Plot! Scheme! Stab your friends in the back! Sentence a man to death! Read the Spartacus Board Game Review!
Before I get started with the review proper I want to point out various aspects of the theme of this game. Spartacus: A Game of Blood and Treachery, published by Gale Force 9, is a game with a mature theme intended for mature audiences. The game references sex, prostitution, slavery and it glorifies violence. Slavery is not only a part of the game but pervades nearly every aspect of the game. If these themes have you clutching your pearls then this is not a game for you.
Spartacus: A Game of Blood and Treachery is based on the STARZ TV show Spartacus: Blood and Sand and accommodates 3-4 players. In Spartacus each player assumes the role of a Dominus, the head of a powerful house, each vying to be the first to reach 12 influence points. Each house has different starting assets which include gladiators, slaves, guards and gold as well as two special rules that can only be used by that house.
The game is played over a series of rounds with each round being broken down into four distinct phases. The phases of the game include upkeep, intrigue, market and arena. These distinct phases are where the game really shines. With the exception of the upkeep phase each of the phases has unique mechanics that stand on their own and come together as a whole to make this game a great deal of fun.
The upkeep phase is the least exciting of the four phases and sees players refreshing exhausted cards, attempting to heal injured slaves and gladiators, potentially killing them instead, and balancing ledgers. Each gladiator controlled by a player costs that player 1 gold while a player receives 1 gold for each slave that they own. If the player does not own enough slaves to offset the cost of their gladiators they must pay for each gladiator out of their house’s treasury or discard the gladiator.
The intrigue phase has each player draw 3 intrigue cards and then, starting with the Host before moving clockwise, each player will play out their intrigue turn. During the intrigue phase players may cash in cards from their hand for gold, play their house special rules, play slave and gladiator card abilities and play schemes. Each player’s hand size is determined by their influence, increasing or decreasing as influence is gained or lost.
Schemes have a wide array of effects ranging from mundane, such as gaining another guard for their house, to wicked, such as injuring another player’s best gladiator with poisoned wine. Each scheme has an associated influence cost listed on the top left. Players may play any and all schemes that are equal to or less than their house's total influence or they may bargain, threaten, cajole or bribe other players to lend their influence towards a more expensive scheme.
It is during the intrigue phase where most of the scheming, backstabbing, bribing and threatening happens. Money can change hands at any time and although players can give their word there is no game mechanic or rule that holds players to any promises made. It is up to the player to keep or break their word and this can see alliances formed and shattered just as quickly.
The market phase allows players to buy and sell assets to each other, bid on new assets during a concealed bid auction and finally bid for rights to Host the next arena phase. The auction makes up the meat of the market phase with players bidding against each other for ownership of four asset cards dealt face down in the middle of the table. The cards are flipped one at a time, with each card being auctioned off before the next is revealed. These assets range from powerful gladiators and valuable slaves to armor and weapons that a player can equip their gladiators with during the arena phase.
To bid, players take all gold from their house treasury into their hand, placing the amount they wish to bid in one closed fist and extending it to the middle of the table. Once all players have extended their bids all bids are revealed simultaneously with the winner gaining ownership of the card. In the case of a tie the tied players bid over again until a single winner is determined.
After the four asset cards are auctioned off players hold one final auction for the rights to Host the arena phase. The Host not only goes first during the next intrigue phase but also gets to determine who is invited to compete in the arena phase as well as choosing whether the losing gladiator lives or dies.
The arena phase is the final phase of a game round. At the beginning of the arena phase the Host receives 1 influence for their house in honor of hosting the games. The Host then extends invitations, one at a time, to the players of their choosing, including themselves. Once offered an invitation a player may either accept, which will see their chosen gladiator sent into the arena to fight, or decline. Declining an invitation, whether a player is unwilling or unable to accept, will force the declining player’s house to lose 1 influence.
Once gladiators are chosen tribute is paid to any player whose chosen gladiator has gained favor by previously winning a fight in the arena. After tribute is paid players are allowed to place wagers on the predicted outcome of the fight. Players are able to bet on the winner of the fight as well as whether they think the fight will end in an injury or decapitation! As soon as any and all wagers are placed combat begins.
Combat is played as a tactical miniatures battle between the chosen players' gladiators and takes place on the game board. Each gladiator, or slave if they are unfortunate enough to be sent to the arena, has a set of attributes listed along the left side of their card. These attribute values show how many dice the gladiator will roll for Attack, Defense and Speed. This dice pool also acts as the combatant’s health. When a combatant suffers a wound the player must choose a die from one of the stat-dice pools and discard it.
Combat proceeds until one gladiator must yield, is injured or is decapitated. At this time players collect on any winning wagers that they placed. If the losing gladiator is still alive the Host gets to determine if they live or die. The Host symbolizes this choice by giving thumbs up to spare the loser’s life, or thumbs down which will see the loser put to death. The winning gladiator gains favor and also gains one influence for their house.
Spartacus: A Game of Blood and Treachery is my personal favorite board game. I play it at every opportunity that I can find with a full complement of players. With that being said there are a few negatives to the game with the biggest being that the game encourages a “gang up on the leader” mentality. The game also has a tendency to end in a “bubble” victory in which a player will gain quite a few influence in a very short time, potentially all in one phase, pushing themselves to 12 and sealing the win. Neither of these things bothers me as I feel they add an additional layer of strategy to the game.
The bottom line:
Spartacus is an awesome game. Each phase is interesting and it oozes theme. The theme will put some people off but everyone else will find one of the best competitive board gaming experiences available.
A note on expansions: Spartacus currently has one expansion called The Serpents and the Wolf. This expansion adds the option to allow up to 6 players and adds special arena event called the Primus, where two teams of two gladiators fight. If you like Spartacus then this expansion is an absolute must have. The game only gets better as you add more players and all of the new content included in the expansion is excellent.
A note on game length: Spartacus can be a lengthy game if players start the game at 1 influence each. Starting with lower influence also sees significantly fewer intrigue cards played for the first part of the game. A medium length game can be played if the players start at 4 influence while a short game sees players starting at 7 influence. Personally I think starting at 4 influence is the sweet spot giving the game the perfect length while allowing interesting choices in the intrigue phase from the very beginning of the game.
A note on “chrome”: The components of Spartacus are all very good quality. If you really want to make your game shine there are a number of websites online that make metal coins for gaming that you can use to replace the cardboard coins included in the game.
Get this game if:
You crave player interaction.
You love games that ooze theme from every pore.
You like games that let you wheel and deal, back stab, bribe, cajole, fight, plot and scheme.
Avoid this game if:
You take issue with the theme.
You are the type to hold a grudge.
You dislike games that encourage a “gang up on the leader” mentality or that allow for a “bubble” victory.
Spartacus can be purchased via Amazon.
Rules for Spartacus: A Game of Blood and Treachery can be found here.
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As long as you can deal with the theme Spartacus is one of the best board games that money can buy.