|From: Avalon Hill Cost: $17.95 Players: 2-5 Playing Time: 30-45 minutes Type of game: Family card Skill level: 6 Complexity: 3 Reviewed by: Matthew Baldwin, Issue 5.1 (17), Winter 1997|
Although sequels are more common for computer games, books and movies, now and then a successful board game will spawn a second incarnation. Sometimes the new game is aimed at younger players (Dungeon), sometimes it's a simplified version designed to introduce the game to new players (Simply Cosmic), and sometimes it's just a blatant attempt to capitalize on the popularity of a classic (Advance to Boardwalk), but usually the sequel uses the same basic game mechanics as the original albeit in a modified or watered-down form). Occasionally, though, a company will issue a sequel that shares nothing with the original except the name and the atmosphere. Such is the case with Titan: The Arena, a companion piece to the classic strategy wargame Titan.
While the spirit of Titan: The Arena— a non-collectable card game for 2-5 players— is similar to its sire, the mechanics of play couldn't be more different. The game includes eight Creature cards, 102 playing cards, and 25 chips (five chips in five different colors). The eight Creature cards represent the monsters that will be duking it out in the arena: a Dragon, Hydra, Unicorn, Troll, Titan, Cyclops, Ranger and Warlock. These cards are placed face-up in a row before play begins. The remainder of the cards, which constitute the playing deck, consist of 88 Strength cards (eleven cards, ranked 0-10, for each of the eight Creatures), 11 Spectator cards (also ranked 0-10), two Referee cards and one Head Referee card). Each player receives eight cards, five chips of the same color, and gets ready to rumble.
The game is played in five rounds, each representing a round of battle in the arena. Players take turns placing Strength cards next to a corresponding Creature to determine the monster's overall success in the round. Players may play cards directly on top of each other, so a Creature's strength will not necessarily remain constant throughout the round. Once all the Creatures have at least one card played on them, the round ends, the Creature with the lowest Strength is eliminated, and a new round begins with new cards placed next to (not on top of) those played in previous rounds. This continues until only three Creatures remain.
In addition to playing a card, a player may also place a bet on his turn by placing a chip next to a Creature. Bets placed in the first round are worth four points, bets placed in the second are worth three, those in the third are worth two and those placed in the fourth are worth one point (no bets are allowed in the final round). Unfortunately, players are not allowed to collect their points until the end of the game, so when Creatures are eliminated the chips placed on them are lost. Players may also place a secret bet in the first round by placing a chip under a face-down Strength card. Secret bets on surviving Creatures are worth five points.
To further complicate matters, each Creature has a power that may be used by that Creature's backer. The backer of a Creature is the player who has the most visible (i.e. non-secret) bets on a monster, and whenever someone plays a Strength card on a Creature he backs, he may immediately use the power. The Hydra, for example, allows the backer to play two cards on a single turn, while the Titan allows the backer to steal cards from another player's hand. Spectator cards serve as wild cards— they may be played on any Creature, but a Creature with a Spectator on it is unable to use its power. And the Referee cards allow players to return already played cards to their hand, or force other players to reveal their secret bets.
Although the packaging and artwork for Titan: The Arena give the game the aura of fantasy combat, it is, at its heart, just a glorified card game; the skills that a player will find handiest are not strategic planning and shrewd diplomacy, but card counting and bluffing. Indeed, nothing in the game system necessitates the fantasy theme, and the mythical Creatures could have just as easily been the hotel chains from Acquire or hearts, clubs and diamonds. Nevertheless, Titan: The Arena is an interesting and challenging game. Because each round ends with a single loser, rather than a single winner, many of the strategies necessary to succeed are counter-intuitive (such as betting on the monster for which you hold the worst cards, since having the "0" and the "1" for a Creature you back means no one else can play them).
The betting system forces players to make difficult choices throughout the game. Should you wager often in the earlier rounds when the bets are worth the most, or wait until later when you have a better idea of which Creatures are going to pull through? Should you use your turn to play a high card on a monster you back, or should you try to cripple another player by playing a "0" on one of his beasts? And because more than one person can bet on the same Creature, players are often found in the position of defending a monster that another player backs, or killing a monster that they themselves have wagered on. Secret bets also greatly increase the tension in the game. Without the secret bets you can calculate who is leading at any stage in the game and plan accordingly, but a hidden wager can enable even a innocuous-looking player to steal the win when everything is revealed.
It takes new players a while to catch on to the play system (they inevitably get hung up on the high cards and fail to recognize the importance of the low cards), but Titan The Arena moves at a quick pace when everyone has a firm grasp of the rules. The game starts casually, but once a Creature is killed the tension level slowly increases until the end of the game. And because each round features one less Creature than the previous round, the game gets progressively quicker as you go, introducing the element of panic by the fourth or fifth round.
Although Titan The Arena is a fairly good game, it has some flaws that cannot be overlooked. Personally, my biggest complaint is the theme. Because the whole game is steeped in an aura of combat and monsters, many people will be turned off by Titan The Arena before they even play it. Indeed, those players who would be most intrigued by a new card game—– namely, people who enjoy hearts and bridge— will be reluctant to play "one of those Dungeon and Dragons games". Each time I've introduced this game to friends I've found myself explaining "it's really just a card game" when I see the wary look in their eyes. Conversely, those expecting "a fierce game of deadly combat" (such as the packaging boasts) will be disappointed when they open the box and find nothing more than a deck of cards and a bunch of plastic chips.
Some of the cards could have used some fine-tuning as well. One player expressed irritation at the "Spectator" cards, each of which features a different monster (like "Werebear" and "Ogre") giving the erroneous impression that each one has a unique use or power. The three Referee cards were not found to be very useful, and most players opted to just discard them or hold them until the end of the game rather than invest a turn in their use. And while the individual powers of the Creatures inject an interesting element of chaos into the game, the powers are not as impressive or used as often as one might think.
One player put it best when he announced that Titan The Arena is a good game, but "seems like a beta version". While everyone enjoyed the game and most looked forward to playing it again, no one expressed interest in buying a copy for themselves or felt that it had the potential to become a favorite in anyone's collection. I agree that Titan The Arena is not the kind of game that groups will gather to play (a la Settlers of Catan), but its beautiful artwork and short playing time (30-40 minutes) make it a good impromptu match amongst friends or as an appetizer before a more substantial game. While Titan The Arena it's not a meal in itself, it does whets the appetite for more.
Titan: The Arena is a reworking of Grand National Derby. Both games were designed by Reiner Knizia. - Ed.