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Tom
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Polis: Fight for the Hegemony

And Some Comparison to Maria and Friedrich



Introduction

In the opening years of the Peloponnesian Wars things had started so well for Sparta; the population was strong, there was wheat in the granaries, an unbeatable army was established in Sicily and the Spartan leader was held in high regard by the citizens. Then things started to go wrong. The Sicilian city of Gela did not fall to the Spartans and Syracuse’s defenses were so strong that an attempt on that polis could not even be made. Without control of a port the grain of Sicily could neither be collected nor sent to the hungry selfish inhabitants of Sparta and its allied cities.

Then the Athenian fleet appeared in the Ionian Sea cutting off the army from reinforcement. The Spartans debated building ships to challenge the Athenian triremes but that would waste precious time first collecting wood then building those ships. And even then, to challenge the Athenians at sea augured poorly for a victory in Sparta’s favour. What Sparta needed was to stop besieging cities and instead send their ambassador to Gela with silver; silver to bribe the city fathers to peacefully join with Sparta. And how does one get this silver to Sicily? Even more silver was needed - enough to bribe the Athenian fleet to let the ambassador by.

The crisis was successfully dealt with but Sparta, neglecting several other crises while dealing with Sicily, viewed a situation in Greece which verged on disaster. Too little wine, wood, iron, olive oil and silver reduced Sparta’s options to a very few. Moreover, the demanding of tribute from other regions of Greece, the disruptive moving of armies across friendly territories and the unsuccessful besieging of Gela had eroded the Spartan leader’s prestige, now so low that the population looked dangerously close to ousting him. If there was any more loss of his fellow citizens’ esteem, even by the clever repositioning of troops or by wisely running away from a lop-sided battle, Sparta would be looking for someone else deemed more competent to lead them.

The Spartan leader pondered the mess he had gotten himself into then looked across the table at the Athenian leader with his untouched cup of tea at his elbow. The Spartan felt only a little better about the situation when he realized the Athenian leader had an expression on his face that suggested he too was thinking “How did I ever get myself into this mess?”

As the Spartan leader I decided to get up and go get a coke from the fridge while Athens pondered his next move.


The Game

Such was the beginning of my second game of Polis: Fight for the Hegemony one afternoon in The Cardboard Cafe in London, Ontario. This game turned out to be, imho, a joy to play.

The military aspects of this game dominate every decision, but one must be aware of resource collection. And how IS your political support? Do something politically unwelcome and your prestige goes down even if it was the right thing to do. And if your prestige plummets to zero? Game over.


Game Play

On your turn you have two actions you may make from twelve actions to choose from:

-Create hoplites
-Create galleys
-Create merchant ships
-Force a region to give you tribute
-Trade with other nations
-Move your army
-Move your fleet
-Besiege a polis, aka a city (either enemy or neutral)
-Move your Ambassador(Known as a Proxenos)
-Bribe a city to join you (aka Start a Civil War inside its walls)
-Ransom back a captured Proxenos
-Start a Public Works Project

Some of these actions cost nothing to perform while others make you spend resources or lose prestige. Prestige is important because you win the game if you have high prestige, yet you need to spend prestige points in order to accomplish anything.

Wheat is needed to feed your populations, wood to build ships, iron to arm hoplites. Silver allows you to buy your way out of trouble.

The game is played over 4 long rounds and the interesting part is no round ends until one of the opponents declares “I am done”. The other opponent then may continue, but it will cost him resources for each action he takes before also passing. This is one of the challenges of Polis; timing the moment when you pass. Passing early forces your opponent to either spend precious resources as payment to keep doing actions or pass before he has done all he wishes to do. But once you pass, you cannot counter any moves he may make subsequent to that. As long as he is willing to spend precious resources you are at the mercy of his decisions. Scary.

Battles occur if sufficient numbers of hoplites occupy the same territory. Casualties are determined by card play. You can usually run away but to do so your all-important prestige diminishes; no one back in Athens or Sparta really respects a coward, do they? Not even a smart coward. Can you do the smart thing if it loses you those last few prestige points? Sometimes not. I won my first game by a bit of a fluke; my opponent’s prestige fell below zero during a battle. The people of Sparta, disgusted by him, ousted him as leader. End of game. As we prepared to play a second game he figuratively slapped himself on the forehead and told me “I was so sure you would not attack, I took the chance and used my last prestige point to set things up for NEXT turn.” A stunning victory only in the sense that I was stunned by how quickly his gamble had backfired on him by his failure to anticipate my moves.

There is the fun. There is a mess of winning strategies...if only your opponent does not send those hoplites into ‘your’ territory or demands tribute from the very region you were counting on to feed your population. And that is exactly what he does if you do not guard against it.


Rule Book

The Polis rules are clear with a nice coloured presentation plus useful examples. The level of rules are medium-heavy but not at any level typical of the Avalon games. A few paragraphs, just a few, could have been written more clearly.

My first game (solo) was full of rules errors and illegal moves so I played a second solo game properly. In my first game against an opponent, we both corrected a few rules errors the other had misinterpreted but these were minor.

Having played a few games, I now know the rules well and do not anticipate extensive rereading of the rule book before I next play.


Components

The map takes up a small space on the table and accommodates all playing pieces without crowding. I like the artwork. Cards are flimsy. Most playing pieces are wood with the cities and municipal projects made of heavy cardboard.

Hoplites, ships and population markers are all represented by cubes. This is a bit boring but is acceptable, even efficient, since you will be frequently changing population cubes directly into galleys and hoplites.


Polis, Maria and Friedrich

I saw a resemblance to Richard Sivel’s Maria and Friedrich. Called War-Euros or “Weuros” I call these games “History” games. Like Maria and Friedrich battles are card driven and historical events cards are turned over to affect play. I find the card battles play similar enough to see Polis as cousin to the other two games. ...Maybe SECOND cousin. The three complement each other in the required number of players. Polis needs 2, Maria 3 and Friedrich 4.

