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Review: Julius Caesar – Caesar, Pompey, and the Roman Civil War 49-45 BC

Posted by Denny Koch on August 19, 2010

Game: Julius Caesar – Caesar, Pompey, and the Roman Civil War 49-45 BC

Publisher: Columbia Games
Published in: 2010
Designers: Justin Thompson & Grant Dalgliesh
Era: Ancients; Roman Civil War 49-45 BC
Contents: 1 rulebook, 63 blocks, sticker sheet, 1 map (33 x 17 inches, printed on cardstock, not mounted), 27 strategy cards, 4 six-sided dice, Columbia Games Flyer
Average Playing Time: 2-3 hours

HFC Game-O-Meter: E


Our Rating (1-10):

Graphic Presentation: 8.5
Rules:
8.5
Playability:
10
Replay Value:
9

Overall Rating: 9

PRO Block game with elegant Fog of War and step loss mechanics; Fast gameplay and setup; maps and blocks are very appealing; highly balanced; Pompey and Caesar play very differently and have several strategical options…
CONTRA …map could be somewhat larger; important cities get crowded, some Event Card effects are very strong (you like it or you don’t)

Introduction

Gaming Table

Julius Caesar is the latest block game by Columbia Games, published in 2010. In contrast to its predecessor, Richard III – The Wars of the Roses, Julius Caesar utilizes a point-to-point movement via the ramified Roman road network. “All roads are leading to Rome” isn’t just a saying here…! 😉

The game map depicts the Mediterranean: Central and Southern Europe from (today’s) Spain to France to the Alps Region up to the Turkey and Israel, and Northern Africa (Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco). The strategic level game takes place in the Roman Civil War where Caesar crossed the Rubicon in 49 BC and marched towards Rome while Pompey opposed him with his legions. Accordingly, one player plays Caesar and the other Pompey. The objective of the game is to gain control of the most important cities in the Roman Empire.

The game is played in 5 rounds (each representing one year from 49-45 BC)  consisting of 5 turns each. Between each round, there is a winter turn where players check for immediate victory. If neither player wins during a winter turn, the victor is determined at the end of round 5 (year 45 BC).

The game mechanics is a card driven impulse system with some “divine intervention” event cards which can have a strong impact on the game.

All in all, Julius Caesar is a classic Columbia Games block game, its core mechanics are very similar to Richard III, Crusader Rex, or Hammer of the Scots, and you will feel at home almost instantly when you know one of the other games.

The game isn’t very complex and can be completed within 2-3 hours, so it’s a light and fast wargame with almost no setup time – it can be played in one session on an afternoon.

What is a block game?

Only the owner can see the blocks

A block game doesn’t use counters to depict units but wooden colored square blocks. One side of the block is left blank; this is the side which the opponent sees on the board. The block’s owner sees the printed side which contains all information about the unit and the block’s strength.

Since only the owner can see the block, the Fog of War created by a block game is much higher than in a regular wargame using counters. The block is only revealed in battle by tipping it forward. Step losses are taken by rotating the block counter-clockwise. After a battle is finished, players stand their remaining blocks upright again which means the only chance for reconnaissance is to keep in mind which blocks move where after a battle.

Graphic Presentation

The game box and initial preparations

The game is shipped in a slip case, containing blank wooden blocks, stickers, the map, rulebook and several dice. The quite dramatic box illustration shows Roman soldiers in battle and a Roman officer shouting orders.

Box contents

The 63 blocks are tan (Caesar), green (Pompey), and blue (Cleopatra) die-cut wooden blocks with rounded edges. Initially, they are all blank; all required unit information is printed on a sticker sheet. Before the first game, these stickers have to be applied to the blocks. You need a good visual judgement and a steady hand to make the result look good, but in the end, it’s not very difficult. The stickers have been pre-cut carefully and detaching them from the sticker sheet isn’t a problem at all.

The game components are of a good quality. The wooden blocks are as even as a natural product allows (you can still see growth rings and saw marks on some blocks), and the color is applied evenly. There is a surplus block for each side, so you can sort out the ugliest and most uneven block in advance.

The stickers depict Roman legions, archers, light infantry, cavalry, ballista, elephant, naval units, and leaders (Caesar, Pompey, Antonius, Scipio, Octavianus, Brutus). The stickers are not very colorful (mainly red and golden), but depict names, the legion’s number, their “home cities” where they can be drafted, and Roman-style symbols (Eagle standards, leaders’ busts, galleys…).

The map is not mounted but printed on strong cardboard. The quality of the cardboard is high and it can be placed on the table without need of a plexiglass cover or anything like that. The geomorphic map shows the Mediterranean region from Africa to Central Europe. In addition, there is a turn record track and some chrome, for example a very cool antique sea monster artwork in the Atlantic. It doesn’t add anything to the game as such but we like little details that add to the atmosphere.

Initial Preparations:

Green blocks (Pompey), tan blocks (Caesar)

Applying the stickers to the blocks is quite easy

Labeling the block doesn't take longer than punching counters

Done!

The game utilizes point-to-point movement between cities. There are major cities which provide victory points (Rome and Alexandria are worth two victory points, other cities, for example Carthago Nova, Utica, Athena, Syracuse, or Byzantium are worth 1 VP each). The cities are connected by a road network of major and minor roads which can be easily identified. Rivers don’t have any impact on gameplay but are added to the map nevertheless. The most important roads are marked with their historical names (Via Augusta, Via Appia…) and famous historical  battle sites are also included into the map as additional chrome, for example Alesia 702.

The map is very nicely done. Click to enlarge.

Unfortunately, despite the fact that – as far as we know – the map certainly is the largest map ever shipped in a Columbia Games game, it is sometimes still too small when many blocks are located in adjacent cities. This isn’t much of a problem, though – most of the time, both players know where the blocks are located and there were never any misunderstandings during our games, despite of the crowded space.  A larger map simply would have been more comfortable.

