Welcome to The Game Shelf!

After getting into the board game hobby at the end of 2014, we've decided to share our thoughts on the games we're collecting on our shelves. The collection has certainly expanded over the last few years and we've been making up for lost time!

Sometimes our opinions differ, so Amy will be posting reviews every Tuesday and Fi will post on Thursdays. We hope you enjoy reading some of our opinions on board games - especially those for two players.

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Sunday, 9 September 2018

The Game Shelf Previews:- Gladiatores

Game: Gladiatores

Publisher: Badcat Games

Designer: Jason Maclean Jones

Year: 2019

Gladiatores is coming to Kickstarter from Badcat Games in October 2018. It's the second game from this small publisher in Scotland and the first that we've had the chance to play.

In Gladiatores, you are the owner of a gladiator school, pitting your students in deadly event sponsored by powerful roman officials. After each fight, one school will come out on top, possibly losing gladiators along the way if they do not successfully defend. Will your school win the battle and go on to claim victory over the whole season?

Like with many of our reviews, we have only had the chance to play Gladiatores with two players, and so the betting is not an element of the game we will be previewing.

In Gladiatores each player is assigned a gladiator school, each of which provides a series of sponsor cards that can be used once per battle to throw a surprise at your opponents. After assigning schools players will then pick a gladiator to send forth into the free-for all bout. Each gladiator has their own mix of weapons and tactics, represented by unique player powers and a suitably tailored set of cards that form the basis of your hand. After you select your gladiators you may draw some bonus cards from the common decks to flesh out any perceived weakness in your hand and then combat can begin.

On their turn a player must play an attack card against another player, each attack card lists which cards can be played on top of it to defend from the attack, but these defence cards also have a list of cards that can be used to counter the defence! Play continues with each player taking turns playing one of the allowed cards to block, thrust and parry their way to victory. Eventually one of the players will be able, or unwilling, to play a card whereupon the final card in the stack will get to perform it's action. These are typically gaining the favour of the crowd and/or spilling your opponents blood. Combat will continue until either only 1 gladiator is alive, or only 1 gladiator is able to fight (still has cards).

The prototype components laid out for a two-player game. Final artwork and components are subject to change.
At the  end of the combat round glory awards are given based on how much favour you earned and on how well your gladiator performed in combat. Even a dead gladiator can boost your school's esteem! The game can either be played in a single round of combat, or a series of games, if this is done the game finishes when one player has managed to fill their glory wheel, though gold awards are worth more than bronze, so being first doesn't necessarily mean winning! There is also a betting system where you can bet on who will win each round, giving you incentive to try and let (certain) opponents win, unfortunately this doesn't work in the 2 player mode.

Amy’s Final Thoughts

Gladiatores really nailed the feel of martial combat, thrusts are parried aside only to be met with shield bashes that are leapt over before a final swing from behind. It's incredibly thematic for these warriors who were very much fighting to entertain. It does lead to a side effect of single attacks taking quite a long time to perform as both involved players can be playing 3/4 cards each and it certainly leads to trying to work out what attacks your opponent can defend against. If they are out of blocks and parries then your cleaves can get through, but if they are out of parries then perhaps some of your other cards are safe to play too. It gives you the opportunity to probe your opponent for weaknesses, again very thematic.

Unfortunately unless you learnt the cards very well then extrapolating the results of what cards you play can be a little pointless. Most of the time you have little choice and you are either playing the 1 card that you  can to counter the previous card or choosing to let the attack through. You start to feel incredibly powerless as your deck runs dry and this often leads to a downward spiral. In a 3 player game you could abuse this to try and drag competitors out of the ring by ganging up on them, but in a 2 player game it often felt that victory went to the better deck rather than the better player.

Generally speaking Gladiatores felt like a good chunk of the gameplay is lost when you pare it down to a 2 player experience. You can't bet on yourself or opponents for quicker scoring and you can't do anything but fight the same person until someone stops breathing/fighting. The game is still interesting, but it feels like it lost too much in the transition to a low player count. Perhaps if you were willing to go to great depths to learn the cards and how they interact with each other you could make it a good combat game for 2, but for me it isn't worth the time investment.

Fi’s Final Thoughts

The highlight of Gladiatores is certainly how well the gameplay evokes the theme. With two players in particular, I like how the game feels like real gladiatorial combat. Different dodges suit different attacks and some moves allow you to comeback, whilst others are less effective, but do impress the audience. It's so much better than many combat games where you are just comparing the hit points on different cards with different names, but where the action just isn't evoked by the card.

However, although the card play is thematic, I also find that I'm not really able to make many choices. Especially when you're on the defensive, the question is often 'Do I have that card?' rather than 'What clever move can I make next?'. When you're on the attack you can try to take advantage of knowledge you've built up of your opponent's cards, especially if you've got lucky and drawn a few cards of the same type that you can keep hitting with. 

If you're struggling to overturn the balance of power in combat, then playing cars to gain rose petals can be a viable alternative strategy. However, in a two player game there seemed to be too many rose petals to go round, meaning that both players tended to score highly and it didn't become a big enough differentiator to define an alternative route to victory. This seemed like it might be resolved in a 3 or more player game. Interesting end game, though less so with two players, where the rewards feel quite even and it's unlikely that someone won't so well in the competition for roses.
A 'trumping' system only allows you to play certain action cards following your opponent's action. If yo have a good memory than you may be able to take advantage of your knowledge of their hand.
The full length game lasts around 45 minutes with two players and does open up the interesting scoring mechanism, where both trophy size and their value (bronze, silver or gold) can matter in whether you try to play for a fast victory or a high point scoring victory.

Gladiatores works as a two player game, and the two player game makes thematic sense, but I did feel like I was missing out on some of the gameplay with the betting and that there wasn't as much focus on making a balanced two-player experience. For a larger group who enjoy the theme and bluffing elements, then Gladiatores is worth checking out.

You might like...
  • The gameplay feels very thematic, really recreating the moves from a one-on-one battle.
  • The scoring mechanisms are interesting as you have different opportunities to score highly or quickly, which may affect the cards you choose to play each round.
You might not enjoy...
  • At two players, you are really not getting the full experience of the game, which doesn't seem like a good deal if that's your primary gaming opportunity.
  • We share a concern that the game really rewards knowing the decks well and understanding which cards are followed by which other cards. This would make it difficult for an experienced player to play with a new player.

The Verdict
Gladiatores is an interesting, thematic fighting game, with some tricky hand management aspects. If you're looking for a fast-faced combat game, with minimal fiddliness and lots of flavour and back-and-forth for a group of 3-5 friends, then Gladiatores may be one to check out!

Gladiatores was a review copy provided to the Board Game Exposure reviewer collective. It will be live on Kickstarter during October 2018 and you can find out more about the campaign here.

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