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Introducing Sylla

Why haven't I heard more about Sylla?

Well maybe you have heard of the game, but how could this possibly be one of the best gamer's games of 2008 without more buzz about it? I can think of several reasons: 1. It was overshadowed by the hype over Dominion at Essen; 2. It suffered from the distraction of initial controversy about some of the artwork on the Decadence card; 3. It doesn't have stunning components or a catchy title; 4. It takes more than one play to appreciate. This is unfortunate, because as a result Sylla hasn't got the attention it deserves. Some games are like jewels that sparkle as soon as you see them in the game store or on the game table, others are not immediately noticed because they're hidden under a layer of dust or distraction, but given a quick polish, they prove to be just as precious jewels as the others. Sylla is in this latter category.

Why should I read a review about Sylla?

Admittedly, Sylla is not for everyone: it's not a filler for non-gamers, and it's also not for you if you don't enjoy interaction in your games. But are you looking for a gamer's game with solid interaction, good gameplay, strong theme? Do you enjoy auction games? Then look no further, because Sylla is truly an excellent game that delivers all of that and more. Make no mistake: Sylla is good. Very good! I love this game a lot. I have no plans to review every game in my collection, but games that I'm passionate about become front runners for that, and Sylla falls into that category. I've learned a lot of medium weight games in the last twelve months or so, including Agricola, Through the Ages, Railroad Tycoon, Glory to Rome, and Stone Age to mention a few. Quite honestly, I'm just as excited about playing Sylla as I am about any of the ones I just mentioned!

But before I tell you any more about the game myself, let me whet your appetite with a few selected quotes from others about how good the game is:
"Second best of the Essen show. Subtle and political. Gets better after each play." - Loic Lesuel
"In my opinion one of the most underrated games from 2008!!!" - Meeple Massacre
"Top game of BGG.CON" - James Napoli


Clearly it requires a couple of plays to appreciate its excellence:
"I think this is a game that you can fully enjoy if every player has played this game 3 - 4 times before." - Philippe Keppens
"The game mechanisms are simple to explain but hard to master. The first time you play the game, you want to play it again although uncertain of what to do better the next time. The second time you play the game, you have the feeling you know the game and you don't want to play it again. But if you play it a third time, then the game really shines! A very strong game but only if you try it a couple of times. " - Paul Nomikos

Give it a chance, and you'll see that this game can be a true gem!



What on earth is Sylla?

One thing distinctly unfortunate about the game Sylla is that the title won't grab anyone's attention, except perhaps serious students of ancient Roman history. Let me try a short experiment (assuming you're unfamiliar with the game): can you tell me 100 words about Sylla? Not the game, but the person. There, I've already given away a big hint - now you know that Sylla is the name of a person. So how about telling me 50 words about him? 20 words? A dozen? Let's be honest: the average person knows absolutely nothing about Sylla. And maybe that partly explains why this game has gone somewhat unnoticed in the gaming world. Certainly not because it's a bad game, far from it! Put out by Ystari, it bears many of the hallmarks of Ystari goodness: lots of options, cleverly interwoven. What's more, it's a game designed by Dominique Ehrhard, more well-known for games in his ludography like Serenissima, Condottiere, and Iliade. Sylla, it seems, deserves a closer look.

Who is the person Sylla?

So who is he? Sylla is the older Greek form of the Latin Sulla, and refers to Lucius Cornelius Sulla (c. 138 BC – 78 BC), a Roman general and politician. Sulla held the office of consul twice, as well as the dictatorship, and amongst his achievements was a reform of the legal system, and efforts to restore a balance of power between the Senate and the Tribunes.



What is the game Sylla?

The game Sylla was created by Dominique Ehrhard, with Cyril Demaegd of Ystari also having a key hand in the final design. It some respects it was inspired by The Republic of Rome, a game which simulates the politics of the Roman Senate during the republic, and where players take the part of various factions vying for the control of the senate. The expression res publica occurs within the game of Sylla, and is a Latin phrase (literally meaning "public thing" or "public matter") that is the origin of the word "republic" (Res Publica Romana = Republic of Rome). So Sylla thematically is The Republic of Rome Light, in which players take the role of Roman senators in a quest for glory. The setting is the time immediately following Sylla, as senators compete to gain the most prestige and take control of Rome following Sylla's abdication. To do this, players must recruit people, take advantage of their connections and fortunes to build great works, fight against threats, and keep the political climate of Rome stable.

But while the theme is closely related to Republic of Rome, the flow of a game is arguably more like Saint Petersburg, in that players typically first build an engine that generates income, recruits characters, and buys buildings, and towards the latter half of the game makes a transition to point-scoring. Cyril Demaegd of Ystari concedes that while the general rhythm of the game is reminiscent of Saint Petersburg, but there are few other similarities. This is a typical Ystari game, remember, and there's a lot more going on! Let's find out!



Components

The box-cover immediately introduces us to the flavour of the game - we see a Soldier, a Senator, and scenes from the Colosseum and the decadence of ancient Rome.



The back of the box tells us more:



The synopsis of the game is similar to what we find in the rules:
The year is 79 BC. Sylla, the uncontested master of Rome, is preparing to abdicate. During his reign the Roman senate has rediscovered its glory and many are the pretenders to his supreme power.
But Rome is a fickle mistress; the people are hungry and want for bread and circuses. Only the most cunning politicians can take advantage of the situation…
Players take the role of Roman senators in their quest for glory. They use their fortunes and their connections to build great works and resolve the political problems of the Republic. At the end of the game the player with the most prestige wins and takes control of Rome.
Recruit followers to your side to help you progress down the road to glory, rule your soldiers with a fist of iron to try to prevent threats that menace the republic while also satisfying the people.


In other words, you must try to use your wealth, power and influence in ancient Rome, in order to get the most prestige points, and so win the game.

As we can see, it comes with a boat-load of components.



