What is it good for?
Bragging to your friends about how you can lead an army of both real and legendary heroes to victory in the battle for the ancient Mediterranean!
Say it again now!
In Mare Nostrum, you control an ancient civilization, ruled by one of its real-life leaders, though in some cases those leaders are dragged substantially out of their time frames to partake in the conflict. Caesar and Cleopatra lived at the same time, obviously, but Hannibal, Pericles, and Hammurabi are dragged from way out of the past. No big deal, though; along the way you'll get to hire heroes like Hercules and Perseus, who didn't actually exist, so it's not like they're pretending this makes sense. This is a title that wants to give you maximum ancient name recognition with your war game, and in that it absolutely succeeds.
Like any good war game, Mare Nostrum is about resources first and armies second. In fact, managing your resources is in many ways the entire game. Every empire starts with access to nine resources, a mix of coins and various commodities. Once resources are collected, whichever empire is the trade leader (Carthage starts in this role) decides how many resources must be traded by each empire, from zero to five. Everyone places that many resources on their player boards, face down; this can include coins, not just commodities. Then everything is flipped up, and the trade leader takes one thing from the person of their choice. Then that person takes an item from someone else, and so on, until all trade commodities are taken. (Two people can only go back and forth one time each, then they must move on to a different person.) If there's a trade imbalance at the end, whoever has an extra good gives one of their choice to whoever is short one, so that everyone has the same number of resources they started with.
Then you spend those resources, and here is where what you picked up matters. Normal units and buildings cost either three or six resources; heroes and wonders start at seven and go up from there. To buy something, you must spend either commodities or coins, and if you spend commodities, they all have to be different. At the end of the buying phase, all your commodities are lost, and you can only keep up to two coins. Therefore, when you trade, you have to keep an eye on what you want to buy and make sure you don't end up with multiples of the same commodity unless you plan on using them in different sets. If you're going to have unspent resources, you want them to be coins; wasting as little as possible is critical to the early game, and only becomes less of a concern later if you take over enough territory that you can outspend your rivals even if you have some unused resources.
There are four different ways to win, all of which require good resource management.
- Build the Pyramids. This requires spending twelve commodities (there are only thirteen types) or twelve coins. Because you can't end up with more resources through trade than you started with, this means you have to gather at least twelve resources on your turn and then get exactly what you need through trade. This is more doable than it seems if your opponents don't notice what you're doing and stop you, or if they attack the nearest neighbor who isn't anywhere near the point of collecting that many resources (TOM).
- Build five heroes or Wonders. You start with one, so you only actually need to build four, but they cost seven, then eight, then nine, then ten resources. In theory you could pick one up on each of the first three turns, but then you would need to expand to have the resources for the last one. That's after your opponents already see you're near victory, so this requires a bit of craftiness. It's more plausible if you have one or more of the heroes/Wonders that let you acquire extra resources or keep unused commodities, but even then it requires that nobody attack while you build no troops or defenses or... anything else, lest you lose some of those resources.
- Hold four capitals or legendary cities. Each empire has reasonable access to one legendary city, but this still requires smashing opponents and likely taking one capital and another legendary city near someone else's territory. If you can build after your opponent and pull together several legions while they have few defenses, this can work, but against someone who is in control of the turn order (the culture leader), or if the culture leader simply doesn't want to give you the chance to run someone over in this way, it's quite difficult. You will lose troops, and troops are costly.
- Holding all three leader titles (military, culture, trade). If you can do this, you're basically dominating the game and can throw resources at whatever you want. It's most likely to happen if you're able to hold a lot of territory—again, requiring numerous resources—but the other victory conditions are somehow stalemated.
Mare Nostrum is not a long game, at least as war games go. If several evenly matched opponents act carefully around each other, cutting off each other's routes of advancement but not willing to really push out of concern that it will give someone else an opening, the game might stretch out, but it's not designed for that to happen. For those who are really into the drawn-out planning of a war machine, it may feel a bit unfulfilling, because the bulk of these forces frequently never see the board. If you're not willing to fight, or at least to build a force that will scare your neighbors out of taking more territory, gathering the resources for a relatively quick Pyramids victory is very doable (especially for Carthage).
But we're in an era where two hours is a long game to many people, and this is the type of game that might draw them into the idea of something more fleshed out (e.g. Game of Thrones 2E). It's well-built, as long as you understand exactly how it works and make sure everyone knows how to plan their resources (TOM). If you want a war game that doesn't require planning an entire night around getting the people together to play it, this may be a good choice.
Score: Four defeated ancient empires out of five (fifth, of course, is the glorious victor Cleopatra).