Board Game Review, Previews

When In Rome (Bellum Sacrum Preview)

The Kickstarter is live here!

Set the scene. You are a Roman God. A being that does as it pleases, causing havoc, pleasing worshippers and being an out right nuisance. But they did what they want in their “omnipotence”. And that’s every ancient myth in a nutshell. I mean, have you ever looked at what the Gods got up to? It’s fair to say that half the Greeks’ problems would go away if Zeus could have kept his libido in check and everyone got on better. That, and the continual anarchy caused by so called heroes taking on beasties for no reason other than personal glory… Not a lot of thinking was done during these stories…

I guess the moral behind most these myths is that power enables you to do what you want and the consequences aren’t yours to deal with. Which is a terrible mantra to live by… but that’s what they believed. The gods did exactly what they wanted from their cloudy seats in the sky. Luckily, every god had a purpose and a place in the world, so there was a silver lining somewhere… Although, some of these purposes were pretty small time… The god of wine? God of sleep? At least it showed the Ancient Romans’ priorities.

Now Bellum Sacrum, a card game developed by Anthony Gibbins and published by Bow String Games, is a game focused on what the Gods did when they weren’t bothering mortals. Fighting. War, fighting, bloodshed and beating one another to a pulp. (Again, showing the Ancient Romans’ priorities). This game lasts about 20-50 minutes and is a competitive push your luck, hand management game for two players.

How It Handles

This game took its toll on my mind and my ability to be tactical. It took me a long while to get my head around a clear line of tactics for this game, as nothing I did was a guaranteed win. I lined up several gods with cracking attack, invoked powers, and annihilated my opponent’s cards, but still wasn’t winning as quickly as I wanted! The trophies were coming, but slowly. My partner was doing equally as well as I was once she’d gotten to grips with it. But again, her tactics were sporadically changing because nothing she tried was giving her the guaranteed win she wanted. For these reasons, we adored the game.

There was a pure and simple beauty in the knowledge that you can’t try the same thing twice. I can’t imagine any Ancient Roman centurion losing soldiers in a battle and saying “Second times the charm.” Like in any real battle of wits, you’ve got to be tactile and flow with the fight. No amount of throwing things at a brick wall defence will make it break any quicker. It all comes down to playing smarter, not harder.

The invoke abilities and stats of the Gods are balanced enough to all be viable choices to use in a pinch. The powerful god cards will often have mighty invoke abilities that will change the flow of the game. Whereas the weaker cards are likely to have more annoying invoke abilities, which will more likely disrupt your oppositions plans. And this leaves you with difficult decisions: You could use a big on the battlefield to do damage, or use their invoke ability to really bring the pain but without their muscle. On the other side of the spectrum, you could use lesser cards as a quick shield or use their abilities to be a nuisance and disrupt their flow.

Another thing we loved about Sacrum Bellum was that the played cards weren’t the only ones used for defence. The decision to play a VII card or not doesn’t come down to just its battle ability and invoke ability.. Knowing that the card can be played to counter an opposing card of the same calibre is a major deciding factor too! It leaves you questioning whether you could survive having that invocation against yourself. Do you risk playing it for the sly hit? Or do you save it, just in case?

The final thing, and possibly one of the big overarching things, to mention is the stylings of the game. We can not get enough of the art style of Sacrum Bellum! It is gorgeous! What’s more incredible is how it looks identical to what you’d expect or be on a Roman mural. The Romans’ art told the stories of the gods, and these cards are a beautiful homage to this styling, emphasising the theme of the game and displaying a clear consideration for it.

In a Nutshell

Sacrum Bellum is a quality head to head game. There is nothing wrong or problematic with it whatsoever. It makes sense, has a good balance, and leaves a heavy responsibility of choice on players. You won’t lose because of poor cards, you’ll lose because of mistake or poor plays. And as frustrating as that may be to hear, it’s true. The speed you use cards, burn through the powerful hitters, the less chance you’ll be able to defend those big invocations. The game just works, and it works well.

If you’re a fan of short, sharp card games for two players, this is right up your alley. And if you’re a fan of a quality head to head game with a well done theme, this too is your cup of tea.

How To Play

Bellum Sacrum is played using two, near identical decks. One has the Roman gods on, the other has the Roman goddesses. Both are identical in their skills, abilities and overarching theme, however the art and names makes the decks identifiable from one another.

Cards have several stats on them, respective of the card’s attack, defence, invoke ability and number. The cards attack is only active when its that player’s turn, and the defence is active on the opposing player’s turn. The invoke ability becomes active when played as an invoke card, meaning it is players straight into the discard pile. The card’s number is respective of an opposing player’s card of the same number. These cards will be identical with the exception of their art.

All cards are shuffled into their respective god and goddess decks. Then players take a deck and draws five cards to begin. The aim of the game is to obtain five trophies, which are earned when you end the turn with your opponent having no played cards. In order to do this, players have to fight or remove their opposing cards on their turn using attacks, supported attacks or invoked abilities. Each player has their own draw and discard piles, both of which should be kept secret from their opponent. They also have three spaces to fill in front of them called columns. Each column can hold one type of card, and these are considered on the battlefield. These are filled from front to back, with the front being the frontline of the army. Cards always move to fill empty columns ahead of them.

During Bellum Sacrum, players will have four actions to use. This is with the exception of their first player’s turn, where they have three, and also on a turn after their opponent gains a trophy where they have five. On their turn, a player can:

  • Deploy cards of one type to an empty column closest to the front line
  • Attack using their front line cards
  • Do a supported attack using two adjacent columns’s attack values cumulatively (with one being the frontline)
  • Invoke a god’s ability
  • Strengthen an existing god by playing cards of that type to it
  • Draw three cards

When a card has been used in an attack, it is considered resting and is therefore turned to the side to indicate this. Resting cards cannot attack a second time this turn, but all exhausted cards become active at the end of your turn. Cards can attack from behind exhausted cards, but not from behind active cards.

When invoking an ability, players play as many cards of that type as they choose. Then their opponent may choose to play a matching set of cards of the same type to prevent the invocation. If both players reveal two cards, the invocation fails and all cards are discarded. If the invocation succeeds, then the instructions on the cards are followed, and the discarded. Some of these cards affect a player’s hand, some affect a player’s played cards. If a player’s deck runs out, the discard is shuffled and becomes the new deck. Once any player has five trophies, they win.