In Ancient Rome, prisoners fought each other in the arena. Success meant survival through combat and earning the cheers of the crowd and maybe even the emperor. No, this isn’t a Russell Crowe revisit or the premise of the latest hot series (Rome and Spartacus have already gone there). Fight your own battles in a fun and surprisingly accessible game: Carthage.
What Is Carthage?
Carthage is a deck-building game designed by Luke Seinen, which retails for $49.99. A deck-builder tasks players with creating a deck of cards that allows them to take certain actions. In this case, players are gladiators participating in arena combat. You attack your opponents, defend yourself, and try to earn favor, which you can use to obtain new cards or take special actions. The game includes many gameplay variations, including single player and co-op modes.
It is listed as ages 13 and up, and the visuals feature lots of blood splashes, so don’t plan on trying this one with your preschooler any time soon. On the other hand, if you have a tween who likes deck builders, there’s nothing that would earn even a PG-13 rating in a movie.
Inside the Carthage game box, you will find:
- 5 gladiator miniatures
- 1 game board
- 5 player boards
- 50 starting deck cards
- 20 theater cards
- 25 wooden cubes
- 35 arena tokens
- 80 basic action deck cards
- 8 beast cards
- 16 modular rulesets
- 15 theater legend cards
- 15 equipment cards
To play the Essedari Maximo version (single player or co-op play), you will also need to download the free app.
The miniatures are beautifully detailed and match some of the illustrations on the player boards. Note that each player board is double-sided: one side has a male gladiator image and the other side has a female gladiator image. The miniatures are all male, though, which makes historical sense, given the fact that male gladiators far outnumbered female ones. The gladiators have unique costumes and gear, specific to their origins and skills.
The artwork looks like a cross between Gladiator and 300. The colors are mostly dark and there is plenty of blood spatter. However, if you look closely at the detailed illustrations, they do not show anything graphic. The app is no frills, but matches the visual design of the game.
How to Play Carthage
Deck builders can have quite the learning curve, but Carthage does it right. There is a full page in the instruction manual that walks through how to set up the game, and the instructions for all gameplay elements are clear and easy to follow. The game box lists gameplay as 30-60 minutes for the standard game, and that was true, even for the very first playthrough.
Preparing for Battle
The Starting Player is the person who most recently bled his or her own blood, an appropriate, if vaguely gruesome, touch. The Starting Player initiates actions in the round, but chooses last in the Favor Phase. After choosing a Starting Player, all players select a miniature. This miniature dictates which player board and starting deck each player will receive. The player board is used to track your two most crucial player stats: armor and favor. Armor is what keeps you alive—literally, when your armor reaches zero you are out of the game. You earn favor during each round of play, and you spend it to purchase new cards for your deck or to take special actions.
The arena is the gameboard, which is made up of hexagonal spaces. There is an inner arena, marked in red, which is where most of the action takes place. You can set up the arena in many different ways—the manual offers eight different scenarios to begin with—using the arena token pieces. Some tokens offer you the opportunity to earn bonuses, such as more armor, additional movements, or strikes against enemies. Others represent obstacles or hazards, such as pillars your character can be thrown up against or wild beasts that will attack you. After shuffling and placing the theater deck and action deck, it’s time to start the battle.
In the Arena
Each round of the game consists of three phases: Theater Phase, Action Phase, and Favor Phase.
In the Theater Phase, you make sure the board is prepared for use. Then you draw the top card from the Theater Deck and resolve any actions that card creates. Theater Cards may add new challenges by giving bonuses to some players or by creating unique rules that will last one round only.
Next, in the action phase, players play cards from their starting hand. Each player has a hand of five cards. Players play one card at a time, resolving that card’s actions immediately. Your cards may allow you to move around the arena, to attack and damage another player, to repair your own armor, to earn favor from the crowd, or to “knockback” an opponent (pushing them farther away from you on the board). There are some ranged attacks, but most will require you to get close to your opponents. This becomes part of the strategy, as many cards will allow you to move or to attack, but not both.
As you move around the board, you will land on the arena tokens you previously set up. If you land on a token, you activate it and claim any bonus from it. Then the token is turned over and cannot be activated again during this round. During the next Theater Phase, all previously activated tokens are reset.
Finally, the round concludes with the Favor Phase. Players use their accumulated favor to buy new cards or to take specific actions. Favor returns to zero at the end of each round, so it’s in your best interest to spend as much of it as possible. In addition to purchasing cards, you can use favor to make yourself the Starting Player, to change the cards others can purchase, to remove a card from play entirely, or to choose which Theater card will be played in the next round.
This completes a round and the process begins again. There is no limit to the number of rounds played: you play until only one gladiator remains standing. Gameplay moves quickly, though, so even games of multiple rounds won’t take too long.
