Posted by: gschloesser | August 6, 2011

Mare Nostrum

Designed by: Serge Laget
Published by:  Euro Games
3 – 5 Players, 2 hours
Reviewed by:  Greg J. Schloesser 

EDITOR’S NOTE:  This review first appeared in Counter Magazine #22 

Rumors of this game began surfacing years in advance of its eventual release.  The initial whispers caused quite a stir in many gaming circles:  a 2-hour version of the venerable Civilization from Avalon Hill.  If these predictions proved to be correct, the game would certainly prove to be a colossal success.  Civilization has achieved near legendary status for many gamers and the only thing that prevents it from being played with greater frequency is the 8-hours-plus time frame it takes to play to completion.  A version that could be played in 2 – 3 hours would be akin to gaming nirvana. 

Unfortunately, a game that has set such a lofty goal and been preceded considerable hype and buzz has the great potential of being a major disappointment.  I’m afraid that is the case with Mare Nostrum.  The expectations were simply too high and could not be met.  That’s not to say that the game is bad – far from it.  Indeed, it is a fine game, although not without some problems and concerns.  I guess my quest for the “holy grail” of a 2 – 3 hour Civilization will continue. 

As in Civilization, players represent the leaders of ancient civilizations and are charged with the task of developing their nation into a model empire.  The ultimate goal is to erect awe-inspiring ‘Wonders of the World’ and bless the world with an abundance of heroes that others will admire and praise.  These goals are achieved by the proper management of resources and taxes, as well as territorial conquest.  

The five nations represented are Babylonia, Egypt, Carthage, Rome and Greece.  Each begins the game in control of their historical territories, as well as one of their renowned heroes or leaders.  These leaders grant their nation special abilities unique to their country.  For instance, the militaristic Julius Caesar gives Rome the ability to purchase legions and fortresses at a reduced rate, while the alluring and beguiling Cleopatra allows Egypt to exchange one resource card to one tax card (or vice versa).  

The game takes place on a map of the areas surrounding the Mediterranean Sea.  The map itself is large and functional, although without much detail or flavor.  It’s certainly more attractive than Civilization’s bland map, but not the artistic delight I was hoping for.  Players initially attempt to grab territory, establish influence and build caravans and cities on the appropriate locations within those territories. This generates resource cards, which are used to construct further ‘buildings’ (caravans, cities, markets and temples) and/or acquire “wonders of the world” and “heroes”.  Ultimately, four wonders of the world and/or heroes — OR constructing the “great pyramids” will win the game.

One certainly has to commend the designer and Euro Games development team for presenting a set of very streamlined rules.  The rules are compressed into 3 ½ pages, with another 2 pages of examples and card explanations.  Thus, players are able to learn the rules of the game very quickly.  Actually, the rules could have been a bit longer to help provide a few more examples and clarify some of the points which are a bit too ambiguous or vague. 

The sequence of play is fairly straight-forward and easy to follow: 

1)      Commerce Phase 

A)    Players collect resources and taxes.  Territories have one or two types of resources that are produced there.  In order to collect resources, players must control the territory (have an influence marker there) AND have a caravan marker(s) on the resource icon(s).  Taxes are derived from cities and, like resources, players must control the territory and have a city marker constructed on the city icon.  

It is possible to collect resources from a territory you do not control if you occupy the caravan marker with one of your legions.  

B)    Trading.  The Commerce Director (the player possessing the most caravans and markets) determines the number of cards that each player will offer for trade.  The game uses a trading mechanism that bears some similarities to Alan Moon’s Andromeda. All players MUST place the required number of cards face-down before themselves, then reveal them simultaneously.  The Commerce Director begins by selecting one of these cards from a player, who then selects one from another player, etc.  This continues until all cards have been taken.  There are some ‘housekeeping’ rules regarding trading, but that’s the gist of it. 

2)       Construction Phase.  

The Political Leader (the player possessing the most cities and temples) chooses the order in which players will construct ‘buildings’ and purchase items. 

When constructing ‘buildings’ (caravans, temples, cities, markets), building legions, fortresses or triremes, or acquiring wonders of the world or heroes, players must trade in sets of cards.  A set is either (a) all tax cards, which are generated from city locations, or (b) all different commodity cards.  Thus, during the conquest and trading phases, players are attempting to secure as many different types of resources as possible, or control as many cities as possible, which yield taxes.

From round-to-round, player may only keep two tax cards.  Any excess tax cards and all resource cards not used to purchase buildings or items must be discarded.  Ouch. 

3)      Military Phase. 

A)    Movement.  The Military Director (the player with the most legions, triremes and fortresses on the board) determines the order in which players execute their turn during this phase.  Players move all of their triremes first, then move their legions.  Triremes act as ‘stepping stones’, allowing legions to move across the sea via a connected line of triremes.  

B)    Combat.  When legions enter a territory containing opposing legions, they MUST fight.  Combat, however, is one round only, so it is possible that the forces will remain engaged in combat over successive rounds.  

Combat itself is a simple affair, with players rolling dice for each legion they have in a territory.  Any fortresses present are considered to have automatically rolled a ‘6’.  The total for each player is then divided by ‘5’, with the result being the number of legions the opponent must remove.  

If the attacker is victorious, he has three choices: 

i)                    Sack the province, destroying one of the buildings present in the area.  This is the ONLY way that building markers return to the general supply … although the rules are not clear whether the marker actually returns to the supply or is removed from the game.  We played the former … but this option was NEVER taken in any of the games I played. 

ii)                   Convert the province.  The player places one of his legions on the opponent’s influence marker.  On the next turn, the occupying player may remove the marker and build one of his own.  His opponent will receive resources and taxes from that province until the new influence marker is placed, however. 

iii)                 Occupy the province.  The player places a legion on city and/or caravan markers.  The occupying player will collect the resources and/or taxes for these locations as long as he continues to occupy them.  Of course, this does occupy those legions and they will not be available to be utilized elsewhere unless they abandon their occupation or until the province is converted. 

