Before I begin, I was provided with a copy of the game in exchange for an honest review. This is not a paid review. If you would like to watch a video of this review instead, check it out below, and learn more about the game and get your own copy here.
I remember fairly clearly when Arena was originally on Kickstarter. I remember looking at it excitedly, thinking about how cool it all looked. I remember going through the initial page, and I remember not backing it. Why did I not back it? Because I never managed to gather that it was more than a PVP Skirmish game. Truth be told that might be my fault completely, or perhaps the co-op and campaign were stretch goals…I do not know. I then promptly forgot about it, cause Skirmish games, while fun, are not ones that I can get to the table often.
Then a little while ago it started to fulfill, and every so often I would see a picture or two of it. Every time I would comment “What game is that? It looks cool!” Then, someone informed me that there was a pretty robust campaign mode for solo and co-op play. My mind reeled! How had I missed that?
Then I found out that they have another Kickstarter coming in a few weeks, which, among other things, would greatly expand many elements of the campaign. So doing what every ambitious reviewer does I reached out and asked if they were interested in a review focused on the campaign play. They were. Boy were they ever.
I was not expecting so much stuff to arrive, it was completely overwhelming. There were just SO. MANY. TOYS. However, I dove in and was able to play through a portion of the campaign. I have not finished, but I wanted to make sure I got this review out before their next KS. That said I have certainly played enough to have a good feel for the game.
The world of Arena is one in which thousands of years ago a great curse was placed on the world, a world with a bunch of awesome, and violent dragons in it, this curse was meant to stop all out war. Once the curse befell the people any time armies met and great violence began to occur some sort of natural disaster would occur and kill most, if not all, of the combatants. This led to the creation of the Arena, the Arena allows nations to send champions to battle champions of other nations in proxy wars. It also should be noted that any champion that wins 15 matches is granted a wish from the emperor, though this has never actually happened. The beginning of the campaign sees you being sent to investigate the potential growing wasteland, which may or may not have to do with dragons, and other evil. You, and your team are to investigate and stop it.
Each game you will select a team of four heroes from a large variety of them. The only stipulation is that all of your heroes must come from one of the seven different archetypes (ie shooter, brute, healer, etc.). Then like any other dungeon crawl or tactical game you move about a grid attacking and getting attacked and doing your best to kill all the monsters on the board, collect treasure, or free prisoners, or unlock doors etc. Do note that there is also the option to have two players select four heroes and battle it out in the Arena. Combat is handled with a d20, 3 basic stats and no more than 4 unique character attacks. Two of these are always available, and the other two are one use abilities that are more powerful, but, as mentioned consumable.
In between each battle however there is an immersive campaign told through both the campaign book, and a very thick stack of story cards. These cards and campaign tomb present both the story, and various choices. These might be choices as simple as do quest A or B, or they might force you to make a decision of how to react to something, sometimes you are literally given ten seconds to decide. Whatever you decide has results that might have lasting campaign effects, or might give you immediate bonuses or debuffs. Additionally, there are puzzles that you have to work out, with a QR code to take you to the website where you can input your answers and it will tell you if you are right or wrong.
So what do I think?
Let’s start with the components. The art is stellar. I am a huge fan of it. All of the components are very good as well, the minis have good detail on them (not the best, in fact that is one of the selling points of the next KS). I really like the feel of the cards, and the Game Trayz insert is spectacularly done. This does not even begin to take into account the dungeon expansion which gives you 3-d chests and walls.
The combat system is very light and simple. There really is not much to it, it is even set up to where you can remove the few rules that can potentially slow down combat (mobbing, reaction attacks, first aid) should you be so inclined. I, for one, greatly appreciate a combat system that is quick; I espcially appreciate it when I am playing four characters (sorry Gloomhaven, you are great, but I NEVER want to play 4 characters at once, just shoot me and my melted brain now). At the same time, I feel like the characters really are distinct. Yes each character within an archetype will play similarly, but they are definitely flavored differently, and definitely offer good variety.
Now to the campaign, the main reason I am reviewing this game. Admittedly, I have only played a few missions, and a single boss battle, so do take this with a slight grain of salt; but I really have been enjoying it. There is a lot of lore behind this game, as shown in the art and lore book, which is chock full of story and history. What I really appreciate about the campaign is that you have to make very real and often difficult choices. Just the other night I sent the designer a FB message telling him he was horrible for making me make a choice that I had to make. Even better, sometimes the choice that can seem like the smart thing to do is actually the worst. Every single quest has one or more of these choices that you have to make. However, the coolest thing about the campaign is not the character growth, or the difficult choices, but the puzzles.
Yup, that is correct often you are hit with a puzzle on the story cards, and the best part is that you may or may not have all the info you need to solve it based on your previous choices. I failed to solve a puzzle before my first boss fight, and got a pretty significant debuff, and I am not sure, but I think that due to my earlier choices I had lost the info that would have made the answer obvious. This feels right to me. It feels like a real adventure, if you don’t find the clue, then you don’t find it, this campaign does not mollycoddle you.
There is so much content in this game, that it takes up a lot of storage space. Now, if you just get the core box, you will have plenty of content, but for all you completionists out there, better clear out some space.
Second, the leveling up system is simple and adequate, but to my mind could use a little more variety. You are able to purchase static bonuses to your characters and that is it. It is fine, just not exciting. I will note that this is something being addressed in the next KS. (I will talk about this in the video review)
I also think that while I can definitely go back and play through the campaign a second time (there are already several things that I have chosen not to do, and will not get to this campaign), maybe a third, after that you will certainly know the story. I do not think this is bad, but I do know that people are very big on replay value. It is high, but not infinite, unless you are just excited by the prospect of testing out all the characters, in which case you might not need any more games ever.
I have already praised the artwork, and I stand by that. However, there are two characters that fall into the 80’s fantasy art style that is reminiscent of chain mail bikinis. Many people do not care at all, but it is not my preference. I will note that one of these two has alternate artwork, and those cards are all in the box with that art, so that just leaves the one. I actually think that with all the other characters not being drawn in that style, this one actually stands out to me. However, that is one out of, maybe 25 characters or so.
The second thing that I will say is that I think the name of the game is a miss. To me, though I understand why it is called Arena, based on the lore, the nae evokes something that is mainly a PvP skimish game. To me this game is much more than just a skirmish game, it is almost misleading in my mind.
Bringing it all together
Arena is a solid, light skirmish game. However, it is also a very good solo/co-op dungeon adventure game. The epic campaign is very well done, it is engaging, includes real choices that are painful at times, it is not afraid to punish you for making an ill advised choice and it wonderfully includes puzzles in between combat; though perhaps the leveling up system could use a little more love. The components are excellent, the character minis are not as strong as the rest of them, but they are more than adequate. This is a game that is going to take up a lot of shelf space if you go all in on it. There art is very good, with a single character art exception that I think is a miss. The campaign itself has good, though not infinite replay value.
I would rather fight in the arena with my bare hands than read that novel
* A quick fun PvP Skirmish game
* A very good solo/co-op campaign experience
* Campaign manages to institute challenging decisions and utilizes puzzles in a way unlike any other game I have played
* Excellent components
* Great art over all
* Good, but not infinite replay value on the campaign
* Character advancement system is fine, but there is room for improvement
* Takes up a lot of shelf space, but a reasonable amount of table space.
* The name is a misnomer in many ways, because this is a top tier co-op/solo game, it is so much more than just an arena