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Over the last few posts, we have seen different approaches to board games about gladiators. Some board games gloss over or elide the reality that gladiators were slaves, while others embrace it, though never quite comfortably. Nearly every game focuses on fights for "glory." Do these games share any other common threads, regardless of approach? I would say yes: Games about gladiators simply do not prick our consciences in the way that games about more recent European colonialism have done. Which leads us to the next question: Why?
The most obvious reason is just distance. While the Romans remain part of our collective consciousness in the United States and Europe, we are not actively living the legacy of what the Romans did in ways we can directly point out. Colonialism and the transatlantic slave trade continue to reverberate through our lives in a more immediate way. We still have monuments to slave traders on public display in the United States. People who participated in human trafficking built many of our universities, wrote many of our laws, and put down the roots of inequities that persist to the present day. Large parts of the world still suffer from the effects of being former colonies, from having their borders drawn by foreign powers, from the legacy of the slave trade that taints many of the heroes (?) of our more recent past. The Romans, too, were a colonial power and committed countless abuses against the peoples they conquered. The Romans, too, built their society on the backs of slaves. But it doesn't look like what we think of when we think of enslavement or Empire, because it is so far away from us and from our understanding of the world.
At the same time, we look back on Rome as a society to admire. Europe and the United States point very directly to the Greeks and Romans as glorious ancestors from whom we got a lot of our best ideas. In my high school Latin classes, and even in my university ones, I felt connected to Rome in a pleasant, distant way. My textbooks wanted to tell me what was cool and interesting about the Romans, about how brilliant a man like Julius Caesar was—even if he did go to Gaul and commit genocide. Latin still has deep cultural resonance as a "fancy," "classy" language, both in Latin programs and in our popular culture. Many people who learn about Rome do so from a perspective that, purposely or not, is sympathetic to Empire. We are drinking that Roman Kool-Aid and drinking it deep.
Our natural sympathy for the Romans must have an impact on how we read the literature they have left behind. Looking at the Roman source material, it is easy to take on the attitudes of the Romans whose words we read rather than the gladiators whose true feelings we will never know—and who were themselves part of Roman culture. For the Romans, slavery was a fact of life, not an atrocity. The value placed on human life, particularly the lives of slaves, was low. For most Romans, no crisis of conscience would have resulted from watching and enjoying a gladiator fight, which means that no crisis of conscience would show up in their writings about the matter. Gladiators’ own tombstones memorialize victories and bemoan defeats, but do not lament the difficulties of their lives. Even sources that are critical of gladiatorial games launch those criticisms from a wholly Roman perspective. When Seneca writes about the impressive nature of the gladiators’ oath, he still despises gladiators as slaves, though his respect for their bravery in the face of death is sincere. The complaints he does voice about the games have nothing to do with ethics. Instead, Seneca is appalled by the brutality of the spectators at gladiator fights, not so much because they enjoy the violence but because of how thirsty they are for it. Murder in public is perfectly fine for a Roman, but loss of self-control is not.
This leaves us as modern players, then, with the responsibility of going beyond uncritical acceptance of what the Romans had to say about themselves and their traditions. Gladiator fights are luridly fascinating—on that, both we and the Romans can agree. It is our responsibility, however, to reflect on the roles we adopt when we reenact them. This is not to say that we cannot enjoy a game about gladiators, including particularly cruel games of Spartacus: A Game of Blood and Treachery. But these games also provide us, as scholars, designers, and players, with an opportunity to critically examine what the Romans tell us about themselves—and what our responses say about us. Who do we sympathize with? Who do we believe? The answers to those questions can help us do history, but more importantly they offer us a mirror, if we can meet our own eyes in it.
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While many board games erase any perceived ethical issues with gladiatorial combat by creating the illusion of universal excitement and consent among fighters, others simply embrace the role of lanista and matter-of-factly have players participate in the Roman slave trade. Most games in this genre at least downplay the reality of slavery by presenting lanistae as “building up a successful school” in pursuit of—what else?—fame and glory. Others focus on the possibility of gladiators earning their freedom. And a few games fully embrace the lurid aspects of Roman culture surrounding gladiators by actively encouraging players to get in touch with the worst aspects of their natures.
