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This review will address the fun factor and game play of Columbia Games' new offering, Julius Caesar, by designers Justin Thompson and Grant Dagleish. It is not an assessment of Columbia Games ability to produce games that compare with other offerings from other game companies. The value of a game is in it's playing for me, and if the game plays well and the components are sufficient for the cause, then I feel the game is worth owning.

Julius Caesar ("JC" from here on out) meets these expectations.

JC is a game that requires the combatants to take the role of Caesar or Pompey during the Roman Civil War. The game plays on a beautiful map
From gallery of markgravitygood


(drawn by Karim Chakroun) depicting the geography of the surrounding area of Rome, Italy, extending west to Hispania, east to Antioch, across the seas to north Africa and Utica, west to Tingis (Straits of Gibraltar), then East to Egypt and Alexandria.

Your goal in the game is to gain 10 Victory Points, or surpass your opponent in Victory Points, which are assigned to the major metropolii of the period, most of them being worth 1 VP. Right off the start, Caesar is placed in an urgent situation: Pompey has 7 VP's on initial setup, Caesar but 1 VP, with a total offering of 13 VPs on the map.
From gallery of markgravitygood


Do the math. Caesar must grab 3 more VPs immediately or succumb to the victory conditions in Pompey's favor. Even the most staunch Ameritrash fan can see that the onus of attack is on Caesar. Should Pompey rally his troops and capture 3 more VPs (Something that is not all that hard to do if Caesar sits on his hands), the game would be likely over by the second year.

The game is played through 5 years ("game year"), beginning with year 705 (49 BC) through 709 (45 BC). At the start of each year, players are dealt 6 cards face down. The cards are reviewed by the players and one is discarded from play, face down, by each player. The remaining 5 cards are played out 1 at a time by each contestant. For each card played (a "game turn"), three phases take place: Card (the playing of the card), Command (the movement of units and the Levying of troops), and Battle (combat). After the final cards have been played, a special turn occurs called "Winter", causing Cleopatra to return to Alexandria, the disbanding of excessive troops, Navis blocks forced to port, and VP check for game win conditions.

There are essentially two types of cards: Command Cards and God Cards. Command Cards allow you to move your blocks/troops based on location, and 'Levy' troops or improve the strength of your troops (step them up).
God Cards are used to invoke the favor of the Gods and have specific abilities that can be utilized in lieu of a normal game turn. that is to say, if you play a God card, you get to do what the card says, but nothing more. Think on that a bit before you decide to invoke the Mars or Neptune...

The mechanics of card play are simple. Caesar and Pompey both select a card secretly from their respective hands, and place them face down on the game table. Then, both are simultaneously revealed. If one player plays a God card and the other does not, the God card player executes his God card mechanic first, in lieu of his normal move and levy phases. If both play God cards, then the game turn is completely skipped and play goes to the next card selection. This will happen on occasion. If each side has Command cards played, then the card with the highest Movement value on it goes first, ties going to Caesar. Given that, you can see that Caesar is given the initiative in card play, and the requirement to attack and capture victory points rests on him at game start.

Command Cards allow you to do two things:

Movement: The Roman numeral on the Command Card indicates how many LOCATIONS (Cities, Ports, or Seas) you can move blocks from. The blocks are not required to move, nor are they required to move together from that city to the same city.

Levy: The Levy indicators are the number of 'dots' on the Movement banner on the Command Card. You have several choices here. You can 'Levy' a block, that is, bring into play a block from your Levy Pool, depending on whether they need to be levied into a specific, friendly city or simply as a generic Auxilia or Navis unit into a friendly city at strength I, or you can use a levy point to 'step up' an existing block in play at a friendly city. This is the mechanic to get reinforcments into the game.

Pompey Unit Pool:
From gallery of markgravitygood


Caesar Unit Pool:
From gallery of markgravitygood


Deployment/Levy constraints are strategically important as well:

Leaders deploy in any Friendly city.
Legions deploy in their named city, which must be Friendly.
Equitatus/Elephant deploy in their named city, which must be Friendly.
Auxilia/Ballista deploy in any Friendly city.
Navis deploy in any Friendly major port. Steps can be added to existing Navis in any port, but never at sea.

Flitty Cleopatra
Cleopatra appears in this fine gem of a game as well, starting the game on Pompey's side in Alexandria. If 'killed', she quickly defects to the other side immediately and would be ready to fight the next battle turn. However, the Winter does not agree with the Queen of Egypt, and she must return to Alexandria at the start of the Winter turn, fighting for whomever is friendly to that city.

Since this is a "Fog of War" game using blocks, your opponents units are unable to be inspected during the game unless you are actually in combat with them (Battle Phase). This will lead to "Oh Crap" moments and give you an appreciation for the Battle rules in that the attacker cannot retreat and fights last (normally) in Battle Round 1, and is forced to retreat in Battle Round 4.

Movement is both on land and sea. Land movement is via major and minor roads between cities/ports, major roads (solid brown lines between cities) supporting 4 blocks per player per game turn, and 2 blocks for a minor road (dashed brown lines between cities) per player per game turn.
Sea movement is performed by "Navis" blocks, and is a combination between port (any coastal city is considered a "port"; Major Ports have the Navis symbol next to them, however) movement and area movement into adjoining seas. Amphibious movement (The movement of land blocks across seas via "Navis" blocks) allows the transportation of land blocks across oceans quickly, but requires the expenditure of 1 movement point per block to perform, so it is relatively costly.

