Over the last two weeks I embarked on a self-indulgent, highly gratifying list of the greatest games I have ever played (Part 1 & Part 2). And when every single game I have encountered was broken down, dissected, analysed and ultimately ranked, there was one game that stood head and shoulders above all; a title very rarely seen on lists of best board games, never mind in the top spot. So for the final Tabletop Tales of 2016, I’m going to go into detail on why Spartacus: A Game of Blood & Treachery is the greatest board game ever!
Based on the STARZ original TV series from licensee specialists Gale Force Nine, Spartacus was a game very much under my radar during the infancy of my return to the hobby of tabletop gaming in 2013. Truth be told, I had never even heard about it at all, which wasn’t totally uncommon given that I was just taking my first steps on the road to utter obsession. (Fast forward to four years later and I’m writing a weekly column here at That’s Not Current dedicated to tabletop gaming.) It wasn’t until I read Rab Florence’s thoughts on the game – a reviewer whose opinion I really respect – that it came to my attention. Despite him waxing lyrical about the game (it actually sits very lofty on his top games of all time list as well as winning his 2012 Game of the Year) I was very sceptical.
Not only was it TV show tie-in game, it was from a first time game designer and published by a miniatures company with no board game experience. And if you take a closer look at the show that inspired the game, it was a mindless, 300-inspired, visual feast, blood-and-boobs adventure that lacked any real depth. It also came from Down Under, whose most successful TV export is Neighbours! All of this had my brain screaming; a classic recipe for disaster!
Torn with indecision, I mustered all the craft and and guile I could and devised a scheme Quintus Lentulus Batiatus would have been in awe of , ultimately killing two birds with one stone by buying this for a friend’s birthday – a good title to kick-start their fledgling collection while allowing me a chance to see what all the fuss was about.
And if truth be told, my single biggest regret in my obsession with board games is that I didn’t trust in Rab and just buy this game for myself!
Spartacus: A Game of Blood & Treachery sees up to four players assume the roll of rival ludus owners in ancient Capua as they battle for supreme glory in the arena, increasing their political influence as they go. The starting influence can be set at various levels to control the length of the game, with the overall goal of achieving a score of 12 influence required to win. Each dominus player board comes with a starting hand of slaves, guards and the all important gladiatorial warriors. Slaves earn their house money, guards protect against schemes played by rival players and gladiators are used to battle in the arena.
Each round comprises of three phases; the intrigue phase, the market phase and the arena phase.
The intrigue phase is the time when upkeep is paid, with gladiators costing one gold and slaves earning one gold. Following that, playing clockwise, players play various intrigue cards from their hand, many of which are schemes designed to increase their fortune or hinder that of their rivals. In order to play a scheme, a player must have the required influence. If they don’t, they can ask for an opponents help, adding their influence to their own to get a new total. The costs of this is entirely up to the negotiating parties, with payments or special deals usually required to strike and accord. The player does not reveal his scheme to his would be partner, and on occasion, the scheme could be detrimental to supporting players. Schemes can be foiled with reaction cards, again provided an influence check is passed. Guards can also be discarded in return for a 50/50 dice role to block the scheme. Schemes can be anything from gaining gold to injuring a gladiator.
Once all players have played their schemes, the game-play enters the market phase. Here all players take their gold reserve into their hand and blind bid on three cards that are turned over one by one from the market deck. Once an amount to bid has been decided, players hold the money in an out stretched clenched fist and reveal their bids at the same time. Draws result in an additional rebid. The market deck holds many powerful gladiators, such as the titular Spartacus, along with special equipment and unique slaves. The majority of these slaves cards will have a special abilities that can be of use in the intrigue phase. Once the three market cards have been acquired, their is a final bid on the glory of hosting the games with the winner deciding who will battle in the arena, and also gaining an influence point.
