The Lonely Stoic
As the last of the Five Good Emperors, Marcus Aurelius was inclined to philosophy over military matters. So much so that he was given the totally unique nickname, “the philosopher.” But sadly for Marcus, his reign was quickly marked by trouble. When Roman soldiers brought home a nasty bout of plague from Parthia, it wasn’t long before Germanic and Sarmatian tribes took advantage of the weakened empire and begin their advance across the Danube and into Gaul. And no quantity of stoicism was going to solve that one.
Robert DeLeskie’s Wars of Marcus Aurelius covers a decade of brutal frontier fighting from 170 to 180 CE. And much like its source material, it’s full of hard decisions, infuriating reversals, and some slogging through the muck to get to the good stuff.
Right from the start, there’s no ambiguity about the nature of Marcus Aurelius’s campaign on the Danube. Waged against a single tribe, the conflict would be a blowout. The Romans would cobble together some forts, amass their legions, assign the very best generals — Marcus if he’s in a good mood, Maximianus otherwise — and perform the highly technical military maneuver known as a “bum-rush” straight into the heartland of the opposing tribe.
Instead, you’re facing three distinct tribes. The Marcomanni, Quadi, and Iazyges are each consigned to their own lane from north to south, but the pressure of their Rome-ward marauding soon taxes your limited manpower. Their movement is erratic, spooling out from their deck alongside sieges, bouts of measles, and other historical crises. One season the Danube will be quiet, allowing you to build forts and marshal your troops; other times, barbarian cavalry will push past your defenses with ease, a death in Marcus’s family will plunge him into a funk, and your constituents back home will grow mutinous because the Quadi have crossed onto the fairer side of the border.
It’s a familiar setup for any number of solo and cooperative games. Every turn provides some cards from the deck, while witnessing more threats spilling onto the map than you can handle all at once. But to this game’s credit, victory is more than just a question of holding on despite the odds. Rather, Marcus’s task is to contain the tribes’ advance, prepare a counteroffensive, and then — over many, many skirmishes and therefore many, many rolls of the dice — push them back into their homelands and crush them. Oh, and provide that lane with a meaty enough garrison to prevent the recently suppressed tribesmen from getting uppity all over again.
The centerpiece of this process is the game’s take on hand management, which is effective and workmanlike in equal measures. Cards can be used for either their historical event or to enact another action. That Galen card doesn’t merely cure a plague. It’s also a chance to build or upgrade some forts, fight a battle, improve your relations back home, shuffle legions between fronts, or suppress the latest barbarian advance. The same goes for everything else. Do you need Commodus to suppress a mutiny? Or to resettle some willing Sarmatians into new territory? Or perhaps employ barbarian informants to manipulate the deck? Or capitalize on the reputation of Rome to demoralize your foes? At any given time, these might be precisely what you need. Other times they’ll be crucial hole cards, best reserved for an opportune moment. Others still, they might be better spent to raise a fleet on the Danube to move your troops back and forth.
This system of trade-offs may be familiar, but that doesn’t subtract from its potency. Because you can only hold onto a single card each year, there’s a strong “use it or lose it” factor that will see you throwing out terrifically powerful cards in order to take small actions, just because their events weren’t particularly valuable at that exact moment. Or, more often, because while an event was wonderful and all, you really needed some extra forts to halt the threat of an Iazyges blitz in the east.
Even more deadly, the barbarians are a constant threat across each year’s three seasons, while Rome’s support gradually wanes as the weather worsens. The wealth of cards you drew in spring and summer will dwindle to almost nothing by winter. That, combined with your legions’ slackened performance in the snow, forces you to plan ahead, account for the possibility of a sudden advance along all three barbarian fronts, and be judicious with which cards you hold or burn.
When Wars of Marcus Aurelius is good, it’s very, very good. Not only will Marcus and his legions find themselves pressed on the Danube, but off-map conflicts also demand your attention. These are pleasant diversions the way some sunscreen in your eyes is a pleasant diversion from a beach vacation, forcing you to deploy legions you can’t spare and cards you can’t burn. And then, like everything else, they hinge on the roll of some dice, possibly wasting more men and resources before your generals can return home.
The dice themselves are fickle, and more hinges on their clattering than mere victory or defeat. Even a victory might result in diminished support back home, while resounding successes can leave your foes demoralized and easier to trounce in the future. There’s plenty you can do to front-load your chances — mostly by assigning the proper generals, ensuring your legions are topped off, and spending the right cards — but most skirmishes might go either way, and sure-thing conflicts are rare. It’s entirely possible to catapult to victory or soil your braccae based on lucky rolls alone. Those who break out in hives at the prospect of doing everything “right” and still leaving the battlefield in shambles need not apply.
Still, uncertainty comes with the territory, whether it’s the dice or the draw. Not that this should be viewed as a negative. This game’s most compelling moments arrive when you’re desperately recovering from a military disaster, shoring up a weakened front, or begging the folks back home that they shouldn’t simply assassinate you and see whether a new emperor would fare better.
The problem, though, is that Wars of Marcus Aurelius isn’t always at its best. It’s an issue of momentum. When the legions are pressing forward, it’s rare that you’ll falter. But once on the back foot, you tend to stay there.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the game’s central conundrum. When the tribes cross the Danube — or worse, raid all the way into Pannonia or Moesia — your friends in Rome begin to act like you treated the aqueduct as your personal bathroom. You’ll have to burn cards to restore their loyalty, build forts, fight battles… pretty much everything, just to keep your head above water.
But because your main goal and the principal threat to your survival is the same thing, it’s usually a solid bet to pour all of your strength into a single early push against one tribe. Probably the Marcomanni, since they aren’t far from sacking Rome and ending the game prematurely. Once that one tribe has been rolled up like a carpet, it’s still necessary to garrison their frontier lest they decide to raise another army. But this is fairly trivial — and action-cheap — compared to fighting a war on three fronts. Rather than prompting the other tribes to fight harder, the removal of a single rival generally means the campaign is yours for the taking. There might still be setbacks and military blunders and moments of concern, but the question is when you’ll earn your triumph rather than if.
It will surprise precisely nobody that the excellence of cooperative and solo games often hinges on the fine-tuning of their difficulty. Too hard and a game will cause burnout; too easy and it’ll appear solved.
Wars of Marcus Aurelius tips into the latter category, with the philosopher emperor’s struggle to secure the Danube often revolving more around a solid score than survival. Not that this ruins the game. Rather, it nails many of its most important details. Its hand management system is superbly realized, prompting tough choices at nearly every turn, and it knows the value of a timely disaster, siege, or scarcity of resources. It’s good enough that I returned to it a half-dozen times, each play briskly conducted and brimming with moments of decision and tension. Like the emperor it lionizes, Wars of Marcus Aurelius may possess the occasional flaw and lack of focus, but it’s equally accomplished.
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