Board Game Gumbo: When Politics Gets Cutthroat, Literally - A Review of Donning the Purple
(Disclaimer: Board Game Gumbo was provided with a free copy of the game for the purposes of this review.)
192 AD was not the best of times for the Roman Empire. Commodus ruled as Emperor, and not well. Among his many controversial decisions, perhaps most so was when he forced the Senate to declare him a living god. So I guess it’s not completely surprising that someone paid the Praetorian Guard to strangle him to death on New Year’s Eve. No doubt the Roman people rejoiced over this, hoping that his death would bring stability, and sanity, back to the empire. What they got, instead, was a time of absolute chaos. The aftermath of Commodus’ death is the setting for Donning the Purple, a ‘king of the hill’ style game for 1 to 3 players, designed by Petter Schanke Olsen and published by Tompet Games.
Historically Commodus was succeeded by Pertinax, who ruled as Emperor for a grand total of three months. When Didius Julianus then bribed his way into the office, he didn’t even last that long. After that the empire devolved into civil war over who would take over. In Donning the Purple, you’re trying to do a little better than Pertinax did. The game begins with one player as Emperor, in charge of a Roman Empire that stretches from Hispania to Mesopotamia. As Emperor you have many responsibilities; feeding the people to keep them happy and staving off barbarian forces are the most pertinent. However, the Senate is always striving to claw back a little power for themselves and your Heir is lurking in the shadows, just waiting for the time to take your place.
Donning the Purple is a bit of an oddity for me; I really can’t think of another game like it that I have played. Fundamentally the gameplay revolves around action selection and card play, which plenty of games have. However, your aim is almost always to step into the position of Emperor. Essentially you want to paint a target on your back and make everyone else in the game come after you, and that’s because the Emperor is the only player who scores victory points automatically every turn (there are ways to score victory points otherwise). Really the game is about timing; you want the previous Emperor to do all the hard stuff, and then you want to take their place right as the victory points are handed out. Doing that is a lot easier said than done, however, and the Emperor isn’t going to give up his position without a fight.
To give you a full understanding of the game, I’m going to break down the review into three parts. First we’ll talk about how to play the game itself. As unique as it is, this is actually a bit more difficult than normal. It was common for first time players to not totally grasp the unique playstyle of the game until near the end of their first playthrough. Secondly I’ll give you my personal take on the game and how I rate it, both in individual categories and overall. And lastly, for those interested, I will talk about the Solo Mode of the game and the various Advanced Rules that add a couple new mechanics to the game. If you’re not interested in learning how to play the game just skip down to the What Do I Think section below.
How Does it Play?
As I’ve already said, Donning the Purple is a king of the hill style game. Essentially everyone should be striving to become Emperor, even though that title draws the ire of the other players. When you become Emperor is infinitely more important than actually gaining the title; you don’t want to be Emperor when Rome is plagued by Famine and massive Barbarian hordes threaten the countryside, or when the price of grain is so high that you can’t possibly feed the populace. Not feeding people tends to upset them, and when Romans are upset Emperors tend to die.
Donning the Purple is played out over 4 rounds, called years in the game. Each year is divided into 8 phases; that sounds like a lot, but the game isn’t that complex. BGG rates it as a 3.14 on their scale of complexity, which would make it a little less complicated to play than Terraforming Mars.
Each game begins with the player pawn for each player in Roma along with one of their estates, and with 2 legionnaire tokens in each capital (marked with a star on the map). There are three different roles in the game; Emperor, Heir, and Senator. Each player will be randomly assigned one of these roles to begin the game. The Heir gains the Heir token, which is placed on their player board and marks them as first in line to take over should an ‘accident’ befall the Emperor. The Senator places one of his senate tokens in the Senate section of the board, at the lowest number spot. As head of the senate, this player has some control over the order of building construction in phase 5, as well as being second in line for Emperor. The Emperor gains a special board with actions only he can take and sets it next to his player board. Then each player is given a starting amount of money, 15 coins to the Senator and Heir and only 10 to the Emperor, and Plot cards, 1 to the Senator and Heir and 2 to the Emperor. Now you are ready to begin playing Donning the Purple.
