Thursday, May 6, 2010

Review: Pelponnes

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 am a fan of civilization building games as well as games that can be played in a weeknight's evening with my wife, though I had always believed that never the twain shall meet. And finally, I am not above getting games for free to review. Thought I'd throw that last one out there just in case.


The Overview:


The box is the standard square box width and length, but the depth is a little more shallow: about 2 1/8" instead of roughly 3". 



Box contents. They may not appear that overwhelming. Plus my copy didn't come with a "Peloponnes, Halle 5, Stand 92" card. 



Peloponnes is a light civilization building game that relies heavily on a bidding mechanic that drives the interaction between players in the games 8 rounds. Each player is developing their own civilization of ancient Greece (1000 BC), starting with a unique city-state and developing and expanding it throughout the rounds of play, trying to ultimately have the most profitable balance of population and city holdings by the end of the game.

The game is for 1-5 players and plays in under an hour. With either more experienced or fewer players, play time will drop significantly. In fact, a solo game can be played in about 15 minutes. Most games with 4 or 5 players who are familiar with the game should take about 45-50 minutes.

Each player starts with a random Civilization Tile. The tile lists the player's starting resources, including the starting population and coins for the player. Each of the resources is marked on the Player Mat, which tracks a player civilization's current supply of Wood, Stone, Food, Population and Luxury Goods. Each starting Civilization Tile also shows what resource the player collects each round. Initial player order is also determined by the tiles.

Each round has the same format. First, five tiles are revealed. The tiles are drawn from one of three stacks, labeled A, B and C. The A stack is drawn from first. When they are all drawn, then the B stack is drawn from and so on. Each of the tiles is either a Land Tile or a Building Tile. Land Tiles show a one-time bonus income on them (if any) and they also show what resources are gained each turn as Income for possessing the Tile. Building Tiles show a one-time bonus income (if any), any per turn resource Income the tile grants and any special abilities that the tile grants its owner. Unlike the Land Tiles, Building Tiles also show what resources must be used to construct the building (these will be lowered on the Player Mat). Finally, both types of tiles also have a number printed on them for the minimum bid that can be placed on it to purchase the tile and a number listing the Prestige points that it offers the player at the end of the game. Building tiles generally grant more Prestige points, but cost resources to build.

Out of the 5 drawn tiles, a number of tiles equal to the number of players are laid out on a row to be bid on. If any tiles remain (because there are fewer than 5 players), they are laid out on a separate row with the Conquest Tile placed next to them.

In Turn Order, each player then bids on a tile. Each tile has a minimum bid listed on it. This is the fewest coins that a player can bid to win that tile. Once a player makes a bid, he cannot change the number of coins in his bid. If a player wishes to bid on a tile that another player has already bid on, he needs to bid more coins than the current bidder has placed on it. The displaced player then may move his bid to another tile (and possibly displace another player's bid). However, the bid amount must be equal to or greater than the minimum bid listed on the new tile. Or, an outbid player can take back his bid, taking his coins back and taking one extra coin from the bank. However, they will not receive a tile this round. Any tiles that are on the Conquest row can also be bid on, however, the minimum bid for any of these tiles is increased by 3 coins, but once one is bid on, no other player may outbid them. So, these tiles cost more, but your bid is safe once you bid on one. Finally, a player can opt to make no bid at all for the round and instead collect 3 coins from the bank. And tiles not bid on are then discarded.

Player order for next turn is then adjusted in order of whoever paid the most coins goes first and down the line to whomever paid the fewest.

Any new tiles won are added to the player's civilization. Any one-time bonuses are immediately added to the player's resources.

• Land Tiles are placed next to the last land tile purchased to the right of the starting Civilization Tile. However, not all land tiles can be placed next to one another. To lay a new Land Tile, the tile must have at least one matching resource on the previous tile. So a Land Tile that produces only Food cannot be placed next to a tile that produces only Stone. However, a tile that produces Food can be placed next to a tile that produces Food and Wood. This placement rule often drives the bidding war, since not every player may be able to use every tile that is out there and there may be some fierce competition for tiles out for bidding.

• Building Tiles are placed to the left of the starting Civilization Tile. The player immediately receives any one-time bonus for the tile. The player then must pay the resources to build that tile. If he cannot, or chooses not to, then he must place one of his coins on the tile to signify that it has not been completed yet. By the next turn, if the tile still has a coin on it (signifying that it was not built), then the resources must be paid that round, or else the Building Tile is discarded. This rule allows a player to purchase and use a building that they may not have the resources to complete this round, but should be able to produce by next round. But considering that resources can be lost from turn to turn, this can at times be a risk.

