It all started so well. Using my meager funds, I purchased Flamma from the gladiator market. I invested in him, watched him take his wins and losses in the arena, and had him nursed back to health when he was injured. Sure, I arranged for his family to be killed in an accident so that he wouldn’t lose sight of the important things, but I thought we were tight. Then one day he slipped away from my security, gathered some like-minded barbarians, and attacked me at my home. My other gladiators were in no condition to stop these brutes, and my estate was burned to the ground. My head was left on a pike, a final show of Flamma’s lack of gratitude. Well, that’s how it sometimes goes in Gladiator Manager (Free), a rather enjoyable little strategy game from developer Renegade Games.
As the title says, this game drops you in the role of a gladiator manager. It’s ancient Rome, the days when people would fight ferocious beasts or each other for the entertainment of the masses. You choose your nationality, each conveying a particular benefit, and head into the virtual lion’s den that is the world of gladiator management. You start with some funds and the basic necessities like a training ludus and a couple of slaves to work on your estate. Your first order of business is to head to the market and pick up your first gladiator. Grab him a weapon too, while you’re at it.
Broadly speaking, your goal in this game is to enter your gladiators into tournaments to win fortune and fame, increase your standing, and wipe out your rivals. The game is played week by week, with your actions mainly limited by the number of active gladiators you have on your roster and how much money you have left. You can buy slaves to perform various tasks on your estate, upgrade your facilities, attempt to sabotage your rivals in various ways, and enter your gladiators in whatever tournaments are available. The longer you play, the more your options open up. While it’s initially a very straightforward affair, you’ll soon find yourself having to deal with all manner of matters.
Since you’re just the gladiator manager and not the gladiator, all you can really do during the battles is watch things play out. Before each round, you’ll get some information about how fair of a match-up it is. If things look a little dire, you can always bribe the guards to “forget” to unlock the opponent’s chains, or accidentally leave the door open to the lion cage, and so on. If you’ve got money and influence, you can get away with an awful lot. Victories will grant you money and more influence, while your participating gladiators will gain fame. Lose, and at best you go home with a bruised ego. At worst, your gladiator could be injured or killed. And don’ don’t forget: your rivals can cheat just the same way you can.
Between battles and during the passage of time, random events will pop up. You’ll have to make a choice, with some only available if your status is at a certain level. It’s often a matter of losing resources (money or slaves) or influence, but you’ll also have a chance to earn money, pick up new gladiators, or get more slaves. While these aren’t the most complicated of affairs, their presence reminds me a bit of The King of Dragon Pass. That’s a good thing. When I first fired this game up, I was expecting at best something along the lines of Monster Rancherbut as the strategic layers continued to be revealed I found myself more and more impressed at just how much there was here.
The game does its best to at least get you off on the right foot. It will present you with objectives when you start a new game, and if you follow them you’ll more or less find your feet before long. Completing them can even reward you with gems, which are the only way the game monetizes. Gems can be used to buy a variety of things, including new weapons, tournaments, events, and more. If you manage to finish every achievement in the game, you’ll get enough free gems to buy just about everything on offer. If you want to finish out picking up those remaining things or simply want to get the jump on acquiring things, you can buy gem packs for $3.99 and $7.99. You get a whole lot of game here without dropping a single cent, so you could almost see a gem pack purchase as a tip to the developer if you’re inclined to.
Anyway, that’s how it is. Back to the game. Gladiator Manager is a game of momentum. When you’re winning, it’s a lot easier to keep on winning. You can afford all those upgrades to your compound, opening your options and keeping your gladiators happy, healthy, and well-trained. You can pay for more slaves to increase your income or guard your gladiators. You can afford those snippets during tournaments and weather those random events more easily. Your influence will also keep going up, allowing you to exert your power in other ways. But you’re not invincible. All it takes is one bout of bad luck and the whole operation might shift gears into reverse.
Yes, when you start losing it quickly becomes a downward spiral. Not only will you earn less and see your influence wane, but your gladiators will get injured and their loyalty will decrease. You’ll have less money to fix things, and random events can force you to send injured gladiators into combat, making things worse. You might eventually end up with no gladiators due to death or abandonment, and if you have no money to hire a new one you’ll simply have to drag one of your slaves up to join the active roster. Eventually you’ll run out of funds, then influence, and that’s pretty much it. Head back to the title screen and try again.
But you know what? Even losing is kind of fun in Gladiator Manager. One of the ways it really calls The King of Dragon Pass to mind is in how each playthrough feels like a unique story. There are just enough variables and random happenings in the game that it takes a very long time for any two playthroughs to feel the same. That’s a good thing, because you’ll probably have at least one or two skunky runs while you’re still learning how things work. The amusing series of events that can lead to your end makes it easy to forgive the game and fire up another run right away.
With all that said, there are some rough edges here. The UI has some sloppy bits, and sometimes text will spill out of the boxes. While the game does a decent job of teaching you the basics, some of the more advanced features aren’t as well-explained. There are bugs now and then, with things not activating properly or the flow of events playing out in a weird way. I will say that the developer seems very attentive and has been updating the game very frequently, so I expect the game to keep on improving as time passes. This review is mainly where things are at this very specific point in time. I can’t give bonus points for potential futures, so keep that in mind if you’re reading it after a month or two of updates.
Ultimately, I think Gladiator Manager is pretty neat. It doesn’t cost you anything to download the game and see a great deal of what it has to offer, and if you have any love of management sims or strategy games I think trying it out is a very cheap gamble with a potentially high pay -off. It’s not as simple as it initially seems, and learning how all of its various bits work and how to put them to work for you manages to tickle the ol’ brain muscle just the right way. Give it a shot, but be careful about trusting that Flamma fellow. He’s a rude boy.