Polis Party!

Debate: blood, or a red-dyed plume? "Both" is not an acceptable answer.

Given the choice when playing a board game simulating a historical conflict, I’ll always pick the losers. Confederacy, Axis, Cavaliers, Optimates, Tories, FARC, Syndicate, Harkonnen. That way, if I lose — then hey, no worries. They were going to lose anyway. Can’t argue with history.

But if, on the other hand, I win… then I’m a wargame genius.

Polis: Fight for the Hegemony is all about one of my favorite historical flashpoints, the decades-long conflict between the Athenian Delian League and the Spartan Peloponnesian League. And yes, while this means I’m shouting “Dibs on Athens!” the instant it hits the table and plotting how to alter history so the overrated Spartans don’t win again, it’s also a great game for a few other reasons.

Such a rich period. I'd love to play POLIS 2: THEBES VS MACEDON, or POLIS 3: MACEDON VS EVERYBODY.

Sparta vs. Athens.

This Review Will Never Parrot That Moronic “This is [Blank]…” Quote

To illustrate what makes Polis such an insightful game, let’s open with a hypothetical situation.

You’re Athens, of course. Maybe it’s because you’re like me, and you wonder if you can champion history’s losers to better outcomes, to more auspicious— oh, you don’t care about that? Fine. Fine.

So you’re Athens. You’ve recently lost an incursion onto the Peloponnese Peninsula, a whole bunch of hoplites mulched somewhere around Argos. You have dominance of most of the sea, but you’ll need more sandals on the ground in order to survive.

What do you do? Well, naturally, you want to recruit some more hoplites. However, you need metal to outfit your soldiers with dorata (spears) and hoplons (etymology sidenote: “shield,” where the word “hoplite” comes from!) (they were actually usually made of wood, not metal, but whatever), but you recently traded your metal stockpiles to Illyria. It seemed like a good idea at the time, not only because it deprived metal-rich Sparta of the trade route, but also because you really needed the silver, which can stand in for nearly any other resource because it’s sparkly. Unfortunately, you can’t use the silver to buy those hoplites because you already spent it bribing a philosopher over to your side. Which was a good move, but didn’t leave you any change, not even a single hemitartemorion. That’s a mere 1/48th of a drachm, so you know you’re poor.

Protip: Invade Sicily.

The stage is set…

Let’s Hear Some Solutions

Okay, so where can you get more metal? You’ve already collected from the allied territories of Akarnania and Boiotia, so they’re depleted for the rest of the round. You can’t get into the south — your attempted incursion is what got you into this mess in the first place — and Sparta has already pillaged Achaia and Arkadia anyway. That leaves Thessalia to the west, but since you aren’t allied with its capital city at Naupaktos, you aren’t allowed to tax its peasants.

Fine. Maybe you could ally with Naupaktos. There are two ways to do this. The mean way is to march over and besiege it. The nice way would be to send your Proxenos (diplomat) to instigate a civil war, execute the current regime, and install leaders friendly to the Delian League, but puppet civil wars are expensive and you don’t have the necessary silver.

So the mean way it is. Oops, except both marching and besieging require prestige, the measure of the potency of your leadership, and you don’t have much of that after you banked it on winning the battle down south. Apparently your armies and fleets won’t be committed to much of anything unless you can impress the fickle Athenian Assembly.

At this point giving up and ending your turn might be the logical conclusion, but thankfully you’ve spotted a solution. Your overseas army collects silver in Ionia (which doesn’t have any metal or you wouldn’t have had this problem in the first place), your Proxenos bribes its way past an enemy fleet to get into Thessalia, where it instigates a civil war in Nauptaktos. This impresses the Assembly and gives you more prestige, not to mention control over Thessalia. Now your army can march in, forcibly collect a bunch of metal, and let you train a new generation of hoplites. There’s briefly the issue of where to raise them, since they must be levied from the existing population; Athens is depleted and you don’t see any point in raising them overseas, so you decide to levy them from Thebai, in a perfect position to help defend from opportunistic Spartan raids northwards.

