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Subject: Kicking Down The Door: Cyclades Review rss

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Mike
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Note - The following review is copy/pasted from my board game blog www.kickingdownthedoor.com I mention this because there may be the occasional reference that doesn't sit well out of context of the site.

Psssst... What if I were to tell you there was an area control game where you could pay actual gold pieces* to have an actual flying Nicolas Cage† swoop out of the sky and carry your enemies away? What if I was to also tell you that this game was the third step in our increasingly tedious†† 'Risk Recovery Program'? You'd probably say something like, “Well the bit about Nicolas Cage peaked my interest but this whole Risk Recovery thing is kind of forced, I think I'll pass.” To which I'd respond by mentioning something about the game giving genuine cause to utter the phrase “Release the Kraken!” and leading with a picture of said 'actual flying Nicolas Cage' instead of the traditional game and box spread I usually go for in the hopes you'll click through and read the review.



* Not actual gold pieces.
† Actually Nicolas Cage, there can be no doubt; check out the hair.
†† Really quite strained as well...


Cyclades was released in 2009 and the 'dimly aware of stuff' amongst you will notice that it bares a passing visual resemblance to last week's Kemet, which was released just last year by the same publisher. This resemblance isn't just skin deep though as both games are what scientists are calling 'hybrids'.



While clearly hybrid games are nothing new, the particular hybrid that Cyclades and Kemet represent seems to still be something of a novelty. The high production values found in the art work and the quality of the miniature sculpts (each faction has their own sculpt, they don't just make it in a different colour) appeals to a wide demographic of gamers that want to immerse themselves in a distinct aesthetic and theme whilst also playing something with the kind of transparent structures and systems that can often be found in the more abstract European style games.

Cyclades conforms to this demand by offering us a tight area control game that pits the players as warriors fighting for dominance on the titular Greek archipelago, all the while trying desperately to woo the apparently fickle gods with cash money incentives, so as to help them crush their enemies and acquire control of a game winning pair of Metropoliseses. Metropoli... Meu... Metropaelise...

Looking at Cyclades, it has all the traits of the finest American style games; you've got piles of currency, dice, several decks of cards, stacks of various tokens and most importantly, scores of plastic miniatures ranging from the unique troops and fleets of the specific factions – to fairly impressive sculpts of mythical beasties that may or may not make an appearance on the board for five minutes. The production values are exorbitant but as we begin to play, we notice that it isn't the straight forward game of 'turtling your slowly expanding forces for several hours before striking out with all your military might just before the end' that it looks like.



The first thing you'll do in a round of Cyclades is – as in so many games – a bit of book keeping; cards are going to be shifted up and tiles are going to be shuffled before finally, everyone will receive an income based on the amount of cornucopia symbols they're in control of on the board.

Once this is done, the game properly begins but not in the way you may assume. Throughout the game you'll be able to do all the things you'd expect you could do in a game that looks like Cyclades does; you can build ships and recruit men, then move those armies and fleets around to attack opponents and claim new islands; you'll be able to build ports or forts, collect 'priest' and 'philosopher' cards, summon Nicolas Cage, build temples and universities as well as erect the all important Metropolissseseses – all these options are available to you, just not all at once. Like with so many other games, what makes Cyclades so damn tasty is the way it tries to restrict you in the face of boundless options and the mechanisms it employs for you to negotiate those restrictions.

See each round is split into two apparently culturally diverse parts. In the latter more American influenced part of the round, everything we just described above will be happening; however in the more Euro inspired first half, you and your opponents will be staring grimly at the board, locked so deep in thought while you try to unravel the options available to you and ascertain where those paths may lead, that everyone will have clean forgotten who's turn it is.



The mechanism responsible for this table wide trance is found in the 'offerings' phase – during this phase players will jostle for position by bidding for the favour of the Gods that are displayed on the inspiringly named 'God Track'. In a predetermined order, players will take turns placing their bidding markers on a track above a God of their choice, relative to the amount they wish to bid. This isn't your typical bidding auction though; once you make a bid for a God, your marker is trapped there until you are outbid, at which point you must then choose a different God to bid on, potentially displacing another player and perpetuating a cycle of people putting markers on tracks, then having other players sigh deeply and perform a long and pained facepalm before taking theirs off and doing the same thing to someone else.

