Monday, May 3, 2021

Review: Gangs of Rome- Warbanner/Footsore Miniatures


I picked up the Gangs of Rome PDF during a Black Friday sale at Footsore Miniatures.  I didn't download the PDF until January of 2021, and then I did not get a chance to read and absorb them before now.  Therefore, they have been sitting in my "inbox" for a while now.  

I have to admit, the concept for this game intrigued me greatly.  A "historical" gang fight game set in the Eternal City in the days of the Senate?  Intriguing.  I have always had a soft spot for gladiators and the like.  I knew that gladiators  were often hired out as street thugs and toughs for the favor of their patron.  I had been doing a lot of research on Ancient Rome for Wars of the Republic and The Games: Blood and Spectacles.   The period of the Gracchi brothers and the cold war between the Optimates and the Populares, and even earlier the Plebians vs the Patricians and the political infighting was a source of much interest.  A low-level game to help play out such political turmoil using the ideas of the Roman patronage system and shadow power seemed very intriguing to me! 

In addition, the game promised spectacle!  Rome was the city of Brick and Marble.  It was the growing power of the world, and was constantly growing, building, and changing.  In a way, it was like an Ancient Underhive as it grew larger, more populous, and more divided.  The boards for a game set in Rome promised to be interesting, unique, and dense.  I doubt my wallet or talents could do it justice.  

Finally, I had actually had a similar game in my Concept Folder to build.  I sat on it, as I grew intimidated by the research I would need to do for it.  However, it looks like my hesitation will be rewarded as someone beat me to the punch! 

Let us explore the streets of Rome together! 

From the Rulebook PDF for Gangs of Rome

Prelude to Gangs of Rome:

Before we get too far, I think it is important to discuss the "novel" approach this game planned to take with their miniature releases.  They intended to sell a model that came with a randomly generated card with a name, stats, and bit of information about the fighter such as where they hailed from and what gods they worshipped.  This would also come with 4 Denarii (or coins) that would map to gear in the game, 2 common, 1 uncommon, and 1 rare.  Even if you bought 10 of the same Fighter 5 pose, you could have completely different stats and equipment become available from those exact same models.  

This is referred to as the Hand of Fate in the rules.  In a way, it was like a combination of collectible minis, collectible cards, and blind packs but you knew exactly the sculpt you were going to get.    This was a ..... novel approach.  I feel before I get to far into the game, it is very important to understand this aspect Gangs of Rome and it may shed insight into why the rules are built the way they are.

I will save my thoughts on this business model and product decision to the end as I feel it is separate from the game mechanics themselves.  Lately, I have found that game design and product design are two different sides of the same coin.  

From the Gangs of Rome Rules PDF

What I Liked:

Dice rolling is simple and easy.  You are looking for successes and a 4+ is a success 90% of the time. Each stat is a pool of dice you use for your tests.  Test are either against a target # of successes if unopposed, or opposed with the highest number of successes winning.  Simple and just the way I like my dice rolls.  However, injury removes dice from your pool, so too many injuries may keep you alive but just really bad at doing things! I like! 

On the cards, it states where a fighter is from and who their gods are.  This is relevant in the game.  Fighters from the same place have advantages over fighters from different locations.  They do not block Line-of-sight or movement.  Therefore, if you randomly get a couple fighters from the same location you have a decision about how you want to use them.  This is a simple and elegant little bit of Chrome to bring Strategic choice to your little warband. 

As for the gods, a Model can choose to spend their activation praying to their gods.  They make a roll and a success allows them to gain a bit of inspiration.  They type of inspiration also varies based on the gods that they follow.  Therefore, a model can always try to do something useful whenever they are activated, even if they are not fighting.  

The game use a bank of coins called a Denarii.  You get a collection of Denarii based on the size of your gang, and the rarity of the Denarii you have selected.  These are weapons, special abilities, and equipment that can be shifted around between your gang as the game progresses.  You shuffle the Denarii in an out of your bank as a form of resource management to help off set the abilities of your foe, off set your model's weakness, or capitalize on their strengths.  The bank is also depleted as you use it, and will not recycle until all Denarii are used.  This is one of the unique resource management elements of the game and acts as a deck of abilities and powers you can use and assign to various fighters and swap them around during the game as well. 

The game also assumes that the city of Rome is full of people!  Therefore, there are various Mobs of people moving about that act as a complication, terrain, and more.  The good side is the added value and options these Mobs can bring as they go from ordinary to angry and vice versa.  They can be used as a tactical element as well by forcing them to panic or drawing them closer to you.  On the down side, it starts to make a skirmish game rather model heavy!   

One of my favorite actions is to Blend.  With this you can move up to a Mob Base and essentially disappear into the Mob.  A fighter who has blended may later return to play from ANY mob marker on the board.  This is a great little mechanic!

