Despite my 2005 Good Gift Game Guide, my post naming the 2005 G4 runner-ups, and my list of my favorite games of last year, I somehow failed to mention Colossal Arena. This was a rather grievous oversight, as Arena was my game group’s favorite of last year. (At least until I taught them Tichu …)
First, a word of reassurance. Colossal Arena bills itself as “the game of titanic battles,” and the art on both the box and the cards would have you believe that the game is one of fantasy melee, a raucous brawl complete with unicorns and trolls, mages and demons. Yes, that is the ostensible theme. But you won’t have to roll up a character or dust off your 30-sided die to play — Colossal Arena is, despite the RPG trappings, a traditional card & gambling game, albeit an exceptionally clever one.
Eight Monster cards are placed into a row before play begins. The main deck consists of 11 cards for each Monster (ranked 0 though 10) and 11 wild cards (called “Spectators,” also of values 0-10). On a turn, a player may place a bet on one of the Monsters and must play a card. Cards are placed below the corresponding Monster, and the value of the card dictates the Monster’s current strength. Spectator cards may be played onto any Monster. Players may put cards on top of cards already in play — a Titan 2 could be placed onto a Titan 8, for instance, thereby lowering that Monster’s strength by 6. This continues until every Monster has at least one card associated with it, at which point the weakest Monster dies and all bets placed on it are lost.
After the death of a Monster, a new round begins with a new row of cards. The game ends after five rounds and five causalities, leaving three Monsters alive. Bets on the survivors pay off, and the player with the most points wins.
There are plenty of twists to liven up play: secret bets, Monster powers, and a risk/reward system in which bets placed in the early round (when they are the most perilous) pay-out higher than those placed near the end of the game. But the heart of the game is the playing of Monster cards during a round, and the tension that builds as a round progresses is delicious. If you hold a low card for a Monster that your opponents have bet on, playing it late in a round can cripple that creature and ensure its ouster. The other players will be trying to hamstring your favorites, of course, so you must play strategically to avoid giving them the opportunity to do so.
Colossal Arena is a remake of the out-of-print Grand National Derby, which simulated horse racing. I wish Arena’s theme was as prosaic, as the violent and fantastic artwork masks a game that is perfectly suited for casual card players and families. Indeed, nearly everyone I have taught the game to has wanted to play it again and again. It’s also especially good (best, even) with three-players, which is something of a rarity in strategic card games.