Posted by: gschloesser | August 13, 2011

Vox Populi

Designer: Francis Pacherie
Released By:  Tilset
Players:  3 – 6
Time:  1 ½ hours 

EDITOR’S NOTE:  This review first appeared in Moves Magazine #106

Vox Populi … the Voice of the People!  Supposedly, this phrase was used often in gladiatorial matches in ancient Rome.  The Emperor would allow the reaction of the people to determine the fate of a defeated gladiator.  If the gladiator had fought bravely and was courageous, then the people would likely voice their approval and his life would be spared.  If, however, the warrior had fought poorly and showed cowardice in the arena, then his actions would displease the crowd and his fate would be death at the hands of his vanquisher.  Certainly, this is a brutal, yet intriguing concept, one worthy of a game.  Tilset has stepped forward and released just such a game based on this ancient voting practice.  Sadly, the game isn’t nearly as dramatic, or serious, as the history it attempts to recreate.

As in most other Tilset releases, most of the components are reasonably attractive, especially the six heavy, stone-like miniature coliseums.  These coliseums are made of the same mystery resin material as the huts in one of their previous releases, Africa 1880.

Each player represents the President of a Roman gladiator club.  Your goal is to manipulate your supporters and gladiators in such a fashion that you curry favor with the power-hungry politicians.  Eventually, your goal is to have provided the most bribes (in the form of star gladiators) to the politician who ultimately ascends to the throne and becomes Emperor.  Then, you will be rewarded with the title of Lanista, the Grand Master of the Circus Games!  Oh .. and you also win the game.

The game has two boards.  The main board depicts six districts in Rome, each divided into eight ‘quarters’.  The artist who designed the board should forever be banished to a Roman penal colony as it is horrid.  The colors are confusingly similar and the quarters are separated by yellow dividing lines which wiggle and waggle every which way.  Try discerning the correct borders in the yellow or gold districts when the yellow dividing lines are practically imperceptible.  The color choices are simply absurd:  there’s a dark blue and a light blue, but only a tiny shade differentiates the two.  Yellow is extremely close in hue to gold, which is very close to green.  Who on earth thought, “Hey, this looks good!“?  Insanity.

The second board, known as the ‘politician’ or ‘arena’ board, rests atop the bottom of the box and has slots into which gladiator tokens are inserted following a successful match.  This board depicts the six politicians who are vying to become emperor, each with their own arena space.  Each politician has a track which records their increasing (or decreasing) popularity.  The politician who first reaches the lofty level of ‘10’ on their track is crowned Emperor and the game concludes.

The game begins with the six coliseums being placed on the board, one in each district in a particular quarter.  Each of the coliseums is marked with one of the six politician tokens, which corresponds to the politicians represented on the separate board.

Players begin the game with a stable (14) of supporters and gladiators (valued 1 – 5).  These counters are double-printed and, unfortunately, the artwork is extremely similar.  Often, only the presence of a pennant or a weapon is used to distinguish between the two.  This has caused some confusion during the game.  During the course of the game, supporters will be placed in the various quarters and districts on the board, while gladiators are placed in the six arenas on the separate board where the matches will be held.

The game’s mechanics are fairly straight-forward, although the rule book can be a bit confusing and is extremely vague.  During a turn, a player places one supporter onto the board.  The district into which the supporter is placed, however, is determined by the player seated to the left of the player whose turn is in progress.  Once a district is determined, the player can decide which quarter the supporter is placed into, but it must be vacant.

Next, the player then places one of his gladiators into one of the six arena locations on the ‘politician’ board.  The idea seems to be to place gladiators into arenas where matches are likely to be held.  After a match is completed, gladiators from that arena are then distributed at will amongst the six politicians as bribes.

After placing a supporter and gladiator, the player may then, if he desires and meets certain criteria, opt to organize a match.  To do so, he may select any arena on the board, provided at least three supporters are eligible to attend.  In order to attend, a supporter must be in:

  • quarters adjacent to the arena, or
  • quarters adjacent to other quarters containing supporters (from any player) which are adjacent to the arena.

These criteria SEEM easy enough to understand.  However, the example given in the rulebook contradicts these criteria and seems to indicate that a ‘chain’ of supporters is allowed in order to make a connection to the arena.  I’ve discussed this contradiction with many different gamers and the general consensus seems to be that the example must be incorrect.  Otherwise, the number of supporters eligible to attend a match could virtually encompass the entire board.  The logistics involved in counting all of these supporters and tabulating their values would be a nightmare.  Thus, all of my games have been played using the rules as written and ignoring the example given in the rulebook.