Most games casually present the role of lanista as manager of a gladiatorial school—with no mention of what this “management” actually entailed. In MUNERA: Familia Gladiatoria (2005), gamers:
...play the role of a lanista, an ancient world entrepreneur who has decided to invest his wealth in
the constitution of a Gymnasium of Gladiators with the aim of making it the most glorious of the
Empire. You will recruit trainers, armourers, medics and even prostitutes. You will train free men,
slaves, criminals and war prisoners to become gladiators and you will bring them to fight in the
arenas throughout Italy. You will manage not only the duels, but the whole life of your gladiators:
lead your champions to glory! (1)
What makes this description interesting is that lanistae are presented as businessmen and entrepreneurs who invest and recruit. While mention is made of “training” slaves, criminals, and war prisoners, that information is placed after more palatable descriptions of recruiting professionals and training free men. It is also followed up with an enthusiastic encouragement to lead your gladiators to glory. The flavor text does not explicitly say how you came to be training these slaves in the first place—because you would have to have purchased them. For Glory, an upcoming game about running competing gladiatorial schools, presents lanistae as cunning: “Blood and sweat spill in the Arena while lanistas, owners of Gladiator schools, machinate to improve their ludus. Their ultimate pursuit... Glory, and to be forever remembered as one of the great lanistas of all time.” All of this pursuit of glory, however, does not explicitly involve slavery. You generate income to purchase cards from a market to add to your deck, but these purchases can include actions and patrons in addition to gladiators.
Gladiator: Quest for the Rudis (2016) takes a more frank approach, yet is similarly unconcerned with the human consequences of the players’ in-game actions. In this game, you are a gladiator who is fighting in the arena with attaining glory—of course—but also freedom:
Gladiators were mostly condemned slaves sentenced to train, and eventually die, in the arena
for the entertainment of the Romans. However, Roman citizens and even Roman emperors opted
to fight as “gladiators,” be it for gold or glory. But it was only those slaves whose fates were to live
life as gladiators who quested for the rudis. The rudis was nothing more than a symbolic wooden
sword, and yet it represented the ultimate prize to a slave-gladiator. To be awarded with the rudis
meant fame and possibly fortune, but most of all it meant… freedom. (3)
Quest for the Rudis is aimed at realism, and its explicit goal is to recreate gladiatorial combat in a realistic way without creating too many difficult or fiddly rules that would slow down the action. This realism does extend to convincing backstories for the gladiators in the game. Thexos, for example, “was captured in one of the many battles in Gaul, sold as a slave to the lanista of the Ludus Fortuna Baccus and given three things: a new name, armor, and weapons.” Because this game centers specifically on the gladiators’ slave status and their desire to change it by being awarded the rudis, Quest for the Rudis centers the reality of gladiators’ enslavement and incorporates it into their backstories as many other gladiator board games do not. However, this does not necessarily mean that the designer, Jim Trunzo, is entirely sensitive to the situation of the gladiators in this game. In an announced follow-up to Quest for the Rudis that never materialized, entitled Lanista: Gladiator II, players are encouraged to play from the perspective of the lanista who bought, sold, and deployed enslaved gladiators instead. The idea of this game is not to win fights, exclusively, but to earn money and perhaps turn your gladiator school into a full-blown dynastic family business. There are also options for how to roleplay your lanista:
The game has over 100 Events that guide the action: outbreaks of disease, complete rules for
conducting a slave rebellion, and decisions that go into shaping your persona however your
[sic] like. Be an honest businessman and show your loyalty to Rome by reporting those who would
fix the games; or bribe Roman nobles to make sure your gladiators will have a primary spot in the
next arena contests. Be a cruel taskmaster and impress the Romans and earn Prestige, but possibly
pay for your cruelness by inciting your gladiators to revolt. Be a more benevolent Dominus and
reward those who help your ludus prosper, but potentially earn a reputation for being soft and
easy to manipulate. How you role-play your lanista is up to you. (5)
In other words, while the previous game in the series asked players to take on the role of an enslaved gladiator fighting for freedom, the sequel puts them in the shoes of the lanistae who purchased those gladiators—and gives them the option to be a “cruel taskmaster” within the game and to benefit from that cruelty. Meanwhile, being a “more benevolent Dominus [slave master]” can make players look “soft.” Although this sequel was never published, it does make clear that enjoying a game about the pursuit of freedom does not automatically extend to sympathy for, or very much reflection about, the situation of slaves.
While Rise of the Rudis is frank about the situation of gladiators and the power that a lanista had over them, it does not impute any particular value judgments to this social situation. Perhaps the most honest game in this respect is Spartacus: A Game of Blood and Treachery, which is based on a popular TV series. In this game, the players are lanistae and their goal is “to become the most influential house in Capua, securing your family’s power for years to come.” (6) This game is blunt about the slaves who run your house to earn money, about the status of gladiators as “exceptional slaves,” and about the trading of “assets” (including gladiators and other slaves) during the Market Phase each turn. (7) During the Arena Phase, in which battles take place, players can choose to pit experienced gladiators against each other, or stronger gladiators against untrained slaves, and then bet on the likely outcomes (“Decapitation” pays two to one). (8) The game also includes intrigue phases and schemes, and is up-front about the fact that none of the players are expected to be good people: “During the game, players will bribe, poison, betray, steal, blackmail, and undermine each other. Gold will change hands again and again to buy support, stay someone’s hand or influence their decisions.” (9) Although the ubiquitous pursuit of glory in the arena is present in Spartacus, the main idea of the game is not honorable at all—players are a bunch of plotting, scheming, power-hungry lanistae who want to win at all costs, human lives very much included. To play this game, and to play well, gamers will have to embrace everything that this entails, including actively trading slaves within the game and often sending those slaves to their brutal, untimely deaths.
