Romans – Claiming an Empire through Cards, Chance & Trivia

First published in 2005 and again in 2009, Romans is an historical-themed board game aimed at educating families about the Roman Empire. It’s largely a trivia game, with elements of set collection and board movement and definitely not a war game. And yet…

The goal is simple: you must ‘collect’ a set number of army garrisons, and then head to Rome to declare yourself Ceaser. It’s a wonderfully boiled down abstraction of the various Civil Wars fought in the mid-to-late Empire. Ambitious Generals travelling about the Imperial realm, trying to get support from whatever military forces they could so that their bid for the Purple succeeds. Hail Caesar!

What fascinatinated me the most while playing through this trivia-led romp through the ancient world is that I couldn’t help feel a subtle connection to games like Field of Glory: Empires or Rome Total War. There was a something here that seemed to tick similar boxes to that of the ‘real’ wargames we know and love: you only needed to apply your imagination.

When it is your turn, you roll a dice and move that many spaces. There are a number of different map icons you can land on:

  • Blank – nothing happens
  • Trivia or ‘Quis‘ – You choose a level between 1 and 3, and must answer a question. The level determines the difficulty, and also determines how many bonus spaces you can move if you get it right.
  • Chance or ‘Fortuna‘ – You will either draw a random event card, or an Army card. Event cards are resolved and discarded, but you keep the army cards.
  • Garrisons – these represent historic centres of military power in certain regions. You must go here to ‘collect’ the corresponding card and add it to your set.

There are a few other ‘special spaces’ as well, but interactions with these are rare. It’s an elegant and simple game, aimed more at getting to you to learn more about the Roman world than anything else, but there is a fascinating strategic war game buried within.

While it might start off as a ‘race’ in good old fashioned Trivial Pursuit style, what the rules go on to state is that actually, players can rock up to a Garrison someone else has already collected and ‘battle’ them for it. The basic action here is to simply roll-off with a D6 and see who gets the highest, but the Fortuna stack also holds ‘Army’ cards. I think I worked out they represented less than a fifth of all the cards in that deck, so they’re meant to be rare.

Army cards can have a value ranging between 1 and 3, and you can hold up to three at any one time. If you commit an Army card to a fight, it then adds it’s value to your dice roll. The person who loses the fight then has to discard all of the army cards they committed to that fight. What we never figured out was whether or not you could attack a Garrison owned by someone else if you had no army cards. Given the main point of interaction was a dice-roll, I guess there’s no reason one couldn’t.

We only ended up playing one game (and we’d been doing the Army Cards wrong), but even that single short experience was incredibly evocative. I started out in Britannia, but I quickly ended up in the Middle East where a lot of fighting broke out over control of the Garrisons at places like Syria, Armenia and Mesopotamia. Gaul and the western empire saw relatively little conflict and was used as a power-base for the eventual winner. The amount of garrisons you need is a variable mechanic that can be used to control the game length – four was recommended for an introductory game. While it was indeed short (less than an hour) it was wonderfully scrappy.

If the requirement had been higher, I could definitely see more conflict breaking out as there are only twelve garrisons on the map, and up to four players trying to collect them. Even only aiming for four involved a lot of fighting as the max all four of us could get at the same time was three, and none of us wanted to leave someone with all four cards for longer than nessecary.

The trivia cards were entertaining – I knew a bit more than my family because I happened to have an interest in this period, however the 1-2 level questions were actually reasonably easy, and all were multiple choice. There was an optional rule to drop offering the choices for added difficulty. The Fortuna cards weren’t as varied as we hoped they would be given the size of the deck, but they did often throw some spanners around. Many moved you from one place to another, often the opposite side of the empire, others can force you to head to specific spaces before being able to do anything else. One set of cards lock you in place until you can roll your way out.

One person commented they would have liked to have seen the Trivia aspects involved a bit more and answer more questions, but everyone agreed the Army cards and fighting over the garrisons made it a way more entertaining game than your average Trivia-based experience.

Romans was created by The Green Board Game Company, a UK based firm that specialises in educational games as well as trying to be ethically responsible in how they are made. You can check out their website for their full catalog, although it doesn’t appear they make Romans anymore. A shame, because it’s these kinds of abstract experiences that can make excellent gateway games not only into history, but wargaming itself.

My campaign to become Caesar may have ended in failure, but it was definitely entertaining and if you ever come across a copy  of Romans yourself, I highly recommend giving it a try.