REVIEW: CYCLADES

So I recently picked up this game, and it’s rapidly become one of my favourites to pull out. It’s some kind of hybrid between a Euro-y game and a light wargame, with theme JUST EVERYWHERE. You want a Kraken? I GOT YOUR KRAKEN RIGHT HERE.

kraken

HERE

Basically what’s going on here is that you’re all struggling for control of the Cyclades, a group of islands all conveniently close enough together that from the outset that your guys can probably see the enemy’s vineyards from their house. Do you think your borders are safe? They really aren’t. Things get tight fast. You win by getting two Metropolises, which can be achieved in a few different ways. How? WELL.

Each round starts with bidding for one of the big boys and girls in the Greek pantheon, each of which will give you certain actions. I assume this is because ancient Greeks are (understandably in this case) superstitious bastards and won’t dare set sail without getting Poseidon onside first. These come out in a different order each time, which means you’re also bidding for turn order. Right off the bat, this creates a deliciously tense phase at the start of every single round – do you really REALLY need Zeus right now, or is it more important to go first, or do you just need to get Ares so your mate staring meaningfully at your territory won’t be able to steamroll you? TERRIBLE WONDERFUL DECISIONS. This is augmented by the fact that getting outbid on one god kicks you off to another one – it’s very possible to get stuck on a god you don’t want at all.

poseidon

I said I don’t want to hang out, Poseidon, can you just be cool jeez.

WHAT HAVE THE GODS EVER DONE FOR ME

POSEIDON – Build ships. Move ships. EASY.
ARES – Like Poseidon, but with dudes instead of ships, and you can only move from one island to another if you’ve got a ship in between (acting like a bridge). Meaning invasions take two turns and require some PLANNING.
ZEUS – Get yourself some Priests, which make bidding cheaper in future. Get enough Priests and you’ll be hurting in the short term, but will be able to make some obscene bids later on.
ATHENA – Get Philosophers. Why? Because with 4 philosophers, you get a Metropolis, putting you halfway to winning. Presumably Aristotle and his buddies all come together like Voltron or something.

Since there’s always one less god than the number of players, the lowest bidder will end up on
APOLLO – get some money and boost your economy, but you don’t get any actions and always go last. Basically you’re skipping a turn to save money. And this game is all about the money.

Each god also has their own building, giving you various bonuses. Build one of each type, and you’ll be able to build a Metropolis!

So basically your paths to a metropolis and victory are:

Build buildings
Philosophize
Kick someone’s door down and STEAL THEIRS

ALSO

There are some mythological creatures up for sale every turn. These range from RELEASING THE KRAKEN and carving up everyone’s ships, to stealing someone’s gold, to dumping a Medusa on an island. You know where the soldiers are going now? NOWHERE BECAUSE MEDUSA FROZE THEM. The really clever thing is that pretty much all the god actions are replicated in the creature deck somewhere, meaning that even if you couldn’t get the god you want, you might still have a chance to pull off your plans or protect yourself. Oh, you missed Ares? Well buy yourself a Pegasus and fly all your guys to the other side of the map! This is where that lovely actions vs turn order dilemma really shines.

And that’s it!

OK BUT WHY SHOULD I GET IT

Well, firstly – it’s just so damn pretty. The minis are reallllllly high quality, and every colour gets different looking ones for no other reasons than because it looks cool. Some of the creatures have huge and fantastically made minis that really sells their impact on the game, and the art in general is just top notch. No cubes to be seen here – you bid with lovely Corinthian pillars and build your economy with lush little fruit basket tokens. It’s just so satisfying.

SECONDLY the bidding phase is so wonderfully tense that it’s frankly absurd. That moment just after you commit all your money to let you pull off an ultimate, game-winning move and realise seconds later that your buddy can now bid next to nothing on Poseidon and ruin everything is just priceless. It also leads to this incredible, knife-edge balance. Every single turn you’re balancing your income against what you NEED and what you WANT but OH NO STEVE CAN GET A CENTAUR and WHY ARE ALL MY ISLANDS SURROUNDED BY FLEETS. Athena’s abilities are useless for anything else, but you’re going to have a really hard time winning without getting her at least once. It’s entirely possible to win without invading once. You can build your economy solely through aggressive expansion, but at the same time you’re spreading your defences thinly and leaving yourself open to counter attack – and armies ain’t cheap. The Apollo mechanic means that you’ll miss out one turn but be in a much more advantageous position the next, and it’s got an ingenious catchup system built in.

It escalates BEAUTIFULLY. This is one of my major criteria for a game – I want it to grow, and develop, and tell a story. From humble beginnings, by the end the seas will be jammed full of fleets and running red with blood, all the territory will have changed hands twice, you’ll be raking in great handfuls of gold every turn, and there’ll be a kraken sitting in the middle of the board at the end of a long string of suspiciously clear spaces.

Finally, it’s still just within the realms of non-gamers. I wouldn’t call it a gateway game, but it’s definitely simple enough to teach to your friends who don’t play games much. As I mentioned, it’s pretty enough to draw anybody in, and it has just enough randomness (as well as a nice catch-up system) that newbies can compete against experienced players without just getting flattened.

WHY SHOULD I MAYBE NOT GET IT

I’ve met a few people who don’t like the plastic figures. That’s a matter of personal preference. I think they’re incredibly good at drawing you in, but it’s a downside for some.

You might not like the idea of building a lovely economy and somebody pillaging your face off.

Finally, the nature of the system means that you absolutely have to be flexible with your strategies. Sometimes you just won’t be able to get the god you want, and since most information (other than your cash reserves) is open, everyone can probably figure out what you’re going for. Again, for me this is a huge positive – but if you want to pick a strategy at the start of the game and min/max your way to victory, this probably isn’t the game for you.

Here’s the thing about Cyclades. The only reason – and I mean ONLY reason – that it hasn’t shot to the top of my best-of-all-time list is logistics. It takes a little while to set up, takes about 90 minutes to play, and is maybe a little complicated to drop on someone who’s never played beyond Monopoly before. Other than that – man, this is a beautiful game. Get it. Become the chosen of the gods. Do it all again.

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