I guess this is my new tradition. Get sick, review a Pandemic game. I didn’t catch Covid like last time, but I was sick enough that I cancelled my weekend plans. I chose to spend my time thinking about Pandemic: Fall of Rome instead of spreading the wealth of sore throats and achey joints to my family and friends.
Pandemic: Fall of Rome is part of the Survival Series of Pandemic games. The Survival Series was an opportunity for the original designer, Matt Leacock to team up with a co-designer from the region where the Pandemic World Championship was taking place. Originally, the Survival Series of games were very limited run and difficult to get after the tournament was over. In 2019 the series evolved to become the Pandemic System of games and now include games like Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu, World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King, and more to come I’m sure.
While I don’t have a deep knowledge of Roman history, I have played a lot of Age of Mythology (2002) and Caesar 3 (1998). I feel my familiarity of the subject if fairly complete (/s).
How to Play
I’m going to assume that you already know how to play the base Pandemic game. If you don’t, you can click here to read the How to Play section of Pandemic to get a general idea of how to play a Pandemic game.
What’s the same in Pandemic: Fall of Rome? The core of the Pandemic game feels largely unchanged; if you know how to play Pandemic, it will start by feeling very familiar to you. On your turn, you take four actions. At the end of your turn, draw two cards from the player deck which is seeded with epidemic cards, then draw cards from the invade city deck which puts more barbarian tribes out onto the board. When an epidemic card is revealed, draw one city card from the bottom of the invade city deck and put 3 barbarians on that city, then shuffle the pile of discarded city cards together and place them on top of the city deck. The goal of Pandemic: Fall of Rome is to amass a certain number of cards of the same colour to form a treaty with each of the tribes. The game is only won when you’ve treated with all 5 tribes.
What sets Pandemic: Fall of Rome apart from its predecessor? Well, event cards now have 2 effects, one being much stronger than the other, but will progress the downfall token if you chose that stronger action. Being set in ancient Rome there are no airplanes to get you around the board, instead the coastal cities have ports, and you have to discard a card matching the destination colour to use them. Research stations are now garrisons, where you can recruit troops to battle any of the 5 invading barbarian tribes. Speaking of battles, to remove cubes from the board you’ll need to march your legions into a space with the barbarians to battle, rolling die to do so. Sometimes you’ll be able to clear all the barbarians in a single action and sometimes you’ll find your forces decimated and actions wasted. The biggest change of all in my opinion is how the barbarians march their troops towards Rome.
When you draw from the invade cities deck, you’ll need to find the city represented on that card. If that city doesn’t have any cubes of that colour in the city, don’t place anything in that city. Instead, you’ll a path until you reach a city that does have a cube on it. You’ll then place the one invading barbarian cube onto the next empty city in the line, simulating their slow progression along the Mediterranean countryside. I should also say that the invade cities deck is seeded with 5 Rome cards thereby guaranteeing that cubes will eventually reach Rome should you do nothing to stop it.
To win Pandemic: Fall of Rome, you’ll need to sign peace treaties with all 5 barbarian tribes. Each tribe has a different distribution of cards in the player deck, and requires a different number of cards to be discarded to sign the treaty. Once a treaty is signed, the barbarian hordes will still march on Rome, but now you can turn barbarian cubes into legions with a single discarded card.
To lose, either the downfall marker will reach it’s end (the downfall marker progresses when you choose the more powerful action on event cards, or when a city is sacked), or, when the player deck runs out of cards, or, when you need to place a barbarian cube, but there are none left in the supply.
I know there’s a subset of gamers that want their cooperative games to be brutally difficult. A 10% win rate is nearly too high for them. They want to be beaten, crushed, and like Batman after Bane breaks his back and throws him to the pit, to claw their way back into the light and emerge victorious.
That is so not me. My game time is so few and precious that I don’t want to lose, ever. A loss in a cooperative game feels like a failure, a wasted play. With that in mind, I really enjoy the Pandemic games, each game feels like it has a satisfying arc, and generally I feel like I should be able to win every game, but often on the very last turn. I think my actual win rate is closer to 70%, which isn’t too shabby.
Pandemic: Fall of Rome is my favourite spin-off Pandemic that I’ve played. I love the mechanism of the barbarian hordes marching across the Mediterranean countryside. I also enjoy the push and pull of needing to defend Rome or else you’ll lose, while the invading barbarians sacking the far-flung cities could also cause you to lose.
My biggest complaint about Pandemic: Iberia was that I found it very hard to move around, which makes sense for the time period that it was set in. Pandemic: Fall of Rome tackles that criticism by using boats. It’s trivial to move around to coastal cities, just discard a card matching the colour of the destination city to move to it, but moving inland can be a struggle. A large part of the decision space is choosing to leave the convenient coasts to move inland, so you can tackle the problems brewing in the land locked areas like Philippopolis.
The barbarian removal mechanism of marching your legions into battle in thematic and exciting. In one game I kept rolling poorly, and having my forces decimated, while my wife was cleaning cities with ease. This led us to spinning a narrative of her being a great military leader, while I was a mere ferryman, managing the logistics of war while she did the actual defending. I love when a game enables emergent storytelling.
While rolling dice is exciting, it can also swing your games from easy to difficult and frustrating. There’s no way to mitigate a dice roll, and you need to commit how many forces you’re willing to lose before rolling the die. Maybe you only need one die, but maybe. Should you find yourself defeated, the only recourse is to rebuild your army, and try, try again.
I’m not sure if I like or hate needing to use the dice to resolve combats, it does inject a bit more luck, sometimes rewarding you when you take a gamble, and other times absolutely punishing you when you put all your eggs into one basket. Either way, it can create some exciting moments
Another aspect of Pandemic: Fall of Rome that differs from it’s vanilla brother, is the event cards now have two abilities. There’s the basic event, and a much stronger version of the same event, but choosing that option will cause Rome to decline. It’s rare that I choose that option, the conservative player in me wants to preserve that decline tracker as much as possible, if it reached the bottom, we lose. But there have been moments where making the hard choice and taking that powerful event was the key to turning the tide of the game, and carried us right on to victory.
I can say that Pandemic: Fall of Rome does feel very different from base Pandemic, but I’m not sure if there’s enough to really differentiate them. If you’re familiar with base Pandemic, the similarities will be blatant. Make no mistake, this is still a Pandemic game, but Pandemic: Fall of Rome manages to feels like a fresh take on the Pandemic system, it isn’t just a simple re-theme. The randomness of clearing cubes, the need to move legions around the board to even have a chance to clear cubes, and the way the barbarian hordes march on Rome can make this game feel quite different in a lot of ways, but at the end of the day, you’ll still feel like you played Pandemic.
Is Pandemic: Fall of Rome good? Absolutely. Is it objectively better than Pandemic? I don’t think so. But personally, I’m much more inclined to keep Pandemic: Fall of Rome over the base box thanks to its more attractive theme, especially thanks to the exhaustion and destruction wrought by COVID-19. I don’t think any collection needs both of these games, and if you’re inclined to pick up expansions, Pandemic: Fall of Rome won’t be the right choice for you. And maybe it’s because I’ve played base Pandemic so much more, but I find myself preferring Pandemic: Fall of Rome, and if I were only going to keep one version, this is the one I’d keep.