Each player then earns the resources for each of his tiles and adjusts the new amounts on his Player Mat. Each Population level also generates a certain number of coins that the player then adds to their amount depending on what their Population is.

Finally, two Disaster Chits are drawn at the end of each Round. There are a total of 5 different Disasters: Decline, Drought, Earthquake, Plague and Tempest. Each one of them causes strife and challenge for each player's civilization. The two Disaster Chits are placed on their matching Disaster Tiles. As soon as any of the tiles has three matching chits on it, that Disaster's negative effects are resolved by all players. For example, once three Plague Chits are placed on the Plague Disaster Tile, every civilization loses one-third of their Population (rounded up). Certain buildings protect the civilization that possesses them from a specific Disaster. So, if you are lucky enough to have built the Aqueduct Building, your civilization is completely immune to the Plague Disaster.

After this, the turn starts again. However, there are a few things to note during game play. First, there are two tiles that signify the start of a Supply Round when they are flipped over to be bid on. The Supply Round takes place immediately and is resolved before the turn is resumed. When it is revealed, each player must feed his Population. They must pay one Food for every Population that they have. Whatever Population they cannot feed starves and the player loses that Population. Also, any Buildings that are not yet paid for (have a coin on them), must immediately be paid for by the player or must be discarded.

Second, each civilization can only store 10 Wood, 10 Stone and 13 Wheat. Any excess that they receive in a round is immediately converted to Luxury Goods. For example, if you have 8 Wood, then gain 5 more Wood, you move your marker to show that you have 10 Wood and the remaining 3 become Luxury Good and the appropriate marker is moved up. Luxury Goods serve no specific purpose, but can be used to substitute for any other resource needed in the course of the game at a 2:1 ratio. So, if you are feeding your Population and are 2 Food short, instead of having them starve, you can pay 4 Luxury Goods to replace the missing Food and feed everyone. This can also be done to substitute for Wood or Stone if trying to complete a building, or even to give you more coins to make a bid on a tile.

This continues for eight turns, at which time all of the forty tiles will have come out for bidding. Before final scoring is completed, each civilization has to feed their Population one last time, losing any Population that they cannot feed. Any Buildings not completed yet must now be paid for or else they are discarded.

Each player then generates two scores:

• Prestige Score is the sum of all of the Prestige Points listed on a player's Land Tiles and Building Tiles. The player also gets 1 point for every 3 coins that he still has in his bank.

• Population Score is determined by looking at the final Population of the civilization. The player receives 3 points for every Population.

The player's final score is the smaller of these two amounts.


The Theme:

Peloponnes is a small-scale, somewhat abstract civilization building game. There is no direct conflict between the civilizations (other than bidding for tiles) and there is no true technology tree or advancement other than some of the bonuses offered in a generic sense by some of the buildings that can be constructed. So the game obviously lacks the depth of civilization building games such as Through the Ages and Advanced Civilization. However, that being said, the length of play time and complexity levels of this game nowhere nears the large, bulky tags of those games.

The game is too light to really feel like and fulfill the desires to play a deep, complex civilization building game. But, that being said, the game is still rather fun for what it is. The game feels a bit like managing an Excel file spreadsheet instead of managing a growing civilization, and there really is little to distinguish the feel between the different civilizations, but despite the lack of immersive theme, the game is rather fun.


Learning the Game:

The rules are laid out in a 12 page booklet, though only the last 6 pages are the English rules. Play is simple and the rules are laid out well with little translation issues. Playing through, the game is very intuitive and there are few reasons to refer to the rules once the game is played. There are a few minor timing issues that can be a little confusing (primarily with Building Tiles and delaying a round to construct them), but even these are minor and should be understood by most players by the end of their first game.

The only real issues with learning the game come with some of the errata in the rulebook. None of these are major issues (for example, the rules do not mention that tiles not bid on are removed), and in fact, even though they were not listed in the rules, it was intuitive enough to play through that way without the rules even stating it.


The Components:


The seven set up Civilization Tiles. 



An example of a Land Tile. 




An example of a Building Tile.




Each player marks his resources on his Player Mat.




Showing a bidding auction, but also showing the player marker chits as well as the wooden coins.  



The components of this game are basic and sufficient. None of them are particularly stand out, but everything really works. The tiles are a sturdy enough cardboard and each of them sufficiently and clearly shows everything you need to know on them. The coins are silver and gold wooden disks and are also sufficient and sturdy.

The only minor complaint that I have is that the Player Mats are flimsy and would have been better if made in the same thick cardboard as the tiles. There really is no overwhelming need for this, however, since they are perfectly sufficient as is, but they are probably the weakest (and most flimsy) component in the game.


