The ground trembles under a thousand angry hoofbeats. Wheels creak and reins pull as racers drive their horses forward in a panic.
You are a charioteer in the Circus Maximus, the greatest raceway in the ancient world.
A crescendo of noise builds with each lap. Chariots collide, whips crack. The crowd cheers for a surprising breakaway, rumbles as a favorite is damaged and falls behind. From the imperial box, the emperor laughs and shouts. Clouds of dust obscure the bright banners of the four factions.
Three hundred thousand fans are on their feet as you turn the final corner. This is not the finish they expected. You lead by a length, and only one rival remains; each throws the last of their energy into one final sprint. Many thousands are despondent, other thousands exultant and joyous. Their shouts become a roar, a long scream, as you surge for the finish line. Another hundred yards will make you a hero.
Charioteer is a new game from Sekigahara author Matt Calkins. Like Matt's previous games, Charioteer features simple rules, quick play, and novel mechanisms.
Charioteer is a strategic racing game that plays in one hour. Each player controls a chariot in the Circus Maximus of ancient Rome. There's lots of action, and it happens quickly, with simultaneous move selection.
Movement is determined by melding sets from a hand of cards. Every card does more than one thing, and it takes multiple matching cards to make a move. Choosing to use a card in one set means deciding not to use it in another. Timing when to make a critical move is as important as knowing what move to make.
Moves come in four colors, and each has a special advantage. Play a red move to attack your opponents, yellow to recover from disruption, black to turn a sharp corner, and green to sprint.
Each racer begins the game with different abilities, and they improve their skills as the race progresses, leading to big bonuses in their favorite types of moves. Show the emperor the kind of move he prefers, and a racer's skills will increase even faster.
Players deploy tokens to give their moves a special bonus. More tokens can be earned by impressing the crowd with large matching card plays. Players may choose to delay using their best sets until they're big enough to qualify for a fan token.
Some races will be violent and others calm, depending upon whether the players and emperor behave disruptively. Attacks cause damage, which reduces movement speed. Players who specialize in recovery moves may overcome damage quickly. Others may need to carefully deploy their shields on turns when violence is expected.
It's not always clear who's winning the race. Being in front of the pack may not be as important as developing a critical skill, collecting powerful tokens, or keeping damage low. Whip icons allow those who have fallen behind to surge back into competition.
Charioteer is easy to learn. It can be played by bright kids as well as adults. Despite its accessibility, it is a game of skill.
Two 17" x 22" Mounted Mapboards
6 Player Chariot Pieces (wood)
147 Card Charioteer Decks
24 Card Skills Deck
6 Player Boards (thick card stock)
30 Player Tokens, 5 per player (screen printed wooden blocks)
60 Fan Tokens (screen printed wooden blocks)
24 Skill Markers in 6 colors, 4 markers per player (wooden hex blocks)
40 Damage Cubes
One wooden Round Tracker
One Draw Bag
One D6 Custom die
GAME DESIGN: Matt Calkins
Charioteer Designer Notes
is my fourth game and the second, after Sekigahara
, to be published by my friends at GMT Games.
I invented Charioteer
while hiking in the Alps. In the summer of ’17, I walked from Meiringen to Mürren over several beautiful days. As I walked, I imagined a racing game with four types of moves and tradeoffs for each decision. I thought about it on the trail and recorded my ideas every evening. I returned home with great hopes, but when I tested the design, it didn’t work. I abandoned it until the next summer, when again I found myself hiking through Switzerland, and there made a second draft, which eventually became Charioteer.
My goal was to design something substantive that could be played in an hour. I wanted it to be full of decisions, with more than 20 moves for each player. I wanted players to experience situations that were interesting and memorable. I wanted a game of strategy rather than mere optimization.
Once I decided on a racing game, I realized I had a few complaints with nearly every racing game I’d played. The decisions were generally obvious. The situations were simple and uninteresting. There was little need to think strategically: maximizing your movement, turn after turn, was usually the best way to win. Finally, and strangely, most racing games were slow.
The essential action of a racing game is the forward move. Determining the distance and capability of that move is exactly what a racing game is about. So why do most racing games define that move with a die roll, or the play of a single card? We designers should let the players get ‘inside’ the act of movement. We should allow the player to build their capability to make the moves they want to make. This will be the difference between feeling like a spectator and feeling like a charioteer.
Each move should offer hard choices. I like the idea of melding a move from a set of potential actions in a hand of cards. Games often have one card for every action, and one action for every card. Charioteer
is just the opposite: it takes multiple cards to do something, and each card is good for more than one thing.
An easy decision is no decision at all. Players should feel they’re the authors of the game experience, not merely the objects of it. In Charioteer,
you cannot win without creativity. Try playing a dummy hand that always chooses the highest-distance move: it will generally lose.
Strategy is an uncommon attribute of a racing game. Most feature it only in small ways: resource husbandry (players choose when to use their speed boost) or mean-variance balancing (players choose when their odds of winning are low enough to attempt a dangerous move). I wanted strategy to be an important element in all decision-making.
The primary ‘strategy’ mechanism in Charioteer
is the skills track, where investments are made throughout the game for a payoff that happens toward the end. The bonus-box mechanism offers sharply escalating rewards, continually tempting players to deviate from simple distance-optimization.
Weight (or complexity) is always a negative in games, redeemed only by what the designer does with it. Weight costs time, and this design had no time to spare. All the weight that didn’t go toward making the decisions interesting and strategic, I did my best to remove.
The first and easiest decision was to have all decision-making be simultaneous, to make the most efficient use of the playtime (I think simultaneous movement is underutilized in game design). Much effort went into simplifying the method for counting the length of a move, and for translating that count into board movement.
In my experience, the most important skills in game design are leaping forward and walking back. The first takes imagination, the second humility. Many times I’ve looked at a broken design and asked myself “What things do you really love about this game?” I try to save only those things and reimagine the rest. Charioteer went through several such re-imaginings, before becoming what it is now. - Matt