An Untimely Decapitation
Ah, the stench of the arena. The sharp bite of steel, the tang of blood, the musk of fur and man-sweat barely concealed by a splash of olive oil. Breathe it in. Breathe it, I said. Because this is serious business, this gladiator stuff. Gladiat-ing has never been for the meek.
Carthage isn’t the first game to sashay into the arena, not by a long shot. But it just might be the first arena-smasher that’s actually a deck-building game. So: thumbs up or down? Let’s find out together.
Carthage catches the eye. Only not necessarily in the usual way. Whether it’s the shadowy pen-scratch artwork that looks like it came from the back of some high school kid’s notebook, the map with its bold lines and less-bold distinction between regular pillars and pillars with spikes on them, or the brittle-as-scorched-bones miniatures, nearly everything about Carthage screams “Kickstarter.”
Not that this should trigger any klaxons. If a rough-hewn aesthetic worked for Cave Evil, why not for a game about Very Serious Men (and Very Serious Women, too) stabbing one another to death with swords and tridents and other sharpened implements? If it’s going for silliness via overkill, à la Gorechosen rather than Spartacus, then why should there be such thing as smiles, or clarity, or any color other than arterial?
Then a gladiator strides into the ring, makes straight for his opponents, and instead of wading into the melee waves at the crowd, performs some mime-dodges and mime-stabs against nobody in particular, and salutes as he backpedals away from danger, all because his goal is to amass enough favor-money to buy a sick new move.
Ah. So it’s that sort of silliness, then.
At its core, Carthage is totally comfortable with the fact that a gladiator who plays the coward rather than the warrior — who avoids the middle ground, especially any middle ground within range of spiked pillars or insta-attack bonus spaces — is most likely to emerge as the survivor from this Keystone Cops parody of an arena fight. Remember in Gladiator when Russell Crowe ran circles around Joaquin Phoenix, fist-pumping and bellowing “Woo!” until he unlocked a dope-ass golden breastplate?
Me neither. But if I’m being honest, it probably would have made for a better movie. It might have even surrendered its Most Overwrought Picture statue.
But hey, that’s the greatest surprise about Carthage. Despite its inherent sillinesses plural, it manages to push its goofiness down deep until it strikes bedrock, at which point it forcibly decompresses into laughter. Then everything about it, from the enforced sternness of its cast to the way gladiators somehow learn new moves mid-battle because they waved at the crowd, becomes one more facet of its charm.
Like those sexy gladiator moves, for instance. Everyone draws a hand of these babies, then loops around the table until they’re gone. Then the action freezes as everybody cashes in whatever fame they gleaned from their fashion-show posing in order to buy better moves, toss out the cruft, or maybe go first in the coming round. Out with the ultra-suave Stumble maneuver, in with the ability to throw axes, overexert yourself for maximum damage, or humiliate your opponent by, I dunno, peeing on him while he’s down. I’m not sure. The artwork is often too grimy to tell what beat the cards are hoping to convey.
There’s more to it than just the cards. I mentioned auto-attack spaces in the arena, which are joined by tiles that bestow additional moves, pillars for shoving enemies like nerds into lockers, or maybe some additional fame because you’ve planted your feet atop the, uh, special spot. The point is, positioning matters, even if only because dangerous or valuable spots are telegraphed with the board’s only splashes of color. Yellow good, red bad, that sort of thing.
Each round sees the crowd joining in as well, though this serves as a reminder that the Ancient Romans didn’t usually care what the underclasses had to say. It’s possible for the folks in the stands to pelt everyone down below with pebbles, demand that you push into the arena’s inner circle lest you lose some life, or even bestow their favor on those who deal damage over the next minute. Unfortunately, their input stings with the force of a gadfly. You’re often safer facing the crowd’s disdain than risking your hide in the middle, and that sense of apathy extends to all but a few exceptions in the theater deck. It’s less silly and less satisfying than the ability to return as a beast once you’ve been killed. That, on the other hand, is pure gold. Stampeding in a straight line as a rhino, dispensing extra armor as a chimp, or pestering stragglers as a hyena — these are the moments that make Carthage almost worthwhile. More’s the pity that they’re over in a shuddering heartbeat.
In fact, the biggest problem with Carthage is that its best moments, the ones that elicit laughs or roars, are as fleeting as the warmth of an opponent’s blood splashing across your face. Then the blood goes cold and you’re sticky and stained red and worried about hepatitis and you’ve got to clean your armor again. Picking up a new move while pruning away something weak carries all the threat of a battle axe, but it’s unlikely you’ll use it more than once or twice before the match ends. Similarly, you’ll probably only gain three or four new tricks in total, ignoring those that won’t fully cycle through your deck. The same goes for playing as a beast. As soon as you’re bashed over the head, beastified, and take a step into the arena, the fight very well might be on its last legs anyway. Carthage is one of those rare games that’s too fast for its own good, wrapping up right as things start to become interesting. You probably won’t even have enough time to correctly announce that today’s fight is Bustuarius contra Laquearius.
As an experiment in whether deck-building could be slotted into an arena combat game, Carthage is a success. In nearly every other sense, it steps a hair too short and stumbles into an untimely decapitation. Its best moments are cut short, its inherent absurdity is present but never fully embraced, and players are incentivized to behave like the direct opposite of gladiators, peacocking and cowering rather than diving into the fray. Carthage may be fun for a match or two, but the best arenas of Rome this is not.
(If what I’m doing at Space-Biff! is valuable to you in some way, please consider dropping by my Patreon campaign. If I reach 1,000 backers, I solemnly pledge to host an actual gladiatorial match between myself and a famous game designer.)