The 27 strategy cards are of a better quality than the cards included in Richard III (which tattered after long, intensive gaming sessions). This time, the cards are somewhat glossy with protective coating. The card artwork is nice; integrating the movement and levy values into a Roman standard, carried by a legion, is a very cool idea and we instantly liked that.

Overall, the map design and game artwork is pleasing and the entire game looks very appealing.

Rules

The current rules version is 1.01 (which was also shipped in our game box). Version 1.01 adds some important clarifications to the 1.0 rules and can be downloaded for free from the official Columbia Games website (PDF, 3 MB). The rulebook included in the box is black-and-white, while the PDF is colorful. If you prefer a colored rulebook, you can download and print the PDF version.

The rulebook is comprehensive. It would have been nice if a colored version was included in the box, though.

The rulebook consists of 8 pages of rules, together with some historical background information and examples. The rules are not complex and  are very comprehensive – so getting into the game is easy and you will have your first game running within no time. Once you learned the game, there is almost no need to refer to the rulebook again.

Nevertheless, Columbia Games should have considered adding a one-page-player aid sheet to the game, listing the most important aspects players have to keep in mind during play: the turn sequence, road movement costs and other limits, build limits, and the Winter turn sequence. This would help more unexperienced players who aren’t accustomed to keeping many rules in mind, and it would be very helpful in getting back into the game after a break. I guess such a player aid sheet will eventually appear on Boardgamegeek soon, as it did for Richard III – but the game is pricey, so including one in the game box isn’t too much to ask for.

The ABCD-combat system is the same combat system used in Richard III, but it still works great, despite the different era and setting. We were not bothered by the fact that the ABCD-combat system is somewhat generic and used in a game about medieval warfare as well as in a game depicting ancient warfare – the system works fine in both settings and remains a great invention. In Julius Caesar (as well as in Richard III), the attack, defense, and step loss mechanics of this system are very elegant in their simplicity.

Some of the other core rules are also taken from the predecessor, but the Caesar rulebook does a better job in clarifying some aspects which were problematic in the Richard III rules (for example when Reserves are revealed in combat and how to replace killed leaders). While R3 left some questions unanswered, there were only a few aspects in the Caesar rulebook which confused us.

The rules are written in a clear, comprehensive fashion and are well structured, so getting into Julius Caesar is somewhat easier than getting into Richard III (which isn’t very difficult either – which seems to be true for all CG games). There are some minor questions which aren’t answered in the rulebook, though, so we had to consult the Consimworld and Boardgamegeek forums in order to resolve them. Especially the “attack from adjacent” wording is somewhat ambiguously phrased and leads to misunderstandings because attacks are always done from the same locations, not from adjacent locations. The same is true for rule 6.2, unit movement along roads, where a simple “you move one road, you may attack, you move two roads and may not attack” would have been more helpful than the confusing “Blocks moving 2 cities may move freely through Friendly or Vacant cities, but must stop and fight a battle when they enter an Enemy or Contested city”. At first, we were confused by this seemingly contradiction to the “Blocks can only move 1 city / sea when they attack”, but then we figured out that the “Blocks moving 2 cites phrase” meant something like “Blocks wishing to move 2 cities (but unable to do so if they encounter enemies in the first location they enter) (…)”.

All other problems could be solved by using common sense, however, so besides from these minor complaints, the rules are written clearly and are generally understandable and perspicuous.

Playability

Initial setup

The game is fast-going and can be played on an afternoon (even two games, if it’s a long afternoon). Since the game combines a very fast gameplay, almost no setup time, easy game mechanics combined with strategical depth, the game is perfect for tournaments, short game meetings, conventions, or as a filler between more complex consims (which often take several weeks to complete). We are always looking for short but strategical challenging “lighter” wargames which can be played in one session, but many of the shorter games lack depth (for example Memoir ’44) and offer not much long-time motivation. The opposite is true for Julius Caesar – despite the fact that the game is learned and played within no time, the puzzle-like game mechanics, the Fog of War and the various strategic options are deep enough to offer a high replay value.

Returning to the game is highly rewarding because each time you play the game, you discover a new opening for Caesar or Pompey, or  generally a new approach to each side.

The playability is very good and after weeks of intensive gaming, we came to the conclusion that the game is extremely well-balanced – much more than Richard III. We won with Pompey as often as we won with Caesar and we even drove the game to its limits by experimenting with weird and unconventional strategies for both sides. Some openings proved to be a gambit (for example the offensive defense opening where Pompey grabs Rome in the first turn) which require luck and the right cards for being successful, others appeared to be very extreme in the beginning, but led to a decision in the final battle in round 5 nevertheless. In rare instances, we were close to a sudden death victory in the first rounds (once even in year 1), but in the end, it wasn’t clear who would become the victor until the very last turn. Games which were clear for one side in the beginning often shifted entirely and the other side won in the end. The game mechanics and the road movement allow for many strategies and you can choose different focal points each game (i.e. although some moves tend to be standard  in the first turns and will be done each game – if the opponent chooses to try out something new, it may make you think twice about your usual standard moves).

Julius Caesar certainly is one of the “easy to learn, hard to master” games with a surprising amount of strategical depth and options which don’t become obvious during the first games. It is definitely one of the games which becomes better and better the more often you actually play it.

The game is strategically challenging - blind "running & gunning" will be punished

The good playability is supported by the block system which is very elegant in its simplicity. All units are easy to identify and the Fog of War comes naturally to a block game without the need of  any workarounds or special markers (for example like the concealment counters in ASL). Despite the fact that the fog of war is almost too total (actually, Romans had intelligence about the rough size of their opponent’s armies by sending scouts, and armies were moving slowly, over many months, during the country and could be easily spotted by anyone), the Fog of War is a very cool element of block wargames since it adds so much to the game aspect . Only the owner can see the unit information and strength while the opponent stares at the blank sides trying to figure out which unit is where. This allows for nice bluffing and surprises which simply makes for a thrilling game.

