In Cyclades, designed by Bruno Cathala and Ludovic Maublanc (the same team responsible for Mr. Jack and Cleopatra and the Society of Architects), up to five rival cities vie to achieve dominance amongst the Greek islands by making offerings to gods, enlisting the aid of mythical creatures, and building metropolises.
The goal of the game is to construct a second metropolis (or a third in the two-player variant), which is normally accomplished by controlling one of each of the four building types although there are alternate methods. Each player begins with five gold pieces (kept secret behind their screen), control of two islands, and two fleets; each starting position has a total income of two gold, and each player has six troops and six fleets in reserve. The first cycle’s turn order is determined randomly.
At the beginning of each cycle (round), the mythical creatures track is filled with a new card for every empty space (except on the first two rounds) and the four god tiles are randomly placed on the bidding track; if there are less than five players some of them will be placed face down and be the first one(s) on the track for the next cycle (or every other cycle, depending). Each player then collects their income, represented by the number of controlled cornucopias. Starting with the first player, each player then bids an amount to offer to one of the four gods or seeks Apollo’s aid, which is free. If a player is outbid by another, the outbid player immediately places a new bid on a different god; this chain reaction continues until no player is outbid, at which point the next player who has not placed a bid does so. Once everybody has a standing bid (or has gone to Apollo), the offerings are paid simultaneously. The two-player rules allow each player to beseech two gods a turn, but otherwise this phase works the same.
Once the offerings are done, the players’ actions get resolved in the order of the gods on the track; the winner of the first god executes all of their actions, and then so on down the line. Each god except Apollo has several abilities, which includes a recruitment ability, a building ability, and a special ability (except Athena). Additionally, all non-Apollo gods also have the ability to recruit creatures. Zeus recruits priests which reduce the amount required to pay for future offerings (to a minimum of one), builds temples which can be used to reduce the recruitment cost of a single creature (again, to a minimum of one), and can discard a creature on the track and replace it with the top card of the deck. Poseidon recruits fleets, builds ports that give extra defense to all friendly adjacent fleets, and can move fleets up to three spaces per gold spent. Ares is sort of a land-based Poseidon, recruiting troops, building fortresses, and allowing troops to move over a chain of fleets to conquer a new island. Athena recruits philosophers — four of which earn you a free metropolis! — and builds universities — whose only function is to be one-fourth of a metropolis. Finally, Apollo awards you an additional gold piece, or four if you are down to only one controlled island; the first player to beseech Apollo each cycle also gains an additional cornucopia to place on one of their islands for additional income. After you have used all of the abilities of your god that you wish to (and/or can afford to), place your bid marker on the lowest turn order space; the first to execute actions will bid last in the next round, while those on Apollo will go first.
When opposing fleets or troops share the same space/island, combat ensues. Each round of combat is resolved by the players rolling an averaging die (0, 1, 1, 2, 2, 3) and then adding the number of troops/fleets controlled, plus any defensive bonuses granted by fortresses/ports. The losing side sacrifices a troop/fleet, with both sides suffering casualties in the event of a tie. After each round each player has the option of retreating, if able, otherwise the combat continues with new rolls until one side is wiped out. Any buildings and cornucopias on a conquered island are claimed by the victor, which includes a metropolis; this is the third and final way to gain one. You will also probably need to conquer additional islands in order to build your second metropolis, as each island has room for a limited number of buildings and building a metropolis may require the demolition of existing buildings if you are careless (usually relevant when getting your fourth philosopher). However, an opponent who controls only one island cannot be attacked unless that attack will result in the attacker winning the game via conquered buildings.
The powers of the creatures are unique and varied, with some extremely powerful and others of a more niche use. There are about fifteen of them, with the ability of one including reshuffling the “graveyard” back into the deck. Five of the creatures have a lasting effect on the board and have their own figures to represent this; the rest are one-shot effects. The cards use a symbology which makes sense if you know what the abilities are, but the handy quick-start guide includes descriptions for all of them. Using creatures will be a key factor in many games, and knowing which ones may be useful to those acting after you — and potentially before you — is one of many aspects of the game that should be tracked.
The game ends at the conclusion of a cycle in which a player obtains his second (or third) metropolis. In the event of a tie, the player with the most remaining gold wins. Since the win condition and everyone’s progress towards it is obvious to all, later rounds often shift into “stop the leader”, with the ultimate win ultimately coming either from an unstoppable breakthrough round, an under-the-radar sneak win, or a kingmaker action (especially when two players are both vying for the same route to victory). Sadly, the random nature of the combat die and the creature deck can sometimes cause “lucky” wins that owed little to actual strategy (that round, at least), but it’s a minor problem in an otherwise finely strategic game. A session of Cyclades is usually complete in about an hour.
Cyclades retails for around $60, but you get a lot of materials for that price. Each city’s fleets and troops are uniquely sculpted plastic pawns (as opposed to the generic wooden pawns of the European editions), as are the larger-than-life creature pawns (which the European version lacks entirely; the cardboard tokens used for that edition are also included), and the massive amount of gold coins are heavyweight cardboard. The cards are stronger than most games, even though only the creatures will be shuffled. Finally, the three-piece game board is double-sided to accommodate different board sizes for different numbers of players (the back of the god/creature track is a mural image).