Yesteryear: The Angle of Jupiter’s Dangle
Spartacus? Didn’t that game come out six years ago? In board game time, that’s at least forty years! True enough. But this is the first entry in a series about the games I’m still playing even though their cardboard scent has worn off and the cards are starting to look frayed around the edges. Not the classics, exactly, but the good stuff that’s never lost its appeal or lost its place on my shelf. This is Yesteryear.
Before his unfortunate passing in late 2016, I had the pleasure of meeting Sean Sweigart exactly once. I had no idea who he was. He was happy to keep it that way. When I asked whether he was the designer of the game he was demoing, he responded that, no, he wasn’t, he was just a guy who enjoyed sharing good games. And with titles like Spartacus, Firefly, Sons of Anarchy, Homeland, and Star Trek: Ascendancy under his belt, he wasn’t entirely fibbing.
When it first landed in 2012, Spartacus was more of an odd duck than it is today. For one thing, it reveled in the juvenile “maturity” of its source material. It said words like “cock,” implied forced prostitution in its gameplay, and didn’t hesitate to codify the magic circle into its rulebook when it admonished its players to “bribe, poison, betray, steal, blackmail, and undermine one another… but don’t be an ass about it.”
It was also, other than Battlestar Galactica and the odd game about hobbits, one of the few good licensed games ever made. That was Sean Sweigart’s talent, one that he would mine over the next few years. If you handed that guy the keys to a TV show, he could tease out what made it tick, build a delightfully straightforward system around it, and then throw you into whatever role he wanted you to inhabit.
In Spartacus’s case, that was the role of the bad guys, the jerks who casually frittered away countless lives in gladiatorial arenas, then tossed those same lives into even grimier gladiatorial pits when they didn’t behave. It was a game about the inherent dangers of unchecked ambition, only it didn’t seem even slightly interested in commenting on that sort of thing. Which, hey, was fine. Everybody was too busy commenting on the girth of Jupiter’s manhood to notice.
Already I’ve mentioned two of the three things that make Spartacus such a captivating experience. The first is its simplicity, which was reflected in every one of its phases. Want to earn some scratch? It’s as easy as hiring slaves, making sure you aren’t paying the grocery bills for too many thousand-pound gladiators, and selling off unwanted scheme cards. Want to ruin someone’s day? Trick them into backing one of your schemes when they don’t have the guards to counter it. Bully the market? It’s a closed-fist bid, so you’re free to bid high or skip out entirely. Win in the arena? It’s essentially a dice game, don’t get too heated about it.
Not that there isn’t anything to get heated about. That’s where its second strength comes in, because very little of what you do isn’t appropriate of an upper class household that specializes in capturing, training, and ultimately killing its slaves for the delight of a howling crowd. Put simply, it excelled at putting its players into the mindset of an entitled snob who would do anything to come out on top. You could pay your way into hosting a lavish spectacle, then intentionally pit your groomed killing machine of a Goth against another house’s nobody. If anybody expressed any sympathy or hesitation, well, that was probably the first sign that they were going down.
But it’s the game’s third strength that keeps me coming back — and it’s a weird one when you consider that a full-length game of Spartacus could easily last four or five hours of everyone dragging one another back down into the lobster bucket. Here it is:
You’re never not engaged.
In terms of its pacing, Spartacus is downright brilliant. Its bookkeeping takes ten seconds, and I’m not being figurative there. Duels in the arena are tense affairs for everybody at the table because the bets you’ve placed on their outcome are often your greatest source of income. Everyone leans forward to witness whether the dice will swing a tense match, cause a decapitation, or leave a favored contender bleeding into the sand. Then they lean in again to see which way the host will bend his thumb for the defeated gladiator, just the way Hollywood taught us. It fumbles its intrigue phase ever so slightly — in a few spots the game works best when touched up with some house rules — but when anybody’s turn could mean a serious downswing in your fortunes, it’s hard to stay uninvolved for very long.
Much of the time, even relatively good games can give off the sensation that they’re pulling their weight in one area only to slack off elsewhere, as though boasting, “Elegance, setting, pacing — pick two!” Not so with Spartacus. Here was a game that was great even when it was at its worst. Even when it dragged its feet near the end. Even when one or two of its rules needed retouching. Even when you finally had to shout at Geoff to stop moving his nimble gladiator away from the brute who was going to pummel him. Even then.
(If what I’m doing at Space-Biff! is valuable to you in some way, please consider dropping by my Patreon campaign. As soon as a denarius in the coffer rings, a gladiator from the pit of bondage springs.)