Cyclades–Your own Iliad!
By Superfly Pete.
There are a few themes which I love much more than most, and one of them is Greek mythology. When I was a youth, watching Jason and the Argonauts, Clash of the Titans, and reading the Odyssey made a huge, ongoing impact on my tastes and when I was told by a buddy, Matt Drake (www.drakesflames.blogspot.com) about a Greek-themed light wargame, I was thrilled. Although it took me a solid three months to get it, I finally traded a guy on the ‘Geek for it. Out with “Fury of Dracula”, in with Cyclades. I always here this being pronounced as “cycle-aids”, but the actual pronunciation is “sigh-clod-ease”, for those who care to sound educated on the next game night. Anyhow, I cracked the amazingly well illustrated game box open to find an amazing little light wargame, loaded with bad ass components and brilliant art. I used to think Return of the Heroes was one of the best-illustrated games ever, but this is leaps and bounds better than that game. It’s simply a beauty to behold.
The premise of the game is that you are one of the principal powers of the Aegean Sea, hoping to reign supreme by either building, or stealing, two metropolis cities on the string of islands that make up the Cyclades. While attempting this, you’ll be pleading to, as well as patronizing, the Greek gods for help during your campaign. You’ll utilize land forces led by Ares, seaborne forces led by Poseidon, and establishing Philosophers and Priests led by Athena and Zeus, respectively. All the while, you’ll enlist aid from other Greek sidekicks such as the mighty Kraken, Poseidon’s one-eyed son Polyphemus, and a host of other supernatural creatures. All in all, it feels like a war in Greece might have felt back in 400 BC, when people still thought lightning bolts were tossed down by some bearded guy in the sky. It’s also a tremendously fun little romp through ancient times and includes a cut-throat bidding system as well as battles whose outcomes are determined by the age old “units-plus-roll wins” mechanic.
Before you even open up the box, you’ll find yourself mystified with the amazing artwork on the box; it is of the highest quality and is more of a beautiful mural than box art. Once you crack it open, though, you will see the real beauty of the game: it’s loaded with incredibly detailed illustration and high-quality bits, and the attention to detail that went into the design of this game is absolutely spectacular. For instance, there are four player shields that are used to hide the amount of gold each player has to aid in the bidding portion of the game, and each has its own unique, amazing mural on the side facing other players. There are triremes and soldiers, all made of soft plastic, and in five colors; they could’ve been the exact same models since they represent the same thing, but no, they went the extra mile and each players unit models are of a unique design. Even the gold coin pieces were die cut out of round to add to the overall excellence of the game’s components. Of the plastics, the only bits that are the same design but different colors are the offering markers, which look like little pillars. There are two nicely illustrated boards within the box as well, and they can be individually flipped and lined up together to facilitate scaling the game from two to five players so the game time and strategic options are in line with the player amounts.
Looking deeper, there’s a sideboard and four “god” tiles, all wonderfully illustrated and easily understandable, that are the subjects of the bidding portion of the game. There’s also a big stack of cards which are the mythological creatures you can enlist to further your cause, all of which are beautifully hand drawn illustrations. The last thing I’ll mention is the rulebook, which is well laid out and easy to read, and a small booklet that details what each creature you can enlist does to help you. All in all, the game is hands-down one of the prettiest games I’ve seen.
Now that you know you’re getting your money’s worth regarding the look and components, let’s talk about if the game is worth the money based on gameplay. I’ll save you a minute of reading by telling you, without reservation, that it absolutely is, but let me tell you why I believe this to be the case, from setup to endgame.
To set the game up, and I’m going to assume a three player game, you simply choose colors for the players, and in the back of the rulebook there is an illustration on how to set the board up for the amount of players chosen. To set the board up, simply place the correct board segments face up, line them up, give each player 5 gold coins and a player shield, and then place your troops and ships in the places indicated in the rulebook illustration. Next, place the “gods” sideboard on the table, mix up the four god tiles, and place the appropriate amount of god tiles face-up as indicated in the rulebook; the amount of gods available to choose from during any given turn is based upon the amount of players, and there’s always one fewer god tile to choose from than the number of players. Finally, place the deck of mythological creatures on the top of the sideboard in their listed location, flip the top card up, and place the revealed critter in the first available space on the creature track. That’s all there is to setting the game up, and if you took more than 5 minutes to do it, you did it wrong.
Gameplay is very simple, really, but is surprisingly deep. On each turn, players perform their actions in a specific sequence. First, you check your owned territories and occupied sea spaces to determine how many prosperity markers you have, then you take that amount of gold from the bank. Next, you bid on the bid on the favor of the gods by placing, in turn, their offering marker on the god they wish to enlist. If you are outbid, you immediately bid again, but you cannot bid on the god you were just outbid on, forcing you to really analyze the best method for winning the god you really want, and for the lowest price. Once all the bidding is complete, everyone pays the piper and then, again in turn, performs the actions prescribed by the gods they’ve chosen. Once all players have performed actions, you reset the available gods and update the mythological creature track, providing new creatures to choose from and removing the unused one off of the bottom of the track.