Downtime doesn’t exist; players alternate in playing cards and both sides are involved in combat. Each player is dealt a hand of 6 strategy cards (one must be discarded), and each card allows for troop movement and also gives levy points (=recruiting steps), or is an Event card which allows a very specific action to take place (for example, move one group of blocks farther than the allowed 2 locations, or cause the defection of one block  (Roman legions occasionally changed sides during Civil War, even Caesar’s famous 13th) etc..)

The blocks have different values:

  • Strength values (Roman Number from I to a maximum of IV, but some blocks have only 2 or 3 numbers). The number which is currently on top of the block (=at the 12 o’clock position) is the current strength and shows how many dice a player may use during combat and how many steps a block has. If a block has to take step losses in combat, the block is turned counter-clockwise to the next lower number. This is now its current strength and it is eliminated when the last step is taken as a loss.
  • Combat Ratings (Letters ranging from A-D and numbers ranging from 1-4, for example “B2”):
  1. The letter shows when the block will “fire” in combat. “A” blocks go before “B” blocks. “B” blocks go before “C” blocks and “D” blocks go last. In addition, defending blocks go before attacking blocks which symbolizes the “defender bonus” (although so far we couldn’t quite explain why defenders in open battle in plain battlefields should have this bonus. Plain battlefields were typical for battles in the Roman Civil War where two legions clashed; they were not surprised as they were when fighting the Gauls or Germans in the Teutoburg Forest and they were rarely besieging castles as in medieval times. A designer’s note about what was calculated into this abstraction model would have been very helpful and a nice addition). First, defending “A” blocks fire and step losses are applied immediately to the strongest enemy blocks. Then, all surviving attacking “A” blocks fire and so on. Ballista fire as “B” blocks when defending, but as “D” blocks when attacking (which symbolizes the better emplacement in defensive positions). The letter shows the “attack speed” of a unit; cavalry is faster than an entire legion, and leaders (accompanied  by personal troops) or archers with their “A” value are very mobile and flexible.
  2. The number behind the letter is the “combat value” on which a unit scores a hit. Units with a 1 score a hit when they roll a “1”. Units with a higher number score hits on this number and lower. Thus, a block with a low letter and a high number and many steps is very dangerous in battle because it fires first, rolls many dice and scores hits on several results.

The game is played over 5 rounds of 5 turns each. The Sequence of Play consists of:

1. Card Phase.

Both players choose one of their cards in hand and place it face down on the table. Both cards are then revealed simultaneously. Cards have a Move value (Roman number in a banner) and Levies (number of circles on the banner). Movement ranges from I – IV and Levies from 1-3 steps. The player with the higher Move number is Player 1 this turn (=this card).

If one player played an Event card, this player always goes first. If both players played an event card, the effects are cancelled and the turn is skipped. The cards are discarded without effect.

2. Command Phase

In the command phase, players move their blocks (or fulfill the action of their Event card).

The first player can choose as many locations as he has Movement Points available on his cards. For each Movement point, he can move all blocks in one location (either together or separately). Blocks can move one location and attack (=when moving into an enemy location) or two blocks and not attack (=moving into an empty or friendly city). Major and minor roads define the limit of how many blocks may use them in a given turn. 4 blocks can move along a major road, 2 blocks along a minor road. This is especially important for conducting attacks; it’s illegal to move 3 blocks along a minor road into an enemy location, so players can only choose 2 blocks and have to move their other blocks along a different road (provided it exists). Blocks which don’t arrive together on one road can’t attack together; only one road is the “main attacking force”, all blocks which arrive over different roads are “reserves” which enter battle in combat round 2. This requires careful planning in advance.

Land units starting in ports can use amphibious movement for the cost of 1 MP per block, provided the sea they have to cross is friendly (=with a friendly Navis (=galley block)) in the sea. There is no limit to the length of amphibious movement, units can cross various seas or even the entire Mediterranean, as long as all seas they cross are friendly to them.

Players can also move their ships to port or from port to sea. Navis can move one sea or move to or from a port into the corresponding sea zone and attack or two seas (or sea / port or port /sea combinations) and not attack.

After all his movement is finished, the first player levies. He can now add as many steps as the current card allows to existing blocks on the map (provided, the blocks are in friendly locations and not stacked together with enemy units), or to ships in friendly ports. He can also recruit blocks on strength 1 (and spend remaining levy steps on it immediately to upgrade the block). Blocks can only be recruited in friendly cities and the strongest blocks and all legions can only be built-in certain named locations – provided, this location is friendly, thus requiring a “garrison”. Empty cities immediately lose their “friendly” status and become “vacant”, as soon as there are no blocks left within. So no blocks can “spawn” there once the city is vacated.

Locations with Caesar and Pompey units are “contested” and battles must be fought there once the Command Phase is over.

After Player 1 has finished their Movement and Levy, Player 2 moves and levies blocks. They can move blocks as reinforcements into contested locations (these will enter combat as reserves in combat round 2), or they can move surplus units out of contested locations, or even attack other locations themselves in addition to the regular movement options.

3. Battle Phase

After both players finished their Movement and Levy, battles must be fought in all contested locations. The first player determines which battle is fought first.

In battle, blocks are revealed by tipping them over

Combat is the only time when blocks are revealed. All blocks participating in combat (not reserves) are tipped over. “A” blocks are then paired with opposing “A” blocks,”B” blocks with “B” blocks, and so on. Then, the defender rolls his “A” blocks and the attacker takes any step losses inflicted in this roll. Afterwards, the attacker rolls his remaining “A” blocks and then combat commences to the “B”, “C”, and “D” blocks (if any). In round 1, no retreats are allowed.