Here's the complete list of components:
● 1 board
● 14 tiles
● 40 wooden cubes
● 4 wooden player markers
● 1 wooden turn counter
● 117 Res Publica tokens (I'll call these "Republic tokens" in the rest of this review)
● 1 Famine token
● 40 coins
● 60 cards
● 4 screens
● 1 rule book & player aid

The deluxe edition at Essen 2008 even had metal coins!



Let's check out the components a little more closely!

Components: Rule Book

The rule book consist of eight pages:



Fortunately it's not all text, but includes very helpful references to all the game components and board. For example, here are some key symbols you'll be seeing throughout the rest of this review:



The rule book also has a series of extended pictorial examples illustrating all the phases of a game turn, which is very helpful to visualize how the game works.

You can download the rules in full here:
http://www.ystari.com/sylla/SyUS.pdf
For a reference sheet which condenses the entire rules onto one page, without illustrations:
http://www.boardgamegeek.com/filepage/37788

There's also a pictorial player aid or reference sheet explaining the functions of all the Building tiles, Event cards, and the Great Works.

Components: Board

The game board itself serves well to introduce the basic concepts of game-play:



The aim of the game is to score the most Prestige points, which is measured on the score track at the bottom of the board. Each player gets a player marker in their colour (blue, red, black, or white), to keep track of their current score:



The yellow marker is the Turn counter, and is used to keep track of the seven phases of play during the game (marked with Roman numerals). At first glance, the board seems terribly complex, with all kinds of symbols, numbers, and icons. But once you're familiar with the game, you'll appreciate how the board functions as a handy summary of all aspects of game-play. After you've learned the rules, there's not much to remember: you just follow the flow of play outlined on the board, and move through the seven phases pictured there. Other components of the game are closely connected with this - for instance, the same Roman numerals will appear on cards and tiles as a handy reference to indicate which phase of the game that certain cards and buildings can be used.

Normally I explain the game-play after looking at the components, but because of how all the different aspects of the game connect together, you'll need a brief overview of the game-play first.

Components: Game-play Overview

Component arrangement in the game

Players take on the role of Senators and try to get the most prestige points. Here we see a reference picture, showing the game board and cards in play:



Marked are the following:
A: at the bottom of the game-board is the "Road of Glory," which is the score track used to keep track of players current prestige points.
B: at the top of the game-board is the "Res Publica" (Republic) ladder, showing the current state of Civic Spirit (purple token), Health (blue token), and Leisure (green token), on a scale of 1 (Crisis) through 4 (Ideal). Immediately below this is a Famine marker track (1-6).
C-G: on the left of the board are the Character cards available to be recruited in Phase II.
I,Q: below the board are the Building tiles available to be purchased in Phase III.
L,M,N: on the right of the board are the bad Event cards which players will work together to try to prevent in Phase V.
P: above the board are completed Great Works cards that players have worked together to build in Phase VI.

Run out of room on the scoring track? Not to worry, there are four tiles indicating 50 prestige points:



The seven phases of the game



So here's the flow of play for the seven phases of each of the five turns:
I. First Consul: Players use their Senators and money to elect a First Consul (who gets some special benefits during that turn, e.g. deciding how ties are resolved).
II. Recruitment: Each player gets a new Character.
III. Buildings: Players use their Characters to buy Buildings in an auction.
IV. Revenue: Players get income of 3 coins (increased by owning Stalls and Merchants)
V. Events: Players use Soldiers and Servants to work together to prevent two of the four Events in play (and earn Republic tokens), while the remaining two Events are resolved.
VI. Great Works: Players work together to build a Great Work, and earn prestige points depending on the size of their contribution.
VII. Famine and Crisis: Players lose prestige for food shortages, and crisis events are resolved if any Republic tokens are in the crisis area.



The aim of the game

So how do you win? During the game you get prestige points from some Buildings, but primarily from contributing to Great Works (with money and Senator votes). After five turns, at the end of the game, bonus prestige points are added for some Characters (2 points per Christian character, and 3 point for each Slave freed at a cost of 2 coins) and for Republic tokens earned (according to the current value on the Republic ladder). The player with the most prestige points wins!

Components: Res Publica tokens

There are 117 Res Publica tokens, or Republic tokens.



There are three types, representing Civil Spirit (violet/pink), Leisure (green), and Health (blue):



Players earn these throughout the game, primarily when they send Soldiers and Servants to combat Events, but also by some Buildings (Insula, Private Temple) or as a result of being elected First Consul. These are worth prestige points at the end of the game, and can add up significantly. Their value at the end of the game depends on what the value of the three tokens on the Republic ladder is. For example, here each Civic Spirit and Leisure token is worth 2 points, and each token for Health is worth 3 points.



Components: Famine token

Just one Famine token is needed, but three are provided (I suppose in case you get really hungry and eat two of them!):



The Famine token is used on the Famine track, to keep track of the current state of Famine. At the end of each turn in Phase VII, players must feed their people, and lose prestige points accordingly. The amount of prestige lost is based on the current state of Famine, reduced by two points for every Field owned.

Components: Money

There are 40 coins:



The 35 silver coins represent 1 denier, while the 5 gold coins represent 5 deniers:



At the beginning of the game each player also gets a Revenue tile, which represents an income of 3 deniers per turn, during the Revenue phase (4):



When the game was first released, a deluxe edition featured actual metal coins:



Components: Player screens

Each player receives a screen, so that they can keep the current amount of their money and Republic tokens secret:





The artwork corresponds to the artwork on the Soldier, Slave, Senator, and Servant character cards, but has no significance otherwise.

Components: Cards

Now we get to the more important elements of the game. The 60 cards come in two shrink-wrapped decks:



Cards are used for several important things in the game, including Events, special Buildings (the Crane), Characters, and Great Works. Here we see the different artwork on the back of the Events, Crane, and Character cards.



