Tracy Baker
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I never review games after a single play, but after finishing a game of Spartacus with two other people last night I started writing up my thoughts about it and ended up with something a bit more involved than a session report and a bit less exhaustive than a review. I only intended to write a little bit, but was so smitten with this design that the words just kept flowing. There’s a lot to say and a lot to recommend about this surprisingly terrific game.

There are also a few caveats. Firstly, bear in mind that I have never watched the show. I have no idea if the game does it any justice, but if it does I intend to put Spartacus the series on my shortlist. Secondly, this is a long game. We tried a variant of the “short” version, starting with four influence and ending at ten, and it took 2.5 hours. Some of this was due to learning the rules, but not much. Spartacus is a game of the “easy to learn, difficult to master” variety.

The good news is that nobody noticed the time passing. This is a game where you are engaged every second, no matter whose turn it is. I’ve played a lot of three- and four-player games where people were reaching for their phones every time their turn was over, but there was none of that here. It reminded me of poker in this regard, where you must pay attention to your opponents even if you’ve folded.

I nearly passed on buying this because it is a licensed game based on a second-tier property, and it mashes multiple types of games into a single design. Either of these is generally a reason to burn a game on sight, but by Jupiter’s cock, they did it. And please note that the only reason I descended into vulgarity in that last sentence is because there is an actual (awesome) card in the game named Jupiter’s Cock. The flavor text also drops f-bombs occasionally, the clothing of the females can only be described as scanty, and there are gallons of gore on nearly everything. This is not something you bust out at family game night. It’s something you bust out with old friends who won’t stop calling you after you subject them to a night of browbeating, backstabbing, and Jupiter’s privates. I’ve heard the show is a mix of softcore porn and ultraviolence, and the board game echoes those themes.

What You Get
Spartacus is a phenomenal value, especially at online discounter prices of around $26. You get a cardboard arena board, four gladiator miniatures with different sculpts that fight on that board (did I mention there’s a full-on miniatures combat engine in here?), a mountain of cardboard gold, another mountain of dice, and various other tokens. There are also large mounted mats for each House that help players track their all-important Influence score and list the House’s special powers and starting setup.

The game comes with two decks of cards. The Market Deck contains 24 Gladiators, 24 Slaves, and 16 Equipment cards, while the Intrigue Deck contains 61 Schemes, 19 Reactions, and 24 Guards. More on those later.

Rules Overview
Rounds are divided into four phases: Upkeep, Intrigue, Market, and Arena.

Upkeep Phase
As mentioned, each house has a different starting setup, with Slaves placed to the left of their player mat, Gladiators placed to the right, and Guards placed below. Slaves generate one gold each during the Upkeep phase and can often be exhausted (flipped upside down) to trigger a special ability once per round. Gladiators consume one gold during Upkeep and if you ever run out of gold during upkeep you must free (discard) Gladiators until they reach parity with your Slaves. Guards neither generate or require gold during Upkeep, but are kept in reserve to defend against Schemes targeting your House. If someone does that you can discard a Guard to roll a d6, and ignore the attack if you get a 4+. If you fail and have more guards you can continue discarding them and rolling until the attack is thwarted or you run out of Guards.

Sometimes Gladiators get injured (either in the arena or due to cards), and during Upkeep you can roll one d6 for each injured Gladiator. Their wound is removed if you roll 4+.

Intrigue Phase
After Upkeep is the Intrigue phase, where players draw three Intrigue cards. Most of these cards are Schemes, which have an Influence level printed in the upper left-hand corner and a gold amount printed in the lower left-hand corner. If you have Influence equal to or greater than that printed on the card you can play it, but doing so doesn’t cost you any Influence. For example, if you have cards with Influence levels of 5, 3, and 3, and were at 4 on your Influence track, you could play both of the cards with 3 values and not need to adjust your track at all. It’s a threshold, not a resource payment.

An interesting twist is that you can ask other players if they will lend you their Influence to add to yours if you have a card that exceeds your current Influence level (which happens often early in the game). If they agree, theirs is added to yours temporarily to create a new threshold. This game is all about no-holds-barred negotiation and trickery, so you are free to beg someone for their influence to play a card that stabs them in the back. They are also free to ask you to pay them for the privilege (and other players are free to chime in with better deals). It is brutal, vicious, and a total blast.

Cards can also be discarded during this phase for their value in gold, which is taken from the bank. Money is crucial, and this is a good way to get it without letting anyone else have access to a card that would benefit them. There is also a strict hand limit based on your current Influence level, and sometimes you are forced to use or cash in cards that might come in handy later just to get under the hand limit.

Some Intrigue cards are Reactions, which often foil Schemes (no dice roll required) and have other powerful effects.

The remainder of Intrigue cards are Guards, which can be added to your play area to dissuade others from attacking (and to get them out of your hand), or left in your hand to surprise attackers who think you are defenseless.

