“Listen to me. Learn from me. I was not the best because I killed quickly. I was the best because the crowd loved me. Win the crowd and you will win your freedom.” – Oliver Reed (Proximo), Gladiator
In ancient Rome, Gladiators, also called a Hoplomachus, were warriors of the arena, who wore bronze helmets and armor, wielding spears and swords, all fighting to the death for the glory and favor of the crowd! The name Hoplomachus means “Armored fighter”, and with spear, sword and shield, these fierce competitors fought for their freedom, they fought for their country, and they fought for the favor of the crowd!
It is with that brief reminder of ancient history that I am happy to bring to you, a Critical Review of the game, Hoplomachus, The Lost Cities by Chip Theory Games. Designed by Adam and Josh Carlson, Hoplomachus is steeped in history, wrapped in its own fiction, and is driven by the battle of gladiators and the fervor of the mob cheering them on! It is a 2-4 player game, that can be played solo against a game engine or in a player vs player mode, and even in a cooperative battle with multiple people against the arena, all providing different, yet entertaining experiences.
As always, we have a video review as well, but additional information is provided in the continued written review, after the jump... as well as two Critical Plays (yes 2!) below at the end of the review.
Before moving forward, I must thank Adam and Josh, as well as the InD20 Group. It was through the InD20 Group, Tim and Larry, that I met the Chip Theory Game guys at Gen Con this year. Through their introductions, I was able to sit down with Adam and Josh for an overview of the game, and after my, and others, excitement for the game, they provided a limited amount of copies to a small group of reviewers to play test, put through the paces, and bring you these reviews.
At one point, while sitting in an open area of Gen Con and speaking with Adam and Josh, a random fan came running up to the table yelling, “That’s it! I’ve been looking all over for this game, can I watch!?” It’s that type of excitement about a game that captures someone’s curiosity, so I knew already from talking to Josh and Adam that I had to play this game, but that random testimonial piqued my curiosity to the maximus (pun intended).
In Hoplomachus, you will play as a Champion representing their “lost city” who has ventured forth to the arena, where Rome is accessing these newly discovered, once thought lost, cities to determine their potential threat to the Empire! One thing I should also mention, is that the copy you see pictured and in the video, is not the final production quality. This is a prototype model provided by Chip Theory Games for purposes of this review, and shouldn’t discern any final quality. That said, the chips look pretty cool! Let's take a look at the layout of a game before moving on.
The first thing you will notice is the components are, as their name implies, all poker chips. Every Unit, Boss, Champion, and Gladiator in the game is represented by a chip. Each city has their own color, Yellow is El Dorado, Blue is Atlantis, and Green is Xanadu. Each chip, amazingly has all their stats clearly printed on it and is adorned with public domain artwork that fits quite well with the theme of the game. Please note that the image on the right is from the game publisher's web site and does not depict the exact units used in the prototype, and as with the prototype, is not intended to represent the final product.
Players will use red chips placed underneath a unit to represent it’s health. So if you bring a Gladiator into the game that has 4 health, you simply put 4 red chips under them. As they lose and gain health, you simply remove or add more red chips, making health tracking very easy. Additionally, this mechanic allows someone to walk up to a game and very quickly see who is hurting, which Champion may be in trouble, and what’s happening at a high level.
Each Lost City has their own feel to it, but at this point, it’s very basic differences, brought to the game through the use of two City Gladiators per City and the City’s Champions. At this point, every City has the same amount of Archers, Defenders, Attackers, and Tacticians, however they each have two City Gladiators and a Champion that have specific abilities that will impact the play style. This may seem like a detractor and leave some people, myself included, wanting more variety, but after playing the game several times, there is quite a bit of difference in using these basic Archers, Defenders, etc, in combination with your City Gladiators and Champions to provide a very different feel when playing each city.
Player vs. Player (PVP) is very engaging! You not only have to know your own city’s strength and weaknesses, but it helps greatly to know your opponent’s. If you over extend against Atlantis, the moment their Champion is active, you’re going to get pulled into battle and not be prepared to manage the multiple attacks from all angles.
If you are too defensive against El Dorado you will be overwhelmed with strategic positioning and won’t escape their Fury Aura’s and will take a lot of damage. Meanwhile, Xanadu will spend time throwing your units around the board with the Hurl ability, so you best make key movements to avoid your strategies being broken up by them.
Each move in PVP keeps you riveted, we have yet to find anyone in our playgroup feeling as though there is “downtime” when it’s not their turn to act. Each turn, you must perform the following, in specific order:
* For steps 3 and 4, if you have any units with abilities that permit moving and attaching on the turn they are deployed, than you may do so with them.
