Posted by: gschloesser | September 23, 2011

Cyclades – Review

 Design by:  Bruno Cathala & Ludovic Maublanc
Published by:  Matagot
2 – 5 Players, 1 ½ – 2 hours
Review by:  Greg J. Schloesser

NOTE:  This review was first published in Counter magazine

I’ve always been intrigued by Greek mythology, and still enjoy watching the old movies such as Clash of the Titans and Jason and the Argonauts.  My big problem was differentiating between Greek and Roman mythology, a problem I still have today.  In spite of my confusion, I’m still enraptured by the stories, and a game utilizing that theme is certainly to grab my attention.

Matagot has published just such a game:  Cyclades, designed by Bruno Cathala and Lucovic Maublanc.  Matagot has developed a reputation for publishing games with outstanding components and containing some creative mechanisms, and this has continued with Cyclades.  The game was originally designed to include an impressive assortment of plastic miniatures, including five large ones representing fantastic mythological creatures.  However, due to a snafu, the miniatures did not arrive in time for the big release at the Spiel in Germany, so the company included basic wooden meeples and ships.  The mythological creatures were represented by cardboard tokens.  This is certainly not what Matagot intended, but they didn’t want to miss out on the considerable sales generated at the convention.  In a first class gesture, anyone who purchased the game could register online, and the miniatures would be mailed to them when they arrived from the factory.  The wait was worth it, as the figures are quite impressive.  The other components are also top-notch, with attractive artwork adorning the boards, player screens and various tokens and plaques.

Each player leads one of the great Grecian cities in their quest for dominance.  As they attempt to expand their civilization by conquering new lands and constructing impressive metropolises, they must appease the gods and enlist the aid of fantastic and fearsome mythological creatures.  The first player to successfully construct two metropolises emerges as the dominant power, and wins the game.

The board depicts thirteen islands scattered about the Aegean Sea.  Each city controls two islands at the beginning, as well as two sea areas.  Some islands and sea areas are considered production zones, and earn income for the player who controls them.  Armed with a war chest of infantry, fleets and gold, players begin the task of dominating Greece.

Five Greek gods – Ares, Poseidon, Athena Zeus and Apollo – each stand ready to provide assistance to the players who make the most generous offers.  Other than Apollo, the other four god tiles are mixed each turn and set out randomly in a row.  This is very important, as this will determine the order in which players execute their actions.  In addition to the gods, three mythological creatures are available each turn.

After determining the order of the gods and setting out new mythological creatures, players receive revenue based on the islands and important sea areas they control.  Revenue tends to be tight, so players will usually vie to capture more territory or increase their productivity.  The final method is accomplished by appeasing Apollo.

During the Offerings phase, players make offerings to the gods in hopes of winning their favor.  This phase works in a manner very similar to that found in Amun-Re or Vegas Showdown.  A player may bid on any god, and must bid higher than a previously placed marker.  This displaces that player, who must immediately bid on a DIFFERENT god.  Since a displaced player cannot immediately bid on the same god, it forces players to carefully assess how much they will bid in order to reduce the likelihood of being displaced.  Any number of players may bid on Apollo, but the first player there receives a bonus.  This offering phase is often quite lively, as players vie for the benefits of specific gods and for turn order priority.

Once all players have successfully placed their offerings, players will take their turns in the order of the god tiles.  Each god offers specific benefits, and players can execute these powers as often and in any order as they desire … provided they can afford the costs.

Ares, the god of war, is often the most sought-after god, as he is the only god that allows players to increase and move their infantry.  Ares grants the player one new infantry, and the player can purchase up to three additional units, but at an increasing cost.  Further, a player may move troops from one island to another across a connected line of fleets, but this costs one gold.  Finally, Ares allows the player to construct a fortress at a cost of two gold.  Forts provide a defensive bonus in combat.

Poseidon, the god of the sea, grants powers similar to Ares, but the player receives and may move fleets as opposed to armies.  As with Ares, the player may purchase additional fleets, and may also construct a port, which provides a defensive bonus if a naval combat occurs adjacent to an island with a port.

