Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Review: Cyclades

My biases first: I am a big fan of theme in games and do not mind reaching through piles of chits if the theme and game play is good enough. While I do favor confrontation, chits, bits and polished pieces of AT games, there are still a large number of Euros that I'll build my farm on or attend auctions at and be quite content at the end of my experience. Also, I grew up reading all kinds of mythologies and loved the Greek mythos, which led me into Dungeons and Dragons where I became familiar with a host of mythological creatures on another level and I am still attracted to items with those themes. Plus, ever since seeing the original "Clash of the Titans" when I was nine, I've spent the rest of my life waiting for an appropriate and accurate context to shout, "Release the Kraken!"


The Overview:


The box is a bit larger than it needs to be (better map folds could have alleviated this), but the final size isn't that bad. Besides, the larger box lets you see more of the dramatic artwork on the cover.



Box contents, more or less. These are the components from the Essen release. Subsequent releases replace the wooden meeples with plastic army and ship figurines, lose the dice bag and five colored dice for two grey ones, and includes five beautiful sculpted monster minis. 



Cyclades is a game that combines elements of civilization building, area control/warfare, bidding and card drafting that is designed to be played in about an hour. Each player controls a small portion of the non-unified Greece, raising troops and navies and erecting buildings to be the first to build or conquer and control two great Metropolises.

The game is for 2-5 players and plays in 60-75 minutes, but after a few plays and people are familiar with the game, the play time should hover around 60 minutes. More players may add a bit to the game length, but ultimately not too much.

The set up is balanced, though slightly asymmetrical as far as resource layout and placement. Each player starts with two armies and two navies, spread out over two isles. Certain isles are worth production revenue and certain naval locations represent commerce revenue if one of your navies is placed on it. The revenue is determined by how many Prosperity Markers each isle or sea space holds.

As a turn begins, turn upkeep and maintenance is performed. This includes drawing a new Mythological Creature card and sliding the other ones down to fill up the empty spaces so that three are available. The most recently drawn creature costs 4 gold, while the next most recent costs 3 gold and the oldest costs 2 gold. Then, each of the available god tiles (Poseidon, Ares, Zeus and Athena) are shuffled and laid out to be available that round in a randomized order. A fifth god, Apollo, is available every round, but is never shuffled. It is always the last god in the order.

Each player then earns their revenue for the turn and receives a number of gold equal to the number of Prosperity Markers he controls from his isles and sea spaces he controls. The gold received is kept behind a screen , so that the other players may not necessarily know the exact amount of coin that you possess at any time.

After revenues are distributed, players make offerings to the gods in the player order for that turn. A player moves his Offering Marker onto the offering track of the god whose actions they wish to perform that turn. Players make a single bid and cannot bid more than the gold that they have. Then the next player chooses a god to make an offering to. They can either bid on a new god or outbid a previous player's offer. For example, if Player 1 has bid 3 gold to Ares, Player 2 can then bid on another god with no bids, or bid 4 or more gold on Ares. If he outbids another player, that player takes his Offering Marker and must place is on a different god. The displaced player may outbid a different player if he so desires, and then that player must choose a different god to bid on. Each god can only have one player's Offering Marker on it, except for Apollo, who is free to bid on and may house more than one player's marker without displacing them.

Each god allows the player to take a specific set of actions, which will be performed in the order that the god tiles were laid out. So if Ares was the third god drawn in the order, the player who wins the bid will take their turn third. With the exception of Apollo, each god lets you pay to use one or more Mythological Creature cards that are available on the Mythological Creatures track. Each Creature has a different ability that range from receiving your revenue again, destroying a building, swapping out an enemy navy for one of yours, flying armies from one isle to any other isle, to calling upon the Kraken to destroy naval fleets on the board.

The gods also allow specific actions that can be performed in any order and as often as they can be paid for. The gods each allow actions as follows:

Ares: Gives the player a free army and places it on one of his isles. Up to three additional units may be purchased by the player (at increased prices per unit) who controls Ares and placed in their territories. Ares also allows the player to pay gold to move armies from one isle to another if they can follow a "bridge" of ships to the new isle. Ship bridges are created by having one of your naval fleets in every ocean space between your isle to the destination isle, so that you can trace a complete path, or bridge. If your armies move onto an isle with enemy armies, then a battle is fought. Finally, Ares allows the player to purchase Fortresses, which give a defensive bonus to battles on the isle.

Athena: Gives the player 1 free Philosopher. They can also spend four gold to purchase one additional Philosopher. Once a player has four Philosophers, he must immediately discard them to build a Metropolis. Athena also allows the player to purchase Universities, which offer no bonuses, but are needed to build a Metropolis (except if the player has built it through having 4 Philosophers).

Poseidon: Gives the player a free navy and places it on a sea space adjacent to one of his isles. Up to three additional navies may be purchased by the player (at increased prices per unit) who controls Poseidon and placed in their territories. Poseidon also allows the player to pay gold to move navies up to three spaces. If your navies move onto a sea space with enemy navies, then a battle is fought. Finally, Poseidon allows the player to purchase Ports, which give a defensive bonus to naval battles adjacent to the isle.

