2-5, Best with 3 or 4. The game has a very different feel with 2 or 5 players; I enjoy both, but the community generally does not.
45 minutes. The game can require 5-10 minutes to set up, however
Reiner Knizia (Lost Cities, Ingenious, Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation)
Fantasy Flight Games (Battlestar Galactica, Citadels, Kingsburg)
Betting, Variable Player Powers, Hand Management
How To Lose Friends and Eliminate Creatures
Lately, when I purchase a game, I have usually played it before, read several reviews that endorsed its purchase or conducted an extensive review of its mechanics, rules, price point and player count (or some combination of the three). But when I was just starting to build my collection, if I liked a game that I had played, I bought it. What else was I going to buy? I did not know many gamers and the idea of reviews never crossed my mind, so I had limited input to decide; I also had limited funds, since games were expensive and I hadn’t reached the point where I was all-in. This reality is part of what makes Colossal Arena so special to me – I bought it randomly on Barnes & Noble’s clearance website for $11.
I liked the cover, so I bought it. Also, I liked the price, but I mostly liked the cover, which is the type of impulsive purchase I almost never make.
I knew nothing about it at the time, but what I received was one of my all-time favorites for an extreme bargain, a game that is now out of print but will be in my collection forever.
In Colossal arena, you begin the game with eight monsters chosen from a set of twelve (and up to four real-life friends). Each round, one monster will be eliminated, along with one of your friendships. There are eleven cards for each monster ranging from zero (lowest) to ten (highest) and a round is completed when each living monster has a power card in front of it with a clear loser. Over the course of the game, players are betting on which creatures will survive and influencing the power of each creature to protect their own and eliminate those of their opponents. The earlier you bet, the more points you will receive should that creature survive – and you only have five bet tokens over the entire game (under normal circumstances). When a creature is eliminated, you are eliminating at least 20% of your opponent’s scoring opportunity, possibly more.
I joke about losing friendships because Colossal Arena is very mean, and I love that about this game. The rulebook even has a dedicated section about deal making and reiterates that these deals are not binding. You are essentially encouraged to lie and form temporary alliances – eventually, someone will have to betray the other. Each player has a hand of eight cards, and only cards depicting the creature can normally affect that creature (there is a set of eleven wilds, more on that later). Often, players will lack the ability to finish off a powerful creature and will rely on assistance from other players. Sometimes players will be forced to create a tie between two creatures (one of which is theirs), hoping that the next player will decide a fate that is in their mutual favor. Whether that player obliges is their prerogative, and half the fun and tension of this game is witnessing who will get screwed; a player cannot show another player their cards, but they can certainly lie about what they have.
There are a lot of strategies to consider when playing Colossal Arena. In the first round, each player has an opportunity to make a secret bet on a creature depicted in their hand. This allows you to invest in a creature for five points, one more than a normal first round bet, while your intentions remain hidden. Players can double down on a creature they already have supported or they can diversify and secretly align with an opponent. Since players only have five bet tokens, they must choose carefully. A creature can only have one bet on it per round, and the value of the bet decreases with each round at a rate of 4-3-2-1. If you invest entirely on one creature, you limit your overall score, but must only defend that one creature; however, should it die, you’ve now lost everything. You can invest in later rounds on creatures backed by other players, which can create some additional protection but also additional targets – any player not backing that creature now benefits from hurting two or more players. If you over diversify, it is possible that any creature of yours will be attacked in subsequent rounds. All three are viable strategies, and the presence of a secret bet prevents scoring from being deterministic, which adds to the tension. You can never be truly certain if you are winning.
Much of Colossal Arena’s replayability comes from its set of creatures. Eight of the twelve creatures are chosen each game, which creates 495 unique games, and the presence or absence of any single creature can make an extreme difference in the game. Additionally, given a set of eight creatures, which creatures you choose will impact the feel of the game, since each creature has a different power. When you bet on a creature, you might become that creature’s backer. Player’s receive backing points equal to the sum of all visible bets on that creature. If no other player overtakes them in backing points, the current backer will retain control of the creature and may use its ability when they play that creature. Players may voluntarily reveal their secret bets on their turn in order to overtake the current backer, which forces them to evaluate the value of using the ability versus the value of obscuring their potential score.
There are four main categories of abilities: Disruption, Power Manipulation, Hand Manipulation and Bet Manipulation and almost all creatures are very strong. There is only a single creature – the Gorgon – whose ability I don’t particularly enjoy. Since players typically only back two or three creatures at most, choosing the right combinations of creatures is essential, as some creatures combine better than others. Players can also void your creature's power by playing Wild cards over them, which must be replaced before the ability can be activated again.
