Review – Colossal Arena

I spoke positively of Colossal Arena last week, so I thought it might be time for a full review:

                Colossal Arena is a quick, betting-based card game for 2-5 players (the box says 40-60 minutes, but this is one of the rare games I’ve played that always seems to take less than the estimate on the box).  Colossal Arena was first released 15 years ago, with its most recent version being a Fantasy Flight Games Silverline release, which has the highest production values of those versions.  The FFG release goes for only around $25 MSRP.  Although Colossal Arena isn’t fantastic, I have found it to be a game that (1) family and non-gamers are actually interested in playing more than once and (2) so am I.  I’m always glad to pick up more games that meet those criteria, so consider this purchase a rousing success.  And even other gamers in my group have found it entertaining.

Colossal Arena is a card game by the ever-prolific Renier Knizia.  Like many Knizia games, Colossal Arena features a solid core mechanic with a pasted-on theme (Arena was originally skinned as a horse-racing game called Grand National Derby).  Despite the non-mainstream theme and mechanics (giant monsters battling in a betting/commodity manipulation game), my family members took to playing it quickly (and were more interested in replay than I was), which I think says something about the elegance of the central mechanic.

Like I said, Colossal Arena features a variety of monsters/fantasy characters fighting it out – starting with eight contestants and whittling it down to three by the end of the game, with one contestant being eliminated each round, reality-show style.  Combatants include an angel, a demon, a dragon, a cyclops, a wizard, an amazon archer, and other fantasy staples.

The core mechanic is playing combat cards for the remaining contestants (a combat card played for a contestant supersedes whatever the prior value was), with a round ending whenever every contestant has a combat value for that round and there is a definitive loser (so you keep on going if there is a tie for last place) – the loser is then eliminated.  Everyone starts from scratch for the next round, and play continues until three contestants are left (the game also ends if the central deck runs out of cards).  While this is going on, players are also placing their five betting tokens on various contestants (other than one high-value secret bet per player, everyone knows where the bets go).  The earlier you place your bet, the more it is worth.  The winner is whoever had the most cash riding on the three contestants who survive (or more than three, if the deck runs out).

The deck primarily consists of 11 cards for each contestant in the game (there are 12 total, but only 8 are used each time), numbered from 0 to 11.  A contestant’s cards can only be played to support that particular contestant.  Playing a combat card for a contestant also lets you activate that contestants special power – but only if you are the contestant’s “backer” (the player who has the most cash riding on the contestant at that point in time).  Powers include moving bets around, drawing cards, interfering with other players’ hands, removing cards from play, and a variety of other things.  There are also 11 spectator cards, also numbered from 0 to 11, that can be played on any contestant.

Each player must play a card every turn, whether the player wants to or not.  Cards for eliminated contestants can be discarded.  A player’s hand refreshes at the end of that player’s turn.

Obviously, each player’s basic objective will be to keep that player’s bets alive, while knocking out other players.  Especially as rounds go on, strategy moves away from just playing high value cards on your favored contestants and low values on opponents’ and towards trying to control how many spots are left so that the round ends on your turn.  For example, I’ve found one of the strongest special abilities to belong to the Ettin, who lets you play another card right away, potentially ending the round before your opponents were ready for it to (with their valuable bets going away, of course). Complicating all this, especially near the end of the game, is that you just might end up with a hand full of cards that you don’t really want to play, and so you need to minimize the damage that your compulsory play does.

Play is more controlled with only two players.  With four, it’s very hard to maneuver things so that your opponents won’t have good plays or ways to end the round on terms unfavorable to you.  With two players, it’s possible to have more deliberate chess matches over multiple moves as each player tries to force the other into making a play that lets the first player conclude the round by dropping a low card onto an “enemy” contestant (or a high card on a friendly one).

All told, Colossal Arena is not a game I’m ever going to get really excited about bringing out.  But it is a decent game that my family will be interested in me bringing to the table, and that’s a huge plus.  And the other gamers in my group liked it as well.  So, especially at the low price point, I think it’s worth giving Colossal Arena a shot.

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