Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire – A Hoplomachus Review
Hoplomachus is gorgeous anachronism of dice based carnage on a grid map. One can’t really call Hoplomachus a game, so much as it is a game system. Each successive expansion works as a stand alone game (that is fully backwards compatible) yet builds upon the lessons learned and mistakes made from its prior incarnations. Each large box expansion is defined, not by its chip based combatants, but rather by its unique maps. In the “Lost Cities” base set, players are given a large map with rules that favor holding specific objective points and a lackluster co-op mode. In “Rise of Rome” play focuses on another large map with rules that encourage combat. Finally, in “Origins” the base game is edited down to its most basic core ideas and spread over 3 small maps that allows players for fast and furious skirmishes. There are a few additional small box expansions that offer players more units to expand the variety of teams they get to field.
Hoplomachus as a game offers almost nothing new. Rounds of play feel familiar to anyone who has played a tactical skirmish game in the past 30 years (including video games like Final Fantasy Tactics, or any number of games it directly inspired). Play up to 1 gladiator and 1 tactic. Move units (that don’t have “summoning sickness”). Attack enemy units. Spice things up along the way with any number of special abilities and secondary attacks that your units can use. Its the glut of special abilities that makes Hoplomachus stand out mechanically. On the one hand, the designers have done an admiral job of creating significant variety in the abilities units have. Your abilities can drive both your tactical choices and your strategic ones. The end result is that the factions do feel different and require skill to squeeze the most out of. On the other hand, the list of abilities runs 4 pages long in 10 point script. Casual players are going to be overwhelmed if not annoyed by the volume of crazy abilities out there. Do yourself a favor and have at least 2 sets of summaries available so you don’t have to constantly trade the cheat sheet back and forth.
Despite not bringing very many new game design ideas to the table, there is something to be said for how easy it is to teach and jump into a game of Hoplomachus. Unless you have a player who is prone to AP, turns should progress smoothly and quickly once players have given up on studying their cheat sheet with all the abilities. Hoplomachus FEELS like it could have been a tactical RPG released on the Sony Playstation in the late 1990’s and anyone who has played such a game before will find it easy to settle in with Hoplomachus. The relatively simple bones in this game make is a great candidate for solo play. Solo games are fairly quick and easy to set up and get rolling. Assuming you have the rules down pat, you can churn through the solo game in not quite half the time it would take you to play a pvp game. The difficulty curve can feel swingy, but overall, a player shouldn’t have much trouble finding match ups that tune to their preferred difficulty. Perhaps because it plays so quickly, the solo game does give off a definite whiff of hollowness. You are here for chucking dice and clicking poker chips. There is none of the robust narrative that you’ll find in other solo games like Arkham Horror LCG, and none of the world building you’ll find in Gloomhaven. I find myself wanting a bit more, but I can definitely understand why this has garnered the support of the solo gaming community.
But what about the hefty poker chips and mouse pad game mats? Again, this is both a boon and a curse. These truly deluxe components give the game a top shelf feeling. Hoplomachus wants you to feel like you are playing a truly deluxe game. The problem for some will of course be the sting of the price tag that deluxe components demand. Chip Theory Games made an interesting bet in favor of deluxe components long before Tasty Minstrel Games tried to copyright the “Deluxe” adjective. As a result, I think that they’ve a small but loyal following which only seems to have grown with their more recent successes. That said, Hoplomachus is the epitome of a try before you buy kind of game. You need to make sure you have a game group willing to support such a niche Ameritrash title, or at the very least a gaming partner with generous tastes. For solo gamers, you are more likely to find a good match with Hoplomachus, and should definitely check out Ricky Royal’s superlative videos demoing the solo mode.
There are a glut of these kinds of tactical skirmish games on the market these days (Shadespire, X-Wing, Armada, Necromunda, Krosmaster, and so on) and even more coming soon (Hate, or just do a kickstarter search for another dozen titles). Is there really room for a pricey game like Hoplomachus that offers a familiar if not original game system? I suppose Games Workshop has gotten away with doing exactly that for years. I enjoy Hoplomachus as a way of teaching my son tactical positioning, but its a hard title to really recommend at its price point for just the pvp gameplay. As a two player game, Shadespire, despite its warts, does many of the same things better (if not more affordably). As a solo and co-op game though, Hoplomachus does earn its stripes and is definitely worthy of praise.