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Where I'm coming from
I bought this with the primary intention of playing solo and the city/engine building theme particularly appeals. It also looked like a small box and had a quick play time which is always a bonus (particularly with solo games). I only chanced to hear about this game recently and have never played the board game this was inspired by.
After ordering the game (spontaneously and quickly) I started reading more about it online and noticed that it was quite a divisive game; there were quite a few bad ratings/reviews as some people really found the game too punishing. I was slightly worried and hoping I would not be one of those that shared that view.
Players get dealt a random ancient city card (from a pool of ten), each being a once great city state from the Penopolean peninsula (southern Greece) in its ancient heyday. From there, over eight rounds, players must acquire buildings and/or landscapes to grow their city state's power and population. Whomever has created the best city state at the end is the winner.
Players compete for cards to add to their tableau each round in a constrained auction phase. These tableau cards may variously have some combination of the following benefits: increase production of one of the three resources (wood, stone and grain), increase population, grant power points, provide windfalls, grant special powers and contribute towards protection against certain natural catastrophes that loom over all the players throughout the game.
And this is very much the crux of the game. Building your production/income engine is as important as preparing for and trying to mitigate the effects of the catastrophes that might occur at some point throughout the game. Indeed, there are five possible catastrophes and it's likely that at least three will occur every game. Their effects can be quite devastating and it is this aspect that some players do not enjoy, find too punishing.
Learning the game
It's fairly straightforward to learn. There are many similarities to other games such as 7 Wonders or Race for the Galaxy. The way you acquire tableau cards (called power cards in the rules) is different from either of these games but you are essentially trying to build a tableau and build up your engine.
There's quite a lot of information contained on each of your tableau cards; such as it's production cost (if applicable), which catastrophe it helps protect against, it's population increment, windfall income, resource production and any other special effects. But there aren't a lot of different symbols and meanings to learn. Far more simpler than both "7 Wonders" and RFTG in this regard.
Then there's the resource cards. These have a dual purpose; each may denote a resource (and may be used as such) but when face down they are used as money in the auction phase. This is probably the single most complicated concept that new players must get to grips with but even that's pretty simple for anyone who's every played a game with multi purpose cards.
This is great fun. Each round you deliberate over the 6 new cards that become available. The turn order changes every round (in the order of the highest bids last round). You need to decide what you can afford to bid and what you need most. Do you try to boost your production or do you need more grain because a feeding phase might be imminent? Or do you choose a card because it will complete a set of three and give you immunity to one of the catastrophes? Do you go for that building or are you worried that an earth quake might take it out next turn? Which resource cards do you sacrifice to make your bid? What do you think your opponents might bid for so should you bid over the minimum to secure it or even go for one of those expensive cards on the conquest row?
Having a surplus in production materials (wood and stone) is great because when you build a building, the surplus is paid to you in luxury goods that function as wild cards. Having a surplus in grain will give you luxury goods in the supply phase. But building up your supply of these raw materials so that you generate a surplus must be weighed against the need to protect yourself against the effects of catastrophes. And that's what the most important of the decisions of the game revolve around; how to manage the catastrophes.
Managing the catastrophes include:
1) Prevention - Each tableau (power) card has one of the five catastrophe symbols on it. If you collect three of the same symbol, you are now immune to that particular event and may ignore it entirely if it occurs. Additionally, some cards grant instant immunity from a particular catastrophe. Expect these to be furiously competed for.
2) Avoidance - Three of the catastrophes can be avoided if you have none of the cards that it affects in your tableau when it strikes. For instance, the 'tempest' takes out a third of your landscape tableau cards. If you don't have any, you aren't affected. But avoiding these cards until after you have gained immunity or the event has passed can itself be quite limiting, you are only going to want to do this if it looks like a catastrophe is going to strike early.
3) Damage limitation - Chances are you are going to get caught with your pants down with at least one catastrophe in any given game. In this case, you are faced with the decision of covering the affected tableau card(s) with a resource card or just discarding it altogether. The covered card may become nearly useless for the rest of the game but if you retrospectively gain immunity from that catastrophe, you can remove the covering card at the end and still get the points for it. But is it worth sacrificing a resource card for this?
In my opinion, how well you manage the catastrophes is one of the most important factors in deciding the winner of games, particularly with regards to damage limitation. I don't know if I've ever played a game yet where I haven't suffered the effects of at least one catastrophe. And I have been victorious in games where my opponent(s) have been more effective at preventing or avoiding catastrophes but I have limited and compensated for the damage I incurred and still won in the end. This is what makes it such a great game.
Some people have said that the catastrophes spoil the game. They just want to build up a great city state and don't want to see it damaged or destroyed by these events. It is too "punishing" they say. But without the catastrophes, this game wouldn't be that interesting. The tableau/engine building part of the game would get pretty boring pretty quick without the catastrophe element. Not only that, but it is the threat of disaster striking and having to manage this that makes this game different from the other tableau/city builders I have played.
Only one game have I played did it feel like it might have been too punishing. In one round I drew cards that triggered a flood at the same time as a supply phase. It wiped out my best grain production card leaving my population level well in excess of my grain supply. I had to discard another three cards from my tableau to feed the people. My city state was devastated and there was no coming back from that. Even then I came back to some extent and the end score was closer than I thought it would be. But every other game it has never felt too punishing, too devastating when disasters strike. It's all about managing the effects.
The Solo Game
The solo rules don't come out of the box although the designer has published official solo rules that I downloaded as soon as I had the game. It is set up like a two player game and whilst there is no bidding for tableau cards as such, the card you choose (by paying the minimum bid)
determines the card your pseudo opponent gets. There is an incentive to choose the more expensive cards from the conquest row as otherwise the opponent gains resource cards (that may boost his score and/or population at the end). The solo rules also provide five levels of difficulty with the highest level providing a significant challenge.
I enjoy the solo game almost as much as the multi-player game. It lacks only the bidding against each other you get in the auction phase.
Thanks to the variety of the starting cities, each providing a different balance of benefits and shortcomings, there is a quite a bit of replayability here. Couple with that and the randomness of the way the tableau cards come out each round and the uncertainty of whether and when the catastrophes will occur, no game is quite alike. Of course, with only 48 tableau cards in total and you see all of them in every game (although you can acquire at most 8 in any one game), they may start to feel a bit samey after a while. The first expansion has just been released which adds more cards so that may help in that regard.
- Last edited Wed Sep 14, 2016 11:13 pm (Total Number of Edits: 1)
- Posted Wed Sep 14, 2016 2:20 pm
Thanks for this. I recently became interested in this game, especially for solo play.
Interesting. I wonder if the solo rules are portable to the original Peloponnes game (I know there are already solo rules for that one, but these sound significantly different).
Great review Simon!