There’s a table out there right now, where little Spartans and Thracians are battling under the shadow of colossal monuments to colossal gods. Achilles is lopping off the head of a three-headed dog stuffed full of cybernetic wires and pistons and also blood. The constructed embodiment of Athena, still and glowing, stares out across the Aegean. Calm the waters are no more.
Lords of Hellas. Lords of Hellas.
It’s as fun to say as it is to look at. This is one of those $100 Kickstarter games that one side says is only about the minis and the other side says is about something more. I say it’s about something special.
We’ve seen this story before – Greek gods interfering with the lives of those cosmically wee. Yes, here we have robotics, lasers, and a Hellenic version of Skynet, but it’s virtually identical to those who have come before it. This is Cyclades, Runewars, Blood Rage, and a thousand other sons all influencing each other in timeless repetition.
So then, why Lords of Hellas?
This is a Euro/thematic hybrid that is all about flexibility and control. It’s a race of sorts with contestants marching armies, erecting statues, and slaying beasts as they advance down the track. It hits that 90 minute sweet spot that so many of these modern ‘Dudes on a Map’ games comfortably slot into while feeling meaty and satisfying.
Setting this one down next to Rising Sun to compare their warts and dimples is inevitable. With two releases riding the ballyhoo hand-in-hand, they simply must be talked about in relation to one another. Rising Sun also happens to be my projected selection for 2018 game of the year. That may not mean much as the calendar turns to April, but it does mean something.
Eric Lang’s 2018 killer release is all about letting go. It’s an opaque design that has players making seemingly small decisions that ripple outward from a starting point of elegance to an end point of clusterfuck. It’s one that sticks in your craw for a week and has you questioning your life choices in the aftermath. It’s fascinating.
But Lords of Hellas is no chump. This is a game that’s more direct with a higher velocity. The pressure is more succinct and overt due to a stronger clarity. As mentioned previously, it’s a ‘Dudes on a Map’ race game where you hit the pedal and point the nose towards the bullseye.
Within the context of its war-torn isle, Lords of Hellas works so remarkably well due to overtly highlighting player agency. You’re given multiple distinct paths to victory and each is equally compelling and seemingly achievable. It’s about the pursuit of those vectors while trying to dance with your enemies and not stumble.
The two designs contrast heavily and feel extraordinarily different. Rising Sun is all about adapting and flowing with the current. It’s about making the best choices you can while remaining flexible and uncertain of the future. Hellas allows players to set the pace and tone of play themselves. It’s important to understand that flexibility is valued here as well, but you’re in the driver seat and are required to establish tempo.
There’s a forward momentum to this game that players directly throttle. Each turn you move your asymmetric hero and some of your troops, and then perform a special action. The latter consist of erecting holy temples, marching larger groups of warriors, and combating hellacious beasts forged from a special brand of hell and dystopian future. When you choose a special action you block it off and may not repeat the ability until someone elects to build one of the oversized 3D monuments. This causes everyone to reset their boards and transforms a narrowing decision set into a field day once again.
Athena, in progress
That oscillation between tight constriction and chaotic power is tantalizing. It perfectly frames the game’s balance between the sleek Euro personality traits and the drunken free-wheeling Ameritrash features.
What’s especially gripping is the fact that a participant could repeatedly hammer the build monument action and complete the structure in a mere four turns. This will trigger the end game and give the players three more rounds to battle for control of the massive structure’s space. Then that’s it.
Or, you can have a drawn out war of land accrual and temple building as the countryside develops and scars before your very eyes.
This wide-open feel and multitude of nobs to twist is exciting because it allows you to grapple with an element of your destiny and feel as though you’re in control. If Rising Sun is repeatedly getting hit in the face by a Tsunami and then trying to pick up the pieces, Lords of Hellas is digging your heels into the ribs of a bull and directing it into the crowd.
Can we talk about those miniatures for a moment?
When you physically construct something in the real-world that you’re building in the imaginary one it just feels so damn fulfilling. It’s theme reflected to the tactile senses and it’s wonderful. Erecting a huge cybernetic statue with a multi-part miniature is fascinating. It has table presence and it makes your eyes catcall.
“It’s only about the minis.”
My inner-child is punching yours in the face.
One of the strongest elements of this release is the utilization of asymmetric heroes. They function distinctly from the armies of hoplites in a manner that I can’t help but compare to the classic Runewars. In both games you send your avatars to the far reaches of the map to embark on quests and pursue personal achievement. This is a facet of play that disappointed many in that older FFG release, and for fair reason. In Lords of Hellas those complaints have been addressed and cleaned up quite a bit.
No longer does hero movement and combat feel tacked-on or unnecessary. In addition to a couple of the options directly affecting infantry movement and battle, every player can pursue the large mythological creatures that stomp about the board sowing chaos. Slaying three such monsters qualifies you for victory and each offers incremental rewards such as additional priests or artifacts to aid your cause. The integration and balance within the scope of play is damn near perfect.
Another parallel to Runewars is card-driven battles. Against other player’s infantry you alternate playing cards from your hand that add to total strength. The rub here is that the loser must remove only a single soldier from the area before vacating the region. The bulk of casualties are self-inflicted as a cost to playing those battle cards. Again, this reflects that sense of control imparted to the participants throughout the design.
Combating the monstrous behemoths utilizes the same components but in a different way. Here you refer to a symbol on the top half of the card and inflict wounds on specific slots. These persist even after the hunt has ended, which can be tricky if you wish to avoid someone swooping in and stealing your kill.
These battle cards inject just the right amount of drama while keeping the flow of combat steady. This is a game that lacks significant bouts of downtime and it continually works to keep everyone engaged.
It’s easy to spout excessively about the joys of this design, but there are undoubtedly a few aspects which are potentially off-putting. The main perpetrator is that this game can end unexpectedly fast. You can be amassing armies upon the borders of your enemy and all of the sudden you realize another poor sod abandoned his original plan and decided to rush out a monument.
Much of the strategy can be attempting to slow down opponents who are pursuing objectives which you can counter – such as taking land from an aggressor or trying to move monsters away from thirsty heroes – but there are times when this is simply unattainable. The game doesn’t feel random, but it can feel frustrating when you miss the inception of significant events and only realize the repercussions upon the outcome.
This is a similar issue to that found in Cyclades and Inis. Ultimately it’s one you learn to deal with or at least accept.
One could also tag this game with trying to do too much. While it’s overall comfortably situated on the lighter end of the medium weight category, it has subsystems for quests, two distinct types of combat, separate rules for heroes, and even mid-game drafting of special abilities at irregular intervals. It’s not nearly as clean as something like Cyclades, but it also purports to successfully tackle more simulative elements than its peer. This is a trade-off in abstraction that all games commit to and Lords of Hellas stands its ground.
Beyond that it’s all taste. You may prefer Cthulhu Wars due to the larger degree of asymmetry or Rising Sun due to the emphasis on negotiation, but the individual nuts and bolts of Lords of Hellas are not far off from flawless. That’s a significant amount of praise and there’s no doubt in my aging mind that it’s justified.
I mean, look at those minis.