Lastly the arena phase, where the host can invite two players of his choosing to fight. Again, this can be open to special deals and bribes in order to gain favour with the host. Refusing an invite is allowed provided you are not the last player asked, but it will cost you one influence. When two houses are selected, they chose the gladiator they wish to take to the sands equipped with any items they may have at their disposal. If a dominus wishes, they can send a slave in place of a gladiator.
All gladiators and slaves have an attack, defence and speed skill score and this represents how many dice of each colour they take, also representing their overall hit points. Red attack dice are countered by the black defence dice, with the highest dice winning and then any role of four or above unchecked counting as a hit. The blue speed dice are movement dice allowing your gladiator to move one space for every blue dice you have. Taking it in turns, players move and attack. With each successful hit causing the defender to lose one dice of their choice. They can’t drop below one dice of each colour, and as soon as they do they are defeated.
After placing their wonderful miniatures in the starting spots and before engaging in the deadly duel, it is time for betting on the battle that is about to unfold. Wagering a maximum of three gold, odds of two-to-one are offered on backing the winner. However, greater odds are available for predicting the penultimate outcome – either an injury or a decapitation. These happen when the losing player drops more dice when being defeated – finishing with one dice is an injury and finishing with no dice is a decapitation. Injuries are healed in the intrigue phase, while decapitation is immediate death to the losing gladiator.
The winner of the battle gains glory for his house with an increase of influence, and also gains favour in the path to be crowned champion. The final act of the arena phase is with the thumbs up/thumbs down ruling of the host for any surviving, defeated gladiator, with the power of life or death. It may be that a bribe or a deal could be needed to ensure your gladiator lives.
While the gameplay is relatively simple, interweaving multiple mechanics seamlessly to create a fluent structure, the strength of this game is in the player interaction. Not only is required, it’s actively encouraged and there is very little restraint on what is allowed. Basically, absolutely anything goes. While being honourable and true to your word is very commendable, you won’t win many games of Spartacus with that approach. You must be prepared to bribe, steal, betray, poison and undermine your opponents in brutal plane sight. Grudges will build and become ingrained in your action, but revenge is not a path to glory and you will have to plot and scheme your way back into contention.
Two expansions have followed; The Serpents and the Wolf in 2013 and 2015’s The Shadow of Death. The former introduces two new houses, multiple new market and intrigue cards and the possibility of a Primus event in the area phase. However, it also allows for a six player game and four gladiators to enter the arena in team battles where you could be paired with your bitter rival. The Shadow of Death brings three new versions of the all powerful Spartacus, Crixus and Theokles gladiators as well as a new house. The Primus is further expanded with festivals to the gods, altering the playing field for arena battles and “boast” tokens are introduced, offering great reward for brave statements from players.
As far as player created narrative goes, Spartacus: A Game of Blood & Treachery is unrivalled. It’s absolutely magnificent!
It is everything I cherish most about game presented in quite spectacularly manner, its a game that never tires and always feels fresh due to the human element, fundamentally ingrained at its heart. Its a game that brings out a persons true character and the twists, turns and betrayals all lead to a fascinating, engrossing and tense stand-off. In all the games I have played, not one offers the possibility of going from glee, to hilarity, to smugness, to anger in such an enjoyable dynamic way. It is an emotional roller coaster of a game that feels more like an “in it for myself” game than anything else I can imagine. Essentially, every time it appears on the table I get overwhelmingly giddy.
With a current score of 7.5 on boardgamegeek.com and a somewhat disrespectful standing of 245 overall, I also can’t help but feel this is one of the most under appreciated games on the market. For me, it’s as close to perfection as you ca get with an accessible board game.
Spartacus: A Game of Blood & Treachery isn’t just a fantastic game. It’s a downright special experience that is rightfully way out on top when it comes to my favourite games ever.
And if it is ever to be toppled from its lofty heights as my number one, then I sure as hell can’t wait to play the game that does it as it will be truly mind-blowing!
NEXT WEEK: We kick of the New Year with a monster 2017 preview of the games I’m most excited about checking out! Thanks for reading, and all the very best for the New Year.