Once again, The Judge returns to cast his learned eye over another game. This time he gets all gladitorial and sees what Spartacus has to offer…
Spartacus: A Game of Blood & Treachery is a 2012 release by Gale Force Nine, and is based on the popular U.S Cable TV show. Now, I’ve read lots of enthusiastic reviews for Spartacus prior to getting it to the table. People have called it ‘The best licensed design since Battlestar Galactica!’ so it was with some anticipation that my gaming group took up the challenge of this gladiatorial ‘swords and sandals’ epic last week. Expectations are a dangerous thing…
In Spartacus, players adopt the role of Dominus, heads of competing houses in ancient Rome. To summarise, play consists of a ‘take that’ action card phase (Intrigue) where players attack each other – representing political machinations – and raise their own profile and victory points. Then, several once-round, blind bid auctions take place to recruit gladiators, money-generating slaves and combat equipment. A final auction establishes who will host the gladiatorial combat for the round – a key component – as not only does this role generate victory points, but also provides power in the next and most overtly fun part of the game.
The Host now invites houses to put forward a gladiator for a fight to either the concession, injury or decapitation. After players have a chance to bid on the potential winners, this combat is played out in a dicey, hex based, tactical miniatures game. Battle ebbs and flows as fighters try to take down their opponent whilst the other players cheer on their preferred choice. After one fighter has been defeated, we turn to the Host to ‘Caesar’ the loser with a thumbs up or thumbs down. This particular piece of theatre is the highlight of the game as bribes and non-binding promises are slung back and forth to save / end the defeated combatant’s life.
The combat itself has beautifully cinematic moments. For instance, one particularly spectacular incident occurred where Spartacus was geared up to face another oiled, gleaming, sword wielding maniac, but suddenly found himself (at the surprise playing of an Intrigue card) instead facing off and with a waif-like handmaiden armed with a winning smile and a flagon of wine. Undeterred, a swing with his massive trident decapitated the innocent girl much to the glee of a rabid crowd, and the Dominus who had bet the farm on Spartacus.
So that’s it – rinse and repeat… and repeat… and repeat… and repeat … and zzzzzzzzzzzzzzz. This is where the wheels fall of. Never before have I played a game where diminishing returns have been realised so quickly. The first round was great fun – yeah, the backstabbing of the randomly drawn take-that cards was swingy – but never mind when the rest of the experience is so much fun!
Two and a half hours later and the mood had changed. Victory is secured by getting to twelve Influence points but as soon as anyone looks to be getting close, everyone jumps on you to take you down. It becomes Munchkin in Sandals – actually, don’t show this to Steve Jackson, I don’t want to give him MORE expansion ideas – and all your hard work seems completely at the whim of the cards you draw. The length of the game and the amount of player investment needed to get the fun out simply does not compensate you for this design choice.
So, did I enjoy Spartacus? Well, yes – at first definitely. Would I recommend it? Probably not. Even at a very reasonable price, I think you will have seen EVERYTHING the game has to offer after just half of your first play, and will have no need to approach it again. It seems terribly cliché, but then so is the series the game is based upon – The Judge gives Spartacus a big THUMBS DOWN. Execute him Centurion!
Should you desire to test your mettle in the arena, you can pick up a copy of Spartacus: A Game of Blood and Treachery from the good folks at Gameslore for £25. Remember though, sword and sandals are not included.