Friday, 9 October 2015

Review: Spartacus A Game of Blood & Treachery

Game of Thrones seems to get all the attention, but there was another definitely-rated-18 TV series a few years ago that was equally as good and tuned the adult themes up to 11 - Spartacus: The Stuff They Never Taught In School!

It was a troubled production, with lead actor Andy Whitfield sadly being diagnosed with cancer, delaying the second season in favour of a flashback mini-series while he underwent treatment. Production on the second season recommenced when Whitfield was declared cancer-free, but the cancer returned and he died on September 11, 2011, with Liam McIntyre stepping into the role.

The series ended in 2013, but for those wanting to immerse themselves in the world of Spartacus, beyond rewatching the episodes, there's a table top game.

The first thing you notice about this game is that there's a massive '17+' notice on the box. Having watched the series upon which the game is based and knowing it contained more sex, swearing & bloody violence than ought to be possible in the space of an hour episode, I was a little dubious when my 6 & 8 year olds asked if they could play.

So. like a good parent, I read the rules & had a good look through all the cards.

Turns out that there's absolutely no sex references and apart from the 'f-bomb' being in tiny print on one of the cards (which is easy enough to remove) there's nothing to worry about in the language department either. Violence-wise, 'decapitation' is a potential result in the gladiator combat part of the game, however none of the miniatures actually lose their heads. There is, however, betting on the result of the combat and this will be the cause of the age rating. If you don't mind this, then there's no problem allowing your children to play the game. In fact, after losing almost all his money placing bets on one round of fighting, my 6 year old learnt an important lesson about gamboling.

The game is set firmly in the first season of the show, where family life, for the rich at least, was based around increasing the power and influence of your House and fighting gladiators in the Arena.

The rules are simple enough for a 6 year old to quickly understand, even if he struggles to read some of the instructions on the cards. Briefly, without going into any detail (you can buy the game and read the rules for yourself), the idea of the game is to become the most influential dominus. This is achieved by earning money, buying slaves and fighting gladiators in the arena. There's a scheming element played out via cards which allow you to be nice...or not so nice to other players on your way to the top. The base game is for 3-4 players (more after purchasing the game expansions). We've played it with 2 and it still pretty much worked, but the more players you have the more interesting the game becomes.

Initially in each round there is a bit of playing cards to try and scupper your opponents chances later on, then some bidding on slaves/weapons/equipment (which the kids really enjoyed), before moving on to the arena. One of the problems we had was that the cards in the box organised into sections (all the scheme cards together, then all the reactions cards etc) and they need to be properly shuffled to make the game interesting. It took ages, for example, before any new gladiators appeared to buy in the market due to our poor shuffling of the deck.

Each round ends with 2 players fighting gladiators in the arena (this can be expanded to a 2-on-2 fight with the expansion packs). While everyone can places wagers on the outcome, it can get a little dull for those players not directly in this stage while the battle takes place. There's really nothing for them to do but watch events unfold.

The fight is very simple. The attacker roles a number of red attack dice (the amount depends on the particular gladiator) and the defender roles a number of black defense dice (again, the amount depends on the gladiator). The red & black dice are placed in descending order against each other and if the number of reds higher than the number of backs determines how many hits. For each hit the defender suffers, he must lose that number of dice, thus making it harder for him to attack/defend/move as the battle continues.

The main purpose of the 2 available expansion packs is to increase the number of players and add in the possibility of having 4 gladiators fight it out in the arena, plus add in a couple of minor additions to the rules. I found it particularly amusing that my boys spent most of the round being mean to each other and then, when it came to the fight, were forced to work together. They were not at all happy about this! Maybe there's potential here to use the game to settle 'real world' disagreements between people?

One of the problems with 2-on-2 fighting is that it can be difficult to remember whose model is whose as, cast in grey, they do all look very similar. Some paint is almost definitely needed to distinguish each one - and even if nicely painted up, since they'll still look very similar, consider colouring the base to match the colour of the Houses to simplify things further.

Everyone really enjoyed playing the game. The boys have played it multiple times, both with me and without, over the past few months. They took great pleasure outbidding, inflicting schemes and generally being mean to each other. The length of the game can be varied depending on how much 'influence' you start everyone at and can be quickly cut short if necessary (person currently with the highest influence wins). The board and cards all look great and feature graphics from the series. It definitely feels like you're part of the Spartacus universe while you're playing. As mentioned earlier, I'd definitely try and get the maximum amount of people playing in order to maximise the potential of the game.

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