Phase 1: Incoming Enemies
Every year begins with various barbarian tribes invading Rome and trying to get their hands on as much plunder as possible. To represent this, the emperor rolls a d6 and adds 2 barbarian tokens to each area marked by that number. The game board is divided into 4 regions with 6 provinces per region. So in 4 of those provinces, you will place 2 barbarian tokens. The only time barbarians are not placed is if the province is already occupied by any number of legionnaires, or by a player pawn.
After they are placed, the Barbarians then move one spot closer to the capital of their particular region. Each barbarian and legionnaire token has a strength of 1, and each player pawn begins at a strength of 2. If barbarians ever move into a province with less strength than them, they immediately defeat anything there; legionnaires are removed and placed back into the supply, and player pawns are returned to Roma (with the player also losing 2 stamina). If barbarians try to move into an area with a combined strength equal to or higher than theirs, they simply will not move. Additionally, once barbarians make it to a region’s capital they will no longer move.
Phase 2: Harvest Grain
The Emperor needs to feed his people, and to do this he harvests grain from various different provinces. However, nothing ever goes right, and the first thing the Emperor does is roll a d4 and place a Famine token in the specified Region. That region will not produce grain this year, nor will any Estates in that Region produce money for taxes in phase 7. The 5 provinces that produce grain are marked on the board along with how much grain they produce (one province per region, plus Roma). In addition to the region suffering from Famine, any province that would produce grain, but is occupied by barbarians, will not produce. Subtracting these two situations, the Emperor will then harvest an amount of grain for the use of the empire.
Phase 3: Draw Cards
Nothing is certain in life, and certainly not in Rome. Events conspire, along with people, to slowly drag the empire, and its’ Emperor, down. To represent this in game there is a deck of Event cards. Each year the Emperor has to resolve 5 of these cards. These cards might decrease the grain in the empire’s supply, force the Emperor to pay off enemies, add additional barbarians to the board, or any other manner of catastrophes (including Earthquakes and Volcanoes!).
After the Emperor has resolved the five Event cards, he then reveals one card from the Forum deck. These are opportunities, both for the Emperor and the other players. In the next phase players can use their actions to participate in these endeavors, gaining money, additional Plot cards, or even victory points.
Phase 4: Player Actions
Each player must choose how they are going to react to the events in the empire. Player actions always begin with the Emperor, who may take 3 actions, and then proceeds clockwise with each other player only getting 2 actions. These actions take stamina, however, which is not infinite. After each player takes their actions they will move a number of stamina tokens from the Unused to the Used section of their boards, representing the toll those actions have taken on them. Run out of stamina and you die, but there is no player elimination in this game. Players are representing a noble house, not an individual; the cost of dying is simply a single negative victory point. Die as the Emperor, however, and someone has to take your place; it can even be another member of your house!
The Emperor has special actions that only he can take, such as hiring and moving Rome’s mighty legionnaires. He can also build Aqueducts, which prevent Famine and increase the Happiness of Rome’s citizens. Lastly, he can name his Heir, assuming someone doesn’t already have that distinction.
Each player has their own player board which denotes the actions they can take on their turn. Some of those actions can be copied, allowing every other player to take that action immediately after the current player, in player order (copying an action still costs a Stamina). With these actions, players can 1) move their player piece, potentially eliminating barbarian threats and earning glory 2) build Estates that produce money every year 3) build Monuments to their noble house, granting permanent bonuses, or 4) bribe their way into the Senate.
Two actions are available to each player which can not be copied by their opponents. For 5 coins, a player can choose to attempt an assassination, either targeting the current head of the Senate or the Emperor himself. In either case, the instigating player will roll a d6; Senators are killed on any roll that isn’t a 1. As for the Emperor, he loses a number of stamina equal to the result on the die.
Phase 5: Place Buildings
Rome is ever expanding with constructions that either help the populace or raise the wealth and acclaim of the noble houses, but there’s only so much that be done each year. Only a certain number of buildings slated for construction by the players will actually be built each year. In a two-player game 3 buildings will be completed, while in a 3-player game 4 will. The head of the Senate has some control over the order of buildings to be built, and as such can swap the location of any two buildings in the queue.
