NOTES ON AURELIAN (by Tom Russell)

Around the time that Charlemagne came out, I stealth-announced the next game in my series of "cup adjustment" solitaire games, Aurelian, Restorer of the World. A few months later, I started working on the rules, prototype map, and counter-mix, and then I had to set the whole thing aside while I tried (perhaps in vain) to put a dent in the ever-growing submission pile. Mary pointed out that since it says "Lead Game Designer and Chief Bottle-Washer" on my business card, that maybe I should take a break from the submission pile and design something, and also maybe wash some bottles.

And so, the last couple of weeks I've been putting Aurelian through its paces, and it's coming along quite nicely. That's probably not a surprise, since the game is built on the foundations of a proven system - Agricola and Charlemagne - so in a sense I took care of the hard stuff the first time around. But there are some important differences that set Aurelian apart from its predecessors.

For one thing, it's a shorter game. Agricola went for eight roughly year-long turns, and Charlemagne for twelve turns of variable length covering a decades-long reign. Lucius Domitius Aurelianus ruled the Roman Empire for only five years. I know what you're thinking: hey, let's make it five turns, one for each year! Easy-peasy! Would that it twere so simple, as the cowboy said to the director.

One of the key features of the "cup adjustment" mechanism isn't the bit where you blindly move the chits from cup to cup after taking each action (though there is that!), but the bit at the end of each turn where you resolve the Dead Pool by Region. Regions that are free of enemy units and have some kind of finished structure (cities in Agricola, churches in Charlemagne, temples to Sol in Aurelian) have their units go into the Friendly Cup, which makes them less likely to be popping up on the map again too soon, and allows you to focus on more pressing matters in other Regions. It takes two turns to build one of these structures - one to start it, and one to complete it. Then it will be another two or three turns before the Region is completely pacified.

So, if you start building a structure on turn one, it will have done its job completely by turn four or five at the earliest. In a five turn game, your buildings would just start to be working for you and then, bam, it's already over. There's no sense of accomplishment, no arc. I also suspected that five turns would not be enough time for players to get everything done. To that end, I created a spreadsheet with typical sources of victory points and income, as well as expected accumulations and accomplishments from turn to turn. And there as well, five turns is where you would just start to get your engine really running.

So I thought, well, I'll add a turn. Six turns, maybe that will give players just enough room to catch their breath and feel like they did more than just putting out fires. Certainly this seemed to be the case on paper; six turns would let you build your VP and money engines, and let you get some use out of them. But I still worried about the temples, still felt that it might not be enough time.

And when I started testing, that sadly seemed to be the case. A typical situation: through a mixture of sieges and battles, I clear out a Region completely, or nearly so, over the course of the turn. Then, I finish building the temple. Now, like in the other games, the temple removes one unit per box, and if the Region is empty when I resolve the Dead Pool, then any units from that Region that are in the Dead Pool go into the Friendly Cup. If the Region's not empty, they go into the Unfriendly or Hostile Cup depending on other factors. The problem is, whenever I took a battle action, I was resolving the Dead Pool - before the temple was finished. This means that those units actually went into the Unfriendly or Hostile Cup. The Units would come out again, and then slowly start to melt away, leaving some behind, and then those that did would go back into the Unfriendly or Hostile Cup.

Because battles are more frequent in this game - it's not just peasants in revolt, but splintered-off empires that need to be taken back - the Dead Pool was being resolved a lot more frequently before the temple was completed, and so in "problem areas" especially, the temples were taking much longer to be effective. But if I dropped the "resolve the Dead Pool after fighting a battle" part, then if you did put in the effort to clear out a Region before finishing the temple, those units would be dumped into the friendly cup this turn. That doesn't make it an automatically instantaneous thing - in this game, there are enemy leaders called Usurpers, and you can't start construction until they're removed - but it generally shaves a turn or so off of the time it takes for temples to do their thing.

