Nov 20, 2013

Pro's and Con's Review: Rise of Augustus

Format: Board Game
Designer: Paolo Mori

I recently attended the Toy and Game Expo on behalf of Roll'n Bump distributor Îlot 307 inc. where I ran a tournament of one of the brand new games they distribute: 2013 Spiel de Jahres nominee: Rise of Augustus.

Of course, having to run a tournament of a brand new game meant learning to play. And having my hands on a brand new game meant getting requests to teach it and sitting down to play it some more. All told, I think I got in about a half dozen games of Rise of Augustus by the time the expo closed its doors.

So what is Rise of Augustus all about? Well, I hate to bust out the same comparison all other reviewers have been using, but it's an apt one. Playing Rise of Augustus is a bit like playing Bingo for gamers. Before you go running off screaming at the thought of smoky parlours filled with listless players blowing pay-day loans just bear in mind this is a Spiel de Jahres nominee and, much like past alum 7 Wonders, offers easy to learn game play with enough meat to keep true gamers engaged. Read on for my full review from a professional and a consumer point of view.

Professional's Take:
Like many Spiel de Jahres games, Rise of Augustus skirts that line between the themes and tactics of a hobby game and the approachability and simple rules of a family game. All players, usually, have three objective cards face up in front of them. These objectives are worth points once "completed" and completing an objective consists of placing a pawn, representing a legion, on each requirement icon of the card. Where a legion may be placed is determined by tokens that are drawn from a bag by one of the players. This is where the comparison to Bingo comes in. The player currently holding the bag simply draws a token and announces which symbol is found on it. All players may then place a legion onto a matching requirement space on one of their objectives. The big difference between this and Bingo, of course, is that you only get to place a single legion per token drawn, meaning you will have to decide which objectives to focus your efforts onto. 

What reveals itself over multiple plays is just how important the seemingly simple decisions you need to make end up being over the course of the game. With such a random core mechanism, one would be quick to dismiss the game as nothing but chance, but the few decision points can end up making a huge difference to your final score. The decisions players will have to make include where to place their legions, which of five available objective cards will they take to replace ones they've completed and whether or not to take certain score bonuses.

Obviously, deciding where to place legions will have a huge impact on how quickly you will complete certain objectives, and since completing objectives often rewards you with bonuses that can affect not only scoring but game play as well, choosing which objectives to focus on is far from random. By the same token, choosing which objectives to draw from the centre to replace those you have completed is equally important as some may allow you to work toward certain score bonuses while others may make it much easier to complete other, seemingly impossible, high scoring objectives you may already be working on. 

Finally, probably my single favourite mechanism in the game involves a series of score bonuses awarded for having completed three to six objectives. The wrinkle with these is that there is only one of each (3 to 6), a player may only claim one of these over the course of the game and only when he or she has completed exactly that number of objectives. What this, generally, means is that if you pass on claiming one of these bonuses, it is nearly impossible for you to have another chance at claiming it. However if you claim one of the lower ones too early, you might find that you would have been better off pushing for one of the bigger ones. Of course, another player can always come around and take the bonus you were eyeing, giving this aspect of the game a very welcome press-your-luck feel.

Consumer's Take:
Like most similar games these days, Rise of Augustus doesn't use any text on its components, meaning only the rule book needs to be translated to different languages, and the iconography used is both clear and easy to learn. The one sticking point in this department is that some of the objective cards include bundles of stuff in the background that are only consequential to game play in the case of wheat and gold. The issue, of course, being that by having graphics that matter in amongst graphics that don't makes it harder than it needs to be to determine which player has the majority of wheat and gold cards at a glance. Some reviewers have expressed the opinion that the decision to include these other goods on cards might simply be a way of "expansion proofing" the base game, which, I guess, could be the case. Shame though, as it's a knock against an otherwise nice and easy to decipher package.

Something else I feel I should mention as a slight point against the game is that, like many so called Eurogames, Rise of Augustus is more thematic in its art and setting than in its game play. I mean, most of what you're doing in-game can certainly be related back to the setting of ancient Rome, but the actions themselves don't feel much like the campaigning and machinations of politicians swaying the populous and senat to secure a seat next to Caesar in the Roman government. If you're the type of gamer who values thematic game play above all else, you've been warned.

The fact that the core game play loop simply involves drawing tokens and placing one pawn at a time means that things keep moving relatively quickly regardless of the number of players. In fact, the only time play needs to stop is when a player completes an objective and must decide which new objective to take from the available ones to replace it. What this means is that the game is able to accommodate up to six players without hugely affecting game length, which speaks volumes to the effectiveness of the core Bingo-like mechanism for keeping things moving. 

So, all told, what do I think of Rise of Augustus? Well, I quite like it! It's simple to learn and teach and looks really nice too. It has just enough flavour to its setting that I think it's going to be an easy sell to gamers while being easy enough to learn to work well with the less gaming inclined of your friends too. In my experience, a game will run about twenty to forty minutes after explanations so it certainly doesn't overstay its welcome. I look forward to playing more Rise of Augustus and suspect it will likely carve itself a spot amongst our go-to filler games for kicking off or winding down game nights.

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