Before this last Prezcon, I had not played too many of the block wargames like the ones Columbia Games put out. I have to say… it does feel like a really substantial wargaming experience, but there just aren’t a whole lot of rules to keep up with in Julius Caesar. Although the command cards limit what you can do and when, there is still a real sense of control here. (The card you play does not limit which units you can move, but rather how many locations you can move from.) The range of things that can happen in a turn is also quite large thanks to the divine influence via the special “god” cards, so there is always a sense that you’re pushing your luck. On the other hand, if both players play these special cards at the same time, they cancel each other out, so a player that can read his opponent has a chance to manage this side of the game when it really counts.
There is just the right amount of units in play here to give each department of the war its own flavor without bogging things down. The game is not terribly long, either– there can be at most six turns for each player in each of the five rounds of the game. It can also end the moment that one player has ten victory points at the end of a round. (Two hours is plenty of time to get a good game in with this.) Because you can see where your opponents units are but not what they are, a fog of war element where bluffing is possible is introduced into the game. Furthermore, it’s easy to track a range of individual unit strength levels by turning the block so that one of four potential step levels is facing up.
In my first game with this, I sent Julius Caesar toward Antioch so that he could recruit units in specific cities in that direction. (You can bring auxilia, naval units, and the ballista on anywhere, but the rest of the units have to be levied in their own city. If you lose units during a round, you can usually bring them back after the next winter phase.) On the other side of board, Pompei executed a series of three massive attacks against the units that I’d left behind. My dice were embarrassingly hot for some reason… and when my opponent threw down a Vulcan card to deal the death blow, I was able to respond in turn with Apollo… which not only reduced several enemy units, but also put Pompey out of the game.
Given that Scipio had already fallen due to some surprisingly good dice results, my opponent was dismayed. I had a tremendous advantage here, but being a novice I knew I could easily find a way throw the game anyway. (My opponent was a tournament champion, after all…!) The thing that got me was that you’re limited to four blocks moving along a main road and two on a lesser one. You have to leave units in victory point cities in order to threaten to win. And when you mass your troops for an attack, you might lose some if they don’t disperse by winter!
I worked it out, though. When I succeeded in taking Antioch, my opponent responded with a massive Naval assault made possible by the Neptune card. Thanks to the deaths of my opponent’s leader units, I didn’t actually have to hold that city at the end of the round. I retreated Caesar and tried to beef up my depleted units as best I could. Thanks to the fact that I had Apollo for the third or fourth time, I could leverage the Mars card my opponent used against me to try to kill me one last time to escape from the only units that could still threaten my Caesar block.
This is not something I would normally try on my own, so going to a convention was about the only way this game would ever have a chance with me. It’s a lot work pick up a wargame cold and get play out of it with people that aren’t already avid players. But when you have loads of expert gamers around and championship level players to see in action, it’s possible to skip all the trial and error and go straight to the fun in a matter of hours. That said, this particular game is straightforward enough and playable enough that I think that I would have actually gotten some significant play out of this title back when I was a teenager. (Too bad for teenaged me, though– this game didn’t exist until 2010!) The learning curve on this one just isn’t that steep and it isn’t hard to work out a few effective tactics with this system. If you’re looking for a solid “gateway” wargame that can hold up even under a competitive tournament environment, this one deserves a look.