Julius Caesar Critical Review The $64 Question!

Julius Caesar  from Columbia games has been out now for awhile (June 2010). The game is ranked #31 in the BGG ranks for war games and 414th overall.  Which is pretty darn good.  So what is all the fuss about?

This is the first block game and first game from Columbia that the Big Board has looked at.

The Ancient Era as always holds a fascination for the masses, historians, game players and I.  The bloody battles, political intrigue laid bare, nations and tribes conquered, loves, tyranny and conquest. Gripping stuff.

The period surrounding this particular Civil War was no exception. The Empire  was stagnating.  Fat cats were getting fat, the populace was un happy, and there were threats at many borders.  Sound eerily familiar to today’s society.

Caesar was declared rogue, his popularity with the people after the Siege of Alesia and rout of the Gauls a direct threat to the status quo in Rome.

As he returned to Italy, pausing in Ravenna he collected forces and marched on Rome rapidly with his famous 13th Legion. The Senate and some of the populace fled.

Pompey was tasked with battling his old friend .  Caesar acted quickly to secure himself, a forced march(27 days) to Spain, where Caesar defeated then recruited Roman Legions  who were poorly led. With his western flanked secured, he then turned his eyes to Greece where Pompey was now located.  The battles of Dyrrhachium and Pharsalus are fought in Greece.

The conflict raged for some years and ended up touching most of the countries in the Mediterranean.  After Pompeys defeat, he fights Scipio at the Battle of Thapsus one of the last great Elephant battles in Ancient times. Caesars dalliance with Cleopatra in Egypt and subsequent prodigy only added to his fame.

The reforms struck by Caesar angered the Senate and Upper Classes.  This culminated in the Ides of March, where he was assassinated by members of the Senate and close friend Brutus.

Caesars son Octavius would have his revenge in just a few short years, and continue in his fathers foot steps.

So as we see the scope of this game is broad, the impact on history significant. How did this game come to be?

Game Genesis:

Imagine, your relaxing with your significant other of some description and you flick to you favorite Sunday night  show…. HBO’s Rome.

War, conflict, conquest, Caesar.

Its then the idea hits you! A game devoted to the era, that captures the power struggle for control of Rome and the known Western World.  Columbia prides itself of being a leader and innovator in the block game market segment. By working with Grant Dagliesh (Owner of Columbia Games), Justin (our couch potato ) they develop a game that they feel captures the essence of the time.

Development:

B&W personal version. /Initial Setup (thanks Jim Marshall BGG’er)

CSW First post  was August 11 2008 one of 230+ Posts.  Fast Forward approximately 2 years later you, the couch potato release a game on   June 7th 2010 for sale!

Play testing was conducted by a core group of enthusiasts. 10 people who know game mechanics, but in this instance block games as well. A game that could capture the essence of war, the fight for control of key provinces, and the allegiance of Cleopatra. Playtesting was in my mind fairly thorough.

Over on BoardGameGeek.com only about 40 odd questions have been posted in the rules section.  9 of those questions are centered on the use of cards. The rest Navis, combat and general clarifications.  A v1.1 Rules edition is under review currently.

Post Production and components:

BBG has nearly a 1,000 posts regarding the game – a testament to its popularity. All of the reviews I found were positive. The components have been reviewed in detail by video bloggers, and writers on BGG. So we wont spend too much time here. My only gripe is the lack of a mounted map. I think that for a block game I would prefer a mounted map.  It just feels right.  The current map is thick card stock and very durable as you can see below.  All very nice. The blocks are….square. The sticker are is great. The stickers themselves are really good, especially in comparison to say C&C Ancients first edition. Man those stickers were a hassle for my fingers, and seemed to peel very quickly. I’d probably recommend a coat of spray varnish for these to extend life if you intend to play this game a lot. The cards are good quality. The rule books is black and white print – 8 or 9 pages. Very nicely written. Easy to digest and although it took me a little bit to understand (remember this is my first strategy block game) the rules are not hard at all.  I would not recommend this for under 12 years of age, as the game is relying on strategy and long range planning to some extent than the ‘immediacy’ of sequential turn play.

Game Dynamics:

The strategy is simple at first glance.

In 5 periods of 5 rounds of play you have to capture 10VP worth of cities.  Easy.

Mid Game Action

Well no not really. As Caesar you start with 1VP, as Pompey 7.  You need just 10 to win.  The situation is complicated by force locations, army mix and VP locations. This game starts out asymmetrically and you quickly realise that each side has unique strengths and weaknesses that are going to parley into different strategies.

So  already we see real layers to the game reflected albeit in abstract ways.  It takes some time to garner the subtle nuances required for each side. This means lots of fun playing as you seek ways for Caesar and Pompey to win. This all equals replay ability.

Capturing a VP city is one thing. Keeping it is another.  See if you leave your city unattended it reverts to neutral. A very nice abstraction of political uprisings and the need for garrisons. You cannot raise troops without a presence in the location either.  As each turn unfolds the player must think ahead to the next handful of turns. Which card to play denoting how many armies he or she may move, and how many new units or replacements can be added.

