Strife in Antiquity - A Peloponnesian War Review

IMG_5135 (2).jpg

I remember sitting in front of the television, staring blank faced, aching with mind-numbing boredom as my father and brother watched show after show on the History Channel.  The past, not of medieval kingdoms with echoes of sorcery and dragons spawned from my childish imagination, but as it truly was, seemed like a dull affair. And sure enough, history class was always there to reinforce my adolescent sentiment.  During the past few years, my disdain towards history morphed into genuine excitement. I owe this newfound 180 degree turnaround to board games—more accurately, historical wargaming. And who better to teach me about my most recent journey through time to 431-404 BC than Mark Herman, prolific wargame designer and historian?  Journey with me to Greece during the nearly three decade long struggle between the Delian League (led by Athens) and the Peloponnesian League (led by Sparta) as Mark recounts the historical beats and introduces the compelling what-ifs in his 2019 second edition of the 1991 solitaire game, Peloponnesian War.

The Learn

Beyond peeling away the shrink wrap, lifting the box lid to admire the components, unfolding the beautifully designed board, and punching cardboard, the first experience anyone has with a board game is the learning process, and as such, I find this to be a fitting place to start.  The rules are written by the great Chad Jensen, who is known for designing exceptional games such as Dominant Species and Combat Commander.  Chad’s literal do-not-assume-anything rulebook writing style is perfect for this type of complex game.  Essentially, what is explicitly stated is law and all drawn conclusions should be led to slaughter. This style successfully reduces ambiguity that plagues other rulebooks.  However, it may take some initial getting used to if you are unfamiliar with historical wargame texts.

But perhaps the pièce de résistance of the learn is the fully realized turn-by-turn playthrough summary that can be found within the accompanying playbook.  Historical wargames are notoriously challenging to learn, sometimes substantially more so than their Euro game counterparts, and this is not necessarily an exception here.  Yet, playing alongside the playthrough significantly eases the burden of the learn by providing me the opportunity to learn in a very hands-on manner. More games need to incorporate this visual approach to teaching a game.  Much applause.

Nevertheless, I’d be lying to you if I didn’t confess that even after reading the rules thoroughly and completing the playthrough, I found myself consistently referencing the rulebook throughout my plays and occasionally even visiting the Peloponnesian War BoardGameGeek page to seek certain rule clarifications.  The most egregious slip in the rulebook might perhaps be the vagueness of how armistices should be handled, including the movement of the round tracker.  Thankfully Mark himself clarified this rule on BGG

IMG_5143.jpg

Mechanics Considered

Rules aside, Peloponnesian War is a wholly unique solitaire experience.  Here’s the pitch: you play against your best self.  For example, you will continue playing Athens if the game system is winning, but once the momentum shifts, there’s a chance you’ll be forced to switch sides to play the underdog working to undo your prior successes.  What makes this idea work is that the goal of the game is to end the war as soon as possible. The longer and more deadly it becomes, the greater your chance of failure. This novel idea was the primary contributor that lead to my piqued interest in the game, and the dynamic tension that arises from it does not disappoint.  Essentially, the greater my previous round’s success, the higher my chance of betraying my city-state as naturally as Alcibiades has done before me over 2,400 years ago. In fact, as I write this review, I find myself smiling as I consider the parallelism of this notorious Peloponnesian War general, who appears as a central theme in the historically accurate events of this game, and myself as I abandon Athens for crimson red and eventually back again.  I wonder if Mark took inspiration from this ancient general when designing this game.

Throughout each round, Athens and Sparta will raise and lower their Strategy Confidence Rating (SCI) depending on their victorious or failed battles, sieges, etc.  If your side achieved a zero or positive SCI in the previous round, you roll a D6 and add the SCI value to determine if the sum is a value of six or higher, and if it is you swap sides and try to outplay your prior successes.  I usually find myself keeping allegiance most rounds and changing banners only once or twice at most. The knowledge that you will likely trade allegiance eventually keeps the tension strong. Staying on the winning side means that I will be able to win militaristic conflicts easier, providing ample victory points.  But I also know the more I succeed, the higher the chances I will flip, which creates a fascinating decision space of balance. Is it worth trying to win as many decisive victories as possible in a round, or ease up just enough to maintain a low SCI value in hopes to maintain allegiance? This is a question I’m still exploring a few solo games deep into the system.

