18 November 2019
Are you not entertained? Well, you will be
We all know what to expect from a card-based battle game, right? Pull a hand from a deck, spend resources to play summoned beasties or warriors down into a battlefield, then bash their heads together. It’s great fun, don’t get us wrong, whether it’s KeyForge, Sorcerer or 1066, Tears to Many Mothers. But when a card game comes along that treats combat in a whole new way – one that actually makes it feel like combat – you have to sit up and take notice. Rather like a bloodthirsty Roman in the front row of the Colosseum, in fact.
Gladiatores: Blood for Roses is, as you’d expect, set in the cut-and-thrust world of Roman gladiatorial combat. Each player selects a ludus (gladiator school) with its own unique power, then over an agreed number of events – the Tribune’s Trophy, the Consul’s Chalice and so on – they have to bid for big-name gladiators (each with their own special abilities and cards) before throwing them into the arena to take part in a series of mano-amano melees against their choice of the other players’ fighters, while also secretly betting on who they think will be the last man (or woman) standing.
What makes it distinct from other battle card games is the way those combats play out. Every player starts each event with a big hand of cards (14, or 18 with two players), and each card represents a combat move in one of three categories: attack, defence and effect. After selecting your opponent, you open with an attack. They must play a specific defence card to counter it, in which case you must counter in turn with a specific effect card, which in turn will require a specific counter of its own. This strategic back and-forth continues until one player cannot play a card (for example, a disarm or grab to counter the previous player’s parry), in which case the bout ends and the effect of the topmost card is applied. If it’s a cleave, for example, the losing player would receive a wound, you would receive a crowd favour token (important for scoring glory), and then you’d have the option to play another card down, namely ‘subdue’, which cannot be countered. The hand as a whole also represents your gladiator’s constitution. If it runs out, you’re out for the count, so you have to be careful about how it’s managed.
It works fantastically, each play feeling like a fresh beat in a furious fight scene, the drama building as you throw down a new card. So much so, that in three- or four-player games you won’t even mind the downtime as two others duke it out. But this trick-taking-ish mechanic is just the pounding heart of a game that has much more to it. In addition to the aforementioned bidding and betting elements there is a neat mini-game device in the ‘glory wheel’, where each player trades the crowd favour they’ve earned for cheese-wedges of victory-point-granting glory, aiming to complete a full circle and thereby end the game.
In truth, you can live without all the trimmings and still have a great, streamlined experience which only involves the combat and gladiator cards – indeed, designers Jason Maclean Jones and Rob Barrett helpfully suggest a quickplay variant which focuses purely on this.
There are niggles: the cardboard counter components aren’t of the best quality (quite a few of ours ripped as they were being punched out) and resetting between events is a bit fiddly, as you have to return all the discarded combat cards to their three decks, while also separating the gladiator-specific cards into their own piles, making mix-ups hard to avoid. But that doesn’t mean Gladiatores shouldn’t raise its bloody gladius in triumph. Thumbs up.
PLAY IT? MUST- PLAY
Designer: Jason Maclean Jones, Rob Barrett
Artist: Brolken, Ania Kryczkowska, Laureline Morgan-Davies
This review originally appeared in the July 2019 issue of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.