Estates and Aqueducts are placed on the board to any province that does not already have a building. Players need to be careful where they set these buildings, however, because any barbarian passing through that province will happily burn it to the ground. Estates earn players additional money in the tax phase while Aqueducts both increase the happiness of the population as well as eliminating any current famine in that region, as well as preventing any future famine (as long as they’re still on the board).
Monuments are returned to each player’s board where they unlock permanent bonuses for that player. In the regular version of the game each player gains the same bonuses for building Monuments. The advanced rules give each player a unique set of bonuses to unlock by building Monuments. Any buildings not built in a year travel down the queue to the front of the line for the next year.
Phase 6: Distribute Food
The massive circus that is Rome is teeming with people. This is great for commerce, but all those mouths demand food. It is the Emperor’s responsibility to feed the people, either with the grain produced earlier in the year or by importing it. Each province of Rome has to be fed, except those provinces that are currently occupied by barbarian forces. Rome spans a total of 25 provinces, which is quite a significant amount of food.
If the Emperor can feed all of Rome he will increase the Happiness of the population. For each province that he cannot feed, however, he will lose 1 Happiness per Province. If the Happiness of the people ever reaches 0, they revolt and kill the Emperor.
Phase 7: Collect Tax
Every player can build Estates, and actually begin with one already on the board at the start of the game. For each estate a player has on the board, where there is not Famine, they receive 5 coins. The Emperor, in recognition for all the work he does for the Empire, additionally receives one coin for each province of Rome where there is not Famine or Barbarian troops.
Phase 8: End of Year
Rome is strong, but not invincible. Players may be competing against each other and constantly plotting the death of the Emperor, but if they don’t pay attention to the health of the Empire they could all end up losing their heads. If, in phase 8, all 4 regional capitals of Rome are occupied by barbarian forces, or all barbarian tokens are on the board, all players lose.
If the Roman empire is still standing then the Emperor earns a certain number of victory points. The happier the population, the more points they earn. Players then remove one Famine token from each region of the board, move the year marker to the next year, and begin again. After the end of the 4th year players will score additional victory points based on their Hidden Agenda and any leftover money, as well as in some other instances, and whoever has the most victory points wins!
What Do I Think?
Donning the Purple is such an interesting and unique game that I have trouble describing it to people succinctly. The best I’ve been able to come up with is saying that it’s like competitive Pandemic; the constant pressure from invading barbarians and the events force the players to react to an ever changing board state. Even that comparison doesn’t really do the game justice, however, in no large part because I don’t particularly like Pandemic and I do enjoy this game.
Every player in Donning the Purple is, ideally, working to build up the board state. Whether that’s from placing buildings to eliminating barbarians; those actions have a net positive for the player and also keep the game from ending in failure. However there’s this weird dichotomy where fighting barbarians is both good for the player doing it, but also good, and bad, for the Emperor. Fighting barbarians allows you to roll glory dice, which gift you with money, Plot cards or the ability to regain used stamina. At the same time, removing barbarians from the board both increase the Happiness of the Roman population as well as force the Emperor to feed more of the populace. So on the one hand you are potentially giving the Emperor more victory points at the end of the year, but also making their life more difficult in Phase 6. And that’s assuming that the Emperor even survives until the end of the year!
Donning the Purple turns into a big puzzle, with each player trying to both react to the barbarians and events, but also each player, to ultimately score the most points. In that respect it’s like a lot of other games, but the myriad ways available to the players to achieve success are both extremely well designed and entirely thematic. For me, this raises the game to much loftier heights than its’ contemporaries.
The theme of this game is probably my favorite aspect of it. Now, to be fair, I have a general interest in history to begin with, so it’s not a big surprise that I’d like a game about ancient Rome. I find that the theme of this game comes through in almost every part of it, however. The Event cards depict actual troubles that Rome went through, from Volcanoes to the Praetorian Guard revolts. Everything you do in the game has multiple implications; killing barbarians makes the Emperor have to feed more provinces but also increases the general Happiness of the population, potentially scoring him more points.
