The Republic of Rome ★★★★★

The Republic of Rome is long, difficult and drenched with an extreme dose of randomness. It features no cutscenes or flavour text, choosing instead to cover itself in dice charts and a manual coded like a phone book. And yet, it’s one of the most immersive, thematic and plainly exciting games both in and out of its genre. It’s the perfect example of how mechanics can create an incredible narrative and unforgettable gaming stories.

HISTORY AND REPUBLIC

As one of Rome’s political families, players are responsible for a civilization in danger. Unlike the later Imperial period, the Republic lived in a constant state of jeopardy. Wars, famine, epidemics and revolts succeed one another and challenge a state in crisis. Only by taking the right decisions in the Senate can players ensure its survival. Were it to fall into its enemies, be them external or internal, they would all immediately lose.

All political affairs of the Republic are arranged by voting. Together senators decide which wars to fight, how many troops to raise and who leads them into combat. They can pass laws, send representatives to distant provinces and resolve matters of internal justice such as corruption and religious ceremonies. In times of dire need, a Dictator may even be voted into office in the hopes total control can keep Rome alive.

However, this is not a cooperative title. What players seek is not the wealth of the Republic but their personal gain. The only two ways to win are to be the most powerful at the end of an era or to proclaim yourself Consul for Life, ending the Republic. Be it through intrigue or military might, players seek the end of the very political structure they also strive to preserve.

This is an extremely engaging setup that foments all sorts of treachery, tension and drama. Where games like Battlestar Galactica divide its players between loyalists and traitors, The Republic of Rome goes one step further and gives them both roles at once. All of them strive to destroy the Republic and all of them must do their best to save it.

The political families controlled by the players are composed of senators. They differ in their military and political skills, as well as their loyalty. Each one is represented by a card which also serves to track its influence and popularity. More importantly, these characters can take different offices, such as Consul, Pontifex Maximus and Censor. With them, players can direct the Senate, order priests and take corrupt senators to trial.

The Republic of Rome is rich in details and has a much wider arrange of options than any modern title would. We may reform the agrarian system, steal from a province’s development funds or make it flourish. Propositions in the Senate can be made by Tribunes and unloyal senators attracted by other players. It’s all a lot of fun.

RANDOMNESS

The most striking aspect of The Republic of Rome, however, might be its randomness. It’s the most capricious game in my collection and I can only characterise its approach as extreme. Every action has an attached dice roll and a poor result can be downright catastrophic. It keeps you at the edge of your seat through fear, risk and schadenfreude.

Let me tell you a story. Once, the bickering politicians of Rome sent an unwilling Scipio to fight against Hannibal. Armed only with the bare minimum of troops, his future seemed grim. He rolled down a table where every hit could spell defeat. The impossible happened, though, and he rolled three sixes. Against all odds, he defeated the Carthagians and came back to Rome.

Angered, we accused him of treachery, which is punished by death. Ignoring his valorous acts, we all voted him guilty at the trial. But before we could sentence him, he rolled his dice again. Outraged at the treatment we were giving to the man who saved Rome, the people broke into the courtroom. They beat up the prosecutor, who died, and freed Scipio from the clutches of justice. Now freed, he went to bed and died of natural causes on the very next turn.

The Republic of Rome does not care about your feelings. It grabs you by the collar and shows you that history is not a meritocracy where everyone gets what they want. That for every Caesar there’s a Pompey and also a dozen Bibulus, who unceremoniously died. It is  unfair and proud of it. With randomness as its tool, it dares you to go along for the ride.

BINDING NEGOTIATION

There is another reason why The Republic of Rome has such a striking amount of randomness. The extreme luck factor acts as a counterweight to the most powerful negotiation mechanic ever created. Negotiation in The Republic of Rome is binding. If you make a promise, the rules of the game force you to keep it. You cannot break a deal.

This mechanic, which was brought into the game because its playtesters kept coming to blows, is one of the most brilliant pieces of design I’ve ever seen. It enables all sorts of novel ways to negotiate and allows deals that would never fly other titles. You can rig votes, concentrate power and take down even the most powerful tyrants as long as you can convince other players to let you do so.

In most games, players can’t be trusted to keep their promises and, hence, there’s no reason to make any. Binding negotiation, however, allows all sorts of complex, interesting deals to work. You can buy a position as Censor by promising protection to the corrupt or create a powerful triumvirate. It’s my favourite game mechanic despite only being featured here and in Dune.

The best aspect of The Republic of Rome is the diversity of its discussions. At times, players are forced to work together with one another. Others, it delves deep into political intrigue. Threats, wild suggestions and mocking propositions all have their place in the game. And given all propositions are voted, it’s not enough to convince one player. You must engage with the whole table.

In fact, preventing other players from gaining power is a terrible strategy. It forces them to resort to violence, which is much harder to control than a fair-weather ally. Murder or, rather, the threat of it, acts as a catch-up mechanism and prevents power from being centralized. It’s a powerful insight into the political principles of the game and the Roman civilization as a whole.

ROUGHNESS

Despite its brilliance, The Republic of Rome is rough. Complex and naturally prone to long discussions, it takes from four to six hours to complete. Its manual is well-written, but difficult to learn from. In fact, instead of teaching the game, I often ask others to read a 40-page document called The Republic of Rome for Dummies. Sadly, this invaluable tool is not available in English.

More importantly, I believe its victory conditions aren’t strong enough to withstand the force of its other mechanics. Threats and negotiation make matches a bit more self-balancing than they should, resulting in anticlimactic endings. The last few turns also see an uptick in assassination attempts, which may put the outcome under the fate of a dice roll.

Regardless, the power of its narrative and the raw fun of the negotiation are great enough to overlook its flaws. It is a brilliant game that creates memorable stories few games can even think of. Still, the barrier of entry is high and there are many who won’t be able to accept its emotional edge and blatant unfairness. Its difficulty lies, not on its rules, but in the demands it places on its players.

Those who refuse to take the mantle of Senators and would rather lose their heads to Hannibal than to let a rival prosper, won’t enjoy this game. It demands our endurance, our willingness to learn and for us to enjoy the thrill of the fight. Many won’t be able to step to the plate, held back by fear or the triple columns of non-illustrated text that form its rulebook. But for the rest of us, few games come close.

THE REPUBLIC OF ROME (1990)
DESIGN Richard Berthold Don Greenwood Robert HainesARTKurt Miller
Mark Poole
Patrick Turner
PUBLISHERValley Games Inc.
Edge
LENGTH240-360 Minutes
NUMBER OF PLAYERS
5-6 (Best with 5-6)SCORE★★★★★

4 Comments

  • Great review of one of the greatest games of all times.
    I agree that it’s a rough game and that’s (to me) how it creates those memorable moments.
    My personal favourite Maria also has binding negotiations, by the way.

    • Thank you Nodens! I agree the roughness also makes it more memorable. Simply making a bad speech at the beginning of the turn and seeing the people get angrier is hilarious.

      I didn’t know Maria had binding negotiation! I’ve always wanted to give both it and Friederich a try but I don’t think I know anyone with a copy. Now I have another reason to try it out.

  • Sounds fascinating!

    Are the binding agreements completely freeform? If so, I’m sure you can still make fistfights happen by lawyering enough.

    • Yes, they are completely freeform. There are a couple exceptions but, most of the time, you can propose anything you like. Some lawyering is expected(I promised I< wouldn't vote you guilty, not that I would vote you innocent!) but there's little benefit to doing so and it's very obvious so it rarely happens.

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