From the Gangs of Rome Rulebook PDF

What I Did Not Like:

The game uses a blind bag draw system for activation.  This is a perfectly serviceable method that allows for randomization and uncertainty of activation order.  Many games have used it to good effect and it is a tried and true game mechanic.  I personally am not a huge fan of it as I prefer to make decisions that impact order activation preferably on a risk/reward continuum.  I am thinking games like Blood Bowl or Hail Caesar with their push-your-luck method or even The Men Who Would Be Kings  where there is a default action if you fail the activation role.  Even Turf War where you get a base action and then trying to do more risks losing initiative.  

The game has a number of specific actions or combinations of actions.  For example, you can Combat + Move, or Charge Move + Combat; but there is no simple Move + Combat.    Another interesting note is the more wounds you have received, the slower you can move, but charge distance is tied to their fighting score and not based on Flesh.  This feels a bit like a If This/Then That type of rule and the kind of thing I always mess up when I am actually playing the game!     

There are a surprising amount of rules for moving through and over terrain in this game.  Detecting folks coming up a ladder, ambushing them at the top of a climb, cut a rope, etc.  They take up about 2 pages in a 36 page book with a lot of illustrations.  Moving over terrain can require a lot of dice rolling and injury to go from point A to Point B.  I am not sure how I feel about this yet as it seems really cumbersome and full of Niche cases, but I am sure it is intended to add "flavor" or "tactics" to the game.  It just looks hard to remember.  

From the Gangs of Rome Rulebook PDF

 Meh and Other Uncertainties 

The game is played on a 3x3 foot board, which is nice as it will be hard to fill a larger board with the appropriate terrain.  This is a terrain heavy game.  

Similarly to moving, there are also two types of attacks.  Blood that cause physical injury and reduce a foes ability scores is one.  The other is called Brawl and impact a models placement on the board.  The default attack is a Blood attack, but Brawl could be useful for positioning purposes.  Blood is Fight vs Defense, while Brawl attacks are Attack vs Agility.  In theory, I like the idea of the two kinds of attacks as it adds decision making and some tactics, however I feel like other game systems have done it simpler and better.  Specifically, I am thinking about Dracula's America and their "Shove" mechanic.  However, this game system is trying really hard to add tactical depth once melee has been engaged and not be just a stand and roll dice affair.     

If you lose a game, you are required to print and sign a Personal Influence Marker.  This is essentially a campaign point that you can use against this opponent in the future.  You can collect several of them to be raised to the Senatorial class OR you can cash them in and use them for an advantage in the game.  They are a form of very personalized campaign scoring.  I think this could be a hoot in a small gaming group or club, but is a bit clumsy.  The rules require you to make, retain, and hand off these Personal Influence Markers in order to use them.  

The PDF rules I purchased had 3 scenarios included, and index, and a QRS. 

From the Gangs of Rome Rulebook PDF

Final Thoughts:  

CCG, with Collectible Miniatures, meets wargaming.  That is my basic summary of the rules for Gangs of Rome.  Personally, it is not to my taste at all, but I can see its appeal as a "product" to be sold in a package.  After all, you have randomly generated fighter cards and special abilities when you buy a pack.  The game also has extra monetization built in with pebbles, pebble bags, measurement devices and custom dice, which to be fair you do not NEED to play the game.  However, you do need the cards and the Denarii coins that come with the models.  I have no idea how many different common, uncommon, and rare Denarii coins there are.   

It is essentially the X-wing "product" model but with Historical models.  

That being said, there is a difference between "Product Design" and "Game Design".  Game design is focused on the mechanics and choices that players must make in game to successfully complete a game.  In this aspect, there are several design aspects I like.  It is a pretty solid game system that is trying really hard to provide choices in melee and movement.  In some areas I think it is trying a bit too hard, but there are also some nice ideas hidden in there as well.  

If you are wondering what the big draw is mechanically I think there are a couple of ideas:  

  1. Mobs as a tactical and complicating element of the game
  2. Using a "deck" to augment and empower models as a resource and fog-of-war
  3. Injury impacting ability 1 for 1  
To me, those are the big "Innovations" in this ruleset as a game.  

However, much of this game is really "Product Design" and dabbling with new ways to monetize the wargaming hobby, especially for skirmish level games.  In that sense, it is trying to take the successful X-wing model and apply it to historical skirmish.  As far as concepts go, it is not a bad one.  However, I think to be truly successful they would need Pre-painted models and Terrain packs.  In addition, they also need special rules associated with the terrain packs they created similar to Marvel: Crisis Protocol.  

I think I will save further discussion about Product Design vs. Game Design for a different entry.  Suffice it to sat that I find this trend in monetization and product design in the industry to be.... sub-optimal..... for my tastes and preferences. 

Overall, not a bad game but not one I see myself playing due to the terrain needs and the monetization model associated with the game.      

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