Imagine being the Emperor of the known world with a territory so large that it’s impossible to rule successfully. Worse, there are always uprisings (heavy taxation and imposition of foreign culture turn out to be unpopular, go figure) and massive hordes of barbarians waiting on the periphery of your empire, poised to attack! It’s 300 CE and the Roman Empire is starting to collapse under its own weight. In a stroke of genius, Emperor Diocletian decides that the solution is to divide and conquer the upstarts; he appoints three trusted royals to help rule the empire. They are Emperor Maximian, Emperor Constantius, and Emperor Galerius. They all work together well, creating a tetrarchy (literally, “four rulers”) government, but will it be enough to hold on to the increasingly fractured empire?
The compact worker placement game Tetrarchia from designer Miguel Marqués and Draco Ideas puts 1-4 players in the role of the tetrarchy, seeking to simultaneously fight dissent from within and barbarians at the gates, while also trying to secure the borders of the far-flung Roman Empire. Secure all seven borders and you win. Let the barbarian army make it to Roma or foment too much dissent and rebellion across the land and it’s game over. There are lots of ways to tweak the difficulty in the game too, but beware going in: This is a tough one and you’re more likely to be overrun than accomplish your tasks at every level of play.
I’ve been playing the game solo, as is typical for me, which means that I am controlling all four Emperors. No worries about arguing strategy or tactics, but it does leave me without a second opinion on how to manage the endless struggles with rebellion while trying to also secure those all-important border settlements. It’s a great challenge and highly entertaining, even if I have to candidly admit that I haven’t yet won across my many plays.
GAME SETUP AND COMPONENTS
I’m part of a Frosthaven campaign and have gotten used to dozens of big boxes full of hundreds of miniatures and components, so it’s refreshing that Tetrarchia is a compact title that all fits neatly into a box about the size of a trade paperback book. The full map and all components are so compact that this is an easy play just about anywhere, from a coffee shop to a breakroom to your Mother-in-Law’s house when you just need a break.
Above you can see all the components for a basic game: The grey tokens mark regions with unrest, the black tokens are those in outright rebellion, and the three black helmets denote the three barbarian armies that are the scourge of the Empire. Along the bottom are the four emperors, Diocletian (green), Galerius (yellow), Constantius (red), and Maximians (blue), with the Emperor token and their garrison tokens. There are up to three Roman fleets (the white boats) and the dice consist of a white Roman numeral die (I-VI) and a black Arabic numeral die (1-6).
Most notable is the map. It’s small, but it’s very well-designed and easily understood. Each settlement, town, village, or city is referred to as a province, and the colored areas are known as regions. There are seven regions of six provinces each, and each province has a Roman numeral associated, then each province then has an individual Arabic numeral. In that way, rolling the dice identifies a unique province on the map. To set things up, go through the six outlying regions (everyone but Roma), rolling the black die and placing a black rebellion disk on the indicated spot. You can add 1-3 ships to make the game easier: More ships = easier movement for the Romans. Here’s my initial setup:
If you look closely you will see that the line connecting two provinces can be a single line or a line with a break: The former is a 1-point easy movement, while the latter is a 2-point difficult terrain move. Look even closer and you’ll see that every single province also has a tiny black arrow on its connecting line too. Those denote the path that the barbarian army will take as it heads inexorably towards Roma and your downfall.
You’ll also need to decide how many garrisons each Emperor should have – more is easier – along with how many additional revolts might be occurring at the start and how many initial barbarian armies, if any, are on the board. For the easiest game, start with 3 fleets, 5 garrisons per Emperor, no additional revolts, and no initial barbarian armies.
TURN ORDER IN TETRARCHIA
Each round alternates between an Emperor during the Roman phase, then the rebellions and barbarians in the Barbarian phase. Emperors take turns, in the order indicated on the Roma province graphic: Green, then yellow, then red, then blue. The sequence is Emperor, Barbarians, Emperor, Barbarians, etc, so once green (Diocletian) has finished his move, there will be four Barbarian turns before he gets to go again. This makes it critical that any tactics used are spread across all four Emperors because a lot can happen between turns for a specific Emperor in this game!
An Emperor’s move consists of six “Imperium Points” of action, either movement, sailing, building a garrison, subduing an unrest or revolt, or attacking a barbarian army. Most of your points will be spent on movement. In the photo below, for example, if an Emperor was in Sarmatia and wanted to quell the rebellion in Moesia Inf (in modern day Serbia), it would cost 2 + 1 to move there (2 for rough terrain, +1 because there’s a rebellion in the destination spot) and 2 more to subdue the revolt. In other words, 5 of your six Imperium Points for the one move.
