Civilization games face a particular conundrum. It’s a small thing, even a niggle. I wouldn’t even describe it as solvable. It’s just there, always putting up a fight, demanding a reckoning from designers and forbearance from players. Hardly fair that it always pops to mind when I sit down to play one of these things.
That conundrum is movement. Literally, how your units move across the map. To use it as a metaphor to describe Scott DeMers’ Hellenica, imagine an ancient army departing their city-state, well-provisioned and suitably optimistic, supported by baggage trains and ships and combined arms and allies, only to falter exactly one step short of capturing the city of their oldest rival.
Where some civilization games are foxes, ranging across centuries or even millennia, others are hedgehogs, examining a single period under the resolution of a finer lens. Hellenica falls into the latter camp. As its title would indicate, Hellenica casts its gaze upon the Hellenic world. Armies consist of massed hoplite infantry, cavalry exist but are only drawn from the elite hippeis, and naval combat largely comes down to triremes smashing into one another. In the fashion of the ancient Greeks, there are also meddling philosophers and architectural wonders and, oh, the occasional cyclops chucking stones at passing vessels. Whether the monsters and gods are literal beings or mere human explanations of natural phenomena is left unsaid.
It all feels very Greek, is what I mean to say, even if there’s no real differentiation between Sparta and Athens, let alone the less-known factions like Corinth and Corcyra. Their distinction is purely geographical: whether they’re situated near the edge of the map or surrounded by foes, how their stretch of coastline dictates their naval war, their varying access to mines or the oracular temple at Delphi. Given the game’s weight class, which is firmly in the middle tier along with its three-hour playtime, the levelness of the playing field isn’t surprising.
Nor is its rather traditional approach to the usual civgame formula. Players construct buildings; those buildings produce soldiers and technologies and godly powers; these are used to crawl across the landscape until the principles of friction and human nature bring them into conflict. I’ve contended in the past that every game about human civilization necessarily makes an argument about the structure and character of those civilizations. Hellenica strains that theory. Its Hellenic world is many events and tales and periods rolled into one. What it isn’t concerned with is the stuff that made Greece one of the cradles of Western philosophy. Whether that’s refreshing or disappointing will depend on your opinion of what board games can and should accomplish. To me, it’s a missed opportunity.
I can hear the refrain now: “What about the game?” I completely agree. Let’s talk about that. Because where Hellenica is uninteresting as a statement, its systems are sturdy enough to prop up an empire — if only a corrupt one.
At its heart, Hellenica is about optimization. Nowhere is this more apparent than in how it weds its action system to all those plastic buildings. Every turn requires you to place a single cube, selected from a menu of options that will be comfortingly familiar to anybody who’s played a civgame. Worship earns favor tokens, research unlocks new perks, there are options for training and building and — look, you know the drill. But this is where Hellenica becomes interesting, because these actions can be multiplied. Placing a cube on a barracks will train a hoplite. Simple. Placing a cube on a barracks in a region where there are three barracks will produce three hoplites. Now we’re cooking with Greek fire. This encourages specialization, which in turn encourages conquest. A well-rounded city-state might be able to research and furnish ships and appease the gods, but it won’t do any of these things as effectively as separate regions devoted solely to a single task.
Weak stuff first. The buildings are boxy in that columned Greek style that makes them difficult to distinguish when viewed from afar — or when they’re the diameter of a thumbnail and colored a bland gray, as is the case here. There are also a lot of them. Eight types in all. Oh, and every temple is dedicated to a specific god, indicated by a token placed beneath it. This transforms construction into a search for the proper baggie and every other action into a game of “differentiate the market from the barracks.” Some games revel in asking young eyes to spot small details, but a title about the sweep of civilization should not be one of them. On Tabletop Simulator, the buildings are color-coded. In the physical version, they seem designed for maximum frustration. Perhaps worse, certain actions are so minor that they’re almost perfunctory. The supply action triggers movement, battles, and possibly the wrath of the gods. Worship earns you a favor token. Now go around the table a few times doing your bookkeeping actions while everybody else goes to war. It’s a gait that’s liable to throw out your back.
