Introducing Arena: Roma II

Like Dominion and looking for new games to discover and enjoy? With the success of the Dominion and its CCG inspired cards in 2008, it's time for a new crop of fans to discover, appreciate and embrace the excellent two player card game Roma, and its sequel Arena: Roma II. They are independent games, with a relationship much like Dominion and Dominion: Intrigue. Roma has a proven record of success - it released in 2005, was very well received as a two-player game, and even went on to be nominated for the Spiel des Jahres Award in 2006. Since then it has been somewhat off the public radar, although it continues to be enjoyed by a large number of gamers. But times have changed: now we're in a new world where Dominion is solidly entrenched in the BGG top 10, its expansions all doing well and fans still hungry for more. So it's time to pitch Roma to a new crowd of gamers that might not yet be familiar with this older game, but already have a love for games featuring cards that have unique CCG-type abilities and interact together as in Dominion.



So why should enthusiasts of Dominion consider trying Roma? Roma is not a deck-building game like Dominion. But what many fans of games like Dominion might appreciate about Roma are its cards and how they interact. Roma offers a fun 30 minute gaming experience that's accessible, has a similar dose of luck as Dominion, and yet rewards tactical and strategic choices. What's more, it's perfect for two players. And with the publication of a sequel in 2009, now more than ever is the ideal time to get introduced to the Roma family. Arena: Roma II is the newest version of the game, but has all new cards that feature text instead of icons, and has the benefit of some minor rule tweaks that enhance and improve aspects of Roma I. The general consensus seems to be that it's more balanced and better than the original. So with that, join me for a tour of this newest incarnation of the game. I've played the original Roma about 30 times, and the new Roma II about a dozen times, and with the help of those plays under my belt, I'll show you what you get, teach you to play, compare it with the original, and give you all that you need to make up your own mind. Perhaps it will be enough to make you the latest fan of Roma I and Roma II!





COMPONENTS

Game box

Although the game also comes in a German-only edition, Arena: Roma II is primarily available in an international edition with English-text cards, with the usual high quality production that we've come to expect from Queen Games.



The reverse side introduces the game as follows: "The struggle for predominance in Rome hasn't been decided yet - the die has not yet been cast! `Arena - Roma II' can either be played on its own or in numerous versions in combination with `Roma'."



The picture on the box shows you what a typical game in progress looks like.

Component list

So what's inside the box? Here's a complete inventory:
● icon bar
● 55 cards
● 36 victory points
● money
● 7 dice
● rulebook



Rule book

The rulebook is the usual quality product from Queen, and includes clear formatting, lavish illustrations, and helpful examples, all of which make it easy to learn the game.



Of the eight pages total, the last three pages list pictures and explanations of all the different cards in the game. You can download the rules and see all the cards from the File section here. As is often the case with Queen games, rule books are provided in six different languages.

Cards

The deck of 55 cards is the heart of the game.



26 of these are character cards (which are yellow), and 29 are building cards (which are green). Most cards occur twice, but altogether there are 31 unique cards. Each card includes the following key information:
Effect: The card text on the bottom describes the effect of this card when it's activated
Cost: This is how much money it costs to put this card into play
Defense value: This is the minimum battle die roll needed to defeat this card when attacked



To illustrate the wonderful artwork and unique abilities of some of the cards, here's a sample of some character cards:



And here's a sample of some building cards:



Some cards, like the building cards pictured above, allow you to attack your opponent's characters and buildings. Others, like the ones pictured below, enable you to earn the victory points (VPs) that you need to win the game:



There are four copies of the Forum card, which is particularly useful for generating VPs.



Victory Points

The aim of the game is to use your buildings and characters to earn the most victory points, or to bring your opponent's supply of victory points to zero. There are 36VPs altogether, which come in 1VP and 2VP counters.



Money

You'll need money to pay for putting cards into play. There's a pile of "Sestertii", in denominations of 1, 2 and 5.



Icon bar

The icon bar consists of five pieces that need to be assembled together as a single continuous unit:



When assembled, this icon bar forms the 'framework' of the game. Each player will play cards in the seven slots on their side of the icon bar.



