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Subject: A Military Strategist's Take rss

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Dylan Kirk
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Before I get into the meat of the review, I have a short prolegomena.

Proactive disclosure: I count myself a friend of the game’s author, René Wiersma. We met on BGDF around 2006 and often chatted when I was laboriously scanning and colouring the princesses for Genji. That having been said, I like to think I’m enough of a meanie to give him a hard time if he deserves it. Currently he does deserve a hard time for the fact he is closer to a fine source of Belgian beer than I am, but he doesn’t deserve a hard time for Gheos.

Next, I’d like to address the people who are put off by the random nature of the Epoch card draws. If an old shopping list that you wrote on a piece of napkin falls in the toilet, you flush it without hesitation. If your wedding ring falls in the toilet, you fish it out. The solution is obvious, simple, and a no-brainer. The wedding ring is worth saving. Gheos is far more like the wedding ring than the napkin, my friends - and the eight-stack solution to the Epoch problem makes for a fully workable game. For those who haven’t heard of it: make eight stacks (or, depending on the number of players, a number equal to the epoch tiles in play) and shuffle an Epoch tile into each one. Pile them up into one or two easy-to-reach draw piles, and play. The game end is predictable within reason, but random enough to be exciting. Problem solved. Now you can officially begin enjoying the game as much as I do!

(While I am certain this idea emerged in many different minds at many different times, I’d like to cite
Eric Clark
United States
Holyoke
Massachusetts
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as the doctor who described the condition and
Owen Johnson
United Kingdom
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as the researcher who patented the medication.)

The Nature of the Game

As usual, I do not make a full treatment of the rules in my reviews. That has been done better elsewhere. What I will say is that the game is fundamentally an investment game in the clothing of a Populous-style God theme. Players place civilizations on the board and take cubes of that civilization’s colour as a kind of "share" in that civ’s power. Placing a civilization on a continent is much akin to creating a company that serves a market. The market affords that company certain advantages (it is rich in cups, strong in swords, or numerous in grain) as well as certain disadvantages, typically expressed in the geography of the continent on the board. I like the investment analogy for two main reasons: firstly, it’s apt. The more you play, the more you realize the "pump and dump" nature of the game. Secondly, living in Shanghai, this analogy makes perfect sense to my investment-loving Shanghainese workmates. Explaining the game is dead simple when you use this analogy.

The effect of the interplay between the three "resources" on the board is quite beautiful. Naturally, you want to maximize your buy-in at the start by pumping grain (you get more cubes this way), then you want to protect your investment with swords (this makes the civilization less vulnerable to takeover and more able to take other civs over), all the while adding as many cups as possible in the safest locations possible in order to make the investment valuable (cups are VP). Not all of these priorities can be met when you want them to be. The board does not change that much, and the limited space means the players can’t have their cake and eat it too. This naturally leads to consolidations through war and reorganization through migration... or should I say hostile takeovers and corporate streamlining. Players, much like acquisition firms, invest in a civilization, raise its value, and then score it before it inevitably loses its value.

The scoring tokens, which allow players to score all their cubes’s value immediately, are therefore the key to the game. Placing tiles and setting up and investing in civilizations is like taking a market position. Scoring tokens are reserved for when you want to engage in "profit taking". The problem is that focusing on pumping and profit-taking from only one civilization will lose you the game. This is something the Japanese learned on 23 April, 1895.

A little bit of diplomatic history

After defeating the Chinese in the first modern Sino-Japanese War, the Japanese signed the Treaty of Shimonoseki with China, entitling it to a war indemnity of 200,000,000 kuping taels (each tael being 37.3 grams of silver), the entire Liaodong Peninsula, Taiwan, and the Ryukyus and related island chains. The negotiation was skilfully (and dare I say ruthlessly) conducted with elder statesman Munemitsu Mutsu at the head of the Japanese delegation, and Li Hong Zhang - something of a tragic hero high in my estimation - heading the Chinese negotiations. The indemnity itself allowed the Japanese to fund a fractional reserve paper monetary system and speed the development of their rail and postal systems. Japanese pride was at its height, it had won a foreign war, gained treaty concessions in foreign cities, established a strategic hinterland in Korea, and proven itself as an equal to the western powers not only in military might but in outlook. However, Japanese gains were so great that other Great Powers couldn’t help but take notice of the shift in the balance in the east.

Japan’s illusion came crashing down on 23 April, 1895, when Germany, France, and Russia united to oppose the occupation of Liaodong in what is called the Tripartite Intervention. Japan, you see, had put all its eggs in one basket, and didn’t focus on the alliances and diversified diplomacy that would be required to ensure the safety of their acquisitions. Russia soon completed its quest for a warm water port with the annexation and fortification of Liaodong (specifically Port Arthur). Germany gained support for its annexation of Shandong (and brought us the beer Tsingtao), and the French and British both made similar gains in China. Japan, however, learned its lesson. It signed a treaty with Britain in 1902 before settling the Korea question once and for all with Russia in 1905 at the Treaty of Portsmouth. This is a great lesson for Gheos: while swords are good protection, getting others to buy in to your investment is often much better. Structured diplomacy is a keystone to international relations, and nations neglect it to their peril. Acquisitions firms must look to diversify their portfolio composition and choose to rise with the tide when it benefits them. In this way, the interactions between the players in Gheos are as important - if not more important - than the changing board environment in which the interactions play out.

