Donning the Purple Review

Donning the Purple - Cover

Schrödinger, it seems, was a bit of a clever chap. His questionable treatment of cats aside, he did have a point. For those of you unfamiliar with the workings of Quantum Mechanics, one of the outcomes of the myriad of high-end, brain-baking mathematics was that one can never know the precise state of something until you measure it. And by measuring it, you change it.

Why this led to him to the notion of locking a cat in a box with lethal poison I don’t know, but the principle is at least sound: the cat is both alive and dead until you open the box and find out (i.e. all possible states are true until you measure whatever it is you’re interested in). 

“What has this got to do with board gaming?” you ask. Fair question. It’s the state of most of the games I back on Kickstarter until I receive them; they’re both crap and awesome until I play them. Donning the Purple occupied that niche perfectly as it had, on paper, all the elements of a game that attracts me to it. Namely, clever mechanics, pretty components, backstabbing, thinking outside the box, semi-cooperation, a spot of action selection set in the Roman Empire. Now that’s quite a lot to pack into a game, but somehow Donning the Purple manages to do just that. 

Donning the Purple - Green

Being the Emperor of Rome was harder than you’d think. The Senate, your own family and even a random passer-by were all out to get you and grab your job. It was a tough gig; maintain the peace, feed the people and expand the empire were all pretty hard going when you’ve got a political bullseye on your forehead.

Donning the Purple simulates this perfectly in this asymmetric, competitive action selection, strategy-cum-resource management King of the Hill game. Built for up to three players (and I strongly recommend you play with all three), each of you takes on the role of a member of the Empire: The Emperor themselves, the Head of the Senate and the Emperor’s heir. All of them want top job as it’s the main (but not only) way to score those all important Victory Points.

Donning the Purple - Main BoardAt its core, Donning the Purple is an action selection, King-of-the-Hill game. On your turn you get to choose two actions (three if you’re the boss) to develop your situation; build villas, influence (bribe) the senate, assassinate the Emperor or a Senator, beat the crap out of a marauding horde of barbarians etc. You know, the kind of thing every aspiring Roman does on an average Tuesday. Rinse and repeat for four years (rounds) and job done. Except it’s not that simple. Donning the Purple has that Clever Thing™. Two Clever Things™, in fact. 

Firstly, most (but not all) actions are complementary – that is to say that your opponents can choose to do the same action on your turn as well, which may help or hinder you. Like when Steve bribes a senator immediately after I’ve chosen to do that, thereby stealing control of the Senate. Or when I choose to heroically save a city from destruction thereby gaining the love of the people and a few spoils for the coffers leaving nothing for my opponents. 

Donning the Purple - EmperorSecondly (and I love this), you only have a limited amount of stamina (action disks) for your lifetime. Once you’ve spent them all, you die, your descendent takes over and you suffer a VP loss for being so pathetic and weak. The weaker you are, the easier you are to assassinate so you really have to watch your action spending. Dying doesn’t remove you from the game, but if you’re the Emperor, it can really ruin your plans. You die, your Heir takes over and this is where the fun starts.

If you’ve named an Heir (ideally yourself) then happy days. If not, someone else will bag the throne and take over, which may be a blessing or a curse, particularly if there are hungry people to feed and all that’s in the grain store is a few ears of corn and a fat looking weevil. Inheriting a hungry populace doesn’t make for the good times. So things change and quickly. Which is what makes Donning the Purple so god damned good.

Donning the Purple - Enemies and SoldiersPower shifts continually so you need to always be thinking; a card or action at the right time can really benefit you and harm your enemies. Time something badly and you’re going to end up sleeping in the Tiber with the rest of the effluent. Keep the people happy and you’ll score big as the Emperor, but fail to feed them and you’re looking at a P45 at the end of the month. Keeping the Empire safe makes for the happy times too, but costs money, which might be needed to import grain if the winters are harsh and your farms can’t keep up. And did I mention that if you permit too many enemies into your empire, the whole thing collapses and you all lose? So there’s a sort of Pandemic Co-Op affair going on in the background to try to make you all play nice. So make that Three Clever Things™.

The magic number of three players is perfect as the balance is always just off-kilter. With two, it’s almost a timing exercise and nothing more. It’s more predictable and you’re just waiting for the right time to strike to grab the mantle and steal the VPs. With three, that extra unstable element really adds to the tension and makes the game irresistible and absolutely spot on. Even just writing this, it’s done what few games manage to do these days: give me that glint in my eye and a real desire to play it again.

Donning the Purple - Black

Science constantly retests things just in case we’ve been wrong in our reasoning. I strongly recommend you continually re-measure the quantum state of Donning the Purple. Not in the interests of science or even because it’s state will ever change from “brilliant”, but because it’s bloody good fun and a truly fantastic game.

Just keep that damned cat off the table when you do.

This review is based on a full Kickstarter copy of the game.
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