If you don't know the show, don't worry as your knowledge of it has zero impact on the game. The only thing a person familiar with the show will have is being able to recognize the factions and some of the characters on the cards.
The game is a 3-4 player affair, with competing "houses" , some of them are aristocracy others are ambitious gladiator trainers (Lannista's). Everyone wants to have as much influence and power as they possibly can, so the first player who takes his house to 12 influence wins the game. The road to victory is lined with corpses of your enemies, backstabbing, scheming and dealing with other players. At the core Spartacus is a very competitive game where players can screw each other over really bad - however (I must add before some of you panic and run away) - it's not really that bad as in games such as "A Game of Thrones". There are boundaries, rules and limits that control when and how you act and that also make you keep your word. In short, there are game mechanics in place to create an atmosphere of controlled scheming.
Each faction is geared towards a specific part of the game, some are dependent on the games in the gladiator arena, others focus on scheming or resources. Each faction has special rules that provide means to acquire influence points during the game.
Influence points are also awarded for hosting gladiator games, but we will get to that in a moment.
The game starts out with each player having a specific amount of starting resources, these are money, guards, slaves and gladiators. Gladiators are handed out randomly since they differ in ability (though all starting gladiators are rather weak). Gladiators cost upkeep, and you pay gold for each gladiator in your house at the start of each turn.
Guards are used to foil "Intrigue" cards directed at you, each guard card allows for a D6 to be rolled in attempt to stop you from being affected by whatever effect that the opponent is using against you. The more guards you have the higher probability that they will stop an enemy scheme. Guard cards that have been used are discarded so if many players target you during a single turn you will end up being worn down, so it may be a good idea to be on the good side with at least one or two opponents.
Money is used to pay for gladiator upkeep, to buy market cards and for betting in the arena.
Slaves generate income to your household, 1 gold per ready slave at the start of each turn. They can also be sacrificed by an "Intrigue" card or even used as a last resort to fight in the arena. Their chances to survive are zero even against the weakest gladiator of course but there is a reason for them being able to participate which I will get to soon.
Each turn involves an upkeep phase, intrigue phase, market phase and arena phase.
The upkeep phase is where you get gold for slaves, pay gold for gladiators, roll for injured gladiators, refresh exhausted cards.
The intrigue phase is where players are playing "Intrigue" cards. 3 of these are dealt to each player each turn, and the maximum hand is determined by each player's current "influence". The higher the influence the more cards you can have on your hand. Intrigue cards often provide backstabbing opportunities or simply allow you to benefit from a situation without crossing any other player. The intrigue phase is also when players are allowed to use their house special rules that award them influence points. The intrigue phase is resolved one player at a time and each player can perform as many schemes and things as they possibly can limited only by their resources and size of their hand. Intrigue cards require a certain level of influence to be performed, if you can't reach that level you can always ask a player to support you - supporting another player is done "blindly" which means that you don't know exactly what you are supporting - it can be rewarding or turn out to be a dagger in your back. You only need the support of another player to play an intrigue card of any value. And if you don't want the support of others or just need the cash most intrigue cards can be discarded for a certain amount of money.
The market phase is the first phase that really involves all players at the same time. Players will be bidding with a secret amount of money for various resources (as many as there are players playing), with each resource being flipped over one at a time - forcing you to consider whether or not spending a lot of gold on something good that game up early or wait it out and see what comes next. The market phase is also used by players who want to sell slaves, gladiators, guards and equipment that they no longer need. When the market cards have all been bought or discarded players now commence to bid for hosting a game in the arena. This is a very crucial point of the game and may not be overlooked even if your faction isn't gladiator oriented. The winner of this bid gets to host the game.
The Arena phase, now the reasons why you want to host a game are many. The natural reason is that you receive 1 influence point for hosting, and the host will be acting as the first player in the next turns intrigue phase. That in itself is no small reward. However there are other things to hosting a game, as the host you are to pick two players to fight in the arena by asking them if they want to participate in the fight with one of their gladiators.
The a lot of scheming occurs during this step, the host may always pick himself as one of the factions to take part in the gladiator battle. The host may ask players whom he knows have no or weak gladiators and either force them to fight you allowing an easy victory and glory for your champion - or have the opponent decline the invitation and lose influence! You can also pit two players against each other to weaken them, as the host you have the power of the "thumbs up/thumbs down", so if you really want a defeated gladiator of your opponent to bite the dust you are allowed to have them killed. Naturally this allows for a lot of bribing between players, the host may twist the arm of a player to pay gold in return for not being picked to fight in the arena, or take bribes to really be picked by a player who really wants to fight.
The arena phase is the second step that involves all players, not only are two players actively fighting in the arena but there is also a lot of betting going on. Players can never bet against their own gladiator (freely), bets are placed to predict either player 1 or player 2 to be victorious, that the game ends because of an injury or that it ends by decapitation of one of the combatants. Betting is one of the main ways of making a quick buck in the game. And there are intrigue cards that can be used during the arena phase to really put a twist on things. There is also nothing that prevents a player to field a weak gladiator or slave and then bet on "decapitation" and try to have that result on the sands in the arena. There are really a bunch of big and small things that can be done during the arena phase to further your goals or foil the bets of other players.
Gladiators that win a fight get a favor token, having won 3 favor tokens makes the gladiator a champion. The reason why you want these favor tokens or champion of the arena status is to prevent the host from having you killed by a thumbs down. If the host wishes to see a favored gladiator killed he will lose the same amount of influence points that the target gladiator have favor - which once again puts a twist on things.
Once the fight in the arena is over, players cash in their bets and the next turn begins.
Spartacus is a relatively fast paced game, it shouldn't take more than 2-3 hours to finish a game - and it offers 3 different starting modes for long/medium/short games depending on how much time you want to spend on it. It's simple in design but very entertaining and well put together. The rules for fighting in the arena are very streamlined and simple but offer enough chance to make them a bit unpredictable unless you have a very good vs a very weak fighter. The game has a good flow and can be played friendly or very rough depending upon your own preference and what your friends like. You don't have to be an ass to win, but if you want to be an ass there is plenty of room for that as well. And that is perhaps one of the strengths that I like the most about this game.
If you found this review to spark your interest then check out the game, it's very affordable and easy to learn and get into! However, parents should be made aware that the box is marked "Ages 17+" due to limited foul language on the cards (mainly the card called "Jupiter’s Cock!" which is something of the period equivalent to the word "fuck"). So maybe not something to play with a 12yo if you're sensitive to these things which are quite limited in the game so don't expect the content to be a hard R.
You can get this game over at Kulturkommissariatet