Gaming News

Published: March 11, 2024

Adam Knight

Roman Board Games

Barbarians, emperors, assassinations, and alliances. The Roman Empire, and the Republic before it, makes for fertile gaming ground. The games below encourage swift swerves, shifting strategy, and a willingness to knife the hand that helped you. The setting helps here, providing a known setting to ease new players into war gaming while adding historical depth to familiar mechanisms. 

If you’ve never taken a tabletop trip to the ancient world, the games below offer a great way to get started. So grab your toga, and get ready for war!

Caesar’s COIN Crucible

Before he crowned himself emperor, Caesar earned a reputation for smacking around barbarians, many of whom hated each other just as much as good ol’ Julius. Those fractured factions balanced their own desire for power against getting crushed by Roman Legions, a setup perfect for a COIN (COunter-INsurgency) war game. Falling Sky: The Gallic Revolt Against Caesar, like any good COIN, takes an unbalanced situation and turns it into a taut struggle for success.

Players take their roles as Belgae, Averni, and Aedui, in addition to the lucky Caesar, who gets squashed between them all. While Rome’s military might, when activated via drawn cards, is enough to crush any one opponent, spreading those legions thin might let some opportune barbarians pounce. At the same time, giving Rome some favor might send those swords up north, letting your tribe build up its resources and score much-needed points.

COIN games generally throw you at the mercy of a single card deck, where, every round, the revealed card determines who gets actions and in what order. You’ll have to choose whether to deploy the event depicted on the card (if it applies to you) or conduct operations, like sending your warriors wanderingRoman towards the Rhine or subduing someone’s poor town. Once you act, you’ll automatically pass the next turn, making Falling Sky a back-and-forth affair that’s as much about timing as anything.

As drawn cards send soldiers scurrying, you’ll eventually draw into Winter, revealing Falling Sky’s nasty trick: a wild fifth, unplayable faction representing other Germanic tribes. While your tired troops take a breather, these marauders sweep through the land, taking apart your opponents (yay!) or you (boo!) in an interactive reset. You’ll then have a chance to redeploy your troops across your territory, ready to take advantage of the chaos.

All this is table setting for the real meat in a COIN game: asymmetry. Every faction has different focuses and abilities—the Aedui, for example, get bonuses for trading resources, making them willing partners until you realize they’re getting rich off you—and Falling Sky encourages open negotiation for just about anything. Caesar might ask you to let Roman supplies run through your territory, but do you really want more legions running amok? 

What if he promises to obliterate the Belgae and leave your towns pristine?

Whether that suits your faction’s unique goals is an open question, and always an entertaining one. Falling Sky isn’t a simple game: parsing the game state, negotiating with your rivals, and deciding how best to accomplish your myriad objectives is a tasty puzzle. You can, though, learn through the game’s deep solo mode, or pick a shorter scenario to allow folks to misplay without feeling regret for hours.

If you’re looking for a piece of thorny history, a chance to go knives out with your friends, and a game that plays differently every time thanks to its clever deck, scenarios, and deeply different factions, Falling Sky: The Gallic Revolt Against Caesar is a great place to start.

Deckbuilding, the Roman Way

Who needs barbarians when the Romans are more than willing to tear themselves apart? Time of Crisis: The Roman Empire is a combination war game and deckbuilder, with your up-to-four Roman factions squabbling over resources, territory, and who gets smacked by those barbarians (yep, they’re still here, but you’re not controlling them directly this time).

The round to round play has you managing your forces, picking cards to play from your hand, as you try to score points via military victories, aiding the Roman people by holding games or building shiny walls, or manipulating the greasy-palmed Roman senators for power. You’ll be doing this across the Mediterranean (a shocking twist for a game about the Roman Empire, I know) until someone hits sixty points, becomes the next Emperor, or Diocletian comes in and tells you all to pack it up and go home.

While the turn-by-turn gameplay at first looks like a standard euro: pick a card and do what it allows, make a plan for the following turn, the war game lurks beneath. Chucking dice, wide decision space, and rampant combat reward strategic play. You’ll make friends to take down a rival, then, just when you think Rome is yours, you’ll feel the sharp poke in your ribs as your friend turns foe. Or perhaps you keep your intentions disguised, holding a couple cards until the last moment to launch your power grab.

romanSpringing a war game on unsuspecting pals can, aside from the rules shock, have a singular risk: player elimination, or being rendered so ineffective that playing the game out becomes a bore. In most euros, you can still get some fun from solving your own puzzle. Not so if you have a lone soldier on the run from massive armies. Time of Crisis solves this simply: by giving you more options.

Lets say your hapless legions fall victim to a Gaul assault. Not great, but hey, maybe you hang up the sword for a few turns and focus on chariot races instead? You’ll have time to rebuild your forces without feeling like you’re wasting rounds, and before you know it, your next batch of fresh recruits will be ready for slaughter.