This continues until each player has their marker successfully settled on a God, at which point everybody pays the gold they bid and the game moves on to the more American style of play found in the 'actions' phase. This generally involves spending more money than you can afford to on your military, coming up with tediously transparent pretences for invading the resource rich territories of the other players and ignoring the indirect benefits of building universities and other infrastructure until it's almost too late.

Satire...

Before we look at all that properly though, we've failed to address why the theologically perplexing prospect of bidding on a God, presents such a wondrously challenging and thought provoking problem for players – or indeed what the point of it at all is. See these God tiles don't just represent redundant and outmoded deities; they also represent the actions available to you in the 'actions' phase.



If you win the favour of Poseidon for example, then in the coming 'actions' phase you and you alone will get to place a ship for free and buy additional boats for increasing amounts of gold; you'll also be able to build ports for two gold a piece and move your fleets up to three spaces for one gold at a time whilst basking in the smug satisfaction you've denied these options to everybody else. Ares is the same except he deals in land forces, offering you the same opportunities with soldiers and the building of forts. Winning the favour of Zeus or Athena allows you to get involved with the priest and philosopher cards that respectively offer discounts during bidding and help you build an all important metropolis, amongst other things. Finally there's Apollo – a friend to those who've fallen on hard times – his favour is free of cost and offers any and all who seek it a token of financial support.

With your options in the second part of a game round so explicitly tied to the God you successfully bid for the favour of, the 'offerings phase' of the game is easily and perhaps oddly the most engaging and gripping. However the subtleties of the decisions you make in this phase don't begin and end on whether you want to muster troops, move a fleet or acquire your fourth philosopher card; they go deeper. See the order of the God tiles is randomized every round and this is also the order players will take their actions in the latter phase of the game. So if – for example – you won the favour of Ares hoping to march your troops to the next island over and steal Steve's poorly guarded Metropolis from him in the 'actions' phase, then it would be a real shame if Poseidon was positioned first and the player that won his favour used his actions to destroy the bridge of boats you were hoping to cross your men over with.

The consideration of player order is made of further import when you take into account the deck of mythological creature cards displayed above the God track. At the beginning of a round three beasties are put on display and are available at a decreasing cost from left to right. These creatures offer special and immediate abilities which can be bought and used by any player while performing their actions; such as the 'actual flying Nicolas Cage' which will swoop down from the sky, his thinning, receding locks billowing gracefully in the wind as he snatches up an opponents soldier of your choosing and delivers them to the after life. There's also the Kraken of course, which can be summoned anywhere on the board and sustains its self on an ethical diet of locally sourced Greek ships while you stand at the table and shout for its release in your finest Liam Neeson brogue.



So in any given round of Cyclades you'll be presented with a host of truly difficult choices; do you want to bid on Ares and see through an invasion you've been planning for literally several rounds? Maybe you can't abide the possibility of 'actual flying Nicolas Cage' falling into enemy hands, in which case you should bid for the favour of Poseidon so you can go first and take him for yourself; of course if someone doesn't out bid Adam for Athena then he's going to get a fourth philosopher card, build his second metropolis and win! Even when you choose who to bid on, how much do you bid? Too little and someone will outbid you forcing you to bid on someone else; if you bid slightly too much you could still be outbid but will have raised the stakes on that track too much to be able to compete in it again if you're given the opportunity; bid way too much and even if you win the favour of that God, you wont be able to afford to pay for your actions in the next phase.

There is a lot going on in Cyclades and a lot to admire but the thing that seems to work best, is the balance! There's a balance between the silent thousand yard stares that are generated by the 'offerings' phase and the dice rolling, plastic pushing puerility that's brought about in the 'actions' phase; there's balance between the Gods – which is a loaded statement but pertains more to the equilibrium found in the cluster of actions they make available to players than it does to any weighty notions of polytheistic pondering (I've got a thesaurus open in another window); there's a painful balance to be found within the bidding mechanic of the 'offerings' phase and this all works to create a balance between players, as they're encouraged to openly speculate on each others strategies and work together to thwart the ambitions of those that fly their waxy wings too close to the radiance of a second metropolis.



