August 10, 2011

Biggus Diggus Would Wuv This: Review of Vanguard: Rome

I try to buy many of the games at The Game Crafter, which is where I sell Farmageddon. I really like the community and I appreciate how much they've supported Farmageddon. I try to return the favor, but lately games like Castle Danger and Vanguard: Rome are making it all too easy to keep purchasing more. These are great games and my wallet is sore!

Vanguard: Rome really stands out due to its unique mechanics -- I haven't really played anything like it. Both players begin the game with two rows of five units each. This is called your battle line. The goal of the game is to eliminate all of your enemy's units from the field. Each turn a player places 1 additional unit and must attack, so attrition is heavy and you cannot rest or turtle up. They key is that you must attack! The concept of defense is completely absent from this game and it keeps the pacing and the strategy focused in a fantastic way.

Your front battle line must always have a Vanguard unit in the middle, who, by default, is the only unit that attacks. However, there are some units with unique abilities as well as Command cards than can mix things up. For example, a ballista may attack the unit immediately in front of it, even if the ballista isn't the vanguard. A slinger gives +1 attack to all adjacent units, which makes him a great unit to place near your vanguard. Centurions, Praetorians, and Consuls may shift places with other units in the line to maximize the damage dealt. Understanding the 12 units and how they must be used in conjunction with others and the Command cards is the meat and potatoes of the strategy.

Vanguard is relatively easy to learn, but full of depth and reasons to keep playing over and over again.

The player who can defeat 2-3 units in a few sequential turns will turn the tide and ultimately win. But, if the losing player plays their cards right, gets a few good draws, and has a little luck, the game can swing completely back. It's very well tuned and balanced.

I have a few complaints with the game. Like all card games or games that deal with any randomness, if a player gets a poor draw they might lose. This is worsened if one player gets a fantastic draw and the other gets an absolutely crummy draw, like I experienced last night. I do want to call out that this game is overwhelmingly based on strategy, not luck. Where you place your units, how you place command cards -- this is not random.

Towards the latter half of the game, it can drag a tinge. It may be clear that one player is going to win, but the losing player can cling for dear life for a few turns without actually making progress towards victory. They won't be winning, they just aren't losing as quickly.

Finally, and this isn't really a negative, because the game has so many unique elements the learning curve can be a bit wavy at times. The rules are very well written and the game is elegantly designed, but it is different. Different can lead to some confusion, but I really respect the designer's desire to be unique.

I've only played the game in 2 player, though it does support 3-4. Personally, I think 2 player is just right.

Vanguard: Rome is very reasonably priced under $20 and is absolutely recommended to fans of unique strategy games. It plays quickly and is full of depth, so you'll want to play again and again. I was fortunate enough to learn to play the game from the designer himself who happens to live in San Francisco. He's a great guy and I can't wait to see more from him.

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