For Hand Manipulation, the Amazon can draw additional cards while the Magus can discard cards you couldn’t ordinarily discard. The Amazon and Magus are powerful because the game ends after five creatures are eliminated or the supply deck is exhausted, and both creatures can accelerate that process, allowing a winning player to rush the end of the game before everyone allies against them. Additionally, the Troll can regenerate and pick up Troll cards from previous rounds, allowing the game to either slow down or allow reuse of previous strong Trolls to consistently protect the creature.
There are three creatures with Disruption abilities and some of them can be devastating. The Cyclops forces a player to set aside half their hand randomly, severely limiting their options for a turn. Since players must always play a card if they can, this effect not only prevents them from preventing a creature they back or attacking one they don’t but also may force them to use a card they were intent on saving. Sometimes, the only legal move is one a player does not want to make, as it is ultimately bad for them. The Titan gives the backer three cards from the hand of the player of their choice and they may keep one of them. This is an excellent way to steal precious Wild cards or gain information about what is in their hand; it is highly likely that one of those three cards depict a creature you can use well. Finally, the Gorgon forces a player to give you a creature of your choice if they can; this can be powerful, but it cannot be used on wilds and you are not guaranteed a) the number of the creature, if they have multiple or b) that you will receive anything at all.
My favorite creatures are those with Power Manipulation because they directly affect who lives and who dies, as well as how long the round will last. The Wyrm can destroy the top card of a creature in the current combat row. This ability can be used in several ways: you can power up a creature by destroying a low card; you can depower a creature by destroying a higher power card; and you can slow the game down by removing the only card on a creature, which essentially adds a turn to the round. The Unicorn can swap any two visible cards depicting the same creature (which will never be the case for Wilds). This can be used to swap high and low cards in either order, protecting or depowering a creature depending on your intentions. Finally, the Ettin can play a second card each turn which, when combined with the Wyrm or Unicorn, can affect the power of up to three creatures in a single turn if you back the Ettin and one of the others. This maneuver can drastically alter the current combat row and blindside your opponents with an unexpected round conclusion; this power also makes you an extreme target for other players, so proceed with caution. I have one friend whose number one priority is to kill the Unicorn because he thinks I secretly backed it - do I continue so or make him think that I did?
Bet Manipulation provides some very powerful abilities and these creatures are often the first to be targeted and eliminated. The Daimon, when activated, allows the backer to bet in any open bet space; this can either place additional early bets to back more creatures or place bets in past rows late in the game with no penalty! These bets act as if they were placed in the depicted round, making the Daimon very powerful. When combined with the Colossus, the only creature that allows you to reclaim bet tokens – even from defeated creatures – a player can bet early and often with relatively no risk. I have played many games where the Colossus backer had few first-round bets but several ones in subsequent rounds, which was enough to win because every bet paid out, even at a smaller rate. It is a shame that Colossus cannot retrieve its own bet token after it dies. As it turns out …
There is one final creature, the Seraphim, whose power is to acquire the ability of any defeated creature. If multiple creatures are defeated, the backer can utilize whichever defeated creature best suits the current situation. While this creature provides no value in the first round, it quickly becomes the most powerful creature in the game, as the most powerful creatures tend to be defeated first since players fear them. Ironically, this same power potential often results in the Seraphim dying first, before it has a chance to grow in power. There is extreme risk in backing the Seraphim, but also great reward if you can keep it alive.
Ending the game by exhausting the supply deck is controversial for many fans of this game, since it can end the game in round three, particularly with five players, though I have played five player games that end after five rounds. Players can discard up to three cards depicting eliminated creatures, which can accelerate the end of the game because you always draw back up to eight. It is generally understood that this game is best with three or four – it is one of my go-to games with three players and I know the Dice Tower greatly enjoys it at this player count as well. Although much of this game’s greatness comes from its inevitable betrayals, I do in fact enjoy this game with only two players given the proper creature set. You must play extremely carefully and power manipulation becomes indispensable since you will want to create an opportunity to influence as many creatures as possible; if you don’t eliminate a creature, your opponent will. By adding that third player, you never know how cooperative player C is going to be, and that dramatically increases the tension of the game, forcing the player to go for certainties whenever possible, even if they aren’t ideal.
Colossal Arena is the perfect type of game for me – short, portable and a high degree of modularity. I still cannot believe that I purchased it so cheaply but I am so happy that I took a chance on it. I originally rated this game as an 8.5 since the game rarely finished five rounds, but I realized how often I was playing five players with the Amazon and/or Magus; I have since increased it to a nine given how often I want to play it. If you have the opportunity to play this game, I highly recommend it. This game is criminally underrated and needs to become available again.