The icons indicate the dice results needed to activate the card in the corresponding "slot." For example, in the picture below the bottom player could activate the circled card on the bottom right if he rolled a six.



This concept is central to how the game works, because on your turn you'll roll three dice, and then use these dice either to activate one of the 7 card slots, or to get cards or money. The "Bribery" slot is a special slot that is optional, and this part of the icon bar can be flipped upside down in order to play without it, as shown in the picture below:



Dice

Each player gets three dice in their colour - these are used to activate cards, collect money, or draw cards. There's also a single white die used for attacking in battle.



Let's learn how to play!

GAME-PLAY

Set-up

The icon bar is placed in the middle of the table, with the money, VPs, cards, and battle die within reach.



Each player gets five cards, 10 VPs, and three dice in their colour.



Each player chooses two of their cards to give to their opponent. The starting player places his starting cards face up in five of the seven available card slots on his side, and then the second player does the same.



Let the game begin!

The Winner and the Game End

The game ends either if one player's supply of VPs is exhausted (in which case he loses), or when the general supply of VPs is exhausted (in which case the player with the most VPs wins). This leads to varied strategies: do you race to maximize your VPs faster than your opponent? Or do you try to attack your opponent's characters and buildings in an attempt to reduce his VPs to zero? Or are you desperately trying to survive as your opponent attacks you? Often the tide of battle can ebb and flow, and even in a single game you may be forced to alter your strategy as one of the two victory conditions proves to be unworkable.

In the picture below, only 6 VPs remain in the general supply, so the game could end at any time! It's a tight contest!



Flow of Play for a Turn

In turns, players do a complete turn which consists of three phases:

Phase 1: Evaluate vacant spaces.

For each of your seven card "slots" that is empty, you forfeit a VP.



Since you can win the game if your opponent has zero VPs, one strategy is to try to attack his characters and buildings so that he loses VPs for empty slots at the start of each turn! On the other hand, you yourself will be trying to play buildings and characters to make sure that you have no empty spaces yourself, so that you don't lose points each turn.

Phase 2: Roll action dice

Roll your three action dice (you may get a free re-roll if they're all the same number).

Phase 3: Perform actions

You can use your three dice to perform any of the following actions:
● Play a card
● Collect money
● Draw a card
● Activate a card
Aside from playing a card (which requires money rather than a die result), these actions are chosen by assigning one of your dice to the matching die icon. You can perform these actions in any order you wish. This gives lots of tactical choices, because it means that you can first try to draw a card, put it into play, and even activate it on the same turn! It also means that there's a lot of options, despite the randomness of the dice: should you use your dice results to draw cards, get money, or activate a card, and in what order should you use them? This is what I call `dice done well'!

Play example

Here's an example of the flow of play from the rule-book:



After forfeiting 2 VP (because of 2 vacant space) Stefan rolls his dice, rolling “3”, “4” and “6”. He decides to perform the following actions:
1. He uses “3” to draw cards. He keeps one in his hand (a “Taberna” card) and discards the other two.
2. He uses “6” to collect money. He takes 6 Sestertii from the general supply.
3. He plays one card (the “Taberna” which he just acquired) on the vacant place next to the die icon “4”. He does not need an action for this. However he has to pay the card’s cost and puts 7 Sestertii into the general supply.
4. He uses his last action die “4” to activate the “Taberna” he had just played. He gains 2 VP from the general supply because there are 2 face up characters on his opponent’s side.


Player Actions

Now that you understand the basic flow of play, let's explain the player actions available to you in a little more detail.

Play a card

Play a card from your hand in any card slot by paying the cost with your money. For example, it costs 3 sestertii to play "Offertorium".



If you play a card in an occupied space, the existing card is simply discarded and replaced by the new one.

Collect money

Place one of your action dice on the “money” icon of the icon bar, and take that much sestertii from the supply. For example, by rolling a six and putting it on the money icon, you could get 6 sestertii.



Draw a card

Place one of your action dice on the "cards" icon bar - you draw that many cards from the draw pile, from which you may keep one (the rest are discarded). For example, by rolling a four and putting it on the card icon, you could draw four cards and keep one.



