Note: this review was originally published on Rant Gaming, a gaming website mostly catering to video and computer gamers. Not So Old School was my weekly board game (mostly review) series. Since Rant Gaming has gone the way of the dodo, and I've retained the rights to my articles, I'm reposting them here with minimal changes. I don't have time to add back in all of the images and fancy formatting, so please bear with what might appear to be a giant wall o'text.
Not So Old School: Colossal Arena
At my house, on Sunday, we play board games.
Every Sunday, Not So Old School will be bringing you reviews, news, and rants from the Other Side--that parallel universe of gaming where everything's made out of cardboard and plastic instead of bits and pixels. In the process, I'll tell you about how I went from being a veteran video gamer to a board game noob--and how, even when I'm drawing cards and rolling dice, I've never stopped being a gamer.
Since it appears to be Pokemon Week here at Rant Gaming, I've decided to kick things off with a review of Colossal Arena, Fantasy Flight Games' answer to Pokémon Trading Cards. Well...kind of. This review will answer the pun-filled question: "What's the big deal behind Colossal Arena?"
Why Should Gamers Care?
Look, I know what you're thinking. "I play video games. I like them. I played Scrabble once at my Aunt's house, and it was terrible. Why should I play your stupid game?" And I can sympathize. A year ago, I was like you: just your average, semi-obsessed video gamer, buying more games than I could beat and wondering why I wasn't having as much fun as I used to. Board games rescued me. But until I had my breakthrough moment--the full story will have to wait for another Sunday--I was just as skeptical as you are. That's why I've made it my mission to dedicate the first section of every review to answering your question: "Why should a video gamer care?"
With this game, the answer's fairly simple: Colossal Arena is Pokémon for grown-ups. I don't mean that as a dig against anyone who's out of Middle School and still gets excited about Jigglypuff. Heck, I love me some Kingdom Hearts; can't we all be friends? But it's still true: Colossal Arena is Pokémon for grown-ups. At its most basic, Pokémon is about pitting various cute-looking monsters with special powers against each other and seeing who comes out on top, right? Well, Colossal Arena is a sort of Roman Colosseum battle to the death with Gorgons, Wyrms, Cyclopes, Magi, and Unicorns. Unicorns? Yeah, Unicorns are totally for grown-ups. That horn's not just for giving adolescent girls weird thoughts!
Plus, there's betting. Betting is a very grown-up thing to do. Kids never make bets, especially stupid ones like "I bet I can hock a loogey straight upward and have it stick to the ceiling." Okay, so maybe kids make bets, but this is the kind of sophisticated betting that'll make you feel all smart and classy. You can say things like "front-runner" and "wild card," and you can swear loudly when you lose all your money without worrying about your Mom finding out.
It's also like Pokémon with all the bullshit taken out. Want to use the Wyrm's awesome power right now? Congratulations! You don't have to grind for hours waiting for it to hop on the evolution train; just use that fire-breath already. Use it! There's no time for that kind of padded-out shit in Colossal Arena. The game lasts for five rounds; you don't have time to run halfway across the world farming for Mewtwo. Eight monsters go in, three come out. There are no safety nets, no knockouts; by the end of Colossal Arena, blood will be spilled. Can you handle it?
The Noob Factor
Even if you're like me, and you've been playing video games since you were five, the complexities of some modern board games can be intimidating. It's okay. Maybe you're not ready to tackle that 100-page rulebook right out the gate, or maybe you're looking for a game you can play with your family, your significant other, or your non-gaming friends. Then again, for some of us, mastering the ins and outs of a complex system of rules, sub-rules, and exceptions is part of the fun of learning a new game--that's the only reason I can think of anybody would enjoy playing Ultima. The "Noob Factor" represents how likely a game is to scare off players who are new to the world of modern board games. A perfect 10 is simple enough to appeal to your ma, sis, and grandma, while a 1 is a gamer's game: do not attempt unless you have a serious love for mental arithmetic.
Colossal Arena scores an 8 on the Noob Factor. That's not a big surprise: it was designed by legendary game designer Reiner Knizia. If you're not familiar with with Knizia, the man behind Ra, Lost Cities, and Lord of the Rings, Knizia is a pioneer of the German school of game design, which tends to emphasize simple, semi-abstract rule systems that are easy to learn but often reward careful, strategic play over luck or aggression. This may sound like a weird set of characteristics for a Pokémon-like battle arena game, but Colossal Arena does its thing without the need to roll a single D6, and manages to keep things simple enough to fit on a two-sided rulebook with a single fold. As board game rulebooks go, that's like reading the back of a cereal box.