Beyond the mechanics considered above, a round of Peloponnesian War consists of beginning-of-round upkeep, an operating round, and end-of-round upkeep.  The former upkeep primarily consists of the opposing side’s bot determining its pending strategy and a historical event trigger amongst other things, and the latter upkeep deals with income, damage from ravaging, rebellion, and even a potential armistice.  However, the core of the gameplay and decision space resides within the intersecting middle operations. It’s here that I decide my actions and strategy for the round.

During an operating round, I rotate turns with the bot. On my turn, I place the objective token on a city of my choosing, selecting my final destination for the turn.  To begin my journey forward, I take my recently drawn general from my capital city space and move him from city to city, paying to recruit hoplites, calvary, and naval ships along the way.  Once I’ve recruited my last unit during this expedition, my army then gains the ability to ravage enemy countryside, leaving their homeland in disrepair, which will reduce their end-of-round income.  At any point during this march if I enter the Line of Communication (LOC) of an enemy unit, a potential skirmish may ensue that could eventually escalate into a battle. Should a battle occur, the expedition will halt short of its objective space.  

Every army must move along the shortest route possible from target location to target location location to recruit units and then eventually to the objective space. This movement restriction makes controlling the bot incredibly simple and fluid. However, I was surprised to see this restriction carry over to my movement initially as well, fearing the strategy would feel too narrow.  After playing a session of Peloponnesian War, I discovered this seemingly “on-rails” restriction was a brilliant design choice that actually creates a fun decision space while simultaneously making the operating phase less fiddly to conduct. Suddenly I realized that choosing my objective space had more weight to it. I couldn’t simply choose any location on the board I wanted to invade. I would need to consider the path there, where I would need to recruit my desired units, the enemy forces I might encounter along the way, and how many spaces I might be able to ravage successfully.

IMG_5136.jpg

Flying Solo and Concluding Ramblings

So how does this wargame feel as a solitaire experience and who should care?

Peloponnesian War is not for the faint of heart. This game takes effort to learn, especially if you’re unfamiliar with historical wargaming. It requires closely reading a dense rulebook with many sections and subsections filled with situational exposition, and potentially even completing a tutorial playthrough provided within the playbook. Even after the learn, fully expect to reference the rulebook and player aids constantly during your first couple plays. Even by my third session with the game, I was still clinging onto the rulebook for reminders of armistice and other procedural upkeep steps. The dependence of these texts will lessen with more plays, but it is definitely a thing. Thankfully, the rules are clear and this learn was far from the hardest historical wargame I’ve had to comprehend. 

Beyond the rules, the full scenario will take around 3 hours to complete and potentially longer on your first play. This is the sort of solitaire experience you’ll want to leave up on your table for a few days as you play through it. Thankfully, setup is fairly quick, so the burden of getting it to table is not as steep as other wargames or even Mage Knight, another monster solo game with significant setup. It’s also worth noting that a three round scenario (a short game) is included if time and table space is a critical consideration.

Phew, we are successfully past the baggage. If you’re someone who appreciates historical conflicts, are not deterred by the paragraphs above, and are seeking a game designed as a solitaire experience with a two player variant added as a secondary bonus, then this game is for you.  Peloponnesian War immerses you into the militaristic and logistic heart of this ancient war. You will encounter the historical moments of this event and will also have the opportunity to explore the what-ifs that never were. Many see the failed siege of Syracuse by Athens to be a war ending blunder. Now you can follow the history books to see if Athens can succeed at sacking this Sicilian city this time or change war plans entirely to simulate another path to potential victory. The choice is yours.

The solo-focused mechanical design of Peloponnesian War is phenomenal, and it is definitely one of my favorite heavyweight solitaire experiences to date.  To me, a solitaire experience of this magnitude needs to possess narrative. I want to live this conflict via simulation, learn the history, and dominate as the Delian League by sea or the Peloponnesian League by land.  This is exactly the experience I receive when playing this game. I believe Peloponnesian War is a design that knows exactly what it wants to be and achieves precisely that.  It’s a lofty commitment with a steep learning curve that rewards entertainment via exponential returns as you climb your way up.  If you are a history lover, you may end your session with an urgent need to read a book, listen to a podcast, or watch a documentary covering this period in time to learn even more, and surely after such research methods are completed you’ll want to return to the game with a newfound deeper respect of its carefully realized experience.

A copy of this game was provided by the publisher for review.

Final Score:

6 out of 7

This game is great. I will keep it in my collection and I highly recommend it.

Nick NorthcuttComment