The board game that brings the EPIC TV series to life on your very own table top. Betrayal, deception, merciless, honour, glory, legendary. All words that can describe, but not nearly do justice to this incredible boardgame Spartacus.
Not long after watching and finishing the incredible TV show, I stumbled across the game in a board game store and it went straight on my wishlist. If the game lived up to be a quarter as good as the TV series, it was going to be a great game for me. The board game more than delivers on expectation. It truly has everything.
A Quick Rules Overview
There’s probably a few more rules to this game than a typical game that I might normally enjoy. But after playing a couple of rounds it quickly makes sense and you progress on. The game is for 3 to 4 players, maybe a couple more with expansions. Victory is achieved by being the player to first reach 12 influence (victory) points. Every player starts on 1 influence with their respective house. However, for a faster game you can start on 4 or even 7 influence points. It really depends how long you want to make the game, and even then, that isn’t a complete given that it will be quicker.
Once you have determined the victory condition, each Spartacus player chooses their house. Each house is unique in their abilities and what they bring to the game. The house of Batiatus, true to the TV show, starts well down on money compared with others available. I would actually recommend a random draw here on house, purely because some may be perceived to be stronger, but then I like a challenge with Batiatus.
Gameplay is broken down into 4 phases in a turn. I do not want to dwell too long on rules so I will be as brief as possible.
- Upkeep Phase – Is an opportunity to refresh cards, heal injured gladiators and balance the books.Intrigue Phase – The scheming phase to play cards aiding your cause, whilst at the same time trying to ruin your opponents. Another opportunity to earn some valuable coin.
- Market Phase – A chance to purchase equipment, slaves and those all-important gladiators in an auction for the arena. All auctions are completed secretly in offerings. Also, this is the time houses compete/bid to host the arena phase. A guaranteed influence point.
- Arena Phase – The host now chooses players (2) to put forward a gladiator to enter the arena phase. This may well include themselves. To reject such an invitation is a huge mark of disrespect and 1 influence point is straight away lost. The arena has to be filled and should so many rejections occur, the host is expected to field a gladiator. Before battle all players have an opportunity to wager on the outcome. Bets are completed. The battle commences between participating players until a gladiator yields, is injured, or is out right killed. The victor gains one influence point. The host determines then if the loser (if not killed outright) deserves to let the gladiator live. A thumbs up/thumbs down moment. It is brutal.
Then you go around again, 4 new phases in a new turn. The potential for new plots and schemes, the opportunity to build your school of gladiators and house and then another arena event. Obviously a little more to it than this, but that is the basics.
I was blown away with how good this game is. I have never seen a board game based on a TV show or film deliver so well as this game does. It plays out exactly as you see it play out on TV, truly brilliant by GALE FORCE 9. Everything revolves around money and influence and is all so cleverly intertwined. Without influence you cannot play specific scheming cards in the intrigue phase, you need a certain level of influence before being permitted to do so. So, you need to be gaining the opportunity to host an arena phase or winning in the arena with your gladiator to build up some influence. Of course, this cannot be done without money, money to win an auction in the market to enhance your chances of being victorious, or being the one to win the opportunity to host that prestigious arena phase. All of this requires money. You can rise fast and everything be going for you but also, it can be taken away just as quick.
Spartacus ebbs and flows based on the cards revealed and who happens to pick something up at the right or wrong time. The Intrigue and Market phases built on random cards drawn and which player has the income to make something happen. The Arena Phase revolving around the roll of a dice in the heat of battle. Who has the cunning to be the victor or an outright mighty gladiator that annihilates their opponent. The secret nature of bidding and auctioning as well makes for an additional exciting dynamic, which can be ruined by a well time intrigue card.
The Undefeated Gaul
I love the arena phase. It is a fantastic part of this game and the phase I get most hyped up about, particularly if I know I have a strong gladiator to take in there, should I get the chance. Like every phase in the game where all players can engage pretty much all the time, the arena is no exception,
with all participants making wagers to hopefully gain a return. I’ve been known to bet against myself because I can see my contender in the arena has no chance against my opposition, so why not try to cash in on my loss.
Then the fighting commences. Sometimes it is not a fight. Slaves (if needed) can be called upon to compete and they are weak. Coming up against one of the best gladiators in the game, there is simply no hope. If the contest is a little more balanced though, the battles can be titanic and nothing short of emotive. The combat mechanics have been well devised to create a great deal of excitement around every strike and block. Not to mention every gladiator bringing a unique ability to the arena that just might be the difference between a victory, or a death. When the battle is decided the winning gladiator starts to build a reputation for their victory and gain a token for each such result (up to 3). This gives the owner that little bit more back every time they enter the arena, it is well worth having a reputable gladiator. What can be brutal though is building a gladiator of such reputation over a few turns, then Spartacus is drawn in the market phase and an opposing house picks him up. You might not be surprised to learn that Spartacus is one of the best and all of a sudden entering the arena, against Spartacus, is far from appealing. But any and all victories when they come are oh so sweet.
Then there are the defeats. It comes down to dice and when those dice are against you it is oh so upsetting. I’ve seen legends taken down which should never have lost (on paper) to a weaker opponent, but that is the exciting part of the game in that nothing is guaranteed. Ego’s take a severe bashing in these moments. What is worst in this moment is when that Host turns their thumb down! Your gladiator that may well have built a bit of an arena reputation, has just lost, followed by the host’s execution. They are gone, out of the game and cannot return from this decision. It hurts. Moments like this instantly result in new views on your route forward in a game, alliances can be made if a host saves your gladiator, but my word, I’m all out to take the host down if they execute a gladiator of mine, particularly if I spent plenty of coin on them. It really is not ok, but that is the beauty of this game.
The Spirit Of The Game
I’ve never read a rule book that has a passage such as this on the opening page.
During a game of Spartacus, players will bribe, poison, betray, steal, blackmail, and undermine each other. Coin will change hands again and again to buy support, stay someone’s hand or influence their decisions. Will you be the honourable player whose word is their bond or the treacherous schemer whose alliances change with the wind?
BUT – don’t be an ass about it. Everyone plays games to have a good time. Ultimately, you’re playing to have fun with your friends – keep that in mind as you’re plotting to destroy their house.
Never have I read such a passage in a rulebook. I just could not believe what I had just read. I figured it was an exaggeration but turns out GALE FORCE 9 are right to print it. It really needs to be highlighted with the way the game plays out. If you are picking this game up then you do need to consider your opponents before starting with them. It isn’t for a “sore loser” and you may encounter a board flipping moment if you have a player like this in your group. I would recommend watching the TV series first before attempting the game, not just yourself but all participants. At the very least season 1. It’s a great show so should be done anyway but it really helps to appreciate the quality that this game is and then you will understand not to take it personally, it is just the way it is.
Spartacus, a game of blood and treachery has it all for me. It is an incredible game and as I have already said, reflects a brilliant TV series oh so well. It is my first experience of GALE FORCE 9 as a board game producer and they have absolutely smashed it here. With good group of gaming friends, you will be in for an unbelievable gaming experience.