I can’t think of another board game that has a “Mature Content” warning on it. But it’s probably a good idea to heed that warning, as Spartacus isn’t really suitable for younger kids. It doesn’t pull any punches.
Gale Force Nine started out in the hobby gaming business as a manufacturer of accessories for miniatures games—mostly die-cut acrylic tokens, range templates and other bookkeeping aids. But over the past year, the company has made a big impact on the board games market with two stand-out, best-selling hits that just happen to also be great collectibles for fans of two cult TV programs.
A crack team of developers at the company has turned out a pair of games that have rock-solid gameplay mechanics, great production values including lots of imagery and other content direct from their source materials. These games also benefit from a balance of tremendous fan appeal as well as being just really good games on their own merits.
Last year’s release was the luridly titled Spartacus: Blood and Sand, based on the Starz cable network’s very TV-MA-rated sword-and-sandal epic. When I first heard about this game, I kind of shrugged it off because I didn’t care much about the program, Gale Force Nine wasn’t known as a board games maker, and it looked like one of those crudely designed cash-in games that tend to turn up at booksellers around the holidays. The game made a big splash at last year’s Gen Con gaming convention, so myself and many other game players and enthusiasts started to take note.
The game is actually quite brilliant. I get a sense that the development team sat down and pulled out a sheet of paper and wrote “what do fans of this show want to do in a board game based on it” and used that as the starting point for their design document. Each player plays the role of Dominus for one of the show’s rival houses vying for influence, money and glory in the gladiatorial arena in ancient Rome. The game has a couple of very different phases which work together to create a compelling—and really quite nasty—game of blood and treachery. It does what it says on the tin.
Players play Intrigue cards on each other, often allying with rival houses to meet the influence point requirements to play them. Money exchanges hands and dirty deeds are done but not always dirt cheap. A market phase follows, during which players bid on auctions for new gladiators, slaves and weapons. Also up for bid is the right to host the next gladiatorial spectacle, which also grants that player the ability to nominate two players to send their best fighters in for a tactical battle with tons of dice rolling, cheers and a smart gambling mechanic so that every player can bet on the outcome of the match—you can bet on who you think is going to win, if it will end in an injury, or if it will end in a decapitation. If one of the fighters survives but is beaten, the host also gets to give that fighter the ol’ thumbs up or thumbs down.
There’re lots of neat things going on in this game and fans of the show will love how well it captures the gritty, debauched and violent tone of the show. That said, Spartacus is a very adult game, as is appropriate given the show’s content. There really aren’t many pieces of merchandise for the Spartacus fan to collect, but this is a really nice piece that definitely doesn’t embarrass its namesake.
The Spartacus board and game pieces.
There’s plenty more Firefly merchandise out there that the show left in the wake of its legendary 14-episode run on the Fox Network. With episodes shown out of order and a very non-mainstream space/cowboy/pirate concept, the show never really had a chance. But that hasn’t stopped legions of “Browncoats” and more casual fans from celebrating its brief but beloved run. Gale Force Nine’s contribution is the Firefly board game, released this year and sold out almost immediately at the summer’s gaming conventions.
Designed by the same team that created Spartacus, I think they used a very similar design document on this one and again delivered a game that should be precisely what a Firefly fan would want from a tabletop game based on it. There’re tons of quirky quotes, references to show obscurities, and a strong focus on characters rather than the usual science fiction emphasis on hardware and technology.
Each player takes a captain (including Nathan Fillion’s Malcom Reynolds) and a Firefly-class transport ship and sets up to stake a claim in the ’verse by completing missions for several different power brokers, gangsters, Alliance government officials and operators. These jobs might be on the up and up—transporting passengers or cargo between planets. Or they might be illegal (or immoral) things like poisoning water supplies, shipping contraband or harboring fugitives from the law. These kinds of jobs tend to require you to “Aim to Misbehave,” requiring a series of card draws and dice-rolling challenges. Once you complete a job, you become “solid” with the hiring contact and you get paid. Then you’ve got to pay your crew. Then you have to spend that money to upgrade your Firefly, hire on new crew members with skills you might need, or purchase fuel and spare parts.
Easy to play, fun, and with plenty of that unique Firefly flavor. Fans of the show are already flocking to buy this game and even those who don’t care for it but just like a good space adventure game will find lots to enjoy here.
On top of all of that, there’s an Alliance Cruiser controlled by all players that can inconveniently decide to detain your ship, fining you or confiscating illegal cargo in your holds. There’s also a Reaver ship lurking in the border regions, its mysterious space cannibals waiting to prey upon your ship and crew. The adventure is high, the economic system simple and direct, and the game is just a lot of fun to play.
Neither of these games are particularly collectible right now, although Firefly is drifting in and out of print as Gale Force Nine sells through every shipment and there are often a couple of upticks in the aftermarket price. Essentially, both are very widely available for right now. But as anyone who collects modern board games knows, games can go out of print quickly (especially licensed games) and supplies dry up before anyone notices a scarcity.
Coming up next from Gale Force Nine is a Sons of Anarchy board game. It looks like these guys have found their niche and I’m looking forward to seeing what comes out of that, even though I’ve never seen the program. I’m guessing that they’ll again determine what fans of the show want out of a game based on it and go from there. So does that mean beards, leather, and motorcycles?
Michael Barnes is a lifelong game player, collector and enthusiast. He has parlayed his passion for games into several successful ventures, including a retail hobby store, two popular gaming Websites, and 10 years of widely read commentary and criticism about both tabletop and video games.
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