Problem solved. Easy.

You have to play to understand just how tense getting those last few sheaves of wheat can be.

Where much of the action takes place.

Always Two Steps Ahead of a Malthusian Catastrophe

If it isn’t already abundantly clear, Polis: Fight for the Hegemony is rife with interconnected systems, a thriving ecosystem of competing resources, demands, and considerations. There are basics like wine and olive oil, mostly good for trade with foreign powers, and of course metal and wood for building armies and fleets, and rare silver for nearly anything if you can get your hands on it. But more importantly, there’s prestige and wheat and population, the three resources you can’t do without.

It’s also notable that two of these are also your victory points, provided you don’t get annihilated by your opponent by the end of four very intense periods of escalating conflict. Whoever’s managed to sway the most population to their side, added to the higher prestige, wins the game. Which is one reason that spending these resources is so agonizing. It’s absolutely necessary to spend prestige to march and fight with your troops and fleets, and just as necessary to press your population into military service, but both whittle at your final score.

If it sounds complicated, well, it is. At first, anyway. This is one of those games that upon first hearing the rules explained to you, you’ll sit and stare at the board, eyes glazed and mouth slightly ajar. You’ll pick up pieces and put them down again. You’ll ask dumb questions. You’ll make some mistakes, like forgetting to save prestige for collecting resources or trying to make a trade deal with Persia even though the route is occupied by your opponent.

But when it clicks, it does so with sound and fury. You’ll see the logic and importance and import behind each resource and each action — and more importantly, behind each reaction, because in Polis, every single possible move has far more gravity than the mere moving of an army or the blockading of a port. Moving means you’re depleting your prestige, your people’s willingness to obey your regime. Trading means you’re blocking routes for an extended period of time. Venturing your Proxenos out from safety can win enemy cities to your side in a flurry of civil war, or get him captured. Completing a project like a festival, philosopher, or theater, gives long-term benefits and extra prestige, but makes a city that much more of a target. Reaching the end of the round without enough food will trigger a Malthusian Catastrophe as your people starve and rebel, your league of city-states collapsing because you lacked foresight.

It’s difficult to learn, unforgiving in practice, and revels in every single opening you’ll leave your opponent. It knows they’ll spot them, and it knows they’ll gut you.

But boy, it’s one hell of a game.

Macedon is cool with it. Sparta and Athens can rampage around, pillaging and boasting and spitting on the sidewalks having the run of the land. Because Macedon knows, soon enough, this tide be turnin'.

Rampant Spartan armies in the north!

Much of the brilliance of Polis: Fight for the Hegemony lies in its constant attempts at opportunism contrasted with the oppressive demands of your growing league. You’ll have a bang-up turn, capturing a half-dozen city states and nabbing all the best trade routes and maybe even throwing in a project or two to ensure your long-term survival. And then you’ll realize you can’t feed seventeen units of population, you don’t have enough prestige to make any more aggressive maneuvers, you don’t have enough olive oil to make that last big deal, and your territory is riddled with vulnerabilities.

Since it only accommodates two players, each game is a battle of wits, two minds bent on better manipulating their uncooperative economy, their fickle allies, their uncertain military actions, their too-little-too-late diplomatic and trade efforts. A single game can witness control of the seas, trade routes, entire swaths of territory, and the upper hand swinging wildly between players. It’s also one of those rare games where avoiding the devastating randomness of combat is a good thing, as you do everything in your power to avoid the soldier-killing and fleet-sinking quagmires that are classical Greek skirmishes.

Some people have complained about the combat and sieges being too random, the gameplay too unforgiving of players who fall behind. Between those and a few exploitative options, Polis falls short of perfection. Still, in any game with so many complex interactions between military, diplomatic, economic, and civic actions, there are going to be a few glitches. That there are so few is damn impressive.

