Quick Look: Arena: The Contest
Designers: Alexandre Aboud, Danilo de Alcantara, Clayton Machado
Artist: Guilherme Batista
Publisher: Dragori Games
Year Published: 2019
In a world unified by the Empire, it is forbidden to raise armies and make war. All major conflicts get solved in the ARENA, where the best fighters represent entire Nations. Such fighters, with good reason, are called HEROES.
In this turn-based tactical combat boardgame, players recruit teams of three or four from a wide pool of Heroes, all of them experts in a Combat Role, like Tactician, Healer and Bruiser. There are countless combos, counterpicks and strategies to explore in the attempt to build a powerful and synergistic team.
Each Hero is granted a Move and an Attack action per turn. Its governing rules are intuitive, meaning even beginners will find ARENA easy to learn; however, the game will forever remain challenging, as it is impossible to reproduce two equal matches, all attacks are unique, and there are optional ‘advanced’ features to implement in order to refresh and deepen the experience, such as Artifacts and Scrolls.
In Competitive mode (PvP), both teams fight each other until one eliminates all opposition and wins the battle. Matches begin by strategically positioning highly-detailed miniatures in an infinitely customizable battlefield featuring optional elements that change the dynamics of combat, such as walls, debris, altars and lava. You’re required to plan ahead, consider your enemies’ moves and work in harmony with your team in order to find the best possible action when your turn comes.
In Cooperative mode (PvE), the Player(s) build a team of 4 Heroes to travel the fantastic world of Tanares in order to solve an ancient mystery, facing Missions with different problems, hazards, and goals. Campaign Cards present players with challenging events, requiring tough decisions that shape the course – and outcome – of an adventure that find its climaxes in the difficult Dragon Boss Fights.
The Campaign is meant to be conducted through the course of several sessions, in which Heroes gain experience according to the number – and quality – of accomplished Mission objectives. Experience Points can be spent to Level UP and acquire minor permanent boosts, or to purchase Items that grant major – but provisory – boosts to any Hero.
Players are free to tweak and adjust their experience according to their personal preferences, making Arena a highly diverse and replayable game. Players can make tournament tables and play simultaneous Matches on different boards; add or subtract different advanced rules and strategical features at will; try the game on custom boards or design their own missions. Players that enjoy immersion and storytelling can maximize adventure in PvE-Campaign Mode, while players adverse to that can even play the Quests individually, in any sequence, with minimum reading required.
You may remember (having previously read my Tanares RPG preview) that I have had Arena : The Contest in my collection for quite a long time without having played it since I received it.
The reason for my not having played it was also entirely Dragori games’ fault (*irresponsible snicker*) for announcing the Tanares Adventures expansion before Arena : The Contest even hit my doorstep ; consequently, I wanted to experience the game and story mode all in one massive chunk rather than have to wait two years for the new content.
Well, that time has arrived. Tanares Adventures is scheduled to be distributed within the next month or two to my region, and as such, we have decided to take our first foray into Arena : The Contest. Was it worth the wait?
In a word : Yes!
Now before I get into the nitty gritty of things, I need to highlight that this review is going to encompass a bit more than just the base game, including numerous add-ons that I purchased back in the crowdfunding campaign. Here’s the additional material that I feel bears mentioning that won’t affect the storyline/ campaign / mechanics, but might give a false representation of the product if I do not mention that some of the pictures you see in this review are not necessarily representative of just the base game.
Here is what I purchased :
—Arena : The Contest base game
—Heroes and Dungeons Expansion box (extra characters and lots of walls / terrain tiles you see in the pics)
—The World of Arena the Contest Art book
—Elder Dragon Miniature and Fight
—Ascaran + Vanarus + Hydra characters and boss
—Harun, the Shapeshifter character
—Extra Dice, Sleeves and Gameboards
As you can see, I went whole-hog with this campaign. My line of reasoning in going overboard with this product was that even if the game ended up being horrible, at least I’d have some great looking minis that I could use for DnD nights…
If you see minis in the pictures that follow, they didn’t come painted, I have spent the past 2 years working on painting them in preparation for this moment!
It also needs to be stated that Arena : The Contest sports two modes of game play—a full scale PvP mode for 2-8 players, or an epic campaign with branching story , choices , and endings for 4 players.
One thing that instantly appealed to me when viewing the Kickstarter for Arena years ago was how much the game engine seemed reminiscent of Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition. While perhaps overly simplified, the concepts of reaction attacks, field positioning , auras / areas of effects and a focus on minis on a gridded square battlefield were very evident.
Now what makes the gameplay great about Arena : The Contest (AtC) is that it is easily accessible to just about everyone—minus the annoying overabundance of auras to constantly track in DnD 4E
With more than 30 usable characters if you get the expansions, there is never a shortage of variety.
