Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Going With the Flow (chart) - Glory To Rome Review

My relationship with Glory to Rome is defined by my experiences learning to play it, so my review's going to take a bit of a different form this time.

Groundwork - The Basics
The Black Box edition of this game (the version I ended up with) has a very crisp and dry, minimalist aesthetic in a severe looking box- I think it's really classy and simple, and wish more abstract games would do something like this. I really like this aesthetic, a lot of people don't. There's also a very busy, cartoony edition that I find just really ugly (and think it appeals to a younger audience than those who would actually enjoy the game), but I assume some people like.

The game has an intro variant on play, which is a truncated version which removes quite a few special rules and all but two of the end conditions (running out of the deck, or running out of things to build).

Unlike several other intro variants games have put out which feel frustratingly limited, I actually find this level of play rewarding. I'll be introducing its mechanics in this review in the same way.

The most unique thing about Glory to Rome, in my opinion, is the versatility of card types. There are six main card colors, which correspond to their roles and value. Each card also has a special rule (I believe there around four of each specific card type), but, as with the intro game, I'm going to skip this for now.

An early-ish player dashboard, with some stuff accomplished and more set up.
Depending on where a card is, it has a different function:

In your hand, the card has the most potential, still being usable as myriad options, during your turn, you can play (Lead) it for its color's action. During another player's turn, if you match (Follow) the played card color, you can take the same action type they took. In either case, you can also play two of any color as any other color. Cards played this way are discarded to the Pool, where they'll eventually be used as Clients or Materials.

Once in the Pool, cards can be taken by player actions, adding them to your Stockpile via a passive option or via an aggressive action. They can also be added to your Clientele, which is effectively a passive addition to your hand options: each card in your Clientele allows you to play actions as if you'd Followed, or in addition to Leading or Following, so you can quickly add to your versatility or multiply your action count by specializing. Once in your Clientele, the cards are (generally) Clients for the rest of the game.

Not mine, though I kind of wish it were.
Another use for your hand cards is to build a Foundation for a structure, from a limited number of Sites in the game, with a value, resource demand, and power corresponding to their color. With the right actions, you build your buildings from your Hand or Stockpile, and once completed, buildings add to your Influence, which affects both your point total (how you'll usually win the game) and upper limit of various holdings. The number of Sites are also one of the timers for ending the game. Once part of a structure, cards remain so.

Stockpiles contain cards acting as Materials, which are used (above) in completing buildings, or sold off to earn points in your Vault, which is inaccessible until the end of the game.

Oh, also, one action lets you steal cards of a named color from adjacent opponents' hands, adding them to your Stockpile after declaring "Rome Demands...", and if you don't have the resource, you get to shout "Glory to Rome!" And yes, you do shout it... possibly while flipping the demanding player off, depending on how gregarious the game's gotten.

Confused? There's a helpful flow chart on your dashboard! (That's sincere, by the way. It's actually very well laid out as a reminder. Having forgotten how to play after breaks, it takes about a minute to remember 90% of the game.)

If the above wasn't enough options, you also have the ability to pass turns, drawing either to your hand size or one past your hand size, or drawing one of six special Jacks, which can be played as any action (and only as actions). So, every turn, every player will have an action (unless the Leader thought, which immediately passes the turn).

So, that's the basic idea for the core rules. You make buildings, which get you points and allow you to access more things. You make friends, who do your work for you. You grab and steal stuff. You sell stuff on the side (which, appropriately, is the fastest way to get points, but limited by what you've legitimately used). One of the timers runs out, and whoever has the most points wins.

The basic (dumbed down intro) game is actually enjoyable as a pretty fast, light weight game, in my opinion. Without special rules, Buildings are a bit weak, but you still need them to win. Every player is constantly making choices, and most importantly is always able to do something, even if that thing is try to set up for a better or more versatile upcoming turn.

The action flexibility here makes this one of extremely few single deck games I actually enjoy. Sometimes odds still mess with you in a serious way, but generally you're not stuck in a stupid situation unless you were banking on one thing in particular.

100% transparency, here. I almost forgot this section. As a gamer who loves his RPGs, miniatures, worlds, bits of (usually pulpy) game fiction, and general immersion, this says something that I almost skipped the section.

The game is not at all immersive. Zero immersion. It could be a farming game or a game of conquering worlds, or a sports recruiting theme, or some sort of gang thing, or... IDK. Basically anything where you're able to access or steal resources and build things.

Buildings have a little identity, and occasionally have kinda' clever jokes in how the names and mechanics interact, but, other than building names, there's really nothing here.

And it's odd, because I don't really mind it (I think because I appreciate the clean aesthetic), but it's something to be aware of, for all of you where this might be a tipping point.

