12th Mar2018

‘Donning the Purple’ Board Game Review (Pre-release)

by Matthew Smail


Donning the Purple is an ambitious worker placement game set in 193 AD that focuses on the relatively complex political and militaristic landscape at the time. This period of time was one of the most tumultuous in Roman history, with the year 193 actually referred to by historians as “The Year of the Five Emperors” due to the fairly self-explanatory number of individuals (whether legitimate or otherwise) to ascend to that lofty station.

Donning the Purple positions one to three players as each of three symmetrical families (with mildly asymmetrical starting roles) into a political battle for domination through the acquisition of victory points. The game takes place over four rounds (each of which represents the passing of a single year) and whilst early games will last the full ninety minutes, play time will shorten considerably with more experienced players.

Although the version I used to test the game was a prototype, so I cannot absolutely confirm what the quality of the finished article will be like, I can say that the early version I have been using is extremely well made. The board is exquisitely detailed and yet very straightforward to understand during game play, whilst the thick, oil on canvas art delivers suitably thematic imagery on the various event cards.

The famous wine-red cloth that is so often associated with Rome is draped across many of the components, whilst gold, dark wood and elaborate filigree enhance the luxurious and imperial feel of the player boards, cards and even some of the tokens. Whilst I am discussing the player boards, I should also mention that each includes several ways to spend actions as well as family stamina (both used and unused.) These boards appear complex at first, but as in any good worker placement game that uses a similar presentation, they soon become a simple and invaluable resource for planning turns.

For completeness, I’ll be describing the three player game below (because it includes the broadest and most inclusive interpretation of the rules and features in the game) but both solo and two player modes are available. In the solo mode, a single player acts as The Emperor versus relentless enemies and unrest from within, whilst the two player game is as per the below, but there is no Senator role during setup.

At the beginning of the game, player boards and handed out at random, with one player starting as The Emperor, one beginning as The Heir and the final player assuming the role of the leading (and in fact only) member of The Senate. The Emperor player receives an additional board with unique actions on it, as well as a number of responsibilities. Every player receives an amount of money (ten for The Emperor and fifteen for the others) and then everyone receives eleven stamina tokens.

Every game of Donning the Purple begins with a clear demonstration of why ruling an empire has always been considered as much of a burden as it is a blessing. Firstly, dice are rolled and blue enemy cubes are placed in the four regions on the board – at which point they immediately move one space closer to the provincial capital if not blocked by Legionaries of at least equivalent strength.

Next, grain is collected. To summarise this step, each of the four coloured and numbered regions will produce either three or six grain in a single, specific province, assuming that is not occupied by enemies or in a state of famine – as it happens, there is only one province that produces six (Egyptus) so you’ll want to look after it. Rome always produces three grain, so the maximum possible is eighteen. If you consider the fact that there are twenty five provinces to feed (minus those occupied by enemies) then the absolute best case for The Emperor is that he or she will have to buy at least some grain during the later distribution phase.

For the last major action of this phase, The Emperor draws and resolves five Event Cards in order, most of which are bad for him or her and often, bad for everyone. Common cards include further enemy invasions, Earthquakes that cause building damage and famine, cards that increase the strength of the other families, cards that extort The Empire and many more. A good outcome for The Emperor (because at the very least nothing else gets worse) is to draw cards like The Heir Dies, which affect other players rather than The Empire itself.

I suspect that The Emperor is supposed to feel rather crestfallen following this opening salvo, but the reality is, The Emperor role includes by far the crunchiest game play in Donning the Purple, so let me tell you why. Firstly, if you consider the fact that victory points are hard to come by in Donning the Purple, then the best place to earn them is as The Emperor. But, (isn’t there always a but) being the leader of Rome also paints a huge target on your back and dying results in a negative victory point.

