Review by: Greg J. Schloesser
Designer: Reiner Knizia
Released by: Rio Grande Games & Hans im Glück
Number of Players: 2 – 5
Time: 30 – 45 minutes
EDITOR'S NOTE: This review first appeared in Moves Magazine.
It seems many folks remain fascinated by the civilization of Rome. Even though that empire ceased to exist over 1500 years ago, the modern world is still flooded with books, movies and articles on this fascinating empire and the impact it has had on western society. Even our beloved hobby of board games has borrowed heavily from this time period, with dozens of games utilizing themes somehow connected to the glory of Rome.
Back in the 1970’s, Battleline released a package containing two games set in Rome – Gladiator and Circus Maximus. Avalon Hill subsequently purchased many games from the Battleline family, including these two, which they released as separate titles. I remember thoroughly enjoying these two games, but, alas, they have begun to show their age a bit.
Back in 2001, a group of my gaming friends had the opportunity to playtest a new game at Alan Moon’s Gathering of Friends from prolific German game designer Reiner Knizia. The game was tentatively titled Clash of the Gladiators and involved mortal combat between gladiators in the amphitheaters of ancient Rome. Even an assortment of nasty, carnivorous beasts were involved in the struggles. Sounds fierce and intense, doesn’t it? Well, apparently that was not the case as the group had a rollicking good time, claiming afterwards that the game was very light and filled with dice rolling, but also loads of fun to play. Sadly, I didn’t get the opportunity to try it, but my interest was certainly piqued.
At the 2002 edition of the Gathering of Friends, Clash of the Gladiators had just been released and a few copies were available for play. I managed to play it a few and actually was a bit disappointed. My friends were certainly spot-on regarding their description – very light with lots of dice rolling. There really isn’t much in the realm of strategic planning or tactics. This one falls squarely in the “roll the dice and bash your opponents” category, what is often described as a "beer & pretzels" game. In the right mood with the right crowd, this is a fine fit for this genre. If you’re looking for a detailed simulation of gritty, hand-to-hand gladiatorial combat, however, you won’t find it here. That is really not very surprising considering German games tend to minimize violence and combat. Further, the game’s designer has a reputation for being VERY opposed to violence and combat in his other games is nearly always depicted in a very abstract manner. Even in this game, the rules never claim that gladiators are killed. Rather, players capture them and place them in their "holding pens". OK ...
So what about the components? Unlike most German games, there’s a lot of cardboard in this game and not a single wooden cube in sight. Fortunately, the cardboard is thick and appears very durable. The board graphics are functional, but rather uninspiring. I’d love to see what a company like Eagle Games could have done for a game such as this one. I picture some really neat gladiator and animal miniatures and a gorgeous map of the coliseum in Rome. Oh, well, this one does serve the purpose. Rounding out the components are the dice, wooden ‘hit’ counters and 20 light-weight plastic bases, each containing space for four gladiators.
Players begin the game by forming three teams of gladiators, each consisting of four individuals. The recruitment pool consists of the following types of gladiators:
Spear Holders - The team with the most spear holders has the initiative and rolls the battle dice first. If tied, the attacker rolls first.
Net Casters - The Retarius. For each net caster in a team, the player can neutralize an opponent's gladiator. That gladiator isn't dead (err ... removed), but he cannot participate in the current combat. He can, however, be removed as a casualty.
Swordsmen - For each swordsman in a team, the player rolls one more battle die in combat.
Prong Bearers - The team that has the most prong bearers may re-roll the battle dice once. However, the player MUST accept the results of the second roll.
Shield Carriers - Each shield carrier in a team blocks one simple hit.
Choosing which gladiators to add to your teams is the main element of strategy in the game. A wide variety of combinations are available. Do you want to field an offensive juggernaut filled with four swordsmen, or do you prefer a strategy of disabling your opponent’s gladiators with a few net casters? If you would like to block a hit or two, then you must add some shield carriers. Want to improve your chances of getting a good roll? If so, then you might want to consider a prong bearer or two. Rolling first in a conflict can be very advantageous, so don’t overlook those spear holders.
What team is best? Really, that’s hard to say. Swordsmen are certainly very important since they are the only gladiators that can actually inflict hits on your opponents. I also tend to add a net caster and a shield carrier to a team, but I’ve seen some players load up on swordsmen for offensive firepower. These teams can be countered, though, by the use of teams that contain a net casters and a spear holders, so they are not invincible. I don’t think there is one omnipotent team formation, which does help keep things interesting.
Once all players have formed their teams and positioned them into the arena, the battle begins. Players take turns assaulting neighboring gladiator teams or animals. A player cannot move a gladiator team unless there are no animals or teams in adjacent spaces OR the team has 3 or fewer gladiators remaining. Thus, early on, you are usually fighting neighboring teams or animals.
A battle is very simple. Determine initiative (the team with the most spear holders rolls the dice first), neutralize opponent's gladiators if you possess net casters in your team, then roll the dice. Each team rolls a number of dice equal to the number of swordsmen present in their team plus one. The dice depict single stars (a single hit), double stars (two hits) or blanks (no hits). It takes two hits to dispatch a gladiator and up to 4 to eliminate an animal. Single-star hits accumulate on a gladiator team (and are marked with appropriate counters) until two hits are achieved, which results in the elimination of a gladiator. A full hit (2 stars) cannot be blocked and immediately eliminates a gladiator. Both players roll the appropriate number of dice, results are applied and the combat round ends. If a team loses its final gladiator, the base is removed and the victor must occupy that space.
Gladiators lost in combat are given to the opposing player, who keeps them in his 'holding pen'. Each gladiator captured is worth 1 point, while conquered animals are worth 2 points. Further, any surviving gladiators are added to the player's holding pen at the end of the game and are also worth 1 point each.
If a player loses his final gladiator team, he is not out of the game. Rather, he can now control animals and use them to attack opponent's gladiators. A player can use any of the animals already in the arena, or may add a new beast. Any gladiators he dispatches while attacking with animals are added to his holding pen. Often, if you only have one or two gladiators remaining, it is a wise choice to cause them to be eliminated so you can then control a more powerful animal.
After one round of combat, play then rotates to the next player. This entire procedure continues until only one player has gladiators remaining, at which time the game concludes. Players tally the value of their holding pens to determine the winner.
Yes, after the initial selection of gladiators, the game is fairly mindless. Bash your opponents and hope you get lucky with the dice. Other than a few minor and usually obvious decisions, there is not much more to it than that. It does require a certain 'mind adjustment' to play. Forget strategic options, clever tactical moves, etc. Enter with the idea that you'll be rolling lots of dice and hopefully causing lots of carnage. Perform your best Kirk Douglas, Victor Mature or Russell Crowe gladiator imitation and have fun. With the right attitude, this game can be fun ... especially if you have a lust for blood, a desire to test your worth in the arena … and it is very late at night!