Feb 15

Mare Nostrum: Empires (2016)

On the one hand, the game is pretty fun to play because it’s immersive and most of the game mechanics involved in how you gather resources, how you trade resources, and the various pathways in which you can ensure victory are nuanced in a way that’s simultaneously easy to grasp but full of strategy depth.  On the other hand, there are a couple of huge imbalances in the game that bias the result in favor of a particular kind of gameplay, and since each player has a different starting special ability, the players that specialize in that gameplay are more likely to win the game enough that it makes playing the game at all feel not worthwhile.

I feel like the best way to explain my main gripe with the game is to deal with it from a “top-down perspective” if you will – explain the fundamental exploit and then go into details as to why that’s an exploit in the first place.  This assumes that you understand the basic gameplay; if you don’t know it or need a refresher, here’s a video that explains all of the rules:


The Primary Exploit: Pyramids Win Condition

One of the four ways that a player can win the game is to “build the pyramids” which is a fancy term for “Have 12 different goods or have 12 coins”. Goods and coins are gained by having caravans in territories that you control.  Those goods are then traded amongst all of the players in the the “trading phase” of the game, spent to purchase either more game pieces on the board (that are tokens that contribute to good production or tokens that contribute to military offense or defense) or special abilities, and are purged at the end of the turn with the one exception that you can keep two coins from a previous round.

But one player (yellow) starts with the special ability of holding on to two goods from a previous round.  In both the short game and long game that’s huge because purchasing more game pieces or special abilities is based purely on diversity of goods – you purchase basic things with any 3 different goods and more powerful things with any 6 different goods.  This makes the ability to hoard two goods between rounds a significant advantage – Yellow can expand their production engine more quickly than others and thus get more diverse goods and military on the board more easily.

The three ways to stunt that advantage are to a) prevent Yellow from expanding thus limiting good production, b) tailor the Trading Phase to specifically be about preventing Yellow from getting diverse goods, and c) take over Yellow’s territory via combat.  While preventing expansion can be done without initiating combat, only two of the other players are close to Yellow’s territory and strategically focusing solely on Yellow is not a great path to success (more on that later).  Similarly, focusing too heavily on preventing Yellow from getting the resources that they need during Trade means potentially not choosing something that is optimal for your own purchase needs.

Most importantly, however is combat.  Because while combat is of the primary game mechanics, it’s almost always never worth it to actually attack someone.

The Problem with Combat

The main problem with combat has to do with one particular kind of military structure.

The rules for “attacking” versus “defending” are identical – both players roll dice according to how much military is represented in the battle and damage is dealt to both sides based on the dice roll in isolation.  For example, if Black is attacking with 3 legions and Yellow is defending with 3 legions, both players roll 3 die.  If Black rolls for a total of 12 damage points, then two of Yellow’s legions die (one legion is killed for every 5 damage points), and if Yellow rolls for 11 damage points, then two of Jennifer’s legions die.  That leaves both sides with one legion left.  Fair enough.

But there’s one type of military structure that gives defenders a strong advantage over any attack: a fortress.  Fortresses can’t be moved once they’re placed, but during a battle, a fortress automatically subtracts 5 from the attacker’s roll (so it can absorb one kill’s worth of damage) AND it automatically adds 5 to its own attack roll (so instantly kills one enemy legion).  This is such a huge odds differential that a strategy of turtling and building fortifications is almost always better than invasion, even with the Red player who has an attack advantage of +2 to every roll.  There are special abilities that can be added to potentially counter that imbalance, but by the time they can come into play it’s usually too late because Yellow has such a strong lead in production from the get-go.

I’ve only played the game three times, but in all three cases even once as Red, any time I ended up attacking it decimated my forces enough that I could not recover for the remainder of the game compared to those that opted not to attack, and I’m also pretty positive that Yellow won the game all three times either by building the pyramids or by completing their “God” set which similarly is fast-trackable based on Yellow’s special ability.  It’s possible that more gameplays with Mare Nostrum regulars could balance this out if we’re all aware of this imbalance at the beginning, but given that the game is a 4+ hour investment and its complexities, it would take a particular group of people and a particular kind of group mindset to address it quickly.

Counteracting the Exploit

The best way to counteract Yellow’s advantage is to aggressively expand in uncontested areas close to Yellow before Yellow does and then build fortresses there so that Yellow is boxed in to a limited set of resources.  The problem with that is any individual that chooses to do so isn’t fortifying in other areas and that creates exploitable weaknesses that other players can pounce on, so the choice to stunt Yellow almost has to be done under a flag of truce of all other players so it’s many against one, and that feels like a broken game mechanic.

There’s also some expansion stuff that can help balance this out by immediately obliterating fortresses, but those powers are hard to come by and require too much luck to be able to count on strategically.

Rule Changes That Could Correct the Imbalance

It’s been suggested by the group that i’ve played with that eliminating the Pyramids victory condition could help balance the game, but upon further reflection that feels like a band-aid to the issue that would mask it and make the imbalance less obvious rather than truly fix it.

Apparently in the original version of the game before the “Empires” rules update, fortresses did not have the ability to absorb damage, they were merely immobile attack units that would automatically add +5 to the damage roll.  I think i would prefer to see the opposite, where fortresses absorb damage but do not attack.

The other potential solution is to have another distinct type of military unit that is a fortress specialist, a special legion that adds +5 to their damage roll or absorbs +5 of damage when a fortress is present.

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