The break-down of the cards is as follows: 40 x Character, 7 x Great Works, 10 x Events, 3 x Crane

Components: Character cards

There are 40 Character cards, with eight of each of the following: Senators, Merchants, Slaves, Legionaries (Soldiers), and Vestal Virgins (Servants):



To simplify the terminology, we call the Legionaries "Soldiers" and the Vestal Virgins "Servants" (the vestal virgins were servants really, they just kept fires burning in Roman temples and gathered water). Each player begins with four Characters and recruits one extra Character in each of the five turns of game-play. The neat thing about Characters is that they can be used for two different things through the game:

1. Purchasing Buildings: During the game, Buildings come up for sale and are auctioned in one of three currencies seen on top of the Character cards: red, yellow, or grey. Characters can be "tapped" (turned sideways) to pay for this cost.

2. Special effects: Untapped Characters (i.e. those not used for purchasing Buildings) can be used for their special power, which is different for each Character:
i. Senator: to vote for the First Consul (Phase I) or to contribute to Great Works (Phase VI)
ii. Merchant: to generate one denier (coin) of Revenue (Phase IV)
iii. Soldiers and Servants: to help prevent two of the four bad Events (Phase V)
The icons and symbols on the bottom left of each Character card function as a reminder of what the special power of each Character is.

For example, the Soldier pictured below could be used either to contribute one as payment toward a Building in the Yellow currency, or he can be used in Phase V, and placed on an Event card (indicated with a player's cube) to help combat a bad Event:



Some Characters have the fish symbol (representing Christianity) to indicate that they are Christian Characters:



Christian Characters will earn you two bonus points each at the end of the game.

Components: Buildings

There are 32 Building tiles altogether, with a mix of nine different Buildings.



They are marked with an A, B, or C on the reverse, to ensure that the distribution of different types is spread evenly throughout the game:



Some Buildings give immediate benefits, like the Triumphal Arch (6 prestige points), Statue (4 prestige points), Bank (5 coins), and Insula (2 Republic tokens). Other Buildings give benefits that can be used in different phases of the game (marked on the tile), like the Crane, Tavern, Stall, Field, and Private Temple.





The Crane is a special Building - players who purchase it get one of the three Crane cards, which they can use like Character cards towards the purchase of other Buildings on their next turn and for the rest of the game.



Components: Event cards

Event cards come up in Phase V, such as Erruption:



There are nine different events altogether: Epidemic, Eruption, Imperial Cult, Famine, Christian Persecution, Senate Purge, Flood, Slave Revolt, Pillage, Decadence. And they're all bad! Each turn, four of these will be potential Events. For each Servant and Soldier that they have not been used to buy a Building (i.e. untapped), players get one cube in their colour, which they can use to try to prevent this Event. So thematically, you're using Soldiers and Servants to try to overcome negative Events, so the theme is strong here.

Probably my favorite artwork in the game is on some of the Event cards, like the Slave Revolt, Pillage, and Flood:



Pictured here is the Famine Event:



The icons on the Event cards are also important. The famine icon on the top right counts towards the amount that the Famine marker will increase on the track that turn. The icon on the bottom of the Event card indicates the bad event that will happen if the event is not prevented (in this case: the Famine marker increases). The icon on the top left indicates the Republic token that the player contributing most Soldiers and Servants (cubes) to this event will earn. The icon on the middle left indicates the type of Characters that can work to prevent this event (in this case: only Servants).

So what exactly do all the Events do? Here's a reference sheet:






Components: Player cubes

There are 40 cubes, in each of the four player cubes, i.e. ten per player:



These are used in the Event phase, to designate Soldiers and Servants that combat Events.

Components: Great Works cards

Each turn players work together to complete five of six Great Works (one is removed randomly):



The six Great Works are Pantheon, Temple, Granary, Baths, Colosseum, and Senate. When they are built, they are turned over and placed at the top of the gameboard:



I love the artwork on these too! For example, here is the Baths:



And the Senate and Colosseum:



So how do they work? During the Phase VI, players will simultaneously bid Senators and coins, either to contribute to help build the Great Work, or to give directly to the people. Let's take the Baths (Themae) as an example. The bottom part of the Great Work card indicates what happens if you choose to support the people directly (thumbs down): you get 1 prestige points for every 2 votes you contribute. The top part of the Great Work card indicates what happens if you choose to finance the Great Work (thumbs up): the player who bids the most, gets 5 prestige points, the player who bids the second most gets 3 prestige points; further more, for every 5 votes, the Health token moves up one.

So what do all the Great Works do? Here is a reference sheet:




At the end of the game, a sixth Great Work is built automatically, i.e. the Church:



This represents the onset of Christianity, and reflects the end-game scoring where players get points for each of the Christian characters, and slaves that they pay to set free.

Game-play: Set-up

Main board

The main board is set-up with the four player tokens at 10 on the score track, the yellow turn marker on Phase I, and one of each Republic token in the middle of the Republic ladder. The cards and tiles for each of the phases are also placed on the board: the Character cards, Building tiles (the A tiles on top, B tiles in the middle, and C tiles on the bottom), Event cards, and the Great Works (one is removed at random).



Great Works

Of the six Great Works, only five will be used, so one is removed at random. The Ecclesia (Church) event occurs automatically at the end of the game, so this is also removed and placed on the top of the game board.

Characters

Each player selects four Characters from their deck (the deck based on the number on the reverse side of the Revenue tile they draw):



The remaining Character cards are shuffled together, and placed on the board, from which six are placed on the left of the board for recruiting in the first turn:



Buildings

Six of the building tiles are placed at the bottom of the game-board for auction in the first turn.



Events

The Decadence Event card remains in play for the entire game, and should be placed at the bottom right of the board. Three other Events are placed here as well - these are the four bad events that will potentially happen this turn:



Player components

Starting characters are revealed simultaneously, and each player also receives 3 coins (plus 1 extra for each Merchant character they have), as well as all the cubes of their colour, and a player screen:



Overall setup

The final setup for a four player game should look something like this:



Let's now look at each of the seven phases of game-play a little more closely.

Game-play: Phase I - First Consul



Election: Beginning with the First Consul (or starting player), each player gets one opportunity to bid for the right of becoming First Consul, by counting their Senator characters, and adding whatever amount of coins they are prepared to pay.

