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[Review] Arena Maximus

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Joined: 03/23/2011

Chariot racing seems to be a popular theme in gaming, but only Fantasy Flight Games have mixed it with fantasy (what a shock!). Arena Maximus (Fantasy Flight Games, 2004 - Kevin Wilson) is a chariot racing game set in a fantasy world where the goal is not only to win but to stay alive!

After initially playing the game, I had mixed feelings about it. The game seemed a little slow, and I thought that the chariots were unbalanced. But then the chariot that I least expected to win, won the game; and I started to wonder. The teenagers who I introduced the game to raved about it and pleaded to play it again. After the second game, I began to slowly see why they enjoyed it; but I still didn’t feel that it was as smooth as a better chariot racing game like Ave Caesar. It’s a fun, thematic game - something Kevin Wilson is tremendous at, but I think that it’s geared to the junior crowd rather than older folk.

Each player takes a chariot tile, showing a picture of their “chariot” and three statistics: the beast score (acceleration), the driver score (handling), and the chariot score (hit points). The tile has two sides, and the side with an unbroken wheel is placed face up in front of them. A matching smaller chariot tile is used by each player to represent their chariot on the actual track. The track is actually composed of fourteen straight track tiles and eighteen curved track tiles. One tile, the start tile, is turned face up along with the immediate three tiles following; but the remainder are turned face down, making for a slightly unknown track. Each “chariot” is placed next to the track, with the first position at each tile being held by the chariot tile that is closer to the inside. A deck of over eighty cards is shuffled, with seven cards dealt to each player. Cards are one of three types: whips, reins, and magic cards (which act as “wild” cards). Cards also have one of five different icons on them - showing a “skill”. A pile of damage tokens is placed near the board, and the game is ready to begin; with one player chosen to go first.

On a player’s turn, the first thing they do is to set their speed. Player can add or subtract whip cards from their “speed pool” - a set of whip cards in front of them, denoting the current speed of the chariot. The maximum amount of cards added or subtracted is equal to the beast score of the chariot. All cards in this speed pool count as part of a player’s hand; therefore the faster a player goes, the less maneuverability they have. Any cards subtracted from the speed pool are discarded, and either way, play continues. The player then has a choice on whether to discard any cards from their hand (up to the number of their Driving Score). After discarding, the player draws back up to seven cards, remembering to include the cards in their speed pool.

The player then must move their chariot forward a number of spaces equal to their speed. Tiles are revealed as chariots move, so that three tiles in front of the leading chariot are always known. When moving, the chariot must pause in each tile and resolve any actions that might occur there.
- If other chariots are in the tile, the moving player may attempt to ram them. To do this, the ramming player must discard one or more sets of tiles (one whip + one rein card). Total maximum number of sets that can be discarded is equal to the player’s driving score. Each set discarded does two damage to the rammed chariot, unless canceled by a set of cards from the player being rammed.
- If other chariots are in the tile, they may choose to attempt to block the moving chariot. This is done by the blocking chariot discarding one or more rein cards from their hands (up to the number of their Driving Score). The moving chariot can cancel a block by discarding an equal number of rein cards.
- Some tiles have different effects upon the moving chariot, such as jumps (which require the chariot to be moving a certain speed, or take damage), rocks (which have a number that requires a player to discard that many reign cards or take damage), hazards (which show one or more skill icons, requiring players to discard cards with those icons, or take damage), and recovery stables (which heal a player’s health completely, but also discard all cards, including those in the speed pool.)
- The moving player can attack other chariots in the same space, discarding whip cards up to the amount of their Driving Score. These cards can be canceled by whip cards from the attacked chariot. Attacked chariots have the option to counter-attack, but only if attacked.
When a chariot finishes its move, the next chariot goes. Players move in order each round, from the chariot in last place to the front runner.

Whenever a player’s chariot takes damage (counters are placed on the chariot tile in front of them, to denote damage) equal to or exceeding their chariot score, their chariot crashes. The chariot tile in front of the player is flipped over to the broken wheel side, with all damage counters removed. The crashed chariot is removed from the track for one round, and the player loses all cards. The second time a chariot crashes; it is removed from the game.