The clearclaw connection

Gheos is a game with enormous capacity for emergent alliances between players who are linked by mutual investments. The key in these relationships is to maximise benefits to yourself while minimizing benefits to your temporary ally. This is fundamentally a matter of planning and timing. Scoring with your scoring token when your investments are highly valued and then turning around the next turn to deflate your own investments is not only possible but desirable under many circumstances. This kind of economic scorched earth policy, balanced by negotiations leveraged on combined investments, is the heart of the cutthroat nature of Gheos. Getting in early on another player’s investment is typically a good move, especially if they were only able to get one cube from the creation of the culture. Pump the investment, time its demise, score it and get out before the other suckers do.

What do you really think about it?

I hope I’ve been able to paint a good picture of the richness of Gheos’ incentive structures. I rate Gheos a light medium strategic weight as it is not a matter of juggling a myriad decisions, but a matter of making a few decisions at the best possible time. The engagement with the other players, however, is multifaceted and deep. Though the board may change the environment in which the investments are made, the changing portfolios of the players around the table shape the higher-level strategies. With the simple epoch-tile shuffling method, the game is perfect lunch-hour fare at the office, and is different every time. The more I play, the more I appreciate the need for tact and timing, as well as diversification and occasional cooperation, that Gheos demands. In short, I think it's a great game.

While I realise I have been speaking in terms of Gheos as an investment game (which I still contend it is), I have to remind myself that it’s a game about Gods creating a primordial world. I have to smile at the sheer callousness of the way that the Godly players must engineer the rise and fall of civilizations to reap the greatest rewards. I’m certain that a number of doomed civilizations - the Minoans and Trojans come to mind - must have thought of the Gods as just as capricious as those the players represent in Gheos. There are easily some good, meaty parallels to the theme of Godly intervention, so I must always remind myself of the immortal words of Winston Zeddemore in Ghostbusters:

Ray, when someone asks you if you're a god, you say "YES"!
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Josh Cappel
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dnjkirk wrote:
Before I get into the meat of the review, I have a short prolegomena.


Bonus points for using a word I had to look up.

~Josh
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Ben Stanley
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I've had my eye on this one since it was recommended to me. I play a lot of 2 player games, though, and your excellent review focuses on the negotiations and diplomacy between players, and consequently worries me that it may not play as well or be as intricate and interesting with just two. Care to opine about how well it functions with the minimum player count?
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Hank Panethiere
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I agree...one of my favorite games.
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Dan
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One of the first 'gamer' games I ever bought... and all the guys I play games with pretty much flat out refuse to play it. I'm not sure why though, as I really enjoyed the first couple of games we played.
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Randall Bart
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Baseball been bery bery good to me
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dnjkirk wrote:
Before I get into the meat of the review, I have a short prolegomena prolegomenon.

FTFY
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Was George Orwell an Optimist?
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A very fine review. With your grasp of historical context, I recommend that you keep your eye out for the new edition of Pax Britannica that Greg Costikyan says he is working on.
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Dylan Kirk
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Blue Steel wrote:
I've had my eye on this one since it was recommended to me. I play a lot of 2 player games, though, and your excellent review focuses on the negotiations and diplomacy between players, and consequently worries me that it may not play as well or be as intricate and interesting with just two. Care to opine about how well it functions with the minimum player count?
I have no experience with two-player Gheos, but if anything, I'd have to say it would tone down the diplomacy and greatly ramp up the push your luck angle. Chances are that two mature players approaching this game would have a good diversified portfolio of blocks. It would then be a matter of pumping and dumping before your opponent.
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Jens Alfke
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Blue Steel wrote:
Care to opine about how well it functions with the minimum player count?


I'm by no means a Gheos expert (or good at strategy), but the two player games I've played have been a lot of fun. In my experience, the fewer the number of players, the less focus on diplomacy and the more on mashing the continents around to benefit yourself and screw your opponent(s). You end up with a smaller but deeper (in terms of stacked/replaced tiles) world.

This may lose the subtlety of the investment strategies Dylan describes, but I really like the way it plays up the game's theme -- the angry god smiting the infidels' lands, then bridging the oceans so His/Her loyal followers can swarm in and conquer the weakened territories.
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Mike Toner
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snej wrote:
Blue Steel wrote:
Care to opine about how well it functions with the minimum player count?


I'm by no means a Gheos expert (or good at strategy), but the two player games I've played have been a lot of fun. In my experience, the fewer the number of players, the less focus on diplomacy and the more on mashing the continents around to benefit yourself and screw your opponent(s). You end up with a smaller but deeper (in terms of stacked/replaced tiles) world.

This may lose the subtlety of the investment strategies Dylan describes, but I really like the way it plays up the game's theme -- the angry god smiting the infidels' lands, then bridging the oceans so His/Her loyal followers can swarm in and conquer the weakened territories.


This is a great take on two player games of Gheoes. I have ONLY played it two player, and my experiences have all been similar to this. I would add that, at least for me, typically only 2-4 civilizations come into play at any one time, and it seems mostly a single civilization will make or break you.
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Peter
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I completely agree with your comments on this game. Intentionally spacing out the epochs a little turns a good game into a great game.

When I play gheos, it definitely has the feel of an investment game. I feel like I am buying stock in different companies, judging when it is time to sell, and engaging in a bit of heavy-handed forced mergers, divisions and liquidations.

I'd like to see a campaign to help give Gheos the credit it deserves.
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