There is a lot more to being The Emperor than plotting your own victory, but you’ll undoubtedly feel the pressure of attempting to secure your own dynasty whilst also holding the fate of the entire Empire in your hands. The Emperor has unique actions like recruiting and moving Legions (and defeating enemies can result in cash or Plot Cards from Glory Rolls) but of course these things will cost him or her stamina. The payback? Well aside from better access to victory points, The Emperor also benefits from taxation, but only at the end of the round.

The overall happiness of The Empire can result in large rewards for The Emperor, but placing all of his or her stamina in clearing out enemies and purchasing grain can be foolhardy, given that he or she might not survive as a result. The more The Emperor does, the more likely his or her death is to happen, because in Donning the Purple, stamina is not recovered after it is spent on actions and it also represents the health of the family leader. Simply put, if you do too much, you will become a much easier target for assassination.

The other two players, meanwhile, want you The Emperor to expend their energy. They will already be considering the best way for their own families to score that year, which might include killing The Emperor, consolidating their position until the next year or something else, depending on the Hidden Agenda card that was dealt to them when the game began.

Every family has one of these Hidden Agenda cards and each has two to or more positive and negative outcomes that become relevant at the final scoring. One card, for example, provides a significant bonus for having the richest family (and a negative score for being the poorest) whilst another tasks the player with building estates across The Empire.

With only three actions available to The Emperor and two for each of the other players during each year, you might think that Donning the Purple would be over even more quickly than the hour or so that I think it will normally round out at. That isn’t quite the case, thanks to an extremely useful copy mechanic, which allows players to take certain actions (still spending stamina) that a rival has just done.

Deciding on whether to take an action first during your own turn (versus simply following someone else) can occasionally be important, for example when dealing with construction. In this example, that is because whilst all buildings join the construction queue, only the first four will be added to the board each turn. The leading Senator has the right to swap any two buildings in the construction queue, which is a subtle but important factor to consider.

This copy mechanic more or less means that all players (but almost certainly The Emperor, due to his or her additional responsibilities) will be reduced to five or six stamina by the end of the first year, which is certainly within the range of an assassination attempt. When this happens, The Emperor and the assassin each place plot cards face down in front of them, then the Assassin rolls a dice. The strength value of the assassin’s plot cards plus the outcome of the dice is the strength of the attack, so depending on the total, less the number on The Emperor’s own plot card strength is the damage to The Emperor’s stamina that is dealt.

If (or rather when) The Emperor dies, control of Rome moves to The Heir, or if their is no current heir, it moves to the leading senator. If there is no Senate, then the players must bid for control of the crown. In Donning the Purple, you’ll very likely see control move several times and it’s possible (or even likely) that all of these situations will occur within a single game. The movement of ranks ebbs and flows continuously in this game and no matter how untouchable you might think your family is, the situation can decline very, very rapidly indeed.

It is the weight of the decisions and the impact that they have on both The Empire and the fate of each family that makes Donning the Purple such an excellent game. There is never a shortage of interesting and meaningful things to do and under no circumstances can you relax your guard. The game is often won by a difference of two or three victory points (with the winning player often only scoring eleven or twelve) so every strategy must be carefully considered and no decision can be taken lightly.

Similarly, despite the weight of the decision making, Donning the Purple plays far, far more quickly than I had expected it to. Each game is perhaps an hour when three experienced players are at the table and the gameplay is very deep and very strategic. The random element delivered by Event Cards, famine and the constant invasion of enemies can feel like a beating at first, but it is wholly counteracted by the slight need for cooperation that results in all players involving themselves in the defence of Rome at one time or another.

Donning the Purple is an exceptionally rich, thematic and finely tuned game, especially at exactly three players. The solo variant is interesting and works well (I only tested about half a game this way) and the two player option is quite good, but I honestly think that this historically accurate worker placement game might just be the best three player game that I’ve ever played.

****½  4.5/5

Donning the Purple is active on Kickstarter until the 22nd March 2018 and is expected to ship in May 2019, although designer Petter Schanke Olsen hints that it might be available earlier next year. If you like the sound of it, you can back it by following this link: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/332396604/donning-the-purple

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