You might be curious about the title of this column. You might read it and say to me “Hey, Matt, why are you bothering to review a six-year old game that a lot of people have played, discarded and moved on from and which now appears to be out of print”? It’s a valid question, so I’ll answer it. The reason is because the more I’ve played this game, the more I’ve become convinced it’s been the victim of one of the most unjustified hatchet-jobs the internet has to offer. And after mentioning it in last weeks' column I wanted to take the time to tell you why.
For those unfamiliar, Mare Nostrum promises to be a lot of unlikely things. In essence it promises to be a fully-fledged civilization building game which nevertheless manages to stay roughly within the strategic style, play time and rules complexity of a Eurogame. It’s a pretty extravagant claim to make and, on closer examination, is patently false - a flip through the rulebook will demonstrate that it’s certainly more complex than the average Euro. But for all that it isn’t a particularly complicated game. It’s played on a board representing the ancient Mediterranean on which each player takes the place of an ancient civilisation. The game proceeds in phases. In the first phase of a turn, players collect goods and taxes from the provinces in which they’ve built caravans and then try and then go through a mechanical (negotiation is minimal) trading round to try and make up sets of different cards. They then build stuff by trading in sets - they can build troops, ships, new buildings and best (and most expensive) of all, cool heroes and wonders for their civilisation. They can then move units and fight, using a nifty combat mechanic which employs dice but keeps a lid on the worst excesses of randomness and a realistic conquest system that makes players think carefully about whether to go for small reward now by pillaging the target, or risk more reward later by slowly taking over the province - if they can hold on to it for long enough to complete the process. And that’s about it. The winner is the first player to build 3 heroes or wonders or to build the most expensive building of all, the Pyramids. See? It’s not particularly complex. It’s a 1-game learner - for the first game players will be pretty confused, but after that it’s plain sailing.
Perhaps the most outlandish claim of all is that you can package all this up into a Euro-style play time. Well, whether you find this to be true or not depends on your definition of a Euro-style play time but I have found, to my astonishment, that the game regularly wraps up in three hours. That’s right, three hours which contains the entire history of the Mediterranean with all its attendant conflict, glory, economics, backstabbing and high culture. Three hours. To be honest I remain amazed that anyone has managed to come up with a satisfying, free-for-all, open strategy multi-player conquest game that can be played in three hours. The fact that it also has all the trappings of a civilization game is even more astonishing.
So what about the idea that it’s a Euro strategy game? Well, a number of more recent games have demonstrated that it’s possible to have some random and some solid player interaction and some conflict and still retain a balanced setup which will rewards careful planning and analysis. There are certainly some elements of the design which have been borrowed directly from German games. The trading mechanic, which sees players putting down cards to be traded face up and then swapping one of their own for one of their opponents until all cards have been traded involves virtually no negotiation and is pure Euro. The building phase revolves heavily around the fact that there’s a limited number of each type of building to be built, which is entirely unthematic and a typical method used by Euro designers to force the players into difficult choices. The combat mechanic where you roll a dice for each unit but only inflict damage for every full multiple of five pips also looks to me like a classical early-German attempt at keeping dice in the game but limiting the impact of randomness. And they all work extremely well: this very much a game which rewards a certain level of analysis and is definately a game of skill.
But beyond this the game becomes rather more interesting. Because unlike the majority of conflict-driven Eurogames, Mare Nostrum offers totally open-ended movement and positional play and is completely negotiation-friendly. There’s nothing limiting the number of armies you can raise or move each turn. Nothing limiting the number of attacks you can make. Nothing stopping several of the players from ganging up on one of the other powers in the game to knock them down a peg or two. Nothing except for - and this is the particular genius of this game - the relatively slow pace at which armies are collected and provinces are conquered. See, stuff in this game is expensive. It’ll give you some idea if I mention that it takes a set of twelve different resource cards to buy the Pyramids and win the game: players rarely have more than twelve cards to spend. And stuff is bought in multiples of three (three for an army, for example, nine for a hero). Spend a lot of troops and conquering provinces (yes, this costs) and you won’t be buying heroes and wonders toward winning the game. It achieves a truly fiendish balance between offering players a startlingly open array of strategic and tactical choices but limiting how much they can really invest in things like kingmaking and kill-the-leader. And in doing so it completely knocks these things on the head except in those rare situations where the game would really benefit from it. The players have, in effect, become a self-balancing and self-policing system in the game. And it manages all this without some heavy-handed objective system, making it appear even more open-ended than most other modern games within this idiom.