Republic: The highest bidder pays his money and takes one Republic token of his choice.

Famine: The famine marker is moved to the right (as many places as the total of all the famine symbols on the four Event cards).

An example:



Game-play: Phase II - Recruitment



Recruiting Characters: Starting with the First Consul, each player selects one Character from the six that are available on the left of the board. The remaining two are discarded.

An example:



Game-play: Phase III - Buildings



First Building: The First Consul chooses one of the six Building tiles available for sale on the bottom of the board, and each player gets to bid once, starting with the player on the left of the First Consul. The highest bidder must pay the cost by "tapping" Characters bearing the colour that corresponds to the colour on the edge of the board where the tile is located. Here four Characters (the Crane is used just like a character for bidding) have been "tapped" to pay the cost of a building tile that cost 4 red.



Subsequent Buildings: The person who purchased the Building then selects another Building to be auctioned, starting with the player on his left. This continues until five Buildings have been put up for sale.

An example:



Game-play: Phase IV - Revenue



Collecting Revenue: Each player gets 3 Revenue (from their Revenue tile), as well as two coins for each Stall (Building), and one coin for each untapped Merchant character (i.e. Merchants that were not used to buy Buildings). Some buildings like the Private Temple and Tavern have special abilities that can be used in this phase.

In addition to the 3 Revenue from the Revenue tile, the prosperous player pictured below would earn 10 extra coins! (6 from three Stalls, 4 from four untapped Merchants)



An example:



Game-play: Phase V - Events



Placement: For each Soldier and Servant that hasn't been used for buying Buildings, a player gets a cube, and in turns they place them on one of the four Event cards (cubes for Servants can only be placed on events with the Servant icon, and the same for Soldiers), until all cubes are placed.



Allocation of Republic tokens: For each Event, the player with the most cubes on that Event (ties benefit both players affected), gets a Republic token matching the one pictured on that Event card (in the case of the Decadence Event, players get a prestige point). Thematically, this represents the idea that players who have contributed the most Soldiers and Servants to try to prevent that event are honoured by the Republic for their contribution to the Republic's civic spirit, recreation, or health.

Event Effects: The two Events with the most cubes are prevented (ties are decided by the First Consul). The other two Events happen, and are resolved.

Removing an Event: Of the two Events that are prevented, the one with the most cubes is removed from the game completely and replaced with a new potential Event for the next turn. Thematically, this represents that the efforts of players' Soldiers and Servants have succeeding in eliminating this effect and preventing it from happening entirely. The exception is Decadence, which must remain in play the entire game (in which case it is the Event with the second most cubes that is eliminated).

An example:



Game-play: Phase VI - Great Works



In this phase players combine to construct a Great Work, but instead of winning prestige by contributing to the Great Work, they can decide instead to give their resources directly to the plebeians (people). Each player counts his untapped Senators (i.e. those not used for buying Buildings that turn), and may secretly add money in their fist. Players hold out their fists, and simultaneously choose to put their thumbs up (contributing to the Great Work) or thumbs down (supporting the Plebeians).

Plebeians: Thumbs down - For every two Senators and coins paid, a player gets one prestige point.

Great Work: Thumbs up - The players with the largest contributions get prestige points as listed on the top of the Great Works card, and depending on the total number of votes/coins contributed to the Great Work, the position of the tokens on the Republic ladder may also be adjusted.

An example:



Completed Great Works are placed at the top of the board:



Game-play: Phase VII - Famine & Crisis



Famine: Each player loses prestige points equal to the level of famine less 2 points per Field they own.

Crisis: If a Republic token is in the crisis zone, all players must reveal their tokens of that colour: the player with the most gets three prestige points, the player with the least loses three prestige points. Thematically, this represents the idea that when there is a crisis in the domain of civic spirit, recreation, or health, the person who has made the least contributions to the Republic in this area will be blamed for it!

An example:



Game-play: End of Game Scoring

End of Turn: At the end of the turn, 6 new Character cards are added next to the board, along with 6 new Buildings, "tapped" Characters are "untapped", and the turn marker is returned to mark Phase I.

End of Game:

A sixth great work, the Church, happens automatically at the end of the game.



Bonus points are thus awarded at the end of the game as follows:

Advent of Christianity: Each face up Christian Character earns two prestige points.

Freeing of slaves: For two coins each, players may free Slaves to earn 3 prestige points each.

Political outcome: Players reveal their Republic tokens, and get prestige points for each one according to the current value on the Republic ladder.



An example:



Strategy: Understanding the design

The design as vehicle for strategy

Several people have commented that Sylla is a typical Ystari game, and that Ystari games have a certain common feeling about them despite different themes and mechanisms. Certainly there are lots of things going on, but in my opinion they are all interwoven and interconnected in a good way, and I'd regard it as one of the strengths of this game. Apparently I'm not the only one of this persuasion - in an article by Jonathan Degann in the Journal of Boardgame Design, there's some positive comments about Sylla, including the following: "I found Sylla to be greater than the sum of its parts. There are A LOT of mechanisms in play each game turn, but all are reasonably familiar so the game is easy to learn ... Sylla's variety of character types and colors, its pricing mechanisms for colored discs, and its multiple distinct phases create plenty of opportunities to let players try out different strategies."