Regardless of their level of honesty about the situation, games in which players take on the role of lanista are games in which players actively participate in the slave trade—something that typically passes without comment among hobbyist gamers. This leads us to a natural next question: Why do we cackle and take delight in a nasty battle during a game of Spartacus: A Game of Blood and Treachery, but balk at the slave card in Maracaibo?
I'll be proposing some theories of my own in the next post.
(1) BGG Entry for MUNERA: Familia Gladiatoria (2005)
(2) Kickstarter Campaign for For Glory
(3) Gladiator: Quest for the Rudis Rulebook p. 2
(4) Ibid. p. 3
(6) Spartacus: A Game of Blood and Treachery Rulebook p. 2.
(7) Ibid. p. 1–2.
(8) Ibid. p. 12.
(9) Ibid. p. 2.
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If you have ever played a game about gladiators, you have almost certainly encountered a mechanism or victory condition that involved crowd favor, fame, or glory. How did we get here, and how does it manifest in our board games?
The truth is, whether or not the combatants were willing participants, gladiator fights were exciting. Enormous crowds across centuries of Roman history watched gladiatorial combat with anticipation and delight, and presented the fights this way in their writing and material culture. This is the understanding of gladiatorial combat that most modern gamers choose to adopt, and in the majority of recent gladiator games, the ideas of fame, honor, and glory play a tremendous role both mechanically and in terms of the gladiators’—the players’—overall motivations.
Gladiator fights involved risk of life or of serious injury, but based on the flavor text of hobby board games, these risks are both thrilling and honorable. One of the more recent deck builders about gladiators, Carthage, presents combat as a chance to go down in history:
The salty sea air mixed with the pungent aroma of sweat and blood burns your nostrils. Having
saluted the fickle crowd, you turn to face your opponents. Grim looks of determination meet your
gaze. Only one of you will leave this arena. Victory or defeat, history will remember your name in
In this description, the impending battle is bloody, but also romanticized. The point is not to survive in a life of servitude, but to be remembered. The box copy for Ludi Gladiatorii (2015) crows that “Each victory for your ‘ludus’ is a line written in History” (2). The introduction to the rules of Red Sand, Blue Sky: Heroes of the Arena (2011) plays up the death and desperation of gladiatorial combat from the first line: “Gladiator: Just saying the word conjures up visions of vicious combat between desperate men who fought to the death for the amusement of the crowd” (3). However, within the same paragraph, the game trumpets that “Now with Red Sand Blue Sky - Heroes of the Arena you can recreate the glory and splendor of these games on three levels” (4). Even the choice to include the subtitle “Heroes of the Arena” indicates which aspect of a gladiator’s life the designers want to emphasize. Similarly, the 2012 game Gladiators breathlessly declares, “You are a gladiator fighting for Glory in the Roman arena. Savage beasts and vicious warriors are all that stand between you and eternal fame. Defeating your foes is not enough; you must win the crowd’s favor” (5). Games about gladiatorial combat, then, are games in which you fight not to survive, but to feel successful by impressing your audience and even earning a place in history.
This general emphasis on fame and glory in the arena does have roots in the original source material, but there are complications—gladiators were in a paradoxical position in society because they were objects of extreme adulation, even obsession, but they were also despised and clearly consigned to the bottom of the Roman social hierarchy. According to Alison Futrell, “By law, gladiators were not entitled to the full range of rights guaranteed to other Romans. They were considered infames, a category of shame that also included actors, prostitutes, pimps, and lanistae, all occupations that involved the submission of the body to the pleasure of others” (6). Glory of a kind was certainly available to gladiators, but it was cut with social shame.
The Stoic philosopher Seneca dislikes gladiators, but recognizes the paradoxical way they are viewed. In one of his letters, he notes that there is a certain honor to their complete bodily dedication: “The words of this most honorable contract are the same as the words of that most shameful one: "To be burned, to be chained, to be killed by the sword’” (7). Gladiators were the subjects of art, heroes of Roman pop culture, and sex symbols—it was even rumored that Faustina, wife of the emperor Marcus Aurelius, had an unhealthy infatuation with a gladiator—but there were limits to all that adulation. The Christian author Tertullian, though often curmudgeonly, very accurately sums up the social problem of gladiators:
Take the treatment the very providers and managers of the spectacles accord to those idolized
charioteers, actors, athletes, and gladiators, to whom men surrender their souls and women even
their bodies, on whose account they commit the sins they censure: for the very same skill for which
they glorify them, they debase and degrade them; worse, they publicly condemn them to dishonor
and deprivation of civil rights…What perversity! They love whom they penalize; they bring into
disrepute whom they applaud; they extol the art and brand the artist with disgrace. What sort of
judgment is this, that a man should be vilified for the things that win him a reputation? (8)
The desire for glory and honor in the arena is one that actual ancient Romans felt, to the point where some aristocrats really did damage their elite social status in pursuit of the adulation of the crowd. But the fact remains over the centuries that gladiators were also social pariahs, without full rights, and in the case of the majority who were slaves, without any rights at all. This is an aspect of gladiatorial life and of Roman culture that has not fully made it into our board games (but stay tuned for the next post). In a way, we as players mirror the Romans who avidly watched gladiatorial games—it is easy to get caught up in the drama, in the excitement of battle, in the narratives of courage and heroism in the face of death. But we do not often show sympathy for the fighters, many or most of whom were not there of their own free will, no matter how much admiration they received.