Zeus grants the player a free priest, and the player may purchase one additional one for four gold.  Each priest a player owns reduces the amount he must pay by one when paying for his god offering.  Further, the player may construct a temple, which reduces the cost of a mythological creature by one.  Zeus also grants the player the ability to replace one of the mythological creatures on the display with one randomly drawn from the deck.  Thus, a player can try to discard a creature that would be beneficial to an opponent, or get lucky and reveal one that could be useful.

Athena grants the player a free priest, and as with Zeus, the player may purchase an additional one for four gold.  If a player acquires four priests, he immediately surrenders them and constructs a metropolis.  This is one of the three ways to acquire a metropolis.  The player may also construct a university, which has no special powers, but is one of the four buildings that must be surrendered in order to construct a metropolis.

Apollo grants each player who makes an offering one gold, unless that player is only in possession of just one island, in which case the player receives four gold.  Further, the first player to make an offering to Apollo gets to place a prosperity marker on an island or sea space, increasing the revenue that island or sea space generates by one.  As mentioned, money is tight, so increasing one’s revenue is more than just a default action.

When taking their turn, players may also utilize the services of one or more of the mythological creatures in the display.  They range in cost from two-to-four gold, and it is possible for one player to utilize all of them, leaving none for their opponents who follow in the turn order.  This also increases competition during the offering phase for the gods who go earlier in the turn order.

The seventeen mythological creatures provide a wide range of useful abilities.  Wise use of these creatures can often cause dramatic swings in the players’ fortunes.

Whenever opposing armies or fleets occupy an area, combat occurs.  Combat is a simple matter of both players rolling a die (the die depicts values of 0, 1, 2 and 3) and adding the number of troops or fleets in the area.  The player with the lesser total loses a unit, with both players losing a unit if there is a tie.  Retreats are an option after the first round of combat.  Otherwise, the battle continues until only one force remains.  Combat can be costly and difficult to arrange, so it has been relatively rare in the games I’ve played.  It usually occurs in an effort to conquer a prosperous island, or an island containing needed buildings or metropolis.

As mentioned, the game concludes at the end of the turn when one or more players control two metropolises.  There are three ways to obtain a metropolis:

  • Build four different buildings, in which case they are immediately replaced with one metropolis.  The metropolis maintains all of the abilities of the four different buildings.
  • Obtain four philosophers, which are immediately exchanged for a metropolis.
  • Conquer an opponent’s metropolis.

If more than one player controls two metropolises at the end of the game, the tied player with the most gold is the victor.

The game can play quickly, but with cautious players, it tends to take about two hours to play to completion.  Often, when one player gets close to victory, the other players conspire to prevent him from acquiring that one final piece of the puzzle.  As is the case in many conquest style games, a situation will eventually occur wherein more than one player is in position to win, and it is impossible for the other players to stop them all.  This often results in a king-making problem, which unfortunately can rear its ugly head here, too.

There is a lot to like in Cyclades.  I really enjoy the bidding mechanism, which has been lifted virtually intact from Amun-Re.  It is often a tense process, forcing players to spend more money than they would prefer.  The process is often used to not only attempt to gain the favor of the god a player desires, but to thwart an opponent from gaining the favor of a particular god.  Often, players are seeking the aid of a specific god, as they need his (or her) powers in order to accomplish their goals for that turn.  For example, in order to launch an invasion, the player must have the aid of Ares.  Otherwise, unless a particular mythological creature is available, the player will be unable to move his troops.  So, what a player can do on a particular turn is dependent upon the god whose favor he acquires.  For me, this is the most exciting phase of the game.

