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Gathering of Engineers

Ludographic considerations from the Silicon Forest

Monday, December 19, 2005

Roma on Roma

For this week’s article, I sat down with Glengarry Glen Ross’ Richard Roma and George Aaranow to play and discuss Stefan Feld’s two-player game Roma. Roma combines the CCG-like feel of Jambo with the strategic objectives of Babel (build yourself up to victory, or tear your opponent down). The most innovative aspect of the game is the use of dice; while they are used in standard fashion to resolve conflicts, they also determine which cards you can use in a given turn. Here is a player aid that will help you follow the discussion on the different abilities.

Dave: Alright, setup is now done. Time to see what cards you have been dealt...

Richard Roma: How am I going to make a living on these deadbeats? […] I’m waiting for the new leads.

Dave: Bad deal, huh? Remember that, as part of the setup, each of you passes two cards to your opponent. This helps to balance out the initial deal. You will have to wait until your turn to draw more cards. Careful, though; compared to other games of its ilk, Roma has plenty of very weak cards (especially the Legat and Mercatus, two cards that really only work in situations where you don’t need them). The draw mechanism is similar to the Councillor role in San Juan, in that you draw multiple cards but must choose a single one to keep. I don’t mind the presence of weak cards, because otherwise it would be too easy to use all of your low-valued activation dice to draw cards. [Richard uses an activation card to draw a card.] Did you find anything good?

Richard Roma: What you’re hired for is to help us. Does that seem clear to you? To help us! Not to [mess] us up!

Dave: Well, Mr. Roma, I did warn you about using a ‘1’ die for a blind card draw. Unlike San Juan and Jambo, there is no way to get rid of poor cards in your hand (and even those with a poor defense value are ineffective at plugging holes). I also find that, while those other games do have “combos” (cards that work well together in combination), many cards in Roma are fairly weak until joined with the right card or cards, at which point they strengthen greatly. An obvious such card is the Essedum, who can weaken your opponent’s defenses, but only makes sense if you have a card that can attack. A more subtle card is the Consiliarius, who allows you to shuffle your characters around; if partnered with a Centurio (the most powerful attacker, but can only attack the card directly across from it), none of your opponent’s cards is safe!

Now, cards will rarely [mess] you up, but the card draw mechanism is designed so that you must draw many cards at a time to ensure you get a card that combos well. You do need to watch out if your opponent has a Scaenicus, who can copy any of your own character’s abilities. Also, use of the Gladiator is tricky; this gives the opponent the flexibility of re-placing the character in a more useful slot. [This time, Richard decides to draw five cards, chooses one, and puts into play a building.] Ah, your first building.

Richard Roma: Who ever told you that you could work with men?

Dave: Now, Ricky – may I call you Ricky? – buildings are a fine complement to characters. For example, the Aesculapinum coupled with a Senator can let you easily reuse the powerful one-use characters Nero and Sicarius, while the Onager is the easiest way to get a shot at your opponent’s Forum. An interesting strategy to pursue is an all-building strategy. One interesting effect of this strategy is that it kills the abilities of several opposing characters that can only target characters, especially Velites, Gladiator, and Scaenicus. The problem with this strategy is that you have to be very careful laying out your buildings in a way that lets you effectively use your dice-disks. From ‘1’ to ‘6’, a strong layout is Onager-Forum-Basilica-Forum-Templum-Turris. The Machina (which lets you rearrange your buildings) is tempting to ensure you hit the Forum early and often; however, if you get holes in your line and are forced to plug them with characters, it becomes ineffective quickly. I would rather have another Forum in its place. A lot of the BGG criticism has centered on the Forum (the primary VP-generating building), and some variants have popped up to address this. Do you think that the Forum is really that much of a problem?

Richard Roma: I subscribe to the law of contrary public opinion. If everyone thinks one thing, then I say bet the other way.