As the Emperor you’re trying to keep Rome going, but you also don’t want to leave it too well off for your replacement. If you’re not the Emperor then you’re trying to do just enough to make sure he fails without completely tanking the Empire. It’s a really interesting give and take that happens and it makes the game feel alive.
Now, if you like games with a solo mode, this is where the theme goes to a 10. In the solo mode you are the Emperor and you immediately lose if you ever lose control of that title. The AI is the Senate who’s trying to take over. The game goes from being very competitive and cutthroat in a 2-player or 3-player to just being downright mean. The AI takes no prisoners whatsoever, and you’re constantly fighting for your life while trying to balance the prosperity of the Empire. And even if you manage to hold onto the title of Emperor the entire 4 years, you still have to outscore the Senate.
I really enjoy this game, but there are two distinct issues that I have with it. For each one I’m knocking off a point. The first is the timing of Plot cards, and the second is player knowledge.
Since you can play Plot cards at any time, it adds this very grey area of action resolution to the game. For instance, say the Emperor is going to die because he can’t possibly feed enough of the population. Everyone at the table knows that’s going to happen during phase 6. If you have the Plot card that moves the Heir token, you want to play it so that you’re the next Emperor. But what if someone else has that same card? If you play it too quickly you could take the Heir token only to immediately lose it.
Among new players this becomes a problem, because they find themselves blindsided. And in games with experienced players there’s always this pause right before a major phase where people are waiting to see who might play a card before they do. It’s not an enormous issue, but it is an issue.
My second problem is purely player knowledge. This is something that comes up a lot in games, so it’s hard to say whether it’s really worth a full point demotion. I find that this game has about as steep of a learning curve as Twilight Struggle, which is saying something. The game is just so unique that most players don’t grasp how important the role of Emperor is until it’s too late. Also knowing the Plot cards is a serious advantage that a new player just won’t have.
Overall, however, I find the gameplay to be excellent. There’s this overall feeling while playing the game that each thing you’re doing is both good and bad for you. The attention to detail alone on the balancing of the actions, making them enticing to each player while ultimately also affecting each player, it’s absolutely brilliant as far as I’m concerned. And the copying mechanic, while not new to this game, is done better here than in most other games that use it.
I am not a person who likes extraneous pieces in board games. Games that throw in miniatures when they sorely don’t need them drive me bananas. So, for what this game is, I can’t make a single negative comment about what they’ve provided. Some of the pieces are cardboard, sure, but they really don’t need to be anything else. The money is cardboard, and that’s maybe the one area they could have offered something more, but I think of metal money as an extra, so I don’t fault companies who don’t provide it. The dice are really nice and well inked and the wooden pieces are great and thematic in their shapes (legionnaire shields, swords, and bales of grain). I believe that these pieces are going to be offered in all retail versions of the game, and not just limited to Kickstarter copies. That’s good news for people who are waiting to get the game from a secondhand distributor.
The board is really clean, it’s easy to differentiate between the regions and identify the capitals and harvest provinces. Probably the only thing I’ll look to upgrade about the game is the markers for the Grain price, Happiness and Year. I think those are worth upgrading, but this is coming from someone who upgrades a lot of components; I don’t think there’s anything wrong with them, I just like shiny stuff.
Final Rating 9/10
This is really, really close to a 10 for me. I think if I liked solo modes more, in general, it would be a 10. However, I don’t usually play games solo, so it says something that I like this one’s as much as I do. Tompet Games and Petter Schanke Olsen are also already hard at work on an expansion that’ll bring to game up to 4 players, which should be on Kickstarter later this year. I’m not entirely sure what role they could add to make it accommodate 4 players, maybe someone playing as the head of the Praetorian Guard, but I’m really excited to find out.
