Huzzah! Titan: The Arena has returned from the dead. If you’re familiar with the Avalon Hill game then you know that people who played it really liked it and used copies of it would sell for over $60. Then GMT tried to repackage the game as “Galaxy: The Dark Ages” using a sci-fi theme and extra rules. Well it should have been called “Galaxy: The Waste of Money”. Thankfully, the long wait for a reasonably priced, enjoyable version of the game is over with. The folks at Fantasy Flight managed to make a quality game and add a little bit extra without ruining the feel or flavor of the game.
The idea behind this game is that each player is betting on the outcome of a battle between 8 fantasy-creatures in an arena. By playing cards, players will influence the course of the battle and cause creatures to be eliminated at the rate of one per round for five rounds.
Inside the box
There isn’t a whole lot to the game component-wise. There are betting chips in five colors (fairly big ones) and cards. The betting chips are the same ones used in Loco so I bet somewhere at FFG there is a bin called “Knizia Betting Chips”. They are a nice size so no complaints about them. The cards are beautiful: vivid colors and heavy stock really – you can fling these babies like shuriken and they hurt. It’s seems, for a game with shuffling, that they might actually be too thick to shuffle easily without ruining them so I guess it’s time to buy a card shuffler or put them in sleeves.
The cards themselves are divided into character cards which depict creatures that will be doing battle and the battle cards which also have the same creatures along with a number; 0 – 10. There are actually 12 creatures available to fight so at the beginning of the game players decide which eight will be used and the other four, along with their battle cards are removed. There are additional battle cards called spectators which show some other creature and a number (consider these wild cards) and 2 referee cards which grant one-time special powers.
Playing the game
First the players need to select which eight creatures will be fighting. The creature cards of these chosen creatures are then placed in a line. Non-participating creatures are removed from the battle cards, the remaining cards are then shuffled and a hand of eight is given to each player along with a set of betting chips in their chosen color. Then someone says “Let’s get ready to rummmbleeeee”.
On a player’s turn they may first draw up to three cards but may have no more than eight. Then a character MAY place a betting chip and MUST play a battle card. The betting chip serves two purposes: the first is that earlier the round you bet on a creature the more points the bet is worth at the end if that creature survives the second reason is that by betting on a creature you can become the “backer” of the creature. A creatures “backer” can exercise a special ability when they play a card on that creature. For example the Wyrm’s backer can destroy any other battle card played during the round when he/she plays a card on the Wyrm. Only one betting chip may be placed on a creature each round but in subsequent rounds additional bets may be made and this can cause the creature’s backer to change as the value of bets placed determines the backer. During the first round a secret bet can be made which means a player takes a card and places it face down with a chip on top. This bet is worth 5 point and can be revealed at any time during the game or at the end. It can be used to influence who the backer of a particular creature is at an opportune moment.
The main point of playing a battle card is to influence the loser of each round because once every creature has a battle card placed below it, the round ends and the loser is the creature with the lowest battle card value (if there is a tie for lowest, play continues until a single loser emerges). Battle cards are placed on any creature still alive, even if it already has a card on it as long as the card matches the creature or is a spectator card. Spectator cards can be played on any creature and will negate the special power of the creature if another card is played on that creature during the round. So as you play you will be looking to play cards to keep the creatures you bet on alive and kill off the creatures you haven’t bet on. Perhaps that means you play a low card on a bad creature or a high card on one of yours or something in between.
After the round the losing creature is eliminated by turning it upside down. The next round begins and another line of cards forms beneath the cards of the first round.
This continues for five rounds, after which three survivors emerge. The value of the betting chips placed on these survivors is determined and a winning player is declared.
I like that 12 creatures now exist instead of just 8 as this makes each game a little different but it also extends set up time since I now have to pull the non-combatants from the deck. No I try to put the cards back in the box sorted by creature so that the next time I play it will be easy to set up. The new characters don’t seem unbalanced so far and I really like the Seraphim’s ability to use the ability of any other dead creatures because it’s powerful yet limited.
Overall this is a clever strategy game because you need to protect your creatures and your secret bet (but not too obviously or everyone will know and try to kill it). You also need to be clever when you don’t have great cards in your hand and are trying to protect your bets. Sometimes threatening one opponent’s creature will cause that opponent to play an even lower card on another creature (hopefully not one of your bets). Then come the special powers, these need to be used judiciously because there are only so many cards to go around and if you use the power recklessly (by playing several cards on the same creature in the same round) you’ll find yourself with fewer cards to protect your creature in later rounds. There is a delightful surprise factor in that despite your best planning, one of your creatures suddenly becomes low man on the totem pole and you wind up saying “Son of a ….”. The same is true when you are able to axe one of your opponent’s creatures by dropping the “0” on it.
The game plays adequately with two but having so many creatures and so few betting chips you’ll probably use all of your chips by the end of the second round meaning that you just protect your bets for three rounds. Playing with four players is more of a challenge and makes it feel more like combat arena.
All-in-all Colossal Arena is a great little card game that is not hard to learn and isn’t just a Rummy, War, or Trick-taking variant.