Review of Titan: The Arena

Review Summary
Playtest Review
Written Review

July 16, 2003


by: Shannon Appelcline


Style: 3 (Average)
Substance: 5 (Excellent!)

A great betting game by master Reiner Knizia. Sadly out of print, but if you can find a copy, terrific for an hour's fun.

Shannon Appelcline has written 679 reviews (including 202 card game reviews), with average style of 4.03 and average substance of 3.85. The reviewer's previous review was of Kingdoms.

This review has been read 10221 times.

 
Product Summary
Name: Titan: The Arena
Publisher: Avalon Hill
Line: Grand National Derby
Author: Reiner Knizia, Don Greenwood
Category: Card Game

Cost: $19.95
Pages: N/A
Year: 1997

SKU: AH6458
ISBN: 1-56038-191-4


Review of Titan: The Arena
Titan: The Arena is a card game by Reiner Knizia and Don Greenwood (really, Don Greenwood's expansion of a Reiner Knizia design, as I understand it). By betting on creatures in arena combat, players hope to back the winners while pushing their opponents' favorites toward defeat.

Players: 2-5
Difficulty: 3 (of 10)
Time: 30-45 minutes

Of note: this is not the Avalon Hill war game you might remember from many years ago, with the hexes and all the monster chits. Instead, Titan: The Arena is a totally original card game (or rather, was an original card when it was released six years ago) that tried to entice people to purchase it by using the existing Avalon Hill Titan brand.

This is a rewrite/expansion of a review of Titan: The Arena that I originally published in September 2002.

Jump To: The Components - The Game Play - The Game Design - Forum Discussions

The Components

This game comes with:

  • 110 cards
  • 25 plastic wagering chips
  • 1 rulebook

The cards are all printed on heavy cardstock with rounded corners. There are 99 "strength" cards which are each printed with a number (0-10) and a creature name. There are 11 strengths cards for each arena combatant and another 11 "wild cards". The blue-backed/play deck also includes 3 special effect cards ("referees"). The other 8 cards are red-backed, each depicting one of the 8 creatures. They're used to mark the column for play of strength cards on that critter.

The two types of cards are nicely distinguished between thanks to the varying backs. Likewise the fronts of the strength cards make it easy to distinguish individual monsters, as each arena combatant is shown on a solid color back. The hydra is yellow, for example, and the unicorn blue. Each card has at its center a nice piece of artwork, though the same artwork is repeated on every one of a creature's cards. Each card also very clearly depicts its value, the monster's name, and has a short synopsis of the creature's power.

The plastic wagering chips are plain plastic chips, in 5 different colors for 5 players. You may wish to replace them with nice clay poker chips or glass beads for improved aesthetics.

The rules are printed 4-color on slightly stiff paper. They're unfortunately very hard to follow on a first read through, though the rules are actually quite simple. You'll enjoy yourself much more if you get someone else to explain these rules to you.

The box contains a plastic tray which actually holds the game cards and keeps them from running wild. This is rare in card games packed in oversized board game boxes and is appreciated.

Overall, the components are fairly average, earning the game a Style rating of "3" out of "5".

The Gameplay

In Titan: the Arena you place bets on monsters and also play the various monsters' strength cards in order to kill your opponent's favorite monsters and save your own. The winning player emerges after 5 rounds of combat as the player with the most and highest bets remaining. There are eight monsters, total, ready to bash it out with each other--the hydra, the dragon, the unicorn, the troll, the titan, the warlock, the ranger, and the cyclops.

Each player takes the following actions each turn:

  1. Optionally place a bet.
  2. Play a card.
  3. Discard up to 3 cards.
  4. Draw up to 8 hand size.

Betting: Each monster can have one bet played on it in each round of combat. Bets placed in the first round are worth 4, the second 3, the third 2, the fourth 1, and the fifth 0. Optionally, and only in the first round of combat, a player can also place a "secret" bet by placing a strength card of the appropriate monster face down; this is worth 5. The prime purpose in betting is to earn points toward victory, but the player with the most bets on a monster also becomes its backer, as discussed below.

Playing: Every turn a player will play a combat card in the current round's row for one of the monsters. As already noted, each of the monsters has 11 strength cards, numbered from 0 to 10. You can only play a monster's own strength cards on itself--or one of those 10 wild cards.

If a backer plays a card on his own monster he gets to use its special power, which varies from monster to monster. The special powers are:

  • Hydra: Backers plays a second strength card on another monster.
  • Dragon: Backer destroys a strength card in play.
  • Unicorn: Backer exchanges a current strength card with a previous strength card of the same monster.
  • Troll: Backer retrieves a previous troll strength card.
  • Titan: Backer takes a card from an opponent out of a set of 3 random cards.
  • Warlock: Backer discards up to 3 cards of his choice.
  • Ranger: Backer draws three cards.
  • Cyclops: Backer chooses an opponent who may not use half of his cards next turn.

