Friday, July 22, 2016

The War of the Reluctant Caesars

Well, I've been away from this for awhile for a host of reasons, but I'm finally back to catch up with a least a few fun gaming stories. So without further ado, I give you (stirring drumroll)...

The Tale of the Reluctant Caesars

Last weekend saw the gathering of my semi-irregular-hey-are-we-gonna-do-this-or-not gaming group. Which turned out to be the theme of the evening.

Only four of us could get together, so I set out what I thought would be some workable games for a mid-range number of players. The choices included my newly acquired copy of Dungeons & Dragons: The Conquest of Nerath (essentially the Axis & Allies system in a fantasy setting), Risk: The Lord of the Rings Trilogy Edition, Risk: Godstorm, and Conquest of the Empire. The first two games on this list are ideally intended for four players, whereas the last is designed for up to six (a detail which I believe was more significant than we anticipated).

The players for the evening consisted of my friend Michael, his teen-age son Chase, and Lon, a friend from work and new addition to the group. As one probably guesses, given the title of this post, Conquest of the Empire (hereafter CotE) won out as the preferred choice.

"It's YUGE!"

If you're not familiar with CotE, it's a reprint by Eagle Games of one of Milton Bradley's classic GameMaster series. The Eagle Games version (now sadly OOP) is quite simply a stunning production. The map features the Roman Empire at its greatest extent (completely surrounding the Mediterranean Sea, and including Britannia). As one would hope, it is gorgeous. It is also HUGE. The board is 3'x3.5'; we had to place some old oversized "dining room table protectors" inherited from my wife's grandmother on top of my 3'x4' kitchen table to give us extra edge space on which to set our pieces. (I brought over a small side table to hold mine.) The pieces are brightly colored plastic figures of Roman legionnaires, Roman generals, Caesars, Auxiliary cavalry, Roman galleys, and catapults (with working swing arms!). There are also cities, city walls ("fortifications"), and Roman roads, plus assorted faction markers and over-sized heavy plastic "Roman" coins in two denominations, one "gold" and one "silver." The custom dice are a bit oversized, and depict the various forces that can participate in a battle (match the image rolled to a unit which is attacking, and that unit kills an opposing piece). The game also includes markers and cards for an entirely different game using the same pieces (and called "CotE II"). Since the rules for these, however, have proven to be about as intelligible to us as a Latin manuscript, we strictly play the "classic" version, which is only slightly modified from the original. The goal of the game is to capture every opposing Caesar; each player has just one. This is done by capturing provinces, collecting tribute, building armies, navies, cities and roads, and engaging in singularly devastating combat.

Except for Lon, the newbie, this was to be our group's fourth time playing CotE (if you count the time a player was eliminated on the very first turn; on that time, we proclaimed a "do-over," and his Caesar was resurrected). So we're somewhat familiar with the game, but hardly experts, and barely qualify as veterans. Lon chose the red army, Chase, blue, Michael, purple, and myself, black.

Gentlemen, Start Your Legions

Each Caesar begins the game in control of a specific starting province, dictated by the rules and the number of players in the game. Unlike Axis&Allies or Risk, each force holds one and only one province at the start of the game; the rest are solely acquired through movement and conquest. Provinces are worth either 10 "talents" (1 gold coin) or 5 "talents" (1 silver coin) during a player's "collect tribute phase." A city on a province (only one per province) adds 5 more talents. After all movement and combat by a player, these talents are collected and used to purchase forces, which are then placed on the starting province only, ending the player's turn.

Movement is simple; depending on the piece, on a turn it moves either 1 or 2 provinces (or sea spaces, for galleys). However, all pieces can only move if a general or Caesar accompanies them. So if you don't have one of these with your forces, they're staying put until one of these leader units joins them. Galleys can move by themselves, but a leader is required to accompany any land forces the galley transports across the sea. So, no leader, no legion— at least, not a mobile one.

