This week we tried out a new game – Sons of Mars, which is a gladiator game. So although this is Halloween and I have been focusing painting Zombie stuff for that, I thought I would post this as something a little different, as this is fresh for me. Note, yes we did play a big Halloween Zombicide Black Plague game last night and we lost, but it was fun anyway.
Now, this topic (Gladiators) you would think would be an easy area to get a decent game for and we all would have a variety of options for rules.
However, in my experience most games in this topic area can be either a ‘dice fest’ or so complex as to not be fun. It’s also not an area where there are many mainline games. Jugula came out a few years ago and it is interesting. It’s as much a card game as a figure game though as the cards and their play/control are hugely important in that game. I need to give that game another go, though as that is a very different game experience.
Aimed for Jugula, a couple of years ago I painted up 20+ gladiators which have not been used much. I also got an arena mat for that game. So, with the guys wanting to try out this new Gladiator game I brought them down and we tried it out. One of the other guys had his own gladiators (so you see the hex based model – from the Spartacus board game I believe) but everyone else used mine. I thought I’d post a quick write up of the game and my thoughts on it as well.
Son’s of Mars is created by a small company Acceptable Casualties and has good support with it’s own Facebook group and some extra’s from the author already. That’s nice to see and something some of the Osprey authors should take note on. No rules system is perfect and this extra support for the community is something I really like. It also allows players to get more involved which is cool. There are some youtube videos and various other items out there as well which will give more info if you want it.
We played 2 games with 6 players this week to try out the rules. The first game was a 6 player ‘free for all’ with re-incarnation for those dead so we could get to the hang of the rules while people did not sit our for long periods. We played a few things wrong but nothing major and got them right (or at least more correct) in the second game. That second game was a more serious 3 vs 3 team game. In each game a player ran just a single figure, but it would be easy enough for one player to run multiple gladiators from their own Ludus in a single game.
The game works in turns and there is a maximum of 8 turns before the match is over. That time pressure puts an emphasis on the players a little to not hang around too much. No standing around looking cool but not fighting. Gladiators have a set of stats which change for each of the types and most/all of them seem to be covered. These cover things such as movement, charisma (to get the crowd on their side/intimidate opponents) and agility. They each also have 3 stats for fighting, one they use for a charge in, one for toe to toe fighting and one for countercharges. Then you have armour value. Weapon and shield combinations effect the fighting stats and armour of a gladiator.
Armour and abilities are rolled on a single D10 with modifiers to the result. Often a 10+ is needed to succeed but a few abilities just need a 6+. Withdrawing from combat is an opposed roll but with just a D10 with modifiers each – the higher result winning. The combat uses an opposed die mechanic which is interesting. In this abilities and modifiers control the number of D10 that a player rolls. When the die are rolled, the result is determined by the number of die which are higher than your opponents highest roll. If the highest roll is a 10 then this is a critical. That triggers some special effects and one of those is that in combat if the opponents armour save is a 1 then this means an instant kill – a deathblow. If the highest die roll match then it’s a draw, then you both get fatigue, which effect initiative and other skills.
This mechanic means that even the underdog has a chance to win a combat as well. It also means that armour saves are tense affairs especially on critical rolls. In our first game the first gladiator combat resulted in just such a kill – a gladiator charged into combat and killed outright their opponent! This did cause a few laughs at the poor die rolls, but shows the risk of being in the ring as well.
The other aspect which helps this game not be a just a dice fest is that on activation of a gladiator, there are a decent number of actions to chose from. The order of activation is decided each turn by an initiative roll – an agility stat roll plus/minus bonuses (which include fatigue), where the higher rolls go first. The actions vary from trying to intimidate an opponent (impacting their next actions), through to getting the crowd on their side (providing re-rolls/bonus die), through to to disengaging from a fight (so you can charge in again or do other things) as well as fighting etc. So, although still affected by the die you can take actions which suite the skills and strengths of your fighters. Oh and yes there are skills and abilities which makes fighters unique beyond their type. Those have an have an interesting effect on the game as well.