Of course, it also has the effect of removing the "safety valve" that this mechanism had created in Charlemagne. The short version is that a turn in Charlemagne ends when there are two Turn End chits in the Dead Pool, so if one is pulled and you don't want to risk the second coming out, you can fight a battle, thus putting the first one back into the Hostile Cup. Removing that from Aurelian means that when the first chit comes out, the writing's on the wall. This allowed me to keep Charlemagne's more free-form structure (instead of the "five actions per turn" that you have with Agricola) while still keeping the game short and accelerated.

Part of that acceleration has to do with the way battles are resolved. In the other two games, set-piece battles were resolved on a battle display over the course of alternating attack and defense rounds, with each round consisting of typically seven-to-ten die rolls. It was quite a bit of wristage, but it was integral to the games' strategic "army building" aspect. Generally, the important tactical decision-making is front-loaded: you determine where to deploy your units, and then they battle somewhat automatically until either they win or lose. I would say a battle on average takes two or three minutes to resolve.

But like I said, I knew that battles would be more frequent here than in the other games, and at three minutes a pop, it could easily add an hour to the playing time. And really, an hour is about where I want this thing to max out! So in this case, I switched to a simple one-off die roll - you find the column corresponding to the target's combat value, you roll the die, and you add your own army's strength and your leadership modifier ("+1" or "+2") to arrive at the result.

But I still wanted to maintain that army-building element. And luckily in this case the history had my back, because a big part of any emperor's responsibility in this period is to maintain a defensive line along the Danube to push back against invading Germanic tribes. So one of the things you'll be doing in this game is shuffling Legions from eight spaces along the Danube to your personal army and back again. It's just granular enough to give you some tough decisions to make, especially as reinforcements are few and costly.

The Danube Front is part of three of the map's four Regions, and in each Region you can build Walls to give those Legions a defensive bonus of "+1" (begun) and "+3" (finished). Building Walls can also help you at the end of the game.

Because one of the things that Aurelian is famous for, besides the whole "undefeated Restorer of the World" shtick, isn't the walls that were constructed around important cities near the frontier, but the walls that were built specifically around Rome itself: the Aurelian Walls. And at the end of each turn, you can spend some money to continue construction of those walls, advancing a marker along a track. At the end of turn six - provided you make it that far - you're going to count the number of finished ("+3") Walls you have in other Regions, and multiply that by a modifier that's associated with the current position of the Aurelian Walls track to score bonus VP. Let's say you have two such finished Walls. If you advanced the Aurelian Walls marker once each turn, you've got a positive four modifier, and you're going to score eight extra points. If you never advanced it, you've got a negative two modifier, and score nothing. But you also lose VP at the end of the game for each enemy counter on the map, and if your modifier is at negative two - you guessed it, your penalty is gonna be doubled.

The problem of course is money - you never seem to have enough of it. Maintaining your troops along the Danube is costly, and barely leaves you anything extra to build with. And you're probably thinking, well, I'll just save up, let my treasury increase from turn to turn. That's not an option this time around. The game models inflation and currency devaluation by capping your treasury level at your income level. If you are earning 13 Coins per turn and you go into the taxation phase with 3 Coins, you're not going to bump your treasury up to 16 (3 + 13), you're going to stop at 13. Which you are then going to decrease by one coin for each point of Legion Strength on the Danube.

Campaigning against the Germans will help fill your coffers, and you can institute monetary reforms to gradually increase your Income. But the real big money is gained by recapturing the east. This also will result in the capture of Zenobia, which in turn gives you the opportunity to hold a Triumph, scoring double VPs for a single turn and flipping Aurelian over to his better, "+2", side. Die rolls get phenomenally easier and less risky when you're always adding two to them, so it's up to you if you want to do this early or if you want to hold on until a later turn where you're likely to score more VP.

I think that gives you a general idea of where I'm going with the game. I want to give players something that's closer to the depth of Charlemagne in something that's closer to the playing time for Agricola: a lot of decisions, and a lot of plates to keep spinning in the air, in an intensely concentrated and accelerated game. So far, so good; keep your fingers crossed.

1 comment

  • Charlemagne has yet to be a long game for me

    Wayne Walker

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