Ridere, ludere, hoc est vivere.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Boats, coffee, and gladiators: Gaming after work

Yesterday after work, a bunch of us gathered for games at our Friendly Local Game Store (FLGS) Game Parlor Chantilly.

(c) Calliope Games
Used by persmission
Tsuro of the Seas
Not all of us had arrived before five of us (Keith Ferguson, Carson, Brian, Grant Greffey, and myself) got impatient enough to start a quick game of Tsuro of the Seas (designers Tom McMurchie and Jordan Weisman; artists Ilonka Sauciuc and Dawne Weisman; publisher Calliope Games).  In our limited experience with this game, the dragons that were added to the original Tsuro only serve to prolong the game and randomize the outcome, so we elected to play with just the original rules and no dragons.  I didn't realize until at least halfway into the game that the TotS board is actually larger than the original - I think seven-by-seven squares rather than six-by-six.  Regardless, the game play is largely the same, and with five players, it unfolds much as you would expect.  Four of us made something of a beeline for the center, while Grant meandered in looking for a good opening.  Of course, once the wakes start to meet and players find themselves facing the same empty tile space, the real strategy comes in.  Tom and Traci M. arrived just as things were getting frantic, and it wasn't five minutes before players started falling off the map one by one until I had the last boat left facing the last empty tile space on the board to win the game.

(c) Dice Hate Me Games - Used by permission

With seven players now, Keith and I kind of talked each other into introducing the group to VivaJava: The Coffee Game (designer T.C. Petty III, artist Chris Kirkman, publisher Dice Hate Me).  Keith and I both first played this game in prototype form when T.C. and Chris were demonstrating it in the open gaming room at WBC 2011.  Dice Hate Me subsequently had a successful Kickstarter campaign, and Keith and I each subsequently picked up a copy (in my case, from Our Game Table at UnPub 3).

This session would be the first time I ever played it other than with T.C. at a convention, so this was going to be a case of Keith and I (and Brian, who had played once before) trying to teach four new players in a seven-player round of a game we had each only played about twice or so.  Keith remembered most of the rules better than I.  Between the two of us, we kept up the housekeeping and the turn sequence pretty well.

But best of all, everybody had a good time playing this game.  It was especially cool to see such different strategies that people took.  Brian was the most aggressive in researching and spending Performance Points (PPs, which equate to victory points) to accelerate his research.  Traci was on the opposite extreme; she eked out an early, narrow lead, and then stayed pretty much in the front of the pack for the rest of the game. Even though she was solidly in last place in turn order every turn, she managed to work the blending points and team up with the right people to maintain a high score all the way to the end.  She triggered game end with 21 points, and then in final scoring, she squeaked ahead of a couple of contenders to win by one point.

At this point, Grant was ready to call it enough, while Mike R. had arrived and was ready to jump in.  After some deliberation, we broke up into two groups.  Carson, Brian, and Mike played Navegador, while Keith introduced Tom, Traci, and me to the game I'd looked forward to all day.

Image courtesy of
Battlefront Miniatures
Ever since I saw the demo at PrezCon, I've wanted to play Spartacus: A Game of Blood and Treachery (designers Aaron Dill, John Kovaleski, and Sean Sweigart; artist Charles Woods; publisher Gale Force 9).  Despite the adult tone and strong language on some of the components, the theme of Roman intrigue, negotiation, scheming, power-plays, and betrayal just fires my imagination.  Each player represents a Dominus, the leader of a house, and has at his disposal gold, slaves, guards, gladiators, and a hand of cards that can include schemes or reaction plays.  Each player tries to make progress on his Influence track, and the first player to reach an Influence value of 12 - and hold it through that turn phase - wins the game.

Each turn consists of

  • an Upkeep Phase, where previously exhausted assets are reset, ledgers are balanced depending on the number of slaves (which provide income) and gladiators (which cost expenses) you have, and cards are dealt, three to each player;
  • an Influence Phase, where scheme cards are played, sometimes with the help of other players, sometimes with the encouragement of bribes
  • a Market Phase, where players may buy and sell assets among each other and in which four assets come out one at a time for auction, and 
  • an Arena Phase, where the player who won the auction for the honor of being Host invites two players to each bring forward a gladiator for combat to win Influence and perhaps support a wager or two.

I played with Solonius, who had the ability to spend gold to facilitate a scheme he might not otherwise have sufficient Influence to pull off.  Solonius can also sacrifice one slave, one guard, and one gladiator to gain one Influence point.  Early in the game I had an inflated sense of the value of being host and bid too high on it.  I remained cash-poor for much of the game thereafter, generally preferring to play or keep cards than to sell them.

I definitely got into the spirit of the game, bribing players to play schemes against each other, soliciting bribes to "stay my hand," and so forth.  Gladiator battles are generally quick but still exciting, especially when there is money and honor riding on the result.  Late in the game, I played two consecutive schemes to boost my Influence to 10, and then later sacrificed all of my gladiators, slaves, and guards to make the final push to 12 Influence.  But I still had to outlast the remainder of the Influence Phase, and despite the Reaction cards I had in my hand, I could not fend off all schemes, and I ended up dropping in Influence back down to 10.  Keith made a big push toward the end, and when it got close to closing time, we decided to call the game.  We were tied at 10 Influence, but he had much more gold than I, so we declared Keith the winner.

Spartacus was everything I hoped it would be - excitement, subterfuge, bluffing, bribery, intrigue - so much, much more than betting on gladiators.  I really want to play this game again soon.

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