Each character is considered part of a class such as :
Brute (heavy melee fighter)
Controller (Status effects specialists)
Bruisers (Inflict extra “thorns” type damage when you get hit by melee)
Each class provides a passive bonus enjoyed by all characters who share the same class. However, that is where the similarities end, as each unique character sports 4 unique abilities that are easily able to be referenced thanks to both a wonderful character sheet for each player/character and 4 cards that can be used to not only help you keep track of your abilities, but also use them as a sort of status reminder (place a card on an enemy or ally sheet if you manage to induce a helpful or harmful condition on them).
Of the four abilities that each character has, two are considered “Primary” abilities and can generally be used any time. They also have two “Special” abilities that can only be used once per match, so you have to be much more careful with the timing of these! Worse, they can fail if you miss your rolls!
For their turn, players may do two things , in any order :
Move up to each characters unique movement value
Take one primary action such as :
—Make a primary attack
—Make a special attack
—Make a “basic” attack if something is preventing you from using primary abilities
—Use an item
You may also, in a fashion similar to DnD, make a free reaction attack if an enemy tries moving away from you on their turn.
Now I do need to also state that for the purposes of this review I do need to treat AtC’s PvP mode and Campaign mode differently, as aside from the basic mechanics that they share, they ultimately feel like an entirely different experience from each other.
The games PvP mode is, in a word, awesome.
Especially noteworthy is that it is no exaggeration that setup time can be under a minute. You can easily have a full 8 player death match up in no time assuming everyone is already familiar with the rules.
Note that for both the Epic Campaign and PvP matches, no person on the same team may choose the same class of character. You cannot , for example, have a team with two Healers on it.
Consequently, things can really get varied. Some teams may focus on defense, others may go for pure ranged damage, others might go for status affliction, and some may opt to forgo any healing whatsoever to focus exclusively on damage dealing and bring in quick kills.
Best of all , it all works.
Regardless of your strategy, there is no one “proven” method. It can all be viable if you make your moves carefully and with due consideration for each action you take.
Overall, the PvP matchups are the epitomization of game design excellence. Everything feels so perfectly balanced that you never really stop to question the fairness or viability of an opponents’ strategy if they are winning. The odds never feel stacked against you. It is just straight up strategic fun!
One thing that helps make the PvP element so approachable and fun is that there is NO such thing as a wasted action. Thanks to a “residual damage” mechanic, even if your attack misses, it will generally still do a little bit of damage (usually 5), or if your healing or special attack misses, you will generally get a small amount of healing on a player or some other marginal effect. No, it is not nearly as powerful as if you had scored your hit, but the importance of slowly chipping away at an enemies’ health cannot be underestimated and can make THE critical difference! You will generally never have a totally useless turn. Big bonus points for this feature.
Although it may seem a bit too static for some groups, generally speaking , players should be landing blows roughly 75% of the time (assuming they have no buffing spells or effects on them). The overall consistency helps ensure that it does not feel like such a major downer when you fail to score a hit on an enemy (or ally for a heal), because on the average, you will be making far more hits that misses.
For added variability, players can opt to use random items such as artifacts and scrolls for unique effects at the start of the game, and even take turns placing tiles for making unique playing fields.
Plainly and simply, although I acknowledge that PvP is not for everyone, Arena : The Contest’s particular application of it is among the best I have seen and enjoyed. I can only think of one other skirmish game that can provide the same level of enjoyment for me in the past few years (hint, it is getting a reprint crowdfunding launch towards the end of 2022), and some of the ones that have come my way have ended up being so generic or unenjoyable that I did not even want to waste my time writing a review. True story.
PvP mode final score : Somewhere between an 9 and 10.
Now for the games’ campaign mode…
Firstly, don’t expect a Gloomhaven or Tainted Grail level of time commitment. Expect it to take 6 play sessions of about 2-2.5 hours each, so it won’t run much longer than 13 hours. However, there are branching paths
First of all, let me state that I feel like if you are going to be invested in the story aspect of the game, it will be absolutely essential to buy the book , The World and Art of Arena : the Contest. It is just so filled with the lore and history of the world that I cannot help but marvel at it.
Especially noteworthy are the character backstories. Every character has some hidden agenda, or personal grievance or connection to another character in the world, and it really makes you just die wondering what might happen when the fuller, more realized version of the campaign actually reaches my doorstep (via the Tanares Adventures expansion).
It almost reminds me of the old Twisted Metal games on the PlayStation where to get the full story, you had play through the game multiple times with multiple characters to fully realize what is going on.
The book is in fact the best (though sometimes with an iffy translation) source of supplementary information I have ever had in a tabletop game. (Twilight Imperium’s hardcover book is pretty impressive, too, but it is an entirely different kind of game, and also contains a ton of rules and not just narrative elements. So Arena wins here!)
