Deck-building (or, sometimes more broadly, pool-building) is one of my favorite game mechanics, and so I am always interested in games that look to innovate on that mechanic or combine it with others in new and interesting ways. And Carthage (from SAS Creative) fits squarely into that category.
In Carthage, players take on the role of gladiators battling to the death in arena combat (I am assuming this is Roman Carthage, as all of the flavor/theming is Roman … unless you count the “This. Is. Carthage” flavor text, in which case I suppose there’s some pseudo-Greek in there as well). These battles, including efforts to win the favor of the crowd, are fueled by card play from hand.
Components were high quality, with thick player boards and sturdy cards. Each of the five gladiators has a miniature with a different custom sculpt.
The very core of the card side is deck-building. Players start with a ten-card deck of lousy cards, make it better during the game, then use the better cards to win. But there’s a lot around that core that’s quite different from most deck-building games.
Of course, the most obvious standout is that there’s more than just the deck at play, as the deck is used to move and attack with the gladiator on a hex board (although Carthage is not the first to have deck-building move pieces on a board, as seen in Tyrants of the Underdark, but it still isn’t common).
But there’s also a lot distinctive going on just from the card-play side of things. First, each starting deck is ten different cards, which is unusual for a deck-building game. This diversity is, I think, necessitated to make the rest of the game work, given the variety of basic effects added through the board. That diversity is also more pertinent because (unlike most deck-building games) this is not a game where someone plays all of their cards, buys new cards, and then passes the turn. Rather, players only get one card at a time, maneuvering their gladiators around bit by bit.
The three basic card effects are moving, dealing damage, and gaining favor with the crowd. Most of the starting cards either do one of these things (1 damage, 1-2 movement, 1-2 favor), or give the player a choice of 2-3 of them to do (but still only one per play). Most cards in the deck, however, do more than one thing. And the order they appear on the card can greatly affect the gameplay of the card. For example, a card that lets the gladiator move then attack plays much differently than a card that lets the gladiator attack and then move. There are also some cards that get a bonus affect if an attack hits. For example, the starting deck card Lunge deals one damage and, if that was successful, grants three favor.
Around those actions on the board are the effects (direct and indirect) of the crowd. Each turn a new theater card is revealed, showing what the effect of the crowd and environment on the match is. For example, the crow might throw stones, dealing damage to all of the gladiators. At the end of the turn, favor is spent to acquire new cards, or take a handful of fixed actions. These including lobbying the crowd (which manipulates the theater deck), and focusing, which removes cards from your deck.
With the limited starting deck cards, the action starts slowly. The gladiators initially have no ability to move and attack with a single card. Indeed, because all of the starting attack cards (and almost all of the attack cards generally) can only hit adjacent targets, there is a real risk in walking up to another gladiator, which can discourage players from being too aggressive early (who wants to stumble up to someone, only to have them Lunge a gladius into you?). Indeed, during the first few turns there will be a lot of ‘dead’ actions, since it’s hard to end up next to someone with an attack.
During this time, however, players are improving their decks, and as the turns progress the gladiators become much more mobile and the combat more fluid. The 15 armor that seems like an insurmountable peak for the first few turns can quickly start to fall, as the game progresses from single 1-point attacks hitting to multiple 2-3 point attacks. There tends to be more favor to be had in hitting things, but it’s possible to get cards that focus on running and building favor, thus enabling you to get the really good cards while your opponents have wasted attack cards because they can’t keep up (or, better yet, just using those attack cards to kill each other).
The gladiators go down when their armor is reduced to zero (the winner is the last gladiator standing). So, unlike many modern designer board games, Carthage does have player elimination. Most of the time, due to the escalating pace of the game, the ensuing period of downtime won’t last too many turns. But those players who just hate player elimination might not find that much comfort. The player elimination is entirely in theme, but it’s arguably Carthage’s main weakness – there’s a reason the vast majority of new board games try to keep everyone involved as much as possible for the whole game.
In addition to the basic gameplay, there are a number of modules/mini-expansions that can be added in – arena beasts, theater legends, equipment, and “modular rulesets.”
The arena beasts appears to be an effort to address the potential player elimination issue. Once a player is eliminated, a beast is released into the arena, controlled by that player (if the beast dies, they pick another one and come in as that beast). The defeated player can therefore continue to exercise some influence over the game. The arena beasts vary significantly in power level and style, so expect to see a lot more rhinos than peacocks. Ultimately, however, they don’t do much to keep the defeated player’s interest. The arena beast acts but once a turn – so the defeated player gets to do something, but it’s one action for every five that every other player is taking (plus the favor phase). Ultimately, you’re either OK with the player elimination or you aren’t – I don’t think the arena beasts rule are going to change that.
The equipment expansion gives each gladiator a distinctive set of three equipment cards. Each equipment card has a single-use action that can be taken in lieu of a card play from hand (the player discard a starting deck card). These actions can later be recharged during the Favor phase, but it isn’t cheap. The equipment cards are a meaningful addition, as the starting cards can produce a reasonable number of turns where the last couple of actions don’t do anything, or anything meaningful (for example, doing a damage when you aren’t next to anyone). The equipment cards are the only way that it matters mechanically which gladiator a player is, and the equipment cards for the five gladiators are mostly consistent with their identifications. The Dimachaeri (or dimachaerus) has two swords. The Murmillo has a gladius, a scutum shield, and one of those crested helms with a face mask. The Thracian (thraex) carries a curved sica. And the Gaul (gallus) is has a couple of heavy armored pieces, although I’m a bit unclear on what was really distinctive historically about the Gauls sent to fight in the arena. However, the Retarius has for some reason traded his signature net in for a weighted bola.
I think that the “modular rulesets” mode produces the greatest change to gameplay of the four additions. Each “ruleset” is a card that either adds an additional effect to the game state, or provides players with an additional favor action. These can provide a lot of additional variety, as some of them significantly change the dynamics of the game. For example, the Featured Match card gives every player free Favor every turn, which results in much flashier cards entering decks much more quickly. Discipline provides a another way to focus cards out of the deck, paying armor instead of favor. Other cards punish gladiators who stray from the center of the arena, or increase the survivability of all of the gladiators (extending the game time). These cards can be added randomly, or as suits the players, although the game recommends that only four or fewer be used at a time.
The theater legends are basically just more action cards that were Kickstarter rewards for a higher pledge level. They get shuffled into the action deck and are available as normal action cards.
Carthage also includes rules for playing teams or solo. We did not try the solo mode. The team variant left some of our players unhappy with the endgame. A team wins when the rest of the opposing team goes down. But once the first gladiator goes down, and their teammate is now facing a 2-1 situation, the game will often be effectively over at that point.
Ultimately, there’s a lot to like about Carthage. It combines creative use of deck-building mechanics and card design with the arena to produce escalating tactical combat that tends to result in a thematic crescendo of blood. Our group really enjoyed it across multiple plays, especially with the modular rulesets to change up the flow of the game.
Promotional consideration was provided in the form of a review copy.