Licenced board games tend to follow a similar pattern to licenced video games: most of them are a bit rubbish, but a few are great and really make the most of their source material. Here are two of those.
Spartacus: A Game of Blood & Treachery
The Spartacus board game is based on the TV series and sees up to four players take the roles of the heads of battling Roman houses and engaging in plots, backstabbing, market auctions and, of course, epic gladiator battles. I’ve not actually watched any of the TV series, but it’s one of the most thematic games I’ve played and I quickly fell into the role of a great Dominus fighting for supremacy.
First in each turn is the Intrigue phase, where you draw and play cards which represent the plots and schemes of you house. For example, slaves can be set to work to bring in money, opposing gladiators can be poisoned and guards can be posted to keep your own assets safe.
Then it’s on to the Market phase where there are blind auctions to buy more gladiators and slaves, or maybe some armour and weapons – everyone hides their gold, then holds however much they want to bid in their hand, before everyone reveals at once. The winner pays all the gold they bid, so how much do you want that shield? Bid low and hope for a bargain, or bid high to ensure you win and risk massively overpaying? Finally everyone bids once more for the right to host the gladiator fight.
The Arena phase is the action-packed finale of each turn. The host of the games chooses two players to send gladiators into the arena, to battle for the glory of their house. Once combatants are declared, everyone gets involved again by placing bets on who’s going to win and whether the loser gets seriously injured or even decapitated. Then it’s on to the fight itself.
The combat mechanics are clever. Each gladiator starts with a number of attack, defence and speed dice. When attacking, both players roll their attack and defence dice respectively, and dice are compared highest to lowest (similar to Risk). For every undefended hit, the defender has to lose one of their dice for the rest of the combat, as they get injured and become weaker. Do lose your speed and attack, and go for the long game while you wear down your opponent? Or throw caution to the wind and sacrifice your defence to maintain a hopefully lethal flurry of attacks (if you’re me: yes)?
When an attack leaves you with only two dice your poor gladiator has been beaten into submission. Be left with just one and it’ll be a while before he’ll recover from those wounds. And if you lose your last one he loses his head with it. Bad news for you, but payday for anyone who saw it coming. And if your losing gladiator survives – well, lets hope you haven’t annoyed the host recently as he has to give the famous thumbs up or thumbs down.
So what are the best bits that make me recommend this game?
- Fairly simple rules. A few cards to play, easy market system and streamlined arena combat make it easy to teach new players.
- Auctions. These are great in any game, and makes it self-balancing. Does everyone think Crixus is overpowered? Then expect to pay a lot for him in your next game. Javelins are useless? Expect to pick up a bargain. And they give plenty of moments of tension and theatricality.
- Player interaction. Everyone is involved at all stages of the game, with joint plots in the Intrigue phase and simultaneous bidding on the market. Even in the Arena, cheering on the gladiator you’ve backed to win keeps it interesting for those not fighting.
- Controllable game length. By changing how many points you need to win you can start a game that’ll done in an hour or an epic that goes on for three.
- Power-tripping as you decide whether a defeated gladiator was worthy enough to fight another day.
Also intriguing is the fact that it’s a ‘Mature’-rated game. Not that being ‘mature’ makes it good (if I play GTA it’s in spite of the (im)mature swearing and violence, not because of it), but because I never really considered that board games could have age ratings…
It’s not a perfect game, and my main complaint is that because it’s a race to get to 12 Influence points it all goes a bit Munchkin at the end. If you’ve not played Munchkin, what happens when someone is about to win is that everyone brings out the cards they’ve been hoarding all game that knock points off them or otherwise screw with their plans. Similarly with Spartacus, it’s probably the third person who tries to win who’ll actually succeed, once all the plan-foiling cards have been drawn out.
But apart from that it’s still great fun, especially if everyone gets into character a bit and plays along with the theme.
A Game of Thrones
I’ll be honest. A Game of Thrones is not a game you’ll want to play every day. Or every week. Or even every month. We play it once per year, at New Year’s. It’s long, challenging, exhausting and possibly friendship-ending. It’s also fantastic.
The concept is simple enough – take control of House Stark, Lannister, Baratheon, Greyjoy or Tyrell (and Martell with the expansion) and muster and send forth your armies to conquer Westeros. Hold enough cities at any time and you win.
The bulk of the game involves placing order tokens on your territories, commanding your units to march, defend, raid, support and consolidate power. You have a limited number of each type of order, so it’s often a tough call to decide where to attack or where you expect your enemies to push.
So I mentioned friendship-ending? That would mainly be the fault of the Support order. When an army marches into an enemy, the total force strength on each side is compared. Support allows you to add your army’s strength to a fight in a neighbouring territory, even one between other players. Cue much negotiating and deal-brokering as everyone looks for help in return for promises of future favours. The only problem is that order tokens are placed secretly, and I’ve seen genuine horror when it’s been revealed that a once-trusted ally has decided not, in fact, to support you, but to come to the aid of the enemy. Or in fact ignore both of you and march into your now-undefended homelands.
This is another game with auctions, and remember, Auctions Are Good. Every few turns (at random) it’s all change in the royal court, and everyone uses their power tokens to bid for their place on three tracks – the Iron Throne track determines turn order, the Valyrian Sword track gives combat advantages and the Messenger Raven track allows better orders to be used. Any of these can be of critical importance at different points in the game, usually leading to cries of joy and despair as bids are revealed.
This is another game where it’s hard to avoid falling into character, especially if you’re familiar with the story. I once tainted a Stark victory while playing as Greyjoy by landing a force into undefended Winterfell right at the end of the game. I didn’t know the story at this point so I wasn’t aware of why this was bad, but despite her winning the game, a certain friend continued a vendetta against me in the rematch a whole year later. Tip of the day: don’t play A Game of Thrones with people who hold grudges…
If you’ve got the right group of people, this is definitely a game worth playing. It’s long (our first game took six hours), it’s pretty complicated (the rule book is 30-odd pages), and it heavily encourages betrayals. But it does justice to the source material, there’s a real sense of achievement with every minor victory and it’ll leave you with stories of epic battles, unstable alliances and backstabbing that’ll be heard for years.
(Yes I remember Winterfell, let it go already!)