Review: Hellas

Hellas is the first wargame in this line of the 2-player line of games from Kosmos, complete with armies, combat and hexagons but won’t be confused with Squad Leader or Gettysburg. Attractive plastic pieces, a modular map, and three decks of special event cards should reassure boardgamers who avoid traditional wargames. It’s also much quicker.

Designer Franz-Benno Delonge is a name familiar from his previous titles; Big City and TransAmerica. He has one other, less well-known title, Zahltag—a bidding card game about city construction projects. Delonge’s games are enjoyable, attractive and notable for their simplicity—excellent family games. They also involve a fair dose of luck. That’s okay or even preferred for family games but gamers looking for deep strategy might be disappointed. Hellas generally fits this pattern, too.

There is a significant amount of luck in Hellas. So “serious” wargamers will probably not like this design. On the other hand, game players who like martial themes may find this game refreshing.

Set in the ancient Mediterranean world, each player takes on the role of his civilization’s leader. The goal of the game is to be the first player to control ten cities. Initially only eight cities are established and so players must defend their own, explore and establish new ones and perhaps even conquer their neighbor’s.

What’s in the Box

Each player gets a couple dozen attractive plastic pieces: 15 soldiers and 10 galleys. There are also 24 hexagon map tiles measuring a bit over 2″ across that are used to create the playing area, 48 God cards in three different suits, 2 reference cards and the rulebook. As you would expect from a Kosmos 2-player game, all of the components are of nice quality. The hexagon tiles depict islands and coastal areas. Except for a single start tile, every one has a city on it and some have temples as well.

Getting Started

The game begins by building a map. The start tile—showing a dolphin but no land—is placed first, then players alternate placing eight more tiles. Each will have a city, a defending soldier, and a galley. These first tiles must usually be placed next to the dolphin tile (the only one troops can jump over when they move). This adds some volatility to the movement and creates strategic openings that both players must try to exploit. Once both players have four starting cities (and thus four victory points) they draw three special cards—one from each of the God decks—and the game is underway.

The fact that Hellas is played with 24 map tiles is a key point. Each game will be a bit different, depending on which tiles get pulled and how they are placed. A player may be able to build a better start position than his opponent.

Each turn a player may launch an attack, attempt a map-expanding voyage or reinforce his position (drawing more cards and/or placing more soldiers or galley pieces on the map). A player who controls more temples gets more from a reinforcement action than his opponent—one extra card or piece. In addition to these choices, the active player can play any number of God cards. They often has a dramatic effect on the game…

When drawing cards both players are limited to seven total and no more than three from any one God deck. Ares cards are mostly useful for warfare, Poseidon cards are mostly useful for voyages, and Zeus cards are just generally useful. Some cards may also be played on your opponent’s turn and these are indicated with a special symbol.

Attack

Attacks are made against one of your opponents’ cities by drawing your own soldiers from nearby tiles. There are two types of combat: land and sea. If all soldiers travel overland to the battle site, they need merely match the number of defenders in order to win. But if even one soldier comes across a coastline, the battle is considered a sea battle and the attackers must bring one more attacker than the number of defenders. Ignore the galleys, they are never used in battle.

IT takes a little getting used to the fact that ships are not used in combat, even sea combat. It makes enough sense when you remember that these aren’t warships, they’re merchant vessels.

When a battle is joined someone is going to win. There are no draws in Hellas and each victory is complete. Whoever loses a battle is wiped from that tile and up to three winning soldiers survive the battle. There is no limit to the number of attackers that may be brought, so it’s often advisable to include one or two extra soldiers on critical attacks. Any number of soldiers over the limit of three will die at the end of the turn but their presence may mean the difference between victory and defeat during the battle. This is my biggest disappointment with the game. Combat is wild and wooly, with too much advantage for the attacker. Part of what gives wargames their feel (and realism) is the substantial advantage usually given to the defender. One rule of thumb is that triple your opponent’s force is necessary to ensure victory—anything less brings a real chance of failure. The attacker always has the advantage of initiative, choosing the point of attack. Defensive strength is what gives rise to battle lines—lines of defense.

Nothing like this exists in Hellas (nothing really can), and the effect is bothersome. In fact, it is the attacker that has the numeric advantage since he can support a combat with additional troops from nearby cities. The defender cannot.

Voyage

A voyage is an attempt to expand an empire by adding a new city. The active player draws a map tile, placing it adjacent to two tiles already laid. It must also be a location where he has more adjacent ships than his opponent. If the tile drawn doesn’t fit, the voyage fails. If successful, one of the adjacent ships moves onto the new tile and converts itself into a single defending soldier. Last, reinforcements can be moved into the new city (a good idea when the new city is on your enemy’s border!).

If possible, it is wonderful to shorten your common border with your opponent. Alternately, if you can control most (or even all) of the tiles around the dolphin tile, you will reduce the pressure on your forward areas. The dolphin tile creates a very dynamic area, where many troops can be allowed to jump over the dolphin tile, appearing two hexes away from where they started. Control of the areas bordering the dolphin is a key point.

Oh Mighty Zeus…

The three decks of God cards are of prime importance to the game of Hellas and each has it’s own character.

Poseidon is the god of the sea and all of his cards somehow interact with the ever-present water in Hellas. God cards Eleven of the sixteen cards are concerned with voyages, three others allow your ships to defend like soldiers, and the final two cause flooding in your opponent’s cities, reducing his populations to two soldiers.

Ares is the god of war. All of his cards are concerned with attacking or defending. Four act as a virtual soldier and since this card may be played by the attacker or defender, there’s always some uncertainty about the size of the forces in every battle. Three other Ares cards allow a surprise attack on a non-adjacent city. This can be a big development and causes both players to fortify rearward cities with extra soldiers. All of the Ares cards are useful, even if you don’t tend to attack much.

Zeus cards are almost all good and worth getting. They grant double turns, deprive your opponent of his god cards, swap cities on the map or negate cards played by your opponent. Zeus cards are almost too good—you’re making a mistake if you decide not to draw any.

My biggest concern is the relative strengths of the God cards. After many plays, I have found the Zeus cards to be much better than the Poseidon cards. For my efforts, I’ll usually opt for three Zeus cards, three Ares cards, and just one Poseidon card. I think any player who doesn’t draw Ares or Zeus cards is making a mistake and I wish the game had more evenly balanced decks.

Winning the Game

In order to win Hellas, you must control 10 cities but each player has only 15 soldiers. So, as you reach for victory you’re forced to spread your soldiers thin, inviting attack from your opponent.

This feature makes the endgame taut. Frequently I have seen an empire with nine cities get thrown back to a more modest seven or eight. But eventually, someone adds enough new cities to the map that someone finally claims their tenth city. Indeed, towards the end of the game the Poseidon cards can provide a game-winning move.