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Review: Praetor

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Praetor - Box

Back in the glory days of the Roman Empire, everyone wanted to win the favor of the Caesar. Not only because this was the fast track to riches and status, it was also a good way to keep from being tossed to the lions. Praetor has you trying to win the Caesar’s favor by building a fabulous city/fort to support the troops building Hadrian’s Wall. The more you impress the Caesar with your resource management, building skills, and monetary “donations” to the wall-building endeavor, the greater your chance of being named Praetor of this new city and ruling it yourself. Win and you rule. Lose and, well, let’s just say the lions are waiting.

How It Plays

Praetor is a worker placement and tile-laying game that has players using workers to gain resources and build city tiles, budgeting to keep all those workers paid and happy, and spending resources to meet the Caesar’s demands. The point of all of this is to earn the most favor points so that the Caesar will love you best and name you Praetor of the city.

Praetor is played over several turns, each consisting of three phases. The first phase is to determine turn order. The player with the least amount of favor points is the first player, the player with the second-least amount of favor points goes second, and so on. (At the beginning of the game, turn order is “officially” determined by when players last visited Rome. If no one has visited Rome, then come up with your own way of determining turn order.)

In the action phase, players may take an action or pass. At its most basic, this phase is where players use their workers to build new city tiles or activate already-built tiles to gain benefits and resources that lead to favor points.

Workers are represented by dice, with the pips showing their experience level. Workers gain experience and training from building city tiles and activating certain other city tiles. However, they retire once they reach an experience level of six, removing them from your pool of available workers. (There is an exception: The labor camp tile can allow you to put a retiree back to work for a limited time.) Workers also get paid each turn equal to the amount indicated on their salary tracker. Even the retired workers must be paid, thanks to Rome’s awesome pension scheme.

Praetor - Tokens and Boards
Stuff! Player boards, money, wall tiles, and resources.

If you choose to build a tile, pay the required resources to the bank and use a worker to build the tile. Place your marker on the tile to show ownership. Tiles must be placed next to existing tiles. You gain the favor points for the tile you build, plus additional favor if the mosaic pattern on the corner(s) of your tile matches those of adjacent tiles.

City tiles come in two varieties: Basic city tiles that cost workers to activate, and special city tiles that do not cost workers to activate. All city tiles give you a variety of benefits when you activate them including money, favor points, resources, morale, the ability to trade resources, more workers, worker training, and wall tiles (which award favor points if you can provide the resources demanded by the Caesar on the tile). To activate an already-built basic tile, you must use a worker and pay the cost to the player owning the tile (unless that’s you or the tile has no owner, in which case usage is free). Special city tiles are activated by just paying the cost to the owner.

You’re not obligated to build or activate any tiles. If you have no available workers or simply don’t want to perform an action, you can pass your turn. Players continue in turn order taking actions until everyone is out of workers or passes.

After everyone has performed their actions, you move to phase three which is updating the city. This phase is simple upkeep. All novice workers are moved one space to the right on your player board, moving them closer to becoming active. Any retired workers used because of the labor camp are moved back to the retirement space on your player board.

Praetor tiles
Some of the city tiles. Love the sunsets!

Workers deployed this turn are removed from city tiles one by one and returned to the active worker pool. Any workers who gained experience have their pips adjusted accordingly and any who reach experience level six retire to the retired worker space on your player board, gaining the appropriate amount of favor points for doing so. 

Finally, you pay all of your workers to keep them happy. If you don’t have enough money to pay everyone, you decrease your morale by one for every dollar you are short. If you don’t have enough morale, you then lose five favor points per dollar you’re short. If you reach zero on the morale track, you stop there as there is no negative morale.

If you have no active workers at this point, you can pay five favor points to transform a villager into an active worker with one experience.

Players keep playing turns like this until the stack of city and/or wall tiles is empty. At that point, everyone takes one last turn and then tallies their favor points. Points are awarded for all active and novice workers, morale, and gold in your possession (all resources are exchanged for gold at the end of the game and every 10 gold = 1 favor point). The person with the most favor points is beloved by the Caesar and anointed Praetor of the new city. Everyone else gets booted to the labor camp.