Market Phase
Once everyone has a chance to play Intrigue cards play proceeds to the Market phase, which has three steps. In the first step, players are free to trade nearly anything, including Slaves, Gladiators, Equipment, played Guards, cards from their hands, and gold. Normally only gold can can be traded, so this is a special opportunity to wheel and deal (or to do something like wait until someone pays a huge sum for your awesome Gladiator and then play a Reaction card that instantly kills that Gladiator after you get the money. So fun).

After that a number of cards equal to the number of players is drawn from the Market Deck and placed face-down in a row. The first card is flipped, and a blind auction for it takes place. This continues until all the cards are bought or discarded (the latter happens if nobody bids on it).

Market cards include Slaves, Gladiators, and Equipment. The Slaves and Gladiators have special abilities that the starting cards of those types lack, and Gladiators from the Market Deck also have much better stats than the starting lineup. Equipment comes in Armor, Weapon, and Special Item varieties, and one of each category can be assigned to a combatant in the Arena.

It would seem to make sense to dump all your money here to buy up the best stuff, but the final step of this phase is a blind auction to determine who will be Host of the upcoming Arena battle. The Host automatically gets one Influence point and gets to decide who gets to fight in the Arena (he can even pick himself). The Host also gets to go first in the next round, which is a nice perk that lets you hit other Houses with Schemes before they can hit you.

Arena Phase
Now we get to the part of the game that simply has no business working at all. It’s a quick miniatures battle on a hex map where two combatants face off until one of them yields, is injured, or is decapitated. I am shocked that they didn’t come up with some sort of simple card combat system to resolve this phase, and their more ambitious idea had every chance of blowing up in their faces, but it didn’t. It works, and it works brilliantly.

After the host invites two Houses to compete, each chooses a Gladiator or Slave card they have ready and place a miniature in the arena to represent the person on that card. Some combatants have special abilities, and all are rated in Attack, Defense, and Speed, with each number representing how many six-sided dice they get to use for that stat.

At the beginning of each round of combat, both combatants roll their blue Speed dice and add up the pips to determine initiative. The one with the highest number gets to move/attack or attack/move first (there is no move/attack/move option, and normally you can only attack an adjacent opponent. Then the other combatant gets to move/attack or attack move. They can each move a number of hexes equal to or less than the number of Speed dice they have (not the number of pips showing).

If an attack happens, the attacker rolls a number of red dice equal to his Attack rating, and the defender rolls a number of black dice equal to his Defense rating. These are lined up from highest to lowest across from each other in two rows, and a hit is scored for every red die that is higher than the black die across from it. At this point Equipment can be used to reroll, absorb hits, etc., and the best Gladiators have special abilities that do things like let them win ties during attacks or automatically wound an opponent if they roll doubles or triples.

The neatest thing about those Attack/Defense/Speed dice is that they also represent the combatant’s health pool. If your combatant takes a hit, you remove dice of your choice to represent the effect of the wound. The only restriction is that you can only remove dice from a stat that has at least two dice remaining, so that eventually the losing combatant will be down to a single die in each stat. If they take a hit that removes one of those die, they yield and lose the match. If they take a hit that makes them lose two dice, they are injured. If they take a hit that removes all three dice they are decapitated.

This is important because bets are placed at the beginning of each match, just after the combatants are selected. You can bet up to three gold that one of them will win (though you can never bet against yourself), with a 1:1 payout. If you think things will get bloody you can bet up to three gold that the losing combatant will be injured, which pays 2:1. If you think things will get deadly you can bet up to three gold that the losing combatant will be decapitated, which also pays 2:1. Because of the way the bets cancel each other out, the most you can win is three gold for choosing the right victor, and six gold for calling an injury or decapitation (but not both). There is no rule against making side bets, but we didn’t bother in our game.

If a combatant yields or is injured the Host gets to do the ol’ thumb up/thumb down to decide whether he lives or dies. Bribes can come into play from anyone to influence this decision.

The owner of a winning combatant gets one Influence. Then the winning combatant gets a Favor token, and their owner gets two gold coins per favor token each time that combatant participates in a future battle. Hosts who kill combatants who have Favor tokens lose one Influence. If the combatant manages to get three Favor tokens they become Champions, generate six gold each time they fight, and can’t be killed by the Host at all.

After the Arena phase is Upkeep, and the game goes until someone hits the target amount of influence (12 in a full game).

How It All Fits Together
Reading about all the mechanisms gives you a feel for how the game works, but doesn't do justice to how much sheer joy those simple mechanisms generate. Sid Meier of Civilization fame summed up a good game as a series of interesting choices, and that’s Spartacus in a nutshell. There is always a deal to be negotiated, a bid to decide, a combo to plan, a plot to foil, and/or a bet to be placed. Every choice is meaningful. Exhausting all your Slaves to trigger a bunch of nice special abilities may make you vulnerable to an attack. Relying on the same gladiator all the time so he amasses Fortune tokens may make him a target for devious schemes. Screwing people over all the time may prevent you from using their Influence to cinch a win, or may sour them on inviting you to Arena matches. Overbidding on a Market card may prevent you from making a crucial bet, and losing a crucial bet may leave you destitute. Not paying attention to other people’s gold may cost you some critical cards or prevent you from Hosting.

