Polis, from Devir and designer Fran Diaz, is actually a second edition. The original – Polis: Fight for the Hegemony – garnered a lot of fans and praise when it was released in 2012. This new version streamlines things, reducing the number of rounds from four to three, updates the art, and adds some balance. I never played the original, so I’m coming at this from the perspective of a newcomer, and won’t be making direct comparisons to the original. That said, let’s head to 5th Century Greece.
‘Polis’ means city in greek, and there are lots of these poleis on the map of Greece where the game takes place. It’s a war game, but not one with a ton of cardboard chits, or worrying about attack and defence values. In fact, it looks and feels more like a Euro game. Lots of pushing wooden cubes, resource tracks, and trading – it’s a bit of a Euro-war hybrid. It tells the story of the struggle between Athens and Sparta over the course of nearly 80 years. Athens with its naval presence, and Sparta with its growing army of Hoplites.
Flood a province with enough Hoplites and you can lay siege to any Polis. There’s nothing complicated when it comes to sieges, it’s just a case of rolling a D4 and hoping the result is at most the number of cubes you’ve got there. There is another, sneakier way to claim a Polis, and that’s by sending your Proxenos along. Bribe opponents with silver along the way, then throw more money at the population of the city, and you can incite a civil war. The upshot is the Polis falls under your control, and means you can demand tribune in the future, to collect resources.
One of the things I really like about Polis is how some of the areas behave differently to others. Take Korinthos for example. It sits in the middle of the map, but uniquely has access to the seas on the East and West. It makes for a really handy cut-through, and controlling it feels like a really powerful position. A couple of the Poleis are in neutral territory, and the only way to control and demand tribute is by using your Proxenoi. Touches like this lend a little bit of something to think about, to a game which has a fixed, rigid setup.
As Polis is a war game of sorts, you’d expect to battle with your opponent, and you’d be right to expect it. When any region contains many cubes of both colours, there’s a battle, and battles in Polis are pretty cool. Each side takes turns attacking and defending, and the combat is handled with a deck of battle cards. It works nicely, and maintains that layer of abstraction between controlling map and the nitty-gritty of war. It’s a game of control, not combat. The victor in a battle, and anyone who takes a Polis by any means, can expect precious Prestige points in reward.
Prestige is at the core of Polis, as so many of the potential actions you can take are fuelled by it. If you want to move galleys or Hoplites, lay siege, or collect tribune from the masses, it all all costs prestige. Prestige is in short supply, and it creates a game of careful planning. If you’re used to games which throw resources at you like confetti at a wedding, you’re in for a shock. Balancing the few things you own is tricky, and it results in a very unforgiving game.
You can trade the things you have for precious silver and wheat, but access to the foreign markets where trade happens is controlled by whoever controls the seas. This is where building and moving Galleys comes into play, and it adds a really clever, really interesting mechanism into the mix. It’s a real challenge when you’re trying to build your own army and navy, while simultaneously tracking what the other player is doing, and also trying to make sure you end the round with enough wheat and silver. Ending a round with wheat is the only way to feed your people, and to allow the population to grow. More population means more people to train up into soldiers and sailors.
Familiarity breeds contempt?
It’s not unusual for a war game to have a strict, static setup routine. A place for everything, and everything in its place – that sort of thing. Most modern Euro games are the opposite, with a large amount of variance in setup, and often asymmetric playstyles. It could be quite jarring to a Euro gamer coming to Polis to adapt to the rigidity in the game. The only variety in the way the game plays out is by way of a couple of things. Namely, the event cards (of which you’ll see three over the course of a game), and the projects available to build and add to relevant Poleis.
These changes are only very small, however, and it’s not as if the projects change anything about how the game plays. Each player has the same eleven actions available to them for the entireity of the game. There’ll be some people reading this now who have started shaking their heads, assuming it leads to boring games where the first few moves are always the same. And while it’s true that some of the early game is led by the situation you start in, what seems like a weakness is actually a part of the game’s greatest strength.
Fran Diaz has created a game with almost perfect balance. I’m sure that having a second edition certainly helps, but there’s no denying how finely tuned Polis’ engine is. Both factions are identical, other than their starting positions on the map, and that one has silver to start, while the other has wheat. It’s a game of strategy, control, action and reaction.
Polis, in its second edition, is the result of taking a diamond in the rough and cutting it to shape. The polish is evident throughout, most noticeably in the 8-fold, double-layer main board. I’ve played plenty of games with those tantalising sockets for cubes on player boards, but on the main board itself?! Opulent madness.
Now, as much as I think Polis is a brilliant piece of game design, I’m going to do that reviewer cop-out thing and use the dreaded line “But it’s not for everybody.” In my first game, I played along with the rulebook to learn. I got to the end-of-round part only to realise that I had no wheat to feed or grow my population. As if that wasn’t bad enough, I had no prestige, which is an instant loss. Polis is unforgiving. There are no stabilisers, and the only way you’ll learn to play is to ride the bike and fall off a few times.
Polis rewards repeated play. It’s best in the collection of someone who has a regular opponent for two-player games, someone who likes to butt heads on the same field of battle time and again. The actions are elegant, the rules are simple, and they very quickly disappear into the background, leaving the game centre stage. The player aids are more than enough to ensure you’ll leave the rulebook in the box. If you want something with more chaos sewn into its area-control finery, have a look at something like Scythe. If you favour asymmetry and historical battles, then a COIN game like Gandhi or All Bridges Burning is a better option. As an easy-to-learn deep, two-player conflict though, Polis is hard to beat.
Review copy kindly provided by Kosmos Games UK. Thoughts and opinions are my own.
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Designer: Fran Diaz
Art: Enrique Corominas
Playing time: 60-120 mins