A Game in Which a Comparison to Monopoly Isn’t a Bad Thing

Praetor attracted me because of the art, the theme (I’m a sucker for the Roman Empire; something about the combination of genius and brutality intrigues me), and the worker retirement mechanism. It’s funny because once upon a time I didn’t care for worker placement games. Over the years, however, I’ve started enjoying them more and more and I’m always on the lookout for something different. Much like the meeple death mechanism in Village, the “gain experience then retire” mechanism in Praetor struck me as unique and I wanted to try it. So is retirement fun in paradise, or a long slog to the grave?

Unlike many worker placement games where your workers remain the same for the length of the game, Praetor simulates a more real-world experience. Your workers gain experience and knowledge and are able to perform more complex actions as the game goes along. However, they eventually get old and must be put out to pasture. Their retirement earns you favor points (more are earned the earlier they retire), but you must continue to pay their salaries even after retirement. This sets up a dilemma where you have to weigh the points gained by an early retirement against the workers’ drag on your payroll.

And payroll is important in the game. All workers must be paid, but at least the active ones are contributing to your engine. The retired ones do not. If you get into a situation where you can’t meet your payroll, morale decreases and low morale will eventually suck away your favor points. You’ve got to earn money and the more retired workers you have, the more difficult that can be because you have fewer actions each turn. The more retirees you have, the more “bang” you have to get out of later turns, whether that’s through building more city tiles or relying on tiles you already own to generate a money and resource engine for yourself. Or both. 

Praetor - Tiles 2
More city tiles!

Praetor forces you to consider several things as you build your engine. In addition to ensuring a constant flow of money to meet your payroll, you need to keep your worker pipeline going. Retiring workers without enough experienced ones in the pipeline will derail your ability to perform actions. You need to keep a constant flow of trained workers coming so that they can pick up the slack left by your retirees. And even with them, as noted above, eventually you will have more retirees than active workers and you’ll need a way to make up the difference. 

In that sense, Praetor does a great job of capturing the theme of the game, which is to beat out everyone for the favor of the Caesar as you build your city and contribute to the building of Hadrian’s wall. You’ve got workers who need to be kept happy, workers who are aging out of your workforce and have to be replaced, resources to acquire, demands to meet, and buildings to build and advance your city. It has that frustrating, tense feeling of dealing with bureaucracy and worker issues that anyone in management can identify with.

Helping you build your engine are the locations themselves. They grant their owners special benefits like resources, worker training, and money when they’re first built. Even better, once you own a location (because you were the one who built it) anyone else who wants to use it has to pay you the activation cost.

And here’s where the comparison to Monopoly comes in. Wait, don’t leave! It’s not a bad thing, so don’t freak out just yet.

On your turn, you can build a tile that you will then own (much like buying property in Monopoly). If anyone else wants to use your tile, they have to pay you the indicated cost. As in Monopoly, there are some tiles/locations that pay far more/offer better rewards than others. Unlike Monopoly, though, which gives you no benefit for landing on another player’s property, Praetor allows other players to use your locations for their own benefit, as long as they can pay you for the privilege. And other players will want to use your locations because they give good benefits. (Unlike Monopoly, you aren’t forced to use someone’s tile just because you land on it. Instead, you get to make a conscious choice that the benefits offered by that location are worth the cost you must pay. Strategy, something Monopoly has almost none of.) As in Monopoly, you want to be the one to control the powerful spots because they can set you up with a nice little engine of resources and money every time someone wants to use your tile.

Praetor - Dice
Player’s dice (workers) and markers.

Of course, this isn’t Monopoly so you have much more agency in gaining control over the locations. You don’t just have to get lucky and roll the magic number to land on them. You get to train and manage your workers, gather resources, and manage turn order so that you can gain control of the good stuff when it comes out. If you’ve prepared well, you have a good chance of grabbing at least some of the powerful location tiles when they appear in the market. Unfortunately, as with Monopoly, if you fail to gain control of at least some of the powerful locations, you can be in for a world of pain as other players shoot far ahead of you. But that’s the strategy of Praetor.

These powerful locations lead some to say that Praetor is broken. I don’t agree. The claim is that the person who gets certain tiles is automatically the winner because the rewards are just too great. Yes, the rewards can be great and if you don’t have a strategy to counter that, you will likely lose. However, the strategies are there, both to stop someone from gaining the powerful tiles in the first place, and to grab some powerful stuff for yourself. If you let someone grab all the good tiles then yes, they’re going to win. It’s up to you to stop that from happening (unless it’s happening to you, in which case, power on). 