There is a set of optional rules that allows magic spells to be cast by players. A magic spell is cast by a player using one magic card + one card with a specific skill icon on it. There are five different spells, one for each skill icon, that allow players to switch tiles, temporarily increase their speed, heal damage, teleport a tile, or shoot a fireball at another chariot. Players can cancel an opponent’s spell by discarding two magic cards.

The first player to cross the finish line is the winner, unless more than one player crosses during the same round; in which case, the chariot that moves the farthest is the winner. A player can also win if all other players are eliminated. Most races are one lap; but players can agree to race for more than one, if they wish.

Some comments on the game...

1.) Components: Maybe it’s just me, but the tiles for Fantasy Flight Games seem to be getting a little easier to punch out. The artwork is extremely fantasy orientated, which definitely pleases the younger crowd (one chariot is a dwarf steam engine, while another is an undead chariot pulled by a skeletal horse.). The artwork, both on the box, track, cards, and chariots, certainly helped the theme quite a bit. The tokens themselves were nice, although I would have liked a more sturdy board, especially one that you put the chariots ON, not next to. Still, the game is more portable this way and fits into that same plastic insert that Fantasy Flight puts into all of their Silver Line games. I bagged everything up and really found is fairly necessary, as there are a lot of pieces with the game. The damage tokens came in single and triple denominations and fit well on the chariot tokens - something that helped players keep a good visual idea of how damaged the chariots were.

2.) Rules: It seems like the rules for each Silver Line game get a little longer than the last. These were typed on four pages in very small font, but still managed to include pictures and examples. The game is easy to teach, but some things aren’t very intuitive, such as the speed pool, or hand management. In the first game, I excluded the optional magic spell rules; and even after using them, I think the game is better without them. They add a deal of chaos to a game and cause players to discard their cards at an extremely high rate. Still, once the game started running, players caught on quickly as to how they should maneuver.

3.) Movement: I thought that the movement was a bit clunky. It’s hard for a game to feel like a racing game when you have to stop on every tile and make checks (reminds me of some war games). There’s no feel for speed, and it almost feels like a demolition derby. After a while, when players got over the need to ram every chariot in their way and block every person who happened upon their tile, the race seemed to speed up a bit; but it still seemed (to me) to be an exhausting trip around the track, and I was quite glad to play only one lap in each race.

4.) Attacking, etc.: That being said, I did enjoy the ramming, blocking, and attacking mechanics; the balance between using the whip and rein cards is quite good, and player’s learn quite fast that if they attack other’s too much, then they are extremely vulnerable to getting their butts kicked. I did notice a little “king making” could occur in the game, with players deciding who would win. The rules actually address this, stating that a player in a king making position cannot affect any other chariots in any way. This sounds simple, but one must remember that king making can occur a long time before the end of the game, before it’s too obvious.

5.) Balance: I’m sorry, I still don’t see how one hit point = one point of Driving skill. The driving skill affects the game much, much more than one more hit point. I saw the dwarven chariot win a game, but it was more from the stupidity of the other drivers, and the skillful maneuvering of the player, rather than the statistics. Just like Wreckage, I really don’t think the three statistics are balanced; yet the game treats them as if they are.

6.) Fun Factor and Crashes: I did enjoy the game, though, if only for the thematic values: where everyone was ramming each other, and players prayed that they drew the cards that allowed them to take a hazardous corner at top speed. While a crash was not the most pleasant thing to happen to a player, at least the game gave one a “second chance”, clearing the damage tokens and cards. Still, a lot of carnage ensues on the track, and I fear that with a lot of groups, only one chariot will finish each race.

I recommend the game but only for the teenage crowd, because of the fun fantasy theme woven into the game. My youth group loved it, for the brawls, the spectacular crashes, the deadly traps, etc. It almost became like a dungeon crawl on wheels. But for the discerning gamer, there are much better chariot games out there, or racing games in general; and if one seeks a demolition derby style game, then Wreckage is a better choice. I don’t think that Arena Maximus is a bad game; I just think that it has a very specific age group. For that reason, I’m glad to own it; because of my contact with youth. Only if you have the same contact should you snag a copy.

Tom Vasel
“Real men play board games.”

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