Rome wasn’t built in a day. But Athens, Sparta, Thebes, and Corinth? Well, that’s more doable! At least on the tabletop. Manage your ancient Greek city-state with the best artisans, laborers, great men, buildings, and Wonders to be the awe of the Hellenic World.
How To Play
Polis is largely an auction and tableau-building design that fosters significant card-comboing synergy and meaningful interaction. You control an ancient city, as identified by your unique board, with a slightly asymmetrical characteristic. To expand your city, aka your tableau, you will draw, auction off, bid for, and place cards that provide all manner of benefits from income and points to special abilities and discounts to trade and military strength.
As such, there are four types of cards. You can find all the game’s icons in any of them, but each focuses on different areas of development. Although they are not identified by category, per se, but rather color. The aggressively red cards deal heavily with military strength, providing war symbols – many exclusively so. The yellow cards are all great men of Greek history (with a few wonders) and provide powerful special abilities and lots of points. Blue cards represent the everyday producers of the ancient world, providing a variety of benefits from income and trade to culture and points. Finally, green cards stand in as buildings and other infrastructure that support your city-state with many of the same assets as the blue cards, but also provide many ways to build other cards cheaper.
These decks are compiled by color, shuffled, and an endgame card is added in within the last four of each pile. They’re set out in the middle of the table. Each player grabs their slightly unique historical city board and decides which side to play. The first player receives twenty-four coins and each successive player begins with one additional in increasing order.
Game play is extremely regimented, well-structured, intuitive, and neatly outlined on your individual board. A player progresses through seven steps before the action moves on to the next. The first is to draw two cards and each must be from separate decks. You may also additionally pay five coins to draw a third card from any deck.
Second, you must put up at least one card for auction. Select one from your hand and place it face down in front of you. The person to your left then opens the bidding for at least one coin and the auction runs around until everyone has consecutively passed, with the item usually going to the highest offer. Opponents may pass and reenter the bidding later, as long as the rest of the table hasn’t passed in the meantime. Your potential buyers don’t know exactly what card you’re putting up for sale, but they are aware of its category thanks to the colored backs.
If the winning bid is three or less, you actually have the opportunity to keep the card, paying the winner their offering, plus one. Then you build that in your city, adding the card to your tableau. If no one bids on your card, you get to do so for free. Otherwise, if the bid is four or higher, the winner pays you that bid and receives the card, immediately building it in their polis. You may auction off more cards or move on to the next phase.
That is building. As an abstract game, construction is decidedly easier than it was in reality. Simply pay ten coins, less any relevant discounts from your growing Polis, to place a card from your hand to your tableau. You may also then build a second card for ten more coins, less any discounts.
In the fourth phase you may protect a card in your city. The cost is one coin, which you place on one of that card’s icons. That symbol must have a thick border around it, so not all cards can be protected, or if so, you may not be able to utilize all of its icons to do so. Protected cards cannot be destroyed by an opponent. However, you no longer benefit from the covered icon, even at the end of the game.
The fifth phase is income. Here you’ll collect a coin for every such icon in your city. Some income is based on how your city has developed, like by a number of a certain symbol or a particular category of cards. You’ll also collect victory point tokens per the symbols of that type throughout your tableau.
The sixth phase is trade. Players will have a certain number of vases – or trading icons – throughout their towns. If you would like to trade, you simply pick one opponent. You receive coins equal to the number of such symbols they have on their board and cards. Likewise, they earn coins equal to the number of trading icons throughout yours. They cannot refuse the trade.
The final phase is war, which is also optional. Count up your warfare symbols and pick one player – other than the city you just traded with in the previous step – who has fewer icons than you and destroy one of the cards. You must also sacrifice one of your own cards that has such a symbol on it. Both of these go to their respective owners’ history piles, which are collected face down next to player boards. At the end of the game, these stacks are worth points based on a city’s cultural production…yet another icon found on many cards.
Game play continues through these phases over several rounds until a second endgame card is revealed. The active player then finishes their turn through the third phase – building – and then the game ends. Points are totaled from four sources. Collected victory point tokens. The value of points depicted on their city cards’ unprotected icons. One point per ten coins. And finally from the number of culture icons throughout their city-state times the number of cards in their history pile. The player with the most has developed the best Polis that will no doubt make the prettiest rubble for archaeologists and tourists to enjoy millennium later.
Give Me the Appian Way? Or is Green Acres the Place to Be?
There’s a refreshing appeal to a game that knows what it is. Polis does. There’s no pretentious, silly, or forced backstory written with flowery superfluousness. The rules begin with the game’s setup, provide no narrative, and then launch right into the summary: “The players develop their cities by getting cards, putting them up for auction and building them.” There are a few more sentences summarizing the turn phases and then it launches into game play. I appreciate that. Polis is a generic card game. That in itself is not a quibble. It’s a playable one that fosters relevant interaction, allows players to create fun and satisfying combos, and offers a few ways to mix up strategic paths. Still, it is only superficial “city-building” and grossly abstract. So the rules don’t pretend otherwise, mercifully just getting us right to it.
And I really wanted to like Polis. It’s a compact tableau-builder with a great structure and pleasing artwork. The oversized cards are sturdy, well designed, readable and easy to see. It establishes that aforementioned interaction with a unique auction element, mutually favorable trade, and meaningful attacks that are recoverable and can even be beneficial in defeat. A little more on the positives before addressing the design’s main glaring issue.