Activate a card

Regular cards

Place one of your action dice on the die icon corresponding to the number of that die, in order to activate the special effect on that card. You can even activate the same card more than once if you have multiple dice with the same results. Some cards, like the Forum, require a second die to be activated. For example, by rolling a 3 and a 6, you could activate your forum to earn 6 VPs with the unused 6.



There are also cards like Fons Bacchi which require no dice to be activated, but have a permanent effect.



Bribery

Once per turn, you can activate the card in the Bribery space with any die! But Bribery comes at a cost - you must pay money equivalent to the die roll. For example, if you rolled a three, you could use the three to activate the Bestia card on the Bribery space, but to do so you'd need to pay three sestertii:



This is a great mechanic that helps reduces the luck element, because when you place a card here, you are almost certain to be able to activate it, yet the additional cost prevents this becoming too powerful. This adds an extra layer of strategy and opens up new possibilities for choices, and deciding what card to place in your Bribery space can be quite important! Bribery is an optional element of the game that is new to Roma II, so you can play without it - but having tried half a dozen games both ways, I think the Bribery mechanic is a solid enhancement that I will use in every Roma II game from now on.

Battles

Some cards allow you to attack your opponents cards. When this happens, you roll the white battle die once, and if the resulting attack value is greater than or equal to the defense value of the card being attacked, the card is defeated and discarded. For example, here Bestia has been activated (with Bribery), and the player has rolled a 4 on the battle die, which easily defeats Arena (which has a defense value of 3):



And so the game progresses, until either one player has no more VPs, or until the general supply of VPs is used up. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how you play Roma!!

CONCLUSIONS



What do I think?

Roma is easily one of my all-time favourite two player games, and here are some things I like about the game:
Roma does dice well. Dice games and card games both have a reputation for being luck-based. Roma turns that notion on its head - certainly it has elements of luck and there are times where you will be defied by the cards you draw and the dice you roll. But most of the time you can manipulate the results to your advantage, and its up to you to try to manage your potential actions and possibilities to maximal effect. Don't like your dice roll? Draw cards or get money. Need good cards? Use a 5 or 6 to draw cards and increase your chances of getting something good. Opponent has a powerful character or building? Alter your strategy and try to find a building or character that will destroy it. You won't always succeed, but most of the time you'll feel like you're in with a chance, if you make the right decisions.
Roma II is an improvement on Roma I. It uses text instead of icons on the cards, adds more VP scoring cards to give alternatives to the income generating power of the Forum, and the optional Bribery mechanic introduces new possibilities to avoid being screwed by luck and gives new decision options. Roma I is still excellent, but Roma II seems to have a slightly more balanced set of cards and the new mechanic adds just enough to make it even better.
It will have a natural appeal to fans of Dominion. Don't get me wrong, this is no Dominion clone like Thunderstone- in fact, the original Roma pre-dates Dominion, and neither Roma I nor Roma II feature a deck-building mechanic. But some of the things that fans of Dominion enjoy also appear here: buying and playing cards, unique abilities and special effects, attacking and defending, card interaction and combinations, earning victory points, and a reasonable 30 minute play time. Not every Dominion enthusiast will like Roma, but for Dominion fans looking to discover a new game, there's a good chance you'll find Roma immensely satisfying despite being very different from Dominion.
The artwork is lovely. I'm a big fan of Michael Menzel's artwork, and he's done a great job with the art on these cards.
The theme is good. No this isn't a game dripping with theme to the point that when you're done you feel like you've actually been fighting as a gladiator in a Roman arena. But the characters and buildings usually have special effects that mimic their real-life function in some small way. What's more, an ancient Rome theme will be a refreshing change for many who are disenchanted with the plethora of games about medieval economics and trading.
The mechanics are solid. There are very few other games that work the same as Roma, and that makes it something unique, and there's little risk that it's going to occupy a redundant space in your collection. Additionally, Arena: Roma II has the benefit of building on the time-tested mechanics of Roma I, and incorporated the small tweaks necessary to make it even more sound. Those who criticized Roma I for imbalance and luck might find themselves pleasantly surprised by Roma II.
It plays quickly. Most of the time you can play a game in half an hour, which is an ideal length for a card game with two players. On the slim occasions when you do get screwed by luck and a game ends quickly, just shrug your shoulders and play again!
There's a variety of strategies and card interaction. No game feels the same, because there's a variety of paths to explore, and how you play will often depend on the changing circumstances of the game. There are certainly strategic choices to be made (should your long term plan be to get your opponent down to zero victory points by means of attack? or are you going to ignore the attack cards and focus on creating a victory point producing machine?), but much of the game is tactical, and there are times where the game situation will dictate that you change your strategy. There's a real sense of tug-of-war, as the battle ebbs and flows in waves, and the way this feels will be different in every game.
The replayability is high. In the case of Roma, the elements of randomness are a strength rather than a weakness. For the most part they just open up a wide range of possibilities, and ensure that each game is different. The decisions you make will be limited to the cards you draw and the dice you roll, but within this changing dynamic there's a variety of options that make each session unique, yet without making the outcome merely dependent on luck.
It's expandable. Just like Dominion and Dominion Intrigue are separate games that can be appreciated independently or combined together, so Roma I and Roma II are entirely separate, yet cards can be combined. Buy one game, and if you're looking for variety you can buy the second, and even mix the cards together as a single deck - Roma II even explains how to do this in the rules.
It's plain fun! There are tough choices to make, solid interaction, and changing fortunes!

