I can’t think of any grand introduction today, so let’s just dive right in and talk about board games set in ancient Rome. If you’re not a member of the board game scene, you might be surprised to learn just how deep that rabbit hole goes. Pretty much every imaginable setting has been board-game-ified in some way or another, with classical history being particularly well represented. Here are five excellent historical games to get you started, whether for your classroom, school classics club, spoken Latin conference, or just game night at home.
Games are listed in order of complexity, from lowest to highest. All are rated as appropriate for ages twelve and up.
Rome: City of Marble is a tile-laying game similar to Settlers of Catan. Set during the reign of Augustus, players take the role of patrician families in Rome jockeying for influence points (called imperium in the game) by investing in public buildings, such as baths, theaters, and temples. Players earn extra imperium and additional bonuses for undertaking particularly large civic projects, such as aqueducts. The game is easy to learn and quick to play. The title of the game is a reference to a quote attributed by Suetonius to Augustus: “I found Rome a city of bricks, and left it a city of marble.”
Also set during the Pax Romana, Concordia describes itself as a “peaceful strategy game of economic dominance.” Starting in Rome, players send out settlers to cities where they produce various commodities: Food, wine, bricks, etc. Throughout the game players draw cards that allow various actions and gain favor with different Roman gods; for example, the “Mercator” card allows for extra money and trading, and gains the player favor with Mercurius. The game ends when all cards are played and the winner is the one with the most favor with the gods. Concordia has two separate maps (the Empire for larger games, Italy for smaller ones) and also has a number of expansions available (consisting of additional maps and gameplay mechanics) in case you get tired of the base game.
If peaceful economic dominance isn’t your (or your students’) bag, give war a chance with the award-winning Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage. An impressively faithful adaptation of the Punic Wars, it’s a deep and well-designed game of strategy, tactics and diplomacy. In keeping with historical accuracy, Rome and Carthage are unequal powers, with different sets of action cards, different generals, different technology and different political situations. While the rules take some time to learn and strategies are complex and often subject to random luck (as they were in the actual war), the game is a masterful portrait of the conflict on both sides.
Trajan combines the themes of the previous three games, with players vying for dominance in multiple areas of Roman life: Military conquest, economic power, politics, urban development, and simply (as one reviewer put it) “navigating the Roman bureaucracy.” The gameplay is driven by a unique mechanic that is similar to Mancala, Tabula, or other “pebble” games. This is a deep one, with complex rules and a wide variety of strategies for winning. The art direction is particularly lovely, with a board that depicts the Empire from the perspective of the city of Rome (which is, of course, how the political elite tended to view things).
The Republic of Rome is a vast, intricate, long-lasting game meant to simulate the function of the Roman Senate during the Republican period. You play as various factions and families competing for offices, military command, and economic favors. Players make proposals to the Senate which other players then vote on. A player’s ability to make proposals is determined by which offices their faction members hold. Proposals may include assigning senators to governorships, going to war, addressing various civic concerns brought by the Roman people, or prosecuting rivals. At any time the game may send a wide variety of threats to Rome – civil unrest, bankruptcy, famine, etc.; at these points players must cooperate to keep Rome from collapsing, because if that happens, everyone loses. Political strategy games don’t get more complex than this, and games can last 5 hours or more. If you come across this one (it’s somewhat rare), take it!
Runners up (that are still worth checking out): The Downfall of Pompeii; Quo Vadis?; Albion; Augustus; Britannia; Alea Iacta Est.