Saturday, April 04, 2009

Spartacus - First Look

Chuck came over today and we tried out the new Spartacus game from Compass. We played for about five hours, with no sense of urgency, and got through seven turns (Sparty didn't quite get out). Here's my take on this new CDG. Note: I know the designer, as we co-GMed a Successors tournament some years ago at WBC (the real one). 

The game is a strategic level CDG on the Sertorian War, taking place between 80 and 72 BCE. They chose to use the less-academic BC (BCE is exactly the same, but refers to "Before Common Era" rather than "Before Christ" which is incorrect anyway as Jesus was born a few years before 0BC according to the most current research. I prefer BCE as it eliminates any religious prejudice). For fans of "The First Man In Rome" and it's follow-on books, it takes place at the end of Sulla's reign as dictator of the Roman Republic, and starts with Sertorius's rebellion in Spain. Later in the game, Mithridates VI of Pontus brings the war to Asia Minor (modern Turkey), and of course the last part of the game features the slave revolt by Spartacus, who was taking advantage of all the confusion in the provinces. 

The game lasts for ten turns total, although you can choose a later starting point if you want to focus on different parts of the conflict (or want a shorter game). Total play time for the whole shebang is about eight hours, with later turns potentially taking more time. The early part of the war will largely take place in Spain, although there is opportunity for some fighting in Etruria (or even, should the Sertorian player get the right cards, an attack on Rome itself). 

The game borrows heavily from other CDGs, primarily Hannibal, Successors, Sword of Rome, and Wilderness War, but if I had to pick one it would be Hannibal. The usual CDG choice of using a card for either the event or the Command Points is intact, as is a single deck with cards that are usable by one or both sides for the event. There are quite a few Surprise cards (a term taken from Successors, but that fits more closely with Hannibal's use) that can affect not only combat but movement and losses after combat. The combat system is similar to Sword of Rome, with each side rolling three d6, applying drms, and the winner being the higher total, ties going to the defender. Losses are independent, and are based on the values of the individual dice, so you can lose a battle but do a lot of damage in some cases. There is also a lot of opportunity for post-battle losses through rout if you had a weak leader. 

Like Hannibal, the Republican leadership is based on the Consular system, where the Roman Senate would elect two men to co-lead the army. These leaders tend to be pretty poor, but that was to protect the Romans more than to have an effective fighting force. You can keep Consuls on after their one-turn term, making them Proconsuls (slightly lower in rank), but it costs you in stability points (detailed below). Even keeping Proconsuls from turn to turn has a cost, and it's one of the biggest headaches the Republican player has. On the plus side, they also get four Legates, roughly equivalent to Minor Leaders in Successors, plus two more "special" Legates that come with play of a specific event. 

All leaders, regardless of side, have three values: Tactical, Initiative, and Rank. Tactical is used solely in battle as a drm and to determine if your losing force routs. Initiative is used to activate leaders in a similar fashion to Hannibal (you must play a card with that value or higher CP to activate), and it is also used for intercepting and avoiding battles. Rank is similar to Wilderness War in that it dictates which leader outranks which other leaders (consuls are excepted, they are always top dog), as well as how many units you can command with that leader. Like WW, you may include subordinate leaders in your force that add to your command limit. Tac runs from 0-4, Initiative from 2-4, and Rank from 4-8. 

The map is similar to Hannibal in that you have tribal spaces that must be subjugated, major cities that must be sieged, and minor cities that are pretty much there for the taking, all in a point-to-point layout. There are four major areas on two "submaps": Europe contains Italy, Gaul, and Spain, while the Asia Minor map is an inset and it's own area as well. Travel is done over connections, which are almost all clear or mountain pass (there are two straits as well, one of which requires a special card to use). Republicans can use naval movement between blue ports on a given submap, while Sertorians must have a specific Surprise card to use naval movement with armies, but only with 4 CP cards. Both sides can move individual units and leaders via sea movement using any card, but Republicans can use brown ports to move between maps, something the Sertorians can't do at all. 

