Time: ~40 minutes
Times Played: 12
The motto for Carthage is “Easy to Learn; Easy to Die” and honestly, those are some of the truest words I’ve encountered in board gaming. From opening the box and getting everything set-up, I think it took less than ten minutes for the first player to make their move on the arena floor. But don’t mistake brevity equating a lack of depth or interesting decisions. Carthage packs more of a punch than imagined.
For full disclosure, I was provided this copy of Carthage from Luke Seinen and SAS Creative for this review. The provided copy has not impacted my views below.
Carthage is a deck-building arena combat game for one- to five-players. I want to compare this to Clank! or The Quest for El Dorado with its simplicity and strategy as well as its mechanics. If you’re comfortable with a deck-builder that has a map then you’ll be right at home with Carthage. But before you think you’re getting into a stroll-through-a-map-type adventure, I want to be upfront that Carthage is about pure human combat with a survivor-take-all victory condition.
The first aspect of Carthage that draws you in is the box. I absolutely love the art associated with the game. I know art is subjective and everyone has their different tastes but for a product, you need something that will grab peoples attention and the front of the box, if seen in a game store, would make me pick it up to learn more. I’m instantly drawn in. In fact, as it sat in my office waiting to be taken home, I had several coworkers swing by just to take a look as it caught their eye. The unique shape of the box and the sword imagery just invokes a response. To me, it is littered with homages to the illustration and artwork of Frank Miller and Lynn Varley.
That artwork doesn’t end on the box though. It can be found in the rulebook, on the cards, tokens, and on the board itself. The board and/or Arena Tokens could have used a little more color or boldness for existing color to better designate and differentiate between the two. Everything runs together when the same color scheme/pattern is repeated.
The player boards are easy to decipher and feature spaces for your player deck, used cards, Armor, and Favor tracks. I’m a fan of the organization but what I really wanted to touch on was the double-sided nature of the player board. I think (this isn’t confirmed and could just be me looking too far into the art) that one side is a male character and the other side is a female character, which is a pretty cool inclusion in this day and age. The miniatures are all male though. I figure this is so there isn’t a depicition of gratuitous male-on-female/female-on-male violence but again, this could just me reading too much into it.
Carthage isn’t just a pretty package though. The rulebook is easy to follow and I just want to give kudos to the writer, editor, and designer as I found it incredibly easy to read. The examples were clear and concise and the layout and flow of the rules was remarkably intuitive. There were some minor typos but that was mostly the switch between the word “Theater” and the word “Theatre”. Honestly, I found the rulebook so helpful that I’m linking to its BGG download page because it explains the ins and outs of this game much better than I ever could…but I’m still going to try.
The basis of the game is that each round has three phases. There is the Theater Phase, when the top card of the Theater Deck is revealed and an event occurs. During this Phase, the Arena Tokens on the board are revealed as well. The Theater card that was revealed either happens immediately or at the end of the round.
This Phase adds some randomness to each round that will either help or hinder player(s). Cards typically don’t target one specific player unless they end up fitting a certain parameter. There are twenty Theater cards and on average, our matches lasted between ten to fifteen rounds so you won’t see all cards during a match.
By my observation, there are five cards that impact all players with four being positive (Calm Before the Storm, Bellows for Blood, Hanno’s Regime, and Excitement of the Theater) and one card being negative (Rain of Pebbles).
There are three neutral cards that impact gameplay but don’t help or hurt a player necessarily (Helpless Moments, Turning Moment, and Caged Animals).
The remaining twelve cards are dependent on the game. They could be targeting players with the most Armor (The Will of Hannibal) or granting bonuses for inflicting damage (Echoes of Tyre).
Needless to say, the variability and range of the cards will make each Theater phase important to the strategy of the round. You might purposefully try to pick fights, for example, so you don’t end up losing armor needlessly at the end of the round.
The Arena Tokens that litter the board can be placed according to a scenario or distributed randomly. There are twenty-five tokens with breakdowns for hazardous terrain (five), impassable terrain (two), providing immediate adjacent attack(s) (five), providing an immediate additional movement (two), providing immediate favors (five), providing favor by removing an armor (one), providing favors at the end of the round (one), providing additional armor (two), and lastly, crocodile pits (two). The artwork on the terrain pillars is a little hard to see when setting up (gray spikes on a gray background) and I wish they would have stood out more like the crocodile pits, which are a deep blue. I also wish there were more crocodile pits as they fit with the spectacle of the arena games and stand out against the board and when someone gets pushed into a crocodile pit, it’s f**king awesome.
In our playthroughs, the Arena Tokens played a large part in a players movement for a round. You don’t want to end up being knocked into a crocodile or into a spiked pillar or being trapped near an additional attack that you can’t utilize. The Tokens were hotly contested and only become more valuable as the game went on. The Tokens are static once they’re on the board however. Once a player uses a Token, it is flipped over and not available until the next round but it will be available in the same spot once everything resets.
