Reviewed by Herb Levy
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One of the great segments in movie history is the chariot racing scene from Ben Hur as teams of horses streak around and around the track against a background of cheering crowds. But soon the race became a struggle between two teams of horses: those commanded by the Roman leader Messala and those of Judah Ben Hur. The ensuing carnage that led to victory (with special effects done without the aid of computers) helped earn the film a (since tied but still unbroken) record of 11 Academy Awards! In an attempt to capture that same sort of racing danger and excitement, Sean Young has designed Chariots of Rome.
Each player receives a “stand up” of their chosen color to represent their chariot and horses as well as their own “Chariot Mat”. The mat acts as a “dashboard” allowing players to track their speed, the number of laps completed and most importantly, the three critical attributes of play: Rattled, Tactics and Endurance. Rattled represents the status of the charioteer’s balance, control and, for lack of a better term, “nerve” as the race unfolds. This value starts at 0. Should it rise to 6, the charioteer has lost his nerve – AND the race! Endurance represents the level of fatigue suffered by the team of horses that are put to the test throughout the race. Endurance starts at 12; should it drop to 0, again, the race is lost. Tactics is a little different.
Players start with a Tactics level equal to the number of players in the game (from 2 to 8) but in no case may it exceed a value of 8. Tactics represent the charioteer’s skill, focus and strategy acting as modifier in a variety of ways (as we shall see) critical in maneuvers such as cornering and attacking your opponents!
Everyone has an Initiative card in their color and all of these are shuffled with them drawn one by one. When a player’s color is revealed, that player chooses his starting position on the board, denoted by arrows off to the left side of the track proper. Unlike modern day races, participants do not line up in a straight line. Instead, they enter the arena to the applause of the crowds and, from their starting position, the race will begin. (Players will also get a Charioteer card which modifies an ability in some way but, with the first play or two of the game, we recommend playing the game “straight” to familiarize everyone with the game play so that any special abilities can be better appreciated and used accordingly.)
With Initiative cards collected and shuffled once again, the first card is revealed and that player takes his turn. For the first turn, all players will start at a Level 1 speed (allowing a movement of four spaces) but on subsequent turns, speed may be adjusted in different ways.
First, speed may be INCREASED by one level – and only ONE level – on a turn. There are three possible Levels: 1 (for 4 spaces of movement), II (7 spaces of movement) and III (10 spaces). However, you can reduce speed by as many Levels as you wish. Part of the thought that goes into determining your Level involves the benefits (or disadvantages) it offers. When going at Level 1, a player will GAIN 1 Tactics, GAIN 1 Endurance and LOSE TWO Rattled. Level 2 results in LOSING 1 Rattled. These are all good things. But going at the Level 3 pace causes a LOSS of 1 Endurance. The second way to affect speed is “chivvying” your horses by spending a Tactics. For 1 Tactics, a player may roll a six sided die which has values of I, II and III (Roman numerals of course). The rolled result is ADDED to the current speed Level. And, of course, some of those special Charioteer cards can have an effect too. But speed kills and that’s the danger when you corner!
There are six corner lanes, valued from 4 to 9 (again, in Roman numerals). Upon entering one of those lanes, the value of your speed PLUS the value of your Rattled are added with the lane number subtracted from that total. The number remaining is how many Action cards you must draw.
Action cards determine the results of actions taken. When cornering, the chariot continues to advance in its lane with one Action card drawn for each space entered (until all drawn cards have been resolved). Results can range from gaining Rattleds, losing Tactics and/or losing Endurance or swerving into an outer lane! They could also result in a “No Effect”. But this is Roman chariot racing and there is more!
Starting with the fourth round of play, the player in the lead rolls a “Fate” die which will either grant an additional Tactics or Endurance, allow all players to lose 1 Rattled or cause the draw of a Fate Card. Fate Cards affect all players for the round and may be good or bad. But the fourth round also heralds a different tone as the veneer of civilized and sportsmanlike behavior peels away and players may attack!
When passing or next to a competing chariot that is in the two spaces either to the right or left of the player, that player has the option to ram the chariot (if the enemy chariot is in either of the back two spaces) or whip the opposing driver (an option in play for all four spaces). Each one of these attacks costs 1 Tactics. With a Whip attack, the player being assaulted must draw 3 Action cards. Unlike with cornering, all three cards are resolved immediately and the results applied at once. A Ram attack also forces the assaulted player to draw three cards but, because a Ram attack can potentially cause more harm, this time, the attacker must draw one as well! Players may also try to overtake a chariot in front of them but that compels a draw of an Action card and possible damage including a wound. Two wounds and you are out of the game!
As the race continues, the importance of Tactics becomes evident. You can spend them to make attacks, you can spend them to enhance your speed but you can also spend them in lieu of losing Endurance (at an exchange rate of 1 Tactics = 1 Endurance) and spend them to avoid taking Action cards (at the same rate). As your supply of Tactics is limited (as mentioned, a maximum of only 8 can be held at any one time), these are precious and can only be gotten from a friendly roll of Fate or reducing speed to Level 1 or entering one of the track’s corners. (The first chariot to enter the corner gets no bonus but subsequent chariots will each gain 1 Tactics as they enter with the final chariot adding 2 Tactics to his total. This is a valuable compensation for being behind.)
A standard race is two laps but you can vary the challenge by adding laps to complete a race. Once a chariot crosses the finish line, that round is completed. The chariot and the charioteer who is furthest over the finish line is victorious!
Victory Point Games generally come in small boxes but Chariots of Rome comes in a large sturdy box which gives it a touch of class. The box art is attractive but tends to attract your eye to the large columns and background. The focus should be on the racing chariots with the art capturing the dynamic nature of the race which, regrettably, it does not. Chariots of Rome does make good use of color as the board reflects the earthy tones of a Coliseum track and the stand ups are nicely drawn and functional. Only four colors of factions are used (presumably so there can be teams of two facing off). Curiously, the Charioteer Mat for the second of a color shows a black line on top while the stand up uses a WHITE line! A black line would have made the difference between the identical stand ups stand apart. One excellent touch is the inclusion of a “start” token in a player’s color to be used when moving your chariot. How many times have players moved their pieces in a race game only to discover they would prefer a different route and then forget where they started from? This simple piece eliminates the problem. (All games where positioning is important and changeable should make this addition.)
Since Initiative Cards are collected and reshuffled each round, turn order is always a question. And, of course, the Fate die and Fate cards can be a bit capricious as well. Erstwhile charioteers who want to know precisely when they will go and seek complete control in their race games will have to look elsewhere. The pleasure is in the perils as the game, appropriately, is both exciting and chaotic which, to my mind, correctly captures the essence of chariot racing in Rome. You are not out for a Sunday drive here so just controlling your speed and watching those corners is not enough. While you can certainly win without fighting, the game encourages you to. The thrill of the game is in the attacking of competing drivers and using Tactics wisely, a different kind of “resource management” that can mean the difference between victory and defeat. For these reasons, the game excels with more chariots (players) in the race. Without question, chance is a significant element here as cards drawn may (or may not) inflict damage. But that is the essence of the dangerous sport/activity/competition that was chariot racing during the time of the Roman Empire.
Gamers looking to experience the thrill of the chase – and the thrill of the race – with all of its dangers both expected and unexpected – will find it all wrapped up in a nicely produced package of mad mayhem in Chariots of Rome! – – – – – – – – Herb Levy
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