From gallery of markgravitygood


Summary of Symbology in "Julius Caesar":
Solid Brown Line between Cities - Major Road. Ex.; Utica to Badias
Dashed Brown Line between Cities - Minor Road. Ex.; Massana to Syracuse
Building with number in Blue Background - Victory Point(s) City. Ex,; Syracuse, Utica
Navis symbol on City - MAjor Port. Ex.; Syracuse, Utica
Horse Symbol - Equitatus Deployment City. Ex.; Badias
Elephant Symbol - Elephant Deployment City. Ex.; Utica
Clash symbol - Location of historically significant battle. Ex.; Road from Utica to Tacape.
Blue Arrow - Straight Symbol. Ex.; Messana to Rhegium


The combat system, known as the ABCD system, is both beautiful and efficient. Blocks are assigned a quality (A,B,C,or D), a strength (I, II, III, or IV), and a hit factor (1,2,3, or 4). A typical block might have be a "C3" (quality and hit factor) and be at a strength of III. What does this mean? Well, in combat, this block will roll III dice (it's strength), will "fire" in the "C" phase ("C3"), and will hit the opponent's blocks on rolls of 3 or less ("C3"). The combat phases are just that: A blocks fight before B blocks, etc...

When you hit the opponent, they are forced to reduce their highest strength block by 1, simply by rotating the block to the next-lowest roman numeral, ties being resolved by choice of the player being hit. There are some easy special rules regarding who fires first and when and where you can retreat. All and all, a very satisfying and efficient combat system to say the least, and at times can be severely bloody.

What's to like about this game?
A beautiful map, 'Fog of War', urgency in Caesar to take it to his opponent, simple combat and movement rules, gameplay is very 'chess-like' in only a good way, meaning that you will develop a style of play, openings, set-piece maneuvers, etc. Did I say 'Fog of War'? I did. Good.

What's not to like about this game?
Not much. A big winner for me. Some have complained the board is 'too small', and the price is 'too high' for what you get. Could the board be bigger? Of course it could, but if it were any bigger, it would not fit nicely onto most game tables, and I think that is a strength of the game, and it does not affect gameplay whatsoever.

Is the price 'too high'? Well, if you are forced at gunpoint to shell out the retail price of $65, then yes, that might be high, compared to other offerings. But most marketplace offerings are in the mid/high 40's. Look around before you buy for a good deal. Again, I would say the price is comensurate with the fun and replay factor of this game, which is extremely high in my opinion, if this style of game is for you.

Overall Assessment
I chose this game as my first sortie into 'Fog of War', block-style wargames, and because I recently jettisoned my only 'Caesar' period wargame - Caesar: Epic Battle of Alesia. I found this offering to be excellent in form and function. Being a chess player of 30+ years, the appeal of being able to develop 'opening' strategies and the potential for 'set-piece' plays very much appealed to me, as well as the development of strategies to counter such attempts. The game almost plays like an abstract and has some elements of abstract games, likely inadvertant from the developers point of view, but an excellent trait to possess nonetheless, from my persepective. I'd go as far to say that if you like chess, you'll find this game enjoyable to play. Find a buddy.

If you're asking me to rate this game, I'd give it a 9+ on BGG's rating scale. But don't take my word for it. Find a friend, split the cost, and go out and purchase this gem of a wargame and simply enjoy the depth and breadth the game has to offer.

There are very few games out there that play as well as this one and offer replayability as deep as Julius Caesar.

Useful Links:
Columbia Games - Here you'll find the game description, the map, the units, and the rulebook.

ConSimWorld-Julius Caesar - here you'll find occasional entries by the designers and players of the game along with strategy tips.

Edit: Added images and some additional commentary. Props go to Justin Thompson, Grant Dalgliesh, and VASSAL for the images.
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Bob
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“It's not whether you win or lose, it's how you play the game.”
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Thanks for the review! thumbsup

One our best wargame purchases this year.
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Jim Patterson
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Thanks for the review. I quite enjoyed my first game last weekend. It's got a light rules framework, one that's effectively briefer if you have some experience with other Columbia block games. My initial reservation is with the power of the god cards, but that's partially mitigated by the fact that if both players play one in the same card play, the play is skipped for both.
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Lawrence Hung
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Looks like a winner to me. I bought the game and yes the price is hefty for block game and so it was priced like others. I am very into Julius Caesar and his thing in ancient that the word is simply the same tattoo for me as Stalingrad in WW2. Almost all games relating to him were bought without question. As unimpressive to me as the block system in the past except for EastFront, I am very look forward to play this. Now, who will be Pompey? cool
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Nicholas
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jpat wrote:
My initial reservation is with the power of the god cards, but that's partially mitigated by the fact that if both players play one in the same card play, the play is skipped for both.
I initially had this reservation as well, but as I mentioned in another thread - the more I play the more I am beginning to realize how much I have to give up by playing a god card!

You are giving up 1-3 moves and 1-3 levies (your worst card, discarded). Most of the god cards will typically make up for the levies in damage dealt to your opponent, but the lowered mobility really hurts in a game where you can never make as many moves as you want to in the first place!

They are still rarely discarded (except for Neptune), but it is more for the surprise factor than them being over-powered, and now I plan more carefully around their negatives.
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