DESIGNERS: Serge Laget
ARTWORK: Jean-Marie Minguez
PUBLISHER: Academy Games, Asyncron
TIME: 90-120+ minutes

As if it wasn’t clear from my reviews thus far, I absolutely adore strategy board games. Whether it’s marching my armies around a map or working to build up an economic engine, these games scratch an indelible itch. And yet, the tabletop format is not necessarily conducive to the endless complexity that some strategic simulations would require, so accommodations are invariably made.

Board games, then, necessarily live in varying levels of the abstract. In Risk, we’re not thinking about the logistics of supplying our troops in the field, nor even the quality of their armaments, but simply conducting a series of brute-force probability calculations. In Power Grid, we’re not hiring workers to lay the powerlines between our cities, nor are we worrying about substations and the power loss that comes with long-distance transmission. Instead, those concerns are abstracted into an economic transaction–everything is wrapped up in a single dollar amount.

Abstraction in games can be a tricky thing. Go too far and a game runs the risk of being a themeless, disconnected experience. Too little abstraction, and the game bogs down in fiddly minutia. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when the physical reality of pushing bits around and keeping track of data interferes with the actual gameplay, but you know it when it hits you. When the limitations of the physical format come to the fore, I often wonder why the designer didn’t just make a video game (where all of the heavy-lifting can be backgrounded).

My preference is for board games that are complex in their decisions and strategy, but have a simple elegance in their mechanics and ruleset. In other words, I don’t want to spend all of my time manipulating pieces and sliders, but instead making decisions based on what those pieces and sliders represent.

The view from Egypt.

All of this brings me to Mare Nostrum: Empires from Academy Games. (It should be noted that MN:E is an iteration of an older Mare Nostrum that was first published in 2003. By all accounts, the new version is more streamlined.) In MN:E, 3-5 players take on the roles of the great civilizations of the ancient Mediterranean–Babylon, Egypt, Greece, Rome, and Carthage–in an effort to reign supreme in one of four ways: either become the undisputed leader in military, culture, and trade; occupy a certain number of capital cities; hire five heroes of ancient history; or build the pyramids. Building a dominant civilization doesn’t sound so hard, does it? (Thank you, abstraction.)

The game is played through a number of rounds until somebody achieves one of the four aforementioned victory conditions. Each round is broken into five phases: resource collection, trading, building, military-ing, and claiming leadership. That final phase is particularly important, because whosoever has the most structures/units built within a given category (trade, culture, military), becomes the leader who gets to dictate turn-order in the corresponding phase of the game. “So you’ve got your giant army hovering near my unprotected province–I think I’ll choose to go first and shore up my defenses.” The fact that each phase has a player-dictated turn order is one of the mechanics that makes MN:E unique.

Rome may have tipped its hand here…

Each of the phases has its own decision-points. During trade, the trade leader chooses how many resources each player must put on the open market, then players take turns selecting from what is on offer. Each player is trying to assemble sets of different resources (typically sets of three or six) in order to build what they want in the following phase. During building, do you build up your infrastructure, your defenses, or do you start the long march toward victory and buy a hero? During military-ing, do you go on the attack or dig-in? Your civilization and hero abilities will dictate which option makes more sense. Either way, you’ll be trusting your fate to dice rolls. There is clearly a lot to consider.

But just having a lot to consider doesn’t make a game good. Thankfully, in MN:E, all of the decisions feel interrelated. Players will witness the push and pull of each decision. “Chose not to build any trade buildings this round, eh? I’m building four and will take the trade leader tokens, thank you.” As with most games, when you focus your efforts in one area, it means that you are not able to do so in another. Being able to exploit these fluctuating weaknesses is key to a player’s success in MN:E. Rome might be shouting its favorite slogan “Death to Carthage” one turn, but then rue the day they let the Greeks creep into Dalmatia. Be prepared for frequent reversals of fortune.

Part of these come as a result of the two “out in the open” victory conditions–leadership and occupation. If your opponents see you creeping up on the leadership tracks or looking hungrily at one last capital city, they are liable to band together and beat you back. The remaining two victory paths, however, feel more like timebombs with an uncertain fuse. You’ll wince through each late-game building phase, hoping someone doesn’t swoop-in to steal victory.

Tracking leadership requires manual dexterity and basic counting skills.

All of this is to say that, for me, MN:E largely strikes the proper balance of abstraction to detail. It’s loads of fun and will force you to directly engage (in peace and conflict) with the rest of your friends sitting around the table. However, with its roots in the ruleset of an “older” game (it is really amazing to see how much boardgaming has evolved over the past 10-15 years), there are some quirks of which players should be aware. First of all, is game length. Yes, the inevitability of expansion and trade means that the game trundles its way along toward eventual resolution via heroes or pyramid-building. However, the more evenly matched the players, the longer the game is likely to be.

Second, is the idea of game-flow. Managing the flow of the game and keeping other players on task can become a game in-and-of-itself. While having different players dictate the turn-order in each phase can be exciting, it can also lead to a lot of “wait…who’s turn is it now?” moments. Map-based games often have an inherent, and unavoidable fiddly-ness to begin with–after all, players are usually tasked with multiplying and moving their units around some sort of regional representation. While MN:E is elegant enough to avoid feeling overly fiddly (calculating leadership is the process that most closely skirts this line), if players get distracted, the pace can feel “draggy” at points.

None of this is to say that MN:E really suffers as a result of these quirks, just that it shines brightest when everyone is aware of them from the outset. That way, players can focus on the gameplay rather than the process of playing. Which is why most of us play games in the first place.