I’m interested in trying a variable where the same spots are used, but new, random Tokens are placed down to add a little more variety to the game. As the Tokens are revealed during the Theater Phase, players will know what’s near them so they can plan accordingly. I can see the good and bad of this idea (such as having a spiked pillar placed next to you when it was previously an additional movement icon) but it’s something that could be fun to try.
Following the Theater Phase is the Action Phase and this is where the bulk of the game is. Players draw five cards from their Player Deck and starting with the first player, play one card at a time until all players have used all five cards. All players begin the game with the same Player Deck. The actions on the cards are immediate and must be completed. Cards allow players to:
Move – The blue shoe icon. Move ‘x’ amount of hexes.
Attack – The red blood spatter icon. Inflict ‘x’ amount of damage to an adjacent opponent. There are some cards that introduce ranged weapons but the standard is adjacency.
Heal – The green armor icon. Bolster your armor ‘x’ spaces on the armor track on your player board.
Favor – The yellow chalice icon. Gain Favor from the crowd and move ‘x’ spaces on the Favor track of your player board.
Strike Bonus – The red blood spatter icon with a white burst. The strike bonus occurs if you damage an opponent. Whatever is to the right of the white burst is your bonus for successfully damaging someone.
Knockback – The hex with an arrow on it. This moves the attacked player backwards one space. If they cannot move (due to obstacles, the arena wall, or another player), they take an additional damage.
After all players have played their five cards, the Favor Phase begins with the last player from the Action Phase. Using Favor gained during the previous round, players can add cards to their deck from the Action Card market or perform one of four actions. They can Initiate, which makes them the first player for the next round; they can Focus, which allows them to permanently discard a card for the remainder of the game; they can Evaluate, which resets the Action Card Market with more cards; and/or they can Lobby, which allows the player to take a used Theater card and place it on top of the Theater Deck (to be played again). Players can also pass but then they forfeit their Favor and Favor cannot be carried over between rounds.
The cards are the crux of the game and for the most part, incredibly affordable. There are eighty base cards included in the game with an additional fifteen Theater Legend Cards that can be added to the deck. The Theater Legend Cards are the first mini expansion included in the game. We’ve never played without the additional cards. They provide some additional strategy and variability to the game that I don’t want to lose. The sheer number of cards also means that no two games will be similar as you won’t cycle through the entire deck in one siting. Whereas most deck-builders, such as Clank!, replace a purchased card immediately, Carthage forces players to spend points to get the option to buy more cards. It’s brilliant as it makes player order incredibly important. This could frustrate players that like to feel more in control even though they have the option to pay to have more cards in the Market, what they want (or more importantly, what they can afford), won’t necessarily appear.
Most cards are affordable with a value of four Favor or less and the most expensive cards max out at eight Favor. I want to add that just because you can purchase one of the expensive cards (which I count as being worth five Favor or more) doesn’t mean you necessarily will. Most have qualifiers using the Strike Bonus so if you can’t complete that, you don’t get the real benefit of the card and some offer great abilities with equally damaging consequences. It’s a great balance that ensures that just because the Gladiator is beloved in the Arena doesn’t mean they’ll be triumphant.
The game ends with one Gladiator left standing. Reading that statement does mean what you think. Carthage includes player elimination. However, once a player is eliminated, they come back as a Beast that can help or hurt the remaining players. An eliminated player won’t be as involved as they were as a Gladiator but it keeps them in the game and they can influence the end game. Whether that is good or bad is up to the individual player. If you’re the Hyena Runt, do you target the player that’s about to die and finish them off or do you go after the player that eliminated you for a small semblance of vengeance and to even the playing field?
If it isn’t apparent by now, Carthage is a game that includes direct, targeted player interaction. If that’s not your cup of tea, then I would steer clear of this game. If you like going head-to-head (to-head-to-head-to-head) then this game will speak directly to you.
Carthage plays one to five and offers several modes for playing. Free-for-all is pretty self-explanatory at any level and really fun. There is the possibility of players ganging up on another player but for us, it was either the player with the most health or a player on the brink of death.
There are two 2v2 modes. A normal 2v2 that has players on a team with the last team standing winning. There is also a 2v2 chained mode where players cannot be more than one hex from their teammate. This is the superior mode of team Carthage as players are forced into the fray and communication has to occur. It feels like a completely different type of combat as you’re no longer worried about moving in, attacking, and moving out. Now it’s about how many hits you can get in as quick as possible because once combat begins, the game only has a few more rounds since players aren’t moving anywhere. The board becomes tight with the bodies and Arena Tokens.
For five players, there’s a 3v2 mode that is alright. The mode features some modifiers for the two-player side to help even the odds. If you want a challenge, play on the two-player team because it’s just a constant slug to get through the opponents. In our playthroughs, the two-player side hasn’t emerged victorious but they have been able to best two of the three opposing Gladiators.