Despite calling it a war game, Time of Crisis doesn’t play on a hex grid. The manual isn’t filled with edge cases or pages of rules for artillery and cavalry. Unlike Falling Sky, you won’t be dealing with asymmetric faction goals (though starting positions change, and the sheer event variety keeps replayability high). It’s not a light game in the sense that you can leap from Dominion or Carcassonne right in without some effort, but for those curious about making the jump from the bread-and-butter deckbuilders or euro games into the world of war gaming, Time of Crisis is here to serve.

A Tactical Skirmish Wargame in the Ancient World

Both Falling Sky and Time of Crisis give you Roman-era conflict from a broad lens. Onus! Traianus brings you to the battlefield in a tactical war game that eschews minis for well-drawn cards. With broad faction variety (those messy Gauls return!), complete with faction-specific leaders, abilities, and terrain, Onus! Traianus is a giant experience in a svelte box.

Onus runs its turns through card-driven activation, like a supercharged Memoir ‘44, with every card split between units on top and powerful events on the bottom. You might, say, want to get your skirmishers throwing stones, but doing so might require playing the card giving your spears a bonus against the next chariot charge. It’s a difficult choice, but the tension keeps Onus interesting: you’ll rarely be playing on autopilot.

Card-driven activation games do have traps, such as desperately needing a unit’s card and not having it. Onus tackles this quandary by letting you hold stillonustraianus.webp (900×900) for a turn, drawing three fresh cards as a bonus. You can also discard useless cards—those swordsmen on your left flank were toast anyway—to draw new ones. Lastly, any units in melee combat get to fight without cards, ensuring your bumbling bludgeoners can keep clubbing away till their morale breaks.

When embarking on your Iron Age adventure, Onus offers several ways to play, depending on your partner, your time, and your desire to quash ancient cities beneath barbarian hordes. Like many tactical war games, or titles like Warhammer, you can set a points limit and pick units from a faction until you fill that quota, making sure to always choose the elephants, because obviously. Onus recommends as large a play area as you can give it, so you can sprawl your forces out and send those cavalry on long flanking maneuvers.

Fortress sieges, elements like winter snow and rivers, morale, and a classic card-driven activation system provide a sliding complexity scale to match what you’re feeling on a given day. Want Hannibal and his war elephants to mash some hapless legions? Go for it. Or would you prefer a layered, difficult assault on a city fortified with palisades? Siege away your afternoon.

For more consistent playing partners, Onus packs in numerous historical campaigns, all flush with in-depth notes about the battles, the leaders involved, and how you can turn history’s tide. All told, it’s a complete package, especially appealing for anyone looking to get into historical miniatures wargaming without the space, desire to paint, or difficult transport of the miniatures themselves.

A Chariot Death Race

If you’ve paid much attention to the boardgaming world over the last year, Heat and Thunder Road: Vendetta are names that probably sound familiar. Addictive, snappy play, a dash to the finish line, special powers . . . But they both lack one iconic vehicle: the chariot.

Charioteer, a recent GMT release designed by Sekigahara’s Matt Calkins, deploys you and your Roman drivers to the Circus Maximus for an all-out sprint. Flavored with snappy hand management, wherein symbol-sporting cards mingle with unique abilities, skills to improve, and an emperor’s ridiculous whims, Charioteer tunes the racing genre to the Roman world.

Every turn, you’ll lay down between one to three cards from your eight-card hand, attempting to sync up symbols between the cards you play and a gmt2202.jpg (666×882)common crowd card in the center. Match enough of those symbols and you’ll be able to deal some damage, make some on-the-fly repairs, or whip around corners. After you’ve galloped, you’ll bump up your skill in the same area (damage, recovering, etc.), getting an extra point if the emperor’s favoring that area too.

Ever-so-slightly heavier than its gas-fueled contemporaries, Charioteer appeals to the racer who wants a little more strategy. You might linger behind the pack, burning cards to boost skills for a late-game push while your buddies bash each other to pieces. Or maybe you’ll read the emperor’s mood, catching his favor to surge into the lead.

Charioteer follows Heat and Thunder Road by playing well at larger counts—five or six ensures jockeying aplenty without obliterating plans with chaos overload. Near-simultaneous play—everyone picks their cards at the same time, flips them up, then moves in position order—keeps downtime to a minimum, and the constant bashing of your horse-driven killer carts means nobody’s bored.

But really, it comes down to this: does the dream of donning togas, swilling lead-free wine, and quoting Gladiator with a cadre of your game night buddies live rent-free in your head like it does mine?

If so, Charioteer just might be the key to your best life.

A Perfect Empire for Games

The Roman Empire lasted a millennium, and the war games above could probably last you the same with their depth, variety, and cracking interaction. Whether you’ve always wanted to crush a legion with war elephants or make sneaky deals with the Gauls, Ancient Rome is a fertile gaming ground. So take a lesson from Caesar, and get to conquering.