Ah Those Greeks, Part III: Perikles & the Suicide of Ancient Greece

“Athens on the brink of destruction”: Close-up of a game situation, showing the delicate interplay of power politics (coloured cubes) & military conflict (hoplite units & defeat counters below the building) peculiar to designer Martin Wallace in general, & to this board game Perikles in particular. (Credit Chris Norwood/BGG 2008.)

Background: Golden Century of Athens

Game designer Martin Wallace (Age of Steam, Struggle of Empires, Brass, & many more) cares for historical themes. Often, quirky facts lie buried within the structure of his games, making them the more unpredictable & colourful. Unlike many Germanic productions – better games sometimes – where irregularities are shaved off, to simplify, streamline, & at times polish a little too eagerly.

In comparison Perikles is messy. But it gets more out of its story.

& what a story this is. The final showdown in a period which, more than any other, embodies our modern notion of Ancient Greece: the golden age of Athens, 5 centuries BC. A time when philosophers like Zeno, Anaxagoras, & Socrates, playwrights like Aeschylus & Sophocles, sculptors like Phidias, are still living & breathing in Athens, often personal friends with each other, & with Perikles himself (c495-429 BC), mighty democratic dictator of Athens. Even Athens’s landmark 2500 years later, the costly Parthenon temple on the Acropolis, is the work of Perikles & his age.

This very age of cultural & economic plenty is what the war in Wallace’s game – the Peloponnesian war 431-404 BC – put to a brutal end. In a conflict between the two most important Greek city-states, Athens & Sparta, as unlike as day & night.

Athenians were mellow & somewhat volatile, democratically ruled (at least in principle), ever inventive, & their enormous naval superiority built on a love of sailing, trade, & exploration. Spartans were strict (“spartan” without the capital s), ruled by the elite & by a monarch, & had scant regard for arts other than warfare & the farming performed for them by their slaves. Athenians ruled the sea with its many isles & coasts, Spartans ruled the land of the Peloponnesian region. Little had the two peoples in common, save limitless pride & lust to rule.

In the end this would benefit neither of them – not even Sparta, the war’s nominal victor. Other wars may lavish favours on the victorious part. This war seems to have tapped the inner vitality of both parties. Before long Greece, which few generations sooner stood united against a common foe (see “Ah Those Greeks, Part I”), would be conquered by the Macedonian Philip. And given in heritage, as little more than base for his colossal expansive hunger, to Philip’s son Alexander the Great.

I hear objections: the golden century of Athens was not, by any means, the last breath to emerge from Greece. But my claim – or provocation – is that it is nonetheless this highest of all peaks 5 centuries BC – & almost only this – that has legitimated so many authorities when “branding up” ancient Greek culture. Without that century much of the case for classical Greece, as the heart of what many call liberal education, melts away.

Perhaps this is exactly what makes the Peloponnesian war relevant even today. Interesting & colourful enough, even, to make into a commercial Eurogame, rather than into a more historical but perhaps more conventional wargame in, say, the GMT tradition.

Before moving to the game itself, I should mention one major irritant: in the game all alliances are open in principle. Hence even arch-enemies Athens & Sparta may find themselves, for a while, played by the same player, acting as allies of sorts. Fortunately this is quite rare, usually short-lived, & apparently not that hot a strategy. Still, my efforts to find a prohibition in the rule book have failed.

It seems however the only tough pill to swallow, & may be dissolved by a house rule.

Game Mechanics: Politics by Any Means

The game board depicts Athens, Sparta, & 4 other prominent city-states during the Peloponnesian war, yet the pattern is emphatically not 1 player-1 city. Any city is up for grabs by any player, & the game is about each player/family/faction gaining control of decisive cities, to exploit the military (infantry & warships) of these cities. This soldiery is of very varying strength from city to city, but correctly employed it will win military battles against other players, & thus Victory Points (VP). In addition, the very control of a city yields potential VPs.

