Every now and then I play a game whose mechanisms and systems feel so obviously natural that I begin to wonder why we haven’t seen them before. Carthage is one of those games. It’s been 10 years since Dominion introduced the world to the concept of “deckbuilding”, a gaming system that sees players begin the game with small identical decks and add cards to them through play. It’s a mechanism that’s been used countless times since then, yet it’s frustratingly rare that a game breaks from the standard mold and uses the mechanism to do something besides gain points.
Carthage is not a deckbuilding game. It’s an arena combat game that uses deckbuilding to fuel your fighters as they cinematically battle there way across a bloody Roman arena.
All deckbuilders share a similar engine. Players begin in an identical or nearly identical state and work to grow their power by crafting their decks. In Carthage players begin as gladiators newly pushed into an arena filled with all manners of obstacles, like spiked pillars or hungry crocodiles. The goal is simple: eliminate your opponents. The tactics are much trickier. You can’t just run up to people and begin swinging your club. All actions are driven by your deck, one you’ll improve throughout the game by building momentum and getting the crowd on your side.
The entirety of combat in Carthage boils down to 4 very simple symbols: attack, move, armor, and glory. If a card superimposes the number 4 over the armor symbol, you gain 4 armor. As your armor is your health points, this is pretty important. The other symbols work the same way with the catch that typically attacking requires you to be adjacent to your opponents. Ensuring that you have enough movement to close with your opponents – and run away when needed – is critical to strategy, which is where Glory comes in.
Glory is the core economic currency of Carthage and it represents both the crowd imploring you to victory and your own adrenaline-fueled moxie. Early in the game you’ll gain glory in simple ways, by waving at the crowd or sidestepping attacks. This glory is then spent to purchase more powerful combat cards or to activate one of 4 standard abilities printed right on the board. These abilities allow you to do things like claim the 1st player token or lobby Caesar and control the “Theater Cards”, which impose environmental effects to each round. It’s not so much that players learn new attacks while they play. It feels more as if early rounds are fighters making careful attacks as they test their opponents before gaining the confidence to unleash devastating moves.
It’s the combat cards that really make Carthage special, as cards combine symbols to evoke moments from every gladiator movie you’ve ever seen. Every card is built from the same 4 symbols, but rarely do they add new rules. This helps keep a game streamlined. Players can dart around the arena playing Armor symbols to re-equip their characters with armor cast off by defeated combatants. Cards that deal massive damage to an opponent but deduct from your own HP pool conjure images of gladiators opening themselves to counter-attacks to grievously wound their opponents. When there is text printed on the cards, it’s usually in service of something worthwhile. Of particular note is the Javelin card: it offers you ranged combat however you have to hand your opponent the card for them to add to their own deck. Does it get much cooler than pulling a weapon out of your leg only to throw it back at the person who attacked you? Nah.
These moments are all accomplished without ever bogging down the game. Rather than play through their entire hand at once, players each play 1 card at a time. Combat is highly reactive; someone moves in next to you and you dance away. Saving your attack cards for late in the round can allow you to unleash a barrage on a player who gets caught flatfooted as they’ve already spent their movement. Early in a game tension comes from knowing everyone has similar decks and trying to predict what cards they’re holding back. Being limited by the cards in hand also prevents a game from devolving into two miniatures standing next to each other exchanging blows, a flaw that often appears in arena combat games. Turns are quick and simple to execute, and alliances fracture and reform as you move around the arena.
There are a few modular expansions included, which can be used to add variety without too much rules overhead. If you prefer fighters with more personality you can play with the asymmetric fighter abilities. These 3 cards offer unique combat options, allowing you to play with a more mobile fighter or one that fights dirty (at the cost of glory). Others provide new combat cards, additional actions to spend glory on, and more. They’re all seamless additions, though none stand out as particularly exceptional with one exception: the Wild Beasts.
See, Carthage is a game about killing your opponents in combat and accordingly it does not shy away from player elimination. At low player counts this isn’t much of a problem, but when playing with 4 or 5 players it’s not uncommon to see yourself eliminated early. This is where Wild Beasts comes in. Rather than have to sit out and watch, eliminated players can immediately respawn in the arena as one of the creatures from Caesar’s menagerie. You can’t win, but you can certainly continue to impact the game and get revenge. Animals like the charging Rhino can dish out punishing damage after moving in straight lines, but my favorite is the Peacock. This bird can’t actually attack anyone, it simply walks near fighters granting them armor and glory. I love enacting revenge in the form of helping everyone except the fighter who killed me.
Carthage combines two different types of games and in doing so elevates both genres. By using deckbuilding as a means to an end – bloody combat – it gives an exciting purpose to the cyclical churn of adding and removing cards to your deck. By tying actions to cards, it forces players to move around the arena, leverage arena effects, and adapt their strategy. And by virtue of it being easy to teach and play in a scant 45 minutes, it ensures that it will keep coming off my shelf over and over.
Looking for great game options?
- Check out Warhammer Underworlds: Shadespire, one of our favorite games of last year!
- Read about our 10 favorite games of the year so far!
- Deckbuild cooperatively in Aeon’s End!
Image Credits: Raf Cordero