In round 2, reserves (if any) enter play and are tipped over and matched with the other blocks. A block can choose to retreat when it’s its turn to attack. Instead of rolling dice, the block owner can choose to retreat the block to an adjacent location, following certain retreat rules regarding roads and locations. Since a block can only retreat when it would be eligible to fire, “pursuit fire” is handled quite naturally by the game system. “C” blocks have to endure the fire of “A” and “B” blocks before they are allowed to retreat. “A” blocks, on the other hand, have a good chance of escaping the battle unharmed (provided they survived round 1) because they can flee before any “B” or “C” blocks have the chance to fire on them. Most of the leaders (except for Pompey who is represented by a “B” block) are “A” blocks while all legions are “C” blocks.

Step losses must be taken from the strongest blocks first, so there isn’t much of a choice of whom to kill first – very strong, expensive and powerful blocks can’t be spared by choosing cheap, weak blocks as cannon fodder. This is a bloody but very smooth combat system. It worked great in Richard III, and it works great in Caesar – the ABCD system is really cool and could be applied to almost any imaginable scenario (I would love to see a A Game of Thrones block game, hint hint ;)).

Destroyed units are placed in the block pool face down and cannot be built again in the current round. They can be levied normally the following year. Killed leaders are given to the opponent as a trophy; they cannot be rebuilt and are worth 1 VP each.

In round 4, attackers must retreat. Most combats won’t last 4 rounds, but when a combat reaches the 4th round and the attacker didn’t manage to destroy or banish the enemy troops by the end of round 3, he didn’t capture the city and must retreat (after enduring possible pursuit fire, if his surviving units are ‘slow’  letter blocks).

4. Winter

Once all 5 cards are played, the round (year) ends with a winter phase. In Winter, Cleopatra goes home to Alexandria. Cleopatra is a blue block which can (and will) change sides during game. She belongs to whoever controls Alexandria and if beaten in combat, she isn’t killed but switches sides and fights for the opponent on strength 1 immediately.

Wrong planning and surprising events can lead to serious supply problems in winter...

Then, all Navis currently at sea return to friendly ports in the same sea zone. If there are no friendly ports, the Navi unit is disbanded and must be re-built next turn.

Winter Supply is checked. Each city can supply three blocks during winter; city with victory points can supply 3  blocks plus their number of VPs, so 5 blocks can be in Rome or Alexandria, and 4 blocks in Athens during winter. Surplus blocks must be disbanded to the levy pool, but can be rebuilt in the following round.

Players then check for victory. Some locations are worth 1 or 2 victory points; the locations must be friendly (=contain at least 1 block) to count for victory. Killed leaders are also worth 1 VP each. Thus players count their current number of VPs and if a player has 10 or more points, he wins the game immediately. Otherwise, the game continues with the next round and the next card phase, until 5 rounds are played i.e. 5 years have passed.

After the last round in 45 BC, players again count their VPs. Now, the player with the higher number wins the game and to have 10 VPs isn’t required anymore. In case of ties, the player holding Rome wins. If neither player controls Rome and they have an equal amount of VPs, the game is a draw.

The Sequence isn’t very difficult and there are no exceptions to the core rules or special rules which players have to keep in mind. Nevertheless, the combination of different units (strength, letters and numbers) and the possibilities of maneuvering and card playing provide for an astounding amount of strategical depth and variation.

The game is very balanced, both sides play very differently, so the overall playability is excellent.

The Event cards have a strong impact on the game

Some players dislike the 7 Event cards (especially the very strong Vulcan and Jupiter cards), but this is a matter of taste. At first, we thought them to be too strong and my opponent was even frustrated when I played 3 Jupiter cards in 3 rounds (cards are dealt randomly but, well, Jupiter was with me…) and in the end he lost Rome because of Jupiter (the God allowed me to take control over all three enemy blocks which were defending Rome).

Vulcan is equally dangerous because he lets the player choose a city. All blocks in this city lose a step, which is a perfect preparation for an attack.

Planning in advance is very important in the game, building your steps by using levy points is slow and expensive, and when Vulcan reduces them to crumble after three turns of preparation, it can be quite frustrating. It could even completely destroy your strategy and careful planning this round, when all your work and your sacrifices were in vain. The other card effects are not so strong, but can be important  and even devastating in the right situation: Mercury allows for more movement, with Pluto more blocks can moved along a street, Mars provides one surprise attack where attackers shoot before defenders and so on.

The fact that event cards cancel each other if they are played simultaneously adds another strategic option to the game; you don’t always play event cards to get their cool effects (sometimes, you cannot use their effects at all because it doesn’t help in your specific situation), but you can use them if you suspect your opponent is preparing a massive strike at game end, probably with the support of an event card, and keep your own card on your hand just to cancel the effect and send him into winter unprepared, probably over-stacked and without a major victory.

Surely, these cards are a matter of taste because they strengthen the luck aspect of the game and can even screw any strategy. If you want to limit yourself strictly to your own decisions and strategies without any surprises, the cards will surely hurt you. On the other hand, they provide nice chrome because they are named after Roman gods, and they spice the gameplay with nasty effects and surprises. To some players, this may be gamey and counter-strategical (but playing these cards to their best effect also requires a good strategy or they are wasted), but in the end, there were always nasty surprises in the Roman Civil war, just remember when Pompey arrived in Egypt and was beheaded instead of greeted…

After several playing sessions, we changed our mind and decided that we actually liked the cards and enjoyed playing them – seeing the opponent’s crushed face when one of their most important blocks switched sides in the crucial battle is priceless.

Replay Value

There are two different setup variants; the fixed historical setup and an optional deployment which follows the historical setup but where blocks can be swapped.

The coastline can get very crowded

So far, we felt no need to play with the optional deployment; we were content with the various options and strategies the historical setup offers. You can play both sides in many different ways. Overly aggressive, conservative, defensive, very mobile, surprising… strategies can result in much movement or in a stalemate where one side is condemned to garrisoning. Both sides can put their opponent under pressure and both sides can dictate the course of the game.

There are much more first turn opening moves than in Richard III where the first turn is actually limited to answering the question “does York play the South First or North First variant”. In Caesar, both sides can choose between very different openings (they also strongly depend on your first card hand). We came to the impression that the game offers more variety than Richard III in terms of experimental strategies.

