Spartacus: A Game of Blood and Treachery

From: Gale Force Nine
Reviewed by: Ron McClung

Spartacus: A Game of Blood & Treachery is a new Board Game from Gale Force Nine.

Most people that know me will tell you that I am a huge fan of this show.  I was heartbroken when it ended, although I knew it was coming and the ending was not going to be a happy one.  When I had heard there was going to be a board game, I was skeptical.  Many board games that tie in to shows like this are just terrible – not a lot of thought is put into the design, and they are simply trying to capitalize on a new fad.  Once the show is over, the game will just collect dust and you have no desire to play it again.

The guys of Card Board Stash demo’ed this game for me, despite my reservations.  I thoroughly enjoyed it and can tell you now that this game’s entertainment value can outlast the show considerably.  It is a fantastic game and in this review, I hope to tell you why.

From the Varro card:
“Wake me when it’s time to die again.”

Spartacus is not a complex game at all and it is real easy to pick up.  However, it is one of those games that can change on a dime, and if you have not taken precautions to handle these changes it will be hard to win the game.  Be prepared to be backstabbed multiple times.  It is a game of intrigue and combat.  It is also a game of careful economic management.

It takes place during the first two seasons of the show (where the second season was a prequel season to the first), in which Spartacus is a gladiator for one of the noble houses.  Each player is a Dominus or head of a house of Capua, a great city in Ancient Rome.  Each house is competing for Influence, which is gained through cards, hosting the games, winning the games, and various other underhanded ways.  Each house has their strengths and weaknesses, and it is how you play those strengths while hiding your weaknesses that will decide who wins the game.

The House Cards are the center of play for a player.  They define special abilities, starting resources and other game play items.  Resources or Assets include gold, slaves, gladiators, guards, and most importantly influence.  They are placed in front of the player and act as their home base and reference for the game.

There are two sets of cards in the game – Market and Intrigue.  They are used on their own phases explained below. However, in short, the Market cards represent items, slaves or gladiators that can be bought in the market.  The Intrigue cards are various actions, reactions and countermeasures one can take in the Intrigue phase.

From the Oenomaus card:
“A gladiator does not fear death.  He embraces it.”

The game is played in 4 simple phases: Upkeep, Intrigue, Market, and Arena.    In Upkeep, one does the various things to refresh, heal and balance important aspects of the game.  One important part of this phase is Balance the Ledger.  Every slave a Dominus has gains him one gold while every gladiator he has costs him one gold.  A Dominus must always keep his books balanced.

Following Upkeep, Intrigue cards can be played.  Intrigue cards are made up of Schemes, Reactions and Guards.  This phase is where you learn who are your friends and who are not.  These cards present a player with multiple ways to gain, lose and steal, influence, gold or other assets, usually at the cost of another player’s assets.  Each Scheme and Reaction card has a minimum influence required, and in some cases there is no way a single player could pull off the particular card.  In this case, the Dominus may ask for support from other Dominus and any amount of wheeling and dealing can happen during these negotiations.

This phase can be a lot of fun but people have to not take it personally.  This is where you really have to say to yourself – it’s all part of the game.  It really separates the men from the boys, to be honest.  If you can’t take a little strategic play that might set you back a turn or more, then perhaps this is not the game for you.  The game gives you a lot of options to counter these Intrigue measures including the Reaction cards as well as the Guards, but you have to be smart about what cards you keep and what cars you discard.

That brings up another important aspect of this phase – the Cash in Cards phase. This is perhaps the one area I failed at miserably the first time I played and it’s not something easily learned without playing the game multiple times.  At the end of the Intrigue phase, you can discard cards for their gold value to increase your treasury.  You have a hand limit based on your influence but you can discard more if you need to.  If your lack of gold outweighs your desire to bring down your opponent with a treacherous scheme or if a particular scheme seems somewhat more difficult to obtain, then discarding for gold may be the best option.  The challenge is knowing when to discard and when to keep.  Each card has a different value of gold, making the decision even more difficult.

The Market phase is the auction side of the game where players use gold to bid on various items.  First, Open Market allows players to buy, sell or trade various Asset Cards. Again, any kind of wheeling and dealing can happen here.  You can also sell items to the bank for their gold value.  Second, is the Auction where a number of Market cards are randomly laid out based on the number of players.  These cards may be gladiators, slaves or equipment and all players blindly bid on each one.  Highest bid wins each item.  This is where your ability to read people comes into play.  Do they want this particular item or do they want to make you think they want it, forcing you to bid more gold than you really need to.

The final item that is up for bid is hosting the games.  All players may bid to be the host of the gladiatorial games.  The host not only gains influence but also decides who does the fighting in the arena.  This is incredible power that can change the game.

In the Arena Phase, the host gains an influence immediately.  Then he may choose to “invite” gladiators to the arena.  If the house does not have gladiators, it must use slaves.  It is a bad thing to decline the invitation.  Any kind of dealing can take place to either secure an invitation or avoid one.

Once all is said and done and two gladiators have been chosen, the game shifts to a light miniature combat game, using the nice little minis that came with the game.  The combat rules are very simple but crunchy enough to make combat engaging at least at first.  There is a point, however, when you know your warrior has lost the fight and it usually happens fairly quickly.  When I played, there were those moments where the dice gods favored the underdog but those were rare.

Before combat begins, all players can lay wagers of one to three gold betting on various things to happen in fight – victory, injury, or decapitation.  Based on what happens, the winners can rake in a good amount of gold.  Once all is paid off, the host must decide if the loser lives or dies (if in fact the gladiator is alive at the end of the fight) with the traditional thumbs up and down gesture.  Once again, incredible power is placed in the hands of the host.  Any kind of brokering, bribing or favors may be exchanged to influence this decision as well.

Gladiators can gain Favors after winning a fight and can also become a champion.  These are ways to gain more gold in the game when invited to fight in the arena.

In conclusion, Spartacus: A Game of Blood & Treachery is a brilliant game that transcends it tie-in to a entertainment property.  It is a brilliant mix of a card game, auction game, and miniature game.  It also plays very fast and easy, even when playing the first time.  Although the rulebook is nearly 20 pages long, there are not a lot of clunky rules that you either stumble over, forget about or argue about.  It is a game of treachery and intrigue, so be prepared for that.   It is also not a game for kids, as some of the cards use non-family friendly terms – taken directly from the Starz television show (which was nowhere near family friendly).  The replayability of Spartacus: A Game of Blood & Treachery is endless as well.  I highly recommend this game!

For more details on Gale Force Nine and their new Board Game “Spartacus: A Game of Blood & Treachery,” check them out at their website http://www.gf9.com, and at all of your local game stores.

Codex Rating: 20

Product Summary

Spartacus: A Game of Blood & Treachery
From: Gale Force Nine
Type of Game: Board Game
Original Concept by: John Kovaleski
Game Design by: Sean Sweigart, Aaron Dill
Producers: Peter Simunovich, John-Paul Brisigotti
Additional Art by: Charles Woods (3D Modeling), Gale Force Nine Studios
Number of Pages: 19 page rulebook
Game Components Included: Rulebook, 62 card Market Deck, 80 card Intrigue Deck, 4 House Cards, 148 Tokens, 26 Dice, 4 Gladiator figures, Game board.
Retail Price: $ 39.99 (US)
Number of Players: 3 – 4
Player Ages: 17+ (some material may be inappropriate for younger)
Play Time: 2 to 3 hours
Website: www.gf9.com

Reviewed by: Ron McClung