Colossal Arena simulates a gladiatorial free-for-all between eight different mythological creatures. It's mechanically simple, but has enough strategic depth to keep experienced players engaged. Colossal Arena's straightforward implementation of hand management and betting as its primary gameplay mechanics belie its depth, as your chances of emerging victorious will depend just as much on making deals to keep your creatures alive and playing you opponents against each other. Games of Colossal Arena tend to start slowly, with little action, and gradually ramp up in intensity as the game progresses towards the often nail-biting final round that determines the winner.
Colossal Arena comes with 12 Creature cards, a randomly selected eight of which will be used in a game. The deck itself is comprised of 11 Combat cards for each creature, ranging in strength from zero to ten. There are also 11 Spectator cards, which represent overly-enthusiastic fans joining the fray. While Combat cards may only be placed on the corresponding Creature, Spectator cards may be played on any Creature. The deck also includes three Referee cards (two Prefects and one Magister) that have immediate special effects when played. Finally, each player has five betting tokens to use throughout the game.
Each game of Colossal Arena consists of 5 rounds of deadly gladiatorial combat, with one of the Creatures meeting its demise at the end of each round. Players take turns playing Combat and Spectator cards in the current row, representing the Creature's strength for that round of combat. Cards can be placed on top of other cards, which means that highly contested creatures may have their strength fluctuate wildly over the course of the round. Rather than being tied to a set number of player turns, rounds only end once each creature has at least one Combat (or Spectator) card placed on it for the current round and there is a clear loser (lowest strength - no ties). Once that happens the weakest creature is removed from the game (along with any betting tokens on it) and the next round begins. Play continues until only three creatures remain, at which point whomever has the most points wins.
Despite what its theme would suggest, Colossal Arena is not a combat-oriented game. Rather than taking the role of these creatures in the arena, players instead play the role of "backers," bidding on which creatures they feel are most likely to survive.
Each player has only five bidding tokens, which means that they'll have to use them wisely. Bets placed in early rounds are worth more points but are less likely to pay off as only three of the eight combatants will survive until the end. Additionally, until the end of the first round of combat, players can also make a single Secret bet, which is worth five points should the creature survive to the end.
As the rounds progress tenuous alliances will begin to emerge based on who has bets on each creature. If you bet on the Ettin in the first round, and another player bets on it in the second round, you both have vested interest in working towards keeping the Ettin alive. You may even be aided by a third player who has placed his Secret bet on the Ettin (although he would do well to not look like he's trying to help, lest he tip his hand).
Moments like these are where Colossal Arena truly shines. Who your allies are will change based on which creature you're hoping to eliminate, as it's unlikely that someone who has bets on two of your creatures is going to help you eliminate a different creature they've bet on. If you aren't proactive when it comes to making deals with other players, expect to see your creatures die quickly. And if your bets are all on one creature, you can expect that creature to become a tempting target for the other players (unless other players happen to have secret bets on it, of course).
[caption id="attachment_40555" align="aligncenter" width="618"] The Ettin and Wyrm are tied for lowest strength, so this round will continue until a lower value is played on any creature, or a higher card is played on the Ettin or Wyrm.[/caption]
Secret bets themselves are one of the best features of Colossal Arena. Assuming each player makes a Secret bet (most experienced players do), it makes it impossible to know for certain exactly how many points each player has. Without Secret bets, it would make king-making easy in the final round of the game as each possible outcome could be perfectly calculated. The uncertainty of not knowing for sure each player's point standing adds a necessary level of depth to Colossal Arena.
One of the three Referee cards, the Magister, can force players to reveal their Secret bets. When you play the Magister, you simply pick a creature and all players who have Secret bets on that creature must reveal their bets. A well-played Magister card can have a huge effect on the game, revealing new leaders, changing loyalties, and more.
Each creature in Colossal Arena also has a special ability, accessible to whomever is the current "backer" of said creature. The backer is the player with the most visible points on that creature (Secret bets don't count). This allows the backer to utilize that creature's unique ability each time they play a Combat card on the creature. Backer status can change throughout the course of the game, usually when someone makes both a second and third round bet on a creature, allowing them to take the backer status from whomever has a first round bet on the creature. Players can also choose to reveal their Secret bet at the start of their turn, which will almost certainly allow them to become the backer of that creature. This is rarely done, but I've seen several games end by a player revealing their Secret bet and immediately using its ability as a game-winning move.
Creature powers are absolutely not balanced, ranging from the largely useless "Foresight" ability of the Magus, to the staggeringly powerful "Teleportation" of the Unicorn. Some abilities are more effective early game, whereas some have no effect at all until after the first round of combat but can be game-winning moves in the final round. This natural imbalance is brilliant in practice, as experienced players will prioritize eliminating powerful creatures they don't control. If your opening hand contains several high strength cards for the Troll, it'd be easy to use the Troll's "Regeneration" ability to recycle those cards all game to keep him alive until the end, but doing so may unite the other players to eliminate your Troll.
Not only are players reliant on having the appropriate Combat cards (not Spectator cards) if they wish to use a creature's power, but Spectator cards will block the ability of that creature until after being covered by a Combat card. This allows players to use Spectators cards not just as wild cards, but also as a means to keep powerful abilities in check. Did the Unicorn manage to last until the final round? A single Spectator card placed on the Unicorn will make the Unicorn's backer burn two cards if he intends to use its ability. With so many limitations on using abilities, it's more important to know when to use abilities for the biggest impact, rather than using abilities just because you can.
Colossal Arena is not for everyone, of course. It's possible to find yourself card-locked in the final round, where your only possibly play is one that will either hurt yourself or aid an opponent. King-making is somewhat possible as well, as the outcome may be decided by a player who is clearly not going to win. As mentioned above though, Secret bets will make it difficult to know who will win for certain. For a card game, Colossal Arena require a lot of space to play, so if you're looking for something portable, this isn't the game for you.
Note about previous versions: Colossal Arena was originally published as Titan: The Arena by Avalon Hill in 1998. Colossal Arena changed the name of several creatures and added four new ones: the Seraphim, Daemon, Gorgon, and Colossus. There is one rule change between the versions as well. Colossal Arena ends immediately when the deck runs out, whereas Titan: The Arena had rules in place to allow the game to continue. I prefer to play with the original rules, which are included as an optional variant in the official Colossal Arena FAQ.
Note about player count: I prefer playing Colossal Arena with five players. Since the number of creatures in the game does not vary with player count, having five players leads to more conflict and interaction between players. However, five player games are also more likely to deplete the deck, and card-lock and king-making will be more prevalent. Experienced players can plan for these to mitigate them somewhat, but not entirely.
The bottom line: Although Colossal Arena is a lightweight game, it has enough meaningful decisions to feel fresh even after numerous plays. Since player interaction is such an integral part of Colossal Arena, your enjoyment of Colossal Arena will ultimately be tied to the types of players you play with.
Get this game if:
You want a game with simple mechanics but still requires strategy.
You enjoy meaningful player interaction.
Avoid this game if:
You hate getting card-locked.
You hate king-making.
You will get angry when deals are made against you.
Rules for Colossal Arena can be found here.
Colossal Arena can be purchased via Amazon here.
The copy of Colossal Arena used for this review was purchased by the author several years ago.