If these criteria are met, the player then decides the type of match to be held, either a Premier League, Championship League or International match.  The only real difference is the cost of holding the match and the ultimate rewards.  Plus, certain event cards can only be played during a specific type of match.  Sadly, it is left up to the players to remember the names of these three matches.  It would have been so much easier had a chart been printed on the board.

After this is decided, all players then tally the values of their supporters who are eligible to attend.  Then, players must decide whether their supporters enjoyed or detested the match.  This is determined by each player using his ‘applause meter’, a round, cardboard disc displaying a ‘thumbs-up’ symbol on one side, and a ‘thumbs-down’ symbol on the reverse side.  Before these are placed, players are free to negotiate, threaten, coerce, etc. in attempts to sway other players to their side.  Money or cards can be exchanged, promises can be made, etc.  Just about anything goes short of outright rules violations.

After all discs are played and revealed, the victors are determined … either the ‘cheers’ or the ‘boos’. If the cheers win the day, the politician who controls that arena increases in popularity 1, 2 or 3 points, depending upon the type of match held.  When a politician’s popularity reaches the ’10’ mark, he becomes Emperor and the game ends.  Further, any player who ‘booed’ discards one supporter and it is removed from the game.  Any player who cheered may insert his gladiator pieces which were present in that arena INTO the individual politician slots on the politician board.  He may choose which politicians he desires to ‘bribe’ in such a fashion, and may divide the gladiators amongst different politicians.  It is the player who has the greatest value of gladiators on the politician who ultimately becomes Emperor who will win the game.  In order to conceal which gladiators are placed where, each player has three ‘deception’ markers, which can be mixed with the gladiators before inserting them into the slots.  More deception markers may be purchased during the course of the game.  Finally, the player who organized the match receives 4 Sesterces.

But what if the ‘Boos’ win?  Any player who cheered is then forced to discard one of his pitiful gladiators from that arena and remove him from the game.  Any player who ‘booed’ draws a card.

If a player opted NOT to organize a match, he ends his turn by collecting one Sesterces OR drawing one card from the deck.

The cards are the ‘kicker’ in the game … and a source of GREAT confusion.  They are event cards, ala Svea Rike.  Cards specify when they can be used — either before, during or after a match.  The effects can vary wildly, including forcing player to pay extra Sesterces to organize a match, causing gladiators to be devoured by lions, adding points to the ‘boos’ or ‘cheers’, removing supporters, assassinating politicians, etc.  They serve the purpose of adding a great deal of variety … and chaos … to the game.

The rules state when cards can be used.  “Forum” cards can only be used prior to or immediately following an Arena match.  “Arena” cards can only be used during the course of a match.  Seems easy enough to understand.  Sadly, the text and actions on many of the cards contradict these rules.  Many cards which are marked with “F” (for “Forum”) bear text which seems to only be applicable for use during an Arena match … and vice versa.  This caused so much confusion during one of my games that the game was aborted as several players were disgusted by this lack of clarity.  In future games, we allowed some flexibility in the playing of cards and it seemed to make the game flow a bit smoother.

When a politician’s popularity reaches his apex (10 on the chart), he becomes Emperor and the game ends.  The politician board is removed from the box and each player totals the value of the gladiators he had inserted into that politician’s slot.  The player with the highest total is victorious and is named “Lanista”.  Ties are broken in favor of the player who has the most supporters on the board.  The game can also end when players have placed all of their Gladiator and Supporter tokens onto the boards.

The game SOUNDS exciting and fun.  Somehow, though, it just doesn’t work, and I’m not completely sure why it doesn’t.  There is constant confusion involving the colors of the districts and their boundaries.  Further, it became quite tedious determining which supporters could actually participate in a match.  There was lots of counting, calculating, re-counting, re-calculating, etc.  Kind of like elections in south Florida.  Also, the negotiations didn’t really take-off.  There were a quick few requests for support, the exchange of a few coins, and that’s about it.  Once the necessary numbers were reached, the negotiations fell flat.  With a group who is more eager to negotiate, perhaps this would emerge as a more dynamic facet of the game.  However, I’ve played several games with different groups and they all followed this similar pattern.

Comments from my fellow gamers conveyed the idea that the game somehow didn’t ‘meld’ and it felt quite fiddly.  There are so many areas to concentrate on – the arena board, the political board, the event cards, etc.  All of this felt choppy and disjointed.  Taken individually, each of these components is quite interesting, but they somehow fail to meld into a cohesive whole.

Finally, the event cards don’t play as great a part as I originally thought they might.  Most are mild in their effects and don’t alter the game too drastically.  There is the occasional surprise, but, again, the lack of clarity as to when these can be used severely detracted from our overall enjoyment.

Try as I might, I just can’t find it in myself to really like this game.  The theme is great and the mechanics are interesting … but it just doesn’t work.  I regretfully give Vox Populi the “thumbs down”.

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