The actions phase of the turn is almost anti-climatic.  Most turns, especially for about the first half of the game, simply involve adding a troop or fleet and constructing a building.  Early invasions usually involve grabbing vacant islands or sea trading locations.  As the board fills and buildings appear, however, things can become more militaristic.  However, this usually only occurs late in the game.  There are some opportunities to be creative, especially with the use of the mythological creatures, but so much depends upon turn order and finances.  Several players have expressed frustration in not being able to do what they desire without the aid of a specific god, particularly moving troops or fleets.  I can live with this, but it seems to have bothered other players.

Turn order is SO critical in this game, and often the god a player desires appears lower in the turn order sequence.  This can force the player to alter his plans, particularly if one or more powerful mythological creatures are available at the same time.  This has the effect of prolonging the game, as players put their plans on hold in order to thwart opponents.  Further, a player’s finances can often be drained in the offering process, rendering him unable to afford the actions the god conveys.  These are factors that some consider intriguing, while others deem frustrating.

I’m torn.  At the risk of sounding cliché-ish, I really want to like this game.  The theme is great, and there are numerous aspects of the game I really enjoy.  Unfortunately, the sum of the parts doesn’t produce the results it should.  The actions phase is often quick with little excitement.  There are numerous frustrations that occur, most of which are based on the random order of the gods and appearance of mythological creatures.  The randomness of these two critical aspects makes it difficult to plan ahead, and has been off-putting to several with whom I’ve played.

Other comments from fellow gamers with whom have played have included complaints about the combat being too simple to the system being too constraining.  There is no doubt that the game is easy to learn, which does help make it easily accessible to folks.  However, it is at a cost.  As my good friend and fellow East Tennessee Gamer Trip Godel commented, “It is accessible at the expense of being engaging.”  Ratings from my fellow gamers have not been very positive, with an abundance of “5s” and “6s”.  I fall on the higher end of the scale, as I do enjoy many aspects of the game.  I’m not ready to abandon the Greek isles just yet, lest I incur the wrath of the gods!


  1. Get me to the Greek! I really enjoy Cyclades, and it is one of my favorite recent games. A lot of the things Greg finds as negatives, I find as positives to the game. The auction mechanic in the game is perfect, forcing the player to make tough tactical decisions to achieve their overall strategy. The fact that the gods shift positions on the track (or don’t appear every turn) adds a bit of chaos that fits well with the theme – the Greek gods were fickle, uncontrollable, and unpredictable. It is perfect that you don’t know what each turn will bring with respect to the deities!

    Furthermore, in my games the early turns have been crucial and exciting. Players who jump in early with battles can earn great reward for their risk (one die roll can significantly hurt or help early in the game). The final turns of the game often contain surprises and clever action/creature combinations that create memorable endings

    Like Greg mentioned, money can be very tight, so players must spend wisely so they can afford both the offering and the actions they need on their turn. I love the mish-mash of Euro and wargame mechanics found in Cyclades. It is good to see some combat in an auction game.

    The game’s short play time (usually 1.5 hours) is another strong point. Cyclades really packs a lot of gameplay into that amount of time. The artwork and components are of the highest quality.

    Overall, Cyclades is both accessible and engaging, especially for those who are partial to the Greek mythology theme. It is a rare game that Euro, American, and war gamers can all enjoy together. I rate it a 9.

  2. Zach and I continue to have opposite tastes, so when we see each other across the gaming table, I know somebody’s not going to be happy. *GRIN* Cyclades feels like a kids’ game to me. Yes, it is a develop & conquer game that can be played in under an hour, and that’s an achievement. However the auctions are imbalanced, the movement is clunky, and combat is nearly elusive. With the exception of wildly imbalanced cards, everything is resolved very simply.

  3. Yeah, Trip, we often have different feelings on games, but at least we will always have Powerboats.

    • *DABS TEAR* At least we will always have Powerboats… :-)

      • I kind of want to try Powerboats again with the expansion… sand bars, rocks in the water, etc… More theme instead of a plain blue grid. There was a purity of gameplay there.

  4. A solid game. Use one god power each turn to strengthen your towns and eventually build the winning stuff. Just ok for me but other friends really like it. (see above) (6/10)

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