For me and my regular gamer friends, Iliad has been a standby of evenings at the pub or around the games table for several years, usually with three to five players. But last night a couple neighbors and the host's longtime work colleague expanded our core of three, allowing us to try three teams of two for the first time. I've enjoyed Iliad but never loved it until now.
Bob, Jeff, and I each paired up with one of the newbies as our team mate, and sat around the table as suggested in the rules, so that our partners were across the table, making for an even rotation among the players. The rules were a little slow to assimilate, and my partner Jason shook his head with a mixture of bewilderment and exasperation as he stared at his card hand during the first practise round. Then we began the game for real.
Jeff's always been an Iliad demon. He deploys catapults with the brinksmanship of a cold-war arms negotiator. He and his partner Quinn were the unstoppable Spartans of this game and soon had a lock on Trireme victory points, with Quinn holding 7 VPs plus the 2 for Poseidon. If past was prologue, then Jeff and Quinn would soon have this game sewn up with the necessary 15 VPs for a team win. I rarely do well at Iliad, so I focused on survival, counseling Jason to avoid getting tagged with the penalty Thanatos cards. Early in the game, he managed to pull in an early 3-VP City card to claim Athena's 2 points. At least we had a cushion now against Thanatos cards.
As the end game neared, the card play became increasingly second nature to the newbies in the game. It was well after midnight and the prospect of more protracted Iliad-style slaughter was becoming less appealing, but suddenly Helen appeared in a Gorgon round, and catching Jeff and Quinn became instantly attainable. Between us Jason and I had enough VPs that Helen and Agamemnon could deliver an upset victory into our hands. Jeff reached this conclusion as quickly as I had, but it was Jonah, Bob's partner, whose early play of an elephant put everyone else out of business. I sat to his left, but lacked the cards needed to outstrip his might. Too many archers, not enough hoplites, so Jonah's pachyderm carried the day and carried off Helen.
Bob and Jonah were in contention now, and Bob's hand seemed to magically replenish with powerful hoplites each round. With Helen claimed, the deciding round was at hand, offering two 2 VP and one 1 VP victory cards. Jeff and Quinn had 12 points with a lock on Poseidon, so they still held an easy lead.
I no longer bothered to calculate what Jason and I would need to win, I was simply going to deny victory to whoever I could to prolong the game. I now had a hand full of archers, a couple low-grade hoplites, and a chariot. Not much for points, but quite a few offensive options. At least I'll go out with a vindictive bang, I thought to myself.
After the Gorgon round, Jonah had little left in his hand and pulled Nestor for his 6 points. Jeff and Quinn soon bowed out with Achilles (5) and Ajax (4). Jason built up a nice array of poorly matched cards (no phalanxes or elephants) for 9 points plus Ulysses' 3, leaving it to me to face down Bob's gusher of hoplites.
It came down to the last cards in our hands, like a high-noon showdown. Bob and I fixed each other with steely glares as each card played hit the table like a slab of granite. His army quickly outstripped Jason's in strength. He had no elephants or Trojan horses to protect his hoplites, though, and soon my archers did their work. One by one, they whittled Bob's once fearsome row of spearmen into carrion. My remaining chariot and a 2-1 phalanx left me and Jason lined up to claim the two 2 VP victory cards, plus Agamemnon, bringing us to exactly 15 points!
Jason, who seemed genuinely miserable learning the mechanics of the game, was the rock on which our victory was built. Of our 15 points I had only contributed 4. He came away from the table, as did I, not quite sure how we pulled it off. Amid the fallen hosts of Achaeans, two weary heroes wandered back to their ships, shrugging at the capriciousness of Nike, goddess of victory, and called it a night.