What is this game about?
Donning the Purple is set in the Roman Empire after the assassination of the emperor Commodus, at a time when the Empire was in turmoil. In a three-player game (the primary intended player count for Donning the Purple), players end up playing each of three roles at various points during play—senator, heir to the throne, and Emperor. The multiplayer game is semi-cooperative, as players are forced to deal with the challenges of maintaining an empire, and especially of keeping those pesky barbarians at bay. Meanwhile, the Roman people must be fed, buildings in the provinces must be constructed and protected, and plots must be carried out against your enemies. At the end, the player who has the most victory points will be the winner.
Each turn, players will handle several bookkeeping tasks, including determining where enemies will spawn, collecting grain from the provinces, and managing event cards—all of which are negative. Players will also have to keep track of their stamina tokens, because when you run out, you die. (Don't worry, your role is just taken over by another member of your family—unless you're the emperor, in which case players will vie for the throne.)
How does it play solo?
In the solo game of Donning the Purple, one player takes on the role of Emperor and attempts to remain in charge of the Empire for the duration of the game. The senate will automatically score points against you and attempt to assassinate you every turn, while you deal with enemy invasions, natural disasters, and financial woes. You only win the game if you survive the entire time, plus end up with the most victory points. Don't worry though—as long as you have an heir in place, dying isn't so bad. Your family retains power in the Empire, and you get a fresh start at the cost of a single victory point. If you haven't secured an heir, however, it's game over, so watch out for that family line!
Donning the Purple is a mixed bag, and it isn't at its best in the solo mode. There are definitely a lot of things to like about it—the game is beautiful, and the actions you're able to take are interesting, especially when there is so much you could do but so little time to do it in. You have to decide what your priorities are, and there are a lot of potential options when you can fight enemies, build monuments, construct aqueducts to stave off famine, bribe senators, and make assassination attempts. Each action feels meaningful and is fun to perform, which makes those in-game choices enjoyable. I also very much like the combat system, in which victory is strictly determined by who has the bigger army. Combat also offers a chance to roll "glory dice," which is a crucial way to make money, especially in the early game. Plus, when you get the right Plot cards, which let you take special actions in the game, they can be very fun to play.
That said, while I enjoyed the time I spent taking actions in the game, I never felt like I had enough of them. And not in the "oh, too many choices!" kind of way. I felt like I didn't have enough actions because I spent a ton of time running various steps for the game, and nowhere near enough doing interesting things myself. Every turn, you draw five event cards, which can be devastating, but that also means that the game is taking far more actions than you are. It's a little tedious to spend most of my time each turn doing bookkeeping and giving myself a hard time, then finish my own actions in a snap.
On top of that, while the solo mode definitely gives you the feeling of putting out fires throughout the Roman Empire (though I have many historical quibbles), it does not give you the delicious sensation of backstabbing and trying to avoid being backstabbed that is the heart of the multiplayer game. This is perhaps to be expected, but I also believe that the lack of knives in the dark makes the game less interesting, and therefore its bookkeeping more tedious. I think that solo mode loses some of the spirit of Donning the Purple, and while it can definitely be challenging, it's not entirely satisfying.
Do I recommend it?
As annoying as it is to say this... maybe. I personally will not be keeping my copy of Donning the Purple, but I did enjoy several aspects of the game. I can see some people looking past the upkeep imbalance and loving it. Definitely try it before you buy it, or at least watch several playthroughs.
Overall Rating: 3 stars
5 stars —I love it!
4 stars — I really like it.
3 stars — I like it.
2 stars — It's okay.
1 star — Meh.