The design and integration of varied mechanics

So what are some of the ways that the elements of the game are related? Here's a complete list, that shows something of the complexity of interrelated parts of the game, and also will prove helpful when make strategic decisions during game-play:

Ways to get prestige points:
● Buildings (Triumphal Arch, Statue - Phase III)
● most Soldiers and Servants combating Decadence Event (Phase V)
● financing Great Works or giving to the Plebeians (Phase VI)
● most Republic tokens during a Crisis (Phase VII)
● Christian Characters (end of game)
● freed Slaves (end of game)
● Republic tokens (end of game)

Ways to get money:
● Revenue tile (3 coins each - Phase IV)
● untapped Merchant Characters (1 coin each - Phase IV)
● Buildings i.e. Bank (5 coins once only - Phase III) and Stall (2 coins - Phase IV)

Ways to use money:
● add to Senators as part of bid for First Consul (phase I)
● add to Senators as part of contribution for Great Works or gift to the Plebeians (Phase VI)
● free Slaves at 2 coins each (end of game)

Ways to get Republic tokens:
● privilege of First Consul (Phase I)
● Buildings i.e. Insula (2 tokens once only - Phase III) and Private Temple (1 token for 2 coins - Phase IV)
● most Soldiers and Servants combating Events (Phase V)

Ways to use Characters:
● buy buildings (Phase III)
● Senator: bid for First Consul (Phase I), or contribute to Great Works for points (Phase VI)
● Merchant: earn 1 coin (Phase IV)
● Soldier/Servant: combat Events and earn Republic tokens or points (Phase V)
● Slave: earn 3 prestige points each by being freed for 2 coins (end of game)
● Christians: earn 2 prestige points each (end of game)

Ways to use Buildings:
● get prestige points (Triumphal Arch, Statue)
● get coins (Bank, Stall)
● get Republic tokens (Insula, Private Temple)
● get Characters (Crane)
● avoid Famine (Field)
● change value of Republic tokens (Tavern)



The design and long-term strategies

As a result there are all kinds of interesting strategic decisions to be made:
● Should you focus on generating income with Merchants and Stalls get you lots of money to get prestige points by means of Great Works? But there is the risk you can get hurt by Events.
● Should you focus on earning Republic tokens, with Buildings like the Insula and Temple, and characters like Soldiers and Servants in the Event phase? But there is the risk that tokens might be valued too low, or that others earn more points with Great Works for you to catch up on.
● Should you focus on earning points at the end game by Christians and freeing slaves? But there is the risk that Persecution and Slave Revolt could make them useless.
● Should you diversify and use a combination of the above strategies? But there is a risk that diversification will weaken your quest for points in each area.
There is no immediately clear answer to these questions, and I look forward to exploring this further.

Strategy: Using characters

The Ystari website has some great strategy suggestions for using different Characters, which I have summarized and condensed:

Slaves



Since Slaves are the only Character that allow bidding in all three colours, they are primarily useful for buying Buildings. Both Slave Revolt and Christian Persecution can negatively affect Slaves, so having Soldiers handy to prevent them can be useful. Slaves are the only characters that don't have another ability, but they have the advantage of being set free at the end of the game for prestige points, so they can be part of a long term strategy of success, as long as you have enough money to pay for their freedom.

Soldiers and Servants



Soldiers and Servants have a more limited use in bidding for Buildings, since each Character only can bid in one colour. Their primary role is to fight the threat of bad Events. Soldiers will help protect your Stalls against the Pillage event, and protect your Characters against the Slave Revolt, Senate Purge, and Christian Persecution. Servants will help fight the threat of other Events, but unlike Soldiers will give you the possibility of earning Health tokens, as well as preserve the value of all three Republic tokens. So Soldiers help protect your Characters, while Servants allow you to protect your Republic tokens.

Merchants and Senators



Senators and Merchants both assist you to become First Consul (Phase I), or contribute to Great Works (Phase VI) - the Merchant doing so by earning coins that can be used for this purpose. Both can be used to help strengthen your bid for First Consul (which has the added bonus of earning a Republic token), or your contribution to a Great Work (which has the added bonus of increasing the value of Republic tokens). Senators are particularly useful for trying to take control of the First Consul. But they are vulnerable, although you can use Soldiers to protect them against the Senate Purge Event. On the other hand, Merchants are not threatened by any Event. Merchants also have the advantage that coins earned can be kept secret behind the player screen, making it harder for other players to figure out how much you will bid - there's also the flexibility that the money can be used with the Private Temple to get Republic tokens.

Other things to know

Interview with Ystari's Cyril Demaegd

If you are French speaking, you may also wish to consult this interview with Ystari's Cyril Demaegd about Sylla:
http://www.trictrac.net/index.php3?id=tv&inf=tv_flash&ref=11...



Two player variant

The game is officially for 3-4 players, but Ystari does have a variant for two players that you can download from their website:
http://www.ystari.com/sylla/Sylla2.pdf

Expansion

An expansion (Sylla: the Forum Romanum) is in the works with two new Characters (Gladiator, Philosopher), two new Events (Earthquake, Defeat), and 1 new Great Work (the Forum), as well as a First Consul card. For a preview of some of the artwork, see the illustrator's website here.

Artwork controversy

There is some controversy (here and here and here) about the artwork on the Decadence card, which also appears on the box cover. The Rio Grande edition comes with the "censored" and more family-friendly artwork, which was modified from the more risque artwork of the original game:



Unfortunately, along with the hype for Dominion, this controversy may have been one of the things that served as a distraction from more important discussion about Sylla's game-play. NB: Any further discussion on this controversy should continue in the existing threads on this subject, rather than in response to this review.)

Thematic anachronism

Several cards refer to Christianity, including Characters, an Event (Christian persecution), and Great Work (Church):



But is the advent of Christianity in the game consistent with the theme? Even if we generously allow a period of 50 years for the struggle to succeed Sylla (78-28BC), the reality is that the Christian church didn't emerge until the first half of the first century AD.

Commenting on the fact that it is ahistorical to have Christian characters in a game that deals with the aftermath of Sylla's rule, Ystari's Cyril Demaegd stated: "“We don’t pretend to be really precise about this, and this is not an historical book, but a game. The game, like its ancestor, is supposed to span over a long period, so it’s not impossible to imagine Christians in it!” Some have criticized the game sharply for not being historically accurate on this point, and that placing Christians in the era of the restoration of the Roman senate and Republic destroys the theme. The game designers defend their position by suggesting that a game need not be precise about dates, but that it is legitimate to include elements from a long period in history in a game without making it a historical simulation. See more extensive dialogue between one of the game designers and the critics here:
http://www.boardgamegeek.com/thread/328441

What do I think?