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(1) Carthage Rulebook, p. 1, File on BGG (Accessed 5/25/21).
(2) Ludi Gladiatori (2015), BGG (Accessed 5/25/21).
(3) Red Sand, Blue Sky Rulebook p.1, also https://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/95022/red-sand-blue-sky-heroes-arena (Accessed 5/25/2021).
(5) Gladiators (2012), BGG Entry, https://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/122348/gladiators (Accessed 5/25/2021).
(6) Alison Futrell, The Roman Games: Historical Sources in Translation, (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2006), 130.
(7) Seneca, Letters 37, Ad Lucilium Epistulae Morales, volume 1-3, ed. Richard M. Gummere (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1917-1925),
(8) Tertullian, On the Spectacles, 22.3-4, trans. in Futrell.
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We're getting to the games now. There are actually several approaches to cover, but I want to confront what feels like the simplest one first: erasure. If you want to have all the fun of a gladiator game and none of the guilt, it is a lot easier to pretend that whole slavery thing was no big deal, or even that it never happened at all.
Modern board games do not typically dwell on the fact that gladiators were either slaves or people who had volunteered to accept a low social status. In fact, it is so easy to forget that we as gamers routinely erase that reality entirely from our play, even when enjoying gladiator games that are explicitly set in ancient Rome. A game from 2012 entitled Gladiatori includes flavor text that deemphasizes the reality of slaves as the foundation of gladiatorial combat and plays up the excitement of potential fame and glory:
During the Roman Empire, gladiator combat was the most popular form of entertainment. Fighters from all parts of the Empire were included in the shows, including female gladiators, wealthy Roman
citizens and in some cases, even aristocrats. Now the time has come for you to gain the immortal
glory of the Arena. Fight for your honor, for fame, and for your life! (1)
From this description, a player might never realize that most gladiators were slaves. Honor, fame, and excitement win the day. In fact, based on the description from Gladiatori, you might see gladiator fights as focused entirely on shocking exploits by the wealthy, and sometimes women (there in fact were female gladiators, and they caused quite a scandal).
The recent game Gladiatores: Blood for Roses (2020) places you in the role of a lanista, or someone who controls a gladiator school and would have bought and sold gladiators in the regular course of business. The game, however, makes that business more palatable by adjusting its language: “To [win], each player bids for the most famous gladiators in history. Hiring these professional fighters for upcoming events will increase your school’s glory and fame and attract bigger crowds to the arena" (2). Players are warned not to spend too much money on “hiring” famous gladiators—explicitly described as “professional fighters”—who don’t earn enough glory for the school in return. By describing what would have been either the purchase of slaves or of contracts in which volunteers gave up their rights as “hiring,” Blood for Roses completely erases the social underpinnings of the gladiatorial combat it celebrates. Aside from this change, however, the trappings of the game are Roman, from the artistic renderings of the gladiators to the Latin words and names sprinkled throughout. This is a game that is very clearly set in Rome, not in a fantasy world— which means the practice of “hiring” gladiators is an erasure of history, not an adaptation of gladiatorial combat to a fictional setting.
What makes both of these cases interesting is that they mix in Roman imagery and even actual facts, but they don't include all of the facts. We want the aspects of ancient Rome that we like. But can we really just ignore the ones we don't?
Perhaps the most interesting occurrence of elision of the reality of gladiatorial life takes place in the newly-released game Gladius (2021), in which players are not gladiators or lanistae, but rather spectators who are betting on fights between teams of gladiators—and shamelessly manipulating the outcomes. The game has received praise for its diverse depictions of characters, and there is strong representation of women and people of color among both playable characters and gladiators. The Kickstarter page features a quote from Dr. Seth McCormick, an art history professor, that underscores this point by attempting to ground it in ancient history rather than our modern sensibilities:
Thank you for providing further evidence of how diversifying representation in games can broaden
players’ perspectives on history. I find that the majority of board games set in ancient Rome adopt a
very limited perspective by focusing on war or politics (or both), reinforcing the traditional view that
history is the story of Great Men (i.e., rulers and generals). It occurs to me that [Gladius], by
emphasizing the importance of spectacle in ancient Roman society (the players are not the
gladiators in the arena, but the spectators placing bets), shifts attention to the agency of the
masses as the people whose consent actually mattered the most in securing the stability and
longevity of the Roman Empire (3).