Moving ships into place for transportation takes forethought. Attacking in force down the right road that can support your army is  key also.  Another nice nod to logistics of the times. Main roads support movement of 4 armies, lesser roads support just 2.

Combat did not occur as much as I thought it would in my play thrus of the JC.  It is foolhardy to enter a fight without the right forces. Quiet some time is spent in positioning to block retreats, support attacks and ensure a win when the fight goes down.  The combat system is dice based, comparing a number of die rolls against a to hit number per block. Pips are lost in rounds of combat. Very simple, easy to do and efficient for fast game play. Not earth shattering but it works very well.  The CRT mode of block games I guess.

The CSW forum for JC was busy for a period of time with some complaints about the lack of innovation in block combat models. As I mentioned above the combat is simple here. We have fog of war, and we have multiple rounds of combat to decide how much you really want to capture that province.  As a first time designer it maybe  safe to say that Justin did an admirable job bringing a complex piece of history to light in such a consumable manner.  The game feels similar to others from Columbia based upon what I have read, the reviews of HoS, and my conversations with several people who have played multiple Columbia blockies. This seems to indicate that there is a ‘base system’  then modifications suited to period, theme and goals.

Comments were posted about Historical accuracy. Really. I would look at this game as entertaining and a view at a very high abstract level of the history of the time. Considering this after playing, issues with historcity need to be balanced against what the Columbia model is – fast playing, block games of medium to low complexity.

Now spelling errors, history facts that are incorrect are just wrong. As a publisher all companies need to do a better job.  Lets get it right the first time.

It seems to me that Columbia has struck upon a format, rules set and game mechanics that can be readily adapted to different periods.  This may explain the rapidly development cycle for JC? I think this is part of what some folks were commenting about on CSW, that there was a format that could be tweaked and rubber stamped. Who owns the responsibility for that when a designed bring a game to the table for consideration for publication?

As I mentioned above, I’m not sure it is the first time designer who can demand total design control or possibly even deliver upon ‘amazing’ innovations.  Columbia appears to be in its own special niche.  Their focus may well be upon refinement of their core system of rules and quality production of games. The ownership there will need to monitor adoption of their new titles to ensure they keep bringing interesting titles to market that not only garner enthusiastic players and people interested in the period offered, but also the players who are looking for a new challenge.

So how popular is this game? Well based on July’s Vassal data it is the 5th most popular wargame being played on the servers right now! Currently Julius Caesar is played twice a day live on VASSAL servers. Overall it is 11th in popularity versus the likes of Zombies and Summoners.  This shows demonstrates a pretty powerful enthusiast base. The Vassal module by the way is now on rev 2.0 and works wonderfully. You obviously miss the entire tactile feel of gaming, but if you love JC there are plenty of players keen to play via VASSAL if you cant get a fix locally. Check the VASSAL Guild on BGG for finding a game.

What does a game of JC look like?

Summary

What we have here is a highly playable game. One that has replay value, very good overall components, a consumable ruleset  and ease of play. There are some real nice layers and depths to certain strategic elements that give the game some real heft and add to replayability. More importantly the game is fun.  I enjoyed it. Its not my hex and counter centric preference. But I can see my kids and I playing this one together at some point.

So if you can play with someone, happen to like block war games and are curious about the famous Julius Caesar then this is a game I would recommend on its own merits.

4 thoughts on “Julius Caesar Critical Review The $64 Question!

    1. That may be the case. I think any company that relies on formula too long pays a price for it dont you think?
      Even SPI with is torrid publishing schedule, settle on certain formulaic aspects. They failed for many reason but I think a lack of innovation and evolution in any industry will catch you eventually.
      Grant is a smart guy, I am sure he will watch the market, sales and adoption on P500 and choose wisely when to next iterate the Block systems he uses. thanks for reading. I really enjoy the wargame center. Keep up the good work.

  1. The Columbia Games “Fog of War” series all have similar elements (combat mechanics, location movement, etc.), but the games are not simple ports to differing time periods as they all play significantly different, and thw specific aspects of combat and movement have thier differences across different games. It’s not like Ticket to Ride where the mechanics are (essentially) the same but the map differs. Not at all. There is more than one thread on BGG about complaints of the rules where the author got the games mixed up with a different block game from CG and incorrectly ported a specific rule into a different game.

    JC is a terrific game and can be learned in about 10 minutes and off you go.

    1. Good points Mark,
      I was trying to bring to the surface the comment from CSW posters, and BGG posters, other designers etc that they felt there had been a lack of innovation on JC, and to a lesser extent the Columbia line up for the blockies. I am not a designer, so I cant claim any innovation deficits.
      But after reading all the posts that I could find to research this article this was one thing that struck me as a common theme. It was the only major negative I read about for the game overall.

      Personally I like it. I’ll be playing with friends and kids for sure.
      Thanks for the clear and thoughtful comments.

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