The original Pandemic was the first co-op game I ever played and it quickly became a favorite. So when Pandemic started branching out into new themes and places, I wanted to try them all. Or at least most of them. Surprisingly, Pandemic: Iberia and Rising Tide “fired” the original for me. (I never tried the Cthulhu version as I don’t care for that theme, and I haven’t played Legacy because I don’t care for the legacy concept.) Iberia and Rising Tide streamlined the original game to the point that regular Pandemic no longer appealed, and I began to resent the bloat of the expansions, where once I welcomed “more.” I also preferred the settings of these newer Pandemic relatives.
So when Pandemic: Fall of Rome was announced, I got excited. As a history buff, the theme seemed right up my alley, and I hoped the mechanisms would continue the improvements begun by Iberia and Rising Tide. So did I get my wish, or did Rome fall hard and flat with me? Let’s find out.
How It Plays
In many ways, Pandemic: Fall of Rome plays like its ancestor, Pandemic. It is a cooperative game where, instead of trying to eradicate diseases, players are attempting to stop the fall of Rome. You’ll do this by forming alliances against the invading barbarians, defending your cities, and enlarging your army. If you ally with or eliminate all of the invading barbarian tribes, you win. If too many cities are sacked, too many barbarians invade your turf, or you run out of resources, Rome falls and you lose.
There are a fair number of nit-picky rules to the game, so rather than cover every individual circumstance, I’m just going to hit the high points. During setup, the board is seeded with some barbarians in certain cities. Like regular Pandemic, each player is given a role that confers special abilities. These abilities will help you when used wisely. Decide on the difficulty level you wish to play and begin.
Players are working together to save Rome. As such, you’ll want to discuss your options with others during your turn. Each turn is comprised of three steps: Perform your actions, draw two player cards and resolve revolts, and invade cities.
During the action phase, you can take up to four actions, in any combination, and you can repeat actions if you want. The actions you can choose from are:
March: This is simple movement around the board. You can move into any adjacent space and take up to three of your legions with you to the new space.
Sail: Discard a city card to move from a port city to any other port city matching the color of the card you discard. You can take up to three of your legions with you.
Fortify: Discard a city card matching your current city to add a fort to the city.
Recruit army: Add legions to your current city, as long as the city has a fort on it. The number of legions you can place is indicated on the Invasion/Recruitment track on the board and depends upon where you are in the game.
Battle: Roll up to one die for each legion in your city. Results are applied only to the city you currently occupy. If you’re unlucky, you’ll lose some of your legions. If you’re lucky, you’ll be able to remove some barbarians from the city. If your luck is only so-so, you might lose a legion, but you’ll take some barbarians with you. You may also get to invoke your special ability.
Plot: Ah, plotting. Back room deals have both saved and doomed many civilizations. Here you and another player can agree to swap city cards, provided you both agree. You can give a city card that matches your current city to the other player, or take a matching card from them and make it your own.
Forge Alliance: Sometimes you just can’t defeat the pesky barbarians, so it might be better to bring them over to your side. Each barbarian tribe can be allied with if you discard the required number of matching cards. A handy alliance token for each tribe helps you keep track of who you’re friendly with. Alliances won’t stop them from invading your cities (you’re not that friendly), but when it comes time to track the end game conditions, an alliance can help you win.
Enlist Barbarians: You can force your allied barbarians to join your army by discarding a card matching the allied tribe. Doing this will allow you to remove all of the matching barbarian cubes from your city and add the same number of legions to that city.
After taking your actions, you draw two player cards. If you draw any revolt cards, bad things happen that move you closer to defeat. You must move the invasion rate marker forward one space, draw the bottom card from the barbarian deck and add three matching barbarians to the indicated city, and shuffle all the cards in the barbarian discard pile and place them on top of the barbarian deck.
Finally, the barbarians invade cities. You must flip over a number of barbarian cards equal to the current invasion rate track. For each card flipped, invade one city. An invasion means you place one cube from that tribe on the city. Barbarians follow a migration path from their supply space to connected cities. These paths are depicted on the cards. A city can only be invaded if it already has barbarians from that tribe on it, or the previous city on the migration path has barbarians from that tribe on it. If the depicted city can’t be invaded, follow the migration path backward until you get to a city that can be invaded.
