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18Jul/160

Mare Nostrum: Empires Review

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Mare Nostrum is back! It took about a year from the initial Kickstarter announcement, but copies landed in backers hands this summer and we're played it our our June and July meetups. So how does the Academy Games edition of this grail game stand up?

It definitely looks great. Mare Nostrum: Empires has a rich, colorful board and more cool little plastic pieces than you can shake a stick at. Each of the five empires (six with the expansion) has their own set of armies and triemes, with the armies customized to reflect the headgear of each nation. My daughter would have liked the Egyptians to have little cats, but the rest of the group found the different armies to be fun and historically evocative.

Mare Nostrum

Taking over the Med in Mare Nostrum.

The cardboard pieces are thick and sturdy. Everything's easy to identify, and the wonders and heroes you can by come with nice artwork and helpful icons. A few non-essential player aid pieces were missing in the initial shipment -- Academy Games has promised to send them out to backers -- but you have everything you need to play and then some.

So how does it play? Short answer: pretty darn well, if the pace keeps up.

Mare Nostrum is Latin for "Judicious Smackdown"

In this light civilization game set in the ancient world, the goal is to expand your empire and show how much more awesome it is than all the other empires. You have four ways to do this: taking over capitals and legendary cities, building the Pyramids, buying five increasingly more expensive Heroes or Wonders of the World, or dominating all three of the tracks that monitor each empire's trading, military, and cultural strength. The broad array of goals is one of the game's strengths, because each player can find a way to win that he or she is comfortable with.

At the same time, the variety of goals means that you really have to watch your neighbors and keep you from sneaking past you for a win. In our games so far, we've had players make strong early plays, only to be smacked down by suspicious neighbors who don't want to get too far ahead. (Okay, I admit it, I was doing a lot of the smacking down. But I've had enough experience with the original game to be paranoid early on.) The threat of smackdowns makes it hard to get momentum going, which can lead to cautious play, which can lead to the game being quite a bit slower than it's meant to be.

Which is a shame, because the trade, movement, and battle mechanics are delightfully simple. Trade runs on an "I pick your trade good, now it's your turn to pick someone else's", which makes a good trading round go by like lightning. Movement is "everyone moves one space" plus "ships make distant spaces next to each other". Combat is over in seconds once you learn to roll a bunch of dice and divide by five. Buying is the most complex system, but it's still just counting up sets of three, six, or more.

So all the pieces are there for the game to speed to a satisfying conclusion, but the simple mechanics lead to a complex decision space and a bit of analysis paralysis. As a player, I'm loving the game. As an event organizer, I'd like it to be over an hour sooner so I can play something else too. There seems to be enough interest in the game to keep playing it, and hopefully with growing expertise we can get that play down to a reasonable two hours or less.

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Posted by Chris Aylott

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