Qvadriga: Racing in Ancient Rome

In 1984, Avalon Hill released a DOS version of their classic chariot racing board game, Circus Maximus.

That was the last chariot racing strategy game released for the PC.

It looked like this:

Circus Maximus for DOS (1984), screen capture from MobyGames.com

Thirty years later, developer Turnopia reminds us what’s been missing from the gaming landscape: strong, turn-based, tactical chariot racing.

That may sound like a niche inside a niche, but racing board games in general, and chariot games in particular, have a long history filled with many venerable titles. The genre scratches an itch for a unique set of tactics, as you choose just the right moment to accelerate, slow down, maneuver, and even attack. Add in the appeal to history buffs and people who’ve seen Ben Hur a few too many times—possibly the same people—and you have something many gamers will pass by without a second glace, but a select few will grab with both hands.

“Just hang on, and stop losing so much blood!”

Qvardiga (there is no “u” in the Latin alphabet) digs deeply into history to create a rich strategy game with two levels: team management and racing. Racing is, obviously, the heart of the experience, but success on the circus depends upon good choices in between races.

Races are run on a variety of tracks spread throughout the ancient world, including Spain, Africa, Italy, and others. Within each region there are cities with unique stadiums where the races take place. The goal is to rise through the ranks earning money, improving your team, and making a good enough reputation to move on to the next, bigger city.

Each race can be run in real time or, more typically, in phases with everyone giving orders at once. The latter is the preferred method of playing, since it gives you a little time to examine the course and plan just how you’re going to approach those straights and curves.

At the beginning of each turn, you’re presented with a number of actions for your chariot driver, who is known as an auriga. He can change one, two, or even three lanes; whip the horses; shake the reins; slow down; stabilize the chariot; whip the nearest opponent; or crash into anyone to his right or left. Once everyone chooses their move, the game un-pauses and the actions play out in five-second pulses. Then you choose another move, and so on until you’re left bleeding on the track, charging to a glorious win, or limping across the finish line in shame.

The icons in the green band indicate the orders available to your racer. The band turns orange and then red as you enter curves to indicate dangerous stretches.

The interface and graphics are note-perfect: clean, simple, and appealing. Anything more would distract from the action. The tactical element is tricky to master. Timing moves is everything, and understanding your team is crucial. You also need to keep an eye on auriga who may be rivals down the road. The best way to win race 6 may be to kill a famous auriga in race 2.

This subtle interplay between the micro and macro levels extends to horses, chariots, and drivers. You build a team, but in reality you’re building one star player with a few other guys to give him a break between races. You can pump denarii into upgrades such as better chariots or horses, bet on yourself to nudge those winnings higher, and keep climbing the ladder to success in the arena as you move from city to city.

Manage and upgrade your team to win and move on to better venues.

I don’t recall ever playing a computer game that captures the unique qualities of racing board games so well. It also adds to the genre, giving it a more epic feel and greater sense of drama than static cardboard could ever achieve. It’s the work of two developers (designer and artist), and although it has a handmade quality, it doesn’t feel cheap or cut-rate.

You may think “chariot racing, for real?” and move along, but if you have any interest in turn-based tactical gaming, check out the free demo at www.slitherine.com. It’s a good reminder that not all strategy games need to be about armies, war, and death.

Well, two out of three ain’t bad.

Qvadriga (Slitherine/Turnopia): $20 download, $30 boxed.

Content issues for parents: Chariot racers can attack other drivers and horses, with tiny drops of blood showing the hits. Chariots can crash and drag their drivers, with little drops of blood showing their injuries. If they are dragged too long, they may die. If they let go and try to escape, they might be hit, and then die. Horses can die as well from crashes or exhaustion. Killing a rival during a race is a good way to make sure he’s not a rival any more. None of the content is visually graphic.

[A modified version of this review appears in the July issue of Games Magazine.]

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About Thomas L. McDonald

Thomas L. McDonald writes about technology, theology, history, games, and shiny things. Details of his rather uneventful life as a professional writer and magazine editor can be found in the About tab.