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Polis: Fight for the Hegemony» Forums » Reviews

Subject: Sliding down the Greecey Polis rss

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Michael Debije
Netherlands
Eindhoven
The Netherlands
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Polis was published by Asylum Games in 2012 and was designed by Fran Diaz, and is playable by two players in about two hours

What You Get

I find the box one of the most striking in my collection. It is very simple, with a stark helmet, Greek edgework, and lettering in gold on a dark brown background. A close look reveals the faint haze of red as a suggestion of the blood spilled in the ancient conflict. Really excellent work. Inside, the presentation is also to a very high standard. The board is slightly smaller than many, but well marked, although the Polis values tend to be obscured. Some of the regions a bit small for all the cubes, discs, and pawns, but nothing so severe as to detract from gameplay. The tables at the side of the board are very clear. The tiles are really good as well, especially the illustrations on the project tiles. The cards are slightly small on thin stock, but are nicely illustrated. The text on the event cards a bit small for my weary eyes, but we eventually make it out. And not many games have four-sided die. The final items, the player mats, are nice and chunky and well laid-out, although it might have been nice to add the ‘pre-turn’ actions at the top of the order of play as a reminder. Overall, a really excellent package.

What You Do

This is a game depicting the decade-long struggles between Athens and Sparta for control of Greece, won by the player who managed to obtain the most prestige through building great projects, supporting a thriving population, and from military conquests, both on sea and land.
Each player starts controlling three Polis, the political division of ancient Greece, with a number of cubes placed on each to represent their population. A number of hoplites and galleys are placed on the board, and each starts with a trading fleet and a Proxenos, or diplomat. Each also marks the current value of the different resources they control, from prestige, metal, wood, wine, olives, silver, and grain. Setup takes ten minutes.

The game plays over four turns, uniquely labeled 3, 4, 5a, and 5b. The reason for this is not immediately apparent until you realize this indicates the maximum number of military units each player may have in a Polis, so is a handy way to keep track. A turn begins by drawing and placing three project tiles, indicating which great works (theaters, games, philosophers and the like) can be produced that turn. Then, an event card is read and the actions acted upon. There are quite a number of cards, all divided into turn decks, so there is quite a variability game to game in the event. Some give players units: other demand units are moved off map to fight foreign wars, often with both a prize (extra glory, for example) and a penalty (permanent loss of half committed troops, for example). Then the player with lowest prestige goes first.

On your turn you have two actions, and each must be different. There are 12 to choose from. I’ll go over them briefly. The simplest are building hoplites, galleys, or trading fleets. These will cost metal (for hoplites) or wood (for fleets and galleys) plus a population cube from the city where they are being built. Silver may substitute for a missing resource. One must be careful, as Polis limits cannot be exceeded, so no more than three units in any area (per player) in the first turn of the game. You can also begin a project by selecting the tile from among the three initially available each turn, if you can pay the resources and if you have a city capable of supporting the type of project. For example, Athens can support three types of project but not statues, for instance.

You can send your fleets to trade. To do so, you need to be able to trace a trade route along the map through seas that are not controlled by the opponent: their galleys will block your trading fleets. A number of trading locations are scattered about the map, but the number in the first turn available for trade are limited. As the game goes on, more ports for trade open up. A trade is made for either grain or silver (depending on the port) and the cost of the trade depends on the goods demanded at the port, either metal, wood, wine or olives. To see the rate of exchange, you check the price chart at the top of the board: it all starts at 3 goods you give for 3 you get. After a trade, the d4 is rolled, and the price marker moved along the track, making future trades more and more expensive. I love how this works in the game.

Another action is to move the Proxenos to neutral or opposing cities, possibly paying bribes to avoid enemy troops. There, with an instigate civil war action, the Proxonos can spend double the value of the Polis (or triple if owned by the opponent) in silver as a bribe to get the city to rebel and join your side. Nasty. The Proxonos is a good guy to have around: if he is ever captured, you can use an action to get him released, but only after paying 2 silver to your opponent. That hurts, let me tell you.

The next actions all will cost you prestige to undertake. Given prestige is the currency that determines victory, you are essentially spending victory points to take the following four actions, so you better know what you are doing! The first is either moving galleys or hoplites. Yes, moving troops costs victory points. Ouch. Movement is handled by pointing to a location and brining cubes from any spot on the board to that location, as long as stacking limits are maintained, and as long as you do not have to pass through any areas your opponent holds influence.

Another prestige action is a siege. Each Polis is rated from 1-4 on size/power. You need to have at least this many troops at the location to siege, and you need to roll that value or better on a d4 to take it. So, the one is an automatic, but the four is damn hard, and it costs you a victory point if you fail. Success means gaining the Polis, gaining prestige equal to the Polis value, but also the extra mouths to feed. Failure costs you a hoplite.

Last is collection. In any region you control a Polis, you can ‘tax’, or as we say, ‘plunder’ the region. Each region produces different things: metal and wine in Akarnania, wood and wine in Makedonia, and so on. You have to assign troops to collect the goods. For example, with 4 troops in Boiotia I could get 6 metal and 1 olive, or 10 wood, or 3 food and 3 olives… Each area can be plundered just once per turn
After two actions have been undertaken, we check to see if any area contains eight or more troops/galleys. This triggers conflict.

