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Senator is a board game for 3-5 players in which players take the roles of powerful Roman statesman. In this game of diplomacy, backstabbing, and resource management, players seek simultaneously to protect Rome, advance their family, and ultimately abolish the power of the senate and claim the title of Caesar.
The ancient world of the Roman Republic was a tumultuous and dangerous place. In Senator, Rome will be faced with a myriad of challenges, such as economic turmoil, revolt, plague, and the wars against Romes many enemies. As senators of Rome, players must work together to resolve the dangers facing the Republic while plotting their own devious agendas.
In the quest to become emperor, will you risk the Republic itself?
I look forward to each Silver Line release from Fantasy Flight, regardless of theme. Yet some themes get me more interested than others, and Senator had me intrigued. The Roman Senate fascinates me, and I hoped for some thematic play when trying the game out. The pieces looked good, and the rules, when I first read them, seemed bloodthirsty and thematic.
Bloodthirsty seems too mild of a word for this game. Between blatant attacks on other players, assassin cards, and chaotic special cards - final scores are very low, and the game leaves one with an unsatisfied feeling. I wouldn’t mind all this backstabbing and aggressiveness so much, but the game seems to end before it really begins. The event cards themselves make the game less fun to play; and while we laughed a lot when we played, no one wanted to play it again.
Each player takes seven influence cards in their color (numbered 1,1,2,2,2,5, and assassin). Players keep the cards in their hand and place a large scroll marker in front of them. A pile of “agenda” tokens are shuffled, and a number of them are placed in the middle of the table (determined by number of players) - forming the agendas “on the docket”. Two consul tokens and a veto token are placed next to the docket, and a pile of event cards is shuffled and placed in the middle of the table. The first of three turns is ready to begin. One player is chosen to go first (the last to have seen a movie about ancient Rome, which always seems to be Gladiator, for some reason).
To start each turn, the top event card is turned over, causing some sort of event that will effect the round. The start player then chooses either an agenda or a consul token for “debate” (auction). The player then either plays one or more of their influence cards or “withdraws” from the debate (passes). When playing cards, players must either play a total number higher than the previous bid, or play an assassin card. If an assassin card is played, all influence cards played by ALL players are discarded, and the agenda is discarded (if the consul is up for grabs, then it is flipped over to show that it can no longer be voted on this round.) If no assassin is played, then the last player left in the debate, with all other players having withdrawn, is the winner. The winner places their influence cards behind their scroll (discarding them), while all other players get their cards back. The winner takes the agenda and places it either in front of their scroll marker or an opponent’s scroll marker. Before doing this, however, they have the option of using the scroll’s special power. Each scroll is one of six types, each with a special ability:
- War: This agenda allows the winning player to name a card number (or Assassin). All other players must discard one card of this type if possible.
- Trade: This agenda allows a player to pick one agenda from the docket and immediately claim it (except Imperial agendas).
- Taxes: This agenda allows the player to take the veto token from either the middle of the table or the player who currently has it. The player may use the veto token to refuse an agenda given to them by another player on future turns.
- Rebellion: This agenda allows a player to discard one of the current agendas on the docket or flip a consul to their “discarded” side.
- Public Works: This agenda allows a player to return a discarded number card to their hand.
- Imperial: This agenda is immediately placed BEHIND a player’s scroll.
Each agenda is “opposed” to two of the other agendas (the Imperial agenda is opposed to nothing). If a player gets two or more agendas that oppose each other (given to them by another player), they discard all of the opposing agendas. When a player wins a consul, they move all the agendas in front of their scroll to behind their scroll. These agendas are now “safe” and do not cause conflicts any longer.
Each event card causes a unique effect on the game turn: Either add three more agendas to the docket, or all players, even losers, discard played influence cards, or consuls cannot be bid on this round, or all Imperial agendas are discarded from the docket, or players cannot play more than two influence cards per debate, or players MUST play two cards for their initial bid in a debate.
After all the agendas in a docket are depleted, or all players have used their cards, the round ends. The docket is filled back up with agendas, and players get their cards back. The next round then begins, and three rounds are played, after which the game ends. The player with the most agendas (whether safe or not) is the winner - with ties broken by the player with the most Imperial agendas.