These three phases are repeated until someone has achieved victory.  Victory can be achieved in two ways: 

1)  Build the Great Pyramids.  This costs 12 different resources or 12 tax cards to accomplish. 

2)  Accumulate four wonders of the world and/or heroes.  It costs 9 different resources or 9 tax cards to purchase one of these items.  Each of these items bestows upon the owner special powers or abilities. 

Buildings and troops cost various amounts, with the wonders of the world and heroes being very expensive (9 cards in a set).  Players whose expansion has left them with a limited quantity of DIFFERENT types of resources are at a severe disadvantage, and it is unlikely they will be able to secure the required amount of different resources during the trading phase to achieve this lofty total.  This forces the player to take a more militaristic approach and attempt to wrest control of appropriate territories from their opponents.  Unfortunately, the game is very quick (2 – 2 1/2 hours), so by the time this situation is recognized, it may well be too late to accomplish this task.

The big concern I have is that the game has a SEVERELY limited supply of caravan and city markers.  Caravans need to be established on resource markers in order for them to yield resource cards.  Cities need to be constructed on city sites in order for those sites to yield tax cards.  This means that a significant number of resources (and, to a lesser extent, cities) on the board will not produce resources throughout the game.  These markers vanish quickly and cannot be moved to a different location during the game.  So, there is a rush to build them in the first few turns.  After these markers are depleted, there is little incentive to capture unoccupied territory as there is no resources or taxes that can be gained from them.  I’m sure this was intended by the designer to force conflict, but it appears to severely limit the development of the game and the players’ options.  It forces the game along a certain pre-determined path that I find limiting.

Some of the hero and wonders powers are strong — VERY strong.  One (Helen of Troy) allows a player — once per turn — to convert an invading legion into their own prior to combat.  This makes attacking that player extremely difficult.  This card is usually purchased early, giving that lucky player a strong defensive position.  Thus, the method that would seem to be the best to strike a leader — military assault — is made even more difficult.  This position isn’t unassailable, but it does require a concerted, combined effort by several players in order to successfully overcome this huge advantage.

A few players weren’t thrilled by the movement & combat system.  Basically, the Military leader — the player with the most military units (legions, triremes and fortresses) on the board — decides the order in which players move.  A player moves all of his triremes first, then his legions.  Triremes can co-exist in a sea space, with only the moving player being able to force combat in those spaces.  Thus, if one player (let’s call him Willerd) moves first and occupies a sea zone with, say, two triremes, he cannot prevent another players (let’s say Keith) from moving one trireme into that area on his turn and using it to ferry legions across that sea space and invade other areas via sea.  Willerd must wait to his next turn in order to attack that trireme.  Several players in the games I’ve played weren’t very happy about this mechanism.

Another concern is one that I mentioned earlier — the game is FAST. Probably TOO fast for a game of this scope.  Most civilization building games allow players time to build their civilizations then manage them and take steps as needed due to changing circumstances and emerging leaders.  There simply isn’t enough time to do this here.  With only 4 heroes and/or wonders of the world acquisitions necessary to win the game (and all players begin the game with 1), once a player is in a strong position, he must be knocked down immediately lest he acquire his 3rd and 4th in rapid succession.  Sadly, there doesn’t appear to be enough time to accomplish this unless you happen to possess a strong military that is adjacent to the leading player.  

There is another concern I have, and that sort of flies in the face of my previous complaint about the game being TOO fast.  It is quite possible for the game to turn militaristic and have a joint ‘group’ effort emerge to keep leaders in check.  When this occurs, the game has the potential of dragging on and on and on.  This is exactly what occurred in one of the games I played.  Anytime someone appeared to be in a superior position, he was invaded by several other players and his position was severely depreciated.  This occurred several times, prolonging the game.  

Another tactic used to make it extremely difficult for a player or players to accumulate large sets of resources or tax cards is for the commerce leader to force players to trade a substantial part of their collection during the trade phase.  This forces players to break-up their sets and makes it difficult for them to re-acquire the needed cards during the trading.  This tactic has worked on several occasions.  It is effective, but also has the effect of prolonging the game well past its welcome point.  Indeed, we abandoned one of our games after 4 ½ hours of play when it appeared that these two tactics were going to prevent anyone from winning in the foreseeable future. 

So, we apparently have two directly opposed possibilities:  a game that is TOO quick versus the potential of a game that drags on TOO long.  Not a pleasant dilemma.  

In spite of my concerns and reservations, I still find myself intrigued by the game and plan on playing it several more times, at least.  I am concerned that with repeated playings, the game will begin to have a pre-programmed feel to it.  It does appear that each nation should pursue specific paths in order to optimize their results and chances at victory.  Thus, it might be that future games begin to have a “same-old, same-old” feel to them as players pursue these optimum paths.  At this point, most of our players are still learning the strengths and weaknesses of the various countries, so it may take some time before we reach this plateau.  

For now, though, the game still holds my interest.  Yes, I am disappointed that it is not the nirvana I expected.  Still, it is a solid design and one that is enjoyable to play.  It certainly has some mechanisms and features that cause me concern, but I’m not yet sure if they will ultimately doom the game for me.  It is worth noting that the game does seem to have a somewhat polarizing effect, with many folks heaping grandiose praise upon it, while others are put-off by some of its mechanisms and perceived flaws.  Right now, I seem to fall somewhere in the middle of these two extremes.  Where I ultimately land will be determined by more playings.

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