Designer: Matt Leacock & Paolo Mori
Publisher: Z-Man Games
1-5 players, 45-60mins
Price: £60-75 approx
I’m going to open this review with a bold statement: the Pandemic range of games has taken the basic principle behind a decades-old computer game called Critical Mass (a game based on stacks of counters that appear randomly on the vertices of a gridded board and ‘explode’ every time four of them share the same space if you don’t get to them first), and proved that as a core design element, it’s a simple but very clever and adaptive gameplay mechanic, regardless of theme. In the original computer game, the game got faster with each level you completed, not unlike the way Pandemic has you revealing more cards/locations as the game progresses and things intensify. Regardless, it’s a design that works, and works well.
Whether it’s diseases or viruses that are outbreaking in Pandemic and Pandemic: Iberia, water levels rising in Pandemic: Rising Tide, or dark cultists gathering in Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu, the core design of the game is strong enough to allow for some great themes and variations. I happen to think that Pandemic: Fall of Rome is one of the best of these themes, but that’s coming from somebody who has yet to play any of the Legacy versions.
Some readers may already know I’ve long held the belief that Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu is one of the best themes the core design has ever spawned, but I’m gradually swaying towards this as my favourite variant nowadays. What’s more, it has a solo mode that could probably be adapted for use with other games in the range with minimal effort.
If you’re not familiar with Pandemic at all (and if not, why not?), it’s basically a game in which you collect cards of different colours and try to complete four or five sets of these before the board is overrun by coloured cubes representing virulent diseases: as the game progresses, more cubes are placed on the board each turn and the cards representing the ‘targeted cities’ keep getting reshuffled to ensure the same cities are kept targeted as each new ‘outbreak’ appears. This effectively turns the game into a race for survival with players working as a team, moving around the board to swap coloured cards between them, and trying to remove cubes from the board before they ‘explode’ and generate more cubes in adjacent spaces, thus increasing the chances of more outbreaks, etc.
For those already familiar with the Pandemic range, Fall of Rome is probably closer to Iberia in terms of design choices than the rest in the series, but it’s the way it takes that same basic framework and twists it to suit that really shines.
In Fall of Rome, you are one of several leaders all working together to defend Rome from falling prey to the five invading barbarian hordes, and the way the game presents this is what makes it feel very different to other games in the series. Instead of having barbarians popping up all over the place and expecting you as a military leader to zoom around the board quelling these uprisings, Fall of Rome employs a completely different tact: the barbarians are gradually moving on Rome along pre-determined paths, and it’s your job (along with any legions you can muster and take with you) to prevent them from reaching it. How do you protect Rome, then? Well, by strategically building forts in cities you might consider ‘choke-points’ and raising legions there to defend them. Unfortunately, there are only 6 forts in the game, and 16 Legions, so making sure these are in the right place and/or with the right leader at the right time is one of many ways the game challenges the players.
There are several other changes to the standard game, including the need to roll battle dice and have Legions with you to fight off the barbarians, a refreshing change from just removing cubes willy-nilly (and yes, these same Legions can be defeated even though the dice are generally designed in your favour).
Ironically, forging alliances with the five barbarian hordes is how you win the game, and while the Ostrogoths only need 3 city cards to placate them, the Vandals and Visigoths need 5 each. An interesting twist is that these barbarians will continue to invade the board even when an alliance has been agreed, but players can now muster them into Legions on a straight one-to-one basis. As well as being suitably thematic, this works well in practice, and although it does make it easier to have Legions in the right place at the right time, you are of course still limited to only having 16 on the board at any one time.
Like the Water Purification tokens in Pandemic: Iberia, having Legions in cities that are being invaded will help protect them from barbarian invasion, because these are removed instead of placing more cubes on the board. Again, though, an added twist is that Legions will only defend a city if they are there alongside a leader or fort, otherwise they’re effectively ambushed and all those Legions will be removed from that city; thankfully, the barbarian cube won’t get placed there either, at least.
Another mechanic representing the gradual decline of Rome as political corruptness takes hold is the aptly named Decline marker: basically, as cities gradually get ‘sacked’ (>3 cubes of the same colour in a city) this marker is moved down a space. You guessed it: if the Decline marker reaches the bottom of the track it’s game over! Not helping at all is the fact that there are more Event cards too, and these have a ‘corrupt’ option that allows you to increase the effect of the card but at the cost of accelerating the Decline of Rome: a viable option at some points but a risky proposition as the game progresses.
In terms of gameplay, Fall of Rome can still be subject to the usual problem of ‘alpha gamers’ taking the lead and dictating to everyone else what they should or should not be doing each turn (and has the same heated discussions, it must be said), but because each role offers a different special ability —as in normal Pandemic— and in fact, has a special combat effect when the dice are rolled in battles, too, it’s often relatively easy for players to settle on an agreed course of action most of the time. The rules do make a point of stating that it’s the player whose turn it is that always has the final decision on what to do.
I’ve played enough games of this now to confidently say Fall of Rome provides a reasonable challenge even at the Introductory level with 5 x Revolt cards in the player deck (these act like the Epidemic card in normal Pandemic). You can make it harder by putting 6 or even 7 Revolt cards into the deck, or alternatively just opt to play it in solo mode if you want a significant challenge: it is really tough as a solo game, but can be made even harder if you adopt the ‘Roma Caput Mundi’ challenge which prevents you from having a fort or any Legions in the capital city!
If you’re curious as to how the solo mode works it’s actually relatively simple, but nonetheless does a great job, especially in the context of the rest of the game. In solo mode you effectively play as three roles in turn (excl. the Mercator), and instead of swapping city cards with other players when you share the same space as them in the normal game, you have a Treasury beside the board with infinite capacity that allows you to swap out cards as and when you’re in that city space. Given you still have an overall hand limit of 7 cards, this remains an extremely challenging way to play the game! More importantly, this would not be too difficult to adapt for use in other versions of the game, and that alone makes this a wonderful addition to the Pandemic pantheon.
Do I like playing Pandemic: Fall of Rome? For sure, I think it’s a great version of the game, and with a cool theme, too. I’d also not hesitate to recommend it to players already familiar with the series: it’s another winner as far as I’m concerned, and deserves to be played over and over by gamers who may by now have thought themselves ‘done’ with the original Pandemic. There is more than enough here to make it feel very different to the normal game, but it also has enough of the original design elements that’ll prove instantly familiar to regular players.
I really do like this one, and it’s done a good job of taking my Pandemic attention away from my beloved Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu – a thematic effort I have always considered my favourite, at least until now…