Dave: I’m with you on this one. In this way, Roma is a lot like Babel. Getting fortunate Forum rolls is similar to getting lucky temple draws in Babel; it can lead to a quick victory, but, in my experience, more often than not a focus on card advantage wins the game. The difference is that, in Babel, card advantage is a means to an end, a simple delaying tactic while waiting for the right temples to appear. In Roma, removing cards from your opponent not only restricts his options, but forces his VPs to dwindle; when he runs out of VPs, you win the game. Looking at your cards, Ricky, it seems that, like me, you prefer the military strategy. How is this working out?

Richard Roma: How are you?
George Aaronow: I’m fine. You mean the board? You mean on the board?
Richard Roma: Yes. Okay. The board.
George Aaronow: I’m [screwed] on the board.

Dave: Yes, it does appear that Ricky has you in a death spiral. Once you find yourself in the hole, you will need at least a couple big Forum scores to buy you enough time to come back (which is why I am against any Forum variant which reduces its ability to generate VPs). The Gladiator is particularly brutal in the early game, as he can target any character with instant success, and forces your opponent to spend a high-valued die to get the money to re-place the character. I prefer the subtlety of Babel, which forces you to burn one of your own cards to use the Sumerians or Medes to gain card advantage; this prevents an early-game “rush” from leading to a lopsided victory.

Richard Roma: See? ‘cause this is how we keep score, “bub-by”.

Dave: Yes, Roma is a good game for aspiring sadists. In about 10 or so matches, ~75% have been won by military beatdown, although I suspect that groupthink plays a part in this (i.e., if both players think Forums form the killer strategy, they will focus on getting Forums and complementary cards early on, leading to a VP generation race and avoiding a military crush). About half of those military victories came very, very fast, as can happen in a game based on die rolls. I’ve been on the “receiving” end of some of those reamings…

Richard Roma: Hey, pal! Your excuses are your own.

Dave: C’mon, crazy things can happen in Roma for which there is no possible defense. In my last match, I was able to activate my Gladiator four times in the first three turns. I wish the VPs were adjusted to account for the possibility of a quick military victory, perhaps a few more VPs for each player to start with. Likewise, do you have any concerns with the use of a die-roll to resolve battles?

Richard Roma: And what is it we’re so afraid of? Loss. What else? The bank closes, we get sick, my wife died on a plane? The stock market collapsed? What of these things happen? None of them. We worry anyway. Why?

Dave: Oh, it happens. In a recent match, I was pursuing a heavy building strategy, and my opponent was able to get the aforementioned Aesculapinum/Senator/Nero strategy going (which, ironically, I elaborated on just before the match started!). This allowed him to take out any one of my buildings as long as he was able to activate the Aesculapinum and Senator (and not necessarily in the same turn, which makes it such a potent combo). Fortunately, I had an Onager, so I merely had to take out the Aesculapinum, which has a pathetic defense value of ‘2’. Of course, I ended up rolling three ‘1’s in a row; by the time I was able to take it down, he had picked off several of my buildings, and I found myself in a freefall. If you don’t mind the possibility of outcomes like that, then you might not like this game. Me, I prefer it to Jambo, where you have similar luck in terms of needing to draw useful ware cards, but drawing and drawing and drawing can get a bit dull. So, have you found a good counter for the military strategy?

Richard Roma: You try to stave off insecurity. You can’t do it.

Dave: Hmm, I think I agree with you. The Turret (which gives all of your cards a +1 defense bonus) will make a difference one times out of six. In a heavy military game, that’s about two cards saved on average, for a grand total of +1 card advantage. This does not seem that significant to me. I think the best defense is buying time; if I have a Forum out and can get some quick VPs, I might fish for a Senator or Architect, so that I can quickly plug my holes in a future turn without having to pay a lot of money. This will then allow me to transition to a new game plan. Unless I can go all buildings, I find the most effective immediate counter is to strike back offensively. Do you think this game has much strategy?

Richard Roma: Our life is looking forward or looking back. That’s it. That’s our life. Where’s the moment?

