Morituri te salutant!
As much as I consider marketplace diversity crucial to the health of the games industry, I have always felt that certain genres of games are plainly not as good as others. Within this group of malformed ideas and intrinsically bland gameplay concepts, sports-management sims have long occupied an unimpressive station (right beside FMV-adventures starring Rob Schneider). For they have traditionally combined all the drudgery of a real-life desk-job with the additional asininity of anything having to do with sports, other than the playing or watching thereof. I've never really understood the appeal of sports games, anyway--games based upon games?--so the addition of a third layer of abstraction (a game based on managing a game) strikes me as needlessly serpentine. Somewhere, hidden beyond twisty passages formed of impenetrable numbers and ratios, budgets and contracts, I can just barely sense the presence of fun, held fast by irons to unforgiving rock.
What these games have always needed--a heavy and direct dose of piquancy--Stormcloud Creations' Coliseum provides in spades. Spades, and more importantly, swords.
Coliseum tasks you with the management of a small team of gladiators set in a non-historical, fantasy realm. You will guide your fighters through many seasons of tournament-style combat against a host of AI competitors. Although, as a manager, you do no fighting of your own, you still exercise considerable control over the events that transpire in the arena. A good performance from one of your fighters will yield greater interest from the audience for the next week's fight, thereby increasing your income of gold. You must then decide how to spend that gold, with the hope being that a wise allocation of resources will improve your fighters' performance--thereby reinforcing the circle, until it finally culminates in a championship victory.
As with any sports-management sim, success in Coliseum requires a blend of sound economic and coaching strategies. You must decide how much money to spend on advertising; how much to spend on recruitment of new fighters; when to terminate an existing fighter's contract; and many other such fiscal details. In this regard, Coliseum isn't so different than those mundane titles based on real-world sports; although even here, I give Coliseum the nod for its support of certain disreputable activities, such as the ability to gamble on arena matches, to bribe your next opponent, and even to sell your fighters into slavery! (Note that if you do this, the enslaved fighter will come to hate you, and if any of your future fighters must face him in the arena, he will gain a substantial boost to his stats.)
But it is with regard to coaching strategy that Coliseum really sets itself apart. Just as in the real world, a good Coliseum coach must balance his fighters' training, rest, and medical leave with the constant need for good performance in the arena. But in this game, you may also force your fighters to imbibe magical steroid-potions to improve their strength, sometimes with dangerous side effects. You can buy magical enchantments for your fighters, of which there is a huge selection, with effects ranging from extra attacks or damage, to additional armor and regenerative healing. You can send your fighters away on a knightly quest to gain gold or increase their abilities, but they won't be available to fight while away, and may suffer injury or even death. And when you must tend to a man on account of injury or illness, he is more likely to suffer from bleeding of the brain, or else such magical afflictions as "tomb plague," "grotto rash," or "abyss sweats," than from a simple strained tendon or mild head-cold. It is largely thanks to such features as these that Coliseum does not feel like a football or baseball sim with a thin veneer of fantasy slapped on. The setting isn't exactly engrossing, but it is convincing, and definitely entertaining.
Each of your fighters has a set of attributes--Strength, Speed, Agility, Durability, and Intangibles--the corresponding numbers of which will dictate how well he fights, with higher numbers indicating better ability. The "Intangibles" category is the only one in need of explanation; it governs how pliable the fighter will be when it comes time to renegotiate his contract, as well as how likely he is to get into trouble outside the ring. Particularly unruly fighters may incur suspensions from the league for periods of many weeks, which can cripple your efforts at a championship run. (It is at times such as this that the "sell into slavery" button takes on a vindictive appeal.) There are also several hidden statistics, such as a "clutch" rating, which determines how well the fighter will perform during the most crucial and tense moments of a duel, and a fragility rating, which affects susceptibility to injury, sickness, and death. Lastly, you have your own statistics as manager, such as Loyalty, which can affect your gladiators' morale, and Development, which controls how adept you are at training your men and improving their stats over time. Coliseum crunches a great deal of math behind the scenes, and the effect of all these statistics is to yield just enough insight into the game's inner workings that every outcome seems plausible in retrospect, while still leaving ample room for surprises. And whereas most management sims unleash page after page of tedious numbers, Coliseum is less lavish in this regard, and the tighter focus helps lend emphasis where it belongs: bloodsport.
After you've examined the schedule, chosen your fighter for the week, and placed your bets, the time for combat arrives. At the start of the match, you may instruct your fighter to adopt a defensive, neutral, or aggressive stance, depending on the strengths and weaknesses of both your fighter and his opponent. The swordplay itself is totally hands-off; you may only observe the carnage in whatever form it takes (although, if your fighter loses half of his willpower (i.e., hit points), you can yell at him to change to a more defensive or aggressive stance). The combat transpires in a series of rounds, until one fighter or the other runs out of willpower and collapses. Deaths from combat are rare--otherwise each season would be over after just a few weeks--but not so rare as to instill any sense of complacency. On one occasion I lost my main fighter to a lucky stab of the sword, and it took me several twenty-week seasons before I had recovered to the point of making another run at the championship.
The game narrates each attack and parry through descriptive text; no graphics. These descriptions, while enthusiastic, are sadly limited both in terms of variety and extent of numbers, but the fights are often extremely tense regardless. I have on many occasions felt the rush of victory as my fighters overcame huge deficits to win, or cried out in anguish when they were struck down by what had seemed to be lesser men.
And it is a good thing that the combat is exciting, because after a few hours of play, I began to think that I had seen all that there is to see in Coliseum. Whatever longevity you may find in it will depend on how much you enjoy the core mechanics of managing your gladiators and watching them fight. It only takes about an hour to explore all of the game's intricacies, after which time it becomes an exercise in repetition, with the hope being that repetition will breed excellence.
We are fortunate, then, that Coliseum's mechanics are sound. I expect that I shall be repeating the same actions, watching similar fights, and reliving the same thrills for some time to come, the smile on my face never faltering.