44 BCE Preview
When it comes to knowledge of history, I’m pretty rubbish. When 44 BCE turned up on my doorstep, I knew it was based around the events of the Ides of March, and I knew what happened, but I had no idea what ‘ides’ referred to. However, dear reader, armed with the power of Google, I’m here to tell you that it means ‘the middle of the month’. I guess Shakespeare probably went with the the line “beware the Ides of March” because “work from home on March 15th” didn’t have the same impact.
BCE 44 builds on the infamous events of the eponymous year when Julius Caesar was assassinated on the floor of the Senate, by a group of senators who worried that he had too much power over the empire. In the game, you take the role of one of several famous names from Roman history, such as Mark Antony, Brutus, or Cleopatra. The aim of the game is to retain control when you’re the current Imperium Maius (IM – leader), and to conspire with the others when you’re not, in order to unseat them from their position of power.
“Cowards die many times before their deaths; the valiant never taste of death but once”
If you were to pin me down and ask me what kind of game 44 BCE is, I’d have a hard time to explain it without examples. It’s a mixture of worker-placement, tableau-building, and bucketloads of negotiation. Players can send their architects out to help make buildings, each of which provides benefits at different times during the game’s nine phases. You get to spend your different influence cubes to recruit people from the game’s main market, in order to play them for their benefits. It’s when you come to play those cards and influence where the real fun of the game emerges.
Without trying to explain the entire game to you (Jenders Gaming does a great job of this, check out his video), the current IM is trying to retain their control over two of the games three ‘fields’: Military, Politics, and Social. After they’ve collected their income and gone shopping for new friends, they raise their player screen and choose which things they want to play for this round. Then the rest of the players – the Suitors – get a chance to do the same. This is where things get trickier.
While the Suitors can play their own recruits onto their player board, they’re unable to activate them with their own influence cubes. The cubes have to come from one or more of the other Suitors. And so begin the negotiations. Suitors do all of their conspiring openly, above the table. Their common goal is to make sure they take two of the three tiles from the IM, so promises are made to give people your cubes, on the condition they do the same for you. Unlike other games, however, the deals in 44 BCE often aren’t worth the paper they’re (not) written on.
“Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look. He thinks too much. Such men are dangerous”
You can probably see where this is going by now. Nobody wants the current IM to retain their power at the end of the round, but everyone wants that same power for themselves. The enemy of my enemy is my friend, and other such musing. After the negotiations are finished, each Suitor raises their screen and commits their recruits and influence to their board. It’s not until those screens are dropped, and the truth revealed, that players know if they’re facing a Crying Game moment or not. That is to say, not entirely what they were expecting.
I can’t explain how much fun I have with this mechanism, I really can’t. I love the tension that comes when the Suitors are plotting behind their screens. As a Suitor yourself, there’s a lot of second-guessing going on, especially towards the end of the game. As the IM though, far from feeling doomed, facing a table of conspirators, it’s actually a powerful feeling. You’ve already made your play, you know what you’re hopefully going to get out of the round. You get to sit back and watch the suspicion and duplicity play out in front of you.
“Now let it work. Mischief, thou art afoot. Take thou what course thou wilt”
44 BCE wasn’t what I was expecting at all. I thought all the weight of the game would be dangled off the single thread of negotiation, but I was wrong. The act of placing workers and buying recruits has the feeling of playing a Euro game, but just as you think it’s moving that way, all of a sudden it pulls the rug from under your feet and places you in a very social, very interactive game that takes place in the promises and lies breathed above the board. Mixing two very different feeling styles of game could have gone horribly wrong – but it hasn’t. The game is suspended on strong, intertwined threads.
During my first play, I found myself thinking that the negotiation was all-important, and that the Euro elements didn’t have much of an impact. I very quickly found that I was wrong. Having a bigger income of cubes, or a bigger limit before you have to discard excess cards and cubes, can be huge. When the rest of the table knows you can potentially have more up your sleeves, their reliance in (and suspicion of) you increases.
More and more buildings enter the game as the three eras play out, which means there’s no real status quo to fall back on. People are going to get more powerful, they’re going to be able to afford better recruits, and the act of usurping the IM stays as difficult as it ever has. There’s a superb level of balance in the game, and at the time of writing, I still haven’t found an over-powered way of playing. When you consider that 44 BCE is coming from a new studio, with unknown designers, it’s all the more impressive.
I get to play quite a lot of prototype games here. They vary from rough-around-the-edges with plenty of work still to do, to polished and professional. 44 BCE falls firmly in the latter category. I’ve never been one for Roman themes in games, but honestly, I love this game. I’m a convert. The theme is carried through brilliantly, the gameplay is smooth and easy, and the artwork & presentation are gorgeous.
The concept of one-vs-many isn’t new, but the way the one and the many change during the game feels really fresh. It doesn’t feel like a ‘Kill the King’ type of game, where people are working together to take down the leader, because the role of king changes hands again, and again. Instead it’s a game of balancing your own ambitions with those that serve the common good, and it’s really well done. I’m understating it there if anything. This game is really, really nicely balanced, and has plenty of variability in each game’s setup.
While it plays from two to five players, I think the sweet spot for me was with four. I didn’t have a chance in my time with the game to play with five, but I think that would be just as good. Two and three player are both good, but the negotiation element loses a little of its oomph. If you have a regular group though, oh my, are you in for a treat. 44 BCE is an outstanding game. It’s absolutely brilliant, and even though it’s only a prototype, it’s already in my Top 3 games of the year so far. Superb stuff, bravo Gray Forrest Games, take a bow.
The Kickstarter campaign launches on May 24th 2022, and you can check it out here.
Preview copy kindly provided by Gray Forrest Games. Thoughts and opinions are my own.
44 BCE (2023)
Designers: Christian Forrest, Holt Gray, Kelly Forrest
Publisher: Gray Forrest Games
Art: Rumyana Zarkova, William Liberto
Playing time: 60-120 mins