It was a time of myth and legend. When fabled warriors inspired lesser men by the thousands to rise above their mundane lives and march into history’s pages. While old kings squabbled over land and power and wealth, they fought for glory and honor and love. Now you can relive the most epic conflict of the ancient world. All because of a woman.
How it Plays
Iliad is a battle game, loosely themed on the Trojan War, where players build up their armies – represented by cards – in order to attack each other and win victory points. The best general – as in the shrewdest manager of his/her hand over successive rounds – will triumph.
Everyone begins a standard game with twelve Army cards representing various units. There are three other decks, as well. Oracle cards determine the manner in which individual rounds are fought. Hero cards boost your army’s strength. And fighting over the Victory cards is the point of the whole affair to begin with.
Oracle cards determine what kind of siege is conducted in a given round. One type lasts until every player has passed with first choice of Victory card awarded to the strongest army – and then sometimes the second and/or third strongest with picks, as well. The weakest army is saddled with a penalty. In the second siege style, battle continues until one player achieves the strongest army at the start of his/her turn.
Game play involves one of three, simple actions. You can place a unit from your hand to your tableau – otherwise known as your army. You may attack an opponent with one of your units already in your army. Or you can simply pass, which is not really an action despite the need for game publishers to universally label it so.
Building up armies is the heart of Iliad because size equals victory points. But not all units are actually worth anything. Hoplites do the grunt work, befitting infantry’s historic role in warfare. These cards are rated anywhere from 1 to 4, but stacking them creates phalanxes which vastly increases their aggregate value. The catch in creating these formations is that you can only place a Hoplite of lower value on top of another.
Ironically, Hoplites cannot attack. Archers can, but they’re only worth 1 point towards army strength. Chariots, meanwhile, are worth 3 strength points and are the only unit that can attack straight from your hand without having to be first placed in your army on a previous turn. Elephants, while not worth anything individually and unable to attack, may carry up to two other units, doubling their values (however, these combat pachyderms cannot carry Chariots – you have to give the designer props for theme on that one). Additionally, an Archer on an elephant may pick off any Hoplite within a stacked phalanx. Otherwise, they are restricted to eliminating only the front ranks, which means the lowest strength Hoplite.
Attacks in Iliad smack of an intricate style of rock-paper-scissors – kamikaze style! The unit that attacks is also lost, so use this action wisely. Archers can take out Hoplites or other Archers. Chariots can also assault Hoplites and Archers, but not if your opponent has a Harrow for protection. If you want to eliminate an opposing Chariot, you need a Ballista or Catapult. Ballista can also hit Elephants, while Catapults are formidable war machines that destroy all other siege instruments, yet can’t seem to hit Hoplites or Archers.
Finally, any game loosely themed on the Trojan War would be remiss without the Trojan Horse. Play this card to your army and then hide any number of Hoplites or Archers in it that you want and are able. These units are protected from attack and not revealed until the end of the game. Unless an opponent destroys your Horse with a Catapult, in which case your men have to file out and line up per the normal rules of warfare. Don’t dismay too much, because you can try the tactic again. That’s right…Iliad has more than one Trojan Horse! Perhaps if they built a large, wooden rabbit?
This brings us to the non-action action – passing. In the most common type of siege, the first player to pass gets his/her pick of the available Hero cards. These inspirational warriors can add lots of strength to your army and are protected from attack. However, when you pass you also forfeit any right to continue for the round. This means that your army can still serve as target practice for other players. Even though you might acquire a strong Hero by passing early, you could end up hopelessly watching the rest of your army dwindle away.
In a standard game, the player who first earns 12 victory points immediately wins the hand of the lovely Helen. Such was the fate of influential women in ancient times. And if she doesn’t float your boat, well I guess you’ll have to settle for bragging rights. Sorry. No one said life is fair. Just ask the Trojans.
Does it Launch 1,000 Ships, or is it an Achilles’ Heel?
Do you know what María Corda, Rossana Podestà, Irene Papas, Yvonne Furneaux, Sienna Guillory, Galyn Görg, and Diane Kruger all have in common? They’ve all portrayed Helen of Troy in a movie or television series. I actually thought there would be way more than that. I mean, a Trojan prince runs off with the most gorgeous woman in the Hellenic world – who just happens to be Queen of Sparta – instigating the largest war to date with a thousand ships, mythical warriors bigger than life, and one of the most famous military legends of all time. It’s like Homer was a Hollywood producer! You can’t tell me this stuff isn’t ripe for entertainment, but Duck Dynasty is?!
Interestingly, there are also very few hobby games covering the theme, and those are usually war games. Exactly where are our hopelessly romantic game designers, these days? Oh well, I’d say that Iliad is more Trojan-flavored, rather than Trojan-themed, anyway. Which is fine. After all, you can’t really expect the real thing. And actually, there have been several other actresses who have taken on Helen’s role over the years in non-traditional interpretations. But despite all of their loveliness, I’m sure none could match the real Helen’s timeless beauty.
