Managing a team of gladiators to crushing defeat in Domina

Buy 'em, train 'em, equip 'em, then watch 'em be brutally slaughtered.

My career as a gladiator coach isn't going so great, and if ESPN existed in ancient Rome the pundits and commentators on the morning talk shows would surely be calling for me to be fired. Or, perhaps to be set on fire. It is ancient Rome, after all, and judging from this game the only thing cheaper than life is a grisly and painful death.

Domina, now in Steam Early Access, is a management simulator putting you in charge of turning a team of unfortunate slaves into elite killing machines, though my personal experience is that they are just as often dying machines. Buy slaves, train them, equip them, keep them stuffed with food and water, then send them out into the fighting pits to do battle with other AI controlled gladiators. The pixelated carnage is fun to watch, I only wish my collection of miserable enslaved "warriors" was dishing it out more than they were taking it.

The combat is handled by the AI, though you can purchase an upgrade to allow you to control a single fighter yourself. You can also specialize your fighters by choosing which attributes you'd like them to improve, such as agility (they'll roll out of harm's way), defense, and weapon proficiency, which allows you to pick the best fighter for the task: before combat, you can check out your opponent's strengths and weaknesses. There are also bonuses you can earn (in the form of cards) that get applied to your entire roster.

In addition to purchasing and selling your pit-fighters, you can also hire employees at a cost of coins, food, and water. Healers help your fighters recover after matches, educators keep their morale and proficiency up, blacksmiths provide weapon and armor upgrades, and so on. You'll also have to manage your relationships with other pit bosses, mostly through bribery. The more the other bosses like you, the better your chances of earning extra rewards after matches or buying better fighters from them.

In other words, there's a lot to do between fights—if you have the time for it, that is. The calendar is constantly advancing, the days until your next fight slipping by until it's suddenly showtime again, so there's the feeling of needing to rush rather than spend long minutes considering how best to spend your resources and manage your team and relationships.

The highlight of my somewhat careless management style actually pays off at one point. In a pit fight, wanting to give my wounded gladiators time to heal, I send out a completely unarmed and untrained slave named Junius to battle a deadly-looking opponent bearing a sword and shield.

Poor Junius! After excitedly pumping up the crowd, he seems to realize that he's only equipped with a pair of shorts and is about to be stabbed to death, so he begins fleeing in a blind panic. Suddenly, someone in the crowd throws him a weapon. That feels sort of illegal—in modern sports, you can't really accept equipment chucked onto the field from the stands, but here there's no officials to throw a flag or blow a whistle. Sword in hand, the nearly-naked Junius goes to work, and somehow quickly cuts down the other gladiator for the win.

I feel like Junius is favored by the Gods, and I have big plans to train him and maybe even give him a weapon of his own, but shortly after returning to the training camp he contracts food poisoning. I tell him to go lie down in the shade, but instead he simply lies down right where he's standing because he's abruptly died from food poisoning. It's a good lesson in this roguelite: don't get attached to anyone because they might be gone in the blink of an eye. 

After Junius' brief rise to glory and fall into oblivion, things only get worse. On the plus side, they get worse very, very quickly, giving everyone in the crowd plenty of time to shuffle out of the stadium, find their cars, and get home in time for dinner. My next match ends in a single, two-handed sword swipe from the opposing team.

Domina is a lot of fun and I'm really enjoying it (and getting a little better at it, too). The biggest downside at the moment is that there's no save feature (though the developer has said one will most likely be added after some Early Access bugs have been addressed). My gladiators typically don't survive long enough to really need a save feature, but I can see it being high on the wish list for more capable players who don't want to play an entire game in a single session.