Polis: Fight for the Hegemony is an incredibly smart game, and it demands smart players at the helm. It’s difficult to find a copy these days, but a new print run is coming later this year, and I could not recommend it more even if it were a historical loser.

Posted on June 19, 2014, in Board Game and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 19 Comments.

  1. digitalpariah76

    It’s clearly a plume. Made of blood.

    …Damn!

  2. Thanks for bringing more attention to this great game. Polis is without exception the best damn board game I’ve ever played! A few hours ago I just ended another marathon session with my friend that lasted through the night. The entire time we were both so totally captivated by our gradually developing logistics and brinkmanship plans that we hardly noticed the hours passing by, and it’s been like that with every one of the 20+ games of Polis we’ve played. The way that each turn’s decisions in this game are so precariously balanced against the tactics of your opponent or even your own long term strategies is amazing and keeps me in rapt attention the entire time I’m playing. I keep saying this game deserves a larger audience, so I’m glad to see you reviewing it because Polis has flown under the radar for far too long.

    • I agree, Polis has definitely been a stealth hit for far too long. I hope the upcoming reprint gets it some more recognition.

      Out of curiosity (because you mentioned the hours disappearing as you play), have you ever had a game of Polis last just two hours? The box says 90-120 minutes, but every single one of my plays has been twice that.

      • Like you, our games usually last longer than the 90-120 minutes advertised on the box; more like 2.5 to 4.5 hours generally. Our six hour game last night was definitely an outlier. I think it’s fair to say this game lends itself to periods of AP for those so inclined, only because there are so many delicious decisions to consider on almost every turn. Still, I don’t consider that a negative comment on game play.

  3. Great review, especially the example of the escalating and re-escalating decision space. From the one time I played this, that’s exactly how my thinking played out.

    However, I’m more interested in that list of “losers,” and wondering which games go with them? Here’s my guesses:

    Confederacy: pretty much any Civil War game? I don’t know if you’ve ever reviewed anything set in the Civil War, at least not since I’ve been reading SB.
    Axis: hmm… Too many options here too. I thought you would have listed “Bradley” because of 1944: Race to the Rhine, but the Axis isn’t available in that game.
    Cavaliers: Cruel Necessity?
    Optimates: Julius Caesar?
    Tories: 1775: Rebellion, for sure
    FARC: Andean Abyss
    Syndicate: Cuba Libre
    Harkonnen: Dune?

  4. incredible review of the best game i’ve ever played. you summed it up perfectly. thank you!! i just finished a marathon game with Lee, the above poster, and we had to talk this morning to rehash. can’t think of another game since i got in to newer gaming that i was still pleasantly perplexed by after 20+ plays. every action is enjoyably agonizing… 🙂

  5. Sounds awesome, but remember when you used to review solo games? You know, the games I actually play?

    Stop teasing me with games I’ll never get to experience. 😛

    • I keep meaning to catch up on a few solo games (mostly Navajo Wars, which looks fantastic), but Baby Cate sucks up a lot of my gaming time these days. I thought I’d have more time for solo games once she arrived, but now I have no idea why I ever thought that.

      I was going to mention that Todd Sanders is sending me one of his latest designs, but I believe that’s actually a two-player game…

  6. regarding play length: last night was epic, but by far our longest game. i’d say average is 2.5 hours, but that’s including a quarter or half that have not made it all the way through 5B. on full games, yeah, 2.5 to 3 hours. like Lee mentioned, more than any game i’ve played, i don’t notice the minutes becoming hours. but, that’s a substantial bit more than suggested. we’re both pretty experienced gamers, and we’re probably nearing 30 plays–it’s not from a lack of basic understanding of the game. so, yeah, i would agree 90-120 is probably generous. but dang, what a game! i keep saying it, but it’s the best game i’ve ever played. not many games keep my up thinking about them after i’ve returned home. this one does every time.

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