I'm not normally an 'on the fence' reviewer: I tend to come down on one side or the other with most games, either finding the fun that the designer intended or being on such a different wavelength that emotions run high and the venting process can be quite cathartic. Rather than being on the fence or on one side or the other, Dash Arena has me exploring a bit of a split personality issue.
Dash Arena is a small box two-player game by Miroslav Petrovic from Ordered Chaos Games, with two bright stadium boards and twelve cardboard standees which leave you in little doubt that it owes a stylistic and thematic debt to 80's video games like Speedball (Bitmap Brothers, 1988), itself a digital reimagining of Blood Bowl (Games Workshop, 1986), which in turn owed a debt to the movie Rollerball (1975). In all these futuristic games, two teams go head to head in an enclosed arena, smashing the pumpkins out of each other while ostensibly trying to score in the opponents' goal.
In this iteration of the sport - which, fortunately, has not materialised in real life (yet!) - you control three players who manoeuvre on hex-shaped grids positioning themselves to shoot a disc at goal or to knockdown the opponent's disc carrier. Three points for the former, one for the latter; five points and it's game over, man. While Blood Bowl never overly interested me, I happily picked up Blood Bowl Team Manager after playing it, so it seems I'm good with the theme, if not necessarily the 'dudes on a playing field' aspect. It's this key element of positioning your players which makes me ambivalent about Dash Arena, because it lacks one crucial element for a modern game... dice mitigation.
Each turn, a player must choose either to Move or to Shoot: if Shooting, the disc is sent toward the opponent's goal, possibly being deflected or intercepted en route; if Moving, you roll three dice and assign a die to each of your team members. This means: Roll Badly, Do Badly. Yes, indeed, the bane of Roll & Move's millennia-old debilitating legacy to our hobby rears its random head even in the future.
Were you planning to pile through the opponent's defence, pick up the disc, bounce off the wall, and hand-off to a team-mate? Well, don't roll three low numbers because you simply won't be able to, even tho' some of the characters' special powers work around this problem a little. This is a shame because the game does work when you roll high: interesting options and tactical thoughts spring to mind and the game's potential can be felt. Nowhere could I see a mitigation rule: no flipping a die; no rerolling; no fourth-die-and-ignore-the-lowest; no alternative use for low numbers; not even in the advanced rules. I know the themes are completely different, but a game like Circardians: First Light (Garphill) handles this dice issue superbly and shows it can be done.
Dash Arena's pleasantly contradictory retro-80's futuristic vibe, which the components and art by Marko Vidakovic bring out so well, is not matched by the rulebook, which is in plain black and white serif (though admirably legible, unlike the player power cards on which the white font on dark is unnecessarily small). The copious rules do cover all eventualities, tho' that can make a particular query hard to reference; and different arena layouts, advanced rules and boosters exist to add more theme and complexity if desired.
So, I feel like I found the fun in Dash Arena: it's there, I can see it; but half the time it gets snatched away. I understand that, over the course of longer games, dice rolls even out. Dash Arena's snappy play time tho', makes swingy dice more likely and if one player rolls significantly better than the other, there's little recourse to be found. Dash it all!
(Review by David Fox)
Update: The designer has been in touch to let us know that there is an expansion in the works, Print & Play content on the way, and -I'm pleased to say, for novice players like me - dice mitigation as a balancing factor in league play.