Folks really dug last year's holiday freebie Reign of Witches, so when I began working on this year's game, I decided right from the start to build upon its foundations. You buy cards from a market, play them into your tableau to compete for three kinds of points, and expend coins to activate their special abilities. But I wasn't about to make the second verse same as the first (a little bit louder, and a little bit worse), porting over the same mechanism with a new theme and new card powers.
One of the core ways the game would differentiate itself was in its end game. In Reign, the two factions of the Federalist party are trying to outmaneuver each other in three spheres of influence, while also being strong enough to defeat Jefferson's party in the 1800 election. This time around, I wanted to position the player not as a factional leader – not as Adams or Hamilton – but as mid-level folks within a political structure attempting to choose the winning side(s) in a shifting and uncertain series of power struggles.
My first thought was that this concept would be a perfect fit for a game about the end of the Roman Republic. It's a topic I had tackled previously, but perhaps too abstractly and clinically, in Optimates et Populares. I've often said that I think where that game falls short is, there's no blood, no danger – it's too removed and chess-like for a game about purges and mob violence. But that was exactly the kind of chaos I felt this iteration of these mechanisms could deliver, and very much in keeping of my desire to do more games that center how human beings attempt to survive and thrive while living in tumultuous times. Added bonus: since it was material I was already very familiar with, I could fall back on that knowledge instead of doing a lot of new research.
So I began working on my "new Roman game", drawing up a list of events and personages. And here I immediately ran into a problem of scope. My last two card games – Reign and 2019's The Toledo War – both took place over the course of one or two years. This tight temporal focus allowed the events to coexist in a mad, delirious jumble, because all of these people were acting in the same drama. The power struggles that eventually ended the Roman Republic were multi-generational, unfolding over the better part of a century. And if I narrowed my scope to a smaller snapshot – say, the days of the Gracchi brothers, or the purges and counter-purges of Marius and Sulla – I'd have trouble finding enough events (with, crucially, public domain art) to fill out my card manifest. Ancient sources of course are not nearly as detailed as modern ones – though holy gosh do they love long speeches – which leaves less grist for the designer's mill.
So, I started casting around for a new subject, and almost immediately landed on the Reign of Terror. This would give me a tighter temporal focus and a large cast of characters to choose from. Like the Roman Republic, the French Revolution is a subject I've long been interested in, so for the purposes of my twenty minute card game I'd only need a bit of a refresher. And because it took place only a few years before Reign of Witches, I thought it would make for a good companion piece. To top it off, that smug jerk Robespierre gave me a great title – Republic of Virtue.
The Jacobins justified the terror as a response to a series of existential crises – the external threat posed by the war against the First Coalition, as well as radical populist uprisings and attempted reactionary coups. My game would be structured around three such crisis points, shuffled into the deck. When a crisis card was resolved, cards of a certain suit would be purged – removed from your tableau and from the game. Players would then score points of a type relevant to that crisis – for example, influence with the military would count during a military crisis, while your ability to persuade the populace would benefit you when the mob is outside the door. But I didn't want this to be predictable – "oh, we've seen the military crisis and the mob crisis, last one's gonna be a political crisis" – as that doesn't really give you the sense of trying to react to these things coming seemingly from out of nowhere. So I decided on a total of six crisis cards, two of each type, with half of them removed randomly at the start of the game.
This structure also meant that I had to separate the suits – which would determine what cards got purged – from the spheres of influence – which would determine what points were scored when, a marked difference from Reign, where the two are one and the same. I used three of the four traditional French card suits – hearts, diamonds, and spades. These don't represent specific factions per se, but loose alliances and affinities, both real and imagined.
Each card would provide points in two spheres – for example, Marat provides points in both pens (politics) and knives (mob). To ensure an equal distribution of these spheres across the twenty-one cards, I introduced a fourth "sphere" – tricolors, which are wild.
When a crisis occurs, the players check which suit predominates among both tableaus. Unprotected cards of that suit are removed from those tableaus. (As in Reign, a card is protected from removal if you've placed a coin on it, which also activates its special ability.)
To play a card into your tableau, you'll generally need to discard one or two cards – essentially, you need to discard a card or cards with a rank equal to that of the card you want to play. These discards are shuffled back into the deck when the crisis occurs – a deck that of course gets smaller every time, thus ensuring the next crisis comes a little quicker. (Some card abilities also accelerate the pace of the game, and in general, the events in Republic of Virtue are more disruptive than in my previous event-based card games.) Each player does start with a randomly-determined "natural suit", of which they can play cards at no discard cost. Of course, the more of those free cards you play, the more likely it is they will be purged, unless you can protect them, but you only have so many coins, and you really wanted to use this other card's power instead – and so on, all that agonizing stuff that makes a game crunchy.
At the end of the game, your goal is to have at least twenty-one points – anything less than that, and you've got an appointment with the national razor. If both players do this, they share victory. This doesn't quite result in a cooperative game – many of the card effects are quite, ahem, cutthroat – but it doesn't preclude that kind of thing either. If you want to ensure that both you and your rival cross the finish line, great! If you want to wave at them mockingly as they climb up the scaffold, also great! And if you want to sourly grumble at each other as you each wait your turn, well, serves you right.