When people think of Hadrian's Wall, they might not know that it was very much a breathing, living entity. Rather than just being a hard border, it had various communities that were attached to it, clustered around various forts, such as Vindolanda and Housesteads. Wherever the Roman Army went, life in Antiquity followed, and as shown by the discovery in Jarrow of a gravestone made by a Syrian man to his British ex-slave wife, it was a cosmopolitan world.
Hadrian's Wall is a draw and write game (as in draw a card) for 1-6 players, with simple worker placement/engine building mechanics. It's designed by Bobby Hill and published by Garphill Games. Players take on the role of someone in charge of a fort, building up their section of the wall's physical, economic, cultural and religious faculties in order to achieve the best score over six turns. At the end of each turn, those fearsome Picts from north of the border punctually attack the wall and test its strength.
The game's core mechanics revolve around four score tracks: renown, piety, valour and discipline.These comprise most of your score at the end of the game. Furthermore, each player has two dauntingly large sheets to attend to, comprised of building and citizen tracks, each of which has multiple tracks that they can choose to cross off, moving from left to right and collecting bonuses as they progress along each one. At the start of each turn, players are allocated a number of workers and resources through a random card draw, of which there are a range, from yellow citizens, black soldiers to purple workers and turquoise builders. These are decided by a random card draw, but various buildings which can be completed provide players with the opportunity to increase the resources they have each turn. Unlike other resource management games, players must use all of the meeples allocated to them.
Players also have a deck of 12 cards, two of which are drawn each turn. One card determines the composition of their end-game scoring, which then can influence the choices they make, and the other can determine components and other factors. Thematically, the variety of options available to you at the start is fairly strong. For example, you can assign soldiers to your cohorts, which symbolise your ability to stop the attacks at the end of each turn. Stopping attacks increases the chance of valour. Building the main section of the Wall and the Fort yields citizens, who are very important in being able to create other attendant buildings, such as markets, temples, baths and even gladiator schools. Creating buildings will increase renown, building temples (and having people pray at them) increases piety and so on. There are risks to be taken; one might decide not to invest in a cohort, but if you don't stop the attacks you are punished by being awarded disdain, which can, at the end of the game, produce a significant penalty if you're not careful. Have too much disdain? Don't worry - you can build a bath and buy favours from rich and powerful people to remove it! The aim, essentially, is to produce a well-oiled machine that will push your various score tracks along.
On initial viewing, Hadrian's Wall looks horribly complex. The two player sheets are crammed full of material and there seems to be an excess of faintly confusing symbols to tend to. These don't really start to make sense until you've completed a round. In fairness to the designer, the worries start to dissolve after that, and it becomes a fairly straightforward game of collecting worker bonuses and then deciding how to allocate them appropriately. The score tracks are cunningly constructed so that some yield big dividends if you invest in them, albeit with the understanding that you don't reap a reward until much later, whereas others yield important things early on and then very little later. There are some esoteric touches, such as the gladiator school, where one can train a gladiator to fight against gladiators in order to gain renown, or the market, where you can trade goods with other players depending on the card they've drawn. Furthermore, there is a satisfying feel in being able to transform what looks like a miserable handful of workers into something much more meaningful by the end of the turn, but this is mostly done by noting what scoring track has what and then working on from that.
After several plays, having initially been enthused by the sort of faintly manic rush one gets from a freeform approach to a multi-player game, I realised that I had little or no interest in what my fellow players were doing and was absorbed fully in my own little Roman world. If you like that sort of introspective gaming, then this will be quite rewarding, but multi-player games should, in my opinion, have at least a modicum of interaction, and apart from some cursory mechanics, Hadrian's Wall sadly has few where the results of your actions can significantly impact on others. Thematically, it sort of makes sense; one can imagine that various sections of the wall were managed by individual commanders and that they were all unique, but in a gaming context it doesn't feel entirely satisfying, especially as the game itself can start to lag a bit after an hour or so. What can happen is that, as players are essentially free to take their actions at their own speed, some players can end up drumming their fingers whilst others take their time. I also started to find that unlocking the puzzle at the heart of Hadrian's Wall in terms of creating more resources and workers wasn't particularly rewarding after a third or fourth play, and as such lost interest shortly afterwards. A big problem for me was that the mechanic of drawing a card to determine what buildings I needed to invest in was in reality somewhat arbitrary and didn't really influence scoring a huge amount. If I drew a card on the 5th or 6th round, the chances were that by that time it was unlikely I'd be able to change my strategy in order to make much of a difference in terms of scoring and, as such, any points scored were attributed entirely to luck.
Whilst there is certainly a lot of value in this game, especially for solo players or those who dislike 'take that' interactions, it's one that you should ideally try before you buy, especially if you're hoping for an interactive multi-player experience.
(Review by Toby Frith)