The game can be taught and played in a matter of minutes. It doesn't hurt that it's a betting game, which is a basic mechanic that almost anybody can get behind. Everybody starts with a hand of eight cards and no particular loyalty to any one monster in the arena. On your turn, you may place a bet on a monster, play a card, and then draw if you hand-size has fallen below eight cards.
Betting works like this: You can place a bet on any monster at any time, but a given monster can only have one bet riding on it in any given round, and bets placed earlier in the game are worth more points than bets placed later--assuming that creature survives to the end. You are also allowed one secret bet that must be placed in the first round of the game. Each player can place a total of five bets over the course of the game, and it's up to you whether you want to go for the highest payout, placing several bets in the first round and hoping at least one of them emerges from the fray intact, or play it safe, holding on to your bet tokens until the first few monsters have been eliminated.
Playing cards is also as simple as it can be: Each card has a certain combatant's picture on it, and a number from 0-10, representing that monster's combat value for the round. You can play a card on any monster currently in the game, regardless of whether you have money riding on it, and you can even play a card on top of another one, replacing the previous combat value with your new one. A round ends when every surviving monster has a combat value for the current round; at that point, the monster with the lowest combat value gets eliminated, and a new row begins for the next round of combat. This continues until there are three monsters left standing. Here's the catch: you have to play a card every turn, so if you draw a low-value card for your own bet, you'll probably have to play it eventually. The trick is timing it so that you can play something better before the round ends, or--better still--so that somebody else has an even lower card in play.
Colossal Arena would have scored a perfect 10 in the Noob Factor, but for two reasons. The first is that setting up the game can take a long time. There are over 150 cards in the game, and shuffling them all thoroughly can be a chore. Plus, depending on which monsters you're playing with--the game comes with twelve, but there are only eight in any given battle--you'll have to remove up to 44 unused combat cards from the deck. In all, it can take about fifteen minutes to set up this half-hour game.
The other not-so-noob-friendly factor is the creatures' special powers. Gamers will love these--when you play a combat card for a specific creature, if you have the most public bets riding on that creature, you get to use its special power. So, for example, the Wyrm can use Fiery Breath, discarding a combat card played by your opponent, and the Unicorn has the power of Teleportation, allowing you to switch any monster's current combat card with one from a previous round. The powers add a ton of strategic depth and variety to the game, but can be too much for new gamers to wrap their heads around, so you might consider playing power-free for your first game, especially if you have young or inexperienced gamers in your group.
Chrome is board game speak for a game's theme; in video game terms, this would include the game's Story and Presentation. Specifically, chrome implies elements of a game that aren't vital to gameplay, but still contribute to a player's enjoyment of the game. Chrome is like those brutal finishing moves in God of War: they're completely unnecessary from a gameplay perspective, but in a sense they make the gameplay what it is. I'm normally a big believer in chrome, and like to think of it as the ultimate counterpoint to all those annoying gamers who love to say "Gameplay is all that matters!" Next time, try playing Skyrim on mute, with all the characters and objects replaced by solid-colored rectangles, and tell me how much fun you have.
Colossal Arena is a bit odd when it comes to chrome. On the one hand, the theme is certainly there: the illustrations on the creature cards are top-quality, and their special abilities all have evocative names that fit the creature at hand. On the other hand, this has almost nothing to do with how the game plays. This game could have had almost any theme--in fact, it has had almost any theme.
Although I'm calling this a "Not So Old School" review, the truth is that Colossal Arena is pretty old-school, at least as far as modern board games go. It traces its origins all the way back to 1996, when Reiner Knizia designed a horse-racing game called Grand National Derby, which was published by the Viennese playing card manufacturer Piatnik. In 1997, it was republished as Titan: The Arena by Avalon Hill, changing the theme to a mythological bloodbath and adding in special powers for the combatants. In 2000, GMT Games changed the game's theme yet again, shifting it to a sci-fi setting and giving it a bunch of dice-rolling and other randomness. This version of the game was called Galaxy: The Dark Ages. Finally, in 2004, Fantasy Flight Games re-issued Titan: The Arena as Colossal Arena, changing the names and appearance of some monsters (for legal reasons) and adding in four all-new combatants, for the current total of twelve.