Discarding: Player may discard up to three cards for monsters who have already been killed.

Drawing: Player refills his hand to 8.

The game is divided into those aforementioned 5 rounds of combat. Each round of combat continues until each monster has a strength card on it, at which time the monster with the lowest card is eliminated. In case of tie, play continues until there isn't a tie anymore.

After five rounds of combat, when there are only three monsters remaining, secret bets are finally revealed. The values of all live bets are summed and the player with the highest total is the winner.

Relations to Other Games

In 1996 Reiner Knizia designed a game called Grand National Derby. It was about betting on racing horses, with players playing numbered cards to determine the winners and losers.

In 1997 Don Greenwood expanded GND for Avalon Hill, turning the horses into monsters, and giving each of those monsters a special power which could be used by the backer of the monster. This was, of course, Titan: The Arena. There were as recently as two years ago talk of a new edition of Titan to be produced by Avalon Hill, but that seems more and more unlikely as time goes on.

In 2000, after Avalon Hill was sucked up by Hasbro and stopped producing most of their interesting games, Don Greenwood produced an advanced version of Titan for GMT Games called Galaxy: The Dark Ages. The monsters were turned into alien races and each strength card (0-10) was also given a special power.

Personally, I feel like Titan was the game of the three that managed to hit the sweet spot of complexity. Though I've never played GND I suspect I'd find it slightly too simple, and I can indeed say that Galaxy ended up being way too complex. See my article, Thinking Virtually #60, Designing Strategy: Decision Sets for some discussions of how I think Titan went right and Galaxy went wrong.

Like many Knizia games Titan is fairly abstract, with a theme kind of loosely glued on. That this game went from horses racing to monsters being eliminated in an arena to a battle for supremacy of the galaxy really says it all.

The Game Design

Titan is a quick, fun, largely unflawed card games that's been played somewhere between a half-dozen and a dozen times in my house every year since I bought it, shortly after its release. This actually says a lot because most games I own are only played a couple of times while I'm thinking about their design and figuring out exactly what the designer has done.

Here's some of the best parts of the game:

Controlled Randomness: Though you're drawing totally arbitrary cards, you ultimately adapt your betting strategy to the cards you draw. If you have low-value combat cards, you use them to kill your opponent's monsters, while if you have high-value combat cards, you use them to protect your own. Mid-level cards or weighted distribution of wilds can favor one player, but even here the game tends to self-balance internally, as players can very effectively work together to try and bring down a leader.

Secrets Keep Players in the Game: Thanks to the secret bet, you never know quite how many points someone has, and so there's reason to keep fighting to the end in many games.

High Replay Value: Replay value of Titan: the Arena is very high because so much of your gameplay is based on what you draw--making every game very different.

Real Lookahead Strategy: It's easy in the game to see which players are wed to which monsters, based on bets. Thus it's also easy to predict the actions of players. And, thus, it's easy to make a particular move that you expect will then force a future player to make a move in response. For example, several times when last I played Titan, I played a specific card knowing it would force my first opponent to play another card (if he had it), which would eliminate my second opponent's monster before it was his turn. Being able to look ahead just a couple of turns is very nice.

Here's some of the scant flaws in the game:

Some Possibility for Near Total Elimination: In the last couple of combat rounds, if all of your high-bet monsters have been eliminated, it's possible to get in a state where statistically you can't win. However, at least this elimination isn't total, and you can still play for scraps (e.g., 3rd place, not 4th).

Imbalance in Monster Powers: The monsters' powers are not balanced. For example, the Hydra power, which allows you to play a second card, is very valuable; and the Cyclops' power, which allows you to temporarily freeze half of one opponents' hand, is fairly weak. This, however, is another gameplay element that tends to self-regulate. People tend to try and kill the most powerful monsters because they are powerful; thus though the controller of the monster gets some advantage from the nice special power, he's also more of a target. It's possible there's still some innate unbalance, which could particularly crop up when experienced players play new players, but it's hard to see for certain. In keeping stats on our last 9 games of Titan it looks like the Dragon and the Titan survive particularly frequently and the Warlock almost never, but that could just as easily be a result of our gaming groups' betting patterns as innate imbalances.

Because of Titan's solid replayability and nearly flawless design, I give it a full "5" out of "5" for Substance.

Conclusion

Titan is a great betting game, probably the best in the Grand National Derby trilogy. It's quick to play and does an excellent job of filling an hour while you're waiting for late gamers to show up, or to fill out the evening when an RPG adventure ends early.

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