Aug 01

Review: Augustus

Rome had an Emperor, and his name was Augustus.  The game is apparently something to do with this: Rome’s brand new Emperor wants his representatives (the players) to do… something.  It involves mobilising Legions onto cards that represent objectives – either Senators of Rome, or colour-coded Provinces of the Empire.  ‘Mobilisation tokens’ of various rarities are pulled out of a bag and everyone gets to place or move a legion meeple to cover the same symbol on one of their cards. Completed objectives reward you with Victory Points™, but sometimes they’ll give you permanent powers or one-shot effects that can help you. It’s a simple game for simple folk, doncherknow.

Overall, the theme is neither here nor there.  Augustus could’ve been done with practically any theme, or even abstracted entirely with just colours or symbols or even numbers in the place of the themed pictures on the mobilisation tokens.  I’m not entirely sure what the legions being placed on Senators is meant to signify, or what the Victory Points™ are supposed to be.  In reality, the theme seems to be just a damned good excuse for some cool illustrations, and getting to call out ‘Ave Caesar’ when you complete an objective (which I think means ‘hello Mr Dog‘ in Latin.)  I was impressed with the component quality overall – the cards could’ve done with being a bit thicker, but they’re linen effect and pretty; and the legioneeples are very cute.  The tokens and the ‘bonus’ VP tiles (which are available during the game for various achievements) are hardier pieces of cardboard, which is especially important for the tokens, given the amount of handling they’ll get.

A legion of legioneeples and the mobilisation tokens.

My first read through the rules were quite a surprise to me – I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a rulebook quite so comprehensive, and yet still relatively short.  Even with simple games, rulebooks can be a confusing tangled mess of assumed knowledge, typos and contradictions.  There’s room for improvement here, of course, but I think it’s a great example of what’s possible.  It even manages to cover a whole bunch of possible timing questions.  Given this is a game where everyone plays simultaneously, and the powers you can activate/use might come into conflict, it does really well to predict any possible issues that might arise.

Actually playing for the first time makes you realise that this is not as simple a game as you may originally have thought.  You can be forgiven for thinking the simultaneous play would lead to ‘multiplayer solitaire’, but there are very Euro-style, indirect interactions at work here!  You see, some of the objectives can give you one-shot effects when you score them that force everyone else to remove some legions from their cards.  Others will even force everyone else to discard an already-scored objective!  You won’t be able to directly interfere with other player’s games, to stop someone from completing an objective, but these cards can make life fairly difficult for your fellow Romans!

Example objective cards. There’s two fat ladies’ worth (88) in total.

Nearly every game will feature a key part of what I love about this game, though: the Crazy, Random Happenstance moment.  It’ll either be a run of tokens that are exactly what you need and no one else does, or exactly what you don’t want to see your opponent get.  When it happens to you it’s hilarious and frustrating in equal amounts, as all the wrong tokens mount up and you stare unbelieving at the cruel hand of fate pulling the dregs of chaos itself out of the black void of unrelenting purgatory.  Or, y’know, just your fiancée taking out all the tokens you don’t want, and cackling like a loon.

But the randomness of the token-pulling is made all the more unpredictable by the ‘jokers’.  When these get pulled, everyone can mobilise a legioneeple to whatever symbol they want, but then all the tokens go back in the bag.  You can try to play a balanced game, with the same proportions of symbols on your objective cards as there are in the bag – trying to maximise your chances.  But when that joker comes out after four or five tokens, the guy with all the rare symbols suddenly leaps ahead.  Players will then realise that the jokers are great to play long-term strategies with cards showing only rarer symbols.  But then another player will play a counter strategy, as she begins to rush the end of the game as soon as she can.

I think this is what I love most about Augustus: it’s a light, simple game that hides its strategies just under the surface, rewarding repeated play.  When someone plays it for the first time, it’ll seem like there aren’t many choices during the game: you can choose to place a legion, or move one – that’s about it.  But when you start to spot the deeper elements, you’ll want to play again and again.  It’s the broader choices, by the cards you pick to draft, that can offset the randomness.  Focus on an objective with a powerful effect, and from last place you’re suddenly close to winning; get a bunch of effects that chain or synergise well and your opponents won’t see you for dust.

Not to forget that it’s a very quick game.  It plays in about half an hour, and because everyone is playing simultaneously it doesn’t stretch on too much longer with more players.  My only criticism is the size of the box.  The components don’t take up all that much room, and a smaller box would make it far easier to transport around.  Tthere’s easily enough space in there to fit the game about six times over.  Or a full legion of legioneeples.  I would’ve liked that, actually; I was thoroughly disappointed at the lack of an in-game ability that ‘decimates’ your opponents legioneeples.  Maybe that’ll come in an expansion…

Everything looks more official with laurel leaves…

Given Augustus was a Spiel Des Jahres nominee this year, the game has had a lot more attention than it probably would have received otherwise.  I’m very happy about this – I really recommend this as a gateway/family game.  The benefit of the nomination will be that it should be readily available, so you’ll be able to grab your non-gamer friends and show them how cool boardgames can be.

Of course, careful how you pitch it to them.  This is not the same game as your Granny might play…


Game kindly supplied at discount by Grimtree Games.




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