Saturday, February 24, 2018

Dave Reviews: Roman Entertainment Without Obvious Blood


The Roman, arbiters of basically everything in the ancient world, except the Greeks but they don't really count here because they fought each other too much and didn't take over most of the known world. The Romans did shows! You do them too, in this game!

Colosseum is a game about owning Roman arenas, various performing assets, and putting on shows with those assets in your arena. Your ultimate goal, as any good theater owner will understand and which any good theater major will deny as being important, is to play for the largest possible crowd. Every turn you invest in your operations, buy more assets in market auctions, and trade with other players as necessary to ensure the largest possible crowds for your productions. You earn money each turn equal to the number of spectators who see your show, but your score is only the largest number of spectators that have seen one of your shows over the game's five turns. Thus the person with the single largest crowd at any point during the game will be declared the winner.

Investing can take a few different routes, and you can choose one per turn. You can buy season tickets, which get handed out to the people and add five spectators to any performances; increase your arena's size, which allows you to put on more complex productions and also gives a better chance of nobility landing in your arena, bringing extra spectators with them; construct an Emperor's Loge, which allows you to roll two dice to move nobles instead of one (you can move one noble with both dice or two separate nobles with one die each); or purchase a new event program, which allows you to put on a bigger performance than the two with which you start the game.

Market lots consist of three assets randomly drawn from the asset bag. The starting player may initiate a bid for a minimum of eight gold on the lot of their choice; bidding continues until someone wins. If the bid initiator wins, the lot is refilled and the next player has the chance to initiate bidding. If someone else wins, the same player may initiate another bid. Once a player has won a bid during this round, they may not bid on anything else. This makes it relatively easy to pick up a lot for cheap, but getting one you particularly want can become expensive. IMPORTANT: there is a variant in the original version of the game (on which this review is based) where players who win a bid can start bidding again once someone else becomes the initiator. The new version (Emperor's Edition, box art pictured above) apparently uses the variant as the new core rule.

Productions have a list of assets required to pull off the full performance and receive maximum spectator points. Productions also have a list of alternative point values you can earn if you don't have the full array of necessary assets (though there is a limit to how much can be missing). The points are penalized in such a way as to create no strategic advantage in cutting corners on a performance; if you can get the requisite assets, it is in your interest to do so. More spectators equal more money, and more money ensures you can make another investment and splash the market on the next round. Previously finished productions offer a +5 bonus to spectators on the new production; you can redo old productions, but they don't offer the spectator bonus to themselves. At the end of a performance, you remove one asset used in that performance from the game. Finally, a podium worth three spectators in the future is given to the player in the lead, the player in last takes a 'donation' of their choice from the leader, and the next round commences.

The way the game starts looks like it can be problematic. In a game where almost everything is under your control (investment choices, market lots you bid on, productions you do), you begin with a random assortment of assets and two random event programs from a batch of starters. It's not that bad, in that the assets are limited in types available and the programs don't require much to go on. But a person can get particularly lucky, or particularly screwed, and while a good draw doesn't necessarily lead to a win, a bad draw can lead to less money coming in early, which can become the worst type of snowball. This is a relatively unusual problem, however, worth noting but otherwise not worth worrying about too much.

The core game is pretty fun. Shuffling around your assets, trying to swing net-positive trades, planning for future shows while deciding what assets you won't need and can be discarded this round, figuring out if you can get a star performer (holding three or more assets of particular types, +4 spectators for any performance using that asset type) and what that's worth, the general strategy of throwing all your money into a round because it'll get you more money out of the round and create the best kind of capitalist cycle... all of that is highly engaging. You look at your arena as a source of pride and commerce, not a mere game mechanic. That's what you want in a game.

However, there's one serious problem with the game design, and that's the imbalance in the investments. Season tickets are god mode compared to everything else. This creates two problems: one, if you realize this and your opponents don't, you can get the jump and buy four season tickets (the max). If you have four, you probably aren't losing unless someone else also has four. Nothing else creates an advantage as immediate or as rewarding, and it's not close.

An arena expansion gives you one extra square to catch a noble and lets you put on bigger performances. Because players choose what nobles to move, you have to roll the right number to get a noble into your arena, and someone else can move them right out, that only helps at the margins. Also, because only the biggest show matters, expanding your arena at the end of the game is enough to get the performance you need. Even if getting a double expansion for the biggest shows isn't possible because of all the season tickets you bought, the season ticket bonus can easily outweigh the larger spectator count for the bigger performance, and the smaller performance is easier to put on because it requires fewer assets.

The Emperor's Loge is theoretically nice because you can move multiple nobles, or whisk one very far in an effort to put them in your arena. However, in addition to other players still being able to move the nobles away from your show, they're not worth enough spectators to make it worth the effort. Senators bring three spectators, consuls five, and the emperor seven. If only the emperor brings more than a season ticket, and it's unlikely anyone will let him stay at your arena for long, why put money into this investment over a season ticket?

Likewise, buying new event programs let you not only get more spectators for the larger shows, but earn you five extra spectators for the previous shows. However, every program you can buy requires an arena expansion. If you try and do this early, you have to forgo a season ticket for the expansion and another one for the new program, all for the ability to balance out one of those missing season tickets (by not having to redo an old performance) and the need to pile up more assets for that bigger performance.

The unfortunate thing is that this is really just a numbers problem. Make the nobles worth more spectators. Make old shows worth more spectators. Make new programs worth more spectators. Any of these things could work to make season tickets an option with profit that's more stable with less top-end potential. Instead they're more stable and just as good at the high end. If you don't buy season tickets every chance you get until they're gone (there's a limited supply, making where you start in the player order enormously important), you're doing it wrong. That puts new players who want to experiment at a nearly insurmountable disadvantage, and if everyone playing already knows this, it forces the first three rounds into a rut that allows no creativity. The only part of the game that has any play after the investment phase is dealing with assets; how well your performance goes off is determined by what you do in those first two phases. Thus, about half the game is played by rote or played wrong, and that's a shitty way for any game to work.

As I said, the core game is fun. If you find a house rule to balance out the season tickets, or come up with one yourself, you could get a lot of play out of Colosseum. After all, even with this problem, it was popular enough for a new company to pick up its rights and put out a fresh Kickstarted version. As it stands, that one issue--one which was not addressed in the new addition, an oversight of the highest order--dramatically reduces what this game could be.

Obviously it's not a dealbreaker for a lot of people. I'm just not sure why.

Score: Thirteen gladiators getting play-stabbed out of eighteen.

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