The Campfire: Cardboard politics in Ancient Greece

The best tabletop games make you feel like some scheming politician in a smokey backroom surrounded by your friends and prospective enemies. Everything feels real because everything is: the armies you command aren’t lines of code and pictures but instead bright primary color wooden cubes and plastic figurines out of an army men package circa 1990. You can hold your armies in your hand. Countries aren’t pixels but cardboard; if you reach out, you could touch your enemies. If you invade them, you move physical things on top of things that are theirs.

In my book the pinnacle of good war game design is Cyclades, Bruno Cathala and Ludovic Maublanc’s 2009 war game set in Ancient Greece. The game blends a competitve auction mechanic with a simplified war game: you bid on the favor of various Greek gods and use their powers to crush your opponents. To this base monsters of Greek myth, intense dice battles, and schemes are added.

But this is the Campfire, so let me tell you a story.

It’s Greece, B.C.E. I was the lord of aesthetically pleasing Corinth, a lovely shade of blue, duking it out with three other cities: Thebes, Sparta, and Athens. Corinth was the lowest of these places, a Greek podunk, before the aristocracy returned it to law and power. I modeled myself, instead, after Cypselus, the ancient tyrant who conquered the city and ruled for decades, founding colonies and building the city to something akin to glory.

Because believe you me, I was a tyrant. I bore all the hallmarks: I laughed at my opponent’s pain, I spitefully outbid them for gods they desire, and they hated me like a villain. I cannot recall if they hated me before I mocked them, and at this point it is old news. The player’s petty grudges are what was important: the black armies of Sparta reviling me, Athens and Thebes fearing me as a schemer, as a conqueror.

Cyclades is a game of prayers, and the gods of Greece were pragmatists. Each turn you offer up monetary prayers to the gods, and then your rivals—those bastards—cruelly outbid you for your god of choice. And these gods give you power: Ares lets you invade your neighbors, Poseidon lets you build navies the envy of the world, Zeus lets you cozy up to the gods, and Athena lets you recruit philosophers to your side. It’s Ares and Poseidon people want, though: taking other people’s islands is a lot more enticing than wooing the gods.

Like everyone, my starting position was complicated: one island on either side of the board, few options for friendly expansion. I crushed a native-inhabited island under my tyranny, then turned my eye to aggressive Sparta, spitting fire at all my borders. The Spartans, ruled by a mad king obsessed with smashing my tyranny, decided their best interests coincided with destroying my prized navy. Their ships smashed into my lone boats, leaving my islands stranded in the Aegean Sea. But the gods favored me: I committed priests to Zeus, I built temples in his honor, and soon had one Metropolis, a city crucial to controlling the seas, built high on the Western edge of the Cyclades. My neighbors advanced, as well: Thebes and Athens both possessed cities of their own, while Sparta crusaded against me.

One of the beauties of Cyclades is how quickly things can turn. Other city-states will wise up to how much you need certain islands, and they will pray harder (read: outbid) for them. Eventually, everyone can control the Aegean, and that’s when things get interesting: every year is on the knife edge, demanding you keep track of your opponent’s plans while finding time for your own.

And things began to go poorly for me. The mad king of Sparta sent his armies across the sea, crushing my least defended island in the middle of the Cyclades, leaving me reeling and expecting an attack on my metropolis. Furthermore, he discovered a kraken lurking around his back yard and crushed my ships under its considerable weight, leaving me without any semblance of naval power. I was left powerless to stop him: as more and more players squatted on the precipice of victory I was left wasting my points on gods I didn’t desire: the passive Zeus and Athena, never active Ares and Poseidon.

After the beast attacked, Corinth became embroiled in a dark age. We worshiped the gods, but the gods didn’t answer, none except lowly Apollon. With our crops ravaged and our money-making colonies snapped up, victory looked out of reach. We offered our prayers to Apollon while Sparta’s immense force ravaged our easternmost rock, a valueless piece of territory but one that featured many developments. Our temples were burnt, and our fortress bore a new banner. We were left with only one foothold in the Aegean, the metropolis. Where once mighty Corinth Blue had dominated the Aegean, now it was Thebes yellow and Athens red and Sparta black.

So we offered our prayers to Zeus, hoping for a boon that would turn the tide of battle. There wasn’t much to pray for: we had two armies, a single boat, and one island, no way to access any other island. We had the favor of Zeus, but a fat lot of good it did us: our enemies had more money, even more priests, and more armies. We prayed for the kraken, to spitefully destroy Sparta’s armies, or for a means to make a king. I was a tyrant, and a tyrant, if he cannot rule himself, demands to be kingmaker.

Instead, Zeus blessed us beyond our hopes: he gave us Pegasi, the ability to fly my two armies across the sea to pluck a lightly Metropolis from the rugged Northern islands. And just like that, it was over: my pretender tyrant, pushed onto the throne of the island colonies by prayers to Zeus and the massive crush of military muscle in the middle of the archipelago.

With one swift, bold, incredibly lucky stroke, I was the victor. My armies were small in number, but my cities stood absolute.

Luck is board gaming’s black sheep. Luck calls Monopoly trash and Risk even trashier. This isn’t a question in video games: video games involve the occasional spurt of bad luck, but for the most part video games are designed to test a player’s skill. Many board games see this as ideal: many of the intense European titles that dominate Board Game Geek’s top listings are as luckless as Final Fantasy.

Games like Cyclades embrace this luck. A skillful player will win, but the lucky player will give him fits. Ninety percent of the game demands the keen hand of strategy, but sometimes the chips don’t fall your way. Then there are the rare times they fall for you, and those are special occurrences indeed. And where board games excel is in making these victories, these defeats physical things: my soldiers were real, my islands real, the whole world a physical place I could touch and conquer.

(Images come from the esteemable Board Game Geek, who will tell you everything you’ve ever wanted to know about board games and a lot more.)