With that being said, the Epic Campaign mode would probably earn around a 7 out of 10 for us so far. The reasons for this have nothing to do with the stellar gameplay and options available. Nor is it an issue with the (mostly) excellent story work and writing.
It is more a matter of the IMPLEMENTATION of the story and rules rather than the story and rules themselves that are the issue.
What does this mean exactly?
It is HOW the books use words and rules that ends up adversely affecting the final score for campaign mode.
For example, some of the puzzles (and there are some witty ones) could use some reworking and rewording. I usually do not go on the offensive very much, but I do feel like some of the “official” puzzle answers need to be rectified immediately , as the nuances and implications for at least one of the puzzles our group encountered make it clear to us that the answer the devs say is the “correct” answer is in fact WRONG. A quick perusal of the BGG forums makes it clear to me that my group is not the only one that thinks so. So AtC’s campaign provided one of those rare instances where I went against the “official” rulings.
Players that are accustomed to the AtC’s PvP mode and DnD 4E may be accustomed to focusing much more on the fast action and be in for a rude awaking with some of the story elements and puzzles that demand a LOT of time and attention to complete.
Now for me personally this is not a deal breaker, and it is overall very enjoyable. However, the caveat for me and my family is that we often have all day to work out a puzzle. We will often finish up our game session whenever convenient late at night, leave the game set up on the table, and come back to the game at various points in the day while on our breaks from work. For the average gamer though , it could prove frustrating to finish a 2-3 dungeon with your group and then have a puzzle thrown at you that requires some serious 30-60 minutes of thought before proceeding. Or starting a brand new mission and reading a wall of text that the game NPCs expect you to study extensively before moving on…and to be expected to have memorized certain things like maps! (Good luck with that if you had to split up your session week to week!)
And thematically some of this works fantastically! Don’t get me wrong, we loooooved most of the puzzles. But they do demand an unusually high commitment of time if you want to be assured of being correct and not sparking a cataclysmic trap of some sort!
Additionally, some of the campaigns directions are confusing. I would perhaps (at least partially) attribute some of these muddy areas to translation / localization issues. I know that Dragori has said they would be getting better translations for Tanares Adventures, so we will just have to wait and see on that level.
Thirdly, for those of you who don’t want to spoil puzzle answers for future play throughs should you get an answer wrong, they provided some nifty QR codes for you to scan with your phone so a player doesn’t have to ruin everything by looking up the answers in the back of the book. As designed , you just put your answer into the App and it tells you if you are right or wrong.
The problem is that none of the QR codes are currently working, and apparently have not since 2020!
If you are listening Dragori games, please fix this!
The Level Up mechanics are a bit spartan. Don’t expect full skill trees or brand new abilities as your characters get stronger. At the most , they will get to “borrow” another ability or two from the same class of character or gain some extra Hit Points, Accuracy, Defense, etc. This is handled easily by acquiring cards to put on your player mat. It all works well, but it isn’t the deepest level of customization—that is apparently why the Tanares Adventures expansion campaign has been made, to flesh out character development in addition to providing over 200 hours of playtime.
As stated , the mechanics of AtC’s Campaign Mode are perfectly sound! The game has the most solid foundation you could ask for in terms of its basics, and it should be a matter of relative ease to build up on this foundation in the future.
All it needs is a little bit of TLC from the game devs and I can easily see Arena : The Contest becoming everything that DnD 4E SHOULD have been.
Because as I suspect most DnD players know, 4th Edition was generally speaking, a failure for a variety of reasons. I do not believe that AtC’s campaign mode will suffer the same fate as 4E (time will tell) , because it really has the potential to shake things up and make it the best thing I have encountered in a TTRPG experience. It just isn’t quite there yet…
All in all, as a whole, I find that Arena the Contest is an amazing investment. Though it was pricey for all the goods I ended up getting in the Kickstarter, it should say something that even with the flaws noted in the campaign mode, I would do it all again. Both modes of gameplay are immensely enjoyable, and are approachable enough that even our second grader can join in on the action—I do not own ANY other campaign games that my daughter could hope to finish at this age EXCEPT for Arena : The Contest!
Overall, this is a game that is should not be missed. Even with its flaws, if you are on the fence, I would still say to spring for getting AtC. I have a very good feeling about its future!
Final Score :
PvP mode 9-10 / 10
Story Mode : 7 / 10
Average 8.5 /10
Find out more at BGG.
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Jazz Paladin- Reviewer
Jazz Paladin is an eccentric at heart — When he is not learning to make exotic new foods at home, such as Queso Fresco cheese and Oaxacan molé, he is busy collecting vintage saxophones, harps, and other music-related paraphernalia. An avid music enthusiast, when he is not pining over the latest board games that are yet-to-be-released, his is probably hard at work making jazzy renditions of classic/retro video game music tunes as Jazz Paladin on Spotify and other digital music services.