There's a number of things I really, really like about Sylla:

Strong Theme

The theme is strong. Very strong! For instance, take the Event phase - is this an auction? Or is it an area control mechanic? To be honest, I'm not sure. But it certainly makes a lot of sense when you explain it in terms of theme: for this phase you want to have Soldiers and Servants, and use them to try to neutralize bad Events! And whoever makes the biggest contribution to combating a certain Event, gets prestige (via victory points or Republic tokens), and the Events that have the most Soldiers and Servants trying to combat them are prevented. It makes perfect sense from a thematic viewpoint! And that's true of so much of the game.

High Interaction

There's constant interaction between the players - such as Phase I where you vote for the First Consul, Phase III where you bid for Buildings, Phase V where you cooperate to fight bad Events, Phase VI where you cooperate to build Great Works. Some have spoken of this as an auction game, and I guess it does have auctions, although they are all very different from one another. Phase I is a type of auction where you bid with Senators and money around the circle. Phase VI is also a type of auction where you bid with Senators and money, but the bidding is secret, simultaneous and cooperative - so it feels totally different! Phase III where you buy Buildings features not just one auction but several auctions, for which you use Characters. And Phase V is also a kind of auction, but another cooperative one, where the Events that have the most resistance from all players are prevented.

All of these phases feel completely different, and yet what they have in common is a high level of interaction. From the perspective of game-play, this makes for fascinating choices and very interesting decisions. Do I use my Soldier and Servant now to get a Building I need? Or do I need to save them to use them in the Event phase, to resist an Event I want to prevent? But that depends on what others think and do, and of course this is a big unknown! In that sense you need to constantly evaluate your own position, but try to figure out what others might do, and make your own decisions accordingly, because to some extent you are also at the mercy of what the group will do. But best of all, you never feel that that you're merely doing "auctions", because the strength of the theme trumps the mechanics!

Maik Hennebach also lists Sylla as an entry on his very popular list "Brilliant Design Ideas of 2008", for similar reasons. He makes this comment: "While it looks like a bit of a rules hodgepodge at first glance, Sylla will reveal itself to be a tense and extremely streamlined political game during the first time you sit down to play it. The beautiful thing is that all the alliances, bluffs and betrayals are not just superimposed on the mechanics, but grow out of them naturally, and quite inevitably, too. This is accomplished by a good mixture of synergetic and cannibalistic aspects of the game." I'll leave you to read his complete missive on the subject for all his reasoning, but suffice it to say that I find his position well articulated and accurate. The cultural, military and political achievements force you to work together with other players and at the same time against them, and this creates some wonderful tensions and choices!

Cooperative Elements

Cooperative elements without it being a cooperative game? Yes, in Sylla you need to work together in two phases: positively in building Great Works, and negatively to prevent bad events. This is a fascinating and innovative element of the game!

Multiple Paths

There are different ways to get prestige. You could opt for a financial strategy where Merchants and Stalls get you lots of money, which you put towards Great Works for points. Or you could opt for a Republic token strategy, using the Insula and Temple to get tokens, and Soldiers and Servants to get you lots of tokens in the Event phase. Or you could opt for an end game strategy, acquiring Christians and slaves, and trying to get lots of points at the end of the game. The best part is that you never really know who is going to win! One person may be way ahead at the end of the game, but then when the Church is built and Slaves are freed, another player may get lots of points for Christians and Slaves. And because Republic tokens are kept secret, a player may leap ahead 30 or more points at the end to win. This makes the game interesting right until the very last moment, adds an element of variety and tension, and certainly enhances replayability!



Imperfect Information

Some people like games which have no luck and are perfect information. Sylla is not one of them. There are at least three aspects of imperfect information in Sylla:
a) Card & tile draw: Sylla has a very low level of luck - the only luck element is which Characters are drawn, which Buildings are auctioned, which Events are potentially going to happen, and the order in which Great Works will be built. If anything, the small random element makes the game different every time, and increases the replay value. But it is one of the elements of imperfect information that the game offers.
b) Decisions of other players: In the end, the decisions of the players are going to be far more important than the random draw. And here's the fascinating thing: Sylla is a game of imperfect information, not primarily because you don't know what cards are going to come up, but because you don't know what the other players are going to do! How much are they going to contribute to the Great Work currently in progress? Which Event are they going to try to prevent? At the beginning of the turn, you don't know which two of the four Events will be prevented, because it depends entirely on what other players will do. This makes planning difficult, without becoming pointless or impossible.
c) Scoring: It's very hard at any given point to know who is winning, because Republic tokens are kept secret, so the amount that players will get at the end of the game is an unknown. What's more, the amount of prestige points that players will get for these tokens depends on the values of the matching Republic tokens on the track - which can change! It's brilliant!

So unlike many other economic games, in Sylla you don't always know who is going to win, because of the imperfect and hidden information. What's more, the value of certain things (e.g. tokens) can change as the game progresses. This makes the process of evaluating constantly tense and interesting.

Constant Variety

The game consists of only five turns, but since each turn has seven phases, you are constantly doing different things. This keeps the game interesting. There's a real sense of accomplishing different things as the game progresses through the five turns, and it never feels boring or repetitive.

Deep Game-play

Everything in the game is interconnected, and there are so many possibilities. The high level of interaction accounts for part of this, but so do the other mechanics of the game. For example, Characters can be used in multiple ways - either to get Buildings, or for their special ability (eg to get income, or combat Events, or recruit more Characters). There are multiple different ways to score points, multiple different ways to get Republic tokens, multiple different ways to get money. And yet I don't find that this weighs the game down or makes it overly complex - one player I taught this with said she found it easier to get a handle on Sylla than Agricola. I had no difficulty teaching it to my 8 year old, 10 year old, or 12 year old - in fact my 12 year old won the first game he played, and my 8 year old came second in the first game he played. But Sylla does offer a deep interrelated system, where everything can potentially have an impact on everything else, and true gamers will likely love this.