Asia Minor doesn't even come into play until halfway into the game (turn 6, unless you're feeling lucky), and Sparty doesn't show until turn 8. If you *are* feeling lucky, you can take a chance and roll 1d6 to see if you match the range for the given turn - if you do, that faction comes in early. If not, they *never* enter. Asia Minor is particularly important because it's entry affects the victory conditions in a big way. Also, many events can't be played until Asian entry. As you approach the historical entry point, the odds improve, but do you really want to be the guy who wanted to bring in a faction early on a lark and lost because you blew the roll and they didn't enter? I didn't think so. 

CP expenditures are a little different from Hannibal. You can still activate an army (units + leader) if the CP value is at or above the leader's initiative, but you can also activate individual units based on a CP cost per unit. As such, you could activate four Spanish light units with a 4 card, or two Republican legions. Sieges and subjugations are part of the movement element, so in many situations you can move to a major city, then spend 2MP to roll on the siege table. If you start there and your slowest unit in your army has 4 MP, you could roll twice on it, or roll once and then move 2MP afterwards. There are some exceptions based on unit type, but it makes for a cleaner system.

PC markers can be placed on the map in any location using CPs, no "adjacent" requirements here. Of course, they still have to trace to a supply source at the end of the turn. There are many tribal spaces on the map, especially in Spain, and all of them act as supply sources once you take them. Interestingly, tribal spaces can be picked up easily when neutral, but require subjugation once allied with one side or the other. Major cities *always* require sieging regardless of whether they are enemy or neutral. 

There is also the opportunity for the Sertorian player to use Light units to "raid" his opponents PC markers - if a individually activated light unit moves into a space with a Republican PC marker and no enemy forces, you can spend an extra MP to remove it (not convert it), similar to Nappy Wars. You can't do this with Sertorian armies, however. The Republicans have a similar mechanism, "pacification", that requires the unit to start in a friendly province, then they can spend MP to convert (not remove) enemy PC markers in adjacent spaces as if they were moving to that space. Pacification is subject to interception, similar to Nappy Wars. This makes for a very fluid map, although the Sertorian has a little bit of an edge as their light units have an MP of 6 compared to 4 for all Republican units, and so they can take out PC markers given that a 4 card can activate four light units. Both the Spanish and Servile units include Lights, so late in the game they can drive the Republican crazy, although pacification makes it difficult for the Sertorian player to hold things long term. Note that you can't raid or pacify anything other than minor city spaces, so grabbing those early is a good thing. 

Unlike most CDGs of the Hannibal ilk, you can't use CPs to recruit units, although you *can* use CPs to upgrade Spanish Light units to Heavies (important in combat as there's a negative drm if all you have are lights). Most increases in units come from either the start-of-turn reinforcements or events.

Finally, there are Resource cards that each side has that allow the game to move along like it should. For example, the Sertorians have a card that brings in the Pontines, another that brings in Sparty. Using these doesn't count toward your regular hand, so it's like getting an extra card play (although a few force you to discard cards, and you must have a card in hand to play a resource card). This is a smart new element, and while a little similar to the Mandatory cards in Here I Stand, it's done in a more elegant way in Spartacus and I like it a lot. We'll see more of this in the future, I suspect. I should mention that resource cards can't be played for CPs, as they don't have any - where other cards have numbers, these have "R"s. 

Also new to CDGs is the inclusion of a "Crisis" track that the Republican needs to manage. There are many events and points in the game where the Republican has to lose stability (moving toward anarchy) as the result of having too many legions, retaining consuls or proconsuls, raising legions, losing large battles, etc. At the same time, they gain points for taking out the major leaders of the opposition, for controlling areas, etc. The design intent is that by the end of the game, the Republican player is not only fighting off multiple threats, but also trying to do it on a shoestring budget. Even if they do manage to avoid anarchy, they still have to control the vast majority of the board at the end of the game to win, modified if Asia doesn't enter the game. They also lose points if the Servile units make it to the Alps and freedom, which means that there's a lot of northward bound traffic near the end of the game. It's a good system, accurately reflects the political realities of the Late Republic, and is pretty easy to remember by the end of the first couple of turns. 

