Emile de Maat
Kampf um Rom is a Catan game on the fall of the Roman Empire. Each player controls two barbarian tribes. At first, these tribes will be pillaging the Roman cities they encounter. Later, they will settle and build their own kingdoms on top of the Roman ruins.
The game consists of a board, a lot of cards, some miniatures representing barbarian warriors and wagons, and a lot of plastic coins. The artwork on the board and the cards is decent, but nothing special. The miniatures aren't very good; little detail is showing. I do like the gold coins however. They have been made to look a bit more authentic and are therefore a bit imperfectly shaped. As far as plastic coins go, they look quite convincing.
The game is played on a map of Western Europe. The map is divided in hexes. Each hex shows a terrain type: field, pasture, mountain or forest. All hexes other than forest hexes also contain a number. On some of the corners, Roman cities are present, showing a defensive strength of 2, 3, 4 or 5. The players start with their two tribes in the north-east corner of the map.
The game is played in rounds. A round starts with income generation. The starting player rolls the dice four times. Players who have at least one tribe or city next to a hex with a number corresponding to a dice roll gain one resource: grain from fields, ore from mountains and a livestock card from pastures (which is either a cow or a horse). A number may not come up more than once; if it does, it is re-rolled.
After income has been generated, each player gets a chance to trade resources with the other players and to expand his tribes. For a horse and an ore, a player gets to increase both his tribes by one combat unit, increasing their combat strength by one. For a horse, a cow and a grain one tribe may be expanded with a cart, which will increase the amount of gold the tribe will get when pillaging.
Finally, for a cow and one gold, players get a development card, which will give them a special action once during the game.
Now, each player gets to move his tribes. Moving a tribe costs grain and/or gold. A tribe that ends its move next to a Roman city can pillage it (if its combat strength is at least as great as the city's defence). This will usually decrease the tribe by one combat unit and earn the player some gold and sometimes livestock or a development card. Each city can only be pillaged once.
If a tribe has done as certain amount of pillaging, it can settle down by conquering a city with a defence that is not greater than the tribe’s combat strength. This city now belongs to that tribe and generates income for it. From now on, the tribe can no longer move but it can expand its kingdom by conquering nearby cities. Each conquest will costs one combat unit and a wagon.
If a tribe performs no action, the owning player may take two gold coins or a resource card.
After the tribes have taken their actions, the player to the left of starting player becomes the new starting player and a new round begins.
Each city conquered yields a player one victory point, and there are some bonus points that can be gained. If a player has gained ten victory points by the end of a round, he wins the game.
Tactics and luck
During the "pillaging" part of the game, the game has a nice tactical aspect in moving the tribes. You'll want to keep their moves as cheap as possible, so each move needs to be cheap, but it should also end in a spot that will allow the tribe to move on at low cost. In addition, tribes should preferably end their moves next to hexes that have a good chance of generating income.
The decisions on when and where to settle are also interesting. If you are too early, you might be missing out on some good pillaging opportunities. Too late, and all cities that provide a good income will be taken. You should also find a place to settle that allows you some room for expansion.
After your trbes have settled, though, there are few interesting decisions left: you're simply trying to expand as fast as you can.
There is also quite a lot of luck in the game. As your income is determined by the dice, you may easily fall behind on the other players because they got more resources. You'll often experience some somewhat annoying turns in which everyone else is moving forward while you're unable to do anything. Similarly, some development cards are a lot stronger than others, and some lucky early draws may give a player an easy lead.
However, compared to the original Settlers of Catan, luck is somewhat diminished because there cannot be two the same dice rolls when determining income, and because you get some income when your tribes are unable to take actions. Don't let that fool you, though: as said, the game is still very much luck based.
