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The Shadow of Death – A Spartacus Expansion

Spartacus gameThis May Gale Force Nine finally released their latest expansion for the excellent board game adaptation of the hit TV series, Spartacus- A Game of Blood and Treachery.

Spartacus – The Shadow of Death is the second expansion and was due for release back in December 2014, however the strikes in the North American dockyards meant that, like many other eagerly anticipated games, Shadow of Death was sat in a shipping container waiting to board a boat for Europe. But the wait finally came to an end this May and I was fortunate enough to be given a review copy by 247 Toys who are the UK distributors for Spartacus. Thank you!

I will confess, this is an expansion I’ve looked forward to for quite some time now. I don’t often get a chance to play Spartacus, however it is one of my all time favourite games for the simple fact that it was the first proper board game I ever played. In fact, the first play was one of the most memorable games I ever played full stop. In a surprise arena victory, my weak and pathetic gladiator had faced of against the best gladiator Tom had to offer. The betting of the other players alone showed just how unlikely my guy was to leave the arena alive. However, sometimes Fate steps in…

It’s quite well known that Tom’s ability to roll poorly with a set of dice is only out-done by his ablity to bluff badly. In an outstanding feat of dice failure, Tom’s gladiator stumbled around the arena before being slaughtered at my hand. Later in the game my sole gladiator was beaten in the arena and his own fate lay in the hands of the Host. After a moment of reflection the host prepared to spare his life. However, as he raised his hand to give the thumbs up, Tom – annoyed at the loss of his prize fighter – made him an offer he couldn’t refuse… Money for the death of my only gladiator!

Despite the vendetta it proved to be an extremely fun game, with lots of laughs and cheers. Needless to say, Spartacus awoke my inner geek and brought me head over heels into the ever expanding world of board games..

Spartacus is a game of Power… Power and Treachery!!!

Spartacus Shadow of DeathSo, for people who aren’t already aware of Spartacus, the aim of the game is very simple. You need to become the most powerful and influential family in Rome by any means possible. This means using money and influence to Host games in the arena and use bribery, corruption and treachery to gain influence and build your team of gladiators. You know the old adage of ‘keep your friends close, but your enemies closer still’? Well, that applies perfectly to this game. Players can say they will help you in exchange for help or “gifts”, but whether they actually will is another thing! Agreements are totally non-binding!

Each player plays as the head of an influential Roman family – Tullius, Glaber, Solonius and Batiatus. Players start with assets which include gladiators, slaves, guards and gold. There are three phases in each turn and each turn starts with upkeep. The game continues until a player reaches 12 on their influence score track.

Upkeep sees players refresh any cards they used on the previous round by flipping any uninjured ‘Exhausted’ asset cards. Next they roll a die in an attempt to heal any injuries their gladiators have acquired while fighting. On a result of 4, 5 or 6, the gladiator is healed. On a 2 or a 3, they remain injured and on a roll of 1, they die from their injuries. Finally, each house has to balance its ledgers. This is important as each player needs to ensure they have enough gold to train, feed and equip their gladiators. Slaves help with this part as you receive one gold for each ‘ready’ slave, but you pay one gold for each ‘ready’ gladiator. If a player can’t or won’t pay for their gladiator, they must discard one gladiator for each unpaid gold – effectively setting them free.

A Game of Intrigue… With an Aptly Named Game Phase…

Shadow of Death cards

Play then moves to the intrigue phase where each player draws three intrigue cards. These are extremely helpful cards that give bonuses or schemes that help in your fight to dominate the arena. Cards are then played or cashed in to:

  • Gain rewards
  • React to cards played against you
  •  Play a against another player

However, players must ensure they do not exceed their hand size at the end of this round or they face losing cards they would rather keep! Hand size depends on your influence. The more influential you are, the more cards you can hold onto.

To play a scheme against someone, you must have the amount of influence shown in the top left corner of the card. If you don’t have the required influence, you can join forces with another player in order to ‘combine’ your influence score. But beware, in a game where treachery and back-stabbing is the norm, joining forces with another player and lending them your influence could see a devastating card played against you, rather than the proposed target!

After the intrigue phase, play moves to the market phase where players have the opportunity to buy, sell and trade asset cards with each other or to the bank. This is the only time that guards, equipment, slaves and gladiators can move between different players. When this is complete, an auction takes place where market cards equal to the number of players, are bid on – one at a time – in a concealed bid. This is where players can buy better equipment, slaves and gladiators that will help secure their place in the hierarchy of Roman families. Once the auction is finished, players then bid for the honour of Hosting. This is a key role in the game as Hosting earns you influence and you have control over who battles in the area and whether any gladiators will die in the arena for losing their battle.

