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"You Are Spartacus!" Prepping My Gladiator Arena Game

As a young teen in the early 1980s I somehow came across a copy of Avalon Hill's Gladiator (1981). I loved the gritty detail it lavished on combat, with loads of tables for determining things like hit location and collision impact results as well as finely detailed character sheets for tracking everything from specific pieces of armor to wound severity by body part. It was a wargamers' approach to simulating skirmish-level hand-to-hand combat in the sword-and-sandals era, and it had the kind of granularity that appealed to a detail-oriented boy who was excited to find a game that codified the type of fights that role-playing games dealt with in a much more abstract fashion. And it was a lot of fun to play, too, though, it required a commitment level that meant I had to master the rules and be ready to teach it to anybody I was ever going to hope to play.

(photo courtesy of Board Game Geek)
In the end I never found another occasion to crack open that box for Gladiator after the mid-1980s, and despite my fond memories of the game, it ended up getting sold in the Great Games Purge of 2007 along with about 90 percent of my accumulated games collection.

Jump ahead to 2014 to my first trip to Rome--now my favorite city in the world--and the special tour of the Colosseum my wife Ellen set up for us. It was a stirring experience, and I'll never forget following in the footsteps of past combatants though the Gladiator's Gate. It was a transportive way to enter the arena and emerge out the other side into the bright sunlight on a rebuilt section of the arena floor where countless men met their fate before roaring crowds centuries ago.

Ellen caught me in the revery of the moment.

Later, at one of the HMGS conventions I picked up a handful of loose 28mm gladiator figures from a dealer in the flea market area (they turned out to be from the Foundry Miniatures' line). It was a whim purchase, and I think I told myself that perhaps I'd explore creating a little gladiator game of some sort. Then last summer at Historicon I saw a group of guys having a great time playing a gladiator game using a new set of rues, Sons of Mars. It was an evocative set up that included the game master dripping fake blood on the sands of the arena to demarcate where players' figures had met their end. I chatted with the game master for a few minutes and learned where he had purchased the arena itself.

The seed was planted, and in the next couple of weeks I had bought my own copy of the arena. And almost as if the fates were nudging me, shortly thereafter Crusader Miniatures had a great sale on its line of gladiators, essentially marking packs of four figures down from the already cheap 6 GBP to a mere 4 GBP, which worked out to a pound a figure! I ordered one of everything they offered.

That's how I ended up with 42 gladiators that needed painted.

I had recently completed a speed painting exercise on a batch of cultists that left me emboldened to tackle a project of this volume. But what I hoped would be another speed paint is probably better characterized as a batch paint job. These 42 miniatures probably took me closer to 35-40 hours to work my way through, that is, closer to an hour a figure compared to the 30 minute average I had clocked with the more uniform cultists.

Comparing the Crusader and Foundry lines, they pair up perfectly fine. The Crusader line is a bit more uniform anatomically, mostly formidable beefy brutes, where the Foundry line has a wider variety of body types, and are probably slightly more realistically proportioned. (Neither line is cartoonishly exaggerated, as you're apt to see in a lot of fantasy figures.) The Foundry line, unlike Crusader, has gladiatrix figures, which is a nice addition. I'd really like to have more in my collection, but Foundry's figures only come in packs of six at 12 GBP, and almost all of those packs only have a single gladiatrix in the mix, making it prohibitively expensive to try to acquire more.

The Foundry models are also more detailed, with more ornamentation on things like shields and helmets. I particularly liked Foundry's shields, but some of the other details on the figures themselves thwarted my attempts to push through painting these figures as fast as I wanted, and the details sometimes felt a little fussy given how hard it would be to even notice them on the table. As a result, I would say I actually had more fun painting the Crusader Miniatures, which are a bit chunkier and easier for my middle-aged eyes and brush hand to work with.

Without further blather, here are the miniatures. I  started working on painting the arena a couple of months ago and just need to add some weathering effects on it (a completely new technique for me, so I'm a little trepidatious). Then I'm going to turn to the 40 spectators I also bought (I'm anticipating this will be more of a speed paint as 85 percent of the painting will be togas).

In the end, the bases were a bit of an experiment with mixed results. All of the figures had integral bases. I really like basing on transparent acrylic, but I'm not at all confident in my ability to remove figures from their integral bases, so I typically end up with a compromise of trying to paint the integral bases something neutral before mounting them on the transparent round base. This time I tried gluing sand to the integral base, but it just looked too strange to my eye, so I opted to simply glue sand to the entire round base and forego the transparency I typically like. Since these figures will almost surely only ever be used on a sandy gladiatorial play surface, I don't have to worry about their bases clashing with other types of terrain. I don't particularly love the sand I used for these bases (wish it was finer and more uniformly colored), but it will be a perfect match for the sand I use on the arena floor in the game, so they will actually melt right into the game's terrain during play.

The most demoralizing part of this process is, as always, taking photographs of the miniatures and seeing them at about 10 times or more their actual size. What seems like a perfectly adequate paint job in person becomes a far messier affair seeing them enlarged on a bright, merciless monitor. But that's a part of the process I'll have to make my peace with because I'm never going to be able to paint much beyond this standard...trying to do so would see even the small pleasure I experience painting these miniatures evaporate. I love playing with painted minis in evocative settings on the tabletop, and painting these is how I get there. That said, I do feel like I get a little better and learn a bit more each time I do this.

When I get the arena finished, I'll post a bit about that, too. The goal is to have everything done before the end of the year so I can play test it a few times in order to run it at the convention I organize with my pals in the Second Saturday Scrum Club. We're hard at work on Scrum Con 2020, and registration opened earlier in November. We're already half full in terms of remaining seats available at gaming tables, and we are on a course to sell out like last year. If you're interested in attending and playing in some games, I highly encourage you to register and pick some games now rather than later.


Addendum (1-22-2020)

Here are some Roman spectators I also painted for the Colosseum. I really pushed my speed painting to the limit and knocked these 42 figures out in about eight hours (roughly 12-13 minutes each). They’re just meant to bring some more visual interest to the game, so these will hopefully work well enough to that end. Maybe someday I’ll have a couple of spare hours to paint some eyes on these folks, but still too much left to do to finish preparing this game for February.



  1. Great stuff Joe! That's quite the collection of figures 😀
    Really like your colour choices for them too.

    1. Thanks, Ivor. They're all going to end up on the table tomorrow night for the first time as I playtest the rules in preparation for Scrum Con next month!

  2. Great looking gladiators! Suspiciously historical! Good luck with the convention!
    Best Iain

    1. I guess I am a "historicals" gamer now! Dammit!


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