All in all this makes for the player decision impactful without a massively complex game. Add in a fatigue mechanic which kicks in as fighters get injured/draw combats and skills triggered by critical rolls it provides a flexible yet open game feel. We enjoyed the decision points and no guaranteed success aspects of both the combats and all the other rolls. So to a quick run down of the games…
In our first game it started as mentioned with a quick kill, so we allowed a replacement to come on straight away. After the first turn of so we ended up with 4 fighters in a general scrap, while on a different side of the arena there was one heavy vs. mobile fighter. In the 4 way fight the netter (a Retiarius) stood off and poked while the others had a bit of a ‘Roman stab-stab fest’. In the end one of the fighters went down, which left 3 still in the fight. This is when I tried to get my guy to dodge out of the combat but failed, and my fighter got tripped and fell to the floor. I though it was all over for my guy but although he suffered a few attacks his skill and armour held (I rolled well in this game overall). Also I was saved by the two other fighters ending up fighting each other vs. focusing on my downed gladiator.
With us doing re-incarnation of player of the killed gladiator brought another one back as well. The Retiarius then went after this new entrant and my guy finally stood up. So with him gone, I went head to head with the Murmillow. This meant that around round 5 so we ended up with 3 separate 1 vs 1 fights. This is where my luck came in as I slowly worked on the Murmillo that my fighter (who was a Dimachaerus with 2 gladius, even though the model has 1 and an axe) was toe to toe with. In the end I took him down, although that was more by luck than great lay it has to be said. I was even winning the toe to toe fights even in my opponents actions – heck for once luck was with me and it worked.
After I had killed the Murmillo, there was just one more turn so we did not bother re-incarnating this last death. With very little time my fighter crossed the arena and managed to finish the game with the last action, killing the Retiarius, who had been worn down over the whole game. That netman had been poking my guy earlier on at range, so this felt like a nice ‘return revenge’ for me. In the end my guy survived and killed two opponents which was better than anyone else. So, I won the first game! I was quite surprised that I got the laurels but we all had fun in the game.
As we had an hour and a half left in the evening we decided to play another game. This time we got the fatigue rules right. We had messed them up a bit in the first but it had not made that much of a difference. In this one it was 3 vs 3 and everything was looking reasonable till about turn 3 when my opponent rolled a critical and I not only failed to make the armour save but rolled a 1. So that was a deathblow, but as a veteran (we had all got experience gladiators to try out those rules etc.) I had a re-roll. Of course I rerolled and got another 1… so my guy died. So much for my good die rolls in the first game. Luck balances out for me at least…This put pressure on the other team members of my side and although they fought well and took out one of the opponents they could not claw it back. So our team went down in the end with a 1 of our guys left vs two of the opposing team. So a loss on our side. This second game took just over an hour, while the first had taken longer as we got used to the rules and looked things up.
One thing which I should mention is that Sons of Mars has a full set of campaign rules for playing a Ludus (a Gladiator stable) and allows you to have various fights and grow your gladiators with extra skills etc. I have read some of those (not all) so I can’t really comment on how good they are apart from saying they look fairly comprehensive from quick glance. You can even play games vs criminals or animals or fight is private ‘pit fights’ vs in the normal arena. This allows you can get the full gladiator campaign concept going with friends if you like that type of thing.
So overall, we like this game. It’s still quite dice/luck influenced (what game is not really) but there are enough differences in gladiators and actions available to players to make it fun for players. You don’t just have to roll well but there are real choices and various tactics you can use to get the win or not. There is also always a decent chance that even with good odds that things won’t always work out for you. That makes it fun for players. With multi-player games it is fairly fast, with limited downtime between player actions. With most things being contested there are few long down times for players which helps on that as well. The PDF for the game is not that expensive and a professionally published/printed version is available – one of our guys has, and it is very nice. I expect that we’ll be doing more Gladiator nights in the coming weeks/months and you never know we may even get a campaign going.