Into the Fray – Gangs of RomeOctober 12, 2018
“Revenge is profitable, gratitude is expensive.”
― Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
Gangs of Rome is among the latest of the swathe of not-quite-historical minis games released in the past few years. The brain child of the creators behind Test of Honour, and the first game released by their new company, Warbanner, Gangs of Rome is a notable gem amongst the current wealth of skirmish games on the market.
The game’s mechanics will be a comfortable experience for anyone with even moderate experience in skirmish games and should be readily accessible to even those entirely fresh to miniatures gaming. The game’s rulebook is free for download from Warbanner, so I’ll spare you my own clumsy recap of the specifics and focus on the broad strokes. It utilizes six sided dice and a fairly generic set of stats. When making an action like an attack or feat of agility (climbing and jumping are potentially a big part of Gangs of Rome), you’ll roll dice equal to your fighter’s relevant stat, each result of 4+ is a success. In contested situations your opponent will roll dice equal to his defense stat, negating your successes on a one-for-one basis. Fighters have a number of wounds (called Flesh in the game’s rules), as they lose Flesh they’ll also start to be penalized the number of dice they can roll in any situation. Fighters are activated in an order determined by a random draw of colored pebbles, keeping the turn sequence fresh.
The base of each Gangs of Rome Fighter comes with a Jigsaw Base featuring two small round slots in which Flesh tokens and the Fighter’s ID number (used in some situations to resolve activations). The bases are actually one of my minor quibbles with the game. It’s a wonderful idea in theory, but the reality is that you are replacing Flesh tokens with some regularity and they can be fiddly to reach if the model is in a corner or behind terrain resulting in the regular need to pick up your model, plug in the new token, and replace it. I’m never personally very concerned about maintaining a pristine game state (placement and measurement in gridless miniatures games is always a gentleman’s agreement by necessity) but it is probably simpler to just keep your tokens on your Fighter’s cards.
In Gangs of Rome each player assumes the role of a Roman patrician, or Dominus, attempting to garner enough power to rise to the station of Senator. To further their schemes, the Domini employ brutal and cunning thugs, guards, and assassins unafraid to dirty their hands for the promise of coin. Like many—if not most—skirmish games you build your gang before a game through a simple points system. Each gang member, called Fighters for rules purposes, comes with a randomized card detailing their statistics and points cost. Additionally, each ganger comes with a selection of Denarii tokens and cards. The more points you spend on your Fighters the fewer Denarii you’ll be able to take for your list and it’s here that the real strategy of the game begins.
While all Fighters have the same generic 1 damage close combat attack (and no ranged attack by default) each Fighter’s card is essentially unique, their stats really are completely randomized, and likely no two Fighters printed are completely identical. When the previews for Gangs of Rome began in late 2017 this caused some mild uproar as uninformed people assumed there would be a chase element like a collectible card game. Fortunately, this is not the case. The randomization of stats is very minimal, it seems like a +/- 1 or 2 variance is the norm between fighters, further distinguished through randomized secondary stats (favored gods, Fighter Origins, and the like). There are no specific characters to chase down for your Fighters and the randomization does more to produce a varied play experience than to pigeonhole you with bad choices through your purchases. The randomization is also quite fun as it applies to the Fighter’s origins printed on each card (Rufus trained a monkey to keep watch and stab intruders! Aemillia is a senator’s child forced into exile!) and helps give your gang an instant personality.
Fighters also have a randomized Gift which represents a situational bonus for use in combat, a favored god to which they can pray (a roll of 6 gives a temporary bonus from their patron god), and an Origin, one of four parts of the city of Rome from which they hail. Again, the Origins offer situational combat bonuses, but Fighters who share an Origin gain bonuses when in close proximity, allowing them to move through one another and negates line of sight penalties. The benefit of loading your gang up with Fighters sharing a single Origin is obvious, though you lose some versatility granted by the various Origins.
The randomized Denarii represent tricks and tactics your Fighters can use. Each Fighter will be “shadowed” by a Denarius token that is only revealed at a time of your choice. These may be hidden weapons, dirty tricks like a bag of pepper sand to throw in an opponent’s eyes, a good luck charm, or a concealed sling. Notably, ranged attacks are only available as Denarii. Most of these Denarii effects are one-use but some may stick around. That said, these items are generally of the kind of low-quality you would expect street thugs to have access to, so they are prone to breakage.
Depending on your points and gang composition you’ll likely have a number of Denarii in reserve to replace those used over the course of the game. There are limitations on taking the same Denarii multiple times; common Denarii may be taken several times, rare Denarii only once. The revealed tricks are an immensely fun part of game play and can result in sudden reversals.
The final and arguably most interesting part of Gangs of Rome is its inclusion of NPC models. The game makes use of large bases containing 5 civilian figures to represent the Mobs of Roman citizens. The Mobs move about the base randomly each turn and present a unique tactical challenge. When Fighters make attacks in line of sight of the Mob a die is rolled and its results may see the Mob flee across the table or even attack the Fighter(s) in question! As well, some Fighters may have abilities that allow them to disappear into an adjacent Mob base and reappear from another Mob elsewhere on the board. The presence of civilian figures makes the game feel like it’s taking place in a living, breathing city like nothing I’ve played before.
Blood on the Aventine is the first two-player starter for Gangs of Rome and offers a tremendous value and play-experience. This is a very solid starter set including 7 metal miniatures, a unique-to-the-set terrain kit from Sarissa Precision with accompanying scenario, rulebook, and all the tokens and rulers necessary to play. The terrain is really impressive and the 7 single-piece metal miniatures paint up easily and lend themselves easily to imaginative paint schemes. At only $50 it’s a very affordable and worthwhile introduction to the game. Any fans of HBO’s superb Rome TV series will find lots to love in the aesthetic and scenarios of the game.
While the set does not include any Mob bases, it does come with an Incola, essentially a single-figure mob with special abilities. In this case the Incola is Talavus the Gaul, a temple guardian who nearly killed every member of my opponent and I’s gangs in our first game! He can be used in any game featuring a temple where he’ll be sure to brain numerous scum with his hurled roof tiles.
I should note that this intro scenario is brutal! My opponent and I fought bitterly just to get near the statue you’re attempting to steal from the half-constructed Temple of Apollo. Though my opponent’s gang was killed to a man, Tavalus came just one die roll away from smashing the skull of my last Fighter who’d barely managed to scoop up the statue from the broken body of Cato, the opposing leader. While the core book comes with a number of scenarios, I really recommend playing the temple game for a comically violent introduction.
Speaking of the temple, the Sarissa Precision kit included in the set is a great model if somewhat challenging to assemble. The instructions require careful reading as the MDF parts are unnumbered and in some cases difficult to distinguish. A few steps require very careful and patient assembly and I recommend dry-fitting at each stage. While it’s no fault of the kit there is literal blood on the Aventine after I managed to stab myself in the forefinger with an exacto knife while cutting parts from the sprue. I assume this is a good offering to Mars.
I really like this game! The models are fun, the range is expanding rapidly, and the kits from Sarissa will let you build a real Roman neighborhood in short order. I also appreciate the game’s emphasis on gender representation, there are no sex-based statistical difference and the models of the range are roughly split between male and female figures. Like most of the current wave of skirmish historical games, it’s likely to leave something to be desired for serious historical gamers, but for anyone wanting a fun and very bloody foray into the vicious underground of Rome this is a fantastic edition to your gaming collection.