We played countless games, and no two games turned out the same. We saw very different strategies, in some games the East was the focus of the game, in other games, most of the action was centered around the West. We saw decisive battles and very surprising events (once Caesar managed to distract Pompey in Spain and then surprised him unprepared in Alexandria conquering the city – a move the Pompey player  didn’t see coming at all). There are many possibilities in this game, and it takes some time and many games until you begin to see the depth of the game and the options it offers.

For the first few games, you are declined to think that Pompey always has to fall back, probably to Sicily, and remain there for the rest of his life, until you learn the nice secrets of using your fleets or roads to your advantage.

The Replay Value is high because there’s a lot to discover and the strategic variety is motivating. It’s very tempting to restart all over again right after a game is finished, just to refine your strategy or explore a new option you just discovered. This is supported by the fast gameplay and short playing time.

Creativity

Battle for Alexandria: Caesar & Cleopatra vs. Pompey

Well, the game certainly doesn’t re-invent the wheel. The game is a classic Columbia Games block game and there are many obvious parallels to the gameplay of their other games, for example Richard III – beginning with the identical ABCD combat system and the card driven turn sequence. The game works fine, this is out of question, and as was mentioned before, the combat system is great in itself and will work in almost every setting.

Nevertheless, some additions to the core mechanics which are typical for the Ancients and Rome would have been cool. Yes, the cards are named after Roman gods, but the effects don’t differ much from cards in other games. The units are specific (legions, elephants, ballista), but some more Rome specific features wouldn’t have hurt.

For example, often Cleopatra was insignificant to gameplay, she wasn’t much of a threat or much help, she was good enough to control Alexandria but we were seldom tempted to do something interesting with her. An Egypt army or fleet  block with more impact or special abilities would have been interesting. The same is true for naval transport – we  miss some kind of amphibious assault which would add a new layer of strategic options and a new threat for the players to deal with.

The game itself is very cool and we are fans of the ABCD combat system, but we can’t give a high creativity rating here. There are too many parallels to the other CG block games; some courage in adding surprising new mechanics or new aspects which are more Roman specific and which wouldn’t work in other (block) games would have been even cooler.

If you are looking for a traditional, classic CG block game and expect a similar mechanic as in the other games, you certainly won’t be disappointed – you can blind-buy this game as you will certainly enjoy it.

Simulation Value

Not an accurate simulation, but a solid wargame about Caesar vs. Pompey

Julius Caesar depicts the years from 49 to 45 BC when Caesar opposed Pompey and crossed the Rubicon with his 13th legion to march against Rome. The level is quite abstract; a block represents a legion or an auxiliary troop of archers or cavalry or ballista. The speed and power of each block is calculated and translated into a letter-number-rating, which works fine in combat and is a good representation of the unit’s specific speed and strength. Authentic events (like the defection of units to the other side) are integrated via cards, but they are not predictable and depend on your card hand (while in Richard, you could actively trying to “convince” blocks to switch sides using a certain block  for that attempt by forfeiting its attack roll).

Historical aspects, important leaders, legions, and other means of warfare are certainly represented in the game, as well as the most important cities of the Roman Empire during this period. Historical detail is provided to a certain amount, but in the end, the game isn’t a consim (and doesn’t want to be one!) – it sacrifices accuracy and detail for the sake of speeding up gameplay and simplicity. This is a design decision and so the game doesn’t want to portray Roman warfare during the Civil War in the most detailed fashion and as accurately as possible. Abstractions and simplifications lower the simulation value significantly – but deliberately so.

If you are searching for an accurate simulation of military operations in Ancient Rome, you should check out consims like Imperium Romanum II, but you certainly won’t find it here.

Solitaire Playability

Next to none. The most important aspect of a block game is the Fog of War – and the fact that you don’t know your opponent’s blocks (you think you know and you try to remember which block was where, but in the end, you will be surprised in the next battle nevertheless…). Playing both sides and knowing all blocks isn’t much fun  and quite pointless. Not recommended.

Can be compared to…

…other block games by Columbia Games. The ABCD combat system is identical to the combat system used in Richard III and other CG block games, all of these games use cards and similar core mechanics, some have area movement, some have point to point movement, but in the end, you will feel at home instantly if you know one of the other games, for example Hammer of the Scots or Crusader Rex. The block games appear to belong to a “game system” which can be easily adapted and modified to fit to a certain era and theatre, so you will find many parallels between all these games.

Julius Caesar cannot be compared to any hex’n counter consims since the game mechanics are very different (no ZOC, much more Fog of War, no hex-grid-movement, no combat odds calculations, no weather etc.).

Conquest of the Empire is another “light” wargame which depicts the Roman Civil War with miniatures and area movement, but is even more abstracted because it uses anonymous “Caesars” and their armies. Nevertheless, the games have certain similarities, although naval combat  in CotE is somewhat more elaborated.

Denny Koch’s résumé

For me, Julius Caesar wasn’t exactly love at first sight because in the beginning, I saw only the similarities with other CG block games and not the differences. I was even astonished that the game uses the same combat system as Richard III, but after a while, I discovered the differences and the distinctiveness of the game – and began to like them.

At first, I thought that the point to point movement system would offer less flexibility and maneuverability than area movement, but after a while I recognized the trickiness of the major and minor roads. The Event cards appeared somewhat strong in the beginning, but since I wasn’t on the receiving end when I had 3  Jupiter cards in a row, supplemented by several Vulcan cards, I enjoyed their effects much more than my opponent. 😛

After several games with switching sides and several experiments with different strategies, it became quite clear that Julius Caesar offers strategic depth and a multi-variant gameplay. At the same time, the game proved to be extremely well-balanced and both sides have the chance to win the game (often in the last battle in the final turn), and to be the one who puts the opponent under pressure.

