Mary Russell

This interview with Wars of Marcus Aurelius designer Robert DeLeskie originally appeared in issue 142 of the French gaming magazine Vae Victis. This longer version was provided in English by Robert for publication on our blog. A big merci boucoup to Messrs. DeLeskie and Receveur.

Why did you choose this period? Games about Marcus Aurelius are very rare.

It's strange there are so few games set during this period because Marcus’s reign was consumed by war. But it’s also understandable. We know surprisingly little about the Marcomannic Wars compared with other major conflicts. There’s also the nature of the war itself. There were no cities to take, little wealth to plunder, and few set-piece battles. The Romans could fight and win these sorts of conflicts of course, but there was little honour or treasure to be gained. In modern terms, it looks much like the kind of costly, demoralizing quagmire that great powers hate fighting (but habitually seem to start).

Needless to say, I find all this fascinating! My initial attraction came from a desire to understand the era better. And of course Marcus is a fascinating character. 

Why a solo game?

Some scenarios seem better suited to solitaire play. This can be for a number of reasons, such as a lack of balance in the decision space, or in the expected outcome for players. In this case, different tribes had different reasons for fighting and didn’t act as a single, unified force. Also, as I mentioned, there are many gaps in our historical knowledge. This made making a multi-player game that was fun, balanced, and historically accurate difficult.

One of the ways I tried to get around the historical gaps was to ground the game in the perspective of Marcus Aurelius. I thought about how the conflict might have looked to him, and what sort of decisions he would have had to make — in a very broad fashion of course. His immediate concerns were to push the barbarians out of Roman territory, break their coalition, and keep them divided and weak. In other words, to knock them down and make sure they stayed down. He had to do this in the midst of a manpower shortage brought about by a devastating plague, and with crises continually popping up across his vast empire. He also had to rule, which meant keeping the Senate happy, providing bread and circuses to the people, keeping the wheels of government turning, and so on.

How did you decide upon the game’s mechanics?

Victory Point Games’s State of Siege (SOS) series was an obvious starting point. I like how the SOS games simplify enemy movement which can become laborious in some solo games. But I wanted to provide a richer decision space for the player where their next move wasn’t always obvious. I also wanted players to be able to win, not merely survive. 

I used elements of card driven-games because I love the agonizing decisions players have to make. The cards also allowed for greater depth and strategy. I also tried to provide the player with a chance to mitigate or at least modify the random factors in the game. For example, you can prevent a barbarian surge by discarding a card, and stop enemy movement by taking a hit on a fort. Various cards also let you affect the outcome of card draws and die-rolls. Of course, there is always a cost to doing this, whether in opportunity or resources.

There are a lot of historical events. How did you balance these with the gameplay?

Striking a balance between historical events and enjoyment was really important to me. One of the fun things about creating a historical model is figuring out how to fit unusual events into it, for example the Antonine Plague or the “miracles” that supposedly happened during the war. The cards provided a way to add depth and flavor while keeping the mechanics simple.

It’s impossible to create a perfectly balanced solitaire game when the primary mechanics involve cards and dice. In fact, you need things to be unbalanced so the game doesn’t play the same every time. Inevitably this can create momentum swings where things are either too difficult or too easy for the player. We did what we could to smooth this out but it can still happen. Fortunately, the game is short enough you can always set it up for another play if you get a really bad run of cards!

Can you give us some advice about winning the game?

Think like a Roman! Sometimes the game will tempt you to push for a quick victory. However, if momentum swings against you it can be disastrous. So fight the war not the battle. Build those forts. When you have a good hand of cards, be aggressive. Above all keep your Imperium up high.

I have another question: what is the percentage of winning the game?

Difficult to say because of the random elements. I think it takes about 5 or 6 games to learn how to best use your cards and Legions. But the game isn’t a puzzle. I hope it’s more of an experience with an enjoyable amount of historical flavour and some challenging decisions.

Do you have a future game project? 

I’m working on a kind of sequel to Wars of Marcus Aurelius. It’s set in the early fifth century and focuses on Stilicho’s battles against Alaric the Goth, the usurper Constantine III, and the Vandal invasion of Gaul. I say it’s “kind” of a sequel because I actually started working on it before Wars of Marcus Aurelius!

What are your favorite games about the Ancients period?

I love Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage which I think still holds up very well after all these years. Pax Romana, Rise of the Roman Republic, C&C: Ancients, and Falling Sky are all also excellent (and very different from one another). I’ve just started getting into Pendragon. I love the way it depicts how things change over time. It’s like an interactive cardboard history machine in a box.

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