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Mare Nostrum: Empires Review – A Dried Up Civilization

Mare Nostrum I had only heard murmurings of in the past. Out of print, not usually spoken of and warnings of “don’t play the Greeks” from a balance perspective. OK, not the best introduction I could have gotten, but then Academy Games took over and ran a very successful Kickstarter for the new edition with upgraded components, updated rules and room for expansion. Naturally Mare Nostrum had a fanbase who jumped in on it and even if you had never heard of it, the publishers reputation for putting out some solid historical titles in the past (Freedom: The Underground Railroad is a prime example) would be enough to generate some interest.

The theme is ancient civilisation building, which is one I can get behind, but lately I don’t seem to be finding many games to satisfy my craving in this genre. Since acquiring games like Nations and Sid Meier’s Civilization and enjoying plays of Through The Ages and Clash of Cultures, the market seems to have dried from my perspective. Most games tend to be pretty forgettable and the less said about The Golden Ages the better (yuck)! So I was keen to give Mare Nostrum a try and hopefully find another new gem.

Nostrum-Game-Box

Designer: Serge Laget
Publisher: Academy Games
Age: 12+
Players: 2-5
Time: 120-180 minutes

HOW TO PLAY

Mare Nostrum Empires: is an ancient civilization building game with area control mechanics, along with resource set collection and asymmetrical player powers. Each player controls a civilization out of the Greeks, the Romans, the Egyptians, the Carthaginians and the Babylonians, each of which has a unique starting setup of resources, units, coins and buildings.

There are four ways to win the game:

Build the Pyramids – the most expensive wonder in the game.

Build five Heroes and/or Wonders – essentially an expansion victory.

Control four Capitals and/or Legendary cities – basically the military victory.

Claiming all three Leader tiles (Trade, Culture and Military) – being the highest on all 3 aforementioned tracks at once.

To explain every rule in Mare Nostrum would be beyond the scope of this review. For more information on the rules, you can check out their very useful “How To Play” videos on the Academy Games website: – https://academygames.com/games/mare-nostrum/product/mare-nostrum-empires

Nostrum-Game-Setup

STONE, WINE AND. . . . HELMETS?

Mare Nostrum is not going to win any art awards, but visually the board looks decent and when loaded up with pieces, it’s a nice sight on the table, if somewhat cluttered and busy at times. The tracks for the leaderships are a bit fiddly though. Constanly having to fish out player counters from underneath one another gets really irritating. The artwork is pretty good though and the sculpts themselves look the part as well. It’s certainly an upgrade from the first edition of Mare Nostrum. The insert could have been better though. Some of the spaces will fit components snug, but the biggest pain is that the insert doesn’t give any indication of where anything goes. Player pieces are pretty obvious though keep them in bags because filching everything out with your fingers is a pain. Resource counter trays vary in size, but you can’t tell which resource goes in which tray at first glance. The remaining trays hold everything else, but again, which section was designed for what component is your own guess and quickly you’ll find tokens loose all over the place unless you bag them up, in which case, why did we bother with an insert in the first place? I suspect it caters for the Atlas expansion, but what if I don’t want the expansion?

Nostrum-Game-Insert

You have a useful player board to use as a reference guide for turn order, resource costs and hero abilities (which are the opposite of intuitive from looking at the tiles), though it would have been nice to have also shown what each resource actually was from a thematic standpoint. Yes it means nothing in the grand scheme as you’re just collecting sets, but it’s annoying to hear everyone refer to resources as “helmets” and “roses” and “twirly-thingy”. Also why are Gladiators a resource?

My biggest issue with Mare Nostrum though is the rulebook. For as relatively simple as the game is, the rulebook makes a big hash of trying to explain it simply. You remember those old wargame style books with numbered paragraphs? Yeah it’s a bit like that with different rules dotted all over the place. We missed several key rules in our first game that simply weren’t explained very well and there’s no reference rule aid summary either! Wow!! That should be manadatory in every single Euro game!

So you’re going to have to expect a lot of rules checking when players start asking questions, which in turn drags the game out. The layout needed to be updated to a more modern style with more space given to examples or even just room for the text to breathe! Learning Mare Nostrum ahead of the first game was a chore and locating a decent summary aid on BoardGameGeek is not just recommended, it’s essential!

Nostrum-Game-Rules

A COOL CONCEPT IN THEORY

As theme goes, it’s not as strong as I was hoping. For anyone who is a historical buff, you’re going to notice inconsistences with recorded ancient history, but that doesn’t bother me in the slightest. However even with that aside, Mare Nostrum is still a fairly dry experience, reminding me of the feeling I got from Antike II. Yes you’re adding pieces to a board and moving some about, but it’s a pretty abstracted affair.

A lot of the gameplay you’ll find doesn’t really equate to helping yourself win, but ganging up on someone else to stop them from winning. This is the inherent issue you get with multiple victory conditions though. A bigger side effect though is that it drags the game out even longer as the second anyone gets a lead, people gun for him and drag him back to a safer point usually at the expense of their own plan.