Conflict is handled using cards in a manner reminiscent of the card driven games Hannibal or We the People. Each side gets a number of cards equal to the number of units they have in the battle. The attacker chooses from among the different units depicted on the cards held: perhaps a peltast, archer, cavalry, or phalanx, among others for land, or biremes, triremes and other ships for the naval. There are also a couple ‘wild’ cards, including an ambush card and a mercenary card, used primarily for offense and defense, respectively. Each card type has a specific number in the deck: more phalanxes than archers, for example. The defender must then try to match the cards. For each card not matched, they lost a unit. Then, each card has a number from 0-2 on the top: the attacker subtracts the defender’s number from each card, and scores that many prestige for the battle. Roles then switch, as the defender becomes the attacker after filling their hand to the current troop limit. Players may withdraw from a fight before getting new cards, but this means giving your opponent one of your prestige: a two-point swap. Double ouch.

Action phases alternate until someone decides to pass. The other player may continue taking actions as long as they wish, but each action taken will cost an additional good of any type. Once both players have passed, there are a few critical steps before the next turn. First, projects finish, giving players prestige they can use next turn, or for final score. Then, each population in a Polis must be fed grain, or prestige or Polis will be lost (or both). Any leftover grain can be used to increase city populations: prosperous cities earn an extra prestige point at this time. Then, half the remaining wine, olives and food from the players rot. This also can hurt.

The game plays in four turns. Final scoring is current prestige, points for completed projects with particular long-term ‘end game’ points, and population in the Polis. If at any time at turn end a player has zero prestige, the game is automatically over with the opponent claiming the win. And you cannot go negative, so don’t lose a battle when at zero!

What I Think

I almost never write a review for a game that has more than one or two already, figuring most things have been said, so what could I add to the conversation? Actually, I think pretty much the same now but still feel compelled to write a little bit of my thoughts and to try and promote the game a bit.

I have played a couple other games on the wars depicted in this game, including Peloponnesian War by Victory Games and Hellenes by GMT (Perikles by Wallace doesn’t really count). Both these games were decent, but they felt a bit static, and supply was largely abstracted. I understand the static feeling actually does portray the era well, but without other activity going on, it made the games a bit underwhelming. Polis brings supply directly to the fore in a simple way, but very effective and persistent threat, really dictating several of your moves, and the threat of a supply cutoff by the opponent an ever-present and real danger that can mean the loss of the game (much as in the real wars!) The ever increasing cost of acquiring grain becomes quite a burden for continuing the war, and for Sparta the need to get the grain from the nearby island neighbors becomes very real. This supply need forces you to keep on your toes, forces you to have enough fleets and traders on hand. Loss of sea lane control can be devastating, and every time you have to move troops back in to reclaim lost lanes, you have to pay for it in prestige.

The battles are a bit random, but there is a little method to the madness. There are some educated guesses, timing of card play, but also a dose of sheer dumb chance. Fighting battles is always risky, but sometimes you are forced to do so to open up that pathway to vital goods that must be plundered. Oh yeah, the plundering: great mechanism. Sometimes you have some real decisions: a move to the location costs prestige. Plundering costs prestige. Can I get that value back in trade goods? Can I do it before my opponent? Should I just grab what I can when I can, or do I try to get more troops over there for a bigger haul? What if my opponent sieges my Polis when I am away plundering elsewhere?

Monitoring prestige level is a must. It is very dangerous to be low if the opponent starts massing for action, because responding with a troop move becomes near impossible. And most prestige only is awarded at turn end. Of course, a successful siege will net you some points, if you can roll high enough. Really sucks to spend prestige twice and still fail to roll that 3 to gain the Polis.

I’ve played five times now, and each game had a very different feel. One game there was not one war. One game there were so many, I lost track. Sometimes we’ve had food to spare, sometimes we both barely scared by. We’ve had blowouts and nail biters. Lots of projects built, and other games with almost none. I really like this, one of the best of 2012.

I am at heart an old-school wargamer. This is not really a wargame, but a strong Euro with a pointy helmet on. I really like this game. It is tough and can be really mean. You can do nasty things to starve your opponent, you can wail in anguish as your fleet it took you a painstaking effort to build is wiped away and your sea lanes closed about you, or see the opponent’s diplomat sway that critical Polis to his cause. Playtime finishes it during a weeknight session. It looks good, plays good, feels good. I hope you get a chance to try it out, and I eagerly look for the next ideas to come from Mr. Diaz.
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Anton Ber
France
Strasbourg
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Re: Sliding doen the Greecey Polis
Thank you for your awesome review: excellent summing up of the rules, and I thought your presentation of the strategic choices you have to make in the game one of the best and most concise I ever read on this site.

I just bought the game (crazily difficult to get!) from a shop in Belgium which shipped to France by Holland (!), and can't wait to try it!
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Michael Debije
Netherlands
Eindhoven
The Netherlands
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Thank you for your kind comments! Enjoy the game!
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