I played my first game of Cyclades last night, and it’s definitely a game I’d like to revisit. To be more precise, I played my first most-of-a-game: as everyone was agonizing over potential endgame scenarios, the coffee shop closed and we had to pack up and leave. For the record, I’m just going to assume that I was about to win.
Cyclades is the kind of game that seems super intimidating at first. The board, a series of islands – the titular Cyclades – is divided into something of a grid and is covered in iconography; the pieces are detailed miniatures of troops and ships; there are a variety of cards, cardboard pieces, dice, and tracks for your pieces; and each player has a screen that is covered with dozens of inscrutable icons but, Euro-style, not a single word. Despite all this complexity, though, the game is actually pretty easy to pick up. My first playthrough didn’t feel like a wasted learning experience; I felt like I actually was playing the game.
The game is set in ancient Greece and has players seeking the favor of five gods – Ares, Poseidon, Zeus, Athena, and Apollo – as they amass an army of soldiers and fleet of ships to help them claim, defend, and fortify various islands, and ultimately set up a pair of cities. Along the way, they’ll likely summon the help of a cyclops, kraken, medusa, and many other monsters. Every round, players bid against each other for the favor of this god or that, and thus the chance to use that god’s multiple abilities. You win by having control of two metropolises – or, more accurately, control of two islands with metropolises on them. There are three different ways to get a metropolis: build one by paying each of four gods to build you one of the necessary buildings, which will then, Monopoly style, transform into a metropolis; collect four otherwise useless philosopher cards from Athena; or, and this is important, wait for someone else to build a metropolis and then go conquer their island.
I’m normally not too keen on bidding games, but I enjoyed this one, probably because the game can get very intense. You spend a lot of the game feeling that, if things go your way, you can make tremendous gains on your next turn, but, at the same time, if someone decides to target you, you can suffer devastating losses. And the fact that you need two metropolises to win but can also lose one in battle means that you can’t really build that first one until you have the means to also get the second one, and quickly seal victory before someone steals your city from you. But this also means that, because of public information, everyone will know you’re about to win and will therefore gang up on you. Just when I thought I had quietly sealed victory while everyone else was distracted by their military campaigns, someone pointed out that I could win on my next turn, setting off a bidding frenzy to (successfully) deny me access to the gods I needed. I went from about-to-win to hopeless in a matter of seconds.
It’s a pretty short trip from the top of Olympus to the pit of Hades, in other words, and this perpetual tension makes the game very exciting. At one point I found myself kind of pacing around, World Series of Poker style, waiting for the other four players to take their turns, because there was nothing I could do but wait to see whether or not they would choose to decimate me before I had a chance to put the next stage of my plan into effect.
The game’s strongest asset is probably its multiple-paths-to-victory design. If you’re outbid, you can usually still salvage your turn if you adjust your strategy a bit. And, the math of the game seems to make changing strategies a viable option. If you haven’t been building up troops, for example, it’s not like you’ll need six turns to build a competitive army. You never feel totally out of the game, even if things aren’t going your way. The simultaneous potential for victory and defeat is the hallmark of great game design, and this game has it in spades.
Granted, I was playing the game with four other first-timers while an experienced player walked us all through it, so I have no idea what the experience will be like when I’m matched up against a different mix of people. I also don’t know how the game scales; it plays two to five, with different boards for different numbers of players, but obviously I have just the one five-player game to go on. But what I do know is that I definitely want to try it again.