Sunday, 23 July 2017

A (p)review of Burning Rome from SunTzuGames.

Way back in September 2013 I did an interview with Emil Larsen of SunTzuGames about his new game Burning Empires. Emil must have enjoyed that experience since he contacted me earlier this year about his new game: Burning Rome. Emil offered to send me a prototype copy of the game in return for a review. Well here's that review, which I'm calling a (p)review since it features prototype components and rules. If you dig the review and think this game sounds worth checking out, you can find it live on kickstarter right now.


Burning Rome is a very quick tactical card game recreating ancient battles. Four ancient armies are featured: Rome, Carthage, Celtiberia, and Gaetuli. Each force is represented by a 54 card deck. A big part of any battle is preparation and that is represented in Burning Rome through deck construction. Before each game, players construct their own decks. Decks are built using a point system, similar to army building in many modern miniature games. Interestingly decks in Burning Rome are usually rather small, and can have as little as 8 cards.  Each deck includes one general (no more, no less), a bunch of unit cards, and optionally some tactic cards. Points not used to buy cards are split between the armies starting Army Strength (kind of like the hit points for your full army) and Command Points (what you use during play to play cards from your hand).

In order to jump right into the game, and for players not interested in the deck construction aspect, the rules also provide quite a few sample decks: one for each of the factions and a starter deck set up for Rome and Carthage.

Once players have their decks ready it's time to start the war. The battlefield is set up by placing the center line in the middle of the table. Leaving room for card play to each side of it and placing an army board for each player at each end. On this board, players mark their current Army Strength and Command Points.

Each turn players do three things, starting with the attacker (determined by random card draw at the beginning of the match):

1) Draw a card or gain 2 CP - pretty self-explanatory.

2) Play cards into the battlefield by paying the CP cost on them.

3) Attack with the units in play.

This continues until one army hits 0 Army Strength or their CP is reduced below 0 and in that case , their opponent wins.

How cards are played and where is the meat of this game. When playing a card you have to decide where to put it and you have a choice of three fronts. The right or left flank or the center of the battlefield. The first card played in a front starts a new column. New columns can't attack. You can later add more cards to an existing column and these become support cards. The most cards you can have in a column is three (with an exception made for the general card which is the only card that can be the fourth card in a column).

Every single card I've seen for this game has a special effect. Most of these happen as soon as the card is played. They let you play cards for free, gain CP, draw cards from your deck, do direct damage to your opponent and a lot more. Some cards need to be activated and can be activated once every round. Chips were included to mark this status. Other card effects happen when a card is removed from the battle, or are ongoing and happen all the time. Some of these effects are even negative. For example, when Carthage plays their famous War Elephants they have to spend an extra CP or take 3 damage.

Now here's the neat part: only the card on top actually has an effect. So if you plan things properly you can cover up those bad effects, or later in a battle move units to have effects trigger multiple times. It's setting up and manipulating these columns of troops that provides all the action in battle.

Attacking and defending has some neat rules regarding these columns as well. Every card has four stats: Attack, Skirmish, Defense and Siege. When attacking, the front card in a column adds its' attack value to the attack of the middle card in a column (if any) and then that is added to the skirmish value of the last card in a column (if any). Similarly, defense value is calculated by adding the defense of the first unit, plus the defense of the second unit, plus the siege of the last unit. Any attack left over after the defense total is subtracted represents damage to the defender's Army Strength. So, as you can tell, the order of units on the battlefield is of great importance.

One important thing to note here about attacking and defending: units are never destroyed. The cards you play on the battlefield tend to stay there for the entire battle. There are a few cards that let you move them and even fewer that will actually remove a card from the battle. There are retreat abilities on some cards that let you remove them but out of all the decks I only saw a handful of these.

What isn't evident from this summary is how quick all of this happens. A full game of Burning Rome only lasts about 15-20 minutes. We spent way more time deck building than we did playing any of our battles (which is why the rules suggest a best of 3 or best of 5 match up).

Included with the rules I was given were some interesting optional rules. One was the option to build an auxiliary deck of mercenaries where both armies have the option to draw from that deck instead of their own personal draw deck. Another was to play a large battle with two armies per side. In this case, the armies face off in sections. This is where the game hits its' maximum of four player count. There are also some historical scenarios that can be fought but I did not get a chance to try those. These scenarios include some interesting twists like units starting in the field and different victory conditions.

So what did I think?

When I first opened the package from Emil all I could think is: damn that's a lot of cards. Then I was surprised again by how few of them I was actually using in our first battle. Reading the rules I didn't realize how much of this game was about the pre-game deck construction. With 54 cards per deck and the option to combine various decks, there are a crazy number of combinations and permutations possible. This is a very good thing.

Actual battles are ridiculously quick, but somehow still manage to give you the feel of a large battle. The fact that each card represents a full unit of troops, combined with the way you play them to different areas of the battlefield, gives you a very solid mass combat feel. I found this very impressive for a short filler game. I have to admit, that some games go by so quick that I wish they were a bit longer. It sometimes feels like I haven't seen enough of my deck before the game ends. In the games we played there also seemed to be a bit of an advantage to being the attacker, though I've been assured this was mainly due to us being new to the game and not being familiar with the various cards yet.

While I haven't had the chance to try out any of the historic scenarios (my prototype copy didn't have enough cards for the battles currently listed in the rules), I love the fact that they exist. In particular, I really want to try the one battle where Carthage starts with four War Elephants on the field.

The amount of variety you get with four different full decks for four different armies means that the number of different battles you could play is nearly endless. It also means that deck construction has a ton of options. Just browsing through the cards I was coming up with cool and interesting combos I'd like to try out in a future game. This also leads to one potential issue with the game. There are a lot of cards to learn. Each army plays differently and learning each army takes time. This gives a tactical learning curve and something that makes it hard for a new player to compete with someone who has played multiple times before.

Final thoughts: 

I'm glad Emil sent me a copy of Burning Rome to check out. It's a cool game. It's also a lot of game in a small package. I can't think of another game that I can play in 20 minutes that gives me a taste of big box games like Command & Colors Ancients (my personal favourite Rome Vs. Carthage wargame). It has a lot of depth and tactics for a filler game and anyone who enjoys the lonely fun of deck construction will find something to love here.

If Burning Rome sounds like something you would enjoy, check out the kickstarter, which is live right now.

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