CHARIOTS OF ROME from VICTORY POINT GAMES First there was Circus Maximus [Avalon Hill, 1979], then there was Circus Minimus [20...





First there was Circus Maximus [Avalon Hill, 1979], then there was Circus Minimus [2000].  Along the way was Ave Caesar [1989] and very recently Chariot Race [2016].  These are some of the key precursors to Victory Point Games' Chariots of Rome [2018] and, of course, behind them all lies Lew Wallace's novel, Ben Hur, though I suspect that is really only known by most of us from the film, Ben Hur, starring Charlton Heston [please do not mention the remake!].

For me Chariots of Rome is definitely the offspring of Circus Maximus and a cleaner version.  By "cleaner" I'm not talking less blood and violence, but smoother systems, far more accessible rules and the advantage of modern graphics and physical quality.  The board is very similar in shape and concept, but seeing that they're both reproducing the famous hippodrome in Rome that's only to be expected.

The board folds out in three panels and so far, whatever measures I've taken, both end panels become slightly bowed during play.  Despite that, the standees - which you can see in the picture above - sit well on the track and don't slide or topple.  All components are serviceable.  No doubt it would be possible to go down the deluxe route and produce the sort of tank-stopping quality of game board such as seen in Tide of Iron and add in brilliantly sculpted miniature chariots.  But for a fairly light chariot-racing game would you really want to pay the substantially heavier cost?

Unlike the uber chart-heavy tables of Avalon Hill's game and a large record sheet for each player to log speed, damage etc., all this is handled very effectively by player boards [again shown above].  Each chariot in play has such a display. They are quite thin card stock, but work fine to chart endurance, rattled status, tactics and speed.  These are all recorded on the various tracks with cardboard markers whose size and quality tend to mean that they aren't subject to problems of being displaced, but it can be very easy to forget which actions need a loss of endurance or increase in damage.  This is especially true when the action hots up and chariots are vying for position.
Here, for example, as three chariots are closely bunched together on the bend is just such an occasion when the focus is likely to stray a bit when paying for some actions. [You might also notice that the red chariot appears to be going the wrong way - several of us laughed when the rules stressed making sure that you faced your chariot in the right direction!] 

The other main components are three decks of cards.
and two specialised dice.

Game play is very streamlined.  All players start with 12 Endurance points, no Rattle points and a set number of Tactics points [the latter depend on the number of players involved and you can never hold more than 8 Tactic points].  Lose all 12 Endurance points or reach 6 Rattle points and you're out of the race.  There are only three Speed levels to choose from that respectively allow you to move 4/7/10 spaces - the first two give you small bonuses [either removing penalties, at times a vital, life-saving benefit, or gaining Tactics], while the top speed inevitably has a penalty.

The best element for me is that virtually all the mechanics of the game depend on the use of a single, fine deck of Action cards.  
The four major functions of the game can simply be referenced by drawing the next card and identifying which is relevant.  The first three [Corner, Ram and Whip] should need no explanation.  Danger occurs in a few specific situations; the main ones being when you crash or are forced to overtake another chariot by passing through its position on the track.

The procedure for negotiating corners is one of the best I've encountered.  As you enter the first position on a corner, you add your speed to your current Rattle factor, then deduct the speed number on that line of the track.  This produces the number of action cards you draw.
So, if your speed was 10 and your Rattle factor 3 and you enter the corner at the lane marked VI [Who doesn't know their Roman numerals?] you would draw 7 Action cards!

That's a lot of potential harm coming your way!  So, is there any way to mitigate it?  First and foremost you can use Tactics points.  For each Tactic point you pay, you draw one less Action card.  The rules would have you draw all 7 cards and then return as many cards to the deck as Tactic points you spend.   That process is carried out without revealing or knowing what is on the Action cards.  A far simpler and quicker process which we've adopted is to pay the Tactics points and then draw the requisite number of cards.  Continuing the example above, needing to draw 7 cards, you decide to pay 4 Tactics points and so draw only 3 cards.