The point is that, beyond the basic feel of betting and elimination, the theme in this game doesn't really matter, which makes it a classic Reiner Knizia game. If you're into the whole mythological gladiatorial championship thing, you will probably enjoy that aspect of it, but the core of the game is all about placing and protecting your bets and timing you card-plays. It becomes abstract almost immediately...which doesn't mean that it stops being fun. It's just that the fun you have is almost entirely with the game itself, not with any "story" the game is creating.
Bits are anything and everything that comes in the game's box. Many people would consider the bits to be the game itself. I prefer to think of them as toys: you could use them to play the game, but that's far from all they're good for. Some games have a ton of bits, and you can spend days and days punching intricately illustrated cardboard shapes out of their sprue. Some games are nothing but a bag of dice or a deck of cards, but that doesn't make these games any less fun. In addition to describing the game's components, I'll use this section of the review to go over any elements of the gameplay not covered in the other sections.
Colossal Arena is published by Fantasy Flight, which means that, if nothing else, the bits are going to be fantastic. If you're not familiar with the major board game publishers, think of Fantasy Flight as the cardboard equivalent of, oh, Square Enix (with a slightly less disgraceful recent track record). When they make a game, you know it's going to look good, whether or not it's actually fun. Colossal Arena is no exception: even though it's part of Fantasy Flight's Silver Line of smaller, less expensive games, the game features excellent artwork on some truly heavy-duty cards.
In fact, if I had one complaint about the game's components, it would be that the cards are a little too heavy-duty. They're not as flexible as normal playing cards, which can make shuffling them a pain, especially when you're dealing with a stack of cards three times the size of your normal poker deck. This isn't a huge deal, especially since you won't be shuffling more than once over the course of normal gameplay, but when it already takes half the game's playing time to set it up, it would have been nice if they'd made them a bit more shuffle-friendly.
In terms of both quantity and quality, Colossal Arena is a tremendous value for its $25 price tag. In addition to twenty-five plastic betting chips (five each in five different colors), twelve cards featuring the various monstrous combatants, and eleven combat cards to go with each creature, you'll also be getting eleven spectator cards and three referee cards. The spectators act as wild cards, and are a nice treat thematically--they represent crazed fans who have leapt into the fray to play backup for their favorite creature. Rather than provide a generic "spectator," however, Fantasy Flight have given us eleven unique creatures, from Goblins and Gargoyles to Jinns, Bears, and Centaurs. It's typical of Fantasy Flight that they went to the trouble of providing new artwork for each of these one-offs, and that it looks just as great as the portraits for the main combatants. The Referee cards are even more charming: they look like ghoulish wraiths wearing striped jerseys and waving little pennants, and are the perfect touch to tie the game's theme together. These cards can be used to add a previously-played card to your hand or force players to reveal their secret bets.
The box is also smartly designed to hold the cards and chips so they don't go sliding all over the place--more miraculous than it sounds, especially for a Fantasy Flight title. In all, the game looks fantastic, and you can't argue that you're not getting what you paid for, even if all that theme fades into the background the moment you start playing.
Colossal Arena is a game I can see myself recommending to just about anyone. Although the special powers can trip some players up, it makes an excellent entry-point into the world of modern board games (or, in this case, card games). It's a great example of how Reiner Knizia has earned his reputation: simple and streamlined, this is a game that players of all experience levels can understand and enjoy. At the same time, those same special powers give the game vast appeal to gamers, and not just because most gamers have, at one time or another, fantasized about pitting Amazons against Titans in an epic pit battle. They give your bets meaning, and while certain combinations of creatures can make you nigh-unstoppable--the Colossus, which lets you remove a bet from a defeated creature, combined with the Daimon, who allows you to place a bet in any round as though it were a first-round bet--they'll also paint an enormous target over those creatures' heads. Fat chance capitalizing on the Colossus's ability after it gets killed off in the first round.
If you like making astronomical bets, and then fighting tooth and nail (and even bending the rules a bit) to ensure those bets pay off--or if you just want to see a bunch of cool-looking monsters with special powers face off in a battle to the death--Colossal Arena is the game for you. It's small enough to carry around in your backpack, but these aren't your momma's pocket monsters.
Feature image courtesy of Kaineiribas on DeviantArt.