Sunday, May 23, 2010

Release the Kraken! (Cyclades x2)

Birthday money and a Paypal miss-hap has led me to owning a few new games. Most prominent among them is Cyclades.


A bit of trivia: Cyclades is correctly pronounced "KEYK-laTHayz" (Κυκλάδες) and not "Sigh-klayds". Who knew?

(Kozure, did. Apparently)

Cyclades is yet another game about civilizations rising and falling in the Mediterranean, though with Gods and mythological creatures in the mix. So, is it just another Mare Nostrum (w/ mythology expansion)?

No. It really isn't.

If I had to describe it in a nutshell, I'd say it's a kind of euro/ Risk lovechild with mythological creatures and fantastic production quality.

The board shows a map of a generic expanse of water filled with little islands. There are predetermined setups for 2-5 players (and a clever board which offers different combinations of islands for each player count). Each player starts with 2 armies and 2 fleets. The goal is to be the first to acquire two metropolis, either through building your own or conquering someone else's.

Five gods are overseeing the action. Zeus, Poseidon, Ares, Athena and Apollon:

Each game turn has two main phases, an auction to determine which god's favour you have won this turn (i.e. which ability you can use) followed by an action phase where the actual turn is played out.

1) The player who wins Zeus gets a priest which gives a discount on future bidding and can purchase a temple.
2) The player who wins Athena gets a philosopher which gives a player a metropolis if a set of four can be turned in and can purchase a university.
3) Ares allows a player to purchase and move armies and purchase a fortress.
4) Poseidon allows a player to purchase and move fleets and purchase a port.
5) Apollon gives a player gold and a cornucopia that increases future income.

The auction is Amun-Re/ Vegas Showdown style, and the outcome determines turn order in addition to the specific actions available to the player. Three mythological creatures are available for purchase each turn (from a deck of 20 or so), each giving the purchaser a game-bending one use power.

Over the course of the game, players build up their armies, build buildings, acquire priests and philosophers. Invasions happen. Krakens are released.

So, is it RISK? It's certainly more complex than RISK, but it's still fundamentally a relatively simple game about building up armies and beating each other up. It's like RISK, but moving armies and attacking is only possible if you win the auction for the favour of Aries. It's RISK, but a mythological creature can swoop in a turn someone else's plan on it's head. It's RISK, but there are multiple paths to victory, not just conquest. It's RISK, but it plays in about 2 hours.

In truth, these changes makes Cyclades very little like RISK, but then again... it somehow scratches a similar itch. I'd say it's quite a successful hybrid of euro and american design. You have to adjust to the tempo of bidding on the gods you need at the right time, figure out how to best take advantage of the creatures available, set up opportunities to threaten and/or defeat your neighboring islands, etc. It works well, and I liked it a lot. Playing with three players there is an adjustment to the normal god auctions that alternates which ones are available on a given round. Knowing that a particular auction won't come back for a turn or two gives me the feeling similar to the order selection in Mr. Jack.

We played two sessions. In the first, we were just getting a sense of how things worked together and really didn't capitalize on the creatures much. While others were floating large fleets and amassing great armies, I was quietly building buildings. I used the power of the cyclops to convert one of my buildings to the last one I needed to build my second metropolis and won the game.

The second was much more hard fought. Shemp made a move about 30 minutes in and stole a metropolis from Kozure. He was bringing in +/- 10 gold a round and seemed unstoppable. Just as he was about to build his last building, Kozure stole half his money using the Griffon and unleashed the Kraken on his massive fleet and reduced it to kindling. Kozure also managed to steal a large, profitable island from him. Shemp was not close to winning anymore.

Lucky for me, I was. I needed either one last philosopher or a university. Trouble was, both of those need Athena and between Kozure and Shemp there was always someone with enough money to outbid me. Earlier in the game, Kozure had been forced to abandon an island with a few buildings. If I could get there, I would have the university I needed and therefore win the game. They set Medusa on me (troops are frozen on the island, and cannot leave), but I knew I would get my second metropolis shortly (then again, Shemp's earlier near annihilation reminded me that nothing is assured) . On the turn I made it, Shemp had managed a second metropolis we were therefore tied. I had more gold, and won the tiebreaker.

Shemp could have won if he had noticed that Polyphemus could have been purchased to make my fleets scatter and prevent access to the island I stole to win the game. I record this purely for posterity. Honest.

Oh, and "Don't s*** f*** my bowl noodle".

Update 2010 05 25

A few additional thoughts:

1) One of the critical game design improvements this has over Mare Nostrum is a built in timer to force the end-game. Each round, someone gets a philosopher. 4 philosophers = 1 metropolis. Mare Nostrum has other advantages, not the least of which is greater depth of play, but it requires more players, it's longer and less aproachable.
2) One of the major advantages Cyclades has over most games of this type is that it apparently plays well across it's entire range of players. Most seem to require the maximum to work well (Mare Nostrum, A Game of Thrones, etc), and finding that many players is not always easy.
3) I worry the game length will go up to high with more players, though. I can't think of anything that would counterbalance the added time required for a 4 player game compared to a 3 player game, for example. Given that our 3 player games this week took 2 hours each, this could be an issue.


  1. When I played Cyclades, the game for comparison that came to my mind was Antike, not Risk. Your thoughts?

  2. You know, I'd say there are as many differences as there are similarities in both cases.

    Antike is a no luck game. It also does not feature auctions. There is also the tech-tree which has no equivalent here. I see why you would make the comparison, though. RISK isn't exactly a beloved game. There is definitely a level of design skill applied here which succeeds in making Cyclades "more" than basic RISK, and in this way it does remind me of Antike (though Antike has disappointed me over time... I don't really feel a need to go back to it much)

    I made the comparison to RISK partially due to the luck of the die roll + luck of the creatures/ god order coming out in the way that you want them to.

    In reality, I'd say it occupies a nice middle-ground as a fun, relatively simple yet strategic and satisfying development/ conquest game.

  3. If I really had to make a comparison, I'd say it's a simpler Mare Nostrum. That game achieves a similar balance between euro and american design, but is more complex and requires more players.