The Arena matches work much better in practice than I ever thought possible when reading about them on paper. Speed is crucial, since the ability to move/attack or attack/move gives faster combatants the ability to gain initiative, move in for a first strike, defend, and then attack again and back off to a range the other combatant can’t reach. This potential for getting two attacks to your opponent’s one makes it a no-brainer to lunge in instead of running around forever, and combats generally end much faster than I expected. The fact that you get money for committing combatants with Fortune tokens also makes it much more likely that players will continue putting their most powerful Gladiators at risk.

While you can’t bet against yourself in the Arena, some cards let you gain Influence if your combatant gets killed, so it sometimes makes sense to send in a Slave (they all have 1 Attack, 1 Defense, and 1 Speed), bet on an injury or decapitation, and cash in when your weakling gets crushed. Of course, that leaves you with one less Slave during the Upkeep round, which may mean you can’t pay for your Gladiators, and so on, and so on.

Be aware that you can be absolutely, positively mean in this game. During our match my House jumped into a quick lead thanks to a lucky Gladiator that amassed two Fortune tokens, and then I experienced a beatdown unlike any I’ve experienced in years. The other Houses hit me with some minor Schemes until I used up all my Guard cards and then loaned each other their Influence to hit me with the heavy artillery, killing my Gladiator outright (leaving me with nothing but Slaves to fight with) and taking all my gold. I thought I was out of the game and would be reduced to limping along and playing kingmaker, as is the case with most bad three-player games, but my fortunes soon turned. I got a few nice Intrigue cards, used them to get some money that was all spent on a badass gladiator, and I was right back in a game that I ended up winning. Spartacus has a lot of luck, but it is spread around so evenly that it makes you take some big risks that you would never try in drier, tighter, more strategic games. It is also possible to take advantage of other people’s good fortune far more than most other games allow.

It was nice to see that there are multiple paths to victory. While I was building Influence by Hosting and winning Arena battles, one of my opponents was building an army of slaves to generate money and banking on great influence cards to achieve victory. He came close to pulling it off, and it’s comforting to know that if you’re getting your butt kicked consistently in the Arena you can still find a way to win.

Good as this game was with three, I’m convinced it will work even better with a full complement of four players. My only concern at this point is trying to find a way to play it in less time. I’m considering testing a house rule for a quick game that doubles all influence gained and lost. That would let us start at 1 Influence each and still go through a period where we must rely on alliances to play most Influence cards, but ramp up people’s power faster. Even if there is no good solution this is a game I will suggest often in the future, but only when I’m playing with people who are cutthroat and have thick skins. Whiners and nice people need not apply. It’s simply a phenomenal design being sold for a ridiculously low price, and I don’t understand why it’s not getting more attention here at the Geek.
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Mattias Elfström
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Very nice review of a great game. I agree that it should get more attention on BGG!
 
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John Van Wagoner
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this IS meant for 4 players; if you enjoyed playing with 3 you'll have a blast with 4 !!!
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Tim K
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My thoughts exactly. Amazing game for $25. With 4 players its really impressive. Its my groups favorite game.

TK.
 
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Great review, and I agree with virtually every point made. I particularly agree that the price of this game is so ridiculously low and the production values are so high that anyone with even a passing interest in Roman gladiatorial games would be a fool not to pick this up. It's like Fantasy Flight Games production values for half the price. I hope it completely sells through and earns GF9 a shed-load of cash.

I also think the rating on BGG of this game is way too low. Anyone on this forum who hasn't rated it yet should do so immediately and give this gem of a game the limelight it deserves.
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τὰ ὄντα ἰέναι τε πάντα καὶ μένειν οὐδέν
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Sure, it's a great game for three people, but how does it play solo, Lonely Meeple?!
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Tracy Baker
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Bahimiron wrote:
Sure, it's a great game for three people, but how does it play solo, Lonely Meeple?!


Ha! I'm not so good at negotiating with myself, but am great at sabotaging myself, so who knows?
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Alexandros Boucharelis
Greece
Drama
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ubi bene ibi patria // vidi perfutui veni
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great point of view, thanks for your report gertbert!
 
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Chris Hamm
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He did say the women are scantily clad. What more could you want for solo play? whistle
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Julio

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Mattias wrote:
Very nice review of a great game. I agree that it should get more attention on BGG!

Well, right now it is on the hotness list.

Agreed, great review.
 
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Paul W
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NappyPlayer wrote:
... anyone with even a passing interest in Roman gladiatorial games would be a fool not to pick this up.


They should use that quote on the box.
 
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Tuomas Korppi
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What does the Jupiter's cock -card do? Just curious.
 
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Tracy Baker
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Punainen Nörtti wrote:
What does the Jupiter's cock -card do? Just curious.


It foils any Scheme. It's the ultimate cockblock.
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