In many ways, McCormick is correct—the Roman world was diverse, and yet is too often depicted as white and male. There are also plenty of interesting aspects of ancient Roman society to study aside from war and politics. But his comments about spectator agency and consent, while well-intentioned, become disturbing when one considers that if Gladius is to be taken seriously as a game about ancient Rome, then the spectators are exercising their agency and consent by placing bets on the bodies of people whose agency and consent were at best limited and at worst completely nonexistent. I haven't spoken with them, but I am 99.99% sure that the designers of the game did not intend for their work to be interpreted this way. But it is the historical reality lurking behind any game with an ancient Roman theme.
Many gladiator games on the current market seek to allow us, as modern players, to enjoy the blood, conflict, and spectacle of gladiator games without the guilt. By presenting gladiatorial contests as risks taken by professional fighters, or by implying that they are shows put on by willing combatants of higher social status, or even by focusing on inclusivity among game characters in a way that reflects our modern ideals, we grant intention and agency to our fictional fighters that most real-life ones did not have. By conveniently downplaying the reality that most gladiators were slaves, we make it more palatable to deploy them in the arena, to bet on them, and to take vicious pleasure in their victories and defeats.
Is ignoring the historical status of gladiators necessarily a bad thing on board game night? I think that's a matter of what a particular game is trying to say. If you are playing a gladiator game set in a fantasy world, I don't think this historical reality matters all that much—that's why I won't be covering Hoplomachus in this series of posts. I do think that if a game is making factual claims about Rome and about gladiators—and especially if that game prints a blurb from a professor making historical commentary—then questions of accuracy demand serious consideration.
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(1) Gladiatori, BoardGameGeek, https://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/118567/gladiatori (Accessed May 24, 2021).
(2) Gladiatores: Blood for Roses Rulebook, p. 1,
https://boardgamegeek.com/filepage/192072/gladiatores-rulebook-1st-edition-final-pf (Accessed May 24, 2021).
(3) Gladius Kickstarter page (Accessed May 24, 2021).
Click here for the previous part.
Before getting into some deeper game analysis, I'm using this post to lay out what we actually know about the social status of gladiators. So buckle up—it's time for some history!
Historically, gladiatorial combat originates with funerary rites, in which slaves were forced to fight to the death in honor of the recently deceased. Although some Roman authors attribute the origins of such fights to the Etruscans, the first recorded Roman gladiator fight is dated to 264 BCE and is recorded in Livy: “Decimus Junius Brutus was first gave a gladiatorial munus, in honor of his dead father” (1). Over time, the games lost their funereal purpose and became larger-scale entertainment, and productions became more expensive and more organized. The ludi, or gladiatorial schools, emerged in response to increasing demand.
Gladiators came from three general groups of people: slaves, including prisoners of war; criminals who were condemned to fight in the arena, and volunteers who essentially signed themselves into slavery for a set period of time (2). We also know that gladiators’ demographic proportions changed over time. Gladiators were initially almost all slaves, but by the end of the Republican period, about half of extant tombstones belong to freeborn gladiators (3). This does not necessarily mean that half of all gladiators were volunteers, but rather that of the gladiators who were successful enough to have tombstones erected in their honor (it was not cheap), half were free men.
When we talk about "volunteers," it is very important to contextualize exactly what that means. Success as a gladiator was not considered a respectable career goal by any stretch of the imagination. Generally, men who chose this path willingly “were social outcasts, freed slaves, discharged soldiers, or former gladiators who had been liberated on retirement but chose to return for a period of service" (4). There were serious legal consequences for choosing to sign oneself over as a gladiator. For the duration of their terms of service, gladiators, even if voluntary ones, gave up their rights to do as they pleased. As one sourcebook phrases it, “they bound themselves to the status of slaves, surrendering authority over their own bodies to the lanista. They were required to take a formal oath to allow themselves to be disciplined and subjected to physical abuse of the kind associated with training in the ludus” (5). Free gladiators willingly entered a state in which they were not free, in which they sacrificed both legal and physical autonomy. Additionally, gladiators became infames, who "cannot vote, hold public office, or even procure a decent burial plot. No decent person will have social relations with an infamis for fear of being considered one himself, so becoming a gladiator is an irrevocable step" (6). Choosing the life of a gladiator, even if doing so voluntarily, was a sign that someone had nothing left to lose.
