The Great City of Rome review
Rome wasn’t built in a day. The Great City of Rome lets you build it in around an hour, but will leave you with the feeling that the extra time taken by the Romans was worth it.
Co-designers Matthew Dunstan and Brett J. Gilbert are no strangers to the ancient world, having dabbled in Greek mythology with Elysium and Egyptian tomb-building in Pyramids. The Great City of Rome ostensibly takes place during the historical rebuilding of the Italian capital; there’s an emperor, emissaries, arenas, the Forum Romanum, temples dedicated to a general who’s-who of the pantheon, aqueducts and, yes, the Colosseum all present on the game’s building cards, divided up into four decks marked with Roman numerals.
All the boxes are ticked for a Roman city-builder, yet the ripe setting feels strangely inert during play. The lack of notable building names and the unremarkable isometric artwork mean that there’s little sense of building one of the greatest cities in history. Fewer columns and it could be Stevenage, for all the difference it makes.
This absence of character unfortunately carries across into the gameplay. A mixture of card-drafting and tile-laying, each turn sees players add a building from the central offering to their hand, before potentially using bricks to add a card to their growing metropolis and cogs to activate the abilities of buildings already in the grid. Bricks and cogs are primarily gained through the game’s most interesting element, a strip of icons that changes arrangement from round to round. Players place their emissary pawn on the strip to denote both the number of resources they have for that turn and the order in which they choose a building card, depending on how close they are to the ‘emperor’ (a stationary gold pawn that sits in a notch at one end for the entire game).
It’s an interesting dilemma – choose earlier, but potentially have fewer resources to build with – that works well enough in isolation, but is let down by its relation to the central city-building, which lacks excitement. Having only a four-by-four grid to fill out and being able to add just one building a round from what can be a limited selection occasionally feels a little too restrictive. The need to arrange blocks of residential buildings next to public buildings to amass maximum points makes for an interesting enough experience, but otherwise the building abilities – whether during scoring or when activated by cogs – don’t have much to offer in terms of interaction and meaningful placement. Although there’s the ability to draft aggressively to disrupt opponents, the limited choices mean it’s often less beneficial to do so in the long run. Periodic scoring bonuses for the most influence, earned by high-profile buildings, try to encourage extra moments of competition but can be dictated by the luck of the draw, even with the dynamic player order.
All this is not to say that The Great City of Rome is a terrible game; it’s not, but it’s far from great. Its core city-building tile-laying gameplay is thoroughly dependable, yet even with its interesting addition of a dynamic player order it lacks distinction in a genre crowded with far more innovative and joyful experiences. Coupled with a forgettable, dated art style and lack of engagement with an otherwise tried-and-tested theme, it’s just not enough to keep you coming back when there are better other options out there.
PLAY IT? – MAYBE
The gameplay is perfectly serviceable, and the addition of a dynamic player order and resource collection mechanic is something that aims for individuality. But the hard truth is that The Great City of Rome simply doesn’t stand out enough – something not helped by a lacking visual presentation and absence of character in its portrayal of one of the most famous cities in the world.
Designer: Matthew Dunstan, Brett J. Gilbert
Artist: Martin Hoffmann, Claus Stephan
Time: 1 hour
This review originally appeared in the May 2019 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.