Know how you can tell I’m a phony wargamer? I don’t play against myself. Sure, I’ll play solo, but that’s a different thing entirely. I’m talking about playing both sides. Working against my own interests. White knight takes black bishop. Simply can’t do it. What if I need that black bishop’s services next turn? As sure as rain makes pavement smell better, I’m picking a favorite and leading them to victory.
That is, until Mark Herman’s Peloponnesian War. First published way back in 1991 and only recently given a fresh printing, it’s possible that this is the finest play-against-yourself solo system ever crafted.
If you know any history, you’ve probably heard tell of the Peloponnesian War. Think of it like a prototype world war, its two belligerent city-states — Athens and Sparta — gradually drafting alliances and forming leagues and confederations until the entire Aegean Sea was embroiled in conflict. Eventually even distant Syracuse and the Achaemenid Empire were drawn into the fight. Its outcome reshaped the balance of power in the Greek world, Athenian supremacy lost for a brief period of Spartan ascendancy. Emphasis on the “brief.”
We’ve walked this road with Mark Herman before, although with a very different gait. Pericles was one of the smartest games of 2017, pitching the war as one of statecraft and political gridlock, where your domestic rivals were every bit as treacherous and liable to disrupt your stratagems as your actual opponents on the battlefield. By contrast, Herman’s Peloponnesian War is imbued with the genius of Alcibiades, the opportunistic military leader who led Athens into Sicily, then Sparta against his hometown of Athens, then Persia against Athens, and finally returned to Athens to serve as strategos against Sparta.
To put it more bluntly, you’re going to swap sides a lot.
This isn’t to say you’re always in control of both sides. Rather, each turn sees you taking command of a single city-state and pitting it against some functional spreadsheet- and dice-determined directives. At the outset of the campaign, for example, you’re handed command of Athens. There’s a rebellion up north occupying the bulk of your forces; meanwhile, Sparta opens with the “attack Athens” strategy, meaning a massive column of hoplites and cavalry is on the verge of bull-rushing one of your major bases in Attica.
For the most part, the conflict revolves around exchanged operations, military expeditions conducted from a sky-high vantage that might consist of multiple assemblies, voyages, and battles. There’s a certain remoteness to these maneuvers. Rather than overseeing the minutiae, your role is closer to that of a ruling council. You’re given a general, armies and fleets, and hopefully enough knowledge of how the rules work to make effective strategic calls. For instance, if you target a distant enemy port, your general will first travel to nearby “assembly spaces” to muster the proper troops, then beeline via the shortest possible route to his objective, ravaging enemy farms and dodging intercepting forces along the way. These interceptions can prompt multiple skirmishes or even battles. If your force survives the journey — and sometimes that’s as laconic an if as the one the Spartans delivered to Philip II when he promised to raze their city — they’ll likely settle in for a siege.
The same goes the other direction, with the game’s spreadsheets and dice dictating opposing policy. Targets are selected. If the enemy has enough troops and talents on hand, they’ll make a similar beeline into your territory. It’s so automated that you aren’t even given direct control over which direction a general will travel when they stand at a crossroads. Both your generals and the enemy’s will travel via the shortest route, with a roll randomly breaking ties. Look forward to a lot of counting spaces and you won’t be disappointed.
Commanding your forces at such a remove has two contrasting effects. The first is the aforementioned remoteness. When a general may travel by two equidistant roads, opts to tread the one that leads him directly past an enemy garrison, and is successfully intercepted and captured before his force can accomplish anything, the result is a table-thumping temper tantrum.
But isn’t that precisely how a ruling council or king would react after paying to raise an army and entrusting their care to Thasyllus, only to receive the report that he’d blundered them into disaster? Peloponnesian War’s strategic approach walks a careful tightrope, offering means to affect the outcome of expeditions and battles without ever guaranteeing total certainty. Skirmishes can result in casualties no matter how many hoplites you’ve lined up. Sieges are testy propositions no matter how clever your commander, because walls are tall and tough. Huge armies might smash smaller ones with superior cavalry or miles-long rows of hoplites, but you’re still subject to the roll of a die. Worse, too overwhelming a victory can be so inevitable that it won’t rattle your rival city-state’s confidence.
