Token Table-Top: Gladiatores brings tactical card action to life

By Matt Thrower 20 Jun 2018 0

On the arena sand, two figures have been duelling for some minutes. The Murmillo has been bashing the Secutor with his heavy shield, only to see his opponent blocking and dodging every attack. In the blink of an eye, the Secutor leaps forward and stabs his blade toward the Murmillo's unprotected shoulder. His only defence would be to deflect the blow, but he can't bring that big shield round fast enough. As the crowd roars and throws rose petals in appreciation, the Secutor stabs again and again. 

I throw down my few remaining cards in annoyance. My opponent and I have played card after card in a thrilling narrative arc of unfolding gladiatorial combat. Suddenly it's all over because an undefended 'stab' card allows you to play another if you have it, like a blade rapidly flicking in and out. Annoyed as I am by defeat I have to admit, it's a sweet thematic twist.

2018 box back layout

This is Gladiatores, an upcoming strategy game of arena combat in ancient Rome. My opponent and the co-designer, Justin Morgan Davies, has been taking me through the card powered combat engine that sits at the center of the game. Every card has one to three possible counter-moves printed on its edge. If the target can play one of these it, in turn, has possible counters listed on it. Eventually, one player won't be able to respond and then the 'finishing' effect on the card gets executed. Like that stab move, which offers the chance to stab again if you can.

"It’s these sort of moments that make a game memorable," Justin observes with a wry smile. "The spark of delight when a quick double stab gets through after a well fought defence. That's something to be nurtured, not quashed. As a designer, it's my job to make that sort of thing happen as much as possible while still keeping the game balanced."

It's quick and exciting, yet tactical and descriptive of an unfolding combat. Various other mechanics feed into your decision making. Each Gladiator has access to a slightly different set of cards and moves depending on their training and equipment. The Hoplomach, for example, can use his spear to wound opponents who successfully deflect his attacks. So, you need to be aware of what moves your enemy might - and might not - have access to. Many of the cards also offer choices as to their ultimate effect. A successful Shove card, for example, either lets you respond with a fresh attack or draw two more cards. Both, Justin explains, are mimicking the brief respite gained from pushing your opponent out of the way.

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As we've played, Justin's obvious enthusiasm for and knowledge of the source material has spilled out like petals from the crowd. That, in fact, is something he's taught me: that spectators may have thrown flowers to show their appreciation of the fight. Hence the game's subtitle, Blood for Roses. He also explains how gladiator schools would sometimes bet against their own champions if they saw a chance for profit. It's a feature of the popular TV show Spartacus and the franchised board game it inspired. 

"Spartacus got a lot right," Justin opines. "It has a nice simple betting mechanic and I like the idea of extra bets on such things as decapitations or injury. But the odds, I believe, are always the same. In Gladiatores the odds vary based on the gladiator's type and armaments. They're also dynamic. Depending on turn order, a measure of the gladiator’s experience and confidence in the fight, the bookies will give variable odds for winning. This makes betting a much more tactical affair." 

This adds a fascinating and unpredictable element of bluff to the game. The varied odds offer potential clues as to the patterns of betting players are likely to favour. But nothing is certain until the wagers pay out. That means you could be fighting someone who wants to lose and is trying to draw out your best cards as an added benefit. And the winner of the big reveal gains not gold, but glory. "Players don’t need to bet coinage, they either win or lose a bet and that's it," Justin explains. "Keeps it slick."

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Players earn glory from the fight, from betting and from their eventual placing in a series of tournaments. They track it on a wheel, with wedges of differing size and value. But again, there's a twist. The first person to fill their wheel gets a points bonus. So, there's a balance to strike between grabbing the biggest and the most valuable wedges. Both are valid routes to victory.

Around the central engine of gladiator duels are a series of other mechanics that add depth and historical flavour to the game. Each player gets dealt a hidden tactics card they can reveal for a sudden impact, adding tension and variety to the game. They also have a sponsor who gives them a special power. Mine is a Herbalist, which gives me the useful power to heal wounds between fights. Justin asks me to imagine "a famous Herbalist, treating the ailments of a gluttonous consul". There are more sponsors, and other content, among the stretch goals for the game's Kickstarter, scheduled for October. 

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The prototype I've played is a curious mix of historical detail and smooth mechanics to keep the game digestible. The result feels like a slice of ancient Rome, a flicker of still frames from the life of a group of gladiators. Enmities, like the warriors themselves, will rise and fall at the whim of the crowds. But the series of stabs that ended the fight still worries me. I ask Justin if he's worried that it's overpowered. 

"We listen carefully and react to our play testers comments on all our games," he replies. "In this instance, I’ve never heard of a single player saying the ability to chain these wounding attacks broke or unbalanced the game. They love it!"

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