19 November 2018
Rome wasn’t built in a day; it was built in 60 to 90 minutes
Japanese designer Hisashi Hayashi has a diverse line-up of games to his name. His quirky 2009 release String Railway saw players lay lengths of string across their table to represent criss-crossing rail routes. His 2012 game Trains took Dominion-style deckbuilding and added board-based maps of Tokyo and Osaka. And in 2016 he released Yokohama, an economic game that cast players as merchants in Meiji-era Japan. Now another of his games has had an English-language release and, this time, he’s turned his attention to the glories of ancient Rome.
Tile-laying game Minerva casts players as ambitious Roman governors tasked with turning provincial towns into thriving cities. You’ll build military outposts to extend Rome’s dominion, erect temples in honour of the gods and found businesses to drive your economy – all in an attempt to become the empire’s most renowned urban planner.
On each round, you and your opponents will take turns to buy building tiles to add to your cities. Some, like fields and forests, grant you resources like wheat and wood. Others, like markets and blacksmiths, let you convert those basic resources into hard cash. Then there’s an array of gardens, theatres and civic buildings that enhance your cultural standing or give you a selection of special abilities.
You won’t get anything just for adding structures to your city, though. Instead, you’ll trigger their effects whenever you place a residential building, choosing a row of connected tiles and harvesting their assorted goodies. It means that the game becomes all about careful timing. Should you place a residential tile now, or add a few more structures to activate first? Can you afford to wait one more turn before buying a building, or is one of your rivals likely to snap it up?
It presents some interesting dilemmas as you build, but it also makes the game feel very abstract. It’s a spatial puzzle that’s all about careful optimisation and thinking two or three turns ahead, but nothing about it feels especially like you’re managing a city. It’s common to end up with improbably-laid-out grids: farms and mines in the centre of town surrounded by industrial buildings and an outer ring of houses – a nightmare for citizens 2,000 years before the advent of public transport.
There’s also nothing in the game’s mechanisms that feels particularly linked to Rome. You might be building bathhouses and hoarding dinari, but there’s no reason this couldn’t be a game about constructing lunar biodomes and refining Helium-3.
Then there’s the fact that unpurchased buildings stay on the table from one round to the next. The game’s shared central market can swell to frightening proportions, swallowing table space as it goes. It’s a particular problem in four-player games – in fact, the most fun I had with Minerva was when I played its quick and engaging solo mode, a thoughtful puzzle that feels like it’d make a great smartphone or tablet app.
As a multiplayer board game, though, it has some shortcomings and, with city-building competitors like Quadropolis, Between Two Cities and Suburbia all available for the same price or less, it struggles to raise its head above the pack.
Minerva’s take on town planning is distinctly abstract, but it presents some interesting conundrums that challenge you to think several turns ahead. It gets a little bloated at higher player counts, though, and it’s that rare thing in board gaming: a game that’s actually more fun when played solo.
Designer: Hisashi Hayashi
Artist: Ryo Nyamo, Franz Vohwinkel
Time: 60-90 minutes
This review originally appeared in the October 2018 issue of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here – or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.
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