Monday, September 1, 2008

I Am Spartacus review

I Am Spartacus is an area movement-and-counter wargame depicting the slave revolt of 73 BC that shook Rome and inspired the Kirk Douglas movie "Sparatcus."

The game, which was the issue game in Command Magazine No. 15, covers the revolt from beginning to end in monthly turns. Units are Roman legions and groups of rebellious slaves of similar size. The counters are the larger 5/8-inch size that Command Magazine often used with full-color iconic warriors. Each unit is rated for its combat strength. Nearly all the slave units and some Roman units are two steps, with a weaker value on the reverse side that is generally half the value. Some units have just one step. Roman legions, on the other hand, have multiple counters each, as each step loss reduces their combat value by just one. This gives the 6- and 8-factor legions considerable staying power.

Based on the earlier Alexandros game, the 13-page rule book describes a game of low to moderate complexity by wargame standards. The colorful Mark Simonitch map is attractive and functional, depicting all of Italy and adjacent areas. Most provinces are clear terrain with some mountain areas, including the five making up the spine of Italy. There is one swamp area around where Venice would appear later in history. In addition there are three in-area rebel sanctuary locations (the Pontine Marsh, Mt. Vesuvius and the Sila Forest) where small groups of rebels can hide.

Unlike Alexandros, I Am Spartacus is a chaotic game where both sides will be forced into opportunistic play. The rebels have to raise rebellion across Italy while avoiding getting caught in a pitched battle with superior Roman forces. The Romans, on the other hand, start with few forces and have to be careful during the early stages of the revolt about getting defeated in detail. The Roman player has an overwhelming amount of force available, eventually, but pays a considerable cost in victory points if he calls on too much of it. The revolt came while Rome was in the midst of some foreign wars and troops recalled to home hurt the war effort abroad.

The biggest change from Alexandros is the combat system. Instead of the odds-based CRT system in its predecessor, I Am Spartacus uses a firepower-based system where each unit rolls a die against its combat strength to score a hit. This means that a full-strength 6-factor Roman legion is guaranteed a hit and also means that the Romans will win any battle of attrition.

Battles are handled schematically, similar to Alexandros, except without the strict division into left, right, center and reserve. Now each player simply lines up his units against their opposite numbers. Units that defeat their opposite numbers can breakthrough and fight at increased effectiveness against enemy units to either side of the breakthrough. This is another advantage for the multi-step Roman legions, as they are the most likely to survive long enough to achieve a break through.

All the major leaders are present, including Spartacus, Pompey and Crassus. The core of the slave army is the 7-factor, four-step Gladiator unit, which is the only Spartacist unit that can recover strength. If eliminated it is gone for good, so naturally it is a prime Roman target. Slaves that revolt start off as 2-factor, one-step slave gangs of limited value. Spartacus can attempt to train up the slave gangs to real fighting men. Trained slaves are replaced with randomly drawn units of slingers or ethnic fighters including Gall-Germans, Greeks and others.

As the slave revolt had little chance of overthrowing the Roman state, the game assesses victory at a more modest level. Essentially, the more extensive and longer-lasting the revolt, the better for Spartacus. The Roman player is trying to suppress the revolt as quickly as possible while using as few troops as he can. Spartacus earns VPs for killing Roman legions and leaders, for slaves who escape off the map (only certain types are eligible) and for having an ongoing rebellion at game end (turn 17). The Romans get points for killing rebels and leaders and lose points for calling on the substantial forces they have available. If Spartacus captures Rome he wins instantly. If the Romans kill Spartacus before turn 17, they win immediately.

The game is playable in one sitting and only takes about a quarter hour to set up. There is just one scenario.

There is also a major variant called "Pyrrhic Victory" from Command No. 19, that uses the same map and many of the same units.


(Yes) For Wargamers: An unusual ancient campaign with a dramatic theme.

(No) For Collectors: No remarkable collectibility.

(No) For Euro gamers: As a hex-and-counter wargame the game play is intricate and detailed and play balance a secondary consideration.

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