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Subject: First play, and a "pre-review" rss

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Brian Schoner
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Synopsis: Among the fun at this past weekend's Atlanta Game Fest, Ward Batty brought along a copy of the upcoming Colosseum. Not surprisingly, it saw a lot of play, but I did manage to get a game in. While I don't think I'm quite ready to give it a full-fledged review yet, I did want to offer up a (probably overlong) session report and my initial impressions.

Cast: My fellow players were Cynthia Landon (the queen of MeeplePeople.com), her boyfriend (Eric Knauer, I think -- someone please correct me if I'm wrong!), and the estimable Rick Thornquist (our teacher and guide to the wonderful world of Roman showmanship). We were not playing with the Intense Auctions variant, since it was the first game for everyone but Rick; we did use the unofficial "open trading" variant, however, since it just seemed to make sense.

Overture: As several reviewers have already pointed out, the game is extremely pleasant to look at. The board is about twice as big as it really needs to be, as are the gigantic Senators, Consuls and Emperor, but they're so nicely decorated that it really doesn't matter. In addition to being pretty, the components are generally well-made and sturdy. I would have preferred it if the coins were marked on both sides, though the size and color differences keep this from being a significant issue. The Roman-numeraled dice, while nicely thematic, do occasionally suffer from brief moments of confusion (was that a VI or an IV?). The reference cards are clear and thorough, the rules seemed straightforward, and the theme is strong and well-used throughout. Finally, the box insert is very well-designed to hold everything in its place. All in all, it certainly lives up to the DoW standard.

The Opening Act: The game began inauspiciously for me, as I was randomly dealt the two lowest-numbered starting programs possible (1 and 6). In retrospect, I don't think there is any in-game significance to this – I think all the starting programs are more or less equivalent – but, like any good Roman, I am a firm believer in omens, and this was not a good one. Cynthia and I engaged in a spirited bidding war over a set of tokens I needed to complete my initial program; I won, but almost certainly overpaid, which would come back to haunt me later. Rick and Eric got what they needed at comparatively low prices, and both gained early all-stars which would stand them in good stead throughout the game. Each of us put on a solid opening performance; Rick had a slight lead due to effective use of Nobles, but it was still a relatively close game.

The Plot Thickens: During the next few turns, my early overspending really started to hurt. Between buying a new program and expanding my arena once, I could barely scrape together enough money to participate in an auction, and basically had to take what was left after everyone else had made their purchases. As a result, by sheer chance I wound up with two all-star performers that I couldn't use in any of my productions. I did manage to obtain a Joker in round 3, which would become important later. My productions were missing several key elements, and I was well behind on the scoring track; I began to worry that one early poor decision (or perhaps the bad omen of my opening draw) had doomed me. Cynthia and Eric were progressing quite nicely, occasionally dueling over the hotly-contested all-star gladiator, and Rick had substantially increased his early lead with an excellent selection of programs and some shrewd trading.

The Turning Point:By turn 4, I was doing slightly better financially. I was about to buy a top-tier Program which would make use of my all-stars, with plans to expand my arena in turn 5 and try to make a respectable finish. However, at the last minute, I decided to expand my arena first, and buy the program at the last minute during turn 5. This meant that I might have the ideal program snatched out from under me, but since several of the others had already bought their final programs and I was going to be second in turn order in turn 5, I thought I could take the risk. The trading phase was where things really turned around for me, however. I had a spare horse, which Rick needed to reclaim the all-star horse token he wanted to use in his grand finale. Knowing that he was already well ahead, I saw no reason to give him an all-star, even if it would give me one of the last pieces I needed to complete my own program. However, when I explained my reasoning, he offered me a musician, which would give me an all-star of my own and thus keep us "even." Since I hadn't selected a final program yet, and could potentially still find a way to use the musicians, I accepted. As it happened, this was a crucial decision for me. I was still far down in the scoring track…but I had a Cunning Plan. Rick, on the other hand, had three Podiums and a strong position going into the final round. Eric and Cynthia were some distance behind Rick, but still well ahead of me.

The Grand Finale: Turn 5 is the most important turn in Colosseum; everything else in the game is more or less just done in preparation to put on a tremendous show-stopper at game end. I spent most of my money on a fairly ambitious program (Isis' Revealed Secrets) which would enable me to use my all-star priests, musicians, and comedians to full advantage, and managed to get most of what I needed in the auction round with what little cash I had left. Some clever trading let me secure the rest of my needs, and a lucky die roll enabled me to maneuver a Consul into my theater to see my masterpiece. Despite the inauspicious beginning, the stars had aligned favorably for the grand finale, and with a completed cast and several star performers, I managed to eke out a victory over the seemingly-unbeatable Rick. My name was being sung in the streets; I was the Don King of ancient Rome, only without the weird hair.