Zeus: Gives the player 1 free Priest. They can also spend four gold to purchase one additional Priest. Each Priest that a player has reduces the amount that he needs to pay for his offering bid by one, to a minimum of one. For example, if you bid 6 gold on Ares and have 4 Priests, you only pay 2 gold. Zeus also allows you to spend one gold to discard one of the current creatures on the Mythological Creature track and replace it with a new one from the draw pile. Finally, Zeus allows you to purchase Temples, which reduces the cost of purchasing Mythological Creatures by 1 per Temple, to a minimum of 1.

Apollo: Apollo is always available and is always the last god in the order. Multiple players can choose Apollo and there is no bidding for him. Any player choosing Apollo cannot purchase creatures from the Mythological Creatures track. Each player who selects him receives 1 gold, or 4 gold if they only control 1 isle. However, only the first player to choose Apollo gets a Prosperity Marker that he may lay on one of his isles. This will increase the revenue generated by that isle starting the next turn.

Since only one person can control each god (except Apollo) each turn, that means on any given turn, no more than one person can build and move armies or build or movies navies, and they will only be able to do it in the turn order of the gods for that turn. Once a player finishes his god's actions, he places his turn order marker on the last open area for turn order, so that the first player to act this turn will make his offering last next turn and the last player to act this turn gets first choice next turn. After all players have gone, the process repeats again until someone wins.

Battles are fought whenever there are opposing units in the same space (either armies on an isle, or navies in a sea space). Each player rolls a die. The die is a six-sided die with the facings of one "0", two 1s, two 2s and one 3. Each player adds the number of armies or navies they have in the battle to their die roll. The defender adds any building bonuses (Ports or Fortresses). The player with the lower number removes one unit. If both players tie, each remove a unit. This is continued until the space no longer contains opposing units.

The game is won at the end of a turn when one player controls two isles with Metropolises on them. Metropolises are gained in one of three ways:
• Once a forth Philosopher is received from Athena, the player discards them and places a Metropolis.
• When a player controls isles that contain one of each building type (Fortress, University, Port, Temple), he discards them and places a Metropolis.
• A player can conquer another player's isle that he has built a Metropolis on.

Each Metropolis offers the same advantages of each of the building types. And, finally, a player cannot attack and conquer a player's last remaining isle (and thus eliminate him), unless they can prove that conquering the isle will win the game for them.


The Theme:

Cyclades is a small-scale civilization building and conflict game that has a strong mythological setting. In fact, it was the mythological theme of the game that drew me into it. Each of the creatures cards is beautifully illustrated and has a power or ability that seems consistent with their mythological stories. The tie in to the Greek gods is also rather favorable to me. I enjoy the idea of battling over different gods and having their unique powers available to me each round.

That being said, the civilization building portion of the game doesn't really feel that strong. Really, the game moves quickly and isles can change hands often and rapidly that you don't really get a feel of building an empire. For me, that isn't a problem, but I would say that if you are going into the game feeling that you will be building a massive civilization, you may be disappointed.


Learning the Game:

The rules are laid out in a full color 8-page booklet. Three of those pages really just illustrate the game set-up, so the rules only actually take up 5 of the pages. They are fairly well-written and pretty clear with few ambiguities. Overall, this is a quick, easy game to learn and teach.

Once players start playing, everything is very intuitive and easy to figure out. The only piece of the game that will require multiple references in game is the Mythological Creatures. This is just because they are language independent cards with icons representing the abilities they grant. After a couple of games, these symbols are fair enough reminders so that you do not need to look up what they mean, but your first couple games will have you going over the reference sheet and explaining that creature's abilities to the group whenever it is first drawn.

The mechanics (though not necessarily the best strategies) should be almost completely understood by most players by the end of their second turn.


The Components:


A beautiful board, which does change in size and layout a bit, depending on the number of players. 



The blue player's army and navy figures. Each color has its own unique army and navy figure molds, each as highly detailed as this one. 




Philosopher and Priest cards.




Polyphemus is one of the five Mythological Creatures that are represented by a card, as well as a sculpted figurine to place on the board. 



The components of this game are absolutely beautiful. Each player color has army figures and navy figures that are of a sculpt that is different from the other colors. The artwork on the cards is absolutely gorgeous and the artwork of the board is beautiful, while being completely functional and easy to understand and use. There are five Mythological Creatures that are placed on the board and they have beautiful plastic figurines to represent them.

That being said, there is no need for all of that. The game is over-produced. But I don't care. Honestly, everything is so beautiful that the aesthetics almost become a part of the game. The Essen release of the game had wooden army and navy pieces (meeples) and used tokens for the five Mythological Creatures that are placed on the map. The game would be completely playable with them, but I am glad that I have the overproduced pieces that I have.

My only complaints with the components of the game come from the thickness and fold of the game boards. Personally, I think that they could have been a bit thicker. It would help them lay a little better. As it stands now, I put my map under Plexiglas, but that's because I'm a hardcore enough of a gamer to have a few sheets of Plexiglas laying around for such an occasion.

