This game didn’t come into my radar until last year and even then, I was a bit worried about getting it given the low ratings on BGG. But the theme was just too good to pass up I liked the movie Gladiator. The idea of gladiators hacking one another in the arena also appealed to my bloodthirsty nature and of course, brought back memories of my RPGing days hacking and slashing at all and sundry. I recently got the game in a trade and I must have played it 10 times already. Here’s why I like it and why you might like it too!
Reason #1 – lots of dice rolling for a short amount of time
Well ok, maybe that’s precisely why you DON’T like it but that’s the fun of the game! Sending your team out to hammer some poor animal or fellow human being, rolling the dice and seeing your enemies fall on to the sand, their life blood spilling out. Let the arena ring with cries of “Die, you barbarian scum!” and you flick your wrist and send your dice/sword on to the table/into his belly. Or not (those dice can be fickle…) The great thing about CotG is that every dice roll appears to matter. The tension is incredible. I think this is because you have to attack every turn, there are enemies all around you and every battle seems critical. The game design is tight enough that you feel that everything hinges upon that dice roll you’re making NOW. And yet, looking at it more objectively, I don’t think this is the case. The dice roll really does average out the more you roll, so in one battle, you could be like that guy in Gladiator who pisses his pants but in another battle, you’re Maximus himself! And since it’s all about “kills” – if you’re attacked more, that just means you have a greater opportunity of scoring. The bottom line is, you may feel like you’re getting shafted by the dice but things are never as bleak as they look and in any case, you don’t really care - you always think you’ll do better the next time you roll that dice.
A dice game is only fun if you keep it short and fortunately for CotG, the game finishes in less than an hour, shorter, if people don’t take too long picking their teams – which brings me to the next reason why I like this game.
Reason #2 – tactical options
I really like the way Knizia designed the five different types of gladiators, their special abilities and how those abilities contribute to the team. You have the spearman, who determines initiative, the net caster, who’s like a guided missile - he chooses someone to get immobilised, the swordsman, who’s the firepower of the team - you roll one dice for each in your team plus one more die, the trident fella, who determines if a side gets to reroll their dice, and the shield bearer, who blocks a normal hit. (The dice feature either a blank face for a miss, a yellow star for a normal hit - two normal hits are required to eliminate a gladiator - or two red stars for a “critical hit” – no shield bearer can block this.)
From these five types of gladiators, you can create a variety of gladiator teams of differing capabilities. (Each team has four chaps.) But how well these teams do also depends on which team they fight. If there’s no spearmen in your team, don’t fight a team with one! More swordsmen are always good, but are vulnerable to net casters. And when teams take casualties and lose firepower, those shield bearers can be hard to kill. So while this is a light, beer and pretzels game, there are many tactical dilemmas that you’ll come across in the game. The usual one is who to eliminate as a casualty - the last remaining swordsman but keep the trident fella so you can reroll one die, or, keep the swordsman so you get two dice? And for the net caster, who to immobilise – the swordsman, so the other side has less chance of inflicting damage, or the shield-bearer, to go for maximum damage?
At the start of the game, some thinking is required in picking your teams. During your turn, you’ll pick one gladiator to place in the arena, wither with an existing team or forming a new team. This continues until every player has placed his teams (the number teams in the game vary based on the number of players playing). It makes for a very interesting challenge, looking at the sort of teams your opponents are forming and figuring out what’s the best counter to them. There is a possibility of analysis paralysis at this stage so some nudging might be in order to speed things up. Don’t be shy about this!
Reason #3 – Knizia is not “pasted-on theme”As mentioned earlier, this is a game of bloodthirsty combat. This is a game where you get off your seat, swing your sword over your head (if you have one, you can always pretend if you don’t have one), shouting, “At my signal, unleash Hell!” Well, that’s not how Maximus said it in the movie but it’s a good quote, nevertheless. Playing the game always evokes the Gladiator movie and my RPGing days, rolling the dice and slaying baatezu. In this game, you are the Gladiator! You think clinically about what’s the best way to take down your opponent but when battle is joined, the blood rises to your head and you go berserk!
When players start to think too long about who to attack, I’ll point at the spectator stand and say, “You must attack! Roman senators pay good money to see blood!” This is not some Eurogame where players think deep thoughts about whether they should pick the Captain or the Prospector, or whether they should bid 1,300 for the Jester. This is blood and guts!
Reason #4 – Beastmaster!
There are fierce animals in this game, which your gladiators can kill. Even better, you can become an animal! The game ends when there’s only one player’s gladiators left in the arena. But if all your gladiators are eliminated before that point is reached, don’t worry. The game doesn’t end for you. Now, you get to control an animal to attack your rivals. These are not cute and cuddly animals, these are fierce bears, bulls and lions! You can ask for no more from this game. Nuff said.
If these reasons are good enough for you, I highly recommend CotG. Although people might sniff at the idea of a dice game, a key point is that this is not dice-rolling for the sake of dice rolling. The connection to the theme is strong and that is what gives the game its fun and excitement. As this game plays easily and quickly and is just so much fun, this is a game that to me, has very high replayability.
Great, energetic review! Thanks! I too have looked at this game and agonised over its low rating, but I think I`ll get it. I`ll ask Father Christmas...