14 July 2021
Backstabbing Brutus style
Content warning: this game revolves around buying, trading and killing slaves. Whilst it is “historically accurate,” this doesn’t diminish the fact that some will feel uncomfortable being a slave trafficker. Check with your playgroup before playing.
Spartacus pits three to four players as competing gladiator schools, looking to gain influence and rise the ranks of Roman society. Players earn influence through three different stages; an Intrigue phase of negotiating and backstabbing, a Market phase of shrewd closed fist auctions and the Arena phase, where players send out gladiators to fight for glory.
Throughout each phase players will be constantly negotiating, dealing and betraying one another. This is most prominent in the Intrigue phase, as players use scheme cards to manipulate influence levels, gain money or rob others of their riches. Some of the most powerful cards require two players to work together to play, but as no promises are binding, it’s common for players to be hoodwinked. This is partially mitigated through using Guard intrigue cards, but there will still be plenty of grudges formed.
In the Market phase players can freely trade goods and slaves amongst each other, before a series of closed fist auctions where what you’re bidding on is only revealed as the auction begins. You can buy slaves who provide utility effects and extra revenue, equipment that helps your fighters survive, as well as the gladiators themselves, with varied stat combinations and many of which have their own unique ability as well. The last thing auctioned is the chance to host the next games, which earns an influence point, so it’s important to save some sestertii for the final bid.
In addition to the influence, the host nominates which two houses will battle in the arena. Once gladiators are chosen, players can bet on the outcome to earn a little more cash. Combat is a brutal dance of dice, seeing players roll off to compare the highest values in attack, defence and speed, with damage taken represented by dice being removed from one of those three stats. Once a player is down to two or fewer dice, their gladiator is defeated. The winner gains influence and the host decides whether the loser lives or dies in true Roman ‘rule of thumb’ style.
The game is a wild mix of ideas, but none of them strong enough to stand alone. The randomness of dice combat leads to fights being game changing, but can also sometimes drag on. Auctions also have massive consequences, but are most fun when players are equally wealthy. The biggest flaw and strength are the intrigue cards; having the power to connive your way to success feels great when you’re doing it, but more often than not you’re relying on drawing into good cards instead of playing skilfully, which leads to many feel bad moments.
Also, given how much they’ve clearly spent on new art for this redesign, it’s very disappointing to see less diversity in character designs than before. Not only are some gladiators of minority races replaced with Caucasians, there’s also trashy stereotypes like ‘sexy female slaves’ (and the gross “revenue” implications therein) and PoC-only ‘criminal slaves’ Think more and do better next time, Gale Force Nine.
In summary, Spartacus is probably the best gladiator themed negotiation auction game with dice combat, but that’s because it’s more niche than competitive duck herding, with the latter being considerably less problematic. There’s enough novelty value here to recommend to some die-hard fans of either Roman gladiators or manipulation board games, but with a bit of refinement and retheming, it could become a real classic.
If the theme doesn’t put you off and you’re okay with being screwed over an hour into a two plus hour game, there’s few games that offer this mixture of skulduggery and engaging dice combat, worth it for a novel backstabbing bacchanal.
TRY THIS IF YOU LIKED Munchkin
There’s never a shortage of games that let you be an asshole, but fewer games have as great a reputation for frustration as Munchkin. Think of Spartacus as “Adult Munchkin,” complete with excessive violence, implicit sex and swearing (though the latter is from the players).
Designer: Aaron Dill, John Kovaleski, Sean Sweigart
Publisher: Gale Force Nine
What’s in the box?
- 166 Cards
- 152 Cardboard tokens
- 26 Dice
- 4 Gladiator figurines
- 4 House boards
- Game board
This feature originally appeared in Issue 57 of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.
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