The rules are not too bad, fairly short (as most Compass games are), but there are frequent sections with confusing or vague rules, and we found twelve different rules or cards that weren't clear. A major question came up about the Pontic units that come in for the Sertorians in Asia Minor as to whether the spaces in Pontus become Sertorian or not. Which means that the Pontine army has to besiege it's own capital city even though it was neutral right up to their entry, which seems a little odd. 

The Asia Minor map also adds a new twist to the system - multiple hands per player. Once it enters, you decide before you are dealt cards how many will be used for Asia, and how many for Europe. You can always use events for either map after entry, but you can only use CPs for activations on the map in question. The Pontines come in with a *lot* of units, but very poor leaders, difficulty moving them individually, and limited chances to get things done. While it's not as involved as the Near East map in Paths of Glory, it's still a little tricky to get all of the special rules down in your first game, but having to determine how many cards you'll devote to each theater ahead of time does add tension.

In our game, I started out doing OK in Spain, as that's where all of my units are, taking two more provinces to allow me to generate decent reinforcements. Things went pear-shaped for Chuck early on when he drew Lepidus as one of his consuls on turn two, which triggers the Sertorian getting eight legions in Etruria and Gaul, which kept him busy for a couple of turns. Later on, once he'd beaten them down after a few turns, I played one of my resource cards to "convert" him to a different general and get his ailing legions out of Italy to a holding box. Those units landed in Gaul toward the end of our game (turn 7) to cause more trouble for Chuck at a time when he really was feeling the pinch, and knowing when to convert Lepidus to Perperna is important (hint: when Lepidus is surrounded and in danger of losing his entire force if he loses a battle). 

I did well in Spain, and while we went back and forth over Nearer Spain (the southern coast from what is now the border with France, down to what is now Cartagena), I had pretty much locked up the other four areas and he was going to have a tough time taking them all back with all of those tribal spaces. I also came on strong with the Pontines in turn 6, taking away Cilicia, Cappadocia, and threatening Bithynia with very little threat from the Republicans. I think Chuck realized at this point that trying to get 17 provinces (he held 13) with so many distractions was going to be an issue. He did have the card that would get rid of Mithradates, but since we'd already decided to pack it in by then he didn't play it for that purpose. 

Like any CDG, a big part of enjoying the game is understanding the interactions between cards, and for this particular game I think there is a very short learning curve. While you need to understand that there are cards that will remove PCs (or convert them) from certain areas, the only complex interaction is the ones surrounding Lepidus/Perperna, and there are only really three cards involved, one of which is a Sertorian resource card. 

The game can be adjusted for difficulty for the Republican player by giving them a longer Crisis track, but in our game Chuck rarely had trouble with staying near the top and Stability. There weren't many cards I had that could change things up, so mostly I got points through him losing battles and through retaining his proconsuls. However, he had so many more provinces than me that he would generally make up any difference at the end of every turn. Perhaps I played something wrong there, but I doubt it. However, we also hadn't tracked the Crisis too closely after Asian entry, so perhaps losing those two provinces would have started the slide. I couldn't see it being too big of a deal unless the Serviles were able to flee north in droves, however. I like the mechanism, but I'm not sure if it works like I'd expect it to - my understanding is that after the first couple of turns, things start getting hairy on the track for the Romans. Not in our game. 

So how did I like it? It's another good choice if the complexity of Hannibal is what you're shooting for, although it's a much longer game (no idea how well the scenarios work at this point, but you could play the three-turn Sparty scenario in an evening easily). 

Combat was extremely bloody, and small actions had a very good chance of ending up with all units destroyed. You have to be very careful when choosing your battles in this game, as the distances involved can make it hard for you to get a decent force back in play if you lose too many units. There are battle cards, similar to the Hannibal system, that you can use as an optional rule, but I haven't looked at them and really don't know if they change the outcome (I would hope not, as that would mean you threw in an optional rule that had a major effect on a very elemental subsystem, but wasn't intended to mess with the results that much). 

I do like the wide range of options for using CPs, from raids to individual activations. Incorporating the raids, pacification, subjugation, and sieges into the movement system cleans up a lot of rules to great effect, and the game feels like it's wide open for options and both sides have many choices to make. 

