Rome Didn’t Dominate You in a Day
What do Julius Caesar, Hannibal Barca, Hammurabi, Cleopatra, and Pericles all have in common? If you guessed “they were contemporaries,” um, no, that’s really very incorrect. Caesar and Cleopatra knew each other (double meaning!), but other than that, these people had about as much chance of rubbing shoulders at the corner pita shop as Ronald Reagan and Charlemagne.
So Mare Nostrum: Empires, which pits these pivotal ancient statesmen against one another in a sort of fantasy grudge match, isn’t too keen on getting its dates straight. No problem. When you’re a game about bullying trade in the Mediterranean — and when “bullying” means you spend a lot of your time being an honest-to-goodness bully — you can bend history into as many pretzels as you like.
Before we get into anything else, let’s talk about bullying.
One of the things Mare Nostrum does best is provide ample opportunities for trade-with-teeth. Sure, you can spend your attention and resources on expanding your infrastructure. Caravans bring in new trade goods, cities produce coins. Markets and temples are more pricey, but double the income of your other buildings. And since you’ll need a whole lot of cash and commodities to get anything done, it’s tempting to focus entirely on these improvements, spending and spending until your entire realm is speckled with them. Why waste commodities on worthless legions when some camels can import gems or olive oil or one of Mare Nostrum’s many other resources every single turn?
The risk of such a peaceful approach is that your neighbor will undoubtedly take notice. And when she does, the question she’ll be asking is more along the lines of, “Why waste commodities on worthless camels when a legion can just take over somebody else’s hard work?” The old Latin truism is in full force here: everybody wants camels, but nobody wants to be the guy raising them.
(Fine, you caught me, that isn’t a Latin saying. But the only actual Latin proverb I know about camels is Camelus, vel scabiosa, complurium asinorum gestat onera, which translates to something like “Even a mangy camel carries more than a herd of asses.” Which is… huh. Thanks for the wisdom?)
This isn’t to say that war is particularly common in Mare Nostrum. Sometimes it happens, sometimes it doesn’t. Either way, it’s a crucial tool in the master statesman’s belt. It’s the one that comes out when a particular kingdom has been growing too quickly, or neglects to invest in any defenses, or is waging a costly war on another front. At the very least, a healthy fleet of triremes and a few legions on the border will force your neighbors to focus some effort on making sure you don’t pillage their most valuable resources.
What’s so cool about this is while it’s entirely possible to win by conquest, each of Mare Nostrum’s other three victory possibilities are worthy goals in their own right. The most straightforward option — heaping together a bunch of stones into triangles and calling them pyramids — requires that you amass twelve commodities. That might not sound like a lot of work. Twelve? That’s it? Well, sure, it isn’t, at least until you realize that you need twelve different commodities. Having a host of gladiators or seven years’ worth of stored grain isn’t enough. You’ll need gold, wine, ceramics, marble, metal, and a healthy variety of other stuff too.
There’s no regular turn order in Mare Nostrum. Instead, much of the action revolves around players appointing themselves leaders of one of the game’s three spheres. Control the most legions, triremes, and forts, and you get to be the military leader, choosing the order that players get to launch attacks against one another. Amass loads of culture through cities and temples, and you’re the one who decides the build order — hugely important in the late game when everybody’s blitzing to claim strapping heroes, game-breaking wonders, and to fulfill their final victory conditions. Clocking in at a slim 90 minutes, Mare Nostrum is a race from turn one, and being the person who gets to choose how everybody lines up at the starting line is an enormous advantage.
Trade, too, revolves largely around the decisions of the trade leader. Each round, the current merchant-in-command chooses how many goods will be swapped, then begins the trading by claiming any of the goods that are now on display, which then lets the person whose commodity was picked go next. It’s a straightforward system that verges on simplistic until its subtleties click. Going first, for instance, lets you prioritize the rarest resources, thereby improving your odds of creating a bigger spread of commodities for purchasing stuff. Locking out a leading player until the end might prevent them from winning this turn. And so forth.
There are plenty of strategies to pursue, many of them enhanced by the heroes and wonders that bestow new abilities on your empire. Some of my favorites include the Colossus of Rhodes, which gives you a free commodity of your choice each round, Spartacus’s oh-so-cheap soldiery, Antigone letting you ignore the will of the trading leader entirely, and the Queen of Sheba permitting blazing fast conquest of regions in exchange for a sacrificed legion. Looking back over that selection, it seems I prefer to sidestep the economic rigor of running an empire in favor of figuring out how to nab other people’s accomplishments. It’s a statement in Mare Nostrum’s favor that such a strategy is every bit as viable as one that emphasizes a dominant trade empire or a cultural hegemony.
In any game this good, the small problems are often magnified. Primarily, the established nature of the trade goods means that every game has the potential to evolve along similar lines. Whether you’re playing as Rome or Babylon, Crete will still be the only source of ceramic, gladiators will be plentiful on the fringes of the map, and spices will be available in the south and far east. It helps that the availability of heroes and wonders can be randomized, preventing the rise of — yuck — build orders. Even so, be aware that the distribution of commodities does tend to bestow the setup with the slightest sense of determinism.
What a fragile complaint that is, however, when compared with the dynamic growth, threats, invasions, heroes, and trades that flourish in Mare Nostrum: Empires. It may present a clash of civilizations with more basis in fantasy than history, but it weaves a compelling tale nonetheless about the balance between economy and force, trade and compulsion, and the authority of culture, mercantile, and military actions. Best of all, it does all of this with such ease, simplicity, and panache. Basically, I’m talking myself into playing it again tomorrow.