This game has of course a lot of rules from the original Settlers of Catan, but some feel out of place here. First, there is the trading, which is sometimes thematically strange (nomadic tribes that do not encounter each other, but do trade?). More important: in this game, it seldom happens. Less different resources and cheaper build options means that you can often do things with what you have; you're seldom stuck with stuff you'd want to trade. In addition, trading with the bank is cheaper.
Next is the Roman Legionnaire, the Robber from Settlers of Catan. It has far less impact than in Settlers of Catan, especially in the early game, when tribes will simply move away from him. Later on, he still has less impact because he doesn't block that much income (each hex generates one resource per round per player, at the most), and he no longer forces players to discard cards. In a sense, this is good, because in Settlers, he was sometimes too strong, but I feel he's a bit too insignificant in this game. (This is not to say that he doesn’t have any impact, though.)
I feel that these elements are only present because they were in Settlers of Catan, and that better mechanisms could have been implemented if the designer wouldn't have tried to make another Catan game.
This game isn't bad, but it is not that great either. I like the moving the tribes around, but I still find my options a bit limited. If you're looking for a new game, I think there are a lot of better games out there; don't get this one. Unless you are looking for a new Catan game, because this game really a good variation on the Catan theme, being more innovative than most other scenarios and variants.
If you want something a bit heavier than regular Catan, this is it. Because of that, I'd say Catan is the better choice for a gateway game. Kampf um Rom is quite suitable as the next step (though a lot of games are). A warning, though: if you love Catan because of the trading, this is not your game, as trading is not an important element here.
Me rocking out with my band, which you can hear at www.raindriver.com
After just one play, I think that this is actually the best of the Catan games (other than the Card Game). SfR takes all of the interesting elements of Stone Age and removes all of the things that could kill a player early. Movement is much more fluid and innovative, and every move is critical to determining your success. Deciding when to convert your tribes to kingdoms is critical, and the payoffs in special VP make it an interesting decision - do you go for the extra 2VP with both tribes taking 5 differently colored plunder markers, or build early to try to grab the good resource spaces and extra resources gained through expansion?
As for the luck factor, I considered this an issue when I first looked at the game, but I think that the problem has actually been dealt with in a fairly elegant manner. I'll start with the resource rolls. In vanilla Catan, you get four resource rolls in a four player game as everyone takes their turn, while in SfR, one player rolls four times and then everyone takes their turn (more or less). The big difference is that in the former case, you can roll the same number up to four times. In the latter, the statistical result is closer to a bell curve as every number is guaranteed to be different. It's a subtle mechanism change, but with a better distribution of results. As such, players have more control over how they get resources.
The gold economy also mitigates luck in the early game - don't have any stone? Spend three gold. Even the luck of the draw with pastures is eliminated, as you substitute the gold for the resource rather than trade and draw. As the game goes on, gold is slightly less important (and harder to get), but by then you have several cities drawing all sorts of resources, resulting in a nice game arc.
The other luck issue is what your plunder token has on it. It's a simple formula - you always get gold/wagon, and may or may not lose a strength point in exchange for a dev card, a pasture card, or more gold. In other words, if you gain extra, you lose some capability. Given that having a strong tribe may be preferable to the other rewards, I don't know that this is really a killer problem, but it does give a level of variability to the game (as with the pasture draws) that I like quite a bit.
In our game, I was the first player, and won the game, but just barely over the last player (it came down to me getting two gold for not using my warrior kingdom at game end). In fact, the last player's warriors stalled early, with no good two-fort cities available for plunder, and yet he managed to get 2VP for four cities in each kingdom. While this is not statistically borne out by multiple playings, it is a strong data point to debunk any complaints that the player who starts wins (the opposite of vanilla Catan, where the first player is usually doomed as their second city placement is going to be particularly weak).
In other words, if you the idea of Catan, but feel that the luck factor is too high in the games that have come out so far (especially early), SfR is the game that fixes those problems, does so in an elegant way that fits the design theme nicely, and brings new mechanisms to the table that are a breath of fresh air in a designer game industry that is stagnating.