If a barbarian is to be added to a city that already has three on it, the fourth is not added and the city is sacked. A sacked city moves the decline marker forward one space on the board. If the city has a fort, you’ll lose the fort and add barbarians to each adjacent city (even if those cities are out of the tribes’ migration path). If this results in being unable to add a fourth barbarian to any city, the sacking continues until the chain reaction runs out. You can see how this can get very bad, very fast.
The good news is that if your cities have supported legions in them, they will defend against invasions. A supported legion is one that occupies a city with either a fort or a player pawn in it. Without at least one of those, the legions are ambushed and are all removed from the city. If you have supported legions, however, you will remove one legion instead of adding the invading cube.
After your turn is over, the next player takes their turn. This continues until the game ends in either victory or defeat. You win as soon as all five barbarian tribes no longer threaten the Roman Empire. They can be subdued through any combination of forming alliances, or eliminating them from all cities on the board.
You lose as soon as one of the following four things happens: You are unable to add the required number of barbarians to the board, a player cannot draw two player cards after completing their actions, the decline marker reaches the last space on the decline track, or Roma is sacked. In either case, Rome falls and you are defeated. Better luck next time.
History Failed to Record that Cubes Caused the Fall of Rome
Having played Pandemic and a few of its cousins, Fall of Rome didn’t offer very many surprises. At the core it’s still the base game of Pandemic. Instead of diseases blowing up around the world, here you have barbarians invading your cities. Your methods of dealing with the barbarians are a bit more complex than simple “eradication.” In Fall of Rome, you can form alliances with the invaders, and set up forts and legions to defend your cities.
All in all, it does a good job of simulating a (highly) simplified version of the fall of Rome. (It focuses only on the military aspect of Rome’s decline. It does not take into account any of the political or economic factors. If you want a true representation of the fall of Rome, you’ll have to look elsewhere.) You do have a feeling that the pressure is growing with every turn. Even though there is ebb and flow, the overall sense is of always increasing menace. The barbarians are advancing and you have to be super vigilant to turn them back. If you fail, they will quickly grow out of control and you’ll find yourself fighting from behind to stop them. Fail, and Rome falls.
Then again, this sounds exactly like how I would describe base Pandemic. Just replace “barbarian” with “virus.” That’s part of both the joy and frustration of the Pandemic universe. The theme can be extrapolated to almost any disaster situation without much more than cosmetic changes being made. Want water instead of viruses? Try Rising Tide. Monsters instead of water? Try the Cthulhu version. I hate to say it, but if you’ve played one Pandemic, you’ve played them all. More or less.
Still, like the other Pandemics, Fall of Rome does do a good job of creating a narrative that you can relive after the game ends. “Oh yeah, we were so close to defeat until Joe swapped that card with Sally and saved the city, buying us time to get the barbarians out of Rome!” And if you can think of it in a vacuum, without comparing it to other Pandemics, you can convince yourself that you really saved Rome.
Like its brethren, Fall of Rome does offer good replayability. You can choose the difficultly level you wish to attempt. You can also play with different roles each game, learning the best strategies for each. The fact that cards never come out exactly the same way and barbarians never spread in the same directions means that each game plays out a bit differently.
The one significant replayability difference between this and base Pandemic is that the barbarians are always placed on the same cities during setup. Their number and type will vary, but you always begin with the same cities “invaded.” In base Pandemic, any city can begin with disease cubes in it. This isn’t hugely detrimental to replayability, and I can see why it was likely chosen, but I did wish that the initial invasion was more random.
The legions are perhaps the most interesting part of the game. Unlike regular Pandemic where it’s only you in a given city, you can have a few legions with you. And you can move at least some of them with you when you move into another city. This makes fortifying cities and preparing for combat much more interesting than Pandemic. Instead of just removing cubes, your cube removal may come at the expense of a legion or two. This makes sense thematically. War usually costs both sides.
Also, you have multiple ways to increase your legions. You can add forts to cities which brings a military presence into those cities. Or, you can conscript members of allied tribes into your service. This gives you a few options when formulating your defense strategy. Alliances can be doubly beneficial. Not only can you use them to create more legions, alliances can help you meet the victory conditions, so they are worth pursuing.