I think that some of the “brokenness” people feel is sometimes just inexperience with the game, or a wrong expectation of how the game is supposed to play. Praetor, much like the Roman Empire itself, isn’t meant to be a nicey-nice kind of game. This isn’t the kind of tile-laying game where you can just play tiles in a relaxed manner and eke out a win. It’s cutthroat and in your face.

The whole point is to identify the strong strategies and resources and get to them before your opponent does or, if she gets to that stuff first, you’ve got to counter her in some way by getting to the other powerful stuff first. That’s strategy, not brokenness. It’s also very thematic because building a city during Roman times (or any time, for that matter), requires that you be ready to jump on opportunities to do things cheaper and more efficiently than your competitors, and to gain any advantage you can. When you’re competing for the favor of the Caesar (or the governor, or the mayor, or whatever powerful figure can advance your career), you take what you can get and happily throw your competitors under the bus.

Praetor - Player Aids
Player aids summarize order of play and tile benefits.

Whether you consider the game broken or not, the good thing about Praetor is that its ruleset is such that it can be modified to suit your group’s play style. It’s very easy to house rule anything you don’t like and the designer has offered up some “official” suggestions on BGG to deal with some of the most common complaints.

My advice is to play it with the rules as written a few times to get the hang of things. Play with the same people if you can so that you learn together and aren’t always going back to the beginning to teach new players. Repeated plays with the same group often reveal strategies that may counter and take better advantage of some of the “problematic” tiles and rules. The more familiar you become with the tiles, what they offer, and how they interact, the better you get at the game. 

Of course, only you can say whether it’s worth taking a chance on the game, knowing that you might have to invest some time tweaking it to your liking. However, I think that the fact that it is tweakable is its redemption. So many “broken” games can’t be fixed. That Praetor’s rule set allows for easy modifications is a strength.

The game also offers good variability. You can play with the A or B sides of the player boards (the B side makes for a more difficult game) and the city and wall tiles come out differently each game meaning you can’t always know what’s coming up. Your strategy will change based on which tiles have already appeared and which have yet to enter play, so each game will play out differently. Rules for advanced variants are also included in the rulebook.

Praetor - Tiles 1
Just a few more tiles before we go.

My only complaint is that the game can feel a bit long, especially as you get toward the endgame. The decisions get harder as your workers retire and the city gets bigger with more locations and options available. Over-thinkers can slow things down. However, Praetor doesn’t feel like the kind of game that needs to bog down. The gameplay feels and looks easy-breezy, but it butts against a mental mismatch when the decisions get harder yet the actions are so easy. Because of this, sometimes it feels like the game needs to be two turns shorter. Either that or the gameplay needs to offer some extra oomph to justify the complexity and slowdown that comes at the end. Still, if everyone commits to playing briskly, this can be managed. (And I have seen some variants that shorten the game, so this is another area that can be house ruled if needed.)

I find Praetor to be fun. It’s fairly easy to learn and, while not a gateway game, is understandable by people who’ve had some experience with hobby games. Anyone who’s played Stone Age or Lords of Waterdeep can get this. Despite the ease of learning, it’s a solid middle-weight game that offers a good brain burn for more advanced gamers. It’s pretty to look at on the table and does a very good job of recreating the city-building theme. The length can sometimes be a problem, but if everyone is familiar with the game and shares the desire to keep things moving along, it can be managed.

I think Praetor got a bad rap out of the gate with the claims of brokenness when really the powerful locations were part of the strategy and design all along. Of course, everyone’s experience is subjective and not everyone shares my opinion that the game is fine. My advice is this: If you like worker placement, you’re attracted to the theme and the worker-retirement idea, and you’re okay with a game that allows you to crush your opponents under your boot-heel, give the game a try. Even if you don’t enjoy it with the base rules, there are plenty of official and unofficial ideas to improve the experience.

iSlaytheDragon.com would like to thank NSKN Games for giving us a copy of Praetor for review.

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Summary

Pros

Good replayability.
Gorgeous art.
Nice medium-weight game; enjoyable by many audiences.
Cutthroat play feels thematic and very "Roman."
Worker retirement mechanism is different and brings unique challenges.

Cons

You may want variants/house rules to tweak the experience.
Can feel a bit long.

8.0 Good

I like games with tiles/modular boards that set up and play differently each time. I'm also one of "those people" who likes dice and revels in randomness.

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