I liked the idea of having control over turn order depending on your leadership positions, that was really cool. However it doesn’t quite work as well it could. For starters nobody cares about the culture track. Being able to dictate the order of combat moves is so much more powerful than saying who builds first and even having the trade exchange marker, which isn’t in itself weak, but it’s not game-changing either. I repeatedly saw players simply say “go clockwise from the person to my left”. Also Mare Nostrum prides itself on the “diplomacy” between players, but this rarely took place in any games I played either. People weren’t willing to make deals about the turn order, resources/coins were always too scarce to have anything worth giving anyway.

Nostrum-Game-Play1

The multiple victory conditions are nice, except without changing the record, again there’s an issue with them. You cannot succeed at any victory condition unless you have a decent military in play and go on the offensive. They either require conquest or so many resources that obtaining them by trading means alone is impossible. You can focus on only trading/resources as much as you like, but you’ll lose. Someone else’s military will come in (usually the Romans) and decimate you and then they will end up in a better trading position than you ever were because they simply own more territories. And because you’ve lost critical resources, you can’t afford to build back up to re-take your territories. So the multiple paths to victory is a bit of an illusion because you can’t really try different ways to play each faction. You want to avoid fighting this game? Good luck with that.

ONE BROKEN PIECE RUINS ALL

I like how everyone has a unique starting setup and location on the board, but even this causes a problem in itself. If you’re playing Mare Nostrum with a full player count, you’ll notice that the start of the game is pretty scripted, at least if you want to avoid getting butchered anyway, because you will have the same potential threat from your neighbours. If you’re Carthage then you HAVE to get defenses up otherwise Rome will come in and just knock you out of the game (trust me it’s happened and it’s not fun at all to be pseudo knocked out). If you’re playing as the Greeks, as well as the Roman threat, you HAVE to ensure that Babylon doesn’t casually expand all over the top of the map. Every nation has some course of action they must follow to either avoid being knocked out or allow an easy win.

Nostrum-Game-Play2

Now if everyone knows how to play Mare Nostrum, this isn’t as big of a deal (though I don’t like scripted starts that go against the way you want to play), but with anyone new, it’s going to throw everything out of sync. Is Babylon a new player? Well watch Egypt rake in so much gold it hurts. Carthage is a newbie? Rome just stomped all over their land and acquired a ton of easy resources. I think it would have helped if the rules included a page where it explains the recommended starting strategy for each faction, that way you could even out the playing field a little. However that wouldn’t solve the issue entirely.
In terms of game length, Mare Nostrum is not a short game by any means. You’re looking at 2 hours minimum and probably much longer than that with 4 or 5 players. This is because as well as the negative play style mentioned above, the downtime can be insane on some turns where players are considering their options for what to build or move. Even the trading phase can take a while to resolve when you’ve got 20-25 resources all laid out for players to take.

VERDICT ON MARE NOSTRUM

There’s a lot of potential in Mare Nostrum and some mechanics in particular I would like to see in other civilization games; namely the bonuses for being the leader in a particular aspect like military, trade and culture. It will be a slow game to pick up though as the rule book is not very good and thus a lot of nitpicky rules checking will occur until you’ve got everything down, especially when it comes to military conquest rewards and timings. It’s also not going to be a short game with 4 or more players as downtime gets high during the build and move phases. Problem is, if you want the most interaction on the board, you need the players, so you have to decide between that and time length.

Despite the potential though, there are a lot of issues with Mare Nostrum. Despite the varied nations, it’s still a pretty dry experience, giving me the feeling of an advanced Antike II without the Rondel mechanic. Balance is not perfect either as it’s far more powerful to be in control of the military and trade columns than the culture one and most of the paths to victory can only be obtained if you go out and conquer nations for more resources. It seems to make the Romans pretty powerful with them clocking up the most victories to date. Mare Nostrum can also be destroyed depending on what other players do. If two players truce or one player doesn’t know what they are doing, it can unbalance the system greatly.

Much of this will be subjective though. An expansion is already out, but I can’t for the life of me imagine playing Mare Nostrum with 6 players. It’s going to appeal to a lot of gamers who enjoy long historical civilization games and with the right setup I can enjoy it, but the swings of fun games to dull games make this a misfire for me – back to Sid Meier it is.

BROKEN RATING – 5 Defeated Legions Out of 10

YOU WILL LIKE MARE NOSTRUM IF:

You enjoy civilization games with an emphasis on military conquest.

You like having varied factions with different special powers and starting setups.

You feel that the balance is fine as it stands – it’s a subjective viewpoint.

YOU WILL NOT LIKE MARE NOSTRUM IF:

You don’t like long games – you’re talking a minimum of 2 hours and that’s with a small player count.

You want perfect balance – culture is a very lacklustre leader bonus and military is essential to winning.

You want a rich thematic civilization game – this is a pretty dry experience compared to others.

5 (100%) 1 vote
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Luke Hector

I'm known as The Broken Meeple, a blog, podcast and YouTube channel devoted to board and card games. I live in Portsmouth, UK, working as a Chartered Tax Advisor and I enjoy playing games of many genres and varieties with as many people as possible.

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