The Gladiator has, for all time, represented the pinnacle of combat prowess. The men and women who found themselves in the pit faced equally condemned opponents whose survival could only come from wits and martial prowess. It is no wonder then, why historical gamers eventually come seeking a good Gladiator game. While I’ve played a few in my time, I can’t recall ever feeling like any game really captured the essence of these contests. The battles should be sharp, but rarely quick. They should punish mistakes harshly but allow for cunning players to make creative choices. A gladiator game is part boxing match and part gunfight. Speed, agility, stamina and most of all an ability to plan and anticipate your opponent’s maneuvers should be a critical part of the games.
I got a chance to play Mortituri Te Salutant (MtS from here on) in a few matches. I was greatly impressed with the game play. The game was run by my friend Mike Hicks. He did a lot of preparation ahead of time so that the game was easier to pickup than it might have been. There are a large number of possible orders the different types of gladiators can make in a given turn so what he did was he created card decks that had the maneuver name, a hex diagram of move and attacks and what the maneuver could convert to and what it prohibited for the next turn (an example without using game terms would be if you run this turn you can’t back peddle the next.)
The game works best for 1 on 1 battles. I did not play multi-fighter battles but I would think brawls would be difficult given how these rules work. That doesn’t mean the rules are broken. The focus on man vs. man allows the game to get the game firmly on to what makes a gladiator fight interesting. If you want to have a recreation of the historical brawls there are other rules. It might work well enough with 2 on 2 but I am sure that would only be with experienced players. I played twice and felt there was still a lot of learning curve to go so I’d try 2 on 2 after I’ve had maybe a dozen games.
Each gladiator is defined by their initiative (agility really) and their armor and weapon(s). You randomly roll your hit points. You may come up with really awful hit points or you could score very well. Hit points play a part but they only rarely decide the fight. A good shot can put you out quickly. I dispatched another fighter when he was knocked down when I smashed him with my shield. A lucky die roll (natural 20) came up and even though he had 50% of his hit points left he was a gonner. Two more pennies go to the ferryman on the River Styx.
The large number of maneuvers will take any player a while to learn. It is an interesting game because of that. You need to learn a lot of tricks – how to handle being stunned or knocked down, how to take advantage of a stunned or knocked down opponent. Further complicating things, in a good way, are the allowed conversions. Every action has a possible conversion. Once initiative is determined both players reveal their order. Some orders just don’t make sense or are suicidal when you see what your opponent has chosen. When you convert it is usually to a less effective (in general) maneuver with more restrictions on your next move – but if it is more effective than what you’ve chosen (or would save your life!) then it is a good deal.
The initiative system incorporates your basic initiative determined by your armor and wounds, your chosen maneuver and a die roll. Early on in the game the die roll isn’t a big influence. During those opening moves it is your maneuver choice that is most important. However, later on, as you take wounds and your inherent initiative falls, it becomes critical. Often you have to plan very carefully knowing that low initiative maneuvers mean you may be forced to go last. There is a further nuance here – you can only convert your maneuver when it is your turn – so you have to be sure when you take a low initiative option. Your choice takes on the aspect of a poker bet. You can make a save move – high initiative, hope to put some attrition on your opponent, or you can gamble for the more subtle maneuver.
The rules contain information for playing with mounted gladiators and dangerous animals. These look to be pretty complete. I haven’t played with them yet. I am looking forward to trying them.
There are rules for begging for mercy. I got a chance to use these in my second round. I was being beat horribly by my opponent. I liked the fact that the mercy roll is based upon various factors like how well you fought and so forth. In my fight I had to roll 9 or less on a D10. I rolled a 9! We assumed I got a half-hearted golf clap and was allowed to live. The mercy rules are a good addition because they become important when you play campaign games.
MtS has a complete campaign system. Well, almost complete. Certain aspects are missing such as the cost of healing between festival seasons. It is spoken of and is in the campaign turn sequence but it is not in the rules. Assuming you make up your own table for this like we did, it should work fine. Overall the system given produces a good campaign with betting on matches, tracking gladiator progress and giving gladiators a chance to attain better and better arena skills.
Finally there are rules for fighting lions, bears and mounted gladiators. I haven’t tried these so I can’t comment on them other than to say there is a system that allows one to play solo as the animals have a randomized reaction system.
Let’s talk about the cons of this game system for a moment. The game has a few steps complicated by record keeping. Further there are implications of each action chosen or changed. These are critical and easy to miss or forget playing with a record keeping system. We resolved this by creating action cards for each gladiator type. It greatly simplifies play without dumbing it down and makes it easier to not make mistakes.
A Quick Reference Sheet would have been useful. I was able to condense the fighting rules to one sheet of paper. This would have made learning the rules a lot easier as well.
Finally, the rules are not well written and the formatting is sub-par. It hinders getting to the game and I think some people will miss out on a really great game by either dismissing the rules or getting frustrated trying to piece them together from how they were written. I would say the production values take an otherwise fun game worthy of 4 stars down to 2 stars. If you are willing to put in some work to polish this game up then you will see the game play really rates and gives a great experience. If not you may find this game to be a bit too cumbersome and complicated.
I’ll report later on the results of our campaign system experience. I’ll also be bringing the game to Nashcon (May 28-30, Franklin TN) so you can have a chance at playing the game there. I’ll have our cards and QRS. My thought is I’ll run it openly in the lobby to demonstrate historical wargaming to hotel guests and gamers alike.