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Arena: Roma II» Forums » Reviews

Subject: Leopard vs. Tuba Player: This Euro Has Teeth! rss

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Evan Hill
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Asheville
North Carolina
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If you happened to come across the box for Arena: Roma II on the tidy shelves of a local game store, you might think, "Oh boy, another eurogame set in ancient Rome! Gimme some of that multi-player solitaire, scoring victory points in an arbitrary ancient European setting action!" And you and your smarmy inner-monologue would be dead wrong. Or, uh, mostly dead wrong.

You see, Arena has an image problem. What Stefan Feld has created is a game about killing, bribing, stealing, siccing a Leopard on innocent arena spectators, essentially using any nefarious means to wrest control of an anarchic Rome from your equally devious opponent. This is how the publisher describes it: "Join the action and find out who is the most powerful ruler by skillfully playing your cards." The box even has people smiling on the cover!

The publisher has so under-sold Arena that even after several plays I was convinced it was a just a game of managing probabilities with a stupid Roman paste-on theme. It doesn't help that the card names are in Latin, leaving much of the (quite nice) card art open to thematic interpretation to those of us lacking in the Romantic language department. But then I started narrating my plays, and once you've said, "Now, I'm paying my Mercenary to attack your War Elephant," a few times, the true nature of your actions starts to sink in. Good God, I just paid a man to kill an elephant... what kind of person am I?

The kind of person that wins games, that's what.

There are two ways to win this nasty, bloody fight: 1) You can deplete your opponent's supply of what the game meaninglessly calls "Victory Points" and I am going to call "Allegiance," leaving him without the merest plebe who'll call him ruler, or 2) You can deplete the general supply of Allegiance, and whomever has more Allegiance is winner and thus Ruler o' Rome.

Here's the oh-so-clever way you get there: each player starts the game with some Allegiance (Victory Points), three dice, and a tableau of cards showing either buildings or characters. Cards are placed along a strip of a board at spaces which match the faces of a die. On your turn, you roll your dice and activate the cards at the spaces which match your roll. In general, a card does one of three things: earns you Allegiance, attacks your opponent's cards (and thus depleting his supply of Allegiance), or allows you more options.

Okay, random dice activating random cards: sounds like a recipe for... randomness, right? Not quite. There are few more twists.

Instead of activating a card, your dice can also be used to either get money or add a card to your hand. The higher the die value, the more money you get or cards you can choose from. Money allows you to add or replace cards in your tableau as well as, in our most satisfying twist, activate cards for a bribery fee. See, there's one last space on the board for cards you want to work for a bribe. You pay the value of one of your dice, and the card does your dirty work.

What all this amounts to is a satisfying interplay of dice and cards in which you use dice rolls to make the most of your card actions and your card actions to make the most of your dice rolls. Far from feeling completely random, Arena requires strategy and planning in a way that feels entirely in line with the theme. Say your opponent has several cards earning him the people's Allegiance (er, Victory Points). If you don't have the means to stop all the glad-handing, you'd better scramble to find someone or something that can. Once you do find a ballista or what have you, you'll still have to wait for that moment when the dice say, "Now! Take that Forum DOWN!" And goodness gracious, it can feel glorious when it all goes as planned.

But it doesn't always go as planned. There can be what feel like excruciatingly long periods of time which the game gives you nothing of use while your opponent hammers away at you. It's moments like these when the truth that you are trying to carve genius plans out of the whimsy of chance becomes all too clear.

Equally frustrating is when you and your opponent have opposite strategies and what should be a 20 minute battle turns into an hour long slog that drags like some self-important, art house mob movie. This, I'm afraid, is a flaw in game design and while not inevitable, is unavoidable when it occurs (at least among experienced players). Fortunately, out of the nearly forty games I've played, only a few have devolved into extended tedium.

All my games of Arena have thus far been with my wife. It hits that sweet spot of short, engaging, interactive, and replayable which can be tough to find. Depending on your opponent, Arena may be too interactive, since this is a game in which your plans can be sent into the colosseum and, one by one, get hacked apart. My wife delights in this brutal side of the game. Your opponent may not be so maliciously inclined nor enjoy being on the receiving end of it.

If however, you enjoy the mechanical beauty of eurogames but also enjoy thrashing your opponent to pieces, you owe it to yourself to give Arena: Roma II a try.
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Robert Baricz
United States
Chicago
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Agreed...what an awesome game even though I have only played Roma. I have Arena as well but am waiting to play the heck out of Roma first. I have only had it for 5 days and I'm 8 plays in! Very underrated games, and in my opinion one of the best 2 player games
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Evan Hill
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I just gave Roma to my wife for Valentine's Day. She's the one always requesting to play Arena, so I figured I'd try to get a little more mileage out of it before we play the wheels off. I'm looking forward to seeing if it feels any different.
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Ben Wand
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The more I hear and read about this game the more I want it. Seems like something I can play with my 10 year old. Thanks for the review.
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Alex Kendrick
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Great review! This sounds like my kind of game. I am looking forward to trying it out.
 
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