What’s more - and this is most certainly not Euro-like at all - the game features variable player powers. Not only are the starting setups different but the game forces players to buy heroes and wonders to win the game. These features are not simply a victory point substitute - each one has a major impact on the abilities of your civilisation. Helen of Troy allows a defender to convert one attacking army on to their side. Nebuchadnezzar gives you bonus loot if you choose to sack a conquered province instead of integrating it into your empire. These are not trivial powers: indeed, most are serious enough to build an entire strategy around which further adds to the open-ended nature of the game. Unlike many games in which negotiation or aggression play a role, no one aspect is allowed to dominate. Between movement, negotiation and building heroes the balance is finely struck, the possible permutations and strategies to explore are dazzling and the replay value huge.
But herein lies the issue on which Mare Nostrum seems to have been so unjustly derided by many game fans. Because the heroes, wonders and starting positions in the game are not balanced. Indeed one could argue that they’re very poorly balanced. Greece, although very powerful on the seas, is militarily weak on land and easy prey for neighbouring civilisations. Rome and Carthage have only a single border to defend and so can be very aggressive, and yet both start with powers which make them militarily even more powerful. These things will be obvious to all players after just a single game: indeed more perceptive gamers might well spot it as soon as the rules are explained and the board setup seen. So, no-one wants to play Greece, the game is derided with that much-abused term “broken” and is sold or put away to gather dust in the closet.
This is a serious mistake. Because whatever you think about the importance of balance in games, the core of this game is so good, so unique, that rejecting it over what turns out to be a completely trivial issue is ridiculous. Because it is a trivial issue. The expansion (which we’ll return to) fixes it. There are some designer-approved addendum rules which fix it. Playing with four players instead of the full five (don’t even try with three) fixes it. Even if you don’t wish to apply these external fixes, a totally straightforward solution is built into the game - negotiation, using built-in weakness and strength as bargaining chips. And it works. In my first few games without the expansion to balance things up the supposedly weakest position, Greece, actually won about 50% of the time! The critique of this game seems to have come from new-school Eurogamers who are completely unused to negotiating in their games but bought into this title because of the Euro-esque mechanics and found that they couldn’t tailor their gaming styles to accommodate the number of options the game put before them.
Even if you’re happy with the negotiation-balance of the original game, the expansion is still very much worth getting. It adds a new phase (religion, where you can buy the powers of a God for a whole turn), a sixth player, a slew of new heroes to keep things interesting, and a new unit type, mythological creatures, which offer different powers depending on who they belong to. The manner in which it balances in the game is complex - the sixth playing position means everyone has two borders, some of the more powerful civilisation-specific heroes are nerfed slightly and the powers of the mythological creatures are made to balance perceived weaknesses in the civilisation they belong to. And it works beautifully. But what ‘s really engaging about the expansion is the new strategies on offer through the mythological creatures and the vast number of new heroes. The possibilities are eye-watering. And, amazingly, there don’t appear to be any over-powerful combinations either. Adding the expansion doesn’t dent that three-hour play time at all, although it does up the complexity quite a bit in an indirect manner: the new rules aren’t terribly complex, but with the different powers of all those new heroes and monsters, there’s a lot of on-card information to take in.
I’ve gotten stick in the past for spending an awful lot of time discussing and, often, praising Eurogames in spite of the fact I’ve pinned my colours firmly to the Ameritrash mast. Taking the time and effort to review Mare Nostrum could be seen as more of the same, but I don’t think it is. MN isn’t really a Eurogame at all: it’s a solid, red-blooded Ameritrash game filled with bitter conflict, desperate diplomacy, backstabbing, building, and the rising and falling of powerful empires, but one in which the designer tried to up the analysis and keep a lid on the complexity and play time without spoiling the basic essence of the game. And boy, did he ever succeed. The first time my group played this, we were all completely amazed by it. One expansion and many games later it has become the staple choice whenever we want a multi-player conquest game which is, frankly, quite a lot. Mare Nostrum offers a completely satisfying, unadulterated conflict game experience which delivers everything you love about games of this style without any of the bad points. As such, far from being derided, it deserves a place in the collection of every gamer. So what are you waiting for - go out and secure your copy now!