I didn’t really expect to be writing about Spartacus right now. When the new edition arrived on my doorstep I was certainly surprised, but I was also curious and more importantly, interested in taking a reflective look at this title from an academic angle. Most of my plays of this game have occurred in the convention setting with enthusiasm and tomfoolery suppressing analytical thought.
Let’s get a little uncomfortable.
Originally released in 2012, this was Gale Force Nine’s entrance to the world of board games. It was big and glorious and it’s still one of my favorite tabletop designs.
First of all, this is a licensed property. The setting of the Starz television series Spartacus: Blood and Sand is visually absent in the new edition, but its character cannot be extricated from the sinew and bone of the design. This is very much the exact same work turned over by Aaron Dill, John Kovaleski, and Sean Sweigart.
There’s not much to discuss here. The gladiator miniatures are different. The illustrations are entirely new. The graphic design is altered. The famous blue dice speed variant is included as an official option. There is still a “Jupiter’s Cock” card.
And that’s all.
I do find myself missing the expansion content. While the base game is complete and worthy as a bonafide classic, the introduction of a four-way gladiatorial bout – the fabled primus – is the climax this blood sport desires. Hopefully, we see that again someday.
As a contemporary design the experience remains sharp and modern. The flow of play is easy to internalize and the pace is rapid. Much of the game is an interplay of negotiation so there is little time spent sitting in silence. It’s all very dynamic and comes from a school where Cosmic Encounter is a primary subject. Emotions tend to run wild and it’s the type of thing where you may disturb outsiders sitting nearby.
But all of that is secondary. Why we’re here is the theme.
What both the Spartacus television series and game have always been about is status. The portrayal of division between the upper and lower caste is front and center. There’s a great deal of commonality between Spartacus and films like Gosford Park and Atonement. Those below exist in service to those above. This game, whether you want to stare it in the eye or not, grapples with that theme. Much like the intense violence of its namesake, this isn’t even subtle.
The most significant difference between those works and this game is that players are given the view exclusively from the top.
When watching such a production you are not entirely devoid of culpability. It’s easy to become entranced with the dramatic tale in Blood and Sand, deriving satisfaction which comes at great cost to the characters. As a game this is taken a step farther asking of you to inflict that pain and suffering. No, you’re not actually whipping the slaves that you’ve won through auction or maiming other humans with crudely fashioned steel, but you still have these men and women under your thumb, tossing their cards around like spare coin. When Crixus is skewered in the arena and placed in the discard pile, you don’t lament the pain of his offspring but instead grieve over your loss of investment. In Spartacus, pain and suffering is captured in currency, not limb.
The root of this story highlights a system that is morally destitute. It revels in it, offering a spectacle of violence and sexual gratification for the viewer (only the former is availed in this game).
It’s such an over-the-top property that it gets away with much of that biting subject matter through sheer cartoonish production. It leans heavily into the wake of Zack Snyder’s 300. With that approach the viewer is primed to overlook the tough material and nod along. Remarkably, this carried forward into Gale Force Nine’s original Spartacus design.
There are aspects of the television series which are quite progressive. It was not afraid to display queer relationships at a time when that was uncommon. It also handled the leading female characters rather well, revealing complex women with textured motivations and behavior.
This progressive undercurrent residing beneath the violence is a spirit that was similarly displayed by Sweigart, Dill, and Kovaleski. The achievement of this team was not in politics or philosophy, but in their ability to distill a complex property down to its crucial elements. They took a second tier television show and built a very faithful and gripping board game. At the time, this was a rare feat. Their accomplishment was the ignition that set GF9 forward as a board game studio to be reckoned with.
This trio of designers’ most radical throughput was the embracement of satire. In the television series the sardonic properties were grounded in the caricature of gore. That technique cannot be displayed in the game identically, instead it’s presented comparatively. Here players cheer and pump their fists over gladiators being decapitated and their bets paying out. This is a central system; as two players push their gladiators around the arena in abbreviated tactical combat, the rest of the domini seek to grow their wealth by betting on victors as well as severity of injury. It’s genius as it manufactures investment from bystanders and adds a dynamic texture to the economy.
This is also tabletop theater at its finest. Participants are persuaded into embodying these satirical elements by pairing action with a series of blissful systems. It’s difficult to realize what you are actively engaging in unless you can detach yourself and reflect.
In the moment that is difficult. When you’re jabbing a thumb out and ordering the capitulating gladiator to be executed, you can’t help but smirk like a devious Joaquin Phoenix and let out a belly laugh.
Spartacus seeks to critique society’s troubled intermingling of violence and sport by platforming the abhorrent behavior with absurd mechanisms. It’s a beautiful and vivacious game, but it’s physicality is paralleled by its expression of intelligence and philosophy.
You could argue that the design team did not intend to craft a board game with societal commentary. That is wholly irrelevant, however, as that’s a byproduct of masterfully capturing their inspiration. To bottle the hyper-aggression of Blood and Sand is to construct the show’s criticisms of human nature.
Of significance is the relevance of this criticism a decade later. Never have we been more aware of the toll violent sports inflict upon their participants. I know this intimately as an ardent fan of the National Hockey League. While players continue to have their bones and minds broken, we continue to cheer.
This cultural artifact, a board game, serves as a reminder that our foundation is primal.
Much like the television show it was based on, Spartacus: Blood and Treachery is a postmodern design with immense influence. It instilled confidence in artistic transformation of an outside work to the tabletop. That spirit carries on in the underpinnings of this new edition, even if the visual trappings are another degree removed from its origin. This is a title that should be celebrated and deserves to remain in print.