Hadrian’s Wall Review

Salvēte General, welcome to your Mile Castle! Emperor Hadrian is pretty interested in keeping those pesky Picts out of his Empire, and you are in charge of this section of the wall. Of course building up a good defence and manning it with well trained soldiers is critical to the mission, but while you are here, why not make the place a bit more comfortable. Build up the town, open some markets and temples. Start a theatre! Bring the comforts of Rome to our little corner of the world with some Baths. Make your section of the wall the strongest and the most civilised! After all, the most resourceful general wins!

1-6 Players | 1 Hour | Designed by Bobby Hill

Hadrian’s Wall is a 2021 release from New Zealand publisher Garphill Games. Designed by newcomer Bobby Hill and illustrated by Sam Phillips (who also illustrated Raiders of Scythia and Circadians First Light), the game comes in a standard Garphill sized box, albeit a heavy one! I was very excited to see this game released, as Hadrian’s Wall is a particular historical interest of mine. I have read a lot about it and was very excited on my recentish holiday to the UK to visit and touch the 2000 year old wall and explore some of the ruins of the Mile Castle we visited. Of course I leapt at the opportunity to play this DIY Hadrian’s Wall experience!

Two rounds in, the wall is beginning to form.

How does it work?

Hadrian’s Wall is what I’m going to call a ‘Work(er placement) and Write game’, but really it’s a resource management game where you spend the resources you gain each round to progress a number of tracks, aiming to generate 4 types of points and end up with the highest score after 6 rounds of play.

At the beginning of the game each player is issued with two sheets – a Wall sheet and a Town sheet. Each contains an impressive number of tracks and boxes to be filled on over the course of the game. You will also get a small deck of cards, from which you will draw two cards from at the start of each round. One will be added to your road as a scoring condition for the end game, and the other will determine your trading goods and Tetris piece (scouting formation) for the round.

Each round a card is drawn from the main deck. This card determines the resources each player will gain for this round. You will get a number of each of 4 types of workers (Soldiers, Builders, Citizens and Slaves) along with some blocks. As the game progresses, you can improve your production and gain more resources to start each round with. From here, gameplay is largely unstructured and independent. To take an action, you essentially pick something on one of your two sheets, pay the indicated cost and fill in a box.

There are MANY options of what you can spend your resources on. On the Wall sheet you will be spending builders and soldiers to build up and secure your defences. On the Town sheet you will mostly be spending citizens to develop your town and culture. You need to work out where best to spend your resources each round to make sure you are ready for the end of round invasion, and part of the puzzle of the game is working out how to take advantage of bonus combos to stretch your resources as far as possible.

At the end of each round, cards are drawn to determine the scale of the invading force. If you’ve built up your wall appropriately, then you will fight off the invasion and be rewarded with Glory. If not, then you will gain some Disdain which you need to counteract before the end of the game or lose points. After 6 rounds, player tally up their Civic, Piety, Glory and Military scores, add on their bonus points, and find out who built the best Mile Castle!

4 rounds in, a decent defence has been built!

What do I think?

While the game is technically multiplayer, it’s right at the ‘multiplayer solitare’ end of the interaction spectrum, with very few opportunities to work with or against other players. I’ve played the game several times now, once on my own to learn (which I was surprised to find I really enjoyed, it was my first solo play of a game ever), and then at varying player counts. I found the game felt almost identical to me regardless of player count, though the solo mode rules make the game a tiny bit harder than when you are playing multiplayer. The game also has difficulty levels, and we played ‘easy’ mode for our first few games, stepping up to medium without too much trouble, but hard .. yeah it’s really hard!

