After three games I have just two words to describe Spartacus: A Game of Blood & Treachery -
Spartacus is bathed in the blood of the your enemies theme, and elegantly immerses players in the experience of playing a "lanista", the head of ludus (Gladiator house) vying for influence and scrambling for power in the backwater city of Capua.
And, if you're a fan of the show, the game truly transforms your favorite despicable TV characters into playable game characters each with special abilities that reflect their series counterparts.
Since other reviews have discussed presentation and such, I'll skip the details here and instead examine how the game phases and mechanics help recreate the experience of playing one of these sordid ludus lords, and how these pieces make up a fantastic highly thematic whole.
After a basic upkeep phase (familiar to any gamer) where cards are refreshed and taxes are collected comes the Intrigue Phase--
In this phase you are instantly baptized into the tone and spirit of this Machiavellian game-- Your goal-- gain the most influence by ANY means within your power.
12 is the max and suggested victory level. But you can adjust your starting influence to shorten length of game play (7 for a short game, 4 for longer, 1 for longest). I like this flexibility since I can squeeze in a quick game if pressed for time or spend a night revelling in Romanesque decadence and debauchery.
It is the aforementioned tone and spirit of Spartacus that should form the crux of your decision as to whether or not this is the game for you.
Just like a lanista grasping at glory and power in ancient Rome, the game encourages you to make alliances, bribe, blackmail, and even backstab your fellow players.
As a general rule, promises and gold may change hands throughout the game in the name of procuring favors or swaying the choices of others around the table.
Now, this is important-- If you or your players do not like games that are hotly competitive or filled with doublecrosses, this is very likely NOT the game for you.
Also, if you play with juvenile players (physically or mentally), players who hold grudges, or use games to vent their personal frustrations on their fellows, this is NOT the game for you.
Yes we've all met or played with them, that one person who takes their gaming a wee too seriously.
And here's why-- You're going to be close to winning, oh so close...and then two players are going to gang up to stop you.
And someone is going to bet against you in the arena and root to see your favorite gladiator decapitated.
It's going to happen. So you gotta just suck it up and get over it, because ten minutes later you're probably going to be teaming up with one of those very same players and doing the same thing to someone else.
Yes, one can play as the honorable Roman, and conceivably win, but you will likely be alone in this strategy-- fair warning.
BTW - The game rules do sagaciously remind players not the "be an ass" about their double dealings, and keep things fun and within the realm of game play only.
Back to the play--
In the Intrigue Phase the lanistas plot and launch schemes against one another or try to advance their houses, increase their own influence, or ruin the reputation of their rivals (accomplished by lowering their influence).
There are three kinds of cards.
Schemes-- Scheme cards have a minimum influence rating to use-- Your lanista has an influence rating. If your rating is equal to or greater than the cost - you can play the card. Thematically-- look if you want to execute a big elaborate scheme and you're a small-time Lanista you probably don't have the resources to pull it off--
Luckily, you're not without options--
Some cards will have influence ratings higher than your current rating--
in this case you can invite another player to join in your scheming.
See the thematic aspect shine here?
You have to coax someone to lend you their influence to help get ahead or bring down someone more powerful than you.
In exchange, you can offer your potential co-conspirator bribes or promises, any of which you can choose to keep or break (HINT: beware of promising too much or being overly treacherous, soon no one will deal with you).
Schemes can also increase your own influence rating (like a visit from a Roman senator), give you more gold (as you loot the dead), kill off an opponent's gladiators (by poisoning their wine), or have other in-game effects.
The cool thing is some schemes can be played in other phases of the game-- keeping things full of surprises. One of our favorites examples of this is the card that forces a player to change the gladiator he's chosen to fight in the games AFTER everyone has placed wagers. Suddenly that surefire bet you put down is looking a lot more like you're about to lose it all.
The second kind of cards are reaction cards (like interrupts in other games)-- these foil schemes and provide other bonuses.
The third kind are your house Guards - these can be used to foil schemes against you - again very cool in keeping with the theme. Someone tries to bribe one of your slaves-- but your guards manage to catch them in the act and foil the plot.
In the Market Phase play remains intensely strategic and competitive--
Following an open market period - where players can freely exchange assets (slaves, gladiators, or equipment for the arena), come the auction.
Four market cards are laid out in a row and flipped one at a time revealing assets for your lanista to acquire. Each card is then bid on simultaneously with all players (put gold in your hand, 1-2-3- open your hand).