Gladiators Ready!!! Prepare for Battle!!!

Finally, a round finishes with an Arena phase where the families can either be chosen by the Host, offer money to be allowed into the battle, or pay to stay out of the battle. – be warned though if a player is unable or unwilling to enter battle, they lose one influence. It’s worth remembering, if you don’t want to risk your best gladiator, you can always throw a slave in to face almost certain death…. Whatever the decision, two gladiators will enter the ring and players then place bids as to who will win and whether they win by causing injury or decapitation of their opponent. Combat is resolved by using a shed load of dice and comparing dice strings. There’s a bunch of rules on how to resolve these strings but you can check those out in the rulebook if the game has taken your fancy.

Once combat is resolved, the victor receives a favour token and the Host can then choose if the loser is killed – however, killing a losing gladiator who already has favour will cost the Host one influence.

So What Does the Expansion Add??? Some Interesting New Ideas!!!

So that’s a basic outline of the base game, but what does Shadow of Death add?!

Well, for starters, it provides a new house to play with – The Calavius family – which means that if you also own the Serpents and the Wolf expansion, the game now takes up to seven players. There are the necessary additional influence marker tokens for the new house along with extra gold to ensure players have enough without the need to use a proxy.

Spartacus figuresNext, it gives you three new gladiator figures to use in the ring. But these aren’t just any old gladiator figures. These are specific sculpts to use when playing Spartacus, Crixus or Theokoles. With these figures, you also get new cards which replace the originals from the base game.

  • Theokoles is now faster with a speed of three instead of two and has special abilities that means he always fights alone in a primus and, once per primus, he can refill his dice pool to full instead of attacking. In the base game, only two gladiators can face-off at a time, however the Serpents and the Wolf expansion introduced a battle that allows two pairs of gladiators to battle which is what Theokoles’ new ability refers to.
  • Crixus has the same fight statistics as his previous card, but his impervious ability will now also apply to his teammate in an adjacent hex while fighting as a pair.
  • Spartacus’, last but not least, has an improved ability. His fight stats remain the same, however if his team wins a Primus, then all winning wagers are doubled.

Spartacus Festival cardsThe set also adds additional Intrigue cards and an extra six Market cards that are shuffled into their relevant decks as normal and provide additional items to buy during the Market phase. The big change to cards is the addition of two new types of Intrigue cards which also bring additional tokens to the game. These are Festivals and Boasting.

Festival cards are a new type of reaction card that can be played at the start of any Arena phase. Like the other reaction cards, other players cannot assist you in matching the influence cost and all other rules around the use of reaction cards, still apply. Only one Festival card can be played per arena and if more than one player wishes to play one, the player with the highest influence does the deed.

Each Festival card stipulates if a player ‘must’ or ‘may’ declare a primus and to host a primus the host normally has to have a specific influence level or higher. However, when Festival cards are played, these rules no longer apply and the host can or must host one, whatever their influence.

If the Host fails to secure enough players for a primus, the Festival card is discarded and combat continues as normal. As with all other cards in this game, the Festival cards are pretty self-explanatory and can state conditions such as “only slaves can be entered into a primus” among others.

Finally, this expansion introduces the boast tokens to represent you boasting, bragging and generally carrying on about how great your gladiator is. Some of the new intrigue and reaction cards let you to place a ‘boast’ token on one of your gladiators and some even state which gladiator the token may be placed on, you have to remember though a gladiator can only ever have one boast token and if your gladiator has a boast token it can not be traded, sold or given away.

Boasting provides bonuses for the gladiator on which it is played, but  it can also leave you in hot water, especially if the gladiator loses a battle – If a boasted gladiator falls in the arena you lose two influence! However, if your gladiator takes part in a fight and wins, you simply remove the boast token. Your gladiator has proven his worth to both you and the spectators in the crowd!

Spartacus Crixus ThekolesNeedless to say, I really like this expansion, it gives the Arena phase more of an edge and makes battles more exciting by increasing the stakes when you put your gladiator in the ring. Of course, all of the new elements offer even more opportunities to bribe, lie and pay your way into the top spot and become the most influential house in ancient Rome. The previous expansion, Serpents and the Wolf, introduced new rules for hosting a Primus, but you don’t have to own a copy of that to play with Shadow of Death, the primus rules are included at the back of the new expansions rule book.

As I already said , I really like this expansion, its fun and it adds just enough to keep the game interesting, I genuinely think that anyone who has played the game before will find it a sure-fire win.

3.5 (70%) 2 votes
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Nikki Bennett

Nikki is a social worker, and proud auntie, with a passion for board games. She strongly believes that games help provide quality time for families, teach young people new skills, and make relationships stronger! She loves to play games of all types, particularly those with a strong theme and a good story!