Many Ways to Play
The game’s greatest strength may be the wide variety of gameplay options, including:
- Competitive play for 2-5 players
- Arena Beast mode (for three or more players)
- 2 vs 2 and 2 vs 3
- 2 vs 2 Chained Match
- Modular ruleset play
- Mini Expansions (two included in box)
- Solo Essedari Maximo (for one player)
- Co-op Essedari Maximo (for 2-5 players)
Arena Beast mode offers a way for players to stay involved in larger group games even after their armor is depleted. If a player has been killed, that player can choose to come back into the game as an arena beast. Arena beasts cannot win the game, but can play “spoiler” and affect the rest of the players.
In 2 vs 2 or 2 vs 3 mode, players work together in teams. The 2 vs 2 Chained Match is similar, except that players must behave as if they are fighting while chained together. This means players cannot have more than one hex space between them during the game.
Modular Rulesets and Mini Expansions
Modular rulesets offer other ways to adjust the game. Anyone can purchase them in-game, although the rulebook advises that players limit how many modular rulesets are active at the same time. Modular rulesets can change how you use your favor points, adjust your movement, or boost your armor. They can also turn the inner arena into Crocodile Island, which means you lose armor every time you step on a hex in the outer arena.
Equipment cards are one Mini Expansion included in the box with the game. Each gladiator has unique equipment, including twin blades, a weighted bola, and more. You can use your equipment as an action, discarding a card to “pay” for it. Once used, the equipment card is flipped over and cannot be used again until you “ready” it by paying with favor.
The Theater Legend Mini Expansion includes 15 new cards which add more strategy to the game. These can give you a special boost if you play them at the right time. For example, the First Blood card lets you do more damage if it is the first card played from your hand. The Showboat card will give you a hefty favor bonus if you play it while standing in the exact middle hex of the arena.
Facing the Essedari Maximo
The Essedari Maximo gameplay uses the app to pit you—either alone or working cooperatively with others—against the greatest Chariot Gladiator ever. You have eight rounds in which you must defeat the Essedari Maximo or die trying.
Launch the app and you are immediately given the opportunity to specify how many people will be facing the charioteer. The app adjusts the Essedari Maximo’s health based on how many people he is fighting, giving him the equivalent armor of all of you put together. So when three people take on the Essedari, he has 45 armor points.
The charioteer moves around the outer edge of the red arena. The app serves as his card deck, informing you of how far he moves and what damage he inflicts. He has one move, then each of your players move, and the process is repeated until each player has had five actions. As you might expect when you are on foot and your opponent is in a chariot, the odds are not in your favor. The longer the game goes on, the more powerful the Essedari becomes. You will need to work together and be strategic if you want all of your gladiators to live to see victory. A co-op game can run 90 minutes or longer, and it is much harder to win.
In Solo Mode, the Essedari has an armor of 15 (same as any other player), but his movements are much less predictable. He may dash through the center of the arena, and he may be more inclined to build up his armor before attacking. The Essedari can also trample you or catch you in a net, doing damage and/or preventing you from taking any movements on your next turn.
The Verdict: Maximus Replayabili-tus
Carthage is a creative and unexpected variation on the Roman theme. You could play Carthage every night for a couple of weeks and still not have a repetitive experience. Luke Seinen, the designer, truly has thought of every possibility in gameplay. You can play with different numbers of people, cooperatively or competitively. Add in arena beasts, equipment, modular rulesets, or Theater Legend cards for even more variety. Not to mention the fact that you can create a new arena every time you play by mixing up which arena tokens you place and where.
The Roman theme is a core element of the game, but this is not the game to inspire your kid to learn Latin or study classical history. The weapons and terminology appear to have been exhaustively researched, but the game assumes a certain basic level of knowledge on your part. There’s no explanation of who the gladiators were or why they were fighting. The rulebook begins with a brief, evocative paragraph describing how it would feel to begin a battle, and that is all. If you’ve ever seen a movie or TV show with gladiators, though, you’ll feel right at home.
You don’t need to be a scholar of ancient Rome or of deck building to enjoy this game. For a game with so many options, it is surprisingly easy to learn. The tagline on the box is “Easy to learn… Easy to die” and that is no exaggeration. An eight-year-old could learn the game easily enough, assuming you don’t mind the exposure to blood spatters and ancient weaponry. While other deck builders (I’m looking at you, Legendary) can be daunting for new board gamers, Carthage lets even an inexperienced player be a part of the action—and offers the arena beasts as a back-up plan if new players die quickly.
Carthage is one of those rare games that is quick to learn but not easy to master. It maximizes replayability and offers many challenges to players of all skill levels. These gladiators definitely deserve a place on your game shelf. Don’t miss your opportunity to play for glory and favor in Carthage.
Disclosure: GeekDad received a copy of this game for review purposes.
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