Dragging it out – A Circus Maximus Session Report

Mrs. RockyMountainNavy usually has a student on Sunday afternoons, so the RMN Boys and myself are usualy exiled out of the house or to the basement. With all the rain this weekend we decided to stay in and play another session of Circus Maximus (Avalon Hill, 1980). Unlike our first game, we played with the Advanced Rules that really are nothing more than an expansion on the Basic Game that details what happens after a chariot flips. In the Basic Game the chariot is removed; in the Advanced Game there are Wrecks and Runaway Teams and Dragged Drivers and Drivers Running to deal with.

This afternoon was a full eight-chariot race. I took three chariots, Brown, Yellow and Orange, while the Middle RMN Boy took three others (Black, Green, and Purple) and the Youngest RMN Boy took two (Red and Blue). In Chariot Generation we all ended up with at least one heavy chariot (in my case, a +2 Driver in a Heavy Chariot with a Slow Team and Low Endurance) and one fast chariot (again, in my case a +0 Driver in a Light Chariot with a Fast Team and High Endurance).

This race featured a lot more tactical play then our first game. The speedy chariots pulled out ahead and the heavies fell behind, patiently waiting for the speedy teams to lap them, if they could. Both RMN Boys recognized the danger of my “enforcer” team and took measures to interfere with him. In quick order, Brutus (as I had named him) lost one horse and had another severely injured. He fell way behind the pack as he had to stop and cut the dead horse from the reins.

Meanwhile, Blue tried to get around a corner but was a bit too fast. A super high roll on the Corner Strain Table resulted in a flipped chariot and a dragged driver. He eventually cut himself loose after taking only light wounds. He raced for the wall but could not find an exit.

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The Chariot Race from Ben Hur, 1908; courtesy michenermuseum.org

As Blue was searching for a way out of the arena, the leaders of the pack came around again. Slow Brutus maneuvered himself into position and threatened Red (the Youngest RMN speedster) and forced him to brake hard and evade attacks. Meanwhile, Orange (my speedster) tried to take advantage of the situation and slip past Red. It almost worked, but once again Corner Strain resulted in Orange being spit out of his lane in a Double Sideslip…directly into the wrecked Blue chariot.

the-chariot-race-from-ben-hur-1959-mgm-b-d-m-black-and-white-horse-animal-racing-stunts-mptv-2017-jan-to-april-update-large-picture
Courtesy movpins.com

Red was in a tough bind as Brutus moved first and blocked his path to a safer lane. Red was forced to keep in his lane and ended up running over the Blue driver who was still unsuccessfully searching for an exit. Running over the driver forced a Movement Factor loss of five. Orange then rolled off the wreck and damaged both wheels. This meant that going too fast would risk the wheels coming off and flipping the chariot. As it was the final stretch there really was no choice and Orange went all-out. The first Wheel Damage roll was passed but the second failed. The Orange chariot flipped and the rider was dragged. Youngest RMN was jumping for joy as he could see his second victory at hand!

After taking damage, I elected not to cut the driver loose and stay dragging. Fate smiled and Orange went first, crossing the finish line first with the driver still dragging. The driver wound roll was made and the result was the driver surviving – just barely. Brutus almost got one last run at Red but Red was able to move away and ended up just short of the finish line.

Total game time was just under two hours from set up to end of clean up. There was much good nature ribbing given during the game. In this game, more than the first, a real narrative feeling came through during play. Youngest RMN was exasperated at the Blue driver constantly failing his exit rolls. I told him there was obviously a centurion on the other side of some gate who refused to open it for him. Apparently not a favorite of the gods, he was unceremoniously run over by Red. The final dramatic victory of Orange, literally being dragged across the finish line barely alive, was the stuff of legends.

Circus Maximus, a long-ago childhood favorite of mine, has been reborn in the 21st century RockyMountainNavy household. Hail to Michael S. Matheny and Don Greenwood for bringing this game to life. It is also interesting to note that the the first credited playtester is Alan R. Moon. Yes, Alan R. Moon the famous designer of Ticket to Ride!

Race for Your Life – Retroplaying Circus Maximus (Avalon Hill, 1980)

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.