I love it when a game completely surprises me, completely surpassing that stage where it’s hyped within an inch of its life and instead landing on my table with little or no prior knowledge. Seemingly coming from nowhere to be included in the three nominees for this year’s Spiel des Jahres, Augustus is the latest game from Paolo Mori, the creator of other fine titles such as Libertalia and Vasco da Gama. In the past few years he’s managed to build himself quite a reputation at developing interesting yet simple to approach games and even though some of them have cause some divisive opinions, it can’t be denied that Mori is an increasingly talented designer.
This newest effort sees players thrown into the setting of ancient Rome in the reign of Augustus, the adopted son of Julius Caesar. With such an immense empire under his control, he requires the assistance of plenty of advisors, all of whom are jockeying for position in an attempt to please their mighty leader. By seizing control of regions throughout the empire and exercising dominance over the senators of Rome, you’ll build up your powerbase and hopefully win the game…
Augustus has quickly gained the reputation of being a kind of cross between Roman Bingo and 7 Wonders, and… well, that’s pretty fair. Mercifully, that’s far from a bad thing – the game is engaging from the off and can be explained in mere minutes, meaning that you’ll be able to get into it in next to no time. Set-up is a breeze with each player grabbing seven red Legion-eeples and three randomly dealt objective cards that are placed face up in front of them. A further five are dealt to the middle of the table along with a bunch of bonus point tiles which we’ll focus on a little more later. One player is given the temporary role of Town Crier (did they have them in Ancient Rome? Must check my history books…) and a bag of tokens, then away you go.
One by one these tokens are drawn from the bag, each one called out by the Crier. They range from the common crossed swords to a rarely seen dagger, and when each one hits the table, players take one of their Legions and place it a corresponding space on one of their current objectives. Should you run out – after all, you only start with seven – you may shift one that has already been placed onto another spot. Complete all the spots on an objective and you must call “Ave Caesar!” (or something along those lines) to catch the attention of the other players. The Crier stops drawing tiles and you get to score the objective, putting it to the side of your tableau and replacing it with a new one from the available five in the middle of the table. There are also a couple of Wild tokens in the bag which let you put a Legion on any space you like – very useful indeed, especially for those rarer spots! If one of these is pulled out, all the tokens are returned to the bag and it is passed on to the next player who assumes the responsibility of Town Crier.
As well as points, some cards grant abilities too. These could allow the player to use certain tokens as others (Catapults become Standards and vice versa, for example) or give you a hefty points bonus for each type of objective you have finished by the end of the game. Others are more aggressive, forcing opponents to remove Legions from their own cards or – most terrifyingly – to throw away an already complete objective! Whether you’re a confrontational kind of player who loves going on the attack or you prefer to turtle up and focus on doing your own thing, Augustus lets you take your own approach. Just be sure to keep an eye on what other people are up to, especially with the region objectives they may be working towards.
Why? Well, those bonus point tiles don’t just fall into your lap. There are three different types to claim, and doing so will set you well on the path to glory. The simplest ones to get your hands on involve completing sets of things – first to get three Senators, first to finish three regions labelled with a green banner, that kind of stuff. Manage to be the player to first hit one of these targets and you’ll grab the bonus tile. It’s yours until the end, never to be stolen away from you… unlike the Wheat and Gold tokens, which fly around the table with reckless abandon. These bonuses are claimed when completing a region that produces that resource, shown in pictures in the middle of the card. However, should someone else complete another objective that produces the same, they get to steal the bonus tile away…
The final type of bonus involves the sneakiest element of Augustus. These five tiles will give between two and ten points but can only be claimed the moment you complete a certain amount of objectives. For example, the instant you finish your fourth card, you may take the tile worth six points – however, doing so means that you are not allowed to take any of the other bonuses that are higher up should you be the first to complete your fifth or sixth ones. It’s a major push-your-luck element that really adds some tension to the game – do you leave behind the lower value tiles in a bid to race to the higher ones, risking screwing yourself out of them if someone else gets there first?
Despite the simplistic nature of the game, Augustus offers plenty of complexity. Even after only a couple of plays you’ll be figuring out ways in which you can build combinations of objectives and how you can maximise what’s available to you. Forward planning is the order of the day, seeing what cards you could be getting hold of later on in the game and how these can fit into your nefarious ambitions!
I can see why it’s been nominated for the Spiel des Jahres this year – the game plays well, is simple to learn and is a most enjoyable affair. It’s the ideal fodder for family play which, after all, is what the SdJ is all about. However, I recommend Augustus with the smallest word of caution… while I’ve had a blast playing it, especially with larger groups, it does feel like the game has had something removed from it before release in order to prime it for expansions. It’s a complete package, yes, but if this were a video game you know that there’d be some downloadable content due within a few weeks. I say this because of the region objectives; a few have the necessary gold and wheat images required to grab those elusive bonuses, but the vast majority have a much wider variety depicted upon them. From glassware and marble to horses and cornucopias stuffed with fruit, I can’t help but feel that there was a bit more in the box before the final release. Sure, it’s not an expensive game and I do feel that it’s good value, but I’d sooner have a slightly higher pricepoint and get more stuff in the box.
That’s a very minor quibble though. It’s practically a given that there’ll be more Augustus stuff later down the line (hell, the rulebook nigh on guarantees it!) so perhaps I’ll get that slightly expanded experience sooner rather than later. For now, the game feels like an excellent starter course as opposed to a full meal… I have no qualms at all about recommending it though. It scales perfectly whether you’re playing with a couple of people or maxing it out at six, and works great no matter what type of group you’re playing with. Veteran gamers will treat it as a decent, meaty filler, while families will enjoy Augustus as a quality gateway title. As for me? Well, I just want more!
Augustus was released by Hurrican in 2013. Designed by Paolo Mori, it plays in around thirty minutes whether you’ve got two or six people sitting around your table. Should you desire a copy of your own – and why on earth wouldn’t you? – copies can be grabbed from Gameslore for a shade over £20 (£20.49 to be precise).