For a complete look at all the differences between between Roma I and Roma II, see my earlier review:
mb So you're wondering about Roma I and Roma II: A pictorial comparison between a fantastic two-player game and its sequel



What do others think?

Arena: Roma II hasn't even celebrated its first anniversary as yet, but early reactions are very positive for the most part. Some comments from fans:
"Great, fast little two player game." - Doug Adams
"Fantastic upgrade from Roma. The game system is simple and easy to pick up." - Jonathan Tang
"Very clever design and I thoroughly enjoy the game everytime I play. The game has a lovely balance between weight of attack vs VP gathering. Overall, big thumbs up, especially for a dice game." - Patrick Brennan
"Another solid engine building/combo based two player card game." - Matt Dodor
"What a game! I dare anyone to close the box after only 1 game in an evening. In the realms of 2-player games, Roma shines extremely bright." - O R (Lapsus)
"This game matures the Roma system dramatically. What used to be a game that was often frustratingly lost by turn five is now more about strategic play, sacrifice, and guaranteed activation through the bribery slot." - Jonas Mann
"Better than the original. Bribery is an excellent addition and the cards are more balanced." - Alexander Flurie
"Very fun and enjoyable two-player card game. A unique dice mechanic that allows for a balance of strategy and luck." - May H
"The new cards breathe some fresh life into Roma. I think the new cardset is a little more balanced than the original." - John Greenwood
"Excellent game, very interesting mechanics. I like how randomness is integrated. The dice limits your options each turn, which speeds up the decision process, yet you must take it into account when planning your strategy to have flexibility." - Kaiwen Zhang
"If you like Roma you'll certainly want to add Roma II to the fold. What a great combo." - Brett Christensen
"Superior to the original - and I rate that a "10". Roma is a deep game with varied paths to success. Possibly the greatest card game I own." - Mark Chaplin
"Great - it's a standalone game that I think I prefer to Roma." - Nigel Buckle
"This, with the original Roma, is fantastic. It balanced the original perfectly. Made it a nice, long game and gave it such an interesting twist. I love this and doubt I'll ever grow tired of it." - Michelle




Recommendation

Is Arena: Roma II for you, or for that matter it's brother Roma? If you own Roma I, then get Arena: Roma II - you'll like it for the same reasons you liked Roma I, without having a sense of duplication. If you don't own Roma I, then start with Arena: Roma II - it's slightly more polished, well-balanced, and while you can play without the Bribery mechanic when learning the game, being able to add this only makes the game even more interesting and fun. Arena: Roma II is an outstanding game, and is a superb example of a game with dice done well, where tactical and strategic choices will play more of a role than the randomness due to dice rolling and luck of the card draw. With the growing appreciation in the gaming world for card-games with unique abilities like Dominon, there has to be a growing group of gamers ready to discover and enjoy the quality and class of the Roma family. Of all my two player games, this is one of my absolute favourites. Very highly recommended.

mb Another pictorial review by EndersGame



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mb The complete list of Ender's pictorial reviews: http://www.boardgamegeek.com/geeklist/37596

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Mark Chaplin
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Great review of a great game. Cheers!