The Game’s 3 political phases (“Gain control of the cities & of their military”), are in almost every way distinct from the military campaign phases (“Fight battles”), also 3 in number – 1 military campaign phase following each of the political phases. The political part is far the subtlest: area influence in the best tradition of games such as Kramer & Ulrich’s regal classic El Grande. Yet because the political victories here have military & very open-ended consequences, gameplay & tactics don’t quite remind me of anything seen before.

To be sure, each player has exactly equal opportunities for putting an exactly equal number of influence cubes in the most interesting cities. Yet because 1) that number of cubes remains very limited, 2) You can “assassinate” each other’s cubes (a delight), 3) It isn’t always the player with the most cubes who gains control of the city, & finally 4) cubes that did not take part in the electoral contest remain standing, until the next political phase, where they may give a new electoral victory to an entirely different player – all these factors quickly make the political game rather hard to read. Add to this that the military battles (in which the cities, after elections, now engage their military) are selected partly at random, making it subject to much variation how interesting it is to control a given city in a given phase – suddenly we have a very interesting game of political-diplomatic intrigue, which should demand repeated games to master.

I write “political-diplomatic intrigue”, to stress again that the military part is the very poor cousin. Be warned that the 21 battles – 7 in each of the 3 military phases – are stylized to the extreme, both visually & with respect to the battle system. And yet it works, but only as the clear extension, or test in the field, of the political. Politics by other means.

Finally, let me highlight that these 21 possible victories yield varying VPs – from 3 to 7 VP each, 4 being the most usual. Remarkably, these points do in rough terms reflect the original significance of each battle or engagement. (The Sicily expedition, the collapse of which may alone have cost Athens the war, is thus worth a full 7 VP). Similarly, each city’s military & political status reflects realities at the time, all while making the game more tightly complex. It doesn’t get more Wallace than that.

Thus, Athens & Sparta are of course the strongest in military terms – Athens rightly being the dominant sea power – but politically, & in terms of pure victory points, cities like Megara or especially Corinth are the happening places. (Megara was for long periods the central apple of discord, & as to the Corinthians, without their all-consuming, almost irrational hatred for Athens, the war might never have begun.)

In other words, & precisely as in the original conflict, it may be the difficult puzzle of alliances that wins the day. You seldom win a campaign by controlling only 1 city, or by merely having many troops. Conversely, power over too many cities – ie too many alliances – can weaken you too. Decisions, decisions.

Departures: The Single Great Disaster

Perikles has two key strengths:

1) It merges a military simulation of sorts – frankly, way too schematic & humdrum – with a political dimension that’s far more convincing, yet still not revolutionary. It is the sum of these two parts that makes the whole a great deal larger. It’s simply more fun, & vastly more interesting in game terms, to try & conquer a city politically, in order then to dispose at whim & fancy of its troops.

2) It tempts the player to understand a forgotten war which played a part in the evolution of the West impossible to overstate. Truly everything that young children – or college freshmen – learn about old Greeks & their bizarre culture – precisely the inner spirit of this is what the Peloponnesian war suffocated. Having said that, & as so often with historically themed Euros, we’re mostly dealing with what I’d call second-degree material – it yields more curiosity, flavour & feel, than factual insight.

Many years ago I fought my way through the story of the Peloponnesian war by the classical Greek strategist Thucydides, only to wonder, at the end of the book, why this time-honoured historical authority had spent 1000 pages on a war nobody any longer remembered. This time round, I did some more research – including a fresh plunge into Thucydides – & was forced to conclude that the Peloponnesian war was the single disaster for classical Greece as we perceive it. It truly was a collective suicide. The instant the war stopped, Greece became a Mediterranean power like so many others before or since.

Surely this is worth enacting & simulating in a game such as this.

*

Perikles. Board game designed by Martin Wallace. Warfrog, 2006. Page on BoardGameGeek.

Thucydides. The Peloponnesian War. Various editions & translations. See for instance Hammond & Rhodes. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009. ISBN 978-0192821911.

This text originally posted on BoardGameGeek.



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