Taken from the box: ‘A fast paced board game set in ancient Rome. The game includes backstabbing schemes, fierce bidding and bloody gladiatorial combat!’
What you get: tokens, a fold-out board in the style of a blood-soaked arena, four gladiator playing pieces, a fistful of dice, a couple of decks of cards and your House mini-board. You get a lot of bang for your buck in terms of actual bits and pieces with plenty of full colour stills of characters from the ‘Spartacus’ television series which, if you’re a fan of the show, is probably a selling point. I would have preferred illustrations. However, the high production value sets it apart from many licensed spin-off games that seem designed solely to squeeze a few extra denarii out of citizens instead of filling Board Game Night with hours of dice-rolling fun.
The recommended age of 17+ puts ‘Spartacus’ in the ‘adult’ board game category ooer. But hold on to your togas, as it’s probably laughably tame for most 15 year-olds, let alone 16 year-olds who can get married, join the military and even stay up past ten o’clock on weekends. Of course, the recommended age does give licence for entertainingly named cards like ‘Jupiter’s Cock’ and ‘Empty Brothel’.
The aim of the game is to become the most powerful House in Capua. In short, this is achieved by gaining the target amount of Influence, simples. You play the Dominus of one of four Roman Houses (no Dominas I note, which is a bit sexist if you axe me, Spartacus old chum), out to win power and glory by shivving-up your rivals. There is an expansion called ‘The Serpents And The Wolf’ that adds two more Houses. We don’t have the expansion, but it’s just as much fun to play in teams with a couple of people per House. At the very least, team play gives you someone else to blame when you kill grandma’s favourite gladiator. Each turn consists of four phases with plenty to do in each of those phases, possibly too much.
Upkeep is when cards are refreshed, healing rolls are made for any injured Assets and the ledgers are balanced ie pay gold for any gladiators owned and gain gold for any slaves owned.
Intrigue: All players draw 3 cards then starting with the Host, players take turns playing Scheme cards, cash in cards for gold, use House Special Rules and Asset Special Abilities as and when applicable. Scheme cards are used to gain wealth and sabotage other players. Reaction cards can counter Scheme cards and can also be played out of phase in specific circumstances. This is a fun phase where the aim is to accrue wealth and soften up your opponents.
Market: Starts with the Open Market when players are free to buy, sell and trade Assets with each other and the bank. Next is the Auction, when players bid on cards from the Market deck such as gladiators, slaves and weapons. Last of all, during this phase players bid for Hosting. The winner hosts the next Arena Games and gets to invite two Houses to fight in the arena or lose influence. As Host, who you don’t chose can be just as important as who you do choose to fight.
Arena: The Host gains a point of Influence. They then invite two players to take part in the Games. Bets are placed and combat ensues. Victory and Defeat is when the winning gladiator receives a favour token which makes him harder to kill. Wagers are settled and the Host exercises the Power of Life & Death as in, decides if the losing gladiator is killed. This isn’t always as straightforward a choice as it might at first seem. The more you play the more tactics become apparent, which really adds scope and longevity to the game.
Whoever reaches the Influence Target first is the winner. Influence Targets vary and are set before the game starts. You gain Influence by winning arena battles, hosting games, using certain intrigue cards and through individual House Abilities.
Despite the claims on the box, ‘Spartacus’ isn’t fast-paced when you first play it. Given the amount of phases and what you have to do in those phases, it takes a while to get up to speed. There also may be an issue of balance being out of whack between the Houses Special Abilities or it might just be our group’s perception based on how we’ve played the game thus far.
Once you’re down with the rules, the game can be fast and furious but is equally as enjoyable if it turns into a drawn out, down and dirty fight to the bitter end. As I haven’t watched the television series, the characters and Houses mean nothing to me, but that isn’t a bar to playing the game purely on its merits as a board game, particularly if you enjoy plotting and scheming, although you can just as easily battle your way to power in the arena. It might be a tad unbalanced and, initially, a little unwieldy but by Jupiter’s Cock, it’s certainly entertaining.
K T Davies
(pub: Gale Force Nine. Price: £30.00 if you know where to look.