Saturday, 29 May 2010

Mare Nostrum

On Sat 22 May 2010, Chee Seng, Sui Jye, Jing Yi and Han came for a rare 5-player game session. We took the opportunity to play Mare Nostrum, a civilisation-building / conflict game set in the ancient Mediterranean world. This game is best with 5 players.

The Game

In this game where the players play the Romans, the Greek, the Babylonians, the Egyptians and the Carthaginians, they expand and develop their nations, they raise armies and navies to do battle, and they win the game by building wonders of the world and producing great heroes.

The game structure is very simple - (1) collect & trade resources, (2) build, (3) move. Every round each nation collects resources, in the form of taxes or various types of goods. There is a trading round where the players secretly select resources to trade and then reveal them simultaneously. The Director of Commerce starts the trading by taking one resource from one other player. Then that player does the same, and this repeats until everyone has the same number of resources. After that the players go shopping - establish control of provinces, build military units, construct buildings (to increase tax income or goods production), recruit heroes, and construct wonders of the world. The tricky part about trading and building is that you cannot carry over your goods, and you can only carry over two tax cards. Anything else remaining after the building phase is wasted. So trading is an important aspect.

I absolutely love the artwork of the goods cards.

Finally, you move. That includes moving troops into enemy provinces to start fights. Ships allow armies to move very far. Armies treat ships like bridges - as long as you have a chain of ships between two provinces, you armies can move between them. That means it's quite hard to guard all your borders. Navies can coexist, so if an opponent wants to launch an amphibious attack, he only needs to move one ship to your coast. That ship does not need to defeat your armada guarding the coast.

To win the game, you need 4 heroes and/or wonders, or you need to build the Pyramids, which is harder to build than other wonders. You need 9 tax cards or 9 different goods cards to get a hero or wonder (12 for Pyramids), so it's actually not easy, because you cannot carry over goods cards, and you can carry over at most 2 tax cards.

The Play

Heeding online advice by experienced players, Han and I played Carthage and Greece respectively, because we are the more experienced gamers. Carthage controls trading at the start of the game, and you need a good player to keep the trading interesting. Greece is in a tough position next to military superpower Rome, so an experienced player will probably survive better. We randomly assigned the other nations, Sui Jye played Rome, Chee Seng Egypt, Jing Yi Babylon.

From very early in the game, Sui Jye amassed his troops to attack me. He could build armies cheaply, and I knew I would never be able to match him in raising armies, so I didn't bother. I tried to build more ships (which I could do cheaply) to allow me to expand overseas and threaten his coasts. It didn't quite work out. His armies occupied my provinces, denying me income, and eventually he annexed my provinces. He only pulled back when Han built a navy and sent troops to attack his home provinces on the Italian peninsula. Han had to do so to keep him in check. I couldn't fight back, and Chee Seng and Jing Yi were too far away, and were engaged in their own arms race.

Sui Jye (Rome, yellow) invading my nation (Greece, green) early in the game.

His army occupied my market, which meant he would gain the good produced there. I still controlled the province, because I still had my influence marker there (green disc).

By now Sui Jye had occupied 2 of my markets and 1 of my cities. He had established control in a province bordering mine, which is akin to having a troops factory right outside my border. I have dominance at sea, but it didn't help much.

Out popped 4 more legions... am I doomed or what?

Sui Jye had occupied or controlled all of Greece, except for my capital influence marker, which can never be removed. Han (Carthage, red) came to my rescue, invading the home province of Rome.

From the early game Han concentrated on developing his caravans and markets to increase goods production. He held on to the Director of Commerce title throughout the game. Jing Yi (Babylon) and Chee Seng (Egypt) had a military face-off at the Sinai Peninsula. They were both doing well, Jing Yi's free influence marker every round let her expand all the way to little Greece's eastern borders, Chee Seng was getting a lot of cards every round. We realised that Chee Seng might be able to build the pyramids very soon and win the game, so we goaded Jing Yi into attacking Chee Seng. Jing Yi had invested more in military, and broke through Chee Seng's defenses. Chee Seng was the 2nd player, after me, to be in dire straits. Jing Yi later pulled back, but after a while, raised her troops again and made another huge invasion. The attacking army was the biggest possible - 8 legions, because in this game your number of legions is limited to 8. When the dust settled, Jing Yi lost all 8 legions! This was partly due to Chee Seng having the wonder (Statue of Zeus) which allowed him to build 2 fortresses per province. I think after this loss Jing Yi must be wondering "why the hell did I spend so much on military and why the hell did I listen to those guys?!".

The start of the arms race between Jing Yi (Babylon, purple) and Chee Seng (Egypt, blue).

The first Babylonian-Egyptian war.

It ended in victory for the Babylonians.

The second Babylonian-Egyptian war, which ended in total annihilation of the invading army.

Han (Carthage) had a decent economy, and started to buy heroes and wonders. These need 9 cards as opposed to the Pyramids which needs 12. Sui Jye (Rome) was more wary and more defensive now. Not having navies (because I monopolised most of the sea zones around Italy) meant he couldn't threaten Han's coasts. Han concentrated on getting heroes/wonders, and eventually reached the victory condition of having 4 of them. Chee Seng was the only other player having built a wonder. The rest of us only had our starting hero.

The Thoughts

I, of course, had a very tough game. With Rome having decided to go after me, there was not much I could do to save myself. It did seem that the game was unbalanced, a Rome too strong and a Greece too vulnerable. The expansion tweaked this balance a little. However Han later found an article on BGG explaining why it is actually not in Rome's interest to go after Greece. The goods produced by Greece overlap a lot with Rome, and Rome wants Greece to be harassing the expansion-crazy Babylon. Too bad we didn't read this article before we play. Of course I could also have played the diplomacy game and tried to persuade Sui Jye not to attack me, but without this solid reasoning I don't think I could have convinced him. I was so obviously the most easily accessible target. Despite the tough time I had, I don't think the game is as unbalanced as many people make it sound.

The game seems simple, but there is actually quite a fair bit to think about if you really sit down to analyse the resource distribution, the city site distribution, the unique abilities of each civilisation, and what all these mean to the balance of power in the Mediterranean. Due to how unused goods are discarded every round, and only two tax cards can be kept, it is not easy to build up an economy strong enough to give you cards for wonders/heroes. With the full complement of 5 players, the diplomacy and competition can be quite tricky. There is more strategy than meets the eye.

Yet the rules really are quite simple.

I would still say this is more a conflict game than a development game. You simply cannot run away from military conflict in this game, even if you do not plan to attack others. They will attack you if you get close enough to victory. The game feels similar to Cyclades which I also played recently - a mix of conflict and development. In Cyclades battles are more restricted because only one player (who wins the appropriate god's favour) will be able to attack in each round. Also of course Mare Nostrum feels more real because it is played on a real map and you have real historical figures, as opposed to the Cyclades map which does not correspond to any real geography.

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