The Barbarian phase is where the mayhem really begins, though, and I had the tough luck of having a full-scale uprising on my very first Barbarian move! The Barbarian phase has three parts: Any gray unrest tokens immediately adjacent to a black rebellion token turn black (the fires of protest are inflamed by the rebels next door!). Then you roll the dice and place an unrest token on the specified region. I started out with a rebellion in Moesia Inf from the initial setup and got the roll below:
This is a really bad way to start Tetrarchia because not only does it cause every connected province to immediately get a rebellion token (in this case Sarmatia, Moesia Svp, and Tracia), but it also means that one of the Barbarian armies is going to show up on the board too, on the peripheral province associated with the result of another roll of the white die. My six rebellions have blossomed to nine, but worse, the Barbarian horde is now marching toward Roma, destroying everything it encounters on the way. In my case, I rolled an “I” and the Barbarian army showed up in the lower left corner of the board:
Notice where Diocletian (green) is located. On his move (which happened before the Barbarian phase), he arrived on the board in Roma, then took advantage of the Roman fleet to move straight to Narbonensis, where he then quashed a rebellion. Points consumed: 1 point for getting to Roma [Note: This was a mistake on my part; it does not cost a point to bring an Emperor onto the board], 1 point to traveling to Narbonensis + 1 point since there was a rebellion, 2 points to subdue the rebels, 1 point to drop a garrison on the location (friendly garrisons prevent unrest and rebellion in a region, but are mercilessly destroyed by barbarian armies).
If you look very closely at the above, you’ll see that the Barbarian army isn’t quite done with its turn either: It arrives and then immediately marches forward one province, dropping a rebellion on that spot too. I actually often forget that rule for newly appearing barbarian armies, and to me it makes more sense that they don’t move until the next barbarian phase, but the designer assures me that it should immediately move one and drop a rebellion token. if you count, you’ll see that it will take nine moves for this army to make it to Roma. Beware, other starting spots can prove much faster traverses, as I found out a bit later in this game.
Here’s how that lower left corner looked at the end of the barbarian phase:
I’ve moved the army into the water so you can see the rebellion token on Tingitana (modern Tangier).
THE GAME CONTINUES
The first four Roman phases bring out the four Emperors, who will move around the board trying to do good (well, do good for the empire, not necessarily for the locals who might not want to be part of the Roman Empire). Luckily, Constantius has a bit of luck; because Maximian has subdued the one rebellion in Gallia, region II, Constantius can move straight to Britannia and establish our first border garrison, securing the region!
In this instance, it’s 1 Imperium Point to show up on the board [Note: This is a mistake on my part, as I said earlier: Coming onto the board does not cost a point], 1 to move to Belgica, 2 for the rough terrain move to Britannia, then 2 for placing a garrison on a border location. One down, five to go. The problem is that this also places Constantius far away from the main action on the map, so we need to get him back into the thick of things ASAP. Next turn. Well, four turns from now.
A few turns later and that Barbarian army has progressed to Gallacæcia (each Barbarian phase, the barbarian armies move forward a single province, so that nine phases from Roma? Not so far after all).
Another note: I forgot that the Barbarian army only has a 50% chance of traveling through difficult terrain, accomplished by a 1-3 roll on the die. So they would have progressed more slowly on the board than in my playthru. Sorry ’bout forgetting this, it would have changed the tides of war.
Fortunately, both Maximian (blue) and Diocletian (green) have recognized the problem and cornered them:
To attack, an Emperor counts up all of their adjacent garrison tokens (Diocletian has a garrison, but it’s too far away to help in this spot) and multiplies the value x2 for every adjacent Emperor. No garrisons, but Diocletian is attacking with a +2 value. The Barbarian army, meanwhile, only has the rebel army he’s dropped into his location, so he’s at +1. We roll the dice and the white value is added to the Romans and the black to the Barbarians. The result: Diocletian 8, Barbarians 4. We win and the Barbarian army is removed from the board. Well done, team Roma!
More turns pass and the board’s relatively quiet, though there are a fair number of rebellions in the top right quadrant:
The barbarians just rolled VI / 3 which turns the unrest in Tripolitania (modern day Tripoli) into a full-out rebellion. The very next Barbarian phase lands on the same spot, triggering an uprising and the Barbarian army showing up in Libya (region VI). If you count moves, this is very alarming because it’s only 6 steps from Roma and, indeed, that’s my downfall, as this final map shows:
The Barbarian army is one step from Roma and because it automatically leaves a trail of rebellions behind it, it’s also become quite strong with 4 additional tokens in its path. Even if Constantius (red) attacked, it would be Constantius +1 versus Barbarians +4, meaning that the dice would really have to be lucky for the Roman empire to survive. It didn’t, and I lost the game by having Roma overrun by the barbarian horde!
THOUGHTS AND COMMENTARY
There’s a lot to like in this simple and straightforward area control game. It’s also deceptively easy; as I said in the beginning, I still haven’t managed to win a game of Tetrarchia, though I’m getting pretty close. One great thing is that this second edition of Tetrarchia includes lots of expansions in addition to the basic setup flexibility, along with historical scenarios for the Carausian Revolt, Danubian Wars, Mauretanian War, and Great Persian War (they all happened between 286 CE and 399 CE. Definitely a time of widespread unrest!). interestingly, the Roman Empire managed to hold on for almost another century, finally collapsing in 476 CE.
The rules are a bit puzzling and there are many discussions about clarifications and rule nuances you can find on BoardGameGeek.com. I would still argue that it makes more sense for the Barbarian army to stay put once it appears on the board until the next turn, then leave rebellions behind it, rather than on the very province it’s in, but that could always be house ruled if I really felt strongly about it. Mostly, though, Tetrarchia proves to be a tight, compact, and challenging area control game that has a refreshingly small footprint for a wargame and offers a terrific solo experience. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have an empire to save…
TETRARCHIA, 1-4 Players, Design by Miguel Marqués and published by Draco Ideas. €27 online + shipping.
Disclosure: Draco Ideas sent me a copy of Tetrarchia in return for this candid writeup and review. Thanks!