Full disclosure: I received a review copy of Carthage from SAS Games.
What is this game about?
Carthage is a deck building gladiator combat game in which up to five gladiators can fight to the death. Every gladiator starts with 15 armor, and can be knocked out of the game by being reduced to 0 armor. Gladiator actions are determined by the cards each player draws, which can allow for movement, attack damage, armor boosts, and the currying of crowd favor. Crowd favor is key, because at the end of each round, players use the favor they have earned with the audience to purchase new and better cards for their decks.
Each round of Carthage is divided into three phases. During the theater phase, players flip over a theater card which has consequences—positive or negative—for that round. Next, players draw five cards from their decks and play their hands one card at a time, in turn order. After all cards have been played, players enter the Favor Phase, when they take turns spending their crowd favor on new cards and other boons until everyone has run out of favor. There are also some arena tokens that grant rewards for the first players to reach them each round, which gives players an incentive to make a run for the center of the board.
How does it play solo?
Carthage includes a solo and/or co-op mode of play that is run by an app. The app controls an opponent called the "Essedari Maximo," which is supposed to mean "greatest charioteer," and would indeed mean that if the Latin endings were correct. As it stands, it could mean something like "of the charioteer, to the greatest." (Sorry, my inner Latin teacher couldn't help bringing this up.)
When fighting the essedarius, gladiators have eight rounds to defeat him or be defeated. He moves in a mostly predictable pattern—counter-clockwise along the inside of the arena's inner circle—but can also cross the circle, as well as do ranged and collision damage to gladiators.
Carthage has a cool concept and seems like it would be a fun game, but for me it falls flat—especially when playing solo. During my multiplayer games, we had a pretty good time until endgame approached and things started to drag. It's too easy to run away from other gladiators, especially when players have to draw cards for movement and don't always get what they need. Carthage definitely suffers from some pacing problems as there are fewer and fewer gladiators to contend with in the arena. There just aren't enough incentives to draw players into the center of the action.
You can use some of the modular rulesets included in the rulebook to tweak this issue, if you so choose. The "crocodile island" rules penalize gladiators for leaving the center ring, which is pretty tight for a five player game, but a better size for 2–3 players. You'll have to decide how claustrophobic you want the early stages of your game to be.
While I love deck builders, I am not sure deck building was the best mechanic for a tactical gladiator game. While having limited actions in your hand is clearly meant to force you to think strategically, it also makes little thematic sense to have severely limited movement or attack cards in a game that should literally be about guys with weapons chasing each other and stabbing each other to death.
The solo version of Carthage is just not quite there. I like the concept of an AI opponent who essentially has his own cards to draw via the app, but the "Essedari Maximo" doesn't feel satisfying to fight. At times, he is too far away from you for you to catch him, so you end up burning cards waiting for him to come back around. This is especially true if you don't get helpful cards on the market row, or if it takes too many turns to be able to buy them. Your first two turns (out of eight total) will be entirely spent playing your starter cards, which is hugely frustrating because you truly will not have enough movement to maneuver effectively. When playing two-player co-op, it is slightly easier to get close because you have two gladiators to maneuver. But it's still not enough to provide a satisfying experience. Technically, the solo/co-op mode "works," in that you can take your turn and the charioteer can take his. But I didn't get any real joy out of playing the game that way. I understand that Carthage is not primarily a solo or co-op game—the app was developed as a stretch goal. But once a mode exists in a game, I want to see it shine.
Do I recommend it?
No. Especially not if you're seeking a mostly solo or co-op game. I prefer Hoplomachus by a very wide margin, especially for solo. For a vicious multiplayer experience, I prefer Spartacus: A Game of Blood and Treachery. I can't see Carthage replacing either of those for me. Your game group might, however, enjoy the multiplayer version of Carthage.
Overall Rating: 1 star (2–2.5 for multiplayer)
5 stars — I love it!
4 stars — I really like it.
3 stars — I like it.
2 stars — It's okay.
1 star — Meh.