Playing the Game:

Game play is easy and intuitive. Games flow very easily, even for first time players. It really only takes a game or so to fully start to realize how much of the game is Disaster management and balancing Population and Prestige.

There is a bit of randomness in the game, but it is fairly well contained. I mean, it is possible that all three Tempest Disaster Tiles could be drawn by Round 2, but it is not probable that it will happen. The Land Tile placement rules may mean that you will be completely unable to bid on any tiles that come up in a round. However, that will probably not happen often. And the Supply Rounds are well placed by putting those tiles in the B & C stacks.

There also will be some games (or rounds) where everyone has a similar need for one or two of the tiles that come up for bidding and there will be fierce fights over them. However, there will also be turns where everyone has their own tile in mind and there is no overlap. Usually more players means that there will be more chances of someone needing the same tile and creating a bidding battle for it.


Scalability:

The game plays from 1 to 5 players and the 2-5 player games scale rather well with the Conquest mechanic for the extra tiles that come out. It is completely possible, however, that 2 or 3 player games will see each player having a distinct need during the bidding round and there being no competing for the tiles up for bid. This may lend a multi-player solitaire feel to the game as bidding is the only form of interaction in the game.

With 4-5 players, bidding battles become more frequent and sometimes more complex as players are more likely to high bid to either keep their initial bid, or have enough to cover a new tile should they be forced to move.

The solitaire game plays with only a few rules changes, but it has a "level system" incorporated in it, similar to Agricola's solitaire game which makes play more challenging as you basically "chain" your solo games, with the stakes being a little higher with each game and the challenge being increased. I really enjoy this style of solitaire games, as it seems to add a little more challenge to work through the gauntlet rather than just playing a single game and comparing your score to nothing more than your personal bests.


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. She likes civilization building games, but she is still healing from the wounds of a particularly disastrous five-hours spent on a Through the Ages game that left her civilization weakened and a ripe target for one bullying civilization that seemed to have all of the War and Aggression cards. Anyhow, despite the still tender wounds of that game, she consented to playing a civilization game, but most likely because of the rather shortened play time.

It turns out that she liked it. She's not wild about it, but the light, easy play style and the short amount of time involved makes is a lot more palatable to her. The fact that we can play out a two-player game on a weekend evening in a half-hour and there is really minimal direct conflict, she's very happy to play it. I don't know if she'll hit the point where she'll suggest it over other games that she enjoys, such as Pandemic or Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation, but I won't have to build up much "gaming capital" to get it to the table, which is nice. I could probably just make something she really likes for dinner to get this to the table, whereas I would need to agree to having a second child right now, keep the cat's litter box spotless for a month and agree to 30-40 games of Pandemic with us playing the Medic and the Dispatcher to get Horus Heresy to the table again with her. So I consider the amount of gaming capital needed on this game to be a huge success.


The Pros:

*Quick play time.
*Easy, intuitive rules and game play.
*Just enough contained randomness to make the game play different each time, without making it chaotic.
*Challenging Level System for the solitaire game to make the solitaire game more interesting.
*Components are not beautiful, but are definitely solid and very intuitive and clear.
*Interesting to build a production engine to resist the known upcoming Disasters.


The Cons:

*Production engines are interesting in a strategic building sense, but do not really "feel" like building a civilization, making it a bit abstract.
*Player Mats are a bit flimsy (though this isn't a huge issue).
*Can feel like managing a spreadsheet at times.
*May be a bit light and quick for some.
*The bidding mechanic is the only conflict, and in games with 2 or 3 players, it can very easily feel like "multiplayer solitaire" with little bidding conflict.


Overall:

Peloponnes is a light civilization building game whose only in-game conflict resolves around a bidding mechanic for land and buildings in the game. Players who enjoy trying to build efficient engines in games to pit against known disasters will enjoy this quick engine building game. Players who want to build a large civilization and look over their accomplishments and compare them to their neighbors after a long bloody war will not find much of that in this game. The game is really at its core simple and may not seem very deep. However, given the short play length of the game, it has a perfect depth to play time ratio, making it fun and entertaining and engaging before the simplicity of it starts to show through. The different levels of solitaire give the solo game a bit more interest and makes it a little more desirable than to simply try to beat your personal best. While ultimately there is some randomness in the game, the game's mechanics do a sufficient job of keeping them maintained to minimize and chaotic effects of it. Ultimately, it is a game that will appeal to engine builders more than civilization builders, but with the short game length and easy scalability, it is also a great game to take the role of filler and appetizer while you are waiting for the last couple players to show up.


8/10

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