Despite the unevenness, there’s a lot to recommend about Hellenica’s approach. Turns are pacey; even with seven players, it’s a pleasant surprise how soon your go comes around. On the map, there are real decisions to be made over which building to place. Since specialization is prized so highly, it makes sense to plop three stables into a single region. But actions are limited enough that multiple buildings represent a significant investment of time. Wouldn’t it be worthwhile to build two stables and a shipyard? Shouldn’t you have some sort of naval presence, even if it isn’t as maximal as it could be? How many academies can a single city-state contain, anyway? Would it be worth a construction cube to build city walls, given the proximity of that aggressive neighbor? Nah, city walls are for weaklings. Decisions like these are Hellenica at its best, and you’ll make them once or twice per round. It helps that DeMers has figured out how to distill their outcomes into an artificial intelligence system that’s both robust and streamlined. Need a few extra players? Hellenica’s bots are admirably done, expanding and building with very little accounting, which is doubly impressive when their entire board state is effectively handled by some accounting. They even hold grudges, a real feat in a hobby filled with dullard routines that are easily gamed by conscious players.
This speed adds some genuine velocity to the proceedings, but it can also come across as too much hustle. The main offender is the game’s approach to victory. Similar to the public and secret objectives from Twilight Imperium, everyone is presented with a pair of “pathos” objectives that anybody can accomplish, while also drawing a hand of three “ethos” cards that only their holder can pursue. First player to meet three of these five criteria wins outright.
It’s a solid idea. When the cards fall the right way, they make a good alternative to the victory points that are more customary of the genre. Everybody must jostle for control over a few shared incentives while chasing their own factional goals, while also keeping an eye on everybody else.
Unfortunately, the cards don’t often seem to land upon the necessary arrangement. Imbalanced goals are one problem. The difficulty of learning so many cards is another. Perhaps worst, it isn’t uncommon for somebody to achieve the requisite objectives entirely by surprise. Out of four plays, only one reached a satisfying conclusion. The others were cut short well before the crescendo: armies massed but only lightly engaged, borders not fully established, divine invocations choking on the inhale before the holy words could be uttered. The processes and turns had indeed been pleasantly swift, but came across as a prelude that then skipped right to the final declaration of victory. In the end, the victor didn’t reveal their objectives triumphantly, as the prize of a hard-fought campaign, but rather with an apologetic shrug.
As for the movement of units? Trundling, especially over land, in a way that lends itself to asking “Are we there yet?” The fiddliness of the process is telling; some units may only move once in a round, while others can move twice and others still may move as many times as they’re activated. These states are communicated with yet another action cube. Although only when their movement is finished; for cavalry, you’ll simply have to remember whether they’ve moved on a previous activation or not. Toss in elite markers and you get a soupy quagmire of soldiers and buildings and tokens. As in other civilization games, movement in Hellenica is a telling conundrum. Here it reflects both the game’s difficulty arriving at a suitable conclusion before being asked to sort all those pieces back into their respective baggies and its indecision between being a light and dicey wargame or a serious civgame. The result perches uncomfortably between short and long, light and heady.
To be clear, my frustration doesn’t stem from Hellenica being a bad game. It’s because Hellenica stands on the cusp of greatness. DeMers’ artificial intelligence is a revelation, acting fiercely but not unbelievably, and smoothly filling somebody’s sandals when the game outlasts them. If only we’d had such a system when Brock abandoned us in the final act of Twilight Imperium! Furthermore, with a few tweaks to individual actions, Hellenica’s rapid movement around the table could provide the moment-to-moment engagement that’s admittedly lacking from too many of its peers.
Instead, Hellenica resembles the army that I painstakingly assembled and maneuvered within reach of an enemy capital: so large that it didn’t quite fit into its province (or box), weighted down with tokens, and informed that somebody in a faraway land had achieved their victory condition before I could seize the city. Sorry, boys. Time to pack it up and march home.
A complimentary copy was provided.