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Cardboard Children: Spartacus

Who's Spartacus?

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Hello youse.

I haven’t seen Spartacus, but from what I hear there is a lot of blood in it and plenty of exposed breasts. I don’t know why I haven’t watched the show, because I enjoy both of these things. Don’t you think there are too many TV shows to watch these days? It seems like people are recommending new TV shows every week, and expecting you to buy a box set and watch about seven episodes before it starts to get good. Seriously! “You need to watch about the first five episodes to get properly into it.” Five hours?! You mad?! I barely have one spare hour these days, never mind five.

But let me say this. Whenever I do have some spare time, I want to play some board games with my lovely friends. And now I can play Spartacus: The Board Game. And it’s bloody brilliant.

SPARTACUS: A GAME OF BLOOD AND TREACHERY

You’re surprised, right? I know I was. Film and TV tie-in stuff is supposed to be crap. That’s the law of gaming. So the minute I saw this thing in the shop, my crap alarm went off.

My crap alarm just got louder when I saw the price. It cost me thirty quid, which is pretty inexpensive as far as board games go. I bet you can find it elsewhere cheaper too. My crap alarm was waking up the neighbours at this point. My hat was vibrating off my head. But I bought it. Why? Because it said the word “TREACHERY” on the box. And that’s always going to suck in a horrible human being like myself.

The game is for 3-4 players. Each player is a Dominus of one of four rival houses. You will build your influence, buy slaves and guards and gladiators, and ultimately send them out to fight for you in the arena. The game is mad simple.

The first phase gives everyone an opportunity to play Intrigue cards on themselves and each other. Each Intrigue card demands that you have enough Influence to play it. Here’s the first cool thing about the game – if you don’t have enough Influence to play a card, you can ask the other players to lend you their Influence. This introduces a great deal of negotiation and bargaining right from the get-go. You can pay other players for their Influence, or make some promises. It even creates the chance for you to ask another player to lend you their Influence so that you can play something beneficial to them, only to stab them in the back by playing something that hurts them BAD. This game is nasty.

The Intrigue cards are beautifully thematic. You can attempt to poison other gladiators, you can prostitute your slaves for coin, and you can spread ugly rumours about your rivals. Your opponents can try to thwart these cards with cards of their own, or by sending guards out to deal with the problem. (Guards are cards that can be played into your house, and can cancel events with a successful die roll.)

And that’s just the first phase!

The next phase sees everyone go to the market. This allows open trading of equipment, slaves and gladiators. More negotiation, as the players make deals with each other. More opportunities for promises to be broken. Then there’s an auction. (An auction mechanic too? This game is like a board game greatest hits compilation.) The auction allows bidding on new cards from the Market deck. Some of these cards will cause furious bidding. Many slaves come with hugely advantageous powers. (Some slaves even let you look at the auctioned cards in advance, which is a massive help in this phase.) Some gladiators are MONSTERS. Equipment for your gladiators are always worth a bid. This phase is just brilliant, and the closed-fist auction can often see you overpaying for stuff and roaring in fury.

The last thing you will bid for is the opportunity to host a gladiatorial battle in your arena. This will gain you influence and allow you to choose which players participate. When you win the chance to host you can behave like a total DICK. Maybe you’ll ask the players to give you money for an invite? Maybe you’ll invite someone you know has no gladiators, so that they have to decline and lose Influence? You are a DICK.

I know what you’re thinking. A battle mechanic too? Surely not.

THE ARENA

Amazingly, the last phase of each turn flings in a solid competitive battle mechanic. Plastic miniatures on a hex board, moving around, rolling dice. The whole deal. Like everything else in this game, the mechanic is simple and streamlined. Each gladiator has three stats, and these tell you how many dice you throw. These dice also act as hit points. As you take hits, you lose dice from your pools. It works brilliantly, and is a fun game in itself.

Every player can make bets on the outcome of the battles. You can even make a bet that someone’s head will get sliced off. This means, yes, that you could send in a shitty gladiator just to see him get torn to shreds. How Roman is that?

Successive victories will see Gladiators become champions, and they create more coin for their Dominus whenever they attend a fight. Oh, and remember me telling you that you can be a DICK when you host a battle? The host also has the power to decide the fate of a surviving loser in a gladiatorial battle. This means, yes…. YES.

YES.

YES.

YES, this means that you can do the whole thumb-up/thumb-down thing at the table, executing an opponent’s gladiator. This game is NASTY.

MY KIND OF GAME

Simply put, this is my kind of game. If you love stuff like Cosmic Encounter, high-interaction stuff with simple play and a whole lot of thematic crunch, then you will go fucking NUTS for this. A few weeks ago I played City of Horror and was sure that it was my Game of the Year, but Spartacus will give me some problems in the final reckoning. There is so much going on in this game, but it’s all so clean and clicks together beautifully. But a warning – the game is nasty. People will get pissed off at the table. There will be curses and insults and stamping feet. But my god, if you’ve ever wanted a board game where you can get pissed off at a rival and then have a chance to cut their head off in glorious battle, you must buy this.

Whenever the game ends in any kind of tie, players just send their best gladiators to the arena and settle the score that way. If it ends in a four-way tie, you have a tournament. How amazing is that? The game has such confidence in all its parts. If the arena battle element was weak, the whole game would collapse. But it all holds up. It all works. It’s a cocky, swaggering game that takes a pinch of this game and that game, mixes it all together, applies an adult theme and pulls everything off better than most other games on the market.

And it’s cheap. Fucking BUY this. It’s that simple. Buy this game.

KING OF TOKYO: POWER UP EXPANSION

As you know, this is a recommendation column. It’s not a review column. If I talk about a game on this page, you know that it’s because it’s worth talking about. Occasionally I get sent games to cover. I only tell you about the ones I think are worth your coin.

I’m making an exception here.

I love King of Tokyo. It’s an essential purchase for any board gamer, in my opinion. But this new expansion went down like a lead balloon. My group of five have played King of Tokyo hundreds of times, so we were keen to see what these new Evolution Cards bring to the mix. Whenever you roll three hearts in the game you can take an Evolution card from the deck, and it will give you a power of some kind. Don’t get me wrong – the powers are cool. But the problem is with the chasing of the hearts. Too much healing.

Power Up makes King of Tokyo longer. And that’s a bad thing for my group.

It’s amazing to see how fragile game design is. King of Tokyo never fails for us, and yet with this expansion and some more minutes on the clock, we were all bored out of our skulls. Now, if you play King of Tokyo with a smaller group, of three maybe, then this expansion might actually improve the game. I don’t know. But for our group, a group of five, it was useless.

I’m keen to hear your take on it. Has anyone tried it with less players? Does it help? Do let me know.

See you next time! Until then, Stay Dicey! (Could someone think of a new sign-off for me?)

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Robert Florence

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