The other issue I have with the boards is the folds of them. Each board is about 21 inches in length, and the fold is at about the 15 inch mark. This odd fold causes two minor problems. First, it means the box is larger than it needs to be. Boards folding at the 10.5 inch mark would result in a smaller box. But also, it displaces the weight of the smaller side of the fold and the less weight of it is part of the reason for it not laying completely flat.

Again, these are minor complaints, however, on an otherwise amazingly well produced product.


Playing the Game:

Game play is quick and intuitive, with minimal downtime since no more than one player will be moving armies and no more than one player will be moving navies in a single turn. This minimizes the combats each round if you are not involved in them. That isn't saying that there aren't concerns about analysis paralysis, but that is a player issue, not a game issue.

Since it only takes two Metropolises to win the game, gameplay is quick and the game very quickly becomes a game of watching and blocking other players. One of the innate designs of the game is that truly any player can win. There is no elimination (except in one very, very rare possible combination and instance) and even if you are reduced to one isle, you can gain more money than other players by taking the Apollo action, so you can potentially amass money and outbid everyone on Ares on a later turn to rush and take over other isles.

Another thing that I enjoy about the game is that there are so many ways to win. Two Metropolises is not a lot and you can get them through any combination of conquest, building and amassing Philosophers. The game really starts to get interesting once a couple players have their first Metropolis. A good attack on an isle with a Metropolis will give them the win. Or perhaps they are trying to discretely take Philosophers. Or maybe they have a fortress, port and temple and only need a university to get their forth building to get their Metropolis and can either try to build it or conquer another isle with it.

This creates such an interesting method of blocking in the mid to late game. You need to be wary and ready to block the bidding of a god to outbid them, or defending an isle that they need or even removing a Mythological Creature that would give them an ability to do what they need to win.

Still, some players may be turned off by the randomness of both the luck of the die rolls and the random order that the gods come into play. The randomness of the die rolls, however, is mitigated in the fact that only 0, 1, 2 or 3 can be rolled with 2-sides for the 1 and 2. Also, the number of units you bring in add to your roll, so if you outnumber an enemy by enough, it will be mathematically impossible to lose the battle. As far as the luck of the random god order? That is fate, my friend. And if your strategy cannot stand against the chance that the god you need's order is lower, giving your opponents a chance to counter with Mythological Creature buys, then it was your strategy that was not that sound and relied only on luck.


Scalability:

The game plays from 2 to 5 players and scales surprisingly well due to a rather smart way of building the map. The map segments are two sided and depending on how many players you have, you use specific sides of the map to form the right size and number of isles to best fit the number of players. The two player game plays a bit differently, with each player bidding on two gods, but even this works well.

In games with less than 5 players, not every god is available to bid on every round. This can create other interesting results as well. If you are in a three player game and are set to outbid everyone and win with taking control of Ares, but he does not come up in the shuffle that turn, the other players have a chance to prepare against you.

That being said, the randomness of what gods are available may turn off some players because of this additional luck in games with less than 5 players. Gods not available in one round are automatically available in the next round, but it is still a possible concern.


Does the Wife Like It?:

The most important category. I play games without her, but she's an integral part of my core gaming group and my most frequent game partner. I wasn't sure how she would like this game, since she does like civilization building, but is usually turned off by too much direct conflict. And this game has tons of direct conflict, either through battles or outbidding one another for gods. Ultimately I think the theme won her over a bit. She's a hardcore D&D player as well and I think it did just enough to turn a game that she would have been cool towards to one that she is lukewarm to.

She's probably never going to suggest it when she throws out game titles that she'll play, but I think the theme and the short game play length will mean that she'll play it rather than using her allotted game-night vetoes on it.


The Pros:

*Absolutely gorgeous game, from the artwork to the board to the sculpted minis.
*Quick game play. It truly plays in an hour.
*The game does a great job in creating conflict and interaction in a way that feels authentic and not forced.
*Great use of theme to really pull in a game that may not have the depth of other games that have similar mechanics.
*No player elimination, while at the same time naturally keeping the trailing players in the game and offering a possibility to come back and steal a win.
*Twenty-nine years since the release of Clash of the Titans, I finally have a context to shout "Release the Kraken!"

The Cons:

*Bad map fold positions and thinness of the cardboard makes it lay a little awkwardly.
*Some players may not like the randomness in the game.
*The game is quick, perhaps too quick for some to really enjoy some of the mechanic themes in the game.
*Unlike the miniatures in the original Clash of the Titans, these are not stop-motion animated and just stand there.


Overall:

Cyclades is an absolutely gorgeous game that combines elements of civilization building, area control/warfare, bidding and card drafting that is designed to be played in about an hour. That may seem like it is a lot to cram into a small game and it is. However, Cyclades doesn't exactly delve as deep into any of these elements as other games, but it succeeds nonetheless in pulling them together for a very engaging game. The hour play time means that this can easily be a filler game, but it has the weight and interaction to make it feel more like a main course. Player interaction is natural and not forced and it creates a setting where any player can win. The randomness of the gods creates varied replayability from the first turn even with the static set up. This is a great game that scales well enough with a short enough play time that it can either fill the time waiting for others to arrive, or be played as a deeper main event once everyone one has arrived.


8.5/10

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