Combat is equally simple. When forces enter an enemy's province, and that province has troops, then a battle must occur. (Unoccupied provinces are captured without a fight; Roman citizens appear to have fickle allegiances.) Both the attacker and the defender divide their troops into a "battle line" and a "reserve." Battle line troops can fight and be killed; reserves cannot (though reserve catapults can attack— "Unleash Hell!" Which I think is why we have leash laws). Leaders can increase the number of troops on the battle line, which adds more combat dice. There are a few other niceties, but that serves as an explanation. Once all non-leader forces have been eliminated, or either player opts to retreat, the battle is over (though cavalry gets an extra attack against retreating forces). The survivor conquers the territory. Any unsupported leaders are captured. Generals may be ransomed and returned to their forces (the players agree on any terms, including alliances, permission to use roads/straits, or just plain gold), or executed, their remains ignobly interred in the cardboard game box. A captured Caesar eliminates the player controlling it from the game, with the victor claiming his forces, lands and tribute.

Build Armies! Build Cities! Build Roads! Build Walls! Fight Inflation! (Wait, What?)

The real strategy of the game, however, lies in tribute and purchasing. Different units have different costs, some quite significant compared to the amount of tribute received. Cities, fortifications, and roads may also be built, giving advantages in tribute, combat, and movement (respectively), and roads can only be built between cities (and adjacent cities at that). Roads allow land forces to treat movement along them as 1 movement cost, regardless of the length of the road, allowing the controlling player to move his forces rapidly from one end of the map to the other— that is, if the roads are built. And as in real life and the real Roman Empire, all this is complicated by inflation! Once any player exceeds 100 talents in tribute at the end of his turn, prices of all units and terrain features double for everyone. At 200 talents, prices triple. You may have more gold, but it's worth a lot less! This, too is significant.

On the Night In Question, or Who Wants To Be A Tough Guy Anyway?

Back to the start of our game. With four players, we each had the following starting locations: Chase held Macedonia (midway across the north half of the map, more or less), Michael held Mesopotamia (extreme eastern edge), Lon claimed Hispania (oh, you know where that is), and yours truly was granted the glorious province of Numidia (Ancient Carthage, modern Libya-ish; either way, I got a desert. Woohoo). From there, we each in turn spread our meager armies (5 legionnaires, 4 generals, 1 Caesar) as far as we could, and stopped. Literally, we just stopped. Each of us quickly made agreements to not attack across our extreme edge borders, and just began collecting tribute. There were minor "province swapping" moments with provinces left undefended, and a skirmish here or there, but for the most part nobody was willing to commit forces into all out attacks on anybody else.

For three hours.

I kid you not.

Oh, yes, some galleys got sunk. I even sent out two galleys to successfully sink a naval invasion force sent out by Chase ("It was against him!" he protested to me, pointing at Lon. "Well, you didn't tell my navy that," I replied. Hey, nobody sails through my sea without the proper paperwork and environmental impact forms, or at least a few talents slipping under the table. Preferably the latter.)
We did make a lot of jokes, including a few obligatory Python retreads and references to Dr. Who and Black Adder ("That's your cunning plan?"), but as for actually conquering the Roman Empire? Not these Caesars. "Yeah, that last guy? He got poisoned. The guy before that? Stabbed by his own bodyguard. Caesar, shmeaser, I think I'll take a pass and build a nice villa overlooking the beach."

The game wound up being called on account of "dang it's late and three of us have work tomorrow." We ruled that Chase would have wound up being the target of everyone for triggering the first round of inflation (these Caesars were not only reluctant, they were cheap), but it really wasn't possible to declare a victor.

How to Make War

In retrospect, it may be that CotE really isn't suited for a small group of players. As spread out as we were, and with the limited starting forces, it took two full times around the board for anyone to actually encounter anyone else, and at that point the incentive to fight each other was limited, due both to weak forces strung out over too many provinces and to fears of triggering inflation if another province got picked up. If we'd had a fifth Caesar, however, I think we'd have wound up with forces quickly pressing against each other, with tributes remaining low enough to encourage battles over provinces without the fear of the inflation jump.

Despite that, I think we all did enjoy building up our forces based on our personal strategies. Lon favored land units and connecting roads. I went for the largest navy (having little land mass in which to spread without potentially devastating combat). Michael and Chase attempted a mix. So a good time was had, even if the lands of Ancient Rome were a lot less bloody than we had expected.

Stay tuned for our next adventure in gaming...whenever that actually happens!

Howard Shirley, aka Parzival

PS: No pics, 'cause I didn't have my camera ready. Maybe I'll add some shots of CotE later.

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