The Good Stuff

  • Hadrian’s Wall is a great blend of worker placement into the roll-and-write genre of games. I found the mechanics of the game super interesting. What’s notable about this game is it feels especially unique. I can’t really think of anything else similar. While it draws from roll-and-write games, the way it implements the ‘rolling’ part is the best part of the game and what sets it apart – allocating your finite resources as you choose to actions to try and maximise your score.
  • The combo experience in this game is amazing. Sometimes you will intentionally set something up so that when you do an action you will set off a chain of bonuses. This feels so good. Other times you will just impulsively do something and accidentally set off a chain of bonuses, and just think ‘Wow!’. The whole combo aspect is one of the thing that makes this game addictive.
  • Hadrian’s Wall‘s rulebook is pretty good. I think it does a good job of explaining what is quite a challenging concept that even some seasoned gamers might find hard to grasp. It’s also easy to look up things in it.
  • I didn’t love the look of Sam Phillip’s art in Circadians: First Light but in this game … I really love it! It’s like a better version of Klemenz Franz’ artwork which is pretty much my ‘comfort zone’ when it comes to boardgames art. I am very tempted to get Raiders of Scythia simply because I like the art more than Raiders of the North Sea.
  • I’m going to award Hadrian’s Wall “The Boardgame Detective’s Heaviest Box Award”! Even though the total mass may not be the most of any game, I’m pretty sure the mass per unit volume is. This game box is literally solid paper with a bunch of cards and wooden pieces crammed into the tiny available space left. It is impressively dense!
  • I actually like that there are no included writing implements. Included ones are always poor quality but then you use them because it’s more convenient than looking for pens and it makes the experience worse. Plus it’s wasteful to include them, everyone has pens/pencils!
  • I also sort of like the no-take-backs permanence of marking the sheet. In most resource management games people might take a little while to do their turn, planning out actions and occasionally taking things back. In a game like this where each round is kinda like one big turn with a giant chain of actions, this could really slow things down. I actually played my first two games with erasable pens and people were changing their mind often. When I played the third time it was at a friends house and I forgot my pens, so we had to use permanent ones, and I think it made the game better because once you marked something it was truly locked in.
  • During my first game I was fairly worried about losing track of things when getting bonuses but it all flows nicely. Just don’t look up or answer any questions until you are totally done with filling in all the things you need to for each action you take!
  • This game is certainly replayable. The sheet might be identical each time, but the decision space is huge. From one game to the next you will find small changes in your opening will make massive changes in how you play out the rounds. It is not simply an optimisation problem. Each game is very different because you get varying resources each round. You need to cater to your input, you can’t just do the same strategy each game.

The Bad Stuff

  • Hadrian’s Wall has a LOT of ‘minigames’ on the sheets. While there are some general principals to the game, there are so many areas to teach and you have to fully go through them all up front because they all work in pretty different ways. I don’t mind a challenging teach, but for others this could be a ‘watch the video before coming over’ sort of game which is a little unusual for something of this weight/complexity. That being said, don’t worry about the game being too complex to play. Once you know what you can do, doing those things is very straightforward.
  • I would consider the game potentially unfriendly to people new to gaming because of the very undirected gameplay. There is no ‘hand holding’, no starting out small and ramping up etc. It can be bewildering to begin especially in your first game due to the sheer amount of choices present. To compound this, everyone is taking their turns at once, heads down and focusing on their own thing so it’s hard to ask questions. I make a point of announcing my moves on the first round when playing with new people. I talk through what I am doing and say why to give other players some context and ideas. I’m also not shy about nudging players when they seem bewildered. But I would consider this a negative here because not everyone will play this game for their first time in a supportive environment.
  • I was worried about running out of sheets (which is an ongoing fear I have with any game that has consumable parts) but realistically if I play it that much the publisher deserves me buying another copy. So far the only game I’ve run out of sheets for is my A Feast For Odin score pad. It would be totally possible to laminate some of the game sheets if I found myself running low too.
  • It’s such a puzzle to do things in the right order but one tiny move can snowball into big things. I found this to be an issue for me because I’m not great at keeping strategy in my head while also executing it. I would often set out to do something (like, I need this and this to do this thing), get halfway through, get distracted and spend the things I needed, only remembering a minute later what I originally wanted to do. If you don’t like that feeling and you have a bad memory like me then be careful with this one!
  • When playing Hadrian’s Wall, most of the time I take it pretty casually. While I felt like I was going ok at the game without thinking too hard about things, some players will find the breadth of options will really slow them down. The fact that there are so many things to choose from means that you often just need to pick something and see what happens, otherwise you would be analysing 30 or so options before committing to anything.
  • I have fine eyesight but I needed to play this game in good light. The sheets are packed with stuff and the icons and text are fairly small. If you don’t have great lighting where you play games or don’t have the best eyesight you might struggle with this game.
Nearing the end game, things are being challenging!

When I first saw this game I was excited about it because it was an ‘X-and write’ genre game, but upon playing it I feel like it’s really more than that. I was really surprised at how unique and innovative the game’s mechanics are, and I’m impressed at how a static sheet that is identical from game to game can give the same feeling of strategy exploration and depth that a regular boardgame with moving parts can. I think this is the first game that I can confidently recommend for solo, and I think it’s also good to play with others, despite lacking much interaction. I really enjoy Hadrian’s Wall and I’m already thinking about what I’m going to do when I run out of sheets for it. If you want to find out more about the game or grab a copy, head over to the Garphill Games Store! Thanks for reading, see you next time!

The copy of Hadrian’s Wall used for this review was provided to The Boardgame Detective by Garphill Games

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