I like playing Caesar and Pompey, their strategical approaches are very different but interesting and challenging

Both players can play very offensively, even Pompey who isn’t condemned to running and hiding. This came as a surprise because in the beginning, I was sure that Pompey was the defender and Caesar was the attacker. Caesar is under pressure from the beginning, that is true, and Pompey can score an early turn 1 victory by rushing all cities in the East while slowing Caesar down in the West. The longer I played the game, the more important aspects I discovered, for example the importance of sea control which was something we neglected during our first games. We discovered the importance of Egypt and of using major and minor roads for defensive purposes… and much more.

The game is short but nevertheless challenging. The luck factor is higher than in the average wargame and certainly higher than in any consim, just because of your card hand and of the Event cards. But they add some spice and nasty surprises to the game, and while some players may consider them game-breakers, we changed our opinion and actually began to like them and to enjoy playing them right into the face of our opponent, uttering some evil Roman words. The game isn’t a consim, after all, not even a simulation or accurate representation of Roman warfare; it is a light wargame which wants to entertain and which wants to keep things simple and smooth. So it is allowed to add luck and surprises to strategy and planning.

The overall production quality is high, I really like the geomorphic map artwork with all the historical chrome (historical battle sites, road names, sea monster), even if a larger map would have been nice. The cards are somewhat more complex than the cards in Richard III, so playing them in the right order requires planning in advance and good timing. Running and gunning leads to an early defeat in the game, despite the fact that the game is neither difficult nor complex – thinking, planning, and strategizing is vital for both players surviving the years to 45 BC!

I recommend the game to wargamers in general – especially if you are a fan of CG block games or games dealing with Ancient Rome. If you are a consim player and looking for a fast and smooth filler game between longer consims, you could have a look, too. You will get strategic depth with a very short setup and playing time. Maneuver and strategic options appear to be limited at first glance, but appearances are deceiving. No two of our games were alike and our map looked very differently each time we played.

If you own other block games by Columbia Games, you will get into the game without any difficulties because the game is very similar to its predecessors. Nevertheless, it improves some things from the predecessors and the rules are clearer and more comprehensive.

Special tip: Supplementing the game with HBO’s Rome DVD box is perfect because the TV series deals exactly with the same topic as the game – Caesar, crossing the Rubicon with his 13th Legion, and Pompey’s retreat and later counter-attack. We enjoyed playing the game all afternoon and watching Rome on TV in the evening, taunting our opponent and calling him “Caesar” or “Pompey” or hinting him at strategies shown in the TV show which should be tried out next day.

I really enjoyed playing both sides in “Julius Caesar” during our excessive gaming sessions, and the game will certainly be a recurring visitor on our gaming table.

Andreas Ludwig’s résumé

As was said in our Richard III review, we never played any block/CG games before so Julius Caesar is our second game in this specific wargame genre. When it hit the table I was really curious how the design would match the theme and how things would be handled in contrast to what I knew from my R3 experiences. Well, to say I was disappointed would be a gross understatement – what I found myself playing actually seemed to be Richard III on a different map using different stickers on the blocks. I couldn’t really believe it.

Ok, we played on and then I realized the difference: Event Cards… not just a plague card as in R3, but several cards giving my opponent divine powers to destroy any strategy on my side. You see, I planned for several turns and tried to make sure that I had enough levy points to get some units able to do some serious punch in an important attack and… Vulcan was played, taking away the precious steps I had built before. After that, an attack took away the rest and left me with a step here and a step there. Or the strange feeling in the gut when I had 3 units in Rome and Denny got lucky with the Jupiter card three times in a row while I didn’t have enough units in the area to replace the losses each year… I just thought WTH? – all three blocks switched sides and I couldn’t do anything about it. Hoping myself for that nasty card in the following year to at least make a block switching back to me and… she played it again against me! I wasn’t very happy with these cards, the text on them seemed to give my opponent control over nature and allowed her to screw my plans entirely despite how good my strategy had been in the turns before – I was prepared to play a wargame, not a fantasy style game where the players use god powers to crush your troops from nowhere.

So, reading this far I suppose you think I’m just warming up for a serious slam of the game and indeed the first two games I had such a review in mind. Somehow I changed my approach, however, and told myself that there must be a way to deal with these aspects of the game so that at least I could come up with a way to win even if these cards are played on me, accepting the game for what it was and how it was designed and not expecting a different game. Well and that opened the path for me to really enjoy Julius Caesar!

Denny clearing Rome with Jupiter cards... two Caesar units in Napoli defected and the last will follow soon....

This is not a simulation of Roman warfare in general or of the Roman Civil war in particular. Simulation is not the focus, not even the intention of the game, it’s far from a simulation and therefore not a consim in the strict sense. It’s a “light wargame” and that’s something one has to accept to enjoy it. If you want to play Imperium Romanum II with blocks, this is not the game for you. If you want a game that allows quick setup and smooth gameplay while giving both players many ways to play their side, and their opponent some nasty ways to interfere with your plans, give it a shot.

This is what the game is about, no more no less, but – and that’s the point for me when reviewing a game – it works! And it works wonderfully when you give yourself some time to find out what each side can actually do. Since at first one only sees the strong card effects and not the possibilities the players do have, it’s easy to think this is a shallow game based on randomness – which it isn’t!

So, let’s see what I like and don’t like:

As I said, the game sets up pretty quick, after a few games you almost don’t need to look into the rulebook for the setup anymore since you know which blocks start where. Most of them are in the levy pool anyway, so sit down, unfold the map, place your blocks – and you are ready to go. The map looks great, it is of good quality (as usual not mounted, but rather strong cardboard) and it even lies flat without any plexi on it because the blocks will help here with their weight. But it is definitely too small! It is playable yes, but a bigger map would improve gameplay to a great extent in my opinion. I don’t like crowded maps, I don’t like to have the cities completely covered by units so that you actually can’t see who is standing where constantly moving blocks to get an overview. Since you start and end in cities while moving along roads you need to give the blocks some space to actually be located in a certain city. We often had blocks in one city covering the adjacent city as well because the map is not giving enough room. CG games are not cheap and so a ‘playable’ map in the most basic sense isn’t enough, so please CG: make the map a bit bigger next time you use such a point-to-point system. Either that or… make the blocks smaller.

