On the one hand, it is a very good game. On the other hand, it is an odd duck of a game that has the theme of fantasy gladiators combined with gambling and spreadsheet management.
I am also going to go on record and say that this is not Knizia's best game about gladiators. I would give that title to his dramatically unloved Clash of the Gladiators. Seriously, that game was released with spiffy figures and maybe a fantasy theme, it would be a hit.
Keep in mind, I don't mean that Colossal Arena is the worse game. I just mean that it doesn't make as good a use of the gladiator theme.
Just to hammer home that point, the game was originally about horseracing. And none of the horses had special powers, by the way. Avalon Hill added those in the first version of what could become Colossal Arena, Titan the Arena. And there is also a space battle version of the game as well.
(As near as I can tell, and feel free to correct me, Knizia's role in all this was to create the first game about horses. Other designers have added all of the other stuff. In the case of Colossal Arena, probably for the significantly better.)
By the way, the entire game is made up of cards. But, you end up creating a fairly large tableau as you play the game so you still need some decent table space.
You deal out eight of the twelve monsters that the game comes with to find out who will be fighting this time. You then deal out cards to the players, consisting of the monsters who are fighting, as well as wildcards. These range from zero to ten.
On your turn, you play one of your cards, assigning a number to one of the monsters. And yes, you can play the card on top of one that has already been played, canceling it out. Each round ends when each monster has at least one card. The one with the lowest number it's eliminated and we move onto the next round. After five rounds, we have our survivors. Er, winners.
But, you get your points or go through betting. Throughout the game, you will be making bets on the different monsters, along with a secret bet which will be worth the most points. And each monster has a special power which can only be activated by whoever is backing it the most.
So Colossal Arena isn't really a game about monsters slugging it out. It's a game about managing your investments. I'm seriously shocked there isn't a stock market version of this game. (If there is, please tell me)
Colossal Arena really comes down to managing a spreadsheet while counting cards and there isn't even a mechanic for the monsters hitting each other. So why is the game any fun?
Because it really comes down to a tense and brutal fight over that spreadsheet where you are trying to bury your opponents. Forget the monsters. It's the other people at the table you are trying to beat into submission. Add to that the secret bet that adds bluffing and one more layer of uncertainty and you have a white knuckle game.
I honestly can't think of another game quite like Colossal Arena. The game makes sense but I can't think of another game with mechanics quite like it. It is a good game but it's not one I can teach by comparing it to other games. It's its own odd beast.
Unfortunately , I got Colossal Arena when I was really picking up speed buying games. It barely got played before I was moving onto the next game.
And yet, it was so much fun and so different that it never left my mind. It has stayed in my collection and, when I get another gaming group, I'm going to try and get it into play.