Do you bid on the mediocre gladiator that's available or hold out hoping a bigger badder one -- assuming someone else doesn't bid it out from under you. If you're not careful, it is possible to walk away from the market with nothing-- again bribes, promises, threats, and borrowing between players is all part of the game play.
And lastly, you'd best save some money to vote for the chance to HOST the games themselves.
The host of the games gains +1 Influence (remember - that what you need to win), and chooses who gets to send their gladiators to the fights.
Again, a lot of strategy to be had here-- since the winner of the arena match also gains influence.
You can send a powerful favored champion in the hopes a lucky blow will take him out or perhaps because you want a shoe-in to win big on the denarii you'll be wagering, or you might choose a rich lanista with a weak stable to exact a bribe from him.
In the final phase-- the Arena Phase-- two gladiators from the two chosen lanistas (figures are used on the game board which is a hex map of an arena) duke it out, and all player place bets on either victory, injury, or crowd-pleasing decapitation (the latter two pay 2:1).
You can even bet against your own gladiator (by betting on injury or decapitation).
The fight system is fast and simple, yet me and my players felt it really simulated combat in a quick and deadly way that didn't suddenly get bogged down into a minis rules system.
Each fighter has 3 stats rated from 1-5.
Red = Attack.
Black = Defense
Blue = Speed.
The stat's number rating = number of dice you roll.
So a gladiator that has 3,4,2 respectively, rolls 2 blue initiative dice (Speed) three red dice when attacking (Attack) and 4 black dice when blocking an attack (Defense).
Your Speed rating incidentally, also = number of hexes your mini can move each turn.
As your gladiator suffer wounds he removes dice-- When any rating is reduced to 0 dice - he is defeated. Two ratings = Injury. All three = goodbye head.
Again this nicely simulates an arena battle-- Did your gladiator lose a dice of speed-- that's a leg hit (and now he can't move as far or will be react as quickly for initiative). Lose defense? Maybe an arm hit, or perhaps he's just tiring.
My players were shouting for this gladiator or that to win (according to their wagers or which Lanista they wanted to see victorious), they were cheering at a flurry of hits, or booing when the gladiators danced about too much.
When the fight ends-- wagers are lost and winnings are collected and the host now gets to decide the fate of the defeated gladiator (mercy or death)-- Bribes, once again, are welcome.
Overall there is little or no downtime, which I love. It's PVP/CO-OP the whole way through.
I really enjoyed how players were always interacting, always invested and participating even when other players were taking their actions.
I thought the mechanics fell into the "easy to learn and difficult to master" category and could be taught in one round of play (or about 15-20 minutes).
In summary, in a world where most games run 60-100 bucks, at $30.00 (online price) Spartacus stands out as a great gaming value well beyond it's price tag, offering tons of replayability and hours of conniving, backstabbing, and power-mongering fun.
- Last edited Sun Nov 24, 2013 7:38 am (Total Number of Edits: 1)
- Posted Sat Dec 8, 2012 8:50 am
Roy Batty wrote:
You can even bet against your own gladiator.
Actually, I thought that was one thing you couldn't do! (Rules P12)
You CANNOT bet against your own gladiator. You can only bet on them to win.
This space for rent!
Painting all these miniatures is starting to crimp my time...
Well... you can bet that there will be a gladiator decapitated or injured, which is sort of pretty much betting against your gladiator when you send a 1-1-1 Slave against 4-4-4 Spartacus...
- Last edited Sat Dec 8, 2012 3:07 pm (Total Number of Edits: 1)
- Posted Sat Dec 8, 2012 3:06 pm
Yes - Should have clarified - you can "bet against them" if you wager for injury/decapitation.
We had an incident where a weak gladiator was going in against a well armed Beast of The Pit. Pretty much everyone bet on decapitation - including the gladiator's owner.
- Last edited Sat Dec 8, 2012 7:54 pm (Total Number of Edits: 1)
- Posted Sat Dec 8, 2012 7:53 pm
ubi bene ibi patria // vidi perfutui veni
Bravo! great review and a great inspired title for it!
An excellent review of an excellent game!
This is by far one of my favorite titles of the year and has quickly become one of my top three favorites overall. If not number one.
I love the forced interaction of the intrigue phase. I like games that force you to work with the other players in order to accomplish a victory.
I also like the shift into the action mode of the arena; to say I'm excited about the expansion wherein you'll be able to do 2 on 2 gladiator pairings is an understatement to say the least.
I've also get very into the negotiation aspect trying to butter up my opponents by referring to them as "worthy friends" and "noble domini" lol.
I love this game.
"You who are about to die...should salute me!"