22nd Aug2018

‘Germania Magna: Border in Flames’ Board Game Review

by Matthew Smail

ger-magna-box

The military and political strength of the Roman Empire ebbed and flowed many times throughout its long history, with Rome itself sacked on at least two occasions. By its twilight years, the Empire was largely incapable of defending its expansive borders from attack by barbarians and other expansionist empires, all of whom saw Roman riches as a ripe source of wealth and power. Germania Magna: Border in Flames takes that idea and transforms it into a game of alliances, negotiation and abstracted bidding with cards of variable value.

Germania Magna is a game for two to four players, each of whom will represent a Germanic tribe of reasonable size and stature. I say of reasonable size and stature because none of the tribes are likely to be capable of mustering enough men and equipment to mount an offensive on their own, which is where alliances come into the picture. The game comes in a small box that features several large province cards, as well as Chieftain, Tribe and Roman decks of traditionally sized cards. A number of tokens including coins and score trackers complete the remainder of the components, alongside a fairly brief and well produced instruction manual and some summary cards.

Setting up Germania Magna is very quick and simple, as well as space efficient (much like the box it comes in.) As a result, I quite like the game as a heavier than usual travel game, which is entirely playable on a smallish table like those on trains or in a hotel bar. During setup, each deck of cards is placed near the playing area and then two provinces are placed face up. A number shown on each of them will dictate how much Roman presence is in the province and that many cards will be placed face down underneath it. Each player then takes five Tribe cards into their hand, as well as a point tracker and five coins.

The game is made up of several rounds of play, each of which has four phases, completed in order. First is the Preparation Phase, during which each player is randomly dealt a Chieftain Card that sets their initiative and and special ability for that round. At this point, a new province is also added to the game up to a limit of three, so if there are ever four provinces in play at this point, the player who has the Chieftain with the highest initiative will choose one to remove from the game. Roman cards are placed under each province in accordance with the value shown and the next phase (supply) begins.

In the Supply Phase, each player (in descending initiative order) chooses how to resource their tribe. Players may choose to take two Tribal Cards, four coins, or two coins and one Tribal Card. With that done, the round moves on to the Deployment Phase, which has the players taking turns to pay the cost shown on one of their Tribal Cards and then adding it to their horde, which is tucked up against one of the Province Cards on the board. Players can add as many Tribal Cards as they want to (but only one at a time) as long as they can afford the cost, but once they pass, their input into the Deployment Phase ends.

Any tribes that are placed alongside provinces will now participate in the Clash Phase. During this phase, the Tribal Cards in each horde will be used to collectively overcome the strength of the Roman Province, including both its base strength, the strength of the Roman Cards underneath it (now revealed) and any other modifiers such as the sneaky tactics cards that players can use to upset the plans of their rivals. Each clash is resolved one at a time, with the Chieftain that has the highest initiative deciding which will happen first.

When a clash is won by the Germanic tribes, the spoils for that province will be divided between the hordes that participated in the combat based on how much strength they contributed to the victory. Spoils always include Glory Points, but they may also provide some loot or other bonuses depending on the Province and Roman Cards in play. After any clash (whether won or lost) casualties are rolled, but after a lost battle, a red die is used and casualties are much more likely. Any Tribal Card that survives a battle can be taken back by its owner, whilst all defeated cards are discarded.

The game ends when six Provinces are in the discard pile (a Province is discarded only when it is defeated) and the winner is the player with the most Glory Points. Maintaining a large army and stockpiling loot has no beating on final scoring, so the game really incentivises players to participate in one or more clashes per round. There are a few things that I haven’t explained in depth to bear in mind, such as Chieftain abilities and attachment cards, each of which will affect the outcome of one of the phases of the game in some way – whether that be reducing casualties or increasing loot, or more directly affecting the power level of one or more horde.

Small box and card games (of which Germania Magna is both) are often focused on lightweight mechanics that struggle to create theme, thanks largely to the simple or party based mechanics that they tend to come with. Germania Magna really impressed me with how well it integrates the idea of shifting alliances among a semi-nomadic, warlike people with the use of the various cards in the game. The decline of Rome is the perfect setting for this game and I’m not sure that I’d be half as impressed by Germania Magna if it were set in a more generic time or place such as among made up galactic empires, for example.

The game itself plays in a straightforward manner despite having several phases and a fairly heavy sequence of actions to consider. One of the reasons why the game works in a streamlined manner is because of how well it aligns to common sense – gathering Chieftains, loot and resources, planning attacks, raiding together and then backstabbing each other for ultimate power feels exactly like the kind of behaviour that these tribes were alleged to have participated in. The take that (backstabbing) elements are a huge factor here and players will commonly cause each other to have failed attacks or outright steal their loot or glory.

If you’re interested in the subject matter (and I admit that I am) and you like the idea of a midweight, portable card game, then I think Germania Magna is an excellent choice. Whilst most of the components have a dark, murky look that is in keeping with the way of life during this period of history, the quality is without question and the imagery is suitably warlike. The game moves at a great pace and it’s possible to enjoy two or three games in a single evening, which works well with around four players because there will always likely be one or two people who want revenge for transgressions against them in earlier games.

***½  3.5/5

A copy of Germania Magna was provided for review by Phalanx Games.

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