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Marc Boulet
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EndersGame wrote:
Arena: Roma II is an outstanding game, and is a superb example of a game with dice done well, where tactical and strategic choices will play more of a roll than the randomness due to dice rolling and luck of the card draw.


Couldn't agree more. Superb review. Arena has become the go-to game between me and my wife.
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Michelle
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Thanks Ender. Another great review of a great game. You always make me want to play the game immediately!
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Evgeni Liakhovich
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Excellent review of my current favorite game! Thank you Ender!

As far as Dominion comparison, one point I'd like to make is if you strip down the mechanics of both games to bare bones, they are quite similar - you do build your own deck in Roma as well, and use different mechanisms (shuffling in Dominion and dice in Roma) to select a subset of it on every turn. Actually Roma even has an advantage here because you have some control over the subset creation.

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Mike G
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And yet another game gets added to my "I'm buying these as soon as I play all the ones I own and not before, honest, honey" list. Thanks for another great review!
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Phil Thron
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Damn it, Ender! I don't have enough money or time to keep buying and playing the games you keep reviewing so brilliantly.

Cut it out already, wouldja?!







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Larry Welborn
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Excellent review of a game I knew nothing about.
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Brian Cherry
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Ender, it always amazes me that your reviews, with lots of pictures, and easy to follow text, teaches a game as well as a video can.

thanks again!
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Larry Welborn
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I bought a copy of the game yesterday due primarily to this review. Thanks.
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Same here. Great review!
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Clint DeSena
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Terrific review of what might possibly be my favorite semi-quick two-player game. It is genius.
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D. Don
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axelay80 wrote:
Terrific review of what might possibly be my favorite semi-quick two-player game. It is genius.


It can also become a 1-3 hour long-play game, we have have had rounds from 25 minutes to over 2 hours, if you play with a lot of focus on making sure that your opponent have to pay back victory points instead of only focusing on winning your own, it will take time and you will get more of the fun!



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You, sir, sold this game for me.
It's already on me wishlist.

Besides the solid gameplay and the great, beautiful artwork by Michael Menzel, it does not hurt to say that this is cheap, under $20 on the stores I researched.

Thanks!

(edit: typos)
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This game has been at a local store and I never even looked at it. Its now a must buy.
 
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Getting this for Xmas because it sounds great to me and on the table it has a layout that is reminiscent of Battleline (which is the only game my wife likes to play!). Thanks for a great review!
 
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splanchnic wrote:
Getting this for Xmas because it sounds great to me and on the table it has a layout that is reminiscent of Battleline (which is the only game my wife likes to play!). Thanks for a great review!


This game is ACE, probably one of our best 2p games, and the missus LOVES it.. (and she's good at it too, beats me up most game rounds..).



 
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Thanks to your wonderful review, I picked this up for the wife and I. Now I am just waiting for the craziness of the holidays to pass so we can play this game.
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Ender is starting to cost me some serious money. Beautiful pictures and outstanding text. Thanks.
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Dean Adam
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I got Roma 1 a while back, a little bit based on the comments around similarity to Dominion. On reflection, and having just recently played Troyes, I'd say that its got more in common to Troyes than Dominion.

Roma and Dominion are only similar in that they have cards that do stuff. Troyes is a different kettle of fish, but there are cards that do stuff, and dice to activate them. I have yet to try and teach Troyes to the g/f, I might start with a couple of games of Roma (which we both like) and see if that makes a good platform for the long tortured conversation that follows - I regard Troyes as easy and intuitive to play, but fairly hideous to explain

Troyes wasn't around when Ender reviewed Roma, so I thought it was worth commenting on now

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Great review; I look forward to trying this game.
 
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Thanks for this review, great stuff. cool
 
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