Speaking of the wooden blocks, they are also of the usual good quality, but as in R3 there’s also some wear and tear when the blocks rub against each other since all come together in one bag. Not that much of a problem, just to let you know that you might have to clean a block here and there with sandpaper before applying the stickers. I like the colours, they look good on the map and they fit to the artwork of the stickers…which are also of very good quality. The print is clear and even and you can easily detach them from their sheet. So regarding the components, good stuff here.

The sticker sheet

Rules are clear for the most part, some strange wordings and a few cases where the rules are actually open to different interpretations were explained in the clarifications in the meantime. What I would like to have is a colored rules version included in the box,  though. We mentioned that you can download the pdf version of the rulebook (which at least has the images of the map, blocks and cards in color), but the rules in the box are just a thin black and white paper thingy that looks more like a copy you made in a copy shop yourself. I mean come on, it doesn’t need to be some shiny glossy expensive rulebook as we know it from Fantasy Flight Games, but some colors would definitely improve the overall appeal of CG games. A colored version does exist, after all, why not include it into the box in the first place?

But it’s the same as with video games – while graphics are important and nice to have, it’s the gameplay that matters. And here – despite my initial shock mentioned above – the game truly shines.

Compared with Richard III, the game allows for more strategies simply because of the point-to-point movement system, which means you have more roads here for your blocks to follow than R3 has borders to cross and generally you can use them all. However, in our games it came down to using only several of them since some minor roads at the edge of the map were never used by us and I don’t see when it would be helpful to use them. But the possibility and maneuvering room for your blocks is there, which is a good thing.

Playing as Pompey or Caesar will give you a complete different game experience, based on  the differences of their units, their starting positions and the imbalance of their initial victory points. Pompey has 7 out of 10 VPs from start and can either just hold them to win or trying to grab three more to end the year with an immediate 10 VP win at the end of a year. Depending on how the Pompey player wants to play his game the Caesar player has to react. Caesar starts with only 1 VP and has to get some more or else is possibly defeated by an aggressive Pompey player in the first turn(s).

We had such a game where Denny made good use of her navis and took Athens, Byzantium, and Ephesus with her Pompey forces  in year 1 – so she had 10 VPs and I would even lose when taking Rome. I had to take away points/cities from her or else would be defeated in the very first turn! That was some nasty pressure right from start and smacked of unbalanced sides. So it was the battle of Tarraco where I as Caesar fought for victory or defeat in turn one – and I brought it off! The 10 point victory was of course always a threat for me  in this game because Pompey started so strong, but it was a thrilling game to the very last turn and I really enjoyed making hard decisions when everything was on the edge of defeat. What to say, I actually turned it completely around with a victory of 9 points on my side after the end of year 5.

There were quite a few games that swayed to and fro like this and whatever one may read in forums where people ask how to win with Caesar, talking about imbalance, Pompey always winning etc. – for me CGs Julius Caesar is one of the most balanced games out there – period! Players become aware of this important aspect, combined with the manifold strategic possibilities, with each game played (you need  really some time to see all the possibilities), and this makes the game a real winner.

We tried many different openings/counter moves and we saw that the game was open to these possibilities rather than ‘scripting’ certain opening moves and restricting the players in what they can do. And I’m still confident that there’s a way to make a ‘Pompey-doesn’t-run-away-but-takes-back-Rome-in-turn-one’ move work (provided the Gods give him both the Mercury and the precious IV Command card in turn one), even if the designer says that such a move will get Pompey crushed. We’ll see 😉

Ok, now a few thoughts on the concept and the mechanics, but let me emphasize it’s not meant as a criticism of the game because it would be unfair to judge a game on aspects that are not intended to be covered by the underlying design. But of course JC is a wargame and historical accuracy is important for wargamers, so let me get briefly back to this point here, because there are some problems when you look at the game that way. And it may have more to do with the general way CG is using their excellent basic game engine than with this game in particular. Here’s what I mean.

All battles in Julius Caesar are battles in/around cities although such battles, sieges, were quite rare in the time the game portrays. That roads do limit the movement of troops is accurate and it is a simple way to deal with supply in an abstract way. That the defender gets a major boost because they always fire first is hard to accept as a design concept, though, when you want to portray Roman warfare. Usually both sides fought on plains, they needed room to prepare and even took days and weeks to get the troops into formation before actually starting to fight. There’s almost no reason to give the defender any form of boost when opponents are actually facing each other on a plain – there seldom was an attacker and a defender in the classical sense.

It was common in Roman battles that infantry of both sides started to approach one another almost simultaneously, and although we know about one side waiting strategically before starting to march against the opponent, that was rare and wholly dependent on the situation – for example one side actually having an advantage because their formations and their camp were on a hill and the attacker had to clear this hurdle while attacking – so waiting for them would mean the defender was still fresh while the attacker was exhausted from the climb. So a defender may have an advantage in a city or in a very specific situation, but again sieges were not the usual way of fighting, which is the impression we get from the game however.  No matter how you look at it – this “defender goes first” concept simply doesn’t feel quite right from a simulative point of view.

A fierce opponent: the fast and strong Caesar block

Leaders are strong units, that’s out of question, and their rating as an “A” block (e.g. Caesar) or “B” block (Pompey) together with high hit numbers make them an important part of the battles because they are fast and strong and usually able to retreat before the other side can kill them. In one of my games, I actually took Alexandria with Caesar and a Navi unit, it was a bit of a gamble, but Caesar had the chance to bring it off, and so he did. What we know from Roman warfare though, especially when we look at the way Caesar led his legions, is the importance of morale. Leaders were giving an example and actually encouraging their men to outstanding performances. When failing to do so, they were causing disasters – which is something I miss in JC. The leaders are just good, strong, fast blocks and that’s it. They are worth 1 VP when killed so using them is dangerous and it may even cost you the game when things go wrong for you. In my opinion, the leaders in JC lack a bit of ‘leadership’.

