What is this game about?
Wars of Marcus Aurelius, designed by Robert DeLeskie and published by Hollandspiele, is a light war game that simulates the Marcomannic Wars, which Marcus Aurelius waged for roughly the last 14 years of his life. Your job is to push three barbarian tribes—the Marcomanni, the Quadi, and the Iazyges—back to their home territory, and then defeat them on their own turf. If all three tribes are subdued at the beginning of an in-game year, then you win. However, if the Marcomanni reach Rome, you automatically lose. You can also lose the game by running out of "Imperium Points," in which case you are usurped because your own people think you are doing a bad job. And if the game draws out too long, you can lose by running out of time—the game begins in 170 CE and ends in 180, the year Marcus Aurelius died. If you haven't taken care of the barbarians by then, you don't win.
The game itself is a fun mixture of risk taking and hand management. Each year, you will draw cards (fewer and fewer each season) that can be played for the events on them, or to execute certain in-game actions such as battling, building forts, or rearranging your legions. The barbarians will play cards of their own, which will either help them to advance across the Danube or force you to deal with problems such as plague, scandal at home (oh, Faustina!), and even conflicts on other fronts in the Empire. Battles are decided by a roll of the dice, and while you can prepare yourself strategically, only rarely can you guarantee victory.
How does it play solo?
Wars of Marcus Aurelius is a solitaire-only game. Enjoy being catered to!
I truly enjoy Wars of Marcus Aurelius. As a Roman history enthusiast, I found a lot of little references in this game that made it extra fun. There are cards about Empress Faustina's scandals, about Marcus Aurelius's embarrassing obsession with Alexander of Abonoteichus, and about other historical figures and conflicts that were fun to see outside of the pages of a history book. This game's theme and its mechanics match up beautifully—you really do feel the frustration of making progress against the barbarians, only to have them regroup and return year after year.
Gameplay in Wars of Marcus Aurelius is excellent. Choosing how to deploy your cards is always tense, especially when you need to get a lot done but also have a hand of cards filled with juicy special actions that you could take instead. It's crucial to build up forts and keep them in supply, but you will always have more immediate concerns, such as an advancing tribe or a dip in your Imperium Points. And on top of that, there are plenty of faraway conflicts to draw off your commanders and some of your legions. Even a pacified tribe will rebel again if you don't maintain your presence in their territory, so you are never truly safe on any front!
I have minor quibbles with this game. After a few plays, I found myself following the same basic strategy every time—try to crush the Marcomanni as quickly as possible, then hold them down while cleaning up the other two tribes. A war on three fronts is just too much to sustain. There is also the occasional round that drags because you didn't pull great cards and the barbarians didn't do anything too spicy, either. But this is a war simulation, and it's not as though every season in a real war is going to be full of drama. And if you hate to be at the mercy of the dice, beware, because no matter how well you prepare, there will be situations when the dice are against you—or when you will draw the worst possible cards!
All in all, I think Wars of Marcus Aurelius is a fantastic solo game. It is always engaging, it doesn't outstay its welcome (especially if you lose early... ouch), and it's the right weight for when I want a challenge but don't want to spend my entire evening on a single board game. Playing Wars of Marcus Aurelius has also gotten me interested in playing more and heavier war games, because it has been such a pleasant excursion into the genre. If you are looking to dip your toes in with a light war game, I can wholeheartedly recommend this one.
Do I recommend it?
Absolutely. Wars of Marcus Aurelius is becoming a go-to solo game for me, and I have really been racking up the plays. The tension as you draw barbarian cards, the agony of deciding what to do with your own hand, and the challenge of distributing your legions and leaders correctly doesn't get old.
Overall rating: 4.5 (I will reassess in a year to see if this game is a true love of mine)
5 stars — I love it!
4 stars — I really like it.
3 stars — I like it.
2 stars — It's okay.
1 star — Meh.