At two-players, you have to have players that want to be in combat. The map, while not large by any means, will seem gargantuan as one player dances away at a distance, trying to collect Favor to purchase better cards for the inevitable fight while the other player chases only to be knocked back when getting too close. We took to adding more Arena Tokens to the map for two-player games to liven up the board and make everything more active. Carthage isn’t bad as a two-player game by any means but it really shines with more. If you’re up for it, I’d recommend playing the 2v2 chained variant instead of 1v1. It’s more cards and information to keep track of but the player board and close proximity of your fighters help ease the burden of information.
Carthage also offers a solo mode with the assistance of an app, Carthage Companion. The same artwork and theme are carried straight from the game to the digital companion and the app will accommodate more than solo play if that interests you. The app pits you against The Essedari Maximo, otherwise known as the Greatest Chariot Gladiator of all time. The app will tell you what moves the legend of the arena will perform and keeps track of their Armor so when you attack back, it’s easy to keep track. The Essedari Maximo is difficult and will provide an exceptional challenge if you’re looking for one.
I like the inclusion of solo play and the app is well constructed and implemented but it’s not for me. I feel like I’m missing a piece of the game as the chariot isn’t a physical presence on the board and I’m just reacting to a digital prompt. While it is challenging, which is a plus, the depth of the game isn’t enough for me to warrant pulling this out for solo play. It’s similar to other games that I’ve said the same thing about (Clank!, Between Two Cities) where it’s a great feature to have but I want more of a brain burner if playing solo. That’s my personal preference though and yours may differ.
Regardless of the player count, the game doesn’t particularly take a long time to play. Our longest game time was a full hour and that was a 2v2 (non-chained) match-up. Games typically last in the forty minute range as players become comfortable with the gameplay and mechanics relatively quickly, even quicker if you’ve ever played a deck-builder before.
The game also features sixteen modular rule cards that can change the nature of games just enough to make them have a different flair from what you’ve been doing. With the Arena Tokens and rule cards, the variety is great and you can either pick-and-choose your challenge or randomize your selections for maximum chaos.
So far, everything has been relatively positive regarding Carthage and what it offers but there are some faults I’d like to mention that I haven’t been able to cover yet.
The box has a lot of open space and there are not any additional organizational methods for the punched tokens or the cards. This isn’t a huge deal breaker by any means but be aware you’re going to want to make a trip to a local hobby store to pick up some baggies to protect the cards and tokens when stored. It will make set-up and clean-up much easier if you don’t have to go rooting around the deck for the starting cards.
There’s one aspect of the base game that’s not included that I’m on the fence about and that’s variable player powers. I looked at the miniatures and the game boards for each player and that’s where my mind went immediately the first time I saw them. Once I read the rules, I realized everything was standard and symmetric for each player which is great and the game works well with the base mechanics but it feels like the different tribes should have different abilities.
That just might be me being indoctrinated from so many miniature games (like Zombicide and anything from Eric Lang) that I expect the different sides to have different rules and the reason I’m on the fence is because adding those additional rules would make explaining the game more difficult and as is, this game is a breeze to explain.
Now that I’ve said all that, I want to mention mini-expansion #2, which introduces equipment cards that are “individually tailored to their class of Gladiator” aka unique player powers. I actually really like this mini-expansion/variant. Basically, each Gladiator receives three pieces of equipment and once used, they are flipped over. A card can not be ready for use until it’s paid for with Favor. This is a very small and easy change to implement but it adds some major tactical decision-making to the game. Favor is already a precious commodity and now having to decide to bolster your deck or have the option to use one of your special equipment items is troublesome. Each class of Gladiator has their own special equipment to make them stand out from one another and the abilities are not something that is found on other cards players can buy through the deck.
Another small item that I wasn’t fond of was the Lobby Favor option. I enjoy the ability to be able to reuse a Theater card but it can easily be abused. In one game, we ended up drawing “The Will of Hannibal” first and one player kept buying the Lobby action to return that card to the top of the deck, so players were losing armor each and every round. It became quite hectic, which I admittedly loved but we never saw more cards from the Deck, which is a shame because I love the Theater Deck. I wish the ability for Lobby was to either place a card on top or place a card on the bottom of the deck, so it’s essentially booted from the game.
The miniatures for the game are great and have some great detail included in their sculpts. If you’re looking for Muscular Manny’s, you’ve found the right models. However, this is the one game where I wish there were more miniatures. I want the beasts to have individual sculpts so when I’m eliminated from the game, I come back as a hulking beast. We had a hard time deciphering what each individual token was when referring to the different animals and sculpts would have helped. The tokens do come with standees with help distinguish them from the board. It took us a few playthroughs to realize that though…whoops! I also wish the pillar tokens were three-dimensional terrain. Making the board feel more alive is never a bad thing (except for costs, of course).
Carthage is a game that a year ago, I would have turned a cold shoulder towards. Deck-building? Blah. Miniatures? Spare me. But what the Seinen’s and SAS Creative were able to capture has me captivated and it was something that we played again and again and again as we wanted to take in everything that Carthage offered. Carthage isn’t a game that will see our table every week like Azul or Castles of Burgundy but it will be one that gets played a few times a month, every month, because lets be real for a moment: Who hasn’t wanted to engage in arena combat with their friends?