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When I heard that MATAGOT once again would be returning to the SPIEL 09 with another big boardgame, I was absolutely delighted because they have chosen to implement one of my favourite themes: Ancient Greece! In 2008 Parker had released Deukalion as the last game in their unsuccessful series of author games, and despite its unusual use of meeples (in combat they were rolled like dice) and the specially fashioned dice cup the game only had been received with mediocre interest by the gaming scene. Looking at the new Cyclades, the game definitely outclasses Deukalion considering the design of all game components.
In Cyclades each of the participating players assumes leadership of one of the great Greek city states, and all of these states have sent an expedition force of armies and ships to the Cyclades archipelago in order to establish supremacy in this area. Thus, each player starts with two islands occupied by one army figure, and on a space adjacent to each island a fleet has been placed. During the course of the game the players will aim to construct Metropolises on two of their islands either by trading in Philosopher cards or by replacing a collection of one of each of the four types of buildings existing in the game (Port, Fortress, Temple and University). However, as indicated the players just possess two fleets and two armies and five gold coins at the beginning of the game, and neither philosophers nor buildings can be seen anywhere on the gameboard.
The actions of the players are dominated by offerings made to the five Gods (Zeus, Ares, Poseidon, Athena and Apollo), and the player who bids the highest offering for a specific God will receive the services of that God for the ongoing round. However, the God Apollo always will be available, and he is the only God who may be chosen by more than one player and who does not require any kind of payment from the players who have chosen him. For the other Gods special tiles exist in order to identify which Gods may be bid on during the ongoing round, but the rules prescribe that there will be always one God tile less than the number of participating players, so that at least one player has to settle with Apollo each turn. The bidding on the God tiles is regulated in a pretty straightforward way, with a player offering an amount to gain the favour of a God. Then the other players in turn either have the possibility to chose another God or to overbid an already placed bid, and if a player is overbid he has to retract his bid while at the same time making a new bid on another God. This way the bidding (and outbidding) continues until all players have made a bid either on one of the available God tiles or on ever-present, free of cost Apollo.
As indicated, the Gods will determine which kinds of actions are available to the players, but while there are some differences all Gods apart from Apollo share the common attribute that they allow a player to call upon the aid of a mythological creature (as long as the creature cards for the current round last). The cost of a creature goes down from turn to turn if is has not been chosen, and a further reduction of the price may be reached by each Temple which a player has built. The player simply pays the indicated amount of money to the bank and takes the corresponding creature card, and the creature then may be used during the player's current turn. Most of the creatures are monsters like the Kraken, the Minotaur or the Medusa, and they can be used to bring different kinds of losses upon the other players. More helpful is the Pegasus, since he offers some kind of movement benefit.
Apart from the common possibility to call upon a mythological creature, the four Gods Zeus, Poseidon Ares and Athena all allow the players to make different kinds of recruitments, and every God also means that the player who has won the God's aid may build a specific kind of buildings. Thus, Poseidon allows the purchase of fleets and a port, Ares provides armies and a Fortress, Zeus allows the recruitment of Priests (cards) and the building of Temples, and Athena helps to recruit Philosophers (also cards) and to build Universities.
All costs must be paid in gold coins, and the players gain a income each turn which is determined by counting the prosperity markers on spaces occupied by a player. Such prosperity markers are printed on the islands, and they also can be found on some spaces around the outer edge of the playing area, so that a player can move one of his fleets there in order to symbolize trading activity, granting him an additional income as long as the fleet stays on this space. In addition, there is also the possibility to gain additional prosperity markers, and such a marker must be placed on any of the player's islands, with each marker increasing the income generated by the island by one.