BoardGameGumbo has been lucky to get their hands on some truly excellent games at the beginning of this year. Donning the Purple is yet another game that I think a lot of people are going to fall in love with, and I expect to find it on many of the ‘Best Of’ lists at the end of 2019. It’s not the easiest game to teach or learn and it has an odd player count to it, but if you’re willing to put in the effort to learn something that’s unique and challenging, I think you’re going to truly enjoy this game. My personal ‘2019 Best Of’ list is already getting crowded, but I’d call that a good thing.
You can still late pledge to get your own copy of Donning the Purple here.
At $58 the game is probably a little more expensive than I’d like for what comes in the box, but I can forgive that for just how fantastic the game is. I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys cutthroat style games or who particularly likes solo games.
Until next time, laissez les bon temps rouler!
Once you’ve learned Donning the Purple and played it a couple of times there are some extra rules that you can throw in that bring the game to another level. Let’s start with the least impactful; extra cards. There are a handful of more cards to add to the game, whether they’re Forum, Plot, or Event cards. They add some interesting new elements to the game, like the Enemy Camp Event card. Instead of putting out more barbarians you add a token to the board that represents a barbarian stronghold. It has a strength of 5 so it’s really difficult to get rid of, but more importantly it adds extra barbarians to the region its’ in anytime barbarians would otherwise be added. You could quickly become overrun if you don’t strike fast!
The advanced rules also add some End of the Year events. It’s an assortment of tokens that get randomly placed by the designations for each year on the main board. Now the first thing that happens in Phase 8 is to resolve this token, which can do things like force the Emperor to lose stamina, give negative points to the head of the Senate, or resolve extra Event cards. They’re interesting additions that players have to take into consideration when planning their actions for the year.
There are also special stamina tokens added in the advanced version. Each player gets 2, one that can be used to prevent other players from copying their action and one that lets them take an action without paying for it. The Emperor cannot use the ‘No Cost’ token on the Emperor board, but otherwise they can be used in place of regular stamina. So if a player wanted to bribe a senator without someone behind him copying it and therefore taking over the Senate, he could use that special token. Once used the tokens go to the used stamina section of the player’s board like normal and are only returned when they die or roll a glory die that returns a stamina.
The last addition for the advanced rules is my favorite; variable player powers. When a player builds a monument in the base game they move it to their player board and get a permanent bonus for the rest of the game. Those bonuses are the same whether you’re the Emperor, Senator or Heir. But in the advanced rules you flip over the player boards and each player has 3 unique powers available to them when they build their Monuments. It’s probably the most significant change to the game, but only slightly more so than the special tokens, and I find it to easily be the most entertaining. One of the new powers forces every other player to immediately lose 2 stamina when the monument is built!
I don’t usually like solo modes of games, so there is very little for me to compare this to. I can say, however, that if the solo mode for Donning the Purple is indicative of the quality of solo modes in general, I am going to be playing a whole lot more of them.
Donning the Purple puts you in the role of Emperor of the Roman Empire, with all the responsibility, wealth and prestige that comes from that title. You have only two objectives, keep your title and outscore the Senate. Both are not easy to do, especially since you’re now solely responsible for feeding the empire and fighting off barbarians. The solo mode slightly changes the game, but not so much that it’s unrecognizable.
There are several cards to remove that are not used in the solo mode, and certain phases are altered. In phase one, before enemies appear, you add 2 senators to the Senate (these come from a unique pool of red tokens). These tokens score 1 VP per token at the end of Phase 7. You can take 5 actions instead of 3 on your turn, but at the end of each year the senate tries to assassinate you by playing the top card of the Plot deck. You can respond with Plot cards as normal to decrease its’ value, but you lose the difference in power as stamina.
There are a few more slight modifications for the solo game, but I don’t feel they are necessary to explain for the purposes of just understanding how the game plays. Everything I like about the game, I like even moreso in the solo game. The theme is actually perfect for this style of play and it removes the major concerns I have from the base game (namely the ambiguity of card timing and knowledge of the game being different among players). Honestly, if I was just rating the solo mode I’d probably give this game a 10 out of 10. It is really the highlight of the game, in my opinion, but I will never turn down the opportunity to play the game at 2 or 3 players; I’ll simply be playing a lot of this game by myself in the future.