I have had a hard time figuring out how I feel about Slitherine’s tactical Roman chariot racing game, Qvadriga, an issue I have not really experienced with any other review thus far. And no, you didn’t misread that first sentence, this is a turn based game about managing ancient chariot racers. The game description really piqued my interest, as it seems to have the hyper-specific niche and passion that you find in many fantastic board games like Agricola, Power Grid, or Le Havre. This is a trend that is reaching out into the indie video game development world, where designers can really explore a very unique setting or gameplay conceit. Does this release deserve to join the pantheon of tried and true niche experiences, or does it crash and burn before it reaches the finish line?
The primary gameplay comes in the form of the chariot race itself, as you take laps around the circuit against your AI competitors. The race is broken down into turns, where you can select a certain action. This could be simply braking to slow down, accelerating forward, or even whipping your horses for a speed boost. Or crashing your chariot left or right over one or more lanes of the track.
Perhaps holding your horse team and chariot steady as you round a sharp bend at high speeds. Even whipping opposing riders, and slamming your chariot into theirs. Each rider selects their action, and the game plays them out simultaneously over a short period of time, and the game handles any interactions that may arise. I may try to whip my horses forward, while a competitor merges into my lane and I run head on into their chariot, damaging my horses. Or I could try to brake when entering a turn, only to realize I was too late, and my whole chariot flips, causing the rider to be dragged on by the horses.
While at face value these decisions seem very strategic, the sheer randomness and unpredictability make actually winning a race a real chore. The game does a reasonable job of showing you what ground will be covered at your current speed, and if you are going to fast for a turn - think the driving line in racing games like Forza, where red means you are in for a bad time at the next bend. But even when taking turns at reasonable speeds, I found my cart would very often take damage for seemingly no reason, and on some occasions completely flip despite my wholehearted attempts to stabilize.
The game does provide you with different statistics for chariots, riders, and horses, but it almost feels that instead of purchasing upgrades, the higher level items simply behave as you would expect them to, while lower level ones are hamstrung. It’s further infuriating that an AI racer in similar setup will seem to have an inherent advantage over you more often than not, accomplishing speeds or turns that you simply cannot muster. While it can be argued that this is all done to build tension, all it comes across as is sheer frustration.
As the manager of a chariot racing team, the campaign mode sets you off with a small team of horses, chariots, and riders with the ultimate goal of competing in the Circus Maximus. Each race you enter has a prize purse, which varies for each race and your positioning across the finish line. Should you be lucky enough to survive a race and place high, your spoils are used to purchase upgrades for your horses, chariots, or riders. Should you be less lucky, your paltry winnings will be spent mending wounded horses, broken chariots, and perhaps even deceased riders.
It then becomes necessary to grind out wins in order to by even a small upgrade, but by the time you do, the AI riders have upgraded to that same level, if not further. You are always set back on the wrong foot, struggling to just finish a race to have enough money to repair the damage that was done to you, and rarely ever advancing through different cities and item tiers. I had to restart the campaign numerous times before any sort of progress could be made.
To tie together the frustrating experience, the interface and graphics feel like they were a last second move. It is as though so much time was spent rigging the behind-the-scenes dice rolls to work against the player that the designer was ready to ship, and realize that there were no graphics at all. Text is smashed into the city interface and help screens with almost no eye for a pleasant appeal. The actual top-down races are somewhere between a Paint drawing and what you might find if you search “Roman Coliseum Clip Art.”
While this game does have some hallmarks of a strategic, yet dice-fueled board game, some sloppy design work and opaque gameplay randomness mars the overall experience. An unappealing presentation is put on top of an disengaging team management system, and repetitive gameplay that is overly random to the point of feeling rigged against the player. What little progression there is falls apart as the AI progresses at the same rate, or even faster. While there can be some enjoyment found in a few races, that can be accomplished in the free demo, and not this overpriced package.
Review by Parker