Regarding the gods, allow me to illustrate just how different and strategic the concepts of the gods are. Ares, for instance, allows you to take a free troop and deploy it to any of your territories, and in addition, he allows you to buy up to three additional troops as well as fortresses which help defend your islands. Additionally, you can move your troops across strings of ships to nearby islands in order to invade them. Finally, you may at any time buy the use of any mythological creatures that are available. Poseidon allows you to buy and move ships in a similar manner and allows the construction of ports, which give adjacent ships a bonus in battle. Zeus and Athena are similar, but instead of allowing movement of ships and troops, they allow you to buy Priests and Philosophers, respectively as well as temples and universities. Priests allow you to pay less during the offering phase and Philosophers are useless but for the fact that when you have four of them you must immediately construct a Metropolis on one of your islands. The last god, Apollo, is the “booby prize” god, who gives you a little bit of gold, but more importantly, allows you to place a prosperity marker. Of all the gods, only Apollo does not allow you to enlist mythological creatures, and thus while you pay nothing in offering to him, you are severely limited in your options during your turn. As you take your turn, you place your offering marker on a track indicating the order you took your turn in, and thus the person who took the first turn will be at a tremendous disadvantage on the following turn’s bidding because they are forced to bid first.
Allow me to get into the creatures now, as they have a tremendous impact on the game. First, allow me to explore the creature track; it has 3 open spaces with each space having its own cost, starting at a cost of four for a newly-introduced creature and a cost of two for the creature that is going to be dropped off the track at the end of the turn. When the game begins, you have only one to choose from, and it is expensive. As the game progresses, you can buy Temples of Zeus for your islands which reduce the cost for creatures, making them very attractive. The creatures themselves vary greatly in what they actually do, and some even have their own miniature figures which can be placed onto the map. For instance, the Kraken, when activated, may be placed on any water space and immediately eats any ships therein; for an additional gold piece per space, you can move them from that initial position and pull a Pac-
The Minotaur, for another example, bolsters your defensive capability by allowing you a large bonus in combat. Some creatures allow you to steal your enemies’ priests or philosophers, and others allow you to destroy their buildings, while others allow you to change one of your buildings to another type, such as changing from a port to a fortress and so on. The powers are quite varied, and there’s a ton of cards, so there is some fortuitous situations that can allow you to strike a death blow to your opponents or make a smart move and win the game.
Combat, I should mention, is very simple. You simply add your troops or ships up, roll a die and add the result, and finally, add any creature bonuses or building bonuses that apply, and the loser simply removes one unit from the board. After each round of combat, both players are afforded the opportunity to withdraw their forces from combat to an adjacent location, if possible. In short, combat is very slick, simple, and effective. There’s luck involved, but mitigating luck can be done simply by attacking with more troops or playing an opportune creature to bolster your attacks by destroying enemy fortifications with creatures or destroying enemy ships. The one key ingredient to attacking is that you must win Ares’ favor to move troops, and you must have a continuous line of ships from the attacking isle to the defending isle to initiate the attack. The one caveat is that the Pegasus creature can allow you to attack any island from any island without use of ships, which is a beautiful thing when you wish to initiate a sneak attack.
The endgame comes when any player has either built or occupied two metropolises, and although on paper it seems quite anticlimactic, it’s not. The endgame, in my experience, is far more of a chesslike, orchestrated symphony of strategy than one would think, and has rarely been a simple matter of brute force. These metropolises may only be built under two circumstances: the first is when you have one each of the four building types, and you simply remove the four buildings and place a metropolis on one of the islands that had any of the constituent buildings, or if you use 4 philosophers, at which point you simply place a new metropolis on any island of your choice. Consider that the metropolis buildings have all of the powers associated with the four constituent buildings, and thus are not simply for show; they indeed have teeth.
At the end of the day, I wholeheartedly enjoy Cyclades for the art, the component quality, and most importantly, because it is a tremendously fun light wargame with European flavor and American death dealing. This may be the best game of 2010, in my opinion, that I have played. Pick it up, trade for it, but any way you can manage it, acquire a copy. I do not really recommend the two player game, although the rulebook allows for it, but any player amount from three to five is excellent. An expansion has been announced of late, and I anticipate it to be just as excellent as the original game if all that I’ve read about it rings true. In short: this is a must-have game for anyone who likes light wargames or appreciates fine artwork with an ancient Greek theme.
What Makes Cyclades The Coolest “Cy-” Thing Since Cylons:
– Smart gameplay with fast-playing turns makes this the anti-snore
– This is definitely in the top 5 most beautifully illustrated games I’ve ever seen
– The bidding is absolutely cut-throat and the best schemer generally prevails
– The bits are top-notch, with the Kraken being my personal favorite model, ever
What Makes You Want To Inhale Greek Fire:
– Apollo is a complete douchebag, and not being able to recruit creatures when stuck with him is total bullshit
– Athena is pretty much useless too, even with the ability to help build metropolises
There’s not many wargames that I despise, but there’s even fewer that I fall immediately in love with, and Cyclades is the latter. Since acquiring it about a month ago, I’ve played it seven times and I have yet to get even remotely sick of it. It’s a great game when you have a couple of hours and three or four friends looking to conquer one another, and the art helps it feel like you’re really commanding triremes and Spartans in battle. Go out and pick this bad boy up or put it on your Rama-Hana-Kwanz-Mas list, because it rocks.
Want to know more about Cyclades? Check out the site here at Asmodee US: