Saturday, May 23, 2015

Spartacus: Combat, backstabbing and lucre in ancient Rome

Posted By on Sat, May 23, 2015 at 7:37 AM

click to enlarge NATE WARREN
  • Nate Warren
Nobody will ever accuse Spartacus: A Game of Blood and Treachery of being elegant, but it is a blast. Based directly on the Starz original series — which I have not seen and don’t plan to — Spartacus throws you headlong into the role of a scheming dominus of anci ent Rome, using wealth, treachery and the proficiency of your fighting stable to boost your influence at the expense of the game’s other houses.

Spartacus is refreshingly straightforward: In the first phase of each turn, each player gets a chance to play "intrigue cards" on his or her opponents — schemes that fatten your pockets, hurt other player’s scores, diminish their slave and gladiator ranks, and so on. (This is not a family game. One of the schemes you can play is called “Accept Deeper Ramming.” There are racier ones, too.)

This is followed by an auction, in which you all try to outbid each other for new slaves, new fighters and equipment that will give them an edge in the ring. Ah, the ring. That’s the third phase. Whoever bid the highest for the “host token” during the auction phase gets to invite two houses to field a fighter. The winner gets prestige. The loser gets wounded, beheaded or, if the host feels like giving a thumbs-up, spared. Everybody gets to gamble on the outcome.

These three phases can sometimes feel like three so-so mini-games placed end to end. But the payoff comes in the arena phase — life-and-death struggles dictated by your gladiator’s special abilities, weapons and fistfuls of multi-colored attack, defense and movement dice. Plus, there are enough little jewels in the game play to offset the game’s lack of overarching, engineered tension and interlocking actions.

Spartacus is a great game for freewheeling groups of unapologetic advantage-seekers who don’t get their feelings hurt easily. You can lie about the effects of a scheme you’re about to play and screw over the player who lent you their influence. Money can change hands at any point in the game, so if you’ve got fat coffers, you can always throw out bribes to have defeated gladiators spared or executed, and otherwise try to buy decisions that favor you.

The great thing about Spartacus is that it’s easy to grasp; almost everybody we’ve taught this game knows what they’re doing after one turn. It’s not fussy at all.

The worst thing about Spartacus? There aren’t any game mechanics designed to funnel all your decisions elegantly to an epic finish. It often succumbs to a crabs-in-a-barrel scrum that can sometimes make the game outstay its welcome: Some poor sap gets within a few influence points of a win, everybody buries swords in his back, and it starts all over again. But you can shorten the game and keep the action fresh by giving everybody a higher starting influence score.

Spartacus only plays with four people unless you also get The Serpents and the Wolf expansion, which introduces two new houses and a host of new cards — and the option of hosting two-on-two super-brawls in the arena phase. Our six-player attempt dragged on far too long for our liking, but as mentioned above, you can easily adjust game length by starting everybody a little higher on the influence track.

At four hours, this game turns into a repetitive slog. At two, it’s rousing, easy to learn, and utterly ruthless in the best way — a lurid, violent and chaotic melodrama that transports you to Rome and back, hopefully with your friendships intact.

Nate Warren is a Colorado Springs-based copywriter who offers both the veteran gamer and the uninitiated a local window into the burgeoning and wildly creative world of hobby and designer board games enjoyed by fanatics and connoisseurs — around the corner and and across the globe.

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