What I don't like is that there are a few card combos that can end the game really quickly for the Republicans if the Sertorian gets cards that allow naval movement as well as the "get a major city for free!" card that can be used against Rome. Admittedly it's a long shot, but the Republican is forced to consider this possibility early, especially once Lepidus shows up and he's under the gun. There are a few other combos that were useful, but that's true of most CDGs and as long as they don't have a disproportionate effect on the game, I'm cool with that. 

There are some component issues, which surprises me as Neil Randall does a lot of development work and these are simple things. The siege markers are effectively single-sided (same value on both sides), the Province control markers are the same color and pattern as the PC markers, and about half have identical sides (why any of these should have had the same side escapes me). There are also far too many of them, and given the very large number of blanks on the countersheet I have to wonder if they couldn't have cut costs a little more, or at least come up with a few other useful markers. The PC markers are a good size, but tend to cover the spaces on the map so that you can't tell which are tribal and which are cities. The player aid card has just enough information to be dangerous, and only covers the sequence of play (should go on the map!) and the crisis track list. There are several tables in the rules which aren't on the map (which I think was a Compass thing), and a play aid is more or less critical. I've come up with a play aid for people who know Hannibal, as well as an Asia Minor Hand Holding Box sheet that covers the special rules for that area before and after entry (you flip it when the Pontines enter, then use the printed box to put your cards for that theater in). 

The other odd part is that there are holding boxes for a handful of generals per side (much more useful for the Republicans, as they are marked Consul/Proconsul), but their use is never mentioned in the rules, nor is their existence! I know this is a holdover from Hannibal, which specifically requires their use to determine seniority, so I guess they were left in to effectively list the special abilities of the handful of generals that have them. 

As for whether or not I think this game will see a lot of play, that remains to be seen. I love Sword of Rome, but it's long play time (comparable to Sparty) and need for exactly four players (I know, there's a three-player option, but I find it lacking) means it hasn't come out in years. The same goes for Paths of Glory, Barbarossa to Berlin, and other games that last for eight hours. The game is playable via VASSAL or other cyber-tool, but I think that the interactivity lends itself better to real-time play than play-and-post (like most CDGs). Perhaps that's the way to get it on the table more often, and I guess that applies to games like the recent Pursuit of Glory as well. A great game, but it requires a lot of time and a lot of interactivity. Playing these games play-and-post was great for a while, but I think I much prefer real-time when you have to wait a day to see if someone wants to intercept or play a surprise card. 

That said, this game seems to be a good effort, although only time will tell if it's well-balanced. Certainly, the timing of when Lepidus appears (and he is guaranteed to appear as there are *exactly* as many Consuls in the pool as will show up in the full game) will have an effect, as will some of the particularly nasty events, and in a long game like this I'm concerned that there may be a percentage of plays that end up ending quickly and less than satisfactorily. 

The other big hurdle this game faces is that it's from a relatively small publisher. Compass has done some great work (Bitter End, Red Storm, and Silent War are all in my library), but they don't have a lot of visibility compared to GMT, MMP, Decision, Avalanche, or Clash of Arms. On the 'Geek, I'm responsible for all of the files and about half of the topics, but then I like to nail down rules pretty tightly and create different forum topics for each rule to make it easier for others to locate. Compass *does* make games that are very pretty, though, and once they start figuring out some of the human factors issues I think they'll do very well. I know they have a lot of new games in the pipe for this year, so we'll see how that turns out.

All in all, a very tentative thumbs up for this game. I think it's as accessible as Hannibal in many respects, and the game unfolds in a way that Hannibal doesn't with more and more territory under threat and more and more forces on the board. Understanding how to use those forces, for both sides, will take a little more time and effort (and repeated play), but that's the same for the vast majority of wargames. Right now, though, it's a crowded market and I'm not sure how often it will hit the table for me. If you like Hannibal or Wilderness War, this may be an excellent choice for you. If it is, and you get the game, drop me a line and we'll set up a VASSAL session sometime.

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