So, what are some potential problems with Fall of Rome? First, the components are up and down. The board and card art are drab, but the legion meeples are kind of cool. The barbarians are just cubes. Why can’t they be interesting like the legions? I would have loved some barbarian meeples! Player pieces are still just pawns, and their pastel colors don’t go with the other colors in the game. The barbarian cubes and alliance markers are such bright colors that the pawns look kind of silly next to them. Of the Pandemic variant games, I think Rising Tide and Iberia are more attractive than Rome. (And even though I’ve never played it, I think the Cthulhu version has a nicer look to it, as well.)
Next, if you don’t like the “quarterbacking” that goes on in Pandemic, you won’t like Fall of Rome. It does nothing to stop this problem of an experienced player telling others what to do. The only thing that can trip up a quarterback is the combat dice roll, simply because the outcome is unknown. But even then, a quarterback will tell others when to roll, and probably spell out the odds of any given outcome.
Mechanism-wise, I didn’t enjoy the dice in Fall of Rome. I’m just not a fan of roll to resolve combat. It feels sort of thematic, in that war isn’t always predictable, but I prefer other, less random ways to resolve combat situations. And the alliance system added a point of confusion for most of the people we played with. Yes, you need alliances to win the game, but it often feels like one thing too many to remember to deal with. Base Pandemic and the other iterations already have a lot going on. Adding in dice and alliances serves to up the complexity, but not in any meaningful way. Rather, it feels like busywork compared to the streamlined play of some other versions. That’s fine if you enjoy that sort of thing. I don’t, so for me it was just unnecessary complexity.
This may seem like I’m being hard on Fall of Rome, or that I think it’s a bad game. I don’t. And if it existed in a vacuum, it might be one of my preferred games. The problem (and it’s the largest problem I have with it) is that it exists in a world of Pandemic versions that I like better than this one. I prefer the simpler, shorter, less luck-based versions. Or, if I want luck and dice, I’ll play Pandemic: The Cure which plays much faster than Rome. Fall of Rome feels like a case where more was added to simply add “more,” not necessarily to improve or elevate the game over what has come before.
While the difference isn’t as stark as what I felt between Kingdomino and Queendomino, or Orbis and Splendor, I feel much the same about Fall of Rome when compared to Iberia, Rising Tide, or even base Pandemic. More isn’t always better. Often it’s just more. Fall of Rome adds some interesting things, but I don’t feel they really change the game up enough to bother with them. I found myself often wishing I was either playing another, simpler version of Pandemic, or that I was playing an entirely different, more complex co-operative game.
It’s tough to get me excited about a game that is only marginally more complex than its brethren and which does very little to change up an established formula. I tend to enjoy the simplified, streamlined designs the most. If I do want a complex game, I want to jump up a few degrees to something much more challenging like Robinson Crusoe or Ghost Stories. Or, if I want to say with something relatively simple or only a minor jump up in complexity, I prefer to play totally different games like Flashpoint: Fire Rescue, or Dead Men Tell No Tales. Those at least offer different themes and slightly different mechanisms. In other words, there are a ton of games in the world, and I prefer to sample more broadly, rather than to play variants of the same game.
Pandemic: Fall of Rome is, at the core, just Pandemic. It has some slight tweaks, but nothing that makes me want to choose it over the Pandemics I already enjoy, or a totally different game. If you’re looking for “startlingly new and different,” this isn’t it.
Since buying Pandemic: Fall of Rome is likely to be a difficult decision for many, I’ve developed a little quiz to help you:
1. Do you want to replace a Pandemic in your collection, or do you have the shelf space for multiple iterations of the same game? Are you looking for Pandemic with slightly more complexity and longer play time? If no, then avoid Rome. Or at least try before you buy.
2. Have you never played Pandemic? Do you like the historical theme of Fall of Rome? Do your gaming preferences tend toward the more complex? If yes, then Rome might be a solid entry point to the Pandemic universe for you.
3. Do you adore all things Pandemic, regardless of whether or not it’s “different?” Are you a collector who has to have limited editions? If yes, then get Rome.
For me, Iberia and Rising Tide still stand as my top two favorites and I won’t be keeping Fall of Rome. I just don’t have the space for every version under the sun and Rome is the least impressive of the new variants to me. However, you may find that you you love Rome the most and choose to boot out some other version. Just know that Fall of Rome doesn’t significantly change up the Pandemic formula, and whether or not you’ll love it depends on your appreciation of the theme, your tolerance for dice-based combat, and whether or not the added complexity and time is a problem for you.