It’s a sad fact that most of the licenced games out there are bloody awful. Apart from the mighty Battlestar Galactica which stands above all comers like a fabulous and cruel titan, if a game is based on a TV show or movie, it’ll generally be pretty poor. Spartacus: A Game of Blood and Treachery is the latest in a long line of releases that attempt to capture the experience of another medium on the tabletop, and though The Judge checked it out a while ago I wanted to put my thoughts down on the game too.
First up though, a bit of background. Spartacus is based on the US TV show of the same name that has been wildly popular over the past couple of years. Essentially a more glamorous and sexy version of the old movie, it’s a swords and sandals epic, the tale of a slave who grew in strength and notoriety to lead a rebellion against the ruling houses of the Roman Empire. It also focuses a lot more on the interactions between these powerful families, and it’s this element that the game is based around.
Each game round takes place over four separate phases: Upkeep, Intrigue, Auction and Arena. Upkeep is pretty self explanatory: any characters who have been exhausted during the previous round are flipped back face up, injured characters have the chance to be healed (more on that later) and income is sorted out, with slaves bringing money in and gladiators siphoning it away.
Intrigue is a little more exciting. Cards are dealt out to each player that will let them play dastardly schemes that take down your enemies or bring in more good stuff for you. Each card has a number in the top left corner denoting the amount of influence required to play it, and if you currently don’t have enough on your own you may enter into temporary alliances with others to bring these plans about. Cards can also be discarded for the cash value on the bottom left of the card. Some of the Intrigue cards allow you to react and foil other players’ actions – highly valuable and most useful if you’re on the way to winning.
(Oh yes, winning. The first player to 12 Influence points is the victor. Simple.)
If the Intrigue phase is all about pulling in a much cash as you can while keeping the others down, the Auction is where you get to spend your ill-gotten gains. Market cards are put face down on the table, one for each player, then revealed one-by-one. A closed fist auction takes place for each card, then once all have been bought a final auction takes place for the glory of hosting the final part of the round: the Arena battle.
This is probably the most entertaining section of the game, where the Host invites two players to bring their chosen gladiator to the Arena for a bit of a ruckus. Bets are laid on how the fight will end, either through a simple victory, injury or decapitation, and then the warriors have at it in a frenzy of dice rolling and shouting. At the fight’s end, the Host is given the chance to perform the traditional thumb up or thumb down and decide on the fate of the losing gladiator – a particularly nasty way of screwing over your enemies.
And that is very much it. The game continues to cycle through until one or more players has 12 Influence at the end of one of the phases… and it’s here where the game falls down. It feels like a game where the journey is all but the conclusion is something of a washout. In other words, the actual interaction between the players, the organising of schemes and bribery that takes place throughout the rounds is fantastic, as is the fighting section in the Arena. However, that moment when someone manages to pull the win out of the bad… well, it feels very disappointing.
It’s tricky to explain. The whole thing feels like it should be building towards this massive finish, this epic ending, but then someone just lays down a card or two, maxes out their influence and wins. It’s something of a let down. Admittedly it feels a little more satisfying when you manage to win the game following a victory in the Arena, but still… I know that the game is all about manipulating your way to the top, but as a final payoff it just doesn’t work. After a couple of hours of plotting and scheming, having the whole event fizzle out into the equivalent of “oh, I’ve won” is a downer. And bear in mind that two hours is the short game where players start at 7 Influence – I wouldn’t really want to invest the time in a longer game where they begin lower on the scale.
And yet, my time with Spartacus: A Game of Blood and Treachery was far from terrible. It’s not going to join the illustrious pantheon of Officially Great Licenced Games, but the actual playing of the thing was entertaining enough, especially if you throw yourself into the experience as much as possible, bribing your enemies and being as scummy as possible – it’s just that final victory simply isn’t satisfying. Certainly it’s worth a look, especially if you’re into games that involve plenty of screwing everyone else over, but just be wary of that final fizzle…
Spartacus: A Game of Blood and Treachery is a Gale Force Nine production based on the Starz TV series. Designed by Aaron Dill, John Kovaleski and Sean Sweigart, it requires at least three players but is best with four. Games will take at least a couple of hours, though can be longer should you so desire. If you’d like a copy, why not throw some gold at Dominus Paul from Gameslore, where it will set you back £24.99.