How you execute these cards is an equally effective refinement to many race games.  For each space you enter you reveal one of the cards and follow the symbols on the top line [appropriately labelled "corner"  - sometimes "no effect" ensues at others loss of endurance or swerving or gaining a Rattle point [consider the latter to be a type of damage point, either directly to the chariot or to the charioteer's mental or physical state].   If you've drawn rather a lot of cards, you may even find yourself having to continue to play out the remaining ones as you start your movement on the next turn!

On the whole though the effects of moving through a corner tend to be relatively mild!  Whipping another player's chariot - is that the horses or the charioteer you're aiming at? - tends to be more likely to cause harm and ramming is even worse.  Though, the latter may have ill consequences for the person doing the ramming, worst of all are the possible consequences of crashing when you consult the bottom line of the Action cards that read "DANGER"!  As you can see from the card above, even here you may be lucky with a No Effect result.

Though Swerving sounds fairly innocuous, when the track is crowded the result of chariots being forced to move into the space of other chariots can have nasty knock-on effects.  Initially too they were the only rules that caused any degree of uncertainty in what is a short and very clear set of rules.  In fact, the main fault of the rule book for me was the size of the print!!  The instruction "Read the small print carefully" takes on a whole new life of its own when coping with the text.

Adding a few other refinements to play are the Fate cards, Charioteer Skill cards and two dice.  Starting with 4th Round of play, the first player to take their turn rolls the Fate die which provides a small bonus for all players or the draw of a Fate card.  The other die in the game can be rolled for the cost of losing an Endurance point by each player on their turn to gain from 1 to 3 extra movement points. 

The last item is the Chariot Skill cards - each player draws one at the beginning of the game to give an individual ability.  This is the one and only feature I have some reservations about as the Skills do seem to vary considerably in the quality of their benefits.  This is particularly true of the card that allows a Charioteer to look at the Initiative Deck and move one card to whichever place they like in the Deck - no surprise that the player with this card tends to place their card first in the Deck!  More about that in the following view of game play.

So, how does it play?  Well my view is that it depends quite a lot on how you play the game!  My first experience with a large group of players was underwhelming.  As mentioned above, one player drew the Skill card that allowed him to manipulate the Initiative Deck, placed himself first and romped home in that position!

However, there was a distinct lack of player interaction i.e. except for myself and one other player, virtually no one chose to whip or ram their opponents.  Verdict by the group: too simple, unbalanced not a great deal of fun.  My verdict - that's not how the game should be played.  If the central mechanic of a game depends on Action cards for which three-quarters of the decisions involve whipping, ramming and actions that lead to Danger, then not taking actions that involve them is missing out on a major aspect of the game.

A corollary to what I would describe as "the lack of conflict" approach described above also led to comments that the ability to use Tactics points to negate/mitigate Endurance loss and Rattle gain was too easy.  So, by contrast  the "aggressive" approach brings out a whole different game.  Lights, camera, action! 

Boxing in opponents so that they are forced to overtake, whipping and ramming fairly frequently, focusing on not giving the lead player/s an easy ride produces a much more dynamic and exciting experience.  Chariots/charioteers will fail to make it to the end of the race, their chariots left behind as debris and potential obstacles.  The game becomes a real contest, the turn of an individual card becomes far more crucial at times.  Tactics points rapidly get spent and become far more critical a need and all the elements of the game come in to play.

I've already praised the way cornering is dealt with. I'm equally in favour of this game's use of a randomly shuffled set of Initiative cards, one for each chariot, that not only determines the order in which chariots move, but as one card is revealed at a time means that there. So many race type games suffer from the leader-goes-first mechanic and should you decide that the power of the Charioteer Skill that would allow the owner of it always to go first is too much, then it's easy enough to house-rule a modification to how often it can be used - though my advice would be just gang up on said leader!

So, whip up your horses [and whip your opponents] - oh, and don't forget to point your chariot in the right direction!

As always thanks to Victory Point Games for providing a review copy.