Ancient sources make much of the occasional aristocrats who participated in gladiatorial combat, but they do that because it is so scandalous. Such participation was generally considered shameful. Emperors were often enthusiastic about the games, especially Commodus, who dressed up as Hercules and competed as a gladiator himself, but this behavior was not considered a positive contribution to his legacy. An obsession with public performances did not reflect well on emperors in any context. Nero’s obsession with performance and public acclaim is considered an embarrassment, and the Roman historian Tacitus writes, “Thinking that he toned down his disgrace as long as he defiled many others, he brought descendants of noble families—who could be bought because of poverty—onto the stage” (7). Of Commodus, the historian Cassius Dio says, “nor did he save anything, but spent it all badly on wild beasts and gladiators” (8). Certainly, some aristocrats became so enamored of gladiators and their tremendous fame that they chose to live out their fantasies of glorious combat in the arena, but this was not normal and it did not garner the respect of their elite peers.
What this boils down to is that in a given group of gladiators, at least half—and likely much more than half—of the group was made up of slaves or condemned criminals, while the remainder voluntarily surrendered bodily autonomy in a way that damaged their social status. This remains true when we role play as gladiators in our board games.
This is also a fitting time to discuss the role of a lanista. In most sources, you'll see a lanista described as a "gladiator trainer," but this doesn't quite capture the scope of a lanista's work. Within the ludus, or gladiator school, the lanista was boss—even in an imperially-owned gladiator school, the higher-ups seem to have left day-to-day work to him. This is because the lanista's work was considered shameful. Don't forget, hanging around infames like gladiators makes you an infamis yourself. The lanista set the gladiator training regimen, was responsible for rewards and punishments, and set up profitable fights. He also decided when to take on new gladiators, for how much, and from what source. In other words, lanistae actively engaged in human trafficking, and there is just no way around it (9).
So, now you know the basics about gladiators and their social status. In the next post, we'll start to look at how gladiators and lanistae appear in modern board games.
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(1) Livy periocha libri XVI 16, in Titi Livi ab urbe condita libri editionem priman curavit Guilelmus Weissenborn editio altera auam curavit Mauritius Mueller Pars I. Libri I-X ed. Weissenborn (Leipzig: Teubner 1898), Perseus Digital Library, http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.02.0169%3Abook%3D16s (Accessed May 24, 2021).
(2) Alison Futrell, The Roman Games: Historical Sources in Translation, (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2006), 120; Fik Meijer, The Gladiators: History's Most Deadly Sport, (New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2004), 42-48.
(3) Meijer, 44.
(4) James Grout, Encyclopedia Romana, https://penelope.uchicago.edu/~grout/encyclopaedia_romana/gladiators/gladiators.html (Accessed May 24, 2021).
(5) Futrell, 132.
(6) Philip Matyszak, Gladiator: The Roman Fighter's Unofficial Manual (London: Thames & Hudson, 2011), 13.
(7) Livy, Annales 14.14, in Annales ab excessu divi Augusti, Cornelius Tacitus, Charles Dennis Fisher, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1906).
(8) Cassius Dio 73.16, in Dio's Roman History, Cassius Dio Cocceianus, ed. Earnest Cary, Herbert Baldwin Foster, William Heinemann (New York: Harvard University Press, 1914).
(9) Matyszak, 58.
I feel like I need to start this post by saying: I'm not telling you not to play gladiator board games. I play them. I enjoy them. I have no intention of stopping. But I think it's important to reflect on the differences between what we know about history and what we are presenting in our board games.
That said, did you know that most ancient gladiators were slaves?
Over the last several years, board gamers, both in and out of academy, have taken notice of colonial themes in board games. Strategy games such as Puerto Rico, Struggle of Empires, and Archipelago have entered not only the Top 100 games on BoardGameGeek, but have received treatment from scholars of postcolonial studies because of their focus on colonial economies and the in-game presence of slaves (1).
On the consumer end of the spectrum, games have either drawn criticism or been withdrawn from publication due to insensitive colonial theming. Notably, a recent GMT project entitled Scramble for Africa, described in a press release as a “game of the period of exploration, colonization, and exploitation of Africa from around 1850 to 1900,” (2) was going to be published, but was ultimately withdrawn from the production line due to outcry over the game’s Euro-centric enthusiasm for carving up the continent of Africa, with no regard for the painful consequences that still linger from when it actually happened (3). Meanwhile, historical gaming in particular is seeing a push towards telling a wider variety of stories from differing (i.e. not colonial or Western-centric) viewpoints (4). Overall, there is a movement within board games to show more sensitivity with regard to the subject matter of games and to the treatment of oppressed or previously silenced people who are portrayed in them. The subject of slavery has received especially close scrutiny, and with good reason.
For every game that confronts the issue as a painful and upsetting historical episode (5), there are several more that contain references to slavery that trivialize—even incentivize—the mistreatment of enslaved people. Five Tribes, a game set in a fictionalized Middle East, had, and ultimately removed, a slavery-themed market card (6). More recently, Maracaibo, a strategy game based on 17th-century trade in the Caribbean, has drawn criticism for a card that allows players to profit from slavery within the context of the game (7).
