Alea Iacta Est

Jeffrey D. Allers and Bernd Eisenstein

Publishers: Alea and Ravensburger

Can you imagine Caesar standing near Rubicon with a pair of dice loudly proclaim “the die is cast!”(Photo credits: Raiko Puust@BGG)

I am not always a fan of dice games, particular the roll and writes. In this case, I have heard good things about this particular dice allocation game. Lots of my Geekbuddies have indicated that Alea Iacta Est is one of the few “dice game done right”. It helps that I am somewhat familiar with Jeff Allers’s designs which include Piece o ‘Cake, New Amsterdam and the perennially underrated Heartland. I generally enjoy his work and secretly wished I didn’t sell off New Amsterdam after a couple plays.

Alea Iacta Est is indeed a pretty well-designed dice placement game that can be characterized as a somewhat more involved and strategic version of Las Vegas. In Alea Iacta Est, you roll seven dice and assign one or more dice to specific tiles, each requiring a specific combination or sequence of dice. For example, the Senate requires a sequence (“2,3,4,5”) of dice, the Forum requires any single die or a combination that totals up to “5” with the lower numbered dice being more favorable. The Castrum requires a cluster of same numbered dice (“3,3,3,3”) while the Temple requires that you add increasing number of dice each with higher totals than the previous placement. Importantly, one can strategically add more dice to the same location either to enhance the original placement or to start a new sequence or allocation. Once all the dice are allocated to these specific spots, the winner for each of these locations will get first pick of the rewards with those coming in second or maybe even third getting the leftovers. Any dice not qualifying for rewards will be placed in the latrine and given reroll chips good for one future reroll of any dice in your pool.

In Alea Iacta Est, scoring is simple: you need to win provinces and assign patricians, both a male and female to each province to score points. There are 6 provincial colours with their respective patricians. Provinces and patricians of a particular color can only be paired together. Provinces are won at the Senate and score from 1 to 4 points while patricians are picked up at the Forum and for either gender, they are worth 1 to 3 points each. Optimal scoring can be achieved when the provinces are paired correctly with the patricians, but provinces can score fewer points even without patricians. However, unattached patricians score zero points. These scoring parameter generate quite a bit of tension as players fight for the rights to get first pick. To win, one must try to gauge which battles to fight, which to come in second or third and which to avoid completely. This can only be done by paying attention to what other folks are collecting and how many unrolled dice are remaining in their pool. So there is a fair amount of interaction, either directly and indirect that is crucial for winning the game. Additionally, there are SPQR cards that can be picked as a reward for winning the Castrum. Some of these SPQR cards are additional provinces with mixed color requirements for allocating patricians. Other SPQR cards are your standard end game scoring opportunities. In a 2 player game, the Temple is omitted as a location. However with more players, winning at the Temple allows a random draw of victory point chips worth 1-3 points. Total up all the points after 5 rounds (6 with 2 players) and surprise, surprise: the player with the most VP wins the game.

A few noteworthy observations: first, the game is actually a well-designed and balanced dice allocation game. I really enjoyed my plays thus far. Even more surprising, I enjoyed all my two player games of Alea Iacta Est. I really did not expect the 2p version to be any good given the genre, but surprisingly the game was competitive and challenging without being overly luck-driven. I am not quite sure why, but the games I have played were all competitive and featured a ton of tactical considerations every round on where and when to place the dice. It was great! One thing I enjoyed about Alea Iacta Est is that the scoring is very simple and focused: Fight for provinces and patricians to score points plus a few additional VP opportunities on the side. This allows players to focus solely on fighting for a few shared resources rather than spread out across the table in a point salad scoring mechanism. This, more than anything else, really elevated the tension. It would not have worked if the scoring was loose and points can be picked up in multiple locations.

I generally don’t mind dice games, if they are short and relatively mindless like Las Vegas. Otherwise, dice should only serve as a small part of a larger design, something which Stefan Feld does very well in many of his designs such as Macao, Bruges Castles of Burgundy. I am a little wary of middle weight games that feature a lot of dice, such as implementations of dice variants for popular games a.k.a. “XXX The Dice Game”. I am also not a fan of the roll and write genre which features lots of dice. Alea Iacta Est bucks the trend for me in a most surprising way. The rules don’t really reflect how the game plays out, which is largely shaped by decisions from all the players. Sure, there is a fair bit of dice rolling but there is room for clever play. While I wouldn’t go as far as saying the game has emergent properties, there is certainly more play than meets the eye.

One other note: I see that recently, the designers published a revamped version of the game called Order of the Gilded Compass. It is a re-theming of Alea Iacta Est plus a few more locations. The theme is also more adventure and exploration based which I actually think is more appropriate than Roman politics. Besides, the male/female patrician pairing is rather odd. I believe that has been replaced with different types explorers in the revamped version. While I like the theme better, I am not sure all these variant locations and new ways of scoring will be better for the game. As noted above, I like that the scoring is very simple and drives conflict and competition in the game. If you start having more avenues to score points, the game may lose out in terms of interaction. This is probably more pronounced for dice allocation games. I haven’t played Gilded Compass, so I shouldn’t comment too much, but I think Alea Iacta Est is perfect as it is. There isn’t much more to add.

Initial impressions: Good

04/2020: Tried a 2p with one color less. The game is definitely tighter and more competitive. However there is a slight imbalance in the SPQR border provinces. By removing border provinces from one color, you will reduce options for the other 2 colors that share the same border provinces as the removed color. It’s a small point but still a flaw in this 2p version.

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