Polis isn’t a very deep game, nor do its cards offer anything groundbreaking. Still, there is a pleasing amount of variety in options, abilities, and ways to earn income and points. More than that, there are several potential equally satisfying and rewarding combos to create, even with cards of varying category. It makes one feel smart. And since it’s so focalized, you don’t have to wait half the game for your engine to start firing – which is good given the drawback that I’ll discuss later. It doesn’t take but a few cards to start reaping rewards. Ironically, you’d imagine the game to be just as compact in physical space, but thanks to the oversized cards it can really fill out a table…especially for a game of its style.
The design employs two familiar elements with some refreshing twists. One is the auction. At first glance, many gamers would likely balk at the concept or idea of bidding for something without complete information. All you know is what category the card is. In practice, it’s not as disconcerting as it sounds. Getting cards out is the point of the game. The more you build, the greater yields reaped. All cards have a use, and production ramps up with every citizen, great person, structure, and Wonder you build, regardless of its focus. Bidding into a fortuitous combo is just gravy…or whatever the Greek equivalent was.
More importantly, the auction is a way to secure those important entities at a cheaper rate. Unless another card or more in your Polis provide discounts for a certain color, then you’re likely able to build for less via the auction. Because if you win a card, it’s immediately placed in your city after paying the bid to the previous owner. That’s often a better deal than spending 10 coins during the normal build phase. So instead of hesitating to open up the purse strings, the auction becomes a central part of your development.
Not only can you build for less by bidding, but if someone doesn’t bid high enough, the active player is probably getting a card for peanuts. So when it’s your turn, you can always try floating out a card that you don’t think anyone will want. If it passes around the table at low enough value you can add quickly and inexpensively to your city. It’s a risk, though, and rarely successful, because others should bid at least the minimum four coins, even if the card isn’t ideal, just to prevent you from such a bargain. Meaning you reap less profits. Instead, offering cards you believe will entice curious eyes usually proves more lucrative. The mix of using the auction to make money and secure cheaper city cards while manipulating the sale and purchase prices in your favor is a little mini game within the larger process.
Oftentimes a loathsome element for many gamers, the conflict and direct interaction in Polis is even more refreshing and also its strongest thematic tie. War is a means to cripple an opponent, but it could also help them and/or can further your own cause independent of any goals to directly hinder another. It likely will not be incessant, because there is a cost, which totally makes logical sense. So that’s good. After all, discarding a card with a war icon means less production in your city. You could get rid of one that only has military symbols, so as not to impede your development in trade and income and points. But then that reduces your defenses against reprisals. Plus, even though you may not be discarding more versatile cards, you’ll want or need to get another military one in order to fight again and must therefore spend a bid or build to recoup the loss after every campaign. Which is at the expense of accruing more civilized cards for economic power and/or cultural glory.
And it’s culture that makes the direct confrontation so intriguing. War adds to and represents your city-state’s historical footprint and impact! Yes, it indeed stings to lose a powerful card. But it goes to your “pile of rubble” and may grow exponentially in worth, thus finding solace in the throes of defeat. It’s an interesting strategy to pursue if you can manage a handful of those culture icons through your Polis plus several history cards. Collect just four of each, which isn’t terribly difficult, and you’ll nail down a whopping sixteen points at game’s end! On the offensive, too, warfare becomes a means of accumulating this stash, in a sense sacrificing your current development to build up your city’s historical status. Sure, you’re helping an opponent somewhat at the same time. Which makes picking your foes all the more critical. Just make sure you have a more influential impact in the history books than them!
Alas, these promising elements all crumble like a centuries old monument. The game does not scale well at all and really tends to drag, even with the minimum complement, and is nigh excruciating to sit through at five. Four player sessions are workable…with the right group. Yet even then it stumbles into an awkward position. Casual gamers will appreciate its smart accessible tableau-building, but balk at its length and downtime. For seasoned gamers willing to spend the time, Polis isn’t deep enough to reward that demographic’s return on investment. Perhaps if it were more complex, it might find greater circulation amongst the latter group.
Overall, the game does take a bit longer than what it should for its weight and complexity. It sounds brief and fast, but isn’t in practice. The main issue and culprit are those seven turn phases. That is, having to sit as all of your opponents progress through all seven of them individually. While it’s an intrinsic framework that is easy to teach and allows for efficient tableau management, it creates enormous downtime that is exacerbated by player count.
And I’m not sure it can be fixed. The immediate tweak one would consider is turning some phases into simultaneous play. But so much of a player’s turn relies heavily on that auction in the second phase. Indeed it really sets the tone for what you’re able to accomplish. Are you getting a cheap or free card to set up the rest of your steps? And will its power or ability impact succeeding phases? If another player buys it, are you getting a tidy sum which allows you to build more? Or will it be a paltry pittance that is going to hamstring you during the round? Those details dictate all of the next phases as to what and how much you can build, if you’re going to protect a card, and who you’d like to trade with…and/or fight.
Polis is on the cusp of a great design. It’s well structured and intuitive. It has the balance of cards it needs for its weight and complexity, providing enough variety in strategic options and point production. The auction element is unique. The character of its interaction is also different and has a refreshing relevance on the game’s outcome. Plus it just looks really sharp on the table with its wonderfully illustrated and oversized cards. But while it’s rewarding to manage productive combos in your tableau, the game just stalls. Obviously downtime and session lengths are shorter in 3-player games, but the interaction suffers comparably. Five player sessions are actually quite painful to sit through. Which leaves 4-player tilts as the only recommended version and, even at that, many gamers will balk at investing the time versus its return in depth. Unfortunately that proves difficult for Polis to make its mark in the hobby’s history of cardboard rubble.
Lion Rampant Imports provided a copy of Polis for this review.