Blocks! Julius Caesar Review11 Dec 2019 0
Blocks! Julius Caesar Review
Released 11 Dec 2019
The most powerful nation in the world can find no worthy opponents, so it divides in half to fight itself. Facing off across the field of battle are the nation's two greatest generals and this town ain't big enough for the both of them. If it weren't the true story of the Roman Civil War, it would still make for a compelling wargaming scenario.
Caesar's war against Pompey the Great, which closed the book on the Roman Republic and reset its course as Empire, has been popular in literature and film. While fans of ancient warfare do have options for the period in their computer games, who wouldn't love to see more and better. Excited, then, we must be to see one of the best operational titles from the board game world coming to the PC.
Blocks! Julius Caesar is the second iteration of Avalon Digital's new series (the first being less than two months old) and is a mostly-faithful replication of the tabletop game Julius Caesar from Columbia Games. Both are an operational/strategic take on the Roman Civil War focusing entirely maneuvering and combat. No need, here, to manage the economy or conduct diplomacy. You must capture objectives and destroy enemy armies for victory.
The interface for Blocks! Julius Caesar is an on-screen depiction of the board game. As a result, interacting with this game comes quickly and naturally. If you want to play a card, you click on it. To move a block, click and drag. Playing the game well, however, will require an understanding of the restrictions on movement and play. While the game enforces the rules for you, some time with the manual will be required to understand their implications. If you already have Blocks! Richard III, the learning curve will be even gentler, but there are some key differences between the two rule sets.
Blocks! Julius Caesar covers a five year period and each year is what the game calls a campaign turn. A year begins with Caesar and Pompey each receive six cards, hidden from their opponent. From this hand, they each (secretly) discard one. The remaining are used to play five 'game turns'. A game turn has the players simultaneously selecting and revealing one of their held cards. The comparative selections determine the play order, which varies from turn to turn. The value of the card also determines how many moves and levies that player executes in their turn. Units are moved as groups (i.e. one move may be more than one block) between provinces while the levy allocation is either bring in units from off board or augment the strength of a unit already in play.
The units are the eponymous blocks, representing land forces, navies, and commanders. During play you keep your own blocks' identity and information hidden from your opponent. While you see the overall disposition of your enemy, you won't know the strength or identity of the enemy's blocks. After moving, if opposing units occupy the same region, a battle occurs. In a battle, all engaged blocks are revealed and combat is conducted, governed the details shown on each block.
A block has three combat values; initiative (the letter), firepower (the number), and strength (the blocks rotational orientation). Initiative determines the order and strength dictates the number of dice you can role. Each die rolled less than the firepower number generates a hit on an enemy unit. While it's no Field of Glory -style tactical battle, winning requires a combination of planning and luck.
Much of what I like about this series rests on the strength of its source material. The physical Julius Caesar's 2010 release built on the success of its franchise (not least the 2009 Richard III) and drew both praise and awards. Its beauty is in its simplicity. The game consists entirely of the blocks and the cards. There is no tracking of resource points or looking up combat results in cross-referenced tables. Everything you need is right there on the game pieces themselves. This is obviously not quite as important when you're on a computer, which can keep track of all sorts of detail for you, but it does help a player wrap his mind around the game as he plays. As a player, I won't be wondering why the 7th Legion didn't its get full supply this turn - there is nothing going on 'under the hood'.
As simple and streamlined the implementation is, the system also adapts well to historical period it is meant to portray. Recall my mention of how some rules have changes relative to Richard III. These little changes changes help transport you from pre-Renaissance England to the ancient Mediterranean. One example is in movement limitations. Unlike in other games from the series, forces in Julius Caesar may only move 1 space if moving to attack. This tiny change has a major impact on the size and pace of battles. No more can you race forces from all over England to overwhelm your opponent. Instead, you must pre-position your attackers, which telegraphs your intentions to your enemy. Pacing and the resultant strategic decisions falls more in line with the time portrayed.
In the short time since Richard's release, the Blocks! engine has already seen improvements. I'll focus on two in particular. For those who have (or are considering) Blocks! Richard III, these features have been implemented as an update to that game as well. One nagging desire from my play of Richard III (and earlier Julius Caesar beta versions) concerned the lack of an 'undo' function. I've lost count of how many times I dropped a unit into the wrong province and just wanted to do it over. Undo now appears as an option once you start executing your turn. This should improve the experience.
A challenge for this series is that the computer has no opportunity to cheat. The campaign is balanced - intended to be winnable from either side. This puts extra pressure on the AI to keep up with a player's skill. If you are a player experienced with this series (either on the computer or off), you're going to run up against the AI's limits. This is not to say the AI is entirely helpless. It is capable of playing a passable game, following the rules, and engaging the player in one of three configurable settings. That said, a little time studying the rules should allow players exceed the AI's skill. At release, Richard III allowed two human players on the same computer, but this wasn't truly a multiplayer option. Blocks! has evolved to support an online multiplayer mode. I was unable to test online play as I am writing before the game's release, but it appears to use the Steam peer-to-peer API to integrate with the existing human versus human option. This should extend the game's life for many. If the AI fails to challenge, you can play head-to-head against others with similar skills.
In terms of total content, the release looks to be a little short of what Blocks! Richard III offered. Blocks! Julius Caesar also has three scenarios. As it happens, this is two beyond the physical game's single scenario, but it is still a limited offering. The two additional scenarios are simply subsets of the main campaign. That is, while you can choose to start in 49, 48, or 46 BC, all three selections still run to the war's end in 45 BC. There is no free deployment option (described in the manual) nor anything outside of that five-year span.
Given the multiple internal wars in the waning decades of the Roman Republic, there should be room to add a variety of scenarios, selecting anywhere from the war between Marius and Sulla through Octavian's defeat of Mark Antony. The development team has talked of releasing an editor, which could open up a world of possibilities for new scenarios. They have also responded rapidly to user requests with, for example, the addition of multiplayer. Currently, they propose releasing two new titles over the next two-and-a-half months, so our prospects look to keep getting better. In the meantime, we have here a solid implementation of operational warfare in the late Republic.
Blocks! Julius Caesar presents a way to knock off the entirety of the Roman Civil War in under an hour, yet in a game that meaningfully represents that conflict.