I see all of this discussion as a sign of progress. It's important to reflect on what games ask us to do, and the context of those actions both in actual history and in our current culture. But so far, discussion centers almost entirely on the more recent past. We have yet to seriously apply these new lenses to other historical contexts, to cultures that do not—at least as far as we can perceive—have as strong an impact on our own. While now a game in which slavery is practiced rightly incites discussion among gamers, these scruples do not currently apply to games set in the Roman world, and in particular to games about gladiators.
So what are we doing with our gladiator games? What does that say about us? What does it say about our attitudes toward Roman culture? I'll be exploring these questions and more over the next several posts!
Click here for the next part.
(1) Borit, C, et al, 2018 Representations of Colonialism in Three Popular, Modern Board Games: Puerto Rico, Struggle of Empires, and Archipelago. Open Library of Humanities, 4(1): 17, pp. 1–40, DOI: https:// doi.org/10.16995/olh.211
(2) The original release has since been deleted, but remains in part on Twitter. GMT Games (@gmtgames), Twitter Post. Feb. 19, 2020, 6:00 PM, https://twitter.com/gmtgames/status/1098356792143138816?lang=en
(3) Kevin Draper, “Should Board Gamers Play the Roles of Rapists, Slavers, and Nazis?” The New York Times, accessed Aug. 01, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/01/style/board-games-cancel-culture.html
(4) “Zenobia Award,” accessed May 24, 2021, https://zenobiaaward.org/
(5) Dan Thurot, "The Compromises of This Guilty Land," Space-Biff! December 20, 2018, accessed May 24, 2021, https://spacebiff.com/2018/12/18/this-guilty-land/
(6) Michael Heron, “Five Tribes (2014) -- Accessibility Teardown,” Meeple Like Us September 30, 2017, accessed May 24, 2021, https://www.meeplelikeus.co.uk/five-tribes-2014-accessibility-teardown/
(7) Mandi Hutchinson (@bgpinup), Twitter Post, March 07, 2020, 2:37 AM,
I haven't updated this website in a while. It's not that I don't like board games anymore, or that I don't enjoy covering them, because I very much do. It's more that I have been feeling creatively "stuck." I prefer to make review videos rather than write game reviews. I like to make tutorials, but trying to do them on a very strict schedule burns me out. And when I push myself too hard to do things anyway, I burn all the way out. I did not want to do that.
The thing I love to make the most, it turns out, is my podcast. Season 3 kicked off today, close to the one-year anniversary of my first episode. And I am still absolutely loving it. Which made me think--what is it, exactly, that I love about my podcast? Getting to know really cool, smart people is definitely part of it. But it's also that I'm finally having the kinds of conversations about board games that I find the most satisfying. I love discussing the history behind games, the intentions that designers have when creating them, the impact they can have on players.
While I don't intend to stop making review and tutorial videos, I do want to lean in to what is truly making me happy. I think it's normal to evolve when you create things, and I'm going to go along with this process.
So watch this space for different kinds of writing projects that I have wanted to do for a while. Expect a lot of thoughts about how games represent ancient history, what our games say about us, and other topics that get my gears turning. Hopefully, you'll think and explore along with me!
This is just a quick update to let y'all know that I'm back from a break and both my videos and blog posts are about to resume. Expect more stuff soon—including a new BookTube channel, called Beyond Solitaire Books.
See you soon!
Full disclosure: I received a review copy of Nemo Rising from Wizkids.
What is this game about?
Nemo Rising: Robur the Conqueror is an adventure game based on the novels by C. Courtney Joyner. In it, you can play as Nemo, Sara Duncan, Adam Fulmer, and even Ulysses S. Grant as you go on steampunky adventures in which you secure locations you have explored, battle enemies who try to stop you, and complete missions. At the start of the game, you will have a specific number of "mission points," which are like the timer for your game—if you run out before you meet your goals, it's game over. But you'll also be tempted to spend those points to choose better action cards at the start of your turn, and you'll sometimes have to pay them as the penalty for failing skill checks or being overwhelmed by enemies. Each turn, your character will have a set number of actions that they can use to move, explore, perform skill checks, and complete other tasks. The success of most actions is determined by the roll of a skill die, and there are different types of skill checks you'll need to pass. This is where action cards you select at the beginning of your turn come in—they can give you extra die rolls, or even guaranteed successes of a particular type.
Nemo Rising comes with two different adventures. One takes place underwater, while the other takes place in the air. They have custom enemies, art, and cards to provide slightly different experiences, and it's clear this game has been built to be expandable.
How does it play solo?
Nemo Rising has a variant that allows you to play with a single hero, but I recommend playing two-handed and choosing two characters.
