An Untimely Decapitation

Taking a break from our usual striving-but-not-quite-reaching-humorous alt-texts, today I'd rather discuss ratings. And in particular, why it's disappointing that so many of Carthage's ratings appear fake.

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.

On BGG, Carthage is currently sporting an admirable 8.4. That's great, especially for an independent Kickstarter game. And it's fantastic news for Luke Seinen and SAS Creative, as it's their first designed and published game. But those numbers start to look pretty wonky once you dig into them.

Demigods of the Arena.

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.

Of thirteen 10-point reviews, eleven are from users who have never rated anything else, most were created within the same week in 2017, and many never again logged into BGG. The same goes for the 9-point ratings, though to a significantly lesser degree. The 8- and 7-point comments, on the other hand, seem universally genuine.

Powerful moves can make all the difference.

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.

I understand why an independent designer/publisher — or even a fan, since I don't know who's responsible — might resort to this. It's hard to catch a break in this saturated industry, especially when BGG won't even award a rating until either (a) you get 30 ratings, or (b) you've been in the database for a year. And if you don't garner enough ratings, around thirty "dummy" numbers are assigned to pull your game toward the center of the ratings scale. It's hard to stand out, is what I'm saying, especially since so many people adhere to those numbers with cult-like fervor. What's an indie designer to do?

Fallen contenders may return as beasts to harass their killers.

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.

Is honesty too much to ask from someone in a tight spot, desperate to make a splash in this tidal ocean of ours? Maybe, maybe not. But the fact stands that I'm always deeply disappointed when I see something like this. Carthage is a respectable game, neither spectacular nor awful. It's enjoyable in brisk squirts. But shenanigans like this ensure that I'll always view Seinen, SAS Creative, and even their products with some degree of suspicion. Are their ratings real? Are their reviews? Their Kickstarter testimonials? Someone — whether Seinen, a marketing director, buddy, fan, conglomerate of testers, whoever — has sown enough doubt through this stunt that it will be difficult to regard this little company as forthright in the future.

Another one bites the sand.

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.)

Posted on July 30, 2018, in Board Game and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. Thanks for playing the crap Mr. Space-Biff.

  2. Sounds like I’ll just stick with Arctic Scavengers when I’m in the mood for a deck-building game.

    • It’s just such an abundant genre that I don’t know why anybody would settle for less than excellent. Want a pure deck-builder? Go with Arctic Scavengers, Core Worlds, Valley of the Kings, or the forthcoming SPQF. A hybrid design? Try A Study in Emerald, Tyrants of the Underdark, or Hands in the Sea. This isn’t a terrible game. It’s just a mediocre one in a sea of glamour.

      • Fair enough. Thanks for the “honest” and trustworthy reviews. I rate your work as 10/10 stars… with all my sock puppet accounts.

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