The most urgent question now will be how a player can enlarge his dominion, and here the fleets and armies play a decisive role. Thus, Poseidon can be paid to allow the movement of fleets, whereas Ares can receive additional payment to allow the movement of armies. Since every island consists of just one space, armies may not move on land, but instead they can be moved from one island to the next if an unbroken chain of fleets exists between both islands. If fleets or armies of two players meet, a battle ensures the outcome of which will be determined by each player rolling a dice, adding the number of armies/fleets and additionally a defensive bonus for Ports or a Fortress. The player with the lower result looses a unit, and the battle progresses to the next round of dice rolling until one player retreats or looses his last unit. If it was a land battle the winner gains control over that island with all buildings which have been built there.
Talking about the buildings, the Port and the Fortress provide a defensive bonus which has already been mentioned. The Temples on the other hand have no influence on the outcome of a combat, but instead they lead to a reduction of the price of a mythological creature. The Universities have no specific function, but they cost available building space since they are one of the four types of buildings which must be combined in order to receive a Metropolis. Such an exchange is made as soon as a player possesses a building of each type (even if the buildings are located on different islands), and then the Metropolis is placed on a suitable space at any of the player's islands. However, the Metropolis is stronger than any of the buildings which had to be removed, since it combines the powers of Port, Fortress and Temple.
Apart from conquest the other possibility to gain a Metropolis is through an exchange of four Philosopher cards which can be purchased if a player gains the help of Athena. While the Philosophers thus can be helpful on a player's way to fulfil the victory conditions, the use of the Priest cards which can be acquired through the help of Zeus is more straightforward, since each Priest in a player's possession decreases the Gold a player has to pay when bidding for a God's help at the beginning of a round.
As I have already mentioned, the God Apollo stands on a somewhat isolated position, since he may be chosen by more than one player without requiring a payment from anyone. However, as might be guessed such freely offered services cannot be of the same quality as the paid favours of the other Gods, and so a player who has chosen Apollo just gains a prosperity marker which he can place at one of his islands, and some additional gold depending on the number of islands in his possession. And if more than one player has chosen Apollo, the prosperity marker only goes to the first player who has chosen the God, whereas all follow up must be satisfied with a bit of gold.
The game is won by the first player who comes into possession of two Metropolises either by exchanging buildings or Philosophers or by conquest. However, the rules actually prevent a player from being pushed out of the game right till the end, since the noble Greeks only are allowed to occupy a player's last island if a successful attack leads to instant victory. Thus, each player has a somewhat protected fallback position, and this creates some nice possibilities to withdraw and reposition troops without the fear of instant defeat.
The playing mechanisms which are merged in Cyclades function in a simple yet elegant way, resulting in a quite charming combination. A good example for this observation can be seen in the way the players bid for the favour of the Gods. Although several kinds of bidding mechanisms have been used over the years in different games, the bidding mechanism which has been used in Cyclades leaves the players with a very high degree of interaction. In contrast to a simple auction where one "item" is sold after the other, the players here have the possibility to react if their last bid has been ousted, and the reaction then must be made by bidding on another God. The situation in the bidding phase may go back and forwards, and even some strategies may be thought of, because a player who has been ousted may make a very low bid on another God tile in the hopes to be ousted once again and thus to get a chance to make once again a bid on the God tile of his first interest. As in Giants, the design crew of MATAGOT once again has implemented the bidding mechanism pretty well without overburdening the respective rules.
Likewise, the rules for unit movement and combat are very condensed, and while battles are resolved with the aid of a dice the observance of the current majority situation leads to an easy resolution of a battle with the players still having the possibility to influence the outcome to a good degree. Since a player who loses a round of combat only loses one unit, it is very hard to overcome a player who has a majority of armies, and so arbitrariness is kept at bay.
Overall, the convincing, easy to learn rules should appeal both to occasional gamers and serious hobbyists, and coupled with the outstanding artwork Cyclades for me already is one of the possible highlights of the SPIEL 09. Mind you, the game does not leave you with a feeling of being full of thrilling new rule inventions, but it is the perfect match of good mechanisms which makes the game a very harmonious whole.
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Copyright © 2008 Frank Schulte-Kulkmann, Essen, Germany