Fun Factor

All of the above elements result in a game that's just tremendous fun to play. Even people who have a usual distaste for auctions might find that the strong theme overcomes their regular lack of appetite for this style of game. But the high interaction, solid theme, constant tension, and particularly the elements of cooperation boils down to a game that's a whole lot of fun to play!

Weaknesses

Are there things I don't like about the game? Well there are a few minor things. I'm not really crazy about the artwork, although that's purely a matter of personal taste. I'm not super enthusiastic about the name of the game, because the game actually takes place in the era after Sylla, and the name certainly isn't going to be something that makes people grab it off the shelf. And there's a few small things I'd change about the game, but I'll be honest: they are all very minor nitpicky things. For the most part, I'm enjoying this immensely, and every play just makes me eager to play it again immediately - something that can only be said of a few other gamer's games that I enjoy like Through the Ages and Agricola.

Suitability

Who would most like this game? Gamers who enjoy an involved game with high interaction and a strong theme, and are prepared to give it a chance.



What do others think?

But don't just take my word for it. Here's what a few other fans of Sylla have to say about it:
"The game is really engaging, polished, thematic and strategic." - HavocIsHere
"Very very good. The game is complex, different strategies are possible, difficult choices are present (I'd say this is maybe the game with the most non-obvious choices that I know), resources are very limited - all that hardcore gamer likes :-) On the other hand it's really fresh design, not comparable to anything that I know. I really like several new concepts from here like multiple possibilities of using some resources, fighting disasters etc." - Jacek Malinowski
"Some games successfully mix theme and great mechanics, Sylla is one of those. Every decision seems crucial towards the endgame, and the interaction is quite strong. Great game there. Ystari is finally meeting my expectations." - Olivier (Capitaine Grappin)
"Sylla is a game with familiar mechanisms, but yet the game feels inventive and new." - Jon Erik Tosterud




The final word

Is Sylla for you? If you can't stand strong interaction, or a deep game, stay far away. But if you enjoy a solid theme, good interaction, multiple paths to victory, then Sylla is good bet. The best game of 2008? That's probably saying too much, given the success of games like Dominion, Pandemic, and Stone Age - although Sylla is arguably a better game for gamers than all of the above. It's probably fair to say that the Dominion hype, some distractions as a result of the controversy concerning the artwork and historical consistency of the game title and theme, and the lack of eye-catching candy, may all have contributed to this game flying somewhat under the radar. Which is really too bad, because in my book, Sylla is one of the very best from 2008, and deserves a closer look. Here's hoping that you're intrigued enough to find out more!



Edit: Error about the use of the Crane card corrected, as suggested by Dave Peters.

------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
The complete list of Ender's pictorial reviews: http://www.boardgamegeek.com/geeklist/37596
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Snowball
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Gender: pot*ato. My opinion is an opinion.
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I have observed the same nitpicks about Sylla, which I felt I needed to include just so that people reading my review would not have the impression I own Ystari shares, but I definitely also feel that it is the best gamer's game of 2008.
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Patrick Cherlet
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I am very impressed with your review. It's put Sylla back on my wish list.

Do you have any thoughts on how it scales with player number? What do you think of the 2-player variant?
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Maarten D. de Jong
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Sylla suffered not only from competition with Dominion (and perhaps Macchu Pichu), but from wilfull neglect by both publishers. There were just two, perhaps three tables available on the entire Spiel fair: one at Ystari (where on a dû comprendre le français), and one at a high bar table at RGG. The game simply didn't stand a chance that way. Perhaps it was them ham-resembling naked butts covering about 1 square centimeter on a box cover, but given that people in Germany are really not that squeamish... We'll probably never know.

Aside from the review---which is nice, although I disagree about Sylla being a hidden gem or jewel, I felt it was too top-heavy, cramming too much mechanisms into a single design without getting a lot of interesting play in return---a word about the accessibility of this review for those without hyperscroll buttons on their mice, like the ones found on the Logitech MX and VX Revolution. The multitude of images is really pushing what is still reasonable to scroll through. Perhaps for your next review you can include thumbnails for the less important pictures---cubes, cards in their original packaging, pictures of the rule book, and so forth. The people with regular mice will thank you for it.

Aaarrgghhh... Apologies for the edits.
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Anselmo Diaz
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I just gave you for the amazing review's format alone.
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Günter D'Hoogh
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A fantastic review, Ender! I own the game but didn't play it so far. It surely will hit the table during one of our weekly gaming nights.

As an afterthought: I just bought the game because of the title, being a history teacher certainly got something to do with it I suppose!
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Justin Robben
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Tip granted.

What an amazing review.

I own the game and want to buy a 2nd copy now...
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Miles Brown
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Excellent review!
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fen
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You've pretty much confirmed what I thought when I first looked at the mechanics and components of the game. I bought it on a hunch and I was proven right once I recieved the game and again when I read this.

It's a brilliant game which is set to grab people's attentions if they'd only let it. This review should hopefully do that.

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Paulo Soledade
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Another great review, as usual. I don't agree with all your conclusions because there are certain things in this game that actualy don't work that well IMO. The artwork I think it's pretty fine as usual in Ystari titles.

The way famine and respublica tokens' levels oscilate (or not) during the game are a bit clumsy. Maybe it's just me, or my group, but I've never seen a revolt during the game.

I've never seen a respublica token worth more than 3 VP's at the end of the game also.

The game plays in decent time (60 minutes) and has lots of interaction and replayability I agree with you on that.

PS
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Karis Shem
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Thank you very much for this wonderful review Ender.
The game was clearly overshadowed, that's true, but i'm pretty confident it'll find it's public with the time...

Anyway, thank you for pointing all those important points about theme and strategy. We worked hard with Dominique to create this game and are really proud of it, it's good to know that some players are now enjoying the result and sharing our point of view !!!

Regards,
Cyril

PS on my brother's website (arnauddemaegd.com), you can check some previews of the upcoming expansion. 2 new characters, 2 new events and 1 new project...

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Karis Shem
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Soledade wrote:


The way famine and respublica tokens' levels oscilate (or not) during the game are a bit clumsy. Maybe it's just me, or my group, but I've never seen a revolt during the game.

