The black box of Combat Arena sucks me in like a starless vacuum, into a space where two techno-primitives duel with whip and sword. Inside there is a small board of hexes, some cards and counters, and a sprue of red plastic. Fumbling for instructions, knife and glue, I begin to build. Beneath my sticky fingers, a menagerie of anarchic shapes begin to assemble. Some kind of future knight, a cyborg drone, a tech priest and others, popping with wires and guns and detail.
I've never been a big fan of 40k figures, so I don't know what they are. But they're miles away from the generic tedium of Space Marines or the antiquated Orks. They're full of character and mystery, and I want to play with them. So I do.
It's only when I get stuck into the rules that I realise what Combat Arena is: a re-skinned version of Gorechosen, which I've never played. That's fine with me. It seems rather more engaging than the one-dimensional setting of Khorne devotees bashing each other's heads in. Rules only run to about two pages and then there are some variants. One of them, new to this version, has you running the cyborg as an AI-controlled enemy, and I wonder if that might work as a solo option.
One line of 40k figures I do like is the Skitarii and there's one in the box, brutal with spikes and joints. So I immediately set him up against the saggy-fleshed cyborg. I take a hand of five action cards and create a deck of six initiative cards, three for each of us. During a round, you flip initiative cards and the matching character can play an action card. More powerful actions, however, reduce the number of initiative cards you'll have in the pot next turn.
My cards allow me to move, or attack, or take a special action like a defensive reaction. So it's immediately apparent where the vice is in this game: you can't both manoeuvre and assault. And by the time you've lined one up, the opportunity to do the other might have passed. Each character has a unique hex pattern where they can attack and mine is long and wide. But it won't reach to the opposite corner of the board, so I trot forward.
To compensate for lack of a human player the cyborg can both move and attack. And I discover right away that it can pack quite a punch as the top attack card off the deck has it rolling four dice. Two of them hit and my health takes a big dent. Not enough to force me to draw a critical damage card, though.
Game on. The cyborg's ranged weapon is a shoulder cannon, represented by a range diagram skewed to one side. So I do my best to try and stay on the wrong side of it while leveraging my more flexible attacks and some defensive cards to stay out of trouble. It doesn't work well. I struggle to keep my initiative up: the main source of boosts is taking critical damage cards, a nice balancing mechanic with a narrative twist.
As I fan my cards out on the fourth turn, I spot an opening. One of my cards, Shove, lets me make a melee attack that pushes the target one hex. The cyborg is standing next to an arc-snare, a trap hex that offers an instant kill on a 1-3. Human players can get bonuses to the roll by discarding cards, but the cyborg can't. I'm reliant on that initiative deck to turn me up two actions in a row: on the first, I move. Then the Emperor is with me: I turn up another, make the attack and roll a two.
One-nil to humanity.
In truth, it's a poor solo game. But it's not listed as one: you should only use the cyborg if you have a full four human players. And the game that's taken shape is a fine one. It has all the old-fashioned sensibilities of Games Workshop fare. Heavy on luck and narrative but with more than enough tactics and player agency to keep everyone invested. The real kicker is that in Combat Arena, they've learned to pack that goodness into a half-hour punch.
And it's simple enough for my daughters to play. So I corral them into another variant where the pair of them can play co-op against me. I get more cards to compensate. I presume they'll pick female characters, of which the game offers two, a Rogue Trader and a Psyker. But although the Trader goes, my eldest, to my surprise, picks the knight with his sword and shield.
I know nothing about either of the characters I'm facing. So when that crusader plays a card that lets him both move and attack I learn the hard way that the tradeoff for his lack of range is a punishing melee attack. The kids scream with delight at my dismay they roll the dice and I take a critical hit on the very first turn.
Thus begins a quickfire dance of pain. My only hope is to try and keep the two of them at bay so I can get in some ranged shots. But the knight has a shield to deflect attacks so the impact of my laser bolts in minimal. After a turn or two, though, the tables begin to turn. The heavy attacks have limited their initiative pools, whereas mine has gone up from taking all that critical damage. More initiative cards mean that, with luck, I can chain cards: move, then attack.
So I do. But I have to be careful. Some cards, like Stride and Run only let you face in one direction, which isn't much good when you're backing off. And four dice attacks are ruinous to my energy, which I need to keep up to pull off this dance. But my bigger hand of cards gives me options. A defensive card rolls some lucky dice and blocks a ruinous incoming attack.
Slowly, I pull myself back into contention. But it's a narrow thing. I keep hoping to pull that kick card so I can launch someone into an arc-snare. In the whole game, I never do.
I use Critical Strike on a critical turn to force extra critical damage cards. But it turns out to be a terrible move, because they increase energy, putting my foes on a par with me. It's the knight's turn to pull lucky back to back cards and crush me with a hideous knell of dice.
That took, what? Half an hour?
When I was a teen, I bought GW-branded boxes full of far less beautiful toys with far less strategy that took half a day to play. Mighty Empires, Space Marine, the original Blood Bowl. But we played them nevertheless because they told such epic, intricate stories. Combat Arena is deeper, looks fantastic, plays fast and still has dozens of tales worth telling. Kids nowadays, they don't know they're born.