Friday, July 28, 2017

Gods Forsaken

Arena: For the Gods! is a board game that I'm not sure was played by my play group in the manner that the designer intended it. It's not that we didn't follow the rules (as far as I know), but the tone of our experience didn't seem to match what was laid out in and on the box.

The game sets up a small hex tile arena with a few obstacles. Players each receive 30 health cubes. Before actual battling begins, players go through four rounds of bidding to draft ability cards that will give them powers during the coming duel. Each each bidding round, players simultaneously choose an amount of their health to give up in order to pick first from a face up array of powers; everybody gets one power each round, but the low bidders have to settle for what's left after others pick.

When the duel actually begins, players roll seven dice each turn and apply the symbols on them to either take basic actions or activate the powers they picked up. It's all variations on movement, close range attacks, long range attacks, and protection. Play continues until one player loses all their health; at that point, the person with the most health remaining is the winner. (Health is kept secret, though as this is something you could theoretically track with perfect accuracy, it's one of those situations where some play groups -- not ours -- would argue to keep it visible to everyone.)

The game is meant to be speedy. The box claims a 30 minute run time. Our group took more than twice that to complete it. Some of that was playing for the first time, and allowing for people to get up and freshen drinks and such. But much of it was many of us pouring a lot more strategic thought into a dice-driven combat system than it seemed able to take.

Then there was the constant bargaining. All of us (including myself) were wheeling and dealing with each other like this was a game of Diplomacy. "Hit him! He's got more health than the rest of us." "What are you talking about, no one is picking on me? I just got nailed for 4 points last round!" Probably the game's designer was expecting some of this, but in our group this was almost as big a piece of the experience as the "actual" gameplay.

In the end, the game (for us) sat at a weird intersection of social Darwinism, blind luck, and opportunity. It seemed impossible for you to take steps to position yourself for a win. More to the point, it seemed impossible for you to do anything to stop yourself from being eliminated, should all the other players decide to gang up on you. I was not the victim of that myself, but three players alternately experienced that during the game; they all finished well below the final scores of the other three. And yes, we played with six players. Though the box says this is the maximum, it's really too many. So much can happen to you between your turns that it's just one more source of hopelessness in the chaotic brew.

There's some cleverness in what all those power cards you bid on can do, and fun design in the way they're balanced to the different symbols you can roll on the dice. (They're all six-sided dice, but there are only four different symbols.) There's some nice art in the game too -- although they just straight up copied Warcraft's font for the card titles. There's a bit of a germ of something to this game.

Still, it sure doesn't seem to me like a game for us. Not for so many players at once. Not to be taken so seriously. I give Arena: For the Gods! a C+.

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