A couple hundred years before it would fall for good, the Roman Empire faced a half-century of panic and defeat. Internal competition had split the once-great state into three conflicting portions, barbarian invaders ransacked the countryside, and a series of plagues depopulated much of the continent. Even the emperors weren’t safe, as one after another they succumbed to assassination, disease, and battle, the average span of rule during this period amounting to a mere two years. Even their nickname, the “barracks emperors,” betrays the speed with which they were hauled out, crowned, and used up.
Saving the empire came down to four men. Diocletian, when he realized that the task of administrating the empire was too much for one person to handle, split his authority first with co-emperor Maximian, then Constantius and Galerius as junior emperors. Of course they ended up feuding later on — they were still Roman statesmen, after all — but for the time being, Diocletian’s tetrarchy was enough to save the empire from total collapse.
What makes Miguel Marqués’s Tetrarchia so wonderfully exciting isn’t immediately apparent. Reading the rules, the whole thing sounds a little bit like a Pandemic knockoff. Each emperor gets a turn shuttling around the Mediterranean, sometimes crawling by land and other times zipping by sea. Removing the grey and black tokens that respectively represent unrest and revolt is critical to success, but they’re almost always added more rapidly than they can be removed, and danger spots have a way of exploding outwards. Victory is a matter of cooperation, cooperation, and more cooperation. At its most dire, some extra cooperation might be called for. Hardly surprising, then, that it’s almost easier to win while playing solo. Without teammates, at least nobody will hatch a brilliant plan to not cooperate.
And yet, Tetrarchia is surprisingly fresh. For one thing, it absolutely nails its setting, in part because it’s a game about so much more than black tokens spreading like the pox across the Roman Empire. See, while most of your actions revolve around settling down the provinces so your armies can march beyond the borders and pacify all those external warlords who have been eyeing Rome like an overturned basket of berries and gold dust, it never quite settles into that rhythm of rote movement and pacification. And it’s all thanks to its roving barbarian armies.
Every so often, one of these suckers will appear beyond Rome’s borders. At first, they’re content to pootle around the empire’s edges, raising revolts wherever they go. This is a big enough problem on its own, especially once you have a couple barbarian kings insisting that tribute to Germania is superior to reciting Ave Caesar every morning. However, the real trouble starts once they’ve wrapped up the usual barbaric depredations and plant their greedy eyes on Rome itself — then your task transforms from cleanup crew to interdiction force.
Cutting off a barbarian army is one of the most satisfying things you can do in Tetrarchia, in part because it’s always a testy proposition. Combat involves dice, just as determining the latest site of outrage or where the next invader will hail from is determined by rolling, but here it serves to add a necessary dash of uncertainty to each battle. In gameplay terms, there are plenty of ways to ensure you’ll have the upper hand. Notably, a barbarian army draws strength from its trail of revolt markers, growing ever more menacing with every black token left in their wake. Similarly, emperors are tougher when backed by their own tokens. Not only does this mean that a carefully-prepared emperor stands a good chance of holding the pass against a rampaging horde, but it’s also possible to send another emperor to snip the barbarian supply lines, or better yet, flank the enemy to double the outcome of your roll. Just be wary that barbarian armies can also flank your troops, especially as multiple groups begin to close in on Rome.
Pulling off a maneuver that robs a barbarian army of its support and lets you casually mop them off the map always feels clever. Juggling such a victory while also suppressing the unrest in Africa, marching into and subduing Persia, and getting an emperor back home in time to defend Gallia from the latest army of unwashed ruffians feels brilliant.
The main downside to all of this is that there’s a slight absence of variety after a few plays. It never becomes dull, as the mixed-up appearance of uprisings and the wealth of various difficulty options makes each attempt at saving the Roman Empire feel new again — my particular favorite is to use only one fleet while affording myself plenty of imperial support tokens — but at times it seems as though the game could have benefited from something extra. The fact that every emperor behaves the same way doesn’t help ameliorate this slight deficiency. Diocletian isn’t important because he’s good at passing reforms that sweep unrest off the map; he’s important because he’s green and his turn is therefore before yellow and after blue.
Even so, that’s a small complaint in light of everything else Tetrarchia accomplishes. This is a fantastic solo game that captures the perils, possibilities, and mettle of the tetrarchs who fought to save Rome from the crisis of the third century. It’s tough without being unfair, random without feeling capricious. It’s also tiny. And everybody knows how I feel about great things that come in small packages.
Tetrarchia can be acquired at Nestorgames.