Advanced (i.e. regular) rules
So, the biggest thing that is skipped in the basic rules are the Buildings. These aren't just six buildings of different values, each named building has a special rule, which you usually get upon completing the buildings. The cheaper the building, the less influential the rule; the more expensive, the stronger. Some expensive buildings effectively allow you to take extra turns sometimes. A lot add versatility, allowing you to use cards in different or additional roles (a Client may be cannibalized for your Vault, or every time you grab a resource, you also get to build something, or you can circumvent steps, getting cards where you need them immediately).

There are also expensive cards that will plain-old end the game. Some end the game as soon as they're completed; some win you the game if they're complete, and you've achieved secondary listed goals.

There are even some cards that let you clone other players' buildings.

So, what this means is, you're constantly needing to pay attention to a substantial number of win conditions, and will sometimes need to gamble that now's a good time to end the game because you think you're ahead, and won't be by next round.

A Steep Learning Curve
Getting in to the regular rules, there were a lot of "gotcha!" moments. You think you're just starting to roll and the second half of the game will be great, but suddenly the game ends- maybe it was foreseeable since someone was prepping a building or a given pile was running low, maybe they had a big combo that just blindsides you since you don't have time to react.

This, especially as the options for win conditions explode and you're not familiar with them even if you could keep track of them, can be very frustrating. I think this middle point in the game is where the learning curve is the steepest, as you're familiar with the basic roles, but don't know any of the crazy special rules, nor the combos that might be achieved by their interactions.

Guess which edition these cards came from? A hint: I don't have it.

Building... Building
(Or is that "Building Buildings"?)
As you build your buildings and gain clients, your early choices (or restricted opportunities, depending on how kind luck is to you) will organically shape your option and set goals for you, and as other players get their bonuses, which interact with your own Leader turns, your opponents' actions also define your goals (do you emphasize opposing goals to deny them actions? Do you take a little so you can passively benefit from what they're doing already? Do you try to out-do them at their own route?).

Either way, there's enough chance that you can't guarantee any given strategy will work particularly well, or even be available for you, while the degree of choice mentioned above means you have a fair control over your choices.

Imperial Legacy
This is easy to overlook, but there are essentially four game modes (beyond the intro variant).

You can choose the Republic (basic) or Imperium (aggressive) styles of play, which have slightly different card sets and rules variations.

There's also an officially-printed fan expansion (I assume this isn't in the standard edition?) that consists of a dozen or so extra cards which, in my opinion, are some of the most combo-heavy cards, which can be added to either above variant.

In the Black Box edition, these are all defined by variations on the cost symbol only, so are fairly easy to overlook. I got my copy of the game used, so don't know how they're normally packaged, but my group took a bit to decipher the "code."

Even if there weren't these variants, early game choices are hugely influential, enough that the dynamic of the game often changes dramatically from session to session. I don't know if this is because I haven't played a ton, but it feels like a very small number of early choices often leads to organically growing different styles of play.

While I'm at variants, the game can be played 2-5 players. I've mostly played 2-3, and some dynamics change, but I don't think player count hugely changes things, other than fewer players generally meaning you have more time to get rolling (since resources run out faster) and fewer things to keep track of. I think it plays pretty well, regardless.

Final Thoughts
I think all of that works out for a fantastically interesting game.

My problem with it is that I think the combos are too strong. There are a lot that can effectively double or triple the number of things you can do in a given instance, and the right luck or emphasis on some interactions can mean players really take off. I'd personally have preferred to see the same principles, but reduced: maybe add caps on the number of bonus actions or bonus draws you can take off of buildings in a given turn or round, for instance.

It might just be that I like the training game enough that I don't enjoy the more radical swings that come off of heavy comboing, or it might just be that I'm still not so advanced at the game that I understand the broader balance at work.

This is also not to say that the game always ends in some sort of combo cyclone or surprise win. Sometimes, it just acts like a normal game- someone has a stronger strategy and/or better luck, and they gradually get ahead, and seal the deal. The possibility of neat combos or surprise wins are actually nice, since it can snatch away what seems like a sure victory, adding tension rather than a foregone conclusion. Other times, combos can become crushing victories, or surprise endings can shut down the game before it gets started.

So... getting to that actual conclusion. I like it, but there's a "but."

Quite a few games end with me frustrated or just deflated and I'm definitely not always in the mood to play, but at the end of the day, I've never really considered getting rid of it nor have I wanted to stop playing it.

Talking through this as I look at what I've written and how I keep waffling... This is, I think, the first time where this has happened for me in writing these reviews, and I need to make a distinction between merit and taste. I think it's a very good game that isn't quite my taste. (...Except the cartoony edition. That's definitely not my taste. I'm not sure I'd have ever played the game, based on that art.)

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