Following last week’s retroplay of Wooden Ships & Iron Men, this weekend I pulled out another old game from the shelf to play at the weekend RockyMountainNavy Family Game Night. Circus Maximus (Avalon Hill, 1980) is a game of chariot racing in ancient Rome. The game, a mix of race and combat, was once again a great hit.
Before the RockyMountainNavy Boys and I started playing, I pulled up a few YouTube videos of the 1959 movie Ben Hur. In particular, I pulled up the Parade of the Charioteers and The Chariot Race.
Unexpectedly, the RMN Boys focused on the cinematic aspects of the film. They were awed by the grand sets, spectacular costumes, and real racing. The epic scene captivated them and helped them understand the theme of the game to follow.
If you are not familiar with Circus Maximus, the publisher’s blurb tells you the whole story:
Violent and bloody, Circus Maximus details the chariot races that occurred in ancient Rome. Eight teams race around the track three times to determine victory. Players prepare for the race by selecting the composition of their team of horses, their rider’s skills, and the type of chariot that will be driven. Once the race begins the players are free to do as they wish to hamper the other racers including whipping the rider, ramming chariots with scythed wheels, smashing into horses, and running over crashed opponents. A campaign game of multiple races, in which players have to manage their teams and can increase their income by betting on races, is also possible. (BGG)
For our race we randomly set up six chariots. We quickly generated our chariots according to the rules for the Basic Game and were off!
The Boys were hesitant going down the first stretch, staying in their lanes with only me moving towards the inside. In an attempt to “get into the spirit” of the game I tried to Lash a Driver as I passed one of the Youngest RMN Boy’s chariots and, just like in the movie, lost my whip! Going into the first turn, I could see the Boys having a bit of some difficulty understanding the rules for Corner Strain, so I made sure at least one of my chariots was a bit quick to show them how the rules work. As it was, we all passed our Corner Strain rolls the first part of the turn, and for myself I got a bit overconfident. With my purple chariot still in the corner, I plotted a bit of a fast speed to try and get a good lead coming out of the turn. Instead, I rolled poorly (17 on 3d6) and even with my measly +1 Current Driver Modifier (in this case subtracted to make the roll a 16) I Flipped my chariot leaving a wreck behind.
[In the Advanced Game, one determines if the driver is dragged behind the horses and able to cut themselves loose. Once loose, he has to run off the track before getting trampled under the hooves of another team. We didn’t play this part but I explained it to the Boys.]
Now the Boys started understanding the game. The yellow chariot of the Youngest RMN was a real speed demon (Extra Endurance with a Fast Team) and pulled out ahead of the pack. My brown chariot was a Light Chariot with a Fast Team and tried to keep up. The other three chariots fell behind.
This is where the chaotic nature of the game started to really show. The yellow chariot was not fast enough to pull away from my brown chariot. If the yellow chit draw came first, he was safe; if the brown chit pull came first I was able to get close. Luck seemed to be with yellow, and I only got a few chances to attack. When I got close I went after his horses in an effort to slow him down. The results were mixed as my Light Chariot was at a disadvantage in inflicting damage. I hurt his horses a bit and slowed him down some, but not nearly enough. The race was decided on the last chit pull; if brown was pulled first I was positioned for another attack that could slow him down just enough to maybe lose. If yellow was pulled first and he Whipped his Horses using Strain he could probably just make the finish line. The first chit of the turn was pulled…and was yellow! He immediately used his whip and got just enough extra speed for the win!
We all shook hands and congratulated each other on a great race. The Youngest RMN Boy asked me if I had played the game a lot when I was younger. I pointed to the well-worn counters and asked him what he thought. At this point, Mrs. RMN arrived home and saw the game. She said it looked very old. I checked the date and told them it was a 1980 game meaning I played it when I was 13 years old. At this moment the Youngest RMN Boy and I looked at each and both realized the same thing – he is 13 years old right now. It sounds silly to say, but at that moment there was a bond between us.
The Youngest RMN Boy asked if there was a newer version and I told him there was not. He wondered why not, and I answered that a new game would likely be very expensive as modern gamers would demand miniatures or the like. I even ruefully wondered out loud if someone would change the spirit of the game by making a cooperative version or how the Campaign Game would be rebranded as a Legacy Edition.
I have to admit the look and feel of the game is dated. The very simple two-tone board with track and game charts could not pass in todays market where components and theme are so important. Looking at Circus Maximus reminds me that theme is more important than the look of a game. The Boys stated that as they were playing they very vividly could imagine themselves in the race. The game let them see themselves on that track in Ben Hur. It is a real testimony to the game designers that they were able to capture the glamor chariot racing so well with a game that looks so plain. We looked through some of the photos on BoardGameGeek and both Boys asked if they could find miniatures, paint them, and make a race board like many others have. Something we will have to look into to, though I feel the Lego board in the basement may be repurposed in the very near future!
The RockyMountainNavy Boys want to play Circus Maximus again, next time with the Advanced Rules. I get the feeling the next race will be a bit less gentlemanly and a lot more destructive. We have a few racing games on the shelf, such as PitchCar and Formula Dè, but these don’t get played that often because, like skirmish miniatures games such as Star Wars: Imperial Assault, the theme just doesn’t seem to resonate with us. Circus Maximus, with its delicious mix of racing and combat, hits a sweet spot in between the two. I am looking forward to many more years of enjoying this fine game.