Some comments on the game...
1.) Components: The game has sterling components, as Fantasy Flight’s games just keep on getting better and better. The agendas are shaped like scrolls and have an icon on them showing what type they are, as well as two small icons to show the agendas they are opposed to. The artwork on the cards and box are very thematic, and the large scroll tokens, while not tremendously necessary, are overdone to the point where they are the game’s best feature. Everything fits very well into the typical Fantasy Flight generic insert in the small box, but the game just looks good.
2.) Rules: I will state that this game has some of the best rulebooks I’ve seen from Fantasy Flight, and maybe any company. The rulebook (five pages each in seven languages) was very clear and made the game very understandable. With pictures and an illustrated example, it was very easy to jump in and start playing. It’s fairly simple to teach and learn, and everyone I taught the game to understood it with ease.
3.) Assassins: The assassins are a neat concept, as players are always cautious about bidding their best cards. But in practice the game just becomes a bloody affair. Considering that each player will play their assassin on a different turn means that three to five of the auctions will end with many deaths. This means that players won’t win too many auctions, as they lose many of their cards. Assassins can be a painful blow, and there’s not much you can do to stop them (make idle threats, I guess); so while they are fun to play, they’re not so much fun to receive - especially as your cards will probably be assassinated six to twelve times a game.
4.) Dwindling auctions: Since assassins knock out one third of the auctions that means that the remaining auctions must be important. But considering that the trade and rebellion agendas basically remove two agendas each from the docket, the actual debates that are won are few indeed. Actually, I have yet to see a consul debate won by anyone. It’s so important to get your agendas to the “safe” zone and so important that no one else does, that an assassin is pretty much played every time.
5.) Imperial agendas: I thought that these agendas were so much more important than all the other agendas. Since they are always “safe”, don’t conflict with other agendas, and break ties, they are huge, hot commodities. Everyone wants one - and for good reason - in one game I played, Imperial agendas were the only ones to be scored by game’s end - all the others had been canceled out. It’s just too easy to hurt other people. If someone has won two or more agendas, it’s a given that someone - ANYONE - is going to give them the agenda that causes them to discard all their agendas. And there’s precious little the player can do to stop them, as their cards are extremely limited.
6.) “King making”: I’m not a big fan of “king making” in games, and Senator really promotes such a thing. Players often find themselves in this position by games end. Who should they give the agenda to that they’ve won on the last turn? Should they take it themselves, when they have no chance of winning? Or should they give it to another player - but who? Then the player they give it to complains that they’ve just thrown the game to the other player (which they have), and it just leaves a raw knot in my stomach.
7.) Event Cards: Even with the problems I’ve outlined above, I still would find the game slightly playable. But the event cards really tanked the game for me. Three of them made the game even more unfun (discarding all played cards, playing only two cards per debate, must play two cards per debate) - as they made an extremely tight bidding game even tighter. If I play the game again (and I might - I really like the theme!), I refuse to play with these cards, as all they do is bog the game down. If you get the game, I recommend discarding the event cards, they add nothing but a set of strict, annoying rules to the game.
8.) Fun Factor: Somehow, we managed to find fun in the game. Maybe it was just pathetic laughter, as we watched agenda after agenda go to the discard heap. Were there really THAT many assassins in ancient Rome? And did assassins wipe out the entire Senate!? But still, we managed to get in the mood when playing, and that helped the experience (which was rather quick) go even faster.
I can’t really recommend Senate, even to those who like bloodthirsty, “stab your neighbor in the back” type games. It just doesn’t have enough payoff. Hand management is so tight, and auctions occur too infrequently (too many have assassins end them), that a round is over before it gets started. When a final score is “2” to “1” to “1” to “0”, you know that the game hinges on too few decisions. Add in the event cards, and the game becomes a raving mess. I really, really, really have enjoyed recent Fantasy Flight offerings; they are great games with tremendous components and fabulous rules. This one simply has the good components.
“Real men play board games.”