it's like the ones for the other game - should be a nice introduction on how to play the game.
3.) Settlers: The whole concept of the game is different than the basic Settlers of Catan, but here's a rundown of the major differences. The resource rolling is a nice change, as it forces four different numbers to be rolled each round. Yes, you can still get hosed by luck, but it happens a lot less frequently. The idea of movement is certainly different than the basic game, as well as the random pasture pile. Players no longer have to discard half their hand on a "7", but I think this was discarded simply because there is really no point to hoarding cards - players usually had very few in their hand. The board is certainly much larger than a typical Catan board, with forty-seven numbered hexes, and even more intersections between them. Blocking is a bit harder to do - although still certainly a more viable strategy. There is a lot less trading in the game; because while it still occurs, players usually don't have a surplus of resources they don't need. The game has a "tighter" feeling, as you grasp for every resource.
4.) Resources: The game has five resources: Grain, Ore, Cattle, Horses, and money. What's interesting is how each of them has their own use - especially money. Players who tend to ignore money will regret it later on, especially as it wins the game in a tie - something that is not exactly uncommon. At first horses seem to be the most valuable, because without a large army, conquering can be difficult. But I would submit that cattle and wheat are just as important, as a player with an excess of wheat can really pull of some nice maneuvering. I enjoy the randomness of the pasture deck and adjust my strategies, depending on what I get. The only thing that Settlers has over this game is that trading here is rarely done. Since players take their actions in order, and usually spend almost all of their resources, why trade with someone if it only benefits them? Trading happens, but on a much less frequent basis.
5.) Movement: I really enjoy how movement has been added to the basic Settlers game. No longer do players simply try to get in the best position - they now must weigh that against attacking a city. Almost every city or attack point is in a bad place, resource-wise. If a player wants to get a good selection of resources, they must go to places that aren't really adjacent to many cities; and this can cause them to fall behind in the race to win. The arrow mechanic is also a stroke of genius and allows players to quickly determine where they can move - with thankfully no arguments.
6.) Race: Like other games, Struggle for Rome is more of a race than anything else. Players must gauge the best time to stop plundering and settle down. Those who plunder a city of each type will receive an extra two points - certainly nothing to scoff at, but can also fall behind in the race to build a civilization. Every game that I've played has come down to the wire when playing - with scores close or tied (with money). Players can attempt to finish the game quickly by settling down but take the chance of another player scoring more points through other means. The game starts off a bit slowly but gains momentum, as it continues; and the end is a real nail-biter, as many players reach ten points on the same turn or within a turn.
7.) Fun Factor: For me, the enjoyment of the game comes from the theme, which really fits well, and the general movement and exploration feel. Players are attacking cities, and must maneuver their tribes, trying to find an ideal place to settle in, at just the right time. Those who wait a little longer might get more victory points, or more gold from looting cities; but waiting too long can mean the best spots for a civilization are missing. This certainly is longer than a Settlers game, taking about ninety minutes; but it's an engrossing, enjoyable time.
Don't let anyone tell you that Struggle for Rome is a Settlers clone - it's most certainly not, and while it retains some basic Catan characteristics, it has it's own flavor and feel. It's one of my favorites of the series, due to the historical backdrop and the "race" like feel of the game. A meatier game than the basic Settlers of Catan, it still manages to be fairly easy to teach and learn, making it a nice "game after the gateway" game.
"Real men play board games"
You can buy this game directly from Funagain games.
BoardGameGeek entry for Catan Histories: Struggle for Rome