Monday, October 6, 2014

Jugula game review and first game

A long long time ago my wargaming life received one of its first powerful impulses through the game of Spacehulk, now in its third (and second limited, haha) reincarnation. It was one of those delightful crossovers between board- and miniature tabletop wargames that played fast and furious and still looked terrific. Every once in a while another such game comes along and this year it is Jugula by Studio Tomahawk.

Unlike Spacehulk Jugula is not an out-of-the-box game. It is made up out of a rule set, a minimum of one card deck per player and a simple but pretty paper playing board suitable for playing  on with pieces like 28mm figures which you have to provide yourself. It is a game about gladiatorial combat, but it is more of a board game, not a war game in the strict sense of the word. It is played on a board of 64 squares (so a chess board would work just fine in a pinch) and played with a minimum of 4 different playing pieces per side. It can accommodate 2 to 4 players.

The 4 playing pieces per player represent 4 different Gladiators, taken straight from the heydays of the Roman Empire. You can assemble a team by choosing 4 Gladiator cards from a deck of 12 different types, divided in light or heavy gladiators. The well-known, like the Murmillo, the Retiarius, the Secutor and the Thraex are here, but also the more mysterious ones like the Scissor and the semi-mythical Crupellarius

I came upon an odd thing here; the Thraex (or Thracian), with his double greaves, leggings, arm guard, shield and helmet one of the heavier historical types, is a light gladiator in Jugula while the historically light Hoplomachus with his spear, small shield, arm guard and helmet is a heavy one. I am still wondering whether these two were not simply confused with one another ….

Each gladiator type has specific speed, attack and defense stats, which also depend on whether the opponent is a heavy or a light gladiator. Attack- and defense values are enhanced or penalized based on attacks from the front, rear or side and fighting multiple opponents. On top of that, some gladiators have specific traits, like the net-fighting Retiarius who can pin an opponent in place. When wounded, the gladiator’s card is flipped to reveal his (inferior) wounded stats. Finally, attacks have ranges. Swords can only attack adjacent squares, while whips, spears and bows range further.

The gaming cards is where the game’s tactical genius shows. Each player starts the game with a deck of basic cards with varying values that perform multiple functions. A card may be spent either to move or fight with one or more figures, to draw a variable number of new cards to your hand, to buy “Prima” bonus cards that offer enhanced values, to enhance your audience support (the “Vox Populi”) that gives you bonuses on attacks and a bigger hand of cards or they can double as dice throws in the combats. So managing your hand of cards requires you to balance a LOT of priorities and enables a wide range of tactics. Should you invest in increasing your vox populi and gain an Attack bonus? Or should you buy Prima cards to increase your chances in the long term? And of course you have to take into account the strengths and weaknesses of your Gladiators.

Combat is what wins the game in the end. Three points win a game, a wounded opponent being 1 point and a killed one 2 points. Gladiators attack opponents within range in their front when you spend a card on them with its attack function. Each player then draws a card from his hand with a die score, adds attack or defense values and bonuses to determine the winner, who must have the highest score. Doubling your opponents’ score means a wound, tripling it means a kill, simply topping it means pushing your opponent straight back. When it is impossible to move back, he gets a wound instead. So don’t let them gang up on you or get pushed against the wall!

Apart from stand-alone games you can also go completely Campaign and start a lanista, a gladiator school. You pick starting teams and play games with them, eventually developing new skills or traits and fighting your own gladiator stable to the top of the lists for fortune and eternal fame!

Jugula offers the suggestion to play with the paper board and 28mm figures. But of course you can always go completely overboard and build massive arenas with customized figures. I chose 1/32 figures and a big wooden board with a sand floor. In time I will build a circular gallery with Vox Populi counters to really make it look like an arena, but so far the big figures and the round arena board look spiffing, don't you agree? I thought you would. 

For our first game we both chose a team of two lights and two heavies. You start the game at your board edge and in order to avoid getting pinned to the wall you need to get into the arena ASAP. And we both did. I quickly invested in two expensive Prima cards and some Vox Populi points and tried to isolate one of my opponents' Gladiators. You spend quite some cards on maneuvring around, circling each other and looking to corner your opponent before you can strike and don't forget you only get to play one card per turn, so you can either move or fight or do something else. Early on I got lucky and wounded one opponent. Eventually I managed to sandwiched an enemy Provocator and killed him! Habet!

Jugula for two players plays in about an hour per game. With a few games under my belt, I can justly say it is a joy to play and I haven't even tried the Campaign game yet. And last but not least, you get the excuse to buy a few handfuls of Gladiators!

Released in 2014
Publisher: Studio Tomahawk
Price: 20 GBP for the rulebook, 7 GBP or 9 Euros per card deck, of which each player needs one.