“Yes, I can understand that a man might go to a gambling table - when he sees that all that lies between himself and death is his last crown” - Honoré de Balzac
You knew you shouldn’t have borrowed that money from the Syndicate. You’d heard the rumours. It’s just that your job as a gong farmer doesn’t exactly pay handsomely, your wife really wanted that new hessian sackcloth petticoat, and all your no-good children are suffering from rickets.
So, you did what any desperate man would do - you went into hock with some scandalously shady usurers, a now the balance is due. It’d be a blessing if they only broke thumbs.
Six repayments! And your wife won’t even wear the hessian for you in the boudoir. It’s a truly desperate state of affairs.
And thus, it is with the vagaries of your plight circling endlessly in your brain that you find yourself drawn to the seediest part of town, trudging through mud and refuse until the coppery scent of blood announces your arrival at the fighting pits of Ghoulmorrah. The only venue in town to host denizens more desperate than yourself, and where – if one is canny or especially lucky - they can make a pretty penny wagering on the carnage that unfolds within.
That’s right ladies and gentlemen! Roll up for the Bloodsport!! Thrill to the discordant screech of the exotic Harpy! Shudder in awe at the mysterious visage of the Deathless Crone! Recoil at the very sight of the Doomed Abomination! Heads will roll, innards will unspool, and filthy lucre will change hands in an orgy of speculation.
You’ll buy your freedom yet.
I wager 400 Quatloos on the Newcomer
Bloodsport Gambler, the debut title by Dillon Morton and Mirage Merchant Games places 1-2 players in the unfortunate shoes of just such a protagonist. Forced to risk it all wagering on the sadistic gladiatorial contests hosted by the Council of Ghoulmorrah to sate the basest appetites of a ravening public.
Will you allow the whims of fate of dictate your end? Of course not, you’re not stupid. You’re going to cheat.
The first thing that will likely strike you upon encountering this beast is the evocative monochromatic artwork of Eric Radey (co-designer of Dungeon Degenerates). It oozes filth, recalling the classic vibes of old-school Fighting Fantasy and its ilk, and does a perfect job in setting the tone for this grim and satirical affair. It is the art that does the heavy lifting in terms of evocation, as it splashes the silhouettes of grisly combatants across a deck of curiosities, six of which will face off in pairings of two throughout each round of the game.
Your task here is pretty straightforward. In order to inch your way out from under the Syndicate's hob-nailed boot, you'll need to wager your meagre earnings on the successful combatant in each rumble, all the while ensuring the odds are stacked in your favour by fair means or foul. Mostly foul.
Contenders will be paired from a menagerie of the desperate and the blood-starved, assigned weapons, and subject to a ‘mystery’ card that dictates the conditions of their bout. All of these elements are assigned at random and kept hidden from the players. Herein lies the game.
In order to tilt the odds of each clash in your favour, a hand of ‘action’ cards will be utilised to get the straight dope on a fight prior to its commencement, or to add some form of underhanded interference to proceedings. But beware, the Colosseum’s guards are ever vigilant, and should your machinations flag their interest, you’ll be duly punished - losing both card and coin as they march in with clubs flailing to add a jack-booted veneer of respectability to proceedings.
Other cards offer a more direct intervention during a fight once all bets have been laid- allowing for re-rolls or statistical buffs. Yet more feature special abilities, spoilers, and reactions. The one thing they have in common is that the greater their utility, the riskier they are to enact successfully under the watchful eye of the guards.
Mitigating this risk is another key component of the game. You have two resources with which to do so. Time- which represents the amount of planning and forethought you dump into each scheme, and of course, coin- with which to line the pockets of officialdom that they might turn a blind eye to your perfidy.
Even with these tricks up your sleeve you’ll never be granted full knowledge of proceedings, however. Risk is your constant bed fellow. Betting big on an underdog is a sure-fire way to fill your pockets with either plums or penury, the threads of fate wavering elastic and forever just out of reach. Play it too safe though, with conservative bets on the favourites, and you may find yourself falling behind in the race to satiate the Syndicate. Pushing your luck is the order of the day, fortune favours the bold, and there can only be one winner.
In theory that is. In practice we found it quite common for both players to be capable of making similar repayments each round, with the end result being that no-one falls victim to the Syndicate’s goons. The game is still in development however, and perhaps a smaller opening purse, or the restriction of repayments to one per round may go some way towards alleviating this issue.
The other stumbling block is one of a potential dud hand. it’s quite possible to wind up with a selection of cards that doesn’t grant you any insight into the coming bouts, and rather merely offers the opportunity for sabotage. This is all well and good, but with the deduction element being the games strongest hook, it can leave you with an unsatisfying round. A larger deck with more opportunities for sleuthing would be a great addition, and perhaps a worthy crowdfunded stretch-goal.
I’m reviewing a pre-production copy here, but it’s a remarkably assured one, with pleasing wooden components and nice, fat, chunky dice. The only thing I’d like to see in this regard is simply more of it. More cards, more art on those cards. Decks are somewhat thin, and the ‘action’ cards are sadly bereft of any art at all. As one of the games strongest elements, it’d be great to have more of it. More mishappen abnormalities to gawk at would also add immeasurably to the replay and novelty value of what is, admittedly a swift and slim-line experience.
We who are about to die salute you
For the most part, Bloodsport Gambler accomplishes what it sets out to achieve. It shines in its moments of doubt, when the stakes are high, and you wrest control from chaos against all odds. It shines when your machinations gift the edge to an underdog and upset the best laid plans of your rival. It shines when your purse is thin, and your back is against the wall. That these moments can be frustratingly elusive is perhaps one of luck as much as balance.
Such is the life of the gambler.
A preview copy of this game was provided by Mirage Merchants.
Bloodsport Gambler launches on Kickstarter on September 5th - Octoberth