MARE NOSTRUM (Eurogames/Descartes-USA, Inc., 3-5 players, 2-3 hours; $49.95)

   The ancient world is served up for conquest in Mare Nostrum, the new game by Serge Laget pitting five powerful empires against one another in the quest to become the dominant civilization in the Mediterranean.

   The game is a beautiful production. The mounted board shows the five civilizations of the game (Rome, Greece, Carthage, Egypt and Babylonia) arrayed around the Mediterranean Sea with the land and sea divided into areas. Within the areas are icons showing the resources available as well as potential city sites. There are 144 cards consisting of resource cards (in 12 varieties), Hero cards (one for each empire), 3 player role cards (Director of Commerce, Political Leader and Military Leader) and various Heroes and Wonders of the World plus tokens representing buildings that can be constructed (caravans, markets, cities and temples). There are also five sets of wooden forces, one for each empire, consisting of military units (triremes, legions and fortresses) and influence markers. 8 six-sided dice and Player Aid cards (to ease into this moderate complexity game) are included.

   Players randomly choose one of the Civilizations and take the color-coded forces for the empire. Players also get their civilization-specific Hero. These Heroes offer unique benefits for each civilization, e.g. extra tax revenue (for Egypt), lower costs for legions and fortresses (Rome) etc. Some civilizations start with one of the player role cards too. If playing the Basic Setup, players follow the guide and place their influence markers and building tokens where specified. (In the Advanced Setup, players start with "construction points" and may build to their own specifications.)

   Turns consist of three phases: Commerce, Construction and Military.

   In the Commerce Phase, players receive 1 Tax Card per city (2 Tax cards if a Temple is built there) and 1 Commodity Card for each resource icon marked by a Caravan token (2 if a Market is in the province). The player with the most caravans and markets under their control is the Director of Commerce and, as such, plays a pivotal role in this phase.

   After receiving Taxes and Commodities, the Director of Commerce declares how many goods (i.e. how many Commodity cards) are to be traded. All players must place, face down, as many Commodity cards as called for. Then, all cards are revealed and trading begins.

   The Director of Commerce starts. He may take any face up card from any other player. Now, the player whose card was taken, may choose any remaining face up card from any other player (including the Director). This continues until all cards have been claimed OR, if a player is short one card (as can happen), the Director of Commerce must give that player a card out of his own holdings to "even things out". Now, the Construction phase begins.

   The Political Leader (the player with the most cities and temples) chooses the order that players build. Expansion is done by playing SETS of resources. A set is defined as 3 (or 6 or 9 or 12) Tax cards OR 3 (or 6 or 9 or 12) NON-matching resource cards. Resource cards NOT used in this phase are lost to the bank. Up to TWO Tax cards, however, MAY be retained in a player's hand.

   Construction can only be done in areas that have a player's influence marker. (An influence marker costs a set of 3 resources.) Caravans, temples and military units are all acquired during this phase as are Heroes or Wonders. Heroes and Wonders cost a set of 9 resources each. These add to an empire's power. For example, Helen of Troy converts one hostile legion to the owning player's side; the Mausoleum reduces the cost of constructing buildings by one. (If you are able to construct the Pyramids, at a cost of 12 resources, you win the game!) Finally, the Military phase of play occurs.

   The Military Leader decides the order that players take in this phase. During a player's turn, he may move as many military units as he wishes. Legions may move to an adjacent province. Triremes are allowed to move to adjacent sea areas and sea areas may be shared by more than one opposing force. Triremes are also allowed to convoy legions provided that a "chain" is formed that would allow a legion to move from a land area to another land area is linked by triremes. (If you've played Diplomacy, you know how this works.) If a legion enters an area with no enemy legions, the attack is considered successful. Otherwise, dice are rolled.

   In combat, both the attacker and defender roll as many dice as they have legions (or triremes, if a naval battle). For each 5 points of the sum rolled, an enemy unit is lost. (For example, a dice roll of 10 results in the loss of two enemy units.) A fortress is useful in defense as it counts as +6 to the dice total. Should more than one player survive the battle, the province is considered "At War" and the combat continues during the NEXT Military Phase. In the meantime, the player who has an influence marker in the area STILL collects any Resource Cards to which he is entitled but NO further construction is allowed there while a state of war exists. If only one invader survives, there are three possibilities.

   An invader may sack the province by destroying one of the buildings there OR occupy the province by placing a single Legion on each city or caravan to claim the benefits of that building OR convert the province by placing a Legion on the enemy influence market there so that the invader may construct their own influence market during the next Construction phase, replacing the enemy one.

  As mentioned above, when any player has successfully built the Pyramids (at a cost of a set of 12 different Resources or 12 Taxes), he wins. Alternatively, should any player control a combined total of 4 Heroes or Wonders (including the Hero his civilization started with), the game immediately ends and that player (and his civilization) is victorious!

    Mare Nostrum offers some interesting mechanics and possibilities. The civilizations in play are NOT equal but the pleasure of the game lies in the challenge to maximize their respective strengths and compensate for their weaknesses. Rome, for example, has a distinct advantage in building caravans as Rome is close to many different resources. Egypt has an edge in producing Taxes. How to counter this? This can be done in a variety of ways including alliances to restrict Rome's expansion or to put the squeeze on Egypt. The Helen of Troy card is very powerful (possibly too powerful) as the player having that card is able to convert an attacking legion to THEIR side! This shores up an empire's defenses considerably. On the other hand, this power is a defensive one and doesn't necessarily help an empire to expand. The building of sets is an intriguing idea that works exceptionally well here as you have a host of options in both gathering resources and spending them.

   Like Vinci, another quality game in the Eurogames line (Winter 2000 GA REPORT), Mare Nostrum deals with empire building and expansion. Yet, the game takes a very different approach. As in Civilization, the classic Avalon Hill game, peaceful expansion is generally the key to victory but warfare is often a necessary and viable option to success. Deciding when and how to expand your holdings is what makes this game so challenging. Another good point: unlike the Avalon Hill classic, Mare Nostrum finishes in just 2-3 hours - about 5 hours LESS than Civilization, making Mare Nostrum a very enjoyable evening's entertainment. Recommended. - - - - - - - -  Herb Levy