I've never seen a respublica token worth more than 3 VP's at the end of the game also.

PS


You're lucky some people have seen 5 revolts in one game...
But in fact it depends a lot on the order of great projects and also on decadence (which can affect several tokens). If you want a game with revolts i suggest a setup without events that are moving markers in the beginning.

4VP tokens are possible too, but rare. It's intentional for the general balance of the game...

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Dan
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I must think over my position and how I may improve it.
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Quote:
Who is the person Sylla?

So who is he? Sylla is the older Greek form of the Latin Sulla, and refers to Lucius Cornelius Sulla (c. 138 BC – 78 BC), a Roman general and politician. Sulla held the office of consul twice, as well as the dictatorship, and amongst his achievements was a reform of the legal system, and efforts to restore a balance of power between the Senate and the Tribunes.


Probably the kindest estimation of Sulla ever!

(great review, btw!)
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James Bentley
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"Friends, Romans, Countrymen...lend me your ears!................that Ender guy sure gives a good review!"




Anyway, this seems to be a pattern with you, Ender....AWESOME reviews!

Please, keep 'em coming!
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Brian Modreski
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I've got to disagree with one minor point here; you comment that Sylla has a cooperative aspect since players must work together to avoid disasters. But this is incorrect. Disasters may be thematically bad, but you only care about "avoiding" a disaster if it will hurt you more than the other players, and you'll be quite happy to encourage a disaster that hurts the other players more than you. Certainly, two players might conspire to get a certain disaster into play over another, but this isn't any more a 'cooperative' game than trading resources in Settlers is.
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Noel
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Why does Christianity play such an important role in the game? There were no Christians in Sulla's time.
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Gregory Bay
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Thanks for the great review. Just bought this one.
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Ben Harris
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n815e wrote:
Why does Christianity play such an important role in the game? There were no Christians in Sulla's time.


Taken from above:

"Commenting on the fact that it is ahistorical to have Christian characters in a game that deals with the aftermath of Sylla's rule, Ystari's Cyril Demaegd stated: "“We don’t pretend to be really precise about this, and this is not an historical book, but a game. The game, like its ancestor, is supposed to span over a long period, so it’s not impossible to imagine Christians in it!” Some have criticized the game sharply for not being historically accurate on this point, and that placing Christians in the era of the restoration of the Roman senate and Republic destroys the theme. The game designers defend their position by suggesting that a game need not be precise about dates, but that it is legitimate to include elements from a long period in history in a game without making it a historical simulation. See more extensive dialogue between one of the game designers and the critics here:
http://www.boardgamegeek.com/thread/328441"
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Chris Keates
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Good lord, Ender, I don't know how you churn out these stellar reviews so consistently! Do you ever sleep? Are you some kind of robot?
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Dave Peters
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Powers:Coleridge:Milton: Faith...must be, if anything, a clear-eyed recognition of the patterns and tendencies, to be found in every piece of the world's fabric, which are the lineaments of God.
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That's Tim Powers' fictional Samuel Coleridge "quoting" John Milton in _The Anubis Gates_.
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Excellent review, Ender! I've only played once so far, but I really enjoyed the first outing.

I've one tiny quibble, though.
You wrote:
The Crane is a special building - players who purchase it get one of the three Crane cards, which they can immediately use like Character cards towards the purchase of other buildings.
but
On page 8 in the rules, the designer wrote:
Crane: when a player gains the Crane tile, they discard it immediately and replace it with a Crane card that they place, on its side, among their Characters. Starting with the next turn they may use it as a Character card during phase III (Buildings).

So: no immediate use!
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Paul Lister
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Amazing review! I was impressed upon reading the rules to this game and wondered why it had slipped under the 'Geek radar - hopefully your review will change that.
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Jens Hoppe
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What are you, like 80?
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It's not the years, honey, it's the mileage.
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Outstandingly comprehensive review, as always.

I can only really disagree with your conclusion, I think, and it goes to show that it is hard to pigeonhole either games or gamers: I like interactive games, multiple paths to victory, strong themes, AND I am even a sucker for games about Republican Rome. If I were to describe my hypothetical "perfect" eurogame, that description would probably sound almost exactly like a description of Sylla.

But I actually didn't like Sylla very much. I didn't feel the theme was very strong, and while the game worked well enough mechanically, I felt the whole thing was bland and unexciting. With so many excellent games to choose from these days, I want new games to have a certain something, a spark that can ignite my interest in the game. It might be a clever mechanism, wonderful artwork, or a strong sense of the game's theme. Suffice to say that I didn't experience any of that while playing Sylla.
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JL San Miguel
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¡Fantastic job! ¡Really impressive!
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Thomas Cauet
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Thank you Ender for this review: when reading this, I feel like it is useful we playtested a lot and tuned this game of Dominique I like a lot. This is not just another auction game, with a strong political (and so thematic) dimension into it...
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Karis Shem
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n815e wrote:
Why does Christianity play such an important role in the game? There were no Christians in Sulla's time.



Quick answer to your question and others :

About Sylla :

We choose Sylla, because it was a perfect start for our game, since Sylla re-established a powerful senate in Rome and then abandonned the power (opening a period of turmoil). What a perfect setting for a game in which you play senators !

About christians :

Of course i was fully aware of the fact christians could not exist 80 years before Christ ! But in my mind one turn is about 80 years, so i think christians are only a problem in the first turn (and you can even think about them as "potential" christians in this first turn, since you manage a kind of "dynasty").

And one quick comment about Essen :

Another big problem we encountered in Essen was when we discovered that the game was really badly explained on Asmodée and Rio's booth (but i don't blame them, since they've got a lot of different games to explain) ! This kind of game doesn't tolerate mistakes like "during the building phase, each player choose one building and put it in front of him", cause it totally breaks the balance and the interest of the game. Of course it doesn't explains everything, but that's a mistake i clearly won't repeat next yea....


Regards,
Cyril
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