Caesar: Rome vs. Gaul is the latest Card Driven Game (CDG) from GMT and designer Mark Simonitch. Players take control of either the wily Caesar, as he attempts to win fame and glory by ravaging Gaul, or the collected Gallic tribes who are trying very hard not to be ravaged. Caesar is a relatively simple game, an absolutely beautiful package, and no slouch when it comes to presenting players with difficult situations. It’s these difficult decisions, the very different way that each side plays, and the fun that comes out of marrying these features in a 3-hour game that suggest to me Caesar will become a quick favourite.
The game covers Caesar’s campaigns throughout Gaul starting in BC 57, including his incursions into Britannia and across the Rhine (if the Roman player is good enough anyways) and continues through Ambiorix and Vercingetorix’s rebellions, ending in BC 52 if no sudden victory is reached. Each turn players will play out a hand of 8 strategy cards that offer command points, special events, or both, in an attempt to outmanoeuvre each other, besiege strongholds, or bring a weaker enemy to battle.
The weight of the game rests on the Roman player, as it is up to them to move decisively to stop the spread of dissident Gallic tribes and secure enough territory each turn to please Rome and earn Victory Points. The Gallic player is hindered by a slow build-up and scattered forces. At the start of each turn, the Gallic player draws three tribes from an opaque cup and places them in their home region, along with a stronghold, or if there’s room, in the Gallic Council holding box for a future uprising.
If the tribe’s homeland is already wholly controlled by Rome, they must be placed in the council box or else submit to Caesar. This means that depending on the draw, the Gallic player can have very different dispositions of forces and must constantly be thinking on their feet. The Roman player needs to move fast to contain these tribes and spread control markers before a formidable force of Gauls can gather and bring devastation to the legions.
The strategic implications of this simple setup are many, and the game does a good job of providing for interesting paths to victory. The logistics game is imperative, as both sides try to place markers on the map to allow for control of provinces and local support in battle. The Gallic player is free to place these tokens almost anywhere and can also reserve some in their Gallic Council box only for them to later burst forth and ruin Caesar’s day.
The Romans are restricted to placing tokens in a spreading web from their controlled territory, so attempting to use fighting formations to remove tokens and encircle opposing forces is a real play. The Roman player is also hampered by decentralized strongholds that need to be ground down through sieges that often last several card plays. We also can’t forget that the Gallic player, if they’re especially well positioned or daring, can even invade Roman territory on the Mediterranean.
The threats are constant, the strategies numerous, and the cards impactful but not game breaking. The card events range from the minor (move a German Tribe) to the epic (activate every Gallic Tribe on the map) with a couple gotcha cards in the mix. The CDG aspect can feel as if it’s giving one side an unnecessary disadvantage. We had the Romans lose one game on turn one (in part) because they drew all single action cards while the Gallic player had several three action cards with powerful events. An early rebellion and concentrated attack forced Caesar out of Gaul before he had a chance to really get ravaging.
That leads nicely into the only major concern with the game. It can be very difficult, especially for the Roman player, to secure victory if the player is less experienced. The onus is on Caesar to make the moves, capture the territory, and fend off the Gauls, having to earn 12 victory points before the game is over. It is possible for those 12 points to become unreachable if the Roman player has a few terrible turns. We found that as both players became more experienced, it became easier for Rome to maintain some momentum even in the face of poor card draws, but the pressure is never off. The Gallic player can usually play more reactionarily, waiting to exploit any mistakes made by the Romans. But, as stated earlier, a crafty Gallic player can turn the initiative on the Romans.
Combat, whenever the cat eventually catches the mouse, is a more traditional dice off than the previous iteration: Hannibal: Carthage vs. Rome. Both sides calculate their damage output by adding the total combat power of a stack and throwing two dice each. The larger the stack the more potential damage done to the enemy. Adding to the fluff are special rules for Roman legions, where they cannot roll below a 3 on a single die, meaning they will always put out a certain level of damage, and rerolls added by elite units and commanders. Combat is quick and decisive with replacements hard to come by, especially for the Gauls.
Sieges can drag, but a sizable Roman force can force an instant submission, changing the stakes as more force is concentrated. Combat overall felt intuitive and bloody, and when the decisive battle of a game was met, both players felt the energy.
As a product, Caesar is beautiful. The cards all have exceptional art, the board is bright and clear with spaces for almost every token, the low counter density is perfect for a game of manoeuvre like this, and the actual counters are also clear and easily legible. Each major commander figure, Caesar, Ambiorix, and Vercingetorix have standees that help them stand out on the tabletop. My copy also came with sleeves in the box for all the strategy cards, a welcome surprise.
Caesar: Rome vs. Gaul is a beautiful playable, and interesting CDG of manoeuvre. If you can stand the weight of the Roman responsibility to generate a competitive game, Caesar can quickly become a staple of the two-player game night that offers a good deal of replayability and interesting choices. Highly recommended for two.