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Monday, November 26, 2012

Spartacus Review

Spartacus A Game of Blood and Treachery, by Luke Melia
We recently had the opportunity to play the new Spartacus game by Gale Force Nine.  The game is based on the Starz television series.  To quote the rulebook, “In the game, each player takes on the role of Dominus, the head of a house in Capua, a city in the era of Ancient Rome.  Each house is competing for influence.  Fight for dominance through a combination of political schemes and glorious battles on the sands of the arena.”
The game has good graphic design.  It represents the television show well with major and minor characters throughout the game in vibrant colors and screen shots captured in the rulebook and cards.  If you are a fan of the show, you will have instantaneous recognition of the characters and many of the subtle colorful references throughout the game.  The game itself comes with two sets of cards for play: the Intrigue and Market decks - token for gold, as well as house markers, a generous amount of dice, quick reference cards for the phases of the game, a arena battle board and of course four plastic gladiator figures. The plastic figures were really my only disappointment with the game.  Everything else is so well made and designed.  The figures, although in great poses seem to be a little flimsy.  I have thought about picking up a variety of metal figures and have them painted to give some additional visual effect to the game.   The game takes between two and three hours to play and has a maximum of four players.   The object of the game is to be the first player to have twelve “influence” points.  There are a variety of ways to gain and lose influence throughout the game and every player can affect not only their own influence, but their opponents as well.  You have several options for fast play games - every player can start with 7, 4 or even 1 influence.  The higher the number you start with determines how much faster the game will go considering you only have to get to 12 to win.  Now here is the kicker- The game is only $40!  I expected it to be at least $60 so on the value side of things, you just cannot beat this.
 A note of warning here:  This game is for adults.  There are expletives on the side of the box as well as the playing cards themselves.  There are also numerous adult innuendos and content throughout the game.  Sorry folks, this is not a “play with the kids” kind of game.
Game play is broken into four parts:
1.       Upkeep.  In this phases you refresh your cards, heal any injuries gladiators may have and balance your ledgers.  You flip any spent cards that may have been exhausted (flipped over) to use a special ability.  We had plenty of jokes while playing when you “exhaust” certain slaves to generate a gold piece.  (Wink wink, say no more)  Every turn, when you balance your ledgers, you receive one gold per ready slave and have to pay one gold for every ready gladiator.  Ready is defined as not injured or exhausted.
2.       Intrigue.  In this phase each player draws three cards. Then, starting with the Host, take turns playing schemes, cash in cards and use House special rules.  There are several types of intrigue cards: scheme, reaction and guard cards.  Scheme cards have a certain number of influence required to play.  Sometimes you may have to get the support of another Dominus (player) in order to play a card.  For example, the “Joint Venture” card requires twelve influence, but you only have nine.  You can make a deal with another to loan you their six influence temporarily to play the card.  You now have fifteen influence (not to count for victory conditions, just to help you play the card) and the card is then played.  This is really the essence of the game.  You can make deals, bribe and subvert other players.  Backstabbing is common and after the game I played I had a deep sympathy for the politics of ancient Rome.  At the same time you can play reaction cards which allow you to counter schemes or in some cases change events.  Last, but not least are the guard cards.  These cards can be used to counter schemes as well.  On every card there is a gold symbol on the bottom of the card.  You can opt not to play the card and cash it in to the bank and get the equivalent in gold to the value on the card.
3.       Market.  Players can trade, buy or sell assets with each other or cash them into the bank.  There is also an auction.  Four market cards are placed face down.  One at a time a card is flipped over.  Players now have the option of bidding on any of the cards which can be gladiators, slaves, weapons, armor and even special abilities.  Bidding is really neat in this game.  Basically you put a number of gold tokens in your hand secretly, and then all players place their closed fists over the middle of the table and reveal their bids.  The highest takes home the prize and in the case of a tie there is an easy way in the game mechanics to resolve.  Last, but not least is the bidding to see who will be the Host of the games.  Bidding is done the same way as in the normal auction phase.  Spoiler alert, you want to host the games.  Save your money to be able to win the honor.
4.       The last phase of the game is the Arena.  This is when bets are placed on the outcome of the games, combatants are chosen and two players fight a great little battle in the middle of what first appeared just to be a card game.  Combat flows smoothly and has really simple mechanics.  Since everyone has money betting on who will win and who will lose, I found every player really getting into the combat even when their gladiator was not in the fight.   For a moment I felt like a spectator in the Coliseum. 
We had never played the game before and literally opened the rulebook and started playing step by step.  The first round was a little slow as we were learning, but quickly picked up the game and things moved at a very accelerated pace.  This is a very competitive game and although you are fighting against each other to win there is a level of diplomacy that comes into every game as you jockey for influence and work together to take on the player who has more influence than you. 
The game is extremely tense as you scheme to gain influence the whole time watching over your back that one of your opponents is not about to put one over on you.   This game captures the spirit of the intrigue of the television show and really had us sitting on the edges of our seats.  I found the managing your gold and being the one who Hosts the game is of paramount importance to winning the game.   I wanted to include some thoughts on the game from Mike Proctor who also played with us at Fall In.
I enjoyed my game a lot. I think it is well worth the $40. We played a short game starting at 7 influence with the need to get to 12 to win. I think starting at 1 would make for a long game but still fun. Only thing is it is a four player game max and I am not sure it would really work with less. If you have the right crowd of people to play with this is an excellent game and I highly recommend it! 4 out for 5 swords for me!
Mike Proctor (mikep18103 on the forums)
I enjoyed this game immensely and look forward to playing again.  We have talked about this on the podcast, episode 47 Live from Fall In, so please listen for more details. Nothing beats standing up as Host with the power of life or death over someone’s gladiator and then giving them the big thumbs down!   I give this game 5 out of 5 stars.  It is a truly great game combining elements of miniature combat, diplomacy and deck builder games.  For $40 it is a no brainer and a steal.

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