Nemo Rising is a nice production with lovely art and a very comprehensible rulebook. I especially think that Nemo Rising might be a good choice for relatively new hobby gamers who want to take things to the next level, but aren't sure where to start. The game is cooperative and fairly simple to learn, but also offers some good player choices. It's also easily expandable, so groups who love this game can probably expect to see more of it.
However, Nemo Rising suffers from a common problem with board games right now—it's not a bad game, and there's nothing actually wrong with it at all. But does "there's nothing wrong with it" actually mean "it's good"? While the gameplay is solid, it also lacks a certain level of excitement. After a few plays, games of Nemo Rising seem to run together and feel the same, even if you're switching between the air and water adventures. The game's simplicity, which might make it a very good gateway for some groups, also hobbles it when you start to want more choice, as well as more tension. It's usually clear what you should do, and it's just a matter of whether you can get the die rolls to make it happen.
Do I recommend it?
Maybe? I actually like Nemo Rising well enough. It isn't a bad game, it's beginner friendly, and it looks beautiful. But you could also spend your money on something that makes your heart sing.
Overall Rating: 3 stars
5 stars — I love it!
4 stars — I really like it.
3 stars — I like it.
2 stars — It's okay.
1 star — Meh.
Full disclosure: I received a review copy of The Rise and Fall of Anvalor from Wizkids.
What is this game about?
Warhammer: Age of Sigmar - The Rise and Fall of Anvalor is a tower defense game set in the Warhammer universe. In the game, you'll be playing one of six factions that comes with a unique deck of tiles. Your task is to build up the city of Anvalor and gain as much influence as possible while doing so. On each turn, you'll use the resources on some of the tiles in your hand as payment to place other tiles. Some of the tiles you place will be buildings, while others are units. The configurations in which you place your tiles will provide various bonuses that you'll need to take on enemies—and you will definitely need to battle it out with some enemies. While most of the buildings you place will be from your own faction, you'll also want to place city buildings that represent contributions to Anvalor. And once you do that, you'll draw the attention of marauders outside the city gates.
In addition to offering several player factions, The Rise and Fall of Anvalor also offers three different enemies to choose from, each of whom is customizable because you can set the difficulty level. Once city buildings are placed (or just automatically in the solo game), you will roll for enemy actions. Most of the time, enemy tiles are placed facedown on the outskirts of the city. On a roll of 5 or 6, a special (and not fun) effect may occur. When enough enemies have built up on one side of Anvalor, their presence will trigger an assault, and enemies will pass through your city, destroying everything in their wake, until they either die or pass all the way through Anvalor to disappear on the horizon. In the multiplayer game, the goal is to survive all of the enemy assaults with more influence than any of the other players. In a solo game, you'll need to finish the game with at least one city building still standing after all of the enemy tiles are gone.
How does it play solo?
The Rise and Fall of Anvalor comes with a solo-specific mode. In solo, you will play as one faction and will have slightly different victory conditions. In a solo game, you roll the enemy die every turn, even if you have not constructed a city building yet. You will also need to have at least one city building still standing at the end of the game in order to win. If you are victorious, your influence will become your score.
Warhammer: Age of Sigmar - The Rise and Fall of Anvalor is ultimately a fun game. It's a very heavy box filled with relatively light and snappy gameplay. There are a lot of interesting choices to make, including picking a faction and special ability, as well as an enemy with an adjustable level. It is also enjoyable to get to know your faction deck and figure out how to make smarter plays that maximize the synergy among tiles in your player deck. I also tend to like games where you "purchase" cards to play by discarding other cards from your hand, and I still like that mechanism in Rise and Fall of Anvalor. Having to choose what to keep and what to sacrifice adds another layer of fun to the in-game choices already on offer.
That said, Rise and Fall of Anvalor isn't perfect. For all of your carefully laid plans, your success is still going to come down to a die roll, which will inevitably be frustrating at times. The game can seem swingier when your enemy faction is set at a high level, because the powers they have when you roll high on the enemy placement turn are a lot nastier compared with lower-level powers. I also think that enemy interactions in this game could have been a bit more interesting. Enemy tiles are placed facedown on the board and not revealed until it's time for an assault, which can hobble your placement strategy. I would have liked to try to respond to shifting enemy presence throughout the game in a way that I can't when the enemies are facedown. Also, while enemy assaults as currently designed probably do make the game snappier and more pleasant to run, I am always a little disappointed when enemies that aren't killed just run out of the other side of Anvalor, never to be seen again. Some deeper interaction might have added interest to the game.
Do I recommend it?
Possibly. This game doesn't knock my socks off, but it's good fun, and I think I might have liked it even better if I had a deeper appreciation of its Warhammer theme.
Overall Rating: 3.5 stars
5 stars - I love it!
4 stars - I really like it.
3 stars - I like it.
2 stars - It's okay.
1 star - Meh.