This is a game that launched on Kickstarter earlier this year. It’s a competitive stab-in-the-back game yet it incorporates a co-operative element: if you all only go for the jugular the Empire could fall and you will all collectively lose!
Designed by Petter Schanke Olsen with art by Daniel Hasenbos and Joeri Lefevre, and published by Tompet Games, Donning the Purple is an asymmetric game for three players (there are rules for a two player version but this is less than optimal in comparison with the core three-player game). One player starts as the Roman Emperor, another the Emperor’s Heir and the third player is a senator. Events, catastrophes and assassination will mean you can expect these roles to switch through the course of the game, sometimes several times in a single round. I should perhaps whisper ‘Memento Mori’: you can expect to die in this game – especially when you are the Emperor – but death doesn’t mean you are out of the game; if you are killed, you suffer a 1 victory point penalty but you then continue as another member of the dead character’s family.
The game is played over four ‘years’ (rounds) and, on their turn, players only get two actions (three for the Emperor), paid for in stamina tokens. You can additionally copy the actions taken by another player and you can take the actions specified on Plot and ‘Hidden Agenda’ cards but, all told, you don’t have a lot of actions available to you to help you amass victory points over the entirety of the game.
The Empire is always under the existential threat of invasion: every turn barbarian hordes advance on the regional capitals. Players all need to contribute to the Empire’s defence or they stand collectively to lose the game. Eliminating invaders earns glory and helps increase the happiness of the Empire but it's an uphill struggle: more waves of attackers pile in every 'year' and their advance seems relentless.
As you’d expect, it is the Emperor who has the greatest scope for collecting victory points but being Emperor isn’t all glory and wreaths of laurels. It is the Emperor who has to deal with Events, most of which deliver bad news, and it is the Emperor who bears responsibility for ensuring that the Empire is fed. Given that regions will be randomly hit by famine and grain-producing provinces contribute nothing if they are occupied by barbarians, more often than not you’ll find that the empire is producing insufficient grain to feed its population. The Emperor can import grain but that costs money. The Emperor benefits from tax revenues but money is still very tight, and every starved province means more unhappy citizens. If unhappiness levels reach zero, the Emperor is overthrown…
This is a game demanding careful resource management and what is, in effect, worker placement, while balancing bribery and intrigue. Players will inevitably strike at each other to seize power and advantage but they will want to carefully time their treachery lest they too are left vulnerable. After all, you can never be quite certain of what Plot and Hidden Agenda cards your opponents are holding in reserve.
For a game with quite a lot going on, Donning the Purple plays surprisingly quickly. You should be able to complete a game in a little over an hour. The version shown on Board’s Eye View is a pre-production prototype; we’re looking forward to seeing how the finished version turns out but we’ll have to wait till next year for that. After all, Rome wasn’t built in a day.