Fun City Gaming

This is a weekly report of our Tuesday night gaming sessions in Chelsea (Manhattan).
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AAR 29 January 2013 - Chariot Lords, Polis, Clash of Cultures, Sekigahara, 7 Wonders

J. R. Tracy
United States
New York
New York
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Tonight's gaming had a strong whiff of the ancient, and it wasn't just Nate.

Natus, John, Jim, and Bill pried open a sarcophagus and retrieved Chariot Lords, the Earl of Foppington's Biblical-era game with Britannia roots but plenty of personality of its own. They got through five rocking turns with no shortage of action. Unlike Britannia's fixed turn order, activation in Chariot Lords is by chit draw, which led to some surprises. Most dramatic was an Assyrian action which caught the Hittites poised to sweep down the coast through Phoenicia. The Sea Peoples had a timely arrival as well, cramping the Egyptians before they could put together a big turn.

For the glory of their gods

This proved a real hit, as the mechanics were easily mastered and the players got down to gaming in a hurry, though the game was new to all. The only complaint was the difficulty in keeping score, but handy BGG play-aids helped in that regard. It was too good to tear down so we laid it up for completion in the weeks to come - John has a narrow lead over Nate, but ultimate victory is hard to judge in the mid-game with so many powerful nations yet to appear.

Lonely Canaanites

At the other end of the big table, Chris, Scott, David, and Steven gave Clash of Cultures another try. This session had a lot more conflict than the last go-around. There was contact between the four civilizations all across the map. Chris and David had a brutal mutual annihilation in their first engagement, to the delight of their tablemates, and soon Scott was fighting David's reserve force. Meanwhile, Steven's relatively untouched armies were poised to take advantage of his neighbors' distraction.

Culture Club

The game showed more promise than the last session, which was very slow to develop. The hidden objectives lent each civilization a unique character which raised it above the apparent image of four generic empires. No definitive opinions yet but the reception was much warmer this time around.

Conflict across the board

Dutch sat down to teach Dr. Rob Sekigahara, unjustly ignored by our group since last January. As Ishida, Rob steadily drove Dutch back, building a powerful hand for decisive conflict south of Fukushima. Unfortunately his hand wasn't powerful enough, and when he lost in battle Ishida found his escape route blocked by a freshly-mustered enemy band. Therefore Ishida died on the battlefield for a Tokugawa victory. As always, a beautiful game and I think Rob is a convert.

Ishida prepares a hammer blow...

...only to perish for want of a retreat path

Dave and I tried Polis: Fight for the Hegemony, based on some positive word of mouth from across the sea. This is a political-economic game on the Peloponnesian War. The two players represent Sparta and Athens respectively, and try to build up their resources through trade, intrigue, and ultimately, conflict. The game consists of four 'rounds', each comprised of multiple two-action turns alternating between the players. Actions can be Development (build hoplites, galleys, merchants, or 'projects' such as statues or theaters), Military (move hoplites, move galleys, besiege cities, collect resources), or Political (trade, move your Proxenos, retrieve your Proxenos if captured, instigate Stasis or civil war in your Proxenos' location). You may only perform any specific action once in a given couplet, which creates timing pressures and decisions.

Polis on my back

Players track a variety of resources such as olive oil and wine for trading, metal and lumber for trading or military builds, wheat to feed or expand your population, silver as a commodity 'wild card' and to fund your Proxenos' shenanigans, population itself, and Prestige, perhaps the most precious commodity of all. Prestige is won through battle, drawing cities to your side, or by completing projects. You can also pick up some Prestige as you expand your population. However, you must expend Prestige with every military action and can also lose it through military disaster. Should your Prestige go below zero at any point you lose, and you must have at least one Prestige point at the end of a round or else face defeat. Victory is determined by the sum of Prestige and population, so you have to master balancing the expenditure of what amount to victory points against what they will gain you down the road.

The system is very clean and accessible. Combat occurs when eight cubes (units) total occupy an area, and is resolved via combat cards. The attacker plays two cards, each with a formation and a maneuver. The defender must match the formations with his own cards - for each failure to do so, he loses a cube. The maneuver values determine prestige won by the attacker. Cube losses reduce hand size for the rest of the battle. The roles then reverse, with the new attacker laying cards, etc, and the battle proceeds until one side 'retreats' (surrenders a Prestige point to his opponent but doesn't actually leave the area), one side is reduced to one or zero cubes, or the combat card deck runs dry. Sparta is always the initial attacker in land combat, while Athens leads at sea. One interesting tweak is each side's stacking limit increases over the game's four rounds, from three to four to five (for the last two rounds). This means no combat in the first round, and in later rounds there is a subgame as each side controls the possibility of battle through their own stacking.

A rare Spartan land defeat

Trade is perhaps the most elaborate part of the game - resources are collected by hoplites in the hinterland of a given region, using a classic euro progression (1, 3, 6, 10, 15 resources), with available resources varying by region. Once you tax, or 'collect', in a given region, it's tapped out for the rest of the round. You want to max out your stacking capacity for maximum efficiency, but that means paying Prestige for movement as well as for the collection itself, and an Athenian troop concentration is a tempting target for Spartan hoplites on the prowl. Resources in hand, you then ship them to faraway markets (Persia, Egypt, Thrace, etc) in return for wheat or silver. Trade in a given commodity depreciates that commodity's value, in a nice twist. Also, trade is blockaded by enemy galleys, so Athens is always angling to deny sea routes.

Finally, the political game adds another way to expand your influence. Your Proxenos can enter a city, enemy or neutral, and finance a civil war (two silver per neutral population point, or three per enemy cube) to flip the city to your side. It's an expensive way to turn a city but unlike sieges, it's certain and it doesn't cost Prestige.

We managed two games - the first lasted into the second round when Sparta suffered a catastrophe on the fields of Attika, as my Athenian heroes battled Sparta down to two cubes. Dave then found himself forced to play a battle card that inflicted a loss of Prestige, a fatal blow as he was already at zero. That was strictly a learning game, however, so we quickly reset and went the distance in a second game. This saw severe swings both ways, as plucky Athenian hoplites kept the land battle even while Athens built her merchant fleet. In the midgame the Spartans started dominating ashore, while Athenian triremes tried to strangle the Lacedaemonian economy. Sparta again flirted with Prestige disaster, but a couple battle victories and a key siege saved the day. In the final round I focused on trade, building up a supply of silver to swing cities to my side. Dave thrashed my land armies and managed to slip a couple merchant runs past my fleets thanks to a major deployment error on my part. In the end, those food shipments proved crucial as Dave was able to expand his population beyond my own for a hard-fought Spartan victory.

Polis was a blast, a real unexpected gem. The other guys asked if it was more wargame or euro, but I think it defies easy categorization. The mechanics are definitely eurolicious, but it really feels like a well-constructed grand strategic wargame. It has the decision pressures of a classic Martin Wallace title, with a bit more history than I've found in most Treefrog games. Abstractions abound, and the euro elements feel forced at times, so I can't call it a strong simulation, but it hits the right beats and the epic sweep is there. Well worth tracking down both as a solid two-player game and as a representation of the period.

Finally, Scott blew out the table in a 7 Wonders nightcap, a fitting end given the evening's theme.

We're off for a couple weeks, but upon return we should have tales of Pax Porfiriana, Virgin Queen, and Bataan! in hand.

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