I have a soft spot for Ave Roma; it was the first full game that I backed on Kickstarter, having shied away from one or two other games that seemed pretty expensive at the time. I remember playing it a few times, thinking it was quite good and then, like a lot of games which aren't particularly popular, it became resigned to a shelf to gather dust.
When I agreed to write this piece on Ave Roma, I realised that I would need to play it again, to see how it compares with games I have enjoyed playing more recently. This was the first time in over a year that Ave Roma had seen the light of day, so it was going to be a revealing experience.
Ave Roma was one of the first games that I played in which I was able to identify several game mechanisms at play at once - worker placement, resource management, set collection, and a form of area control. But this isn’t what makes Ave Roma unique - there are many games available which integrate many mechanisms at once.
There are, however, two fairly unique selling points about Ave Roma. Firstly, and most immediately, it has a round board. There is no sense of facing the wrong direction because there is no top and no bottom to the board; instead, all elements (cards and worker placement spots) are arranged around the edge of the board, so they all face outward.
Secondly, although every player has five workers (numbered one to five, initially) each round of the game, they may not have the same workers every round (in fact they probably won’t).
So, at its heart, Ave Roma is a worker placement game about attempting to be the most influential leader in the city of Rome. Each worker is numbered, such that for the first round of the game, players have one worker of each value, one to five. This is significant because most of the worker placement spots can only be occupied by workers of a specific value or range. Therefore, if you want to acquire a specific card, you need to have a worker which is within the range of values on the spot on which that card is located.
Spots are numbered 1-5, 1-4, 1-3 and so on. So, a worker numbered one can be used on any space, and workers numbered five are very limited. However, other spots (such as the spot for acquiring money) provide better results if a high-numbered worker is placed there.
There are eight locations around the board, and each has up to five placement spots available each round. So, with five workers to place per player, not all spots will be taken up. At the end of the round, once all workers have been placed, players collect all the workers from one of the eight locations. If this does not provide five workers, they then collect more from another location.
This means that the workers that a player collects at the end of the round will probably not echo the stating workers, numbered 1-5. This can clearly have an impact on the decisions available to a player in subsequent rounds - if you have a set of workers numbered only four or five, you will only have a limited number of spots available.
Resources, Set Collection and End Game Scoring
Of the eight locations around the board, three allow players to collect resources by interacting with the region cards. One of these locations also provides players the option to exert influence on a region (if they have military points available) - this is one of the end game scoring conditions.
Three of the other locations allow players to acquire cards. Two of the card types available give immediate victory points, possible military points to spend on the region cards, and feature a set collection bonus. The other type of card, the patrons, give ongoing bonuses as well as endgame scoring, provided they have been activated. Patrons can only be activated if the player has paid sufficient resources into the Rome action (one of the remaining worker placement locations). This action also indirectly provides end game scoring… You’ve probably realised, by now, that Ave Roma is a bit of a point salad.
Final Thoughts on Ave Roma
Ave Roma is a relatively straightforward game - place workers to get money or collect resources; place workers to purchase cards using money and resources; place workers to activate cards to collect points. However, whilst it can be summarised quite easily, the game can result in some difficult moments of analysis paralysis. As is typical for all worker placement games, don’t be surprised to find that another player just pips you to the post in acquiring the card you have been working towards purchasing for the last four rounds - suddenly you’re forced to rethink.
It’s a satisfying game to play. The worker placement and retrieval process sets Ave Roma apart from many other worker placement games, and may be enough to make it stand apart from other games. The theme is reasonable, but like a lot of Euros, it doesn’t interact with the game mechanics particularly well - you could replace influencing the Roman empire with farming in the Mediterranean with very little effort.
The visual presentation is good (much better following the first, cancelled Kickstarter campaign, that’s for sure), helped by the optimisation of the circular board. However, this leads to one of the greatest criticisms of Ave Roma. The cards are small (not a particular crime in itself), but this means that the iconography on some of the cards can be very difficult to interpret, and in some cases, difficult to see.
In artificial lighting, or with any kind of visual impairment, the symbols can cause considerable frustration. However, if the cards had been larger, the board would need to be bigger. The alternative would be to make the icons larger, destroying the imagery on the cards… Whilst this doesn’t distract hugely from the game, it can leave a slight feeling of disappointment.