This article is based on playing a prototype provided by 2Tomatoes Games.
Picture yourself in ancient Rome. Invading armies at the gates, a treasury that’s almost used up, plague and pestilence in the streets as you slowly lose control over law within the city. Looking around the room, you see familiar faces, people who could help you overcome these disasters, who work with you to save this magnificent city. In reality, though, these people will only ever serve their own interests, rescuing Rome from destruction only if they absolutely must and only if it benefits them in the future. All of this tension, backstabbing and manoeuvring are condensed down into a 30-45 minute game of Vae Victis.
In the game itself, ancient Rome aside for a minute, players are taking turns to see what the Fates will bring (rolling dice to see what bad things happen), Supporting the city (trying to negate some of those bad things or being greedy), and gathering Influence (collecting cards or manipulating the Senate).
Each player will complete one or two actions in the Support or Influence rows each turn. Each action can be completed twice but often the second time you choose it, it either comes with a negative effect or costs more. They can, for example, choose to try and battle the invading armies twice but at the risk of destabilising Rome in return. This immediately gives Vae Victis a nice risk-reward element to every choice. Take money from the treasury and risk a financial crisis? Do you take even more money and risk both a financial crisis and a possible plague breakout? Yes, probably because as I referred to in the opening paragraph, there can only be one winner.
Sure, you are all working ‘together’ to make sure Rome doesn’t fall but if you can also bankrupt your competition and make them spend their time and energy fixing all the issues of the city rather than you, then that’s exactly what will happen. In one game, there was a player who purposefully put the city on the brink of financial meltdown so that they could take money from the treasury and force other people to deal with the issues they caused. All the while, they continued to get richer and richer only caring about furthering their own agenda (greed) and ignoring the fact that Germania was on our doorstep. This action alone is an excellent allegory for the actual financial crisis that happened a few years ago. The banks caused a crisis, got bailed out and now people are blaming immigrants for their problems rather than the banks – insanity that you can play out (kinda) in Vae Victis. Swap the invading armies for a refugee crisis and you might have a scathing satire of Western politics.
And it’s this manoeuvring of opponents is the heart of Vae Victis. Carefully setting up the board so that your opponents need to deal with the various problems while you continue to wage the war you care about can garner control in the Senate that matches your goals. And it works wonderfully. There will be swearing and careful deliberation over whether to stop the plague or financial crisis as you know someone else could but they probably won’t. Rome quickly falls into decay as players actively try and avoid the responsibility of improving the situation. And when you have to fix Rome, you feel like a chump. Look at Tom over there with 15 plus gold, while I’m here calming down citizens and tending to the sick. I should be where he is, not dealing with all these poor people as my own coffers are steadily drained.
This forcing and coercing of the table mean that there is a board game happening in front of you but the real game takes place above the table. You are more interested in trying to read your opponent and understand what their goals are rather than the fact that Britannia might finally come crashing through the front gate next turn. This elevation of the game, means that you care deeply about every person’s turn, are they going to help Rome, are they going to take all that lovely money sat in the middle of the table, are they going to force a crisis so I lose my last two coins removing me from the game?
And that brings us onto the player elimination. Not something I’d normally be a fan of in a game like this but here it works wonderfully. The game itself isn’t very long, so if you do find yourself with no money and out of the game, then you know it won’t be long until either Rome falls or somebody wins. On top of that, watching the person who just forced you into bankruptcy file for it two turns later is immensely satisfying.
As this is a preview of a Kickstarter game, all of the components are very much at the prototype stage. I feel the rule book needs some work as there were a few points I wasn’t clear on first reading and the first game felt a bit chonky as I referred back to the rules every few turns to make sure we were doing things correctly. It took a while to get used to the names of each track and area of the board, especially as the stylised text wasn’t as clear as it could have been. Again though, prototype so all these things can easily be ironed out.
One final note, there is a traitor variant to the game. This person can win by causing Rome to fall. However, there was always enough tension and backstabbing without an outright traitor that when playing with this variant it felt redundant. Once the traitor had revealed themselves, they had a bad time. They could try to cause Rome to fall but as a lot of the negatives (not all) are tied to dice rolls, it felt a little hit or miss as to whether they achieved their goal. Instead, it meant that we just considered all of their actions as bad and meant they were largely ignored from the rest of the Machiavellian manoeuvring going on above the table. However, it is optional so you don’t need to add it to your game.
I have only ever backed a single Kickstarter game (shout out to Champions of the Wild), but Vae Victis might get me to break and back another. Anyway, I’ve gone on far too long and Rome isn’t going to save itself. Time to find some unwitting chump to do all the work so I can sit back and count my coins.
Thank you for reading this article on Vae Victis. Once again thank you to 2TomatoesGames for providing me with a prototype and good luck to them with their Kickstarter. If you want more board game-ery, then read about why Raid on Takao is close to being great with its relationship narrative or why Dice Fishing is basically a gambling game.