That Navis control a whole sea is an abstraction I can live with, but that Navis always have to fight each other when being in the same sea zone, is not something I find convincing. I think, making battles between ships optional, not mandatory, when in the same sea would be a better representation of the vastness of the Mediterranean. This could even add more options because of the possibility to get more navis together before actually attacking an enemy fleet. And I really miss the opportunity of using Navis for bringing troops ashore and conducting amphibious assaults (like in Conquest of the Empire), I also don’t see the point of not having it in the game – it wouldn’t change the complexity of the game much, despite adding even more strategic options, and it would bring in something that played a role in the warfare the game portrays.

The event cards can have a strong impact on the game and – as I had to realize many times myself – can even screw your well-considered plans entirely. What one should not do is staying too close to the wordings of the card texts, when trying to imagine what each card may symbolize. The Vulcan card is saying that a volcanic eruption is taking place that destroys one step of each block  in a certain location. Of course the way the card text is worded, the player playing this card is directing the volcanic eruption. Playing it on a location where it is unlikely or even impossible to have such an eruption in real life, or playing it more than once against the same location, or sticking too close to the imagination that it is actually the Roman God Vulcan etc.. – all this gives a strange impression in a historical wargame. So I simply interpreted the events in more mundane terms, say the Vulcan card is actually something that happens when my enemy is preparing an attack (weakening my troops by making some of them desert, me not having enough money to pay them so they leave, a bad foraging situation etc..), or Jupiter is political influence (legions did switch sides in the Civil War, so that’s something which is indeed accurate) that may interfere with my plans more than once. This ‘divine’ nature of the events is for me just a nice atmospheric touch like that sea dragon on the map. These event cards are not all that strong and in my opinion, mainly Vulcan and Jupiter have the most dangerous influence on the receiving player – but a good strategy shouldn’t be based on one option alone, and it is possible to win even if your opponent plays these cards all the time.

HFC approved and recommended!

Again, this review is about Julius Caesar as we had it on our table, it is about the game as it is designed  and not about what could have been done differently. Things can always be done differently, can often even made better, but that is always a subjective impression and so what I miss in the game might not be something that concerns another player at all.

Based on the game as is, Julius Caesar is a great game, has a deep gameplay, looks good and plays quick and smooth in any way. I will always enjoy playing it and recommend it to everyone with even a bit of interest in the overall topic and looking for something able to give both – grognards and new players alike – a really good time and 2 hours of interesting decisions with many games decided in the very last turn, keeping both players on the edge of their seat. I know that this is the first game done by Justin Thompson and I look forward to more games by him because JC gave me so many hours of fun and tension alike!

But as a more general comment I would like to see the basic CG ABCD ‘engine’ used in even more innovative ways in the future. Depending on how familiar you are with games from Columbia Games, you probably don’t give each game the kudos it deserves as a stand-alone design. We knew Richard III before we tried Julius Caesar and as I said, my initial (later revised) impression was that the latter is just a plain copy of the former. It would have been the same the other way round if JC would have been our first block wargame.

If that happens too often, players might not have the motivation to actually look deeper and see what the game on the table that looks so strikingly familiar to the ones played before, really has to offer. I’m glad that we did look deeper and we of course see the small but important nuances that make Julius Caesar a great game on its own even, if it uses the same engine as the other CG games. This game engine is working perfectly on so many levels that I hope CG has the courage to explore what it can do beyond what it has been done in such a satisfying way all these years since Hammer of the Scots. If you don’t go forward, you go backwards and these games are simply too good to see that happen.

Or in the words of Cicero:

These observations are intended as guidance for the future – since it is the duty of a friend to offer advance warning against things that can still be avoided. (Cicero, Philippics, I)

And now go and buy this damn fine game! 🙂

Our Rating (1-10):

Graphic Presentation: 8.5
Rules:
8.5
Playability:
10
Replay Value:
9

Overall Rating: 9

9 Responses to “Review: Julius Caesar – Caesar, Pompey, and the Roman Civil War 49-45 BC”

  1. AndorM said

    Interesting, detailed and concise review. Thank you!

  2. Steve Miller said

    Excellent review! I have been playing wargames since the 1960’s and I don’t believe I have seen a better job done on a review, even during the era of professionally produced game mags. Anyway, you sold me: I bought the game!

    I have a thought for you on the value of chance in a game. I think that in addition to the “replay-ability” aspect, there is a psychological dimension. In games like go and chess the more skilled player nearly always wins and the loser may feel a loss of self-esteem. With a certain amount of luck, a somewhat less skilled player has a decent chance of winning. And, the loser is comforted by the reflection that the outcome could have been different if the cards had gone his way. This may seem trivial, but I have noticed that people are reluctant to play games that make them feel badly about themselves.

    Incidently, I recently played a cooperative game that you might like: The Captain Is Dead.

  3. hipshotau said

    well done. Clear, concise, detailed. Very…. German! 🙂 I like this blog a lot. I need to add you guys to mine.

  4. Very nice Review! Can you make it to PrezCon in Feb? Go to this site to see what we have to offer. http://www.prezcon.com

    We will be hosting a JC Tournament and expect well over 40 players!

    Thanks Agian for a excellent review!

    Justin Thompson

    • Thanks Justin for your appreciation, you just got what you deserved…an excellent review about an excellent game 😉
      Nope we won’t make it to PrezCon. As you might have noticed we are Germans so the Con is not just round the corner. Anyway, we wish you a good tourney and lots of fun with the games and all the fellow gamers! 🙂

  5. Jack Mitchell said

    Very informative review. Thanks!

  6. Thanks for the excellent and thorough review!

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