Cyclades has accomplished a rare and impressive feat in the way it's married a very simple game of area control with a equally simplistic 'bidding for actions' mechanic. In doing so it's not only created a strong and productive unity between American and European style games – it's also created something that is as accessible as it is challenging and as frustrating as it is down right fun.

There are those of course that feel Cyclades is lacking. They feel too limited by the restrictions put in place by the designers and especially in the later game – feel like there are obvious next moves that when blocked off by other players, aren't sufficiently compensated for in the other options available. Coupled with a strong element of leader bashing, this can make for a frustrating game for some people and not in a good way.

Fear not though weary reader, for Cyclades has been expanded and these problems have been largely laid to rest. The first expansion of Cyclades is found in 'Hades', which is in fact several small expansions that can be inserted into the base game as a whole or in part. These modules include – as you may expect – the inclusion of a sixth god, Hades who brings his own host of terrifying actions to the game; they also add a stack of 'divine intervention tiles' that do... things; there are a host of 'heroes' that are shuffled in amongst the mythical creature cards and finally there's the inclusion of rules for a preliminary 'pre-positioning round', which remedies the staleness of the dictated set-up in the base game.



All this serves to inject a tight and sometimes restrictive game with a surge of additional options and possibilities for generating gold, mustering forces and just about everything else. There's also a second big box expansion due out later this year called 'Titans'; this seems set to offer a new game board as well as rules and components for a sixth player as well as, you know, Titans... I don't know what they're going to do but I'm excited! That's not all though – the publishers, 'Matagot' clearly aren't naive to the similarities people see between Cyclades and their recent release in Kemet, so will soon release a small expansion they've rather ineloquently dubbed 'C3K'. This expansion gives you cards and tiles that will let you use the creatures from one game, in the other! Which just sounds perverse.

“But Mike!” Not a single person uttered. “How are you going to shoe horn this into your increasingly laboured and awkward 'Risk Recovery Program'? I mean it kind of feels like this should have been suggested before last week's Kemet, which didn't even have dice!?”



That's probably correct – moving from the crude origins of Risk, through the plastic pornography that is Fortress America all the way to Kemet– Cyclades would probably have been a softer next step between the two. The cold hard truth of the matter though, is that Cyclades dove-tails much more nicely into next week's game than Kemet does. So check back next week (probably not next week I've got a lot going on) when we conclude our Risk Recovery Program by punching painlessly through to a world of wooden cubes and strategic hexagonal tile placement whilst also carrying our message to other alcoholics... I mean – no, I don't know what I mean.
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Richard Pomeroy
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Great review of a great game!
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Vernon Evenhuis
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Holy crap! It's a flying Nicholas Cage!
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Jim P.
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"Oh, uh, there won't be any money, but when you die, on your deathbed, you will receive total consciousness." So I got that goin' for me, which is nice.
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thefounder wrote:
† Actually Nicolas Cage, there can be no doubt; check out the hair.


I BELIEVE! I BELIEVE!


thefounder wrote:
...so as to help them crush their enemies and acquire control of a game winning pair of Metropoliseses. Metropoli... Meu... Metropaelise...


Metro-puhleez's. (Always be courteous with the Gods)


A great perspective on the game, Mike. Nicely done. It was fun reading your take.

Thanks.

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William Korner
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Great review of a great game!
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Ian Allen
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There is Cage using that Face-Off technology again ... that guy.

Awesome review and excellent game!
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Jonathan Davison
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This was a lot of fun to read (as were your other reviews). Good luck on your website!
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Mike
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Luscious Willard wrote:
This was a lot of fun to read (as were your other reviews). Good luck on your website!


Thanks man! And everyone else. The encouragement on the geek here has been encouraging; especially being as I'm struggling for time recently.

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Russell
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Metropoleaux.

Great review. I really want to play this.
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Artem Safarov
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Check out Unbroken: solo game of survival and revenge.
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Very entertaining review to read, thanks for this!
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