Coliseum

Morituri te salutant!

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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.)

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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.

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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.

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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.

Coliseum
Official Site and Online Store
Publisher: Shrapnel Games
Developer: Stormcloud Creations
Released November 2003
US $19.95; Pentium II 400MHz, 64 MB RAM, 35MB HDD, Windows 95+

Comments

Thank you for the review- the game had caught my eye, but I knew nothing about it. Your review may even be the first.

I suspected that there was no actual CGI-generated fights (too bad, though I appreciate the reasons why not) and you confirmed it.

Now, if they add chariot races in an expansion, I might be in...

Thanks for the review. While I will never get a sport game, esp. a sport management game (for the very reason that you mentioned -- I rather play the game, or watch it in action in real life), I have to say that the concept of Colisem looks much more appealing then the other sport-management type games.

I think what you said about how sport management game brings too much boring reality into a game, can be applied to most sport games. There is just not enough abstraction of reality in those games. I can never escape into the "game world" that these games create.

However, Coliseum looks different. Because of its setting, it is free from a lot of restrictions. (Good thing that licensing player names didn't happen in the Roman times right? ) And the "far-fetched" and the unethical things that you can do in the game help create a world that is very different from our own. Added by the fact that we are dealing with a game of life and death, hence bloodshed, hence lots of violence that we like; I imagine that playing the game must provide a great sense of escape from reality. (In fact, just by reading your description I find myself fantasizing being actually in the Colisem and screaming at the fighters)

Intriguing review. I'm curious, how did you come across Coliseum?

I recall somebody from Stormcloud being a fairly regular poster here at GWJ in the past...unfortunately I can't remember whom.

I've always missed in-game cheating options in management games. Since I got to bribing police officers and mayors, sabotaging the competitions' restaurants and trading weapons (lemon ice cream, anyone) in Pizza Tycoon it's hard to go back to plain vanilla management. The only soccer management game I remember to have a bribe option was USM2. We need more in-game fraudulence!

Man, I wish we had that "sell into slavery" button in real life.

"Y'know, Terrell, it's been a great couple seasons, and you've been a real valuable member of this team. We even went to the Superbowl! Oh, those were happy times. I'm afraid that with some of the troubles lately, what with this "contract renegotiation" and all, we've decided it's best for all concerned if you were playing under management that is a little more... um... sensitive to your needs. Good luck with you're new team! You've been very unhappy here, we're really just looking out for your best interest."

Lobo wrote:

...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.

Needlessly serpentine? You mean pure genius:

Coming soon from Rockstar Games: Chess Club Manager! Geek out your uncannily next-gen avatars with custom haircuts, glasses, clothes, and more! Manage their sweat output, concentration, deliberation time, and strategy style! Tutor your players with the masters, then watch them climb the ladder to worldwide chess domination!Watch tense, head-to head matches unfold in dozens of chess combat arenas, including lifelike reproductions of actual of auditoriums and conference halls!

Anyway, excellent review of an intriguing game.

The Fly wrote:
Lobo wrote:

...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.

Needlessly serpentine? You mean pure genius:

Coming soon from Rockstar Games: Chess Club Manager

Awesome! Although I think I would prefer to take it one step further with, Chess Club: Faculty Sponsor: Navigate the politics of a mid-sized high school faculty lounge while you attempt to advise the Chess Club manager on such issues as, scheduling, procurement of chess boards, tables, and chairs, and the dreaded AP Calculus Exam/Tri-county tournament time conflict.

The Fly wrote:
Lobo wrote:

...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.

Needlessly serpentine? You mean pure genius:

Coming soon from Rockstar Games: Chess Club Manager! Geek out your uncannily next-gen avatars with custom haircuts, glasses, clothes, and more! Manage their sweat output, concentration, deliberation time, and strategy style! Tutor your players with the masters, then watch them climb the ladder to worldwide chess domination!Watch tense, head-to head matches unfold in dozens of chess combat arenas, including lifelike reproductions of actual of auditoriums and conference halls!

Anyway, excellent review of an intriguing game.

Don't forget that the chess players need to unwind by beating hookers to death.

This Coliseum game seems intersting, even though I wish it had some graphics, kinda... Just to spice things up, as it seems like a very cool idea for a game. My personal preference would be for the management aspects to be part of a larger game where you are a Gladiator AND Manager (for yourself and other Gladiators) AND Doing Celeb things, such as rescuing princesses and killing dragons.

A bunch of random, unrelated thoughts about all this:

Some subjects such as Chess Club Management have such a small audience that bells and whistles like, I don't know, graphics, are not practical. Gotta have the big sales to have the big production.

The sports management genre is about to get a very big game thru EA's Head Coach. Seems to be a football management sim married with last years Madden graphics. As it seems football is the only thing EA can do well on a consistent basis, I'm mildly interested in the results.

For me personally, I'm a huge football fan but would much rather watch a real game than play a video game.

In-game fraudulence - like shooting steroids or sending cheerleaders to the other team's players in Blitz: The League?

I don't want anybody to start bugging, but I personally love FMV adventures, Rob Schnider or no.

KaterinLHC wrote:

Intriguing review. I'm curious, how did you come across Coliseum?

Certis was like, "Free games from Shrapnel! Free games!" So I volunteered. Such is my burden in life.

JustinMcElroy wrote:

I don't want anybody to start bugging, but I personally love FMV adventures, Rob Schnider or no.

Is that so? I leave you to choose and perform your penance.

I reviewed Voyager a while back, unofficially of course. Derek was a coffee grinder then, not sure if he joined because of that. I know I mentioned his "previous game, Gladiator".

Stormcloud is a one-man shop, so I have respect for Derek, he puts a lot of effort into his games.

sports-management sims have always occupied an unimpressive station (right beside FMV-adventures starring Rob Schneider).

As an aside, i'm coming to beat you to death with a copy of Football Manager. Just sayin'.

As an aside, i'm coming to beat you to death with a copy of Football Manager. Just sayin'.

And I'm just sayin you're a loser for playing Excel, like I've said 100 times before.

Excel with sound effects!

Prederick wrote:

Excel with sound effects!

FTW!

Prederick wrote:

Excel with sound effects!

Oh, you got Master of Orion 3 too?

hubbinsd wrote:

I recall somebody from Stormcloud being a fairly regular poster here at GWJ in the past...unfortunately I can't remember whom.

It was me, the one and only employee of Stormcloud. I was beset upon early on by the GWJ forum police after posting here the first time (and I didn't even mention one of my games initially), so that made me a little shy about coming back here again.

But thanks to "Lobo" for his review...it was about the only really positive one about the game when it came out (a review by a William Abner being the only other one in a big mag who had anything positive to say about the game). Yes, there were reviews from many major sites/mags, and most were neutral to very negative, which pissed me off a great deal, honestly. Most reviewers missed the point of the game and its design (commenting on the box and graphics, rather than the game itself), one designed to be simple yet complex enough to interesting, and a game designed for people that don't like typical sports management sims.

Derek
Stormcloud Creations