I resist the popular term “Weuro” for these games because they are to me more a History Game than a wargame; maybe call them “Heuros”. Sure the influence of war and combat are always present even if simply waiting in the background, but it is theoretically possible to play all these games without fighting a battle. In Polis it is not even possible to do battle in the first of the four game rounds. If battles occur in any of these three games, they are infrequent because they are game changing and the decision to fight is never taken lightly. The decision to get out with no victory but minimal damage is often made and for good reason. Like “Maria” and “Friedrich” it is often the wisest thing to run away from a battle instead of winning a Pyrrhic victory; the utility and threat of a remaining military unit is greater than the battle it could have won. In Polis, a fleet in the Cyclades or an army in Arcadia may be more of an advantage than any victory of attrition those units may have won. In all three games, maneuvering across the board until you opponent is forced to attack you where you hold the advantage goes a long way to you coming out as the game winner. Out-maneuver your opponent and you may never need to risk your lead in battle.

The second similarity with Polis and Maria/Friedrich are in the event cards which reflect actual historical events. (Political Cards in Maria, Cards of Fate in Friedrich, Event Cards in Polis). While the cards in the other two games determine the change of alliances and which countries drop out of the war, the event cards in Polis are less influential and only 4 come out in each game, resulting in only minor changes. As such these cards introduce a butterfly effect instead of the significant milestones in Friedrich/Maria. One aspect I do not like is some of the cards read “No Event”; a bit of a negative when you are anticipating some interesting development to happen. My last game I houseruled we would flip over another event card if “No Event” was turned over.

Lastly, none of these games get bogged down in minute detail. There are no sub-sub-sections of sub-clauses such as in Advanced Squad Leader. Battles, movement, supplies are all treated in abstract terms as if YOU, as leader of your Polis, do not have to worry about such annoying details. Let your quartermaster figure out how move your military units; let the City Fathers distribute the grain to the population, let your underlings train those hoplites or build some ships; you tell them to ‘just do it’ and leave them alone while you deal with the BIG picture.

Conclusions

This is a lighter war game bordering on a Euro, but not quite a Euro. It reflects the history of the Peloponnesian wars well without being too detailed in the rules department. It would appeal to light wargamers and any friends and spouses that are willing to indulge their wargaming opponent but would still like to not spend 5 hours playing a heavy wargame.

People who like Catan or Ticket to ride will be frustrated by how heavy it is. Wargamers will find it light. People who hate history need not try to enjoy this fantastic game.


Recommendations

For those willing to spend time learning the rules: Well worth buying.



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Sean McCormick
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Three of my favorite games.
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Ed Stat
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seanmac wrote:
Three of my favorite games.


D'accord!
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Andrew MacLeod
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There are twelve of us, Sire, and I place all the resources of my people unreservedly at your Majesty's disposal.
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Excellent review of an excellent game, Tom! It was a great pleasure and a deeply gratifying experience to outmaneuver you diplomatically in our most recent game!

You appear to have a knack for writing reviews in a a style I enjoy. I hope you keep it up!
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Darrell Hanning
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Can we stop trying to make up words for games we see as hybrids, please?

Not only does "weuro" sound like something a four year-old might say, but the simple truth is that more games are hybrids, now, than "thoroughbreds".

Call it what it is - a strategy game. If you must put a finer point on it, then call it a military strategy game.
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Jay Sachs
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Despite your hope, there is not even any inherent symbolism; gravity is simply a coincidence.
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DarrellKH wrote:
Can we stop trying to make up words for games we see as hybrids, please?

Not only does "weuro" sound like something a four year-old might say, but the simple truth is that more games are hybrids, now, than "thoroughbreds".

Call it what it is - a strategy game. If you must put a finer point on it, then call it a military strategy game.


You mean a "stramilitegary" game?
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Tom
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DarrellKH wrote:
Can we stop trying to make up words for games we see as hybrids, please?

Not only does "weuro" sound like something a four year-old might say, but the simple truth is that more games are hybrids, now, than "thoroughbreds".

Call it what it is - a strategy game. If you must put a finer point on it, then call it a military strategy game.


You have my permission to go ahead and do that. Fill your boots.
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Charles Vasey
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DarrellKH wrote:
Can we stop trying to make up words for games we see as hybrids, please?


No.
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Dennis Ku
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Agreed. Polis is a great, great game, and one that I really need to play more often. As great as it is, however, Maria is even better in my mind. I've only played it a couple of times, but boy, Maria is incredible.
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Juhan Voolaid
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I think there is one aspect which the review does not touch upon - the asymmetry of the warfare, which I think is the central thing in the game (once you learn the game).
Sparta dominates on land battles, Athens on sea. So Athens must be able to block the trade routes, but Sparta must hunt down any enemy forces on land. Both sides are constantly grabbing each other on the throat and denying getting the vital oxygen (resources).
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Tom
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Jux_ wrote:
I think there is one aspect which the review does not touch upon - the asymmetry of the warfare, which I think is the central thing in the game (once you learn the game).
Sparta dominates on land battles, Athens on sea. So Athens must be able to block the trade routes, but Sparta must hunt down any enemy forces on land. Both sides are constantly grabbing each other on the throat and denying getting the vital oxygen (resources).


I concur with your comments and I should have highlighted this aspect rather than just hint at it. I suppose in a modern game reflecting history asymmetry is assumed so I did not dwell on it.

I will also add that Polis has a strong resource management component while Maria and Friedrich require card management; at the end of a battle in Polis the players toss in their hands while in the other two you keep them for the next battle.

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