Dave: Ah, that explains why you like Roma so much (and here I thought it was the name). I prefer Babel because it has tricky card management, both in your hand and on the table, in preparation for potential future attacks. In Roma, once you commit your cards to their slots, you’re pretty much stuck waiting for the right die rolls to activate them. A bit too tactical to be a “top shelf” game, but it is pretty light without having to think much about what you are doing most of the time. [George plays a character with a low defensive value; Richard successfully attacks it on his next turn.]

Richard Roma: When you die you’re gonna regret the things you don’t do.

Dave: Sadly, that is all too true of Roma. Cards with low defensive value do not get used as much as others. And this bugs me a bit, because it reduces the replayability of the game somewhat. So, are there any other specific cards that feel very strong to you?

George Aaronow: When I talk to police, I get nervous.
Richard Roma: Yes, you know who doesn’t?
George Aaronow: No. Who?
Richard Roma: Thieves.

Dave: Ah, you speak of the Mercator, who can steal VPs from your opponent in exchange for money. There has been some discussion of that on BGG. The problem is that a player can fish for the Mercator card, collect lots of money, and then buy all of the opponent’s remaining VPs at once to win the game. I don’t think the ability is inherently broken – he often brings a merciful end to a drawn-out match – as there are other areas that could be addressed that would lessen his impact. For example, there is no way to steal cards or money from an opponent, which enables the hoard-and-strike tactic. [Note: Since I wrote this article, a semi-official variant has been posted. Also, there is word that there was originally a Spy who could steal cards from your opponent’s hand. What a brutal combo he would be with the Gladiator – two card instant character kill!] The Mercator himself could be tweaked to put limitations on his usage; I wouldn’t mind something like not allowing him to take your opponent’s last 3 VPs, which would have the nice side effect of improving the very weak Tribunus Plebis, who merely steals one VP from the opponent. Speaking of merciful ends, it looks like we are almost at the end of our match. How has your endgame experience been?

Richard Roma: All the little ones, I got to go back. Can you believe this? I got to go back and close again. I mean, talk about a ----in’ beat that would sap anyone’s...

Dave: Hmm... I take that to mean that you have had some stretched-out endgames. In a VP rush, this can happen if both players lose their Forums. In a military game, this can happen if the victim gets a Forum in play, and holds off the inevitable by generating a handful of VPs every now and then; not enough to get them back into the match, just enough to extend the game length by 15 minutes or so until the victor finds a way to deal with the Forum. So far I would say about 30% of my matches have had a protracted ending. It can be pretty painful... look at that, you were finally able to crush him.

Richard Roma: Is that what I did, Dave – I humiliated you? Oh, my God, I’m sorry.

Dave: Um, that was George you beat, not me. It will be interesting to see whether, in the long run, the “better” player can win most of the time. With Babel, I was near undefeated for a long time, but once my opponents started adopting my strategies, it’s pretty even now, and how the new temple levels come out seem to influence the game too heavily. With Jambo, I had a 50% win-loss record for a long time, but my record over the past several matches has been approaching 100%...

Richard Roma: Oh, what a big man you are! “Hey, let me buy you a pack of gum – I’ll show you how to chew it.”

Dave: Well, it’s not like I’m going to fly east to vie for the “world Jambo championship". Speaking of which, the unpredictable length of Roma makes it a poor choice for tournament play. So, in the end, what do you think about Roma?

Richard Roma: Great meals fade in reflection. Everything else gains.

Dave: Yeah, it is that type of game that drives me nuts when playing it, but I end up spending a lot of time afterwards thinking about various aspects of the game. As much as I have been criticizing it, I have brought it to every game session the past couple of months, teaching it to whomever I can. I just find it so addictive (and certainly its maddening qualities contribute to its addictiveness). What do you think a new player should expect to get out of Roma?

Richard Roma: An opportunity. To what? To make money? Perhaps. To lose money? Perhaps. To indulge and learn about ourselves? Perhaps.

Dave: Why do I bother talking to you…

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