The sword is heavy in your hand. Sweat and blood run in rivulets down your tired and aching body. And the sun, that wicked golden eye, it stares down at you, relentless, glaring and baking your flesh beneath the scant armour. Of your opponents there is only one left standing and you know he feels the same. You can only hope that his weapon is heavier, his body more drained and that his wounds are deeper.
Designer: Jason Maclean Jones
Publisher: Badcat Games
Runtime: 20 – 90 minutes
Player Count: 2 – 5
Gladiatores is a fast paced, hard hitting take-that game of arena combat, there’s a touch of deck building, a hint of memory, a smattering of betting and amidst all the Gladiator quotes there will be lots and lots of swearing at one another. A game about fighting should always be accompanied by plenty of smack talk I say. After choosing which of the six different gladiators you’d like to play as and adding to the small deck of gladiator specific cards from the central supply you are more or less ready to say in a gruff Scottish accent “Gladiators, ready!” and start fighting.
The combat in this game is very light and can be very fast, it’s based on a card trumping system, where one player will launch an attack by playing one of their attack cards, the defender has to play a card that repels the previous, which in turn can also be countered. And so this goes, back and forth until one player cannot play another card. However, this isn’t just a case of playing one card after another; you’ll have to repel the previous card with specifically named cards. So, a Cleave, for example, can only be repelled by either a Parry or a Block, which in turn can only be repelled by a Disarms/Grab, or a Shove/Leap respectively.
This all means that players have to carefully manage and negotiate their hand of cards because this game isn’t really a deck builder, as you’ll be shedding cards far faster than you’ll be picking them up. You see, the cards don’t only represent what moves and actions you can take, but also your energy, use it up and your gladiator collapses to the sand. It’s important to note here that losing a bout of combat though isn’t necessarily a bad thing, in fact, it can be a good idea to let your opponent use up their defence cards where they don’t directly affect you.
In Gladiatores players are trying to do two things, as you are essentially playing the game at two levels. One in the arena as the gladiator, where all you care about is dispatching the others. The second is as the owner and operator of a Gladiator Ludi (a school or troupe) where all you care about is the overall fame and glory. This ‘glory’ is collected in a variety of ways and is represented by these little rose petal tokens. You’ll win it for pulling off certain or special moves in the arena, dishing out damage and naturally, winning the fight.
Another way to win glory is through the in-game gambling system. This mechanic overall is very much like a backup plan, a hedging-your-bets type of thing and in that function, it works well, but I find myself wanting a little more from it. I will state here that I personally dislike gambling generally, but here I dislike it because when I lose the bet (which Gladiator will win) all I’ve lost is the opportunity to win, there’s no weight or consequence to it. However, winning the bet is both a great catch up mechanic and always leaves me with a smug sense of satisfaction.
It is with these considerations that Gladiatores is far more than a simple combat, card trumping game. Players will often have to plan and strategize about the whole fight, not just the combat they’re in because even when not in a fight the other players are watching what cards are going down on the table. If you see someone play more than two Blocks you can be fairly confident the attack on your turn will find its mark. This game has “active downtime” whereby a careful player will be watching and waiting for their perfect moment to strike. Add to this that in each fight at least one player will probably be trying to defend another to win the bet too and all of a sudden you have a dynamic and clever fighting game.
Now, Gladiatores can be played one of two ways, a single event and season mode. The former functions better as a tutorial/demo than a true reflection of the full game simply because it doesn’t show off what this game is capable of, it doesn’t really allow players to build relationships and vendettas, it makes the gambling, tactic and sponsorship cards almost redundant. Having played Season mode I would now, never play a one-off fight outside teaching someone else.
In the “proper” game you’ll come to see and appreciate the nuances between each of the gladiators, knowing how valuable or dangerous particular cards are for certain fighters is part of the overarching strategies and joys of this game. With the highs of exciting and quick-fire card playing along with the often twisting combats, there is the ever-present risk of being knocked out of the game. With Gladiatores this pseudo player elimination; where your gladiator is killed and out for the remainder of the combat, it can be a little frustrating. Yes, there is still the bet, but you have no way of influencing it, so you’re stuck in this kind of in-the-game-out-the-game limbo. Luckily, as more gladiators are knocked out of the fight, the rest of the match speeds up, but if you’re the type of gamer put off by things like this, it could still be a little too much like actual “player elimination” for you.
The card trumping mechanic works really well, it’s very quick and easy to explain and although it can feel a little random at times it also creates a more interesting and exciting twist to each fight, there is never a guaranteed winner. When a volley of cards are slapped down between two players this game triumphs at creating those “and take that” moments, while simultaneously having the other players grin like starving wolves watching their prey exhaust itself. This game manages to strike a good balance between being fun, fast and fighty, and also creating enough tactical and strategic moments to elevate it far above a simple card trumping game. As with any arena style combat game, the more the merrier and bloodier and with around five rounds of combat you’ll get bad luck, drama and a lot of variety each time you play.
Now would you look at that, a whole review of a game about gladiators without a Gladiator or Spartacus quote in sight…I must be getting professional or something.