Circus Maximus is one of the three games in the GMT Games Reiner Knizia package deal Rome. Also in this package are the also enjoyable voting game Imperium and the sadly pointless wargame Hannibal versus Rome . Circus Maximus was the last of the three I had the opportunity to try out and overall, I’d say it was worth the wait.
The Circus Maximus board shows a map of the famous coliseum, laid out in hexagons (21 hexes long at the longest and 11 hexes wide at the widest). Each player controls a team of three chariots and the winner is the first one to maneuver their team through one full lap around the board and into the victory lane.
Setup begins in a fashion akin to that of Settlers of Catan as each player takes turns placing one of their three chariots in the starting grid first in clockwise order, then in counter-clockwise order, and then in clockwise order again.
In every round after setup, each player will get three turns—one for each chariot—and the turn order of the chariot is decided by race position, beginning with the section of the board that includes the race leader and working clockwise from there. For those of you unfamiliar with such position-driven racing rules, the instructions include a sample placement of five chariots on the board and explains their turn order in detail. However, even working from that example, we have not been entirely comfortable with the result of this system, as it can trigger some rather strange rounds if the lead chariot has completed its first lap while other chariots are still in the first section of the board. Overall, most players seem willing to accept the rules as written, but notes addressing this issue would have been nice.
To actually move your chariots, Circus Maximus equips you with a set of five cards numbered 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 which you lay face up on the table. As each chariot has its turn, you may assign one, two or three of these cards to moving it. Movement is in straight lines only and must be by exact count however, you’re allowed to change your chariot’s direction of movement between assigned cards. Once each card is used, it is also flipped over to signify that it is out of play for the rest of the round.
For each card, chariot movement must be in a straight line and must be by exact count. However, you’re allowed to change your chariot’s direction of movement between assigned cards. In addition, while moving a chariot is not mandatory, each chariot must still have at least one card assigned to it, so you’re not allowed to assign more than three cards to any one chariot or to use up your last card before your last chariot gets its turn.
It can get a bit difficult—particularly with a full game of five players bringing fifteen chariots onto the track—to keep track of exactly which chariots have and have not moved. While the rules did not address this issue, we resolved it by laying down each chariot down after it moved in the first round, then standing it back up after it moved in the second round, and continuing to alternate between standing them up and laying them down each round thereafter. This practice made it quite easy to tell at a glance who had and had not moved.
It may sometimes happen that your chariot cannot move with any of the cards you have left. In such cases (*grrr*) you must still assign one of your remaining cards to it and flip that card out of play for the rest of the round. Blocking opponents and preventing them from using one of their cards can be difficult, but it is definitely a crucial element of the game as each player attempts to jockey their team into a better position. In particular, occupying the inside corners of the turns and forcing your opponents to swing wide can have a major effect on the outcome of the race.
At the end of each round, every chariot will have either been moved, been blocked from moving, or opted not to move. At that time, all players reset their cards face up and the race continues. The race ends immediately when one player’s entire team has successfully completed the race and parked in the victory zone (the white band in the middle of the board).
So that’s how you play Circus Maximus . The next natural questions are of course “how well does it play?” and “is it fun?”
Whenever asked to judge a racing game, I always consider four criteria. (1) Is it fast? (2) Is player interaction present? (3) Is strategy a factor? (4) Does strategy outweigh the random elements? I’d have to say that Circus Maximus can respond to all four of these in the affirmative.
(1) It’s fast—no more than thirty minutes.
(2) It has high player interaction—every decision will be based on your position relative to your opponents, how you can affect them and how they can affect you.
(3) It’s strategic—success depends almost entirely on your ability to read the board and make the right move at the right time. In addition, since victory is claimed by the player whose entire team first completes the race, it forces you to adopt a balanced strategy.
(4) Strategy outweighs all random elements—in this particular case, the only random element is selection of the player to begin the setup round and this seems to carry very little impact over the course of the game.
I’d say it plays well.
Of course, that still leaves the question “is it fun?” Well, I enjoyed playing it. I have fond memories of playing it. I want to play it again. I think that’s fun. And if the four criteria above are things that appeal to you in a racing game, you’ll think it’s fun too.
Just a quick note Kevin - the initial setup is actually Clockwise, Counter-Clockwise then Counter-Clockwise again (not clockwise as you mentioned)