And make no mistake, this entire war is about confidence, not total annihilation. Oh, sure, it’s possible to shatter Athens or Sparta directly, but there are enough conditions and provisos in a rulebook thick with them that you probably won’t bother. It’s far easier to chip away at your enemy’s resolve with endless plains of ravaged countryside, endless rebellions among their allies, and careful selection of spots for garrisoned armies. This quickly becomes the entire game. Rather than smooshing two forces against each other like kissing teenagers whose retainers have locked up, it’s far more effective to swing around a flank, burn a dozen cities’ outskirts in one operation, and sever enemy supply lines.
Of course, the danger of raising hell is that you’ll be its inheritor soon enough.
If the strategic layer is serviceable, the solo system is sublime.
It works like this. At the end of a turn, both sides are evaluated. The bellicosity of your citizenry ticks up or down according to your strategy confidence index, which is a fancy way of tracking the outcome of all those battles, sieges, rebellions, and ravaged territories. If both sides are sufficiently exhausted, a multi-turn armistice will give both sides a breather to retreat and rearm. More often somebody will still be raring for a fight, propelling the war into the following turn.
You, on the other hand, may be given a new command. If your performance was up to snuff, producing a positive confidence index, you’ll be rolling to switch sides. Sometimes you’ll stay securely in place, basically giving you an extra turn to beat the stuffing out of the same rival. Other times… well, you’ve flip-flopped onto the other side, and it’s your task to contend with all the crap you pulled last turn.
This system is utterly brilliant, largely because of how it leverages the inherent weaknesses of cardboard artificial intelligence. No combination of spreadsheet and random rolls is going to replicate the sinister intelligence of a human being capable of gaming a closed system like Peloponnesian War’s strategic simulation. Often, the best a game can do is to throw volume at you. Plague cubes. Overwhelming opposing armies. Bonus combat modifiers for enemy troops. Event cards.
Peloponnesian War doesn’t need to resort to such trickery. When you’re playing as Athens, you’re encouraged to be as ruthless as possible in order to drop Sparta’s confidence and therefore her bellicosity. Go ahead and game the system. Place armies so they bottleneck troops coming out of the Peloponnese. Indiscriminately ravage the coastline. Capture Corinth or Thebes or Gythium to squeeze their reinforcements. The better you perform, the higher the odds that you’ll be switching sides next turn. When Alcibiades arrives in Sparta, now he’s faced with garrisons prohibiting his movement, low funds, limited troops. And not because Mark Herman decided to pit you against terrible odds. Because you did. All the joys of struggling against a human opponent and the delight of crushing a spreadsheet bot, wrapped within a single package.
Of course, at some point it becomes possible to think more than one step ahead. To game the game, as it were. Until that point, the exception-laden rules are granular enough that you’ll often realize you’re charting the same course as those generals who raided Sicily or cut supply lines in the northern Aegean or sought a massive standoff to crush the enemy will. Historical accuracy from movement exceptions and bonus income. Every time the rules seem overwhelming — and they will, especially alongside some pesky errors — remember what they produce. Now if only the map would have included a few extra visual reminders about which regions would prompt Sparta’s Helot uprising.
In the end, despite plenty of variety in the form of random events and optional scenarios, Peloponnesian War doesn’t produce infinite play. Not that this should be considered a deal-breaker. It holds that in common with plenty of solo games. More interesting are the ways it sets itself apart. As a portrayal of the logistics, grand campaigning, and exhausted will of its city-states, it does a fine job. As a solo system that effectively pits you against yourself, it’s unrivaled.
Hopefully other solo designers will take a page from its book. Rival this thing. Emulate its brilliance. Be as shameless as Alcibiades and rip it off. Please.
A complimentary copy was provided.