The End of the Triumvirate compresses epic into an hour.
Since I read I, Claudius when I was a junior in high school, I’ve loved the Romans. The palace intrigue, the gladiators, the Senate, the general blood-thirstiness, it’s all simultaneously foreign and familiar. I’m also a sucker for short wargames that don’t drown me in rules, so when I read in 2006 that Z-Man would be publishing The End of the Triumvirate, I was pre-sold. Having said all of that, I’m still surprised at how much I like this game and how much staying power it has. Even after two years, it’s still fun, still surprising, and very nasty.
Theme and Rules: The year is 56 B.C. and control of Rome is balanced on a knife-edge. Except it’s not really a knife-edge. It’s more like three-tined fork, and each player plays as one of the, umm, tines. They all want the handle of the fork. Players assume the roles of Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus, each of whom is represented by a wooden square, which is lame. Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus want to be emperor, and there are three paths to this goal. There’s a military victory; if you manage to get all of your governors on the board, you’ve won. There’s a political victory where you win by being elected consul twice. And there’s a “competence victory,” winning by maxing out on both the military and political tracks. I won’t go into great depth on the rules since they’re available here--http://www.zmangames.com/. The board is divided into provinces of three types: cash provinces, military provinces, and competence provinces. Control of the provinces is denoted by governors (large-ish wooden cylinders): red for Caesar, blue for Pompey, black for Crassus. If you control a province and it’s the right turn (provinces only produce resources every other turn) you get some stuff. One nasty part of the game is that if one of your provinces produces something, you have to go get it. If you have money in Africa Nova you’re in Asia, you have to go pick it up, or it just stays out there waiting for someone else to steal it.
In the top right of the board is the forum where there are little yellow pieces that represent senators. Money influences them to vote for you for consul. It’s just like political life in America. Except if W. and Dick Cheney were Romans, they would have long since bled to death in bathtubs after killing themselves out of shame. Probably the most important piece is the “B.” In the rules they’re called civil servants; we call them bureaucrats. Bureaucrats make the provinces they’re in produce every turn, which is a great advantage. You must protect your B at all costs! Once you’ve lost your B, you’ve effectively lost the game.
Feel: My favorite thing about the game is that, despite its short playing time (45 mins.—an hour and 1/2), it really does have an epic feel, the sense that you’re playing for high stakes that’s familiar to anyone who’s crapped out on an important dice roll three hours into Axis & Allies. The theme creates this illusion. As nerds most of us are familiar with the political situation in the late Roman republic, the rise of Caesar, and the revelation that armies were more loyal to their generals than the Senate. If your nerdiness has not led you to Rome, you might watch HBO’s Rome for thematic immersion. Polly Walker (http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0908116/) as Atia of the Julii getting naked regularly is a nice bonus.
Another good thing is what I guess you’d call the balance. On each turn a player gets four points to use for movement. With four moves you can cover some serious ground around Mare Mediterraneum, but it always feels as though if you had one more move , you could do what you really needed to do. The “battle bag” randomizes kind of like the cube tower in Wallenstein. The combo I’m describing here—high conflict, high stakes, high strategy, low luck—is a recipe for bad feelings for more insecure dorks, and the battle bag provides an out for players whose masculinity, sadly, depends on an activity that most women would find slightly less distasteful than library masturbation. If only I had drawn two reds, etc.
Scaling: Obviously, it’s designed for three players, but he game also scales really well for two, and in the two player version the province distribution feels vaguely historical.
Components: I like the board, a mounted map depicting the Mediterranean done in earth-tones of yellow, red, and brown made to look like vellum mounted on wood. Certain hyper-critics at BGG have described it as “smeared in what appears to be Georgia red clay, mustard, and dishwater,” but I think Z-Man was going for the faded campaigner’s map that Caesar must have consulted upon his return to Rome. I do remember opening the box and feeling a little disappointment at yet another map of Europe, but what else would it be? Kronos? Incidentally, I would totally buy a Klingon reiteration of this game. The weird thing about the game is that there’s very little build-up. With most strategy games, we’re in the habit of devoting our first few turns to preparation—if I put legions here, what will he do? But in The End of the Triumvirate, you have to come out swinging. Due to the compression of the map, it really does have that knife-fight-phone-booth feel, and there’s not much room for error. Your opponent will destroy you if you make mistakes.
Brown wooden cubes represent legions, and they can fight for any side. The colored cylinders that denote governors work well in that they cover the resources in non-producing provinces and make the book-keeping part of the game easy. I also like the little yellow senators whose color and size make them seem appropriately pliable. Wish they didn’t roll. The “planks” that represent the main characters (Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus) are my only gripes. Plastic figures with red, blue, and black togas would add to the game. If any of you know where I could get cheap ones that I wouldn’t have to paint, the little figs would be a huge improvement.
Conclusion: But that’s a minor complaint. On the whole this has been one of the best games I’ve bought. It’s short enough that it can serve as a kind of appetizer for some other game and substantial enough, given the right audience, to build a whole game night around. Although The End of the Triumvirate has kind of dropped off the radar since it came out (like so many games do), it might be unique in that it’s a great strategic two- or three-player game that plays in under an hour and feels “epic.”