Quo Vadis:  Review

Hans im Gluck, 20
Designed by Reiner Knizia
2-5 Players, about 30 minutes
Reviewed by Mike Siggins,
Article published at The Game Cabinet

On balance, there is no reason on Earth why I should like this game. Not only is it pretty abstract but it also consists of all the negotiating, dealmaking, lying and stabbing that makes Diplomacy one of my most despised games and can, because I've seen it happen, get people rather annoyed. Why do I like it? I have no idea.

Quo Vadis is a game about the machinations within the Roman Senate. Each player controls a number of politicians who aim to take one or more of the five available seats on the Senate, thus securing at least a chance of winning the game. This is down to an imaginative rule by which unless you have at least one Senator at game end, the points accrued by your faction are worth nothing. Everyone knows this, everyone is trying to do the same thing, everyone knows they should stop you, but it still seems to be possible with good play. Very good play might gain you two or more senators which is of no direct benefit to you, the points are yours anyway, but it will be one less appointment available to your rivals.

Promotion to the Senate is through a series of committees which are laid out on the board rather like a maze; potential senators start at the bottom, moving on from off board, and work their way up through the passage-linked committee rooms to the senate at the top. Each room has between one and five chairs, which throughout the game will either be vacant or manned by a number of politicians eager to climb further up the slippery pole. This then is the key to the game.

As the politicians filter into the lowest rung, they fill out the rooms one by one with the aim of establishing a majority in a committee. So, for instance, politicians entering a five chair room will be seeking to have three of their own party present to control proceedings. If he has a majority, a player may promote, by voting, one politician onto the next level. If he doesn't hold sway, he must obtain the support of the required number of voters to send him on his way. Players leaving a committee will collect a laurel wreath worth a variable number of points towards the victory (but again, only if his faction has a senator) and politicians instrumental in his promotion gain points compensation for being left behind.

By deduction, a player moving into a one-man room is instantly in the majority and can thus promote himself up to the next level. One man committees tend to be rather popular. They are, thankfully, also in short supply so as a rule, a player will find himself having to concoct a deal to have his man pushed up the ladder, in return for helping out his opponent somewhere else. This is done in the time honoured 'If you support me into Serbia....' fashion, but can be backed up by cash payment in the shape of points and may involve any number of deferred deals or promises.

There is just one wrinkle to the basic system. This involves a Caesar counter which can be moved around and, whenever he sits above a committee, a politician can claim patronage and move off without a vote. The counter is therefore rather useful and is another method of keeping the game moving. Sadly, the counter is so powerful that very rarely will you find yourself in a position to use it as other players will have moved him on.

However you proceed, the beauty of the system is that once your man is off and heading for power, whether it be by your votes or others, the balance in the committee left behind is altered and a new pecking order emerges. Players holding three of a five seat committee will lose their majority once the move a man on, so there is no guaranteed channelling of new blood once you have made a move. Clever.

The pattern that emerges is for politicians to be released quite readily from the lower committee rooms in return for favours elsewhere, but as they climb higher, fail to offer good terms or offend their rivals by reneging, they may find themselves languishing in the Ministry of Toga Supply without any chance of moving on. The response is often to try and get more of your faction onto the same committee and vote yourself out, but the other players are wise to this and, naturally, will want a favour in return. The upshot isn't, as one would expect, stalemate. I'm not sure why this is, because the game should logically freeze up, but in practice there is no shortage of upwards movement and people always seem ready to do deals. Perhaps Herr Knizia has just hit upon the right combination of politicians, rooms, chairs and human nature.

The net result then is a game that shouldn't work but does, essentially because of a human's willingness to negotiate and enter 'You scratch my back' arrangements. The play is also fast moving and surprisingly full of nuances. It is all very well to be happily promoting your men, but quieter players have to be watched as they may be building up strong positions lower down, ready to launch a succession of delegates, swamping your positions.

One of my two adverse comments relates to the rather unatmospheric game board and counters. The committees have no names, even in German or Latin, the politicians are featureless plastic poles and the board makes much of Roman marble design but has no great appeal. It could have been better. The other gripe, and it is at least partly down to poor play, is that once a politician has reached a committee in the top half of the board, if he has gone along the easier of the three routes it is fairly difficult to stop him getting into power. This creates a need to watch every politician on the board with a view to preventing his potential moves at least a turn in advance. Forward thinking is not my strength, so I am guilty of letting too many get away, but I would have thought the upper committee structure might have been tailored to hinder this. Then again, perhaps Herr Knizia playtested it with some rather better players than I.

This flaw may have given rise to the rumours circulating about the existence of a perfect plan to crack the system. I may be just a dumbass reviewer, but I cannot see how that would be possible unless, by some quirk of fate, all the other players were skinheads of below average intelligence. A perfect plan would be contingent upon receiving at least some votes to progress further up the board, and even if you managed to manoeuvre all your politicians into the right positions to vote yourself on, it would still be affected by others' movements. If you think it possible to move in just such a way under the eyes of your opponents, you should be capable of removing their wallets while you're at it, and if such a perfect plan relies on someone else's say so, you can forget it. There are undoubtedly good routes and there are major benefits to starting early in the game (hence the groans at the Essen Interteam tournament), but there is no apparent way of winning for sure. If you feel there is, I'd be fascinated to know how.

This is a game that will generate love it or hate it sentiments. You are either going to fall for it, in my case for an unfathomable reason, or you aren't. I don't think playing the game will automatically result in Diplomacy style personal feuds because it is possible to transact the deals knowing the other side will honour it; where it will fail horribly is if people start stabbing. I am fortunate enough to play with a group of people who will play it fairly straight and whose reactions I can trust not to be childish seekers of revenge. It is, after all, just a game. As for its appeal for me, I suspect I will only continue to enjoy the game (at the moment I am still spotting strategies, mainly defensive) while this mutual trust exists. If I were to play among schemers, I can see myself going off it rapidly. In that sense, I am perhaps only playing 70% of the system, so I would treat my comments with care.

Quo Vadis is an unusual design, a little too clinically abstract for some, but clever in its way. It certainly manages to pack an awful lot into its time frame as it will rarely take you over half an hour, even with the longest negotiations. I enjoyed it, but I can see why others don't. This is definitely one to try before you part with money.

Mike Siggins
 

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