If you’ve seen the Starz Network’s blood-soaked sword-and-sandal show Spartacus, you may not be as surprised as other board gamers might be to find that the new game based on it contains a card called “Jupiter’s Cock”. Between that R-rated card (which you will, in fact, use to screw other players), a very specific rulebook admonition warning players “don’t be an ass”, and the subtitle “a Game of Blood and Treachery”, fans of brutally nasty board games rife with player interaction and bad behavior should be aware that they are in for quite a treat. Coming to us from Gale Force Nine, a company better known for miniatures accessories, Spartacus is something of a surprise hit. It’s a theme-first game like Dune or Battlestar Galactica and although it doesn’t quite ascend to those dizzying heights of genius design it definitely captures the visceral and gleefully trashy nature of the show without apology.
One thing that’s immediately striking about the game is that it’s something like Junta in that it’s a fairly simple take-that card game with an entirely different board component sort of welded on to it. On the front end, players represent the Dominus of one of Capua’s rival houses with the goal of earning influence to win the game. Influence is also something of a resource, controlling hand size and the play of Intrigue cards that may benefit you and your allies or do horrible things to your foes and former allies. There’s a neat design trick during the cardplay portion of the game in that players can- and in fact must- partner up to combine influence to play certain cards. This creates tons of conflict and opportunities for scheming and betrayal because there are virtually no limits on when money (or promises) can be exchanged, and no deal is binding. So you may ask the Batiatus player for his help to play a card that gives a target Dominus some money with the promise of splitting. But then that card may actually poison one of his gladiators and drop an injury token on him.
There are also reaction cards as well as Guards that can be played face-up as a kind of deterrent. They’ll thwart scheme cards, but there’s a die roll involved. The take-that part of the game is fast, fun, and practically guaranteed to piss somebody off. It’s the kind of simple, direct interaction that many games lack. It’s gruesome. Money changing hands, battle lines are drawn, and grudges develop that may even outlast the game’s playtime. Play it in the spirit of the game, and don’t be an ass about it. It’s in the rules.
Once everyone has had a go playing cards, there’s a round of trading where players can exchange assets or money and then a simple closed-fist auction. The market deck offers new assets for the Domini to bid on, including slaves (which the game calls “slaves”), gladiators, and gladiating equipment. Slaves generate coin and often have special abilities. Gladiators cost a buck a piece to maintain and they do their thing in the arena- where suddenly you’re playing a different game. One of the items up for bid every turn is the privilege of hosting a gladiator match. It earns your house influence, and you also get to invite two gladiators to fight. Hosting can be quite a powerful position because if your invitation is declined, a house can lose favor- and there may be situations where a house has no capable gladiator to send to the arena. Players particularly aggrieved during the Intrigue phase may bribe the Host to slot them against their adversary. Or the Host may pit a player with a tooled-up champion like Crixus against one with nothing to show but a no-name scrub to effectively fix the fight.
Once gladiators are selected, two figures are put on the hex-based arena board. All players get to wager on the outcome, which includes injury and decapitation outcomes that have a higher payout. The two combatants maneuver and throw tons of dice at each other in a simple but dramatic battle. Each gladiator has three stats representing a number of dice, and the dice are actually the hitpoints. Once someone runs out of one or more categories of dice, it’s over and the winning wagers pay out. The Dominus in charge of the winning gladiator earns game-winning influence.
The combat system runs a touch long with a few too many die rolls per encounter and I wish that it allowed for a little more complexity, but there are some welcome details. Gladiators that win consistently earn favor and can become in-demand champions, earning their Dominus money just for showing up. Faster gladiators can usually get a jump on their slower opponents and knock off some dice before the counterattack. And at the end of a battle that doesn’t end in a decapitation, the host gets to thumbs up or thumbs down the vanquished. And of course, bribes may be accepted to sway the decision.
If it’s not already abundantly clear, the designers of this game placed a very high premium not only on expressing the subject matter but also on player friction, drama, and alliances of convenience. In this sense, it feels something like a descendant of EON’s designs, whether the influence was present or not. It isn’t as tightly designed and there are some issues mostly tied to pacing and development over the course of the game. I think it feels too long- if this were an hour game, it would be this year’s King of Tokyo, no doubt, and I’d be penciling it in for a Game of the Year slot. But games can run three hours and it just isn’t quite that epic in scope. It’s a dynamic game with three major mechanical sections and varied gameplay, but there’s a sense of repetition as the game wears on with the same short-term goals every turn. I’m also disappointed that the game only supports four players- this is a game I’d gladly play with six- or possibly even more- players, even with an extended length. The larger field of people to screw over and put down in the arena could make this game legendary. I definitely feel confident that four players that like this kind of eye-to-eye bloodbath will have a great time with the game but I’d say that the two and three player option should probably be skipped.
Spartacus is a smart, fun design with a definite bite and it’s really quite unlike anything else on the market today. It’s an inexpensive title as well, with a $40 retail and decent components that include lots of images from the show. Surprisingly, there’s much more beefcake than cheesecake on display so if you’re into good-looking bare-chested men it’s a bonus feature in a package truly befitting mighty Jupiter.