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 prefer to watch the video review, you can do so below.
Things seem to go in waves, and games that arrive to review are no exception. Ophidian Arena is a head to head card game, and is one of five that arrived in my mailbox over the past few weeks. The coolest thing about all of them is that they are all quite different. Yes, they have some of the same mechanics, that all head to head card games have, but the similarity stops there.
This preview will assume that you have a basic understanding of the mechanics of card based games, but I will highlight things that stand out to me as being unique and different. Ophidian Arena is a gladiatorial combat game. Each player will get to select two to four gladiators to be their champions, in addition they will have three or four kept in reserve to go along with the deck of equipment, and tactics and the like; this is known as the strategy deck. This deck is, you guessed it, used to determine the strategy of your gladiators. Your gladiators battle back and forth until one of you has achieved 12 victory points, 15 cheer points (cause being popular is its own victory), or has the most victory points at the end of 4 waves of combat.
One of the things that stands out to me off the bat with this game is the use of both cheer and Victory points in order to win the game. Clearly this is very thematic and works perfectly with the gladiatorial nature of the game, but it is different than so many other games. In all the ones I can think of you have a single path to victory.
Another thing that stands out to me is the use of the crowd, and “momentum”. Anyone who has watched basketball knows what this is. Sometimes a team just gets on a roll and they start to dominate, and they continue to do so, until someone on the other team does something to break their momentum, or the team with it blows it. This is built into the game! There is a mechanic for determining momentum, and as long as you keep it you get to keep playing actions. In addition, you earn “cheer” points as you play, if you have more you are able to activate certain abilities on your cards, representing the crowd being behind you rather than your opponent. Cool stuff.
You play back and forth until neither player can play anything else, most likely because they have run out of resources for the round, or perhaps all their characters are “set”. (Set is OA’s version of “tapped” or “exhausted”). Then you have a “breather” round. This breather round is, perhaps, my favorite part of the game. Thematically, it is obviously representing the “bell” in a boxing match. Give the crowd time to go buy more future beer or whatever. However, this is when you get to upgrade your gladiators, literally level them up, toss your dead gladiators on the funeral pyre, and bring in your reinforcements. At the same time you reset your resources for the next round. (note that you will play a maximum of four rounds)
So what do I think?
This game DELIVERS on its theme. From the crowd mechanics, to the idea of momentum, to the breather rounds, to the use of the “support” field and “action” field, to the art, it feels like a gladiatorial sporting match. I really love how the gladiators operate, not only can they attack but you also have the option of using your gladiators to intercept or protect a target. There is obviously a cost to this, but that is super cool that if you are coming at a support character I have out there, that one of my gladiators can step in front of your attack. I love that. I also really enjoy that the gladiators can get angry. Once you have damaged a gladiator to their rage score they deal additional damage when you attack them (yes both attacker and defender might take damage during an attack), and what is even cooler, if you attack a set character that is raging, they will unset. (You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry indeed)
I am also in love with the use of the crowd and momentum. It is just so cool to me. It makes perfect sense to me that if I am attacking you, I might be able to keep driving you back by unleashing everything I have, and that the crowd would slowly get behind me until you do something worth cheering for, or I do something lame.
What else can I say? I think the mechanics of this game are completely supported by the theme of the game, and vice-versa. Above all, it is fun.
There is a lot to take in on this game. Clearly, I enjoy the complexity of this game. There are multiple ways to win, multiple resources that you are tracking, tons of status effects, lots of classifications of characters and gladiators. However, all of this means that there is a lot of iconography to keep track of. If you take a look at the image above, there are 30 icons to keep track of. It is quite a bit.
The second thing that falls into the middle for me is the art. Thematically it nails it; on the other hand I do find that some of the art is, for want of a better word, “better” than other. Some of them I looked at and thought, “that is sick”, and others I was simply not engaged by it. I do recognize that art is a very subjective thing, so take that for what you will. In any event, it is all evocative of the theme.
There is just so very much to keep track of in this game. Yes, I recognize that this is one of the very things that I said was good above. The inclusion of the different waves, breather phase, cheer mechanic, resource mechanic, reinforcements, raging etc; is just a lot to keep track of. This does not even take into account text on individual cards and what that may require. This means that the learning curve is high for a card game. Even with the same cards being available, this is not a CCG, the first few games you play, you will likely be smashed if your opponent has played before.
Bringing it all together
This is a fun, highly thematic card game. Everything about it evokes the theme of the game. There is a lot that you have to keep track of while you play, so the learning curve is a bit high, but I think it is certainly worth it as all the various phases and options make the game fun. The art is a bit hit or miss, but for me that is not overly concerning because the game is so mechanically well done. Yes, there are certainly more streamlined card games out there, but I cannot think of a single gladiator game that nails the theme quite so well.
Make me read all that and I will throw you to the future space lions myself
*Fun, challenging card game that 100% nails the theme.
*More complex than many card games, but in the best way. Each phase and mechanic is perfectly implemented
*High learning curve, lots to keep track of
*Art is hit or miss
*Reasonably priced to get into-this is NOT a CCG
*Very high replay value