The most intense and interesting element to Iliad’s hand management aspect is the three-card – and three cards only– reinforcement phase to begin each new siege. It can also be the most frustrating part, if you botch it. Nabbing the best available Hero card by passing first is tempting. Not only do you increase your army’s strength by that warrior’s value, but you conserve cards for later sieges. However, bowing out too soon could leave you vulnerable in the current round, thus negating the benefit of the hero you just claimed.
On the other hand, if you commit a lot of troops to one individual siege, you’ll likely be too weak in subsequent turns. If so, you may have to sit out a siege or two in order to gather cards. That’s not always a terrible thing when that round’s Victory cards are of low value. But if Helen and her 5 points become available, you’ll be kicking yourself for squandering troops prematurely.
Since replacements are few, you also need to be savvy on the offensive in order to avoid a one-step forward, one-step back scenario. Frequent, pell-mell attacks will quickly prove fruitless as your army whittles down in size, strength, and defense. This is especially true when attacking with Archers and Chariots. Attack with them, and they’re gone. Hold them back, and hopefully protect their values for victory.
The balance between unit strength and ability is well designed. Archers are potentially deadly as they can take out Hoplites greater than their own value. So expending one to take out a 4-strength Hoplite is a net positive in your favor. Meanwhile, Chariots can take out an Archer, so you have to consider carefully the cost of loosing 3 strength points to your opponent’s 1. Is a pre-emptive attack worth the price to defend your Hoplites? Only you can decide.
The replacement limit keeps Iliad from devolving into a simplistic affair where the best hand simply wins every round. Rather, it creates a tactical give-and-take between players who may yield the field to their foes one round in order to conserve strength for a show of force in the next – or wait for the worthiest Victory cards before striking hard. The mechanic also reduces chaos. Access to a large pool of cards, coupled with the design’s admittedly sharp interactive nature, might tend to favor frequent and indiscriminate attacks. Instead, attacks actually matter, are generally more focused, and carry consequences for both the attacker and defender.
As a result, the 2-player variant is unfortunately anti-climactic and lacks depth. The tactical card play and strategic hand management just doesn’t shine. Further, the chance of setting up your opponent for an easy counterattack is exacerbated since they only have to worry about you. With three or more players, however, the game scales very well. The 4- and 5- player configurations are especially interesting as the second strongest (in a 4-player session) and then third strongest (with 5-players) armies in every normal siege also get Victory cards. This both enhances and complicates hand management. If you don’t want to commit towards total victory, you can settle for a consolation prize. Figuring out the optimal time to pass and conserve, however, can prove problematic.
With a higher player count, there can be a gang up on the leader element. That’s a fact of life for these free-for-all combat games. If that presents a problem for you or your gaming group, the team version offers a unique solution. Game play is essentially the same, army strength is still calculated individually in sieges, but partners aggregate their Victory point cards for winning the game. In essence, you have a permanent ally. A standard option for two teams of two is included. However, you can also play with three teams of two, which is rather different. In any event, Iliad is a rare design that really works well for 5-6 players.
Iliad has a good deal of replayability. First of all, there are two types of sieges, thus two different ways to play a particular round. Granted, one kind of siege only comprises two of the 10-card Oracle deck, but it nonetheless mixes things up, and at unpredictable times at that. Furthermore, the variety of units, the disparate ways in which they interact, and the rate in which they come out ensures that each game will play a little differently. The one drawback to the possible combinations is that it creates a learning curve, both in remembering which units can attack who, and then in using them effectively.
The theme, as I think I’ve mentioned, is pretty loose and a bit wonky. I like the fact that Helen is a Victory card. Plus, if you have a majority in one of the other two types of Victory cards, you get a deity’s favor tile for an extra point. And the mythical warrior-kings represent the legendary heroes of the ancient conflict. However, there are elephants, for some reason, as well as multiple Trojan horses. Chariots weren’t really used as an offensive weapons platform. And Nestor was actually so old at the time of the battle that the Trojan hero Memnon refused to fight him. But those aren’t major quibbles. What is odder are the arbitrary rock beats scissors beats paper type pairings. Hoplites can’t attack? Catapults can’t hit Hoplites? And Archers can’t pick off Charioteers? Oh, and most peculiar of all – when you think about it, we have Greek fighting Greek…in the, you know, Trojan War!
So with more of an Achaea vs. Troy flavor, the production quality is left to pick up the slack. On that point Iliad delivers a near perfect score. The cards are a hefty stock and the tiles nice and thick. The rulebook is one of the better examples I’ve encountered – clear, concise, and well organized. Yet it’s the artwork that shines above all else. While I was not an art major in college, having actually graduated in four years, the illustrations here are some of the best in the hobby. The graphics are aggressive and bold, with earthy colors, and crisp detail. They do a great job of depicting ancient warriors and siege engines to vibrantly deliver the theme’s spirit. I’ve actually considered buying another copy of the game just to frame and display the artwork. Alas, my wife refuses me a Trojan War themed room in the house. I even said she could already play the part of Helen. It didn’t work.
Iliad packs a lot of game into a mere 110 cards. It’s not a brain-burning, hardcore, strategic design. There is some randomness, and the various ways units interact present a bit of a learning curve. However, what it does offer is variability, tough decisions, bluffing, a unique theme, and some old-fashioned fun. It may not match Helen’s legendary beauty, but it’s a keeper for any average Joe.