Seems very simple right? It is, but with the challenge of gaining Crowd Favor, positioning your units to work well together, and safeguarding your strategy, there is a lot of deep strategy to the game as well! Speaking of Crowd Favor, you obtain points in a few different ways:
Again, this seems simple, but with Atlantis using Pulls, Xanadu using Hurls, and El Dorado chasing people with Fury Auras and doing direct damage, the chances of anyone surviving long in the center are slim to none and slim just left the arena!
Unlocking Crowd Favor rewards is a well designed mechanic on the game! There is a scale, with four levels. Each level has a chip, that is a white Crowd Favor Tactic that can be achieved from levels one through 3 and a special white Crowd Favor Gladiator you can achieve on level 4. When climbing the Crowd Favor scale though, it won’t always be you that achieves the level, gains the unlock AND gains the chip! Rather, the design is that whoever has the least Crowd Favor obtains the chip, with the tie going to the player achieving the level.
This means if I hit Crowd Favor level 1, my champion becomes unlocked, but if my opponent hasn’t achieved level 1 yet, then he will gain the use of the chip. This strikes a good balance. I’ve played games where one person starts out with a run away gaining Crowd Favor, but the white CF chips play such a good part in balancing the opponent’s options, they can make a comeback with all their options. Additionally, it paces the game very well. Almost each and every game is very close, and comes down to not just good rolls, which is always a component of dice games, but truthfully playing and moving units strategically.
Player vs. Arena is a totally different ball game, but is just as fun. In Arena battles, one or more players bring the Champions and their Cities, but fight random Arena Units which are Beasts or Criminals, and have to make their way through a “gauntlet” style set of matches, defeating Arena Bosses, which are usually big baddies as seen below.
Additionally, in each scenario, you are tasked with defeating your opponents with access to only 6 gladiators, randomly chosen at the beginning of combat for each stage of the gauntlet, and one tactic! This makes the actions hot, heavy, and fast! IT also is a great way to learn how well your units work with each other and I would highly suggest playing several games in solo mode like this to accustom yourself to the differences in the cities.
When the Arena takes their turns, you have specific movement rules for Beasts and Criminals. Beasts tend to “lurk” around the arena, while Criminals are bound to champions and stalk them directly. Meanwhile, bosses not only move, but roll to potentially unleash a devastating set of attacks at their disposal, some of which will see them launching across the arena and destroying their opposition! (Think a giant lion coming to rip off your face!)
In either case, PVP or PVE (or I guess it should be PVA for PVArena) both provide excellent experiences. I’ve played this with NinjaZach and while he REALLY wishes they were minis and not just chips, he picked up the game very quickly. Sure, at 7, he isn’t the general plotting strategic moves, but he understands the concepts and has fun. This is definitely a game that is accessible to all levels of players too. Experienced tacticians and strategists will like it, and casual gamers will like it as well! I even introduced this to a friend who has never played anything outside of Life and Boggle and he enjoyed it a lot!
Every game I have played scratches several itches. First, the chess player in me loves it. It is very keen on positioning and units do what they do, and they do it well, in ways that force you to learn when to sacrifice and when to push. The minis player in me has a home here too. I made a suggestion to the Chip Theory Games guys that they could offer some type of Champion Minis for rewards for Organized Play or for purchase maybe too, as moving the stacks made me feel like I was moving minis around and was very satisfying on that edge. The poker player obviously loves playing with chips too, but strategically, when it’s not my bet (or turn ion this case), I find myself reading my opponents and trying to figure out what their moves will be.
In the end, Hoplomachus was a hidden gem at Gen Con and one I would highly recommend to any gamer. It has provided me tense battles, enjoyable times strategizing, and wonderful experiences when it has hit my game table. I appreciate history just like the next guy, but I appreciate games that take that history, tweak it a bit and make it their own, and deliver on a high quality experience in gaming. Well done to the Chip Theory Games designers, Josh and Adam, they have a Crit on their hands, and one we look forward to obtaining a copy of when the final product hits the market!
Final Score (Crit, Hit or Miss):
In the process of reviewing this game, I made two different Critical Play videos, both showing PVP in a 1 Player vs the Arena mode. I made a few mistakes, but shared the videos with Josh and Adam, the designers, and they liked them so much, that they wanted both of them shown, along with rules corrections you'll see in the video notes. Enjoy!
Version 1 of Scenario 1:
Version 2 of Scenario 1: