There are no penalties, no fouls, no pads and no unsportsmanlike conduct. There is only dust, sweat, blood and death. As of gladiator games in ancient times, the crowds crave it like a feral mob, roaring with every blow and rioting with every crunch. Not much different than our own primal, bloodlust yearnings of the modern era with boxing, football and UFC – it’s just death isn’t on the line, anymore. But as long as this visceral hunger lurks within human nature (and it always will), there will be games reveling in it – real, digital or analog.
How To Play
In Death Pit Duels, you and another player are gladiatorial promoters assembling a team of fantasy warriors to fight to the, well, death! Not that you care…as long as it leads to profit!
Players begin the game drafting their
slaves champions through an “I divide, you decide” format. The fighter deck is comprised of ten cards each in four races: human, orc, goblin and cyclops. The first player draws five cards and creates two pairs, setting the fifth aside. The second player chooses which pair he wants and the first player gets the other. Then the second player draws four new cards, adding the previously undrafted warrior to it and repeats the process. When both managers have twelve fighters, the rest of the deck is set aside.
Each lanista also has an identical deck of duel cards numbered 1-12. These they take into their hands, while their team of warriors is shuffled and placed face down. Death Pit Duels lasts twelve matches in which you will play one duel card and one fighter. The winner of each bout wins a prize consisting of either 3, 5 or 7 coins (let’s pretend inflation is really low in this world). In the case of a tie, more coins are added to the purse for contention in the next round.
A round begins (except when the previous one is a draw) by revealing a new monetary reward from the coin deck. Then both players draw the top card from their fighter deck to reveal the next two champions. All fighters have a strength value. Some have a special ability, too. There are berserkers who toss a die and add its result to their strength. Fanatics add a +1 bonus when fighting against someone of another race. A leader confers a bonus to your fighter in the next bout. Renegades earn a +3 modifier when battling soldiers of their own kind. Specialists are adept at dueling a specific group. And some bring the WWE sounding “triple threat,” tag-teaming their opponents with the help of prisoners – likely enlisted against their wishes, but what do I know?
After carefully considering the match-up, risks and reward, both players now choose a duel card from their hand and reveal them simultaneously. That number is added to your gladiator’s strength to form a combat value. The fighter with the highest combined strength, after adding modifiers, is victorious and his owner wins the purse! Sounds of rending flesh and cracking bones are all abstracted.
The owner earning the most cumulative coin over the course of twelve matches wins laurels, better contracts, a new chariot and a future swords & sandals movie deal directed by Cecil B. DeMille and starring Russell Crowe. Hey, this is all fantasy, so anachronisms be tossed!
We Who Are About to Die Salute You?
The first rule of fight club is you don’t talk about fight club. Thankfully this isn’t fight club, so I can tell you all about it. Death Pit Duels is a simple, straight-up card game with a simple, straight-up goal: take your opponent out. And I don’t mean to dinner.
It’s not deep, but the clean structure scratches an itch for quick two-player combat games. Bluntly stated, the rules are extremely basic aside from the special ability modifiers, which still won’t trip you up. There are no special moves, combos or crazy power-ups. This isn’t an analog Mortal Kombat knock-off. That might disappoint some fans of this style, but then it would be a different game. Instead, Death Pit Duels focuses on the vying and showdown aspects by balancing two areas: strategy vs. luck and card-counting vs. hidden information. Managing those parts is the game.
In regards to strategy vs. luck, it is a card game, which means some plays inherently emerge randomly. However, two things let you manage it: team drafting and the duel cards. The draft format of “I divide, you decide” is always an interesting one. It quickly squashes any attempt to power max and forces you to choose between the risk of giving too much away and learning to live with doing without. But there’s a longer game at play in this particular draft. Select fighters fare better against certain races and assembling your team with the best odds to exploit that is what the draft is all about. You might be willing to take a weaker warrior in order to saddled your opponent with multiple Orcs that you know a couple of your gladiators will maul. At the same time, your rival could be engineering a similar plan that you might want to derail by grabbing a pair you normally wouldn’t. Parity might be good…or maybe not…?
Duel cards can help mitigate randomness, but also involve important decisions. When do you go all in, playing high combat value? When do you concede by tossing out a lower card? When do you try to bluff your opponent in committing or retreating? If luck of the draw sends your weak 2-strength goblin up against an 8-strength cyclops for a purse worth seven coins, you’ll think long and hard about tossing in your 12-value duel card – if you still have it, that is. Of course, your foe will be thinking the same thing and might just simply invest his 7-value card and you don’t stand a chance, anyway…modifiers notwithstanding. So you just saying, “Forget it” and burn your 1-value card in surrender. Then again, maybe your rival will correctly guess your move and follow suit, leaving you pounding the dust for missing an opportunity!
Fighter and duel cards also stew in an interesting cauldron of hidden and known information. Essentially you know what your opponent has, but not the order in which everything will play out. How that hidden information is slowly revealed over each successive bout affects your long-game strategy.
Thanks to the open draft you know what you’re up against, even if just a general recollection. What you don’t know is what order each champion will emerge – for either assailant (there is a variant for more strategic play in which you have a hand of three fighters and choose which to commit each battle). As they enter the pit, there’s not a lot you can do about it in the moment. Yet it very much influences what duel card you might want to play. Do you reserve high cards to boost weaker fighters that still haven’t emerged from the huddle? Is there an obvious situation where you know you can expend a weak play because one of your strongest champions in on the table?
For fans of card-counting – or just plain paying attention – the sequence in which duel cards appear spawns a mini-fencing match in itself. Running out high values in the early game might give your foe better options later. Conserving them could force him to do likewise. In any event, as you both exhaust duel cards, the pool of unknown info recedes and builds tension as you strain harder to read your opponent and find it more difficult to bluff him. Unless one of you have blown through all the high cards while the other conserved them, but that scenario is usually rare.
In addition to those tactical considerations, the game’s third major component can influence your decisions each and every bout: the prize purse. Sloughing off low value combat cards for a mere three coins is a valid strategy – and a common one. Yet those prizes are random. So maybe you want, or need to go all in for multiple small purses hoping quantity makes up for quality, while your rival spends, or has spent his big guns on larger prizes, but fewer of them. Then again, if several high dollar rewards await the victor in successive matches, the heat rises several degrees since you can’t afford to yield so many points.
Decisions are critical as you gauge your opponent and take stock of your options. Then you realize this simple game maybe isn’t so simple!
A quick note about the generic and sparse artwork and graphic design, as I’m sure you’ve noted. The game is currently only available on the Game Crafter. Therefore its resources are fairly limited in that area, for now. If you’re familiar with that company, keep in mind their mission is to bring games to germination, giving it a chance to sprout to life when brought out into the sun where it can bloom really pretty.
Death Pit Duels is a brisk and quaint combat game that thankfully curtails all the blood and gore. That’s okay, because you know what’s going on. This showdown card game has it’s share of strategy and luck, bluffing and card-counting. It successfully balances both contradictions to create a quick vying game where calculated moves are crucial, but can still be at the mercy of whims beyond your control. And the long game is always in play. Simple and to the smackdown point, fans of quick-hitting fighting games will appreciate this pure design with tense decision points that will leave you sweating – just not as much as the gladiators you’re throwing into the arena!
Frost Forge Games provided a review copy of Death Pit Duels for this review.