The After-Show Party: While I enjoyed the game, the company, and the win, I was a little concerned that someone who had been doing so badly for most of the game could come back to win. Was it possible that the early turns really didn't matter much? I'd have to play again to make sure, preferably with folks who all have a game or two under their belts, but I don't think this is really a problem. Part of it is because I really did get a substantial dose of luck in the game -- getting the last all-star and having the right program to use it still available, getting some lucky auction draws when I couldn't compete with anyone, and so forth. Luck isn't crucial in the game, but getting enough of it at the right time can still turn the tide.

It's also important to realize from the start that your final program is almost certainly going to be the sole determinant of your final score. The score during the early turns doesn't matter much – podiums are nice, but not crucial – so there's no real benefit to ganging up on the leader or worrying about falling behind. Indeed, being last can be beneficial, as it allows you to siphon resources from the current leader. However, beyond that, your relative position on the scoring track seems pretty insignificant until the final turn. That said, early productions are important sources of revenue, and should not be underestimated; trust me, not having enough money to participate in the auctions is no fun at all. It's a nice balancing act, which is one sign of a good game.

I'm frankly not sure how long our game took, and since three of us were playing for the first time, it's probably not a realistic gauge of playing time anyway. I will say that five turns didn't seem like a lot during the early going, but felt about right by the end. The limited number of construction phases was limiting, but not crippling, and there are ways to get extras (unlike the hard-and-fast limits of Princes of Florence).

The game moved well with four players. At a guess, I suspect that the three-player game would be a lot less interactive, and the five-player game would result in a lot more demand for scarce resources and programs. This may or may not be a good thing.

Critical Reviews: As I mentioned earlier, I don't think one "learning game" is enough to justify a full review. I will say that I liked the game, and am looking forward to playing it again, but am not quite enthusiastic enough to pre-order it yet. Now that I know what I'm doing better, I'd like to see how strategies begin to change with experience. I can definitely see the oft-referenced similarites to Princes of Florence, which is a favorite game of mine. Colosseum is more interactive and has prettier bits, which may be enough to give it the edge, but I'll need a few more plays to judge for sure.

Closing Credits: Thanks to Rick for teaching, to Cynthia and Eric for playing, and to Ward for making the game available. This is my first session report, so while feedback is welcome, please be gentle.
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Cynthia Landon
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Hi! Thanks to you too for playing! It was great fun even though you clobbered us! Can't wait to do it again!
 
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Eric Knauer
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Nice report, and yes, I am Cynthia's boyfriend. Thanks for not mentioning the final score shake as I made a critical mistake in not expanding my arena before the last round so I could put on one of the larger shows. I really thought it was between Cynthia and Rick, so nice job with the unexpected come-from-behind win. Sharing your sentiments, we both enjoyed the game (especially playing with you and Rick), but don't feel compelled to go out and buy it right away. Still, we’ll most likely eventually get it as it does have a lot going for it such as great components, solid mechanics, and minimal downtime (assuming trading doesn’t get bogged down, which may be more of an issue in a 5-player game).
 
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Steve Downin
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I got to play Colesseum at AGF, as well, though not in your game. I played a 5er game with Valerie Putnam, Mark, Louis, and for some reason the other guy's name slips my mind.

But I do agree with your assessment that the first four turns are all set up for your final pièce de resistance in Turn 5. My mistake was not realizing it from the get go. My first shows were numbers 1 and 7, which, though they pair VERY nicely together (3 gladiators and a plant, vs 2 pladiators and a plant), I wasn't able to set things up for any later shows which would utilize that particular talent pool, due to not being willing to over pay for lots that would help me in either of the first two auctions, and then having to shift plans after being unable to trade for the tiles I wanted (since it seemd every one was going for similar tilesets). My final show was only a meduim show and netted me a scant 50 points. No where near enough to beat anyone else since they were all able to put on large shows to end the game.

I enjoyed the game immensely, as I though the myriad different game mechanics melded together almost seamlessly into the theme.

I did think that DoW could have chosen a better color combination for the dice that white lettering on natural wood. They can be difficult to read from across the table.

I also tend to think that simultaneous trading is VITAL to the game. If everyone trades individually, in turn,I can easily see adding an extra 45 minutes to an hour onto an already 60-90 minute game.

Personally, I'd be willing to buy it at this point, I think. It was a very good game, and an